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Timelines and lifelines: landscape practices and religious refabulations from South Asia

Smriti Srinivas


This essay has two goals: first, to unsettle the methods we use to study space by treating it less as a surface to travel on, a location to arrive at, a stage for religious and cultural practices or an enclosure for multiple life-worlds, and more of a place crossed bypathways of life, aspiration and remembrance. This is akin to discussions of place as a spatio-temporal event, as collections of stories, of space as consisting of multiple trajectories and loose ends, and open to the future (Massey 2005). The second goal is to see if this method generates modes of thought about our ways of dwelling in urban space as an "ecology of life” or as "relations along . . . severally enmeshed ways of life” (Ingold 2016 [2007]: 106). Or, to put it differently, the goal is to understand that the landscapes we see, discover meanings in or journey through take on their textures and materiality through embodied practices and processes in time such that our lives are imbricated with the times and lives of other plants, animals or stones. To understand landscapes thus is to emphasise movement as a foundational component in the making of cultural institutions, spaces and lives, including walking, mechanical transport (cars, ships or trains), and virtual and imaginative mobility, as well as the blockages and immobilities that constrain or channel movement. While injecting contingency and agency into the study of space, this approach also enables us to spatialise our thinking about religion. Alongside movement, therefore, I draw attention to forms of refabulation that we may encounter - narrations and fables, shrines and altars, rituals and performances, or other kinds of vernacular imaginaries - that incorporate and inscribe idioms and practices of devotion and religiosity in landscapes, thereby transforming them.1

My point of departure lies in the following queries: Can we think of gardens as landscapes - as comprised of embodied practices and processes in time including the lives of humans, trees, plants and rocks? Thus considered, can gardens-as-landscapes open up new ways of thinking about the past and present, religion and space, in South Asia? I have two proximate genealogies for this focus on gardens. First, gardens as cultural and institutional spaces were prevalent in South Asia from early times. Gardens, trees and plants, for example, played an important role in Buddhist traditions. Early Buddhist literature and stories associate gardens with

Timelines and lifelines 129 events in Sakyamuni Buddha's life: his birth in a Lumbini garden, his enlightenment under a bodhi tree near Gaya, his first sermon at the deer park near Kashi and his parinirvana at the Sala grove in Kushinagara. In accounts of the Buddha's life, for example, the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. the Buddha appears against the identifiable backdrop of several named groves, discussing religious topics. These groves are urban retreats for the peripatetic Buddha: for example, in Nalanda, the Blessed One stays in the Pavarika mango grove; in Vaisali, at the courtesan Ambapali's grove; in Pava, at the mango grove of a smith; and near the Hiranyavati River, at the Sala grove of the Mallas (Rhys Davids 2000 [1881]: 14, 28, 70, 85). Gardens and groves, like Buddhist monasteries, were separate but proximate to urban and courtly space: they could be used to emphasise the Buddha's miraculous life and to separate it from secular lords; garden plants and flower motifs could also be symbolic of a new non-agonistic social order; and architectural structures, such as stupas, could contain garden motifs on their railings and gateways (see Shimada 2012; Hawkes and Shimada 2009). In the Jataka, or stories from the Pali collection about the Buddha's former births, 70 types of animals (319 animals or groups of them) appear in half of the 550 stories accepted in the Theravada tradition. Monkeys appear the most (in 27 different stories), followed by elephants (24), jackals (20), lions (19), crows (17), deer (15), birds (15), fish (12) and parrots (11). In ten stories, the Buddha and others take the form of tree or plant spirits (see Chapple 1997). This continuity of life and its forms, an ecological theme central to Buddhist cosmology discussed by Chapple, forms an important feature of this essay as well. In addition to the textual record, we should also gesture to the colonial and postcolonial actors involved in the discovery and transformation of Buddhism's archaeological heritage and its sacred landscape, including Burmese kings, Alexander Cunningham, Anagarika Dharmapala, the Dalai Lama, the Indian state, pilgrims and tourists. The spatial politics of landscape transformation of the Mahabodhi tree, the Mahabodhi temple complex and Bodh Gaya into a global anchor for various Buddhist communities as symbolic registers of origins and authenticity and the focus of various discourses and stakeholders (including the UNESCO Convention on World Heritage) has been discussed (see Geary 2017).

Exploring all the various genealogies for South Asian gardens would take another piece of writing. Scholars, for example, have discussed the ecological contexts of the Sanskrit and oral epics - forests, hermitages, cities, gardens (Lut-gendorf 1997, 2000; Srinivas 2001). Mughal gardens (e.g., Westcoat and Wolschke-Bulmahn 1996) and botanical institutions of empire (e.g., Herbert 2011; McCracken 1997) have received the most attention. Peninsular India also contains many kinds of landscape practices within the built environment as well as in literary, poetic, religious and visual contexts (Ali and Flatt 2012). I have previously discussed typologies and spaces of contemporary urban gardens in South Asia - religious greens (temples, tombs, burial grounds and so on), horticultural gardens, theme parks, civic parks and municipal enclaves, unintended greens, and memorial enclaves (Srinivas 2015). Despite the significance and the long duration of landscape practices in the subcontinent and their contemporary manifestations, the scholarship on gardens is scarce and uneven.

