“Oh Mother Earth, whose garments are the oceans, and who is adorned by mountains and forests, Consort of Vishnu, Pardon me Mother, for setting foot on You!”
Earth Day is being celebrated around the world today
Most communities and societies around the world worshipped, or at least recognized the importance of nature and its various elements as necessities to our survival. Much of this respect for nature was replaced by wanton exploitation of it, resulting in the sorry situation we find ourselves in today. Yet there is hope for us, with the very fact that we recognize that it is our responsibility to right that wrong.
Earth in Hindu mythology
Known as Bhudevi, Bhooma Devi, Dharti, Dhara, Vasudha amongst other names, our earth has been given female embodiment in the form of a goddess in Hindu mythology.
Stories surrounding her origins vary over a period of around 2000 years between approximately 1500 BCE and 500 CE.
In the Rigveda (an ancient collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns) she is celebrated as Prithvi Mata and is the consort of the sky god Dyaus Pita. But in the later Puranic texts she is known as Bhumi and is identified as the consort of Lord Vishnu.
Some of her names mean provider, sustainer of life and enricher. Ancient hymns like the beautiful ‘Bhumisuktam’ extolls her for the bounties she gives us. Essentially these names fit in with her role of a mother.
When Earth was abducted. And rescued.
Without getting into a complex backstory, demon Hiranyaksha abducts Bhudevi and hides her at the bottom of a cosmic ocean.
Vishnu emerges in the form of a man-boar avatar, known as Varaha (the third of his 10 incarnations). He descends into the ocean and lifts her out to safety, using his powerful tusks. All of this was not as simple as it sounds, for he fought a 1000-year long battle against Hiranyaksha to save her.
In architecture and art, Bhudevi is depicted as hanging on to Varaha’s tusk or as sitting on his lap in safety. This image above is from Udaygiri rock cut caves dating to early 5th century, Madhya Pradesh, central India.
If we look at the story for what it really means, we learn that this villain Hiranyaksha represents material greed that seeks to control and conquer Earth. His name even means ‘one with eyes of gold’. The abduction of Bhudevi throws her, in other words, Earth, into an existential crisis, where she cannot survive nor support any life. She is drowning and is overwhelmed.
Varaha represents our transformation from materialism and greed to spiritual awakening.
I find it absolutely fascinating that this story has been around for at least 1500 years. Was this something that ancient sages predicted we would do to mother earth? Was this story meant to teach us and warn us of what might happen, and what we need to do about it? If it did, the story’s meaning was lost on us.
The status of Bhudevi in today’s India
Sadly, Bhudevi is not a ‘mainstream’ or major deity.
In earlier days school prayers included a hymn to her. As we modernize and urbanize our cities and attitudes, we have no time to delve into these ‘not cool’, ‘old fashioned’ rituals or messages.
Still, in some small measure, her importance is appreciated by some:
-At the start of the cropping season, farmers worship Bhudevi seeking her blessings for a plentiful harvest.
-When a new building or construction project starts, a prayer ceremony is done to ask for her forgiveness as the ground must be struck with sharp implements and insects, animals, reptiles will be inadvertently killed or disturbed. Her blessings are sought for safety and auspiciousness of the new project.
-Before putting their feet on the floor after waking up, some Hindus still chant the Sanskrit verse which means: “Oh Mother Earth, whose garments are the oceans, and who is adorned by mountains and forest, Consort of Vishnu, Pardon me Mother, for setting foot on you!”
Other than this lip service we continue to exploit and violate her. The observance of Earth day and the discussions on social media and other platforms is so important to keep the subject alive.
Maybe we will realize that no hero, no Lord Varaha is coming to save earth, and we have to do it ourselves.