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GTU Voices - A Meeting of the Waters

A Meeting of the Waters

By Rita Sherma and Devin Zuber

One common factor in our collective experience of the pandemic shut-down, shut-in, is a new sensitivity to time. On the one hand, we find our bodies slowed down, bound by the home, with perhaps a new awareness of the diurnal rhythms of sun and weather. On the other, there is an accelerating sense of urgency and alarm at the planetary scale of the crisis, and the insufficiency of our dysfunctional politics to adequately redress. One thing the world’s different religious and wisdom traditions might have to offer at this critical juncture are spiritual resources—modes of thinking, embodied practices—for experiencing temporalities that lie outside the hot-box of COVID-19 concern, and our debilitating sense of powerlessness.

One thing the world’s different religious and wisdom traditions might have to offer at this critical juncture are spiritual resources... for experiencing temporalities that lie outside the hot-box of COVID-19...

Although the two of us come from very different cultural and religious backgrounds—Hindu, Swedenborgian, German-American and Indian-Canadian—and in spite of our training in different disciplines—ecofeminist theology, literary theory—we have been collaborating at the GTU around our shared concern for the earth, for the planetary emergency that was already so acute prior to COVID-19. This current great disruption has pushed us, like many others, to return to our roots, and to reengage, reread the texts we love that have so formatively shaped us. Be they sacred texts or forms more secular, such words keep us company, providing some familiar stability in the present turbulence.

Both of us were impacted, early on, by reading the environmental classic Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854), written by the American Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. 

Shortly before Devin Zuber began his graduate work in literature, and ended-up focusing on Thoreau and the Transcendentalists, he had traveled extensively throughout India, spending time on the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi, and then going south to Auroville—the UNESCO-supported eco-village in Tamil Nadu constructed to actualize the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, a visionary who--like Gandhi after him--had drunk deeply from Thoreau.

Rita Sherma—whose own grandfather had lived in Sri Aurobindo's Ashram in Tamil Nadu—first encountered Thoreau in middle school, in Canada. Rita quickly came to perceive how Aurobindo and Thoreau were mutually influenced by the Upanishads, ancient texts whose revelations were situated, quite literally, in the generative power of forests.

In one of his books, The Life Divine, written in the traumatic aftermath of World War I, Sri Aurobindo had presciently warned: “At present [humanity] is undergoing an evolutionary crisis in which is concealed a choice of its destiny; for a stage has been reached in which the human mind has achieved in certain directions an enormous development while in others it stands arrested and bewildered and can no longer find its way.”  

“At present [humanity] is undergoing an evolutionary crisis in which is concealed a choice of its destiny... the human mind has achieved... an enormous development while in others it stands arrested and bewildered and can no longer find its way." - Sri Aurobindo

Nearly a century after Sri Aurobindo wrote these words, we find ourselves “arrested” in our collective development at a potentially transformative moment. In Walden, Thoreau had undergone a form of self-imposed house-arrest and social distancing, choosing to live as self-sufficiently as he could in the little cabin that he had built for himself at Walden Pond. Walden is sometimes misread as an autobiography by a cranky, detached recluse; yet, it was during the Walden years that Thoreau worked the Underground Railroad helping runaway slaves, and went to jail for refusing to pay his taxes, not wanting to support American slavery and America’s imperial expansion into Mexico. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly,” Thoreau wrote, in words that went on to influence Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., “The only true place for a just man is also prison.”

Walden is an exuberant, joyful book, grounded in the wonder and ecstasy of observing the natural world, and witnessing the return of spring: the restorative deep-time of the planet we all call home. It is also profoundly transreligious: Thoreau had been responsible for the first translation and publication of Buddhist sutras in the United States (in 1843); Walden is filled with references to sacred texts from Islamic and Vedic traditions. Reading the Bhagavad-Gita, Thoreau felt, allowed him to imagine the American waters of his Walden Pond to momentarily become like the Ganges, that most holy river in India: “in the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta,” he writes in Walden, “Since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial… the pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges."

Walden can help remind us that we are not alone, and that, off the book, outside the page, the ecstatic, green presence of this spring continues to shimmer and beckon, reminding us of the larger timescales in which our bodies are (deliciously) entangled.

Through interreligious imagination, Thoreau’s local became interconnected to the global. In the ongoing solitude of our own stay-at-home quarantines, books like Walden can help remind us that we are not alone, and that, off the book, outside the page, the ecstatic, green presence of this spring continues to shimmer and beckon, reminding us of the larger timescales in which our bodies are (deliciously) entangled.

This is the fifth reflection in a new series launched by the GTU called “Spiritual Care and Ethical Leadership for Our Times: Faith, Resilience, and Community in an Age of Uncertainty.” Through a series of written reflections, video lectures, and online resources, scholars, spiritual leaders, and cultural critics from across the GTU will explore the meaning of spiritual care, ethics, and leadership from a broad array of perspectives and traditions, offering inspiration, encouragement, and insights from both ancient and contemporary to speak to the current context. Find out more at www.gtu.edu/spiritual-care-through-crisis.

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