Second, my queries grow directly from my last book, A Place for Utopia (Srini-vas 2015). This book, situated within and across South Asia, Europe and North America, chrono logically proceeding from the early 20th century to the early 21st century, is an extended study of the valency of utopia as a concept for understanding designs for alternative, occluded, novel, eccentric or counter urbanisms in the last hundred years. I align with scholarship (Nandy 1987; Geetha and Rajadurai 1998) focused on the value of utopia for socio-cultural and historical analysis while discussing a range of designs emerging from religious movements, devotees, urbanists and ordinary city-dwellers in several cities. I emphasise the continued significance of religiosity or spiritual topographies alongside somatic practices for contemporary utopias. Some of these may be transcultural and migratory, so that India’s Vedanta finds places in California or Japanese energy work comes to be located in Bangalore. Central to the designs for utopia in the book are themes of memory, death, hope and gardens.

Traces, layers, trails

Any anthropological consideration of gardens-as-landscapes rather than enclosures or cartographic spaces - as collections of stories or spatio-temporal events -must surely begin with the walking/moving body as a tool for gathering insights. I have shown in detail elsewhere (Srinivas 2015, 2001) that when the urban scholar or student of cities becomes a pedestrian, this technique of the body can become a pathway for ethnographic observations and generating concepts. Walking or pedestrian living-as-method allies the urban scholar or anthropologist with the large number of other actors who use streets, parks and other public spaces to pursue various religious and non-religious activities that are part of life and livelihood (see also Bayat 2010; Simone 2010). Pedestrian movements captured in their ritual, associational, ordinary and "enmeshed” lives allow us to observe the regularities on our paths as well as unexpected events, trails and relationalities. This kind of pedestrian practice does not exclude more accelerated or extended forms of movement: my walks over the years in many South Asian gardens are brought into contrapuntal association with passage elsewhere - in the university town in California where I have a home, for example, with its lawns, parks, community gardens and many miles of cycling and walking paths.

In contrast to South Asian gardens, we find different histories anchoring growing practices, plant life or meanings for parks and gardens in the American landscape. Pollan, for instance, argues that New York’s Central Park is "less a garden than a counterfeit natural landscape” and in it are sought the “satisfactions of nature rather than art” (Pollan 1991: 73). In the case of the University of California-Davis Arboretum (founded in 1936), in addition to nature, the “satisfactions” include education and environmental stewardship. The Arboretum occupies 100 acres along the banks of the old north channel of Putah Creek in California’s Central Valley with trees and plants adapted to a Mediterranean climate. The gardens within represent different geographic areas, plant groups or horticultural themes. The site was home to the Patwin people and includes many historical traces including an ancient oak that was a boundary marker on an early Mexican land grant and the oldest reservoir in the Central Valley built by Chinese workers in the 1860s.2

These traces and layers remind us of the connected ways in which mobilities of plant life and human lives have remade garden landscapes in the search for a good place to inhabit. Gardens are, in reality, crisscrossed by all kinds of trails, inhabitants and stories, such that they seem like a multilingual, bustling Indian Ocean or Pacific port city imbricated with other places and times rather than a bounded enclosure. My first home in Davis was graced by the benevolent canopy of an oak tree, its presence attesting to the older history of a Californian oak grove that gave way to a Davis neighbourhood and single-family homes in the 1970s. Under its solid embrace, I dreamed of many other places as I planted lemon, rose, avocado and jasmine. Gardens accommodate new plants, aesthetics, yearnings and lives that flourish alongside older ones: in my current garden in Davis, a small tulsi on which I had cast great hopes - almost as if it would bring India to California - did not survive this past winter. It was an offshoot of another migratory journey: a gift to me from my Punjabi Fijian gardener whose grandmother first carried the tulsi from Punjab to Fiji; a child of that original arrived in the Central Valley when they left Fiji in the 1980s. And less than a year ago, I planted a yellow rose bush over the ashes of Dashiell, my dog and companion for 14 years, in a spot where he enjoyed the garden most, keeping an eye out, even in his last year, for his archenemy the squirrel. Every morning that I see Dashiell’s rose, I am reminded of C. Jinarajadasa’s words, "There is no dead substance.”

