Melting Gods

kolahoi mountain
Published in
July 2008

In Hayao Miyazaki's environmental fable Princess Mononoke, the antlered, baboon-faced Forest Spirit walks serenely on dappled water. The ambitious industrialist Lady Eboshi levels her long rifle. “Now watch closely, everyone,” she tells the awed soldiers around her, “I’m going to show you how to kill a god.” She hits the spirit with her first bullet, and later shoots its head off its body.

A particular news story struck me last summer that, bizarrely, recalled the scene above. It was the tale of a similar assault on divinity, a god dispatched at mortal hands: “An ice stalagmite that forms in a Himalayan cave and is worshipped as a Hindu god has melted completely for the second year. The phallus-shaped stalagmite in the remote Amarnath cave in Indian Kashmir disappeared on Sunday, disappointing Hindu pilgrims who see it as a form of Lord Shiva, the god of destruction and regeneration. Scientists say the melting is a result of increased temperatures due to climate change and to the heat generated by increasing numbers of pilgrims flocking to the site.” (Reuters, July 2007)

The stalagmite is regarded as a Shiva-lingam; a powerful phallic symbol representative of male generative energy. According to Vaman Shivram Apte's Sanskrit dictionary, alternative meanings of a lingam can include: “The image of a god. A symptom or mark of disease. A means of proof, a proof, evidence. The effect or product which evolves from a primary cause.”

Or, in the words of Swami Sivananda, “a symbol which points to an inference. When you see a big flood in a river, you infer that there had been heavy rains the previous day. When you see smoke, you infer that there is fire.”

This was the first time I’d seen climate change manifested like this: not only as the destruction of ecological systems, but also of human faith. The sudden disappearance of a natural formation which hundreds of millions of people believe to be an embodiment of god – the cave is where Lord Shiva is meant to have related the secret of eternity – is a startling and powerful cipher. The story seems to offer some clues to how global warming might impact on us – not just physically, but spiritually – how rising temperatures and changing weather patterns might alter the most ancient of beliefs.

This lingam represents, remember, a “symptom”, a “mark of disease”. In the same way the melting of Arctic icebergs and the sudden collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf can be taken as physical confirmation of a theory, the melting of this column of ice is “a means of proof, a proof, evidence”. Just as we can trace environmental problems across the world back to the root cause of climate change, from the flooding of islands in the South Pacific to the creeping deserts of Africa, we should have the intelligence to perceive this symbol as “the effect or product which evolves from a primary cause”.

The Amarnath legend says that Shiva chose the cave because of its remoteness from the world. He wanted to reveal the secrets of eternity to his consort, Parvati, in a place of perfect isolation, far from mortal concerns. The idea that the gods could once take refuge in mountains, and remain there undiscovered and unobserved, now seems as hopeless and naïve as imagining that wilderness will always be wild – or, for that matter, as assuming we can continue to exploit the world’s resources and burn fossil fuels indefinitely. As the breaking up of the icebergs shows, nothing is permanent any more. Lord Shiva’s cave is no longer remote, and nowhere is invulnerable to change. As illustrated by a melting god, the urgent reality of climate change steals away our pleasant illusions of timelessness – the eternity Shiva tried to protect.

From the earliest times, people have equated gods with mountains. The high, snow-covered places of the world, seemingly brushing against the heavens, represented an idea of the immortal that is now in danger of disappearing. Along with ice stalagmites in isolated caves, glaciers, icecaps and ice-shelves are melting at unprecedented rates around the globe. The destruction of these ‘abodes of the gods’ – which must have been as sacrosanct and inviolable as the moon once was – is evident from the shrinking icecap of Mount Kilamanjaro to the retreat of China’s sacred Mingyong Glacier, the peak above which is considered to be the incarnation of the Tibetan god Kang Karpo. Even India’s holy River Ganges – a deity central to the Hindu religion – could dry up for much of the year if the glaciers which water it continue to decline at present rates.

In June 2005 the Wall Street Journal’s Antonio Regalado reported on the Qolqepunku Glacier in Peru, a site of veneration from before the time of the Incas. Pilgrims come here to worship the apu, the mountain god who controls the weather. In recent years, however, the ice-cutting practice that was once central to the pilgrimage has been banned due to the alarming rate of the glacier’s retreat: “Although few on this remote mountaintop are aware of it, the demise of this Andean ice-cutting ritual is likely to be the result of global warming. A study by the Peruvian government in 1997 found that the country's glaciers had shrunk by more than 20% over thirty years …Within forty years, they may all be gone. The cosmological implications of the missing snow are clear to people here. According to local myth, when the snow disappears from the tops of the mountains, it will herald the end of the world.

When I was eighteen I lived for some months in the foothills of the Himalayas, not far from where the Amarnath cave is found. I knew the mountains only as a distant view, range upon range of snow-covered peaks piling-up until they vanished amongst the clouds. The impression that remained with me was of seeming impenetrability, the comforting thought of the permanence of things – the way I once thought about icecaps, rainforests – that such places were unchanging.

I’m not a follower of any religion, and my purpose here is not to argue for the existence of a god. But the existence of wilderness in the world, of places above and beyond human reach, is a source of deep joy to me, something that brings relief and peace: perhaps the closest I will get to approaching an idea of the eternal. When I think that these places will not last forever – that they may even vanish within my lifetime – I feel a pain not unlike, I imagine, the pain of losing god.

This, I believe, is the message implicit in Amarnath’s melting Shiva-lingam. It indicates the enormity of all we stand to lose, warning us not only of the wider degradation of our ecosystems, but also – just as devastatingly – the collapse of our wonderment. If we continue to allow the ‘abodes of the gods’ to be conquered and exploited, we will do ourselves irreparable damage as a species. In order to truly address the underlying causes of climate change, we must regain not only a due respect for Nature, but an appropriate sense of awe.

Our first gods were Nature gods, and there was good reason for that. Humanity recognised that the natural forces which controlled and shaped our world also controlled and shaped us. It makes sense to venerate glaciers and mountains, forests and rivers, because – as peer-reviewed scientists now strive to make clear – these are the things on which our continued survival as a species depends. If we kill our ‘gods,’ we kill ourselves.

This is also the final message of Princess Mononoke. When Lady Eboshi kills the Forest Spirit, it is an attempt to gain dominion over Nature, to expel the gods from the forested hills and achieve what she sees as human destiny. Eboshi wants the spirit’s head because it is rumoured to bring immortality, yet ‘deicide’ brings only disaster – the decapitated spirit of Nature is transformed into a god of death who threatens to annihilate the world until the humans realise the only way out: to give the vengeful god its head back.