I could follow other trails here, such as Canada's history of breeding cold-tolerant roses like Dashiell's Morden Sunrise in Manitoba for a global market, or the ways in which settler colonialism and diverse layers of migrations have produced California’s gardens - private residential gardens, botanical gardens, public parks or urban community gardens - and their aesthetics, ethics and politics (see, for example, Hondagneu-Sotelo 2014). Instead, I will focus on the ways in which garden landscapes and spaces of religion, times past and times present, and many lives are folded into each other. In a few weeks, I hope to plant a variety of spineless cactus in my garden from the one originally bred by Luther Burbank (1849-1926). He gave three leaves of a spineless cactus to Paramahamsa Yogananda (1893-1952) that grew into the fullness of their estate in the Self-Realization Fellowship headquarters at Mt. Washington, Los Angeles. Yogananda speaks about Luther Burbank - "A Saint among the Roses” - his botanical experiments, initiation into Kriya Yoga, pedagogical ideas and his book. The Training of the Human Plant, in Chapter 38 of his Autobiography of a Yogi (also dedicated to the "American Saint”):

"The secret of improved plant breeding, apart from scientific knowledge, is love.” Luther Burbank uttered this wisdom as I walked beside him in his Santa Rosa garden. We halted near a bed of edible cacti.

“While I was conducting experiments to make 'spineless' cacti,” he continued, “I often talked to the plants to create a vibration of love. ‘You have nothing to fear,' I would tell them. 'You don't need your defensive thorns. I will protect you.’ Gradually the useful plant of the desert emerged in a thornless variety.”3

Something unique emerges here from this plant biography, even while the temporality of plant life is different from human life, and the spread of their timelines can be very short or very extensive. Without being a bodhi tree, the spineless cactus can still gather philosophies, affects, knowledges, practices or communities through its lifeline. For now, through garden walks, trails of memory and association that lead to other gardens, plant life, growing practices and transplants, I will take us on a narrative pathway that brings together timelines with lifelines, the biographical and the botanical, the religious and the spatial. My main chronotope - signalled by the figures of Burbank and Yogananda - spans the period between the last decades of the 19th century to the 1950s, covering tracks between South Asian garden landscapes and others, from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. I hope also that we can see how particular gardens, plants and their designs contrast with others, the “thigmotropic tales” (Subramaniam 2014) or the nature-cultures of variation. In the context of gardens, this implies the material conditions and negotiations required to produce gardens and the soil, as it were, of their longer spatial histories.

Tropical tales

One such tropical tale is described by Jayeeta Sharma (2011), who shows how in the mid-19th century, the discovery of Assam tea held promise for the region’s transformation from a wild frontier and jungle into an Edenic garden for prospectors, missionaries and local gentry. As tea and rice replaced forests, labourers were imported under various regimes to work in these "gardens of empire,” creating complex interplays between race, ethnicity, religion, culture, commodities and places that had long-lasting consequences. “An indentured existence in the Assam garden racialized previously diverse groups into the status of 'aboriginal coolies.' Despite the subsequent easing of indenture bonds, their subaltern status kept the majority of coolies close to plantations” (Sharma 2011: 236). I invoke Assam in part because the first six years of my life were spent among tea gardens in postcolonial Assam, and I have vivid memories of travelling winding roads and visiting plantations with tennis courts. The lush expanses and lifestyles of the white sahibs in the colonial period were continued after independence by new managers of these estates until the tea industry was nationalised in the 1970s (see Sharma 2011). There are also sunny memories of my bamboo home in Dibrugarh near the Brahmaputra (which flooded at least once so that we sat on our beds until the waters receded) and our extensive kitchen garden where we grew Indian corn, beans and peas. There are stories that in a famous Brahmaputra flood in the 1950s, the waters came up to the Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara (established in 1919) and then stopped; in a recent flood in 2015, members of the Gurdwara were hard at work helping feed those affected by the flood in the city.

Seen across oceanic spaces, gardens-as-plantations become ways of connecting the coolie and the slave and labour conditions in the colony and post-colony. The Assamese plantations, thus, have striking resonances elsewhere in South Asia and in Indian Ocean worlds, including rubber plantations in Singapore and Malaysia to which Tamils and Chinese were brought to work. Forced by declining practices and competition, farmers largely abandoned rubber by the 1990s. Willford (2014) explores the decline of the rubber plantation economy associated with workingclass Tamil community life alongside the growth of a neocolonial and neoliberal Malay Islamic modernity that has increasingly negated any Hindu or Indian past. He graphically registers the politics of race in modern Malaysia, the conversion of estate workers into "squatters” on the peripheries of urban life, the violence and neglect experienced by Tamil Indians and the search for “compensation” in moral and religious terms. The extractive histories of colonialism and capitalism signified by these plantations are visible in other ways. Natasha Myers (2017) describes Gardens by the Bay in Singapore as designed for the Anthropocene: the garden perpetuates apocalyptic imaginaries or specific ideas of sustainability while leaving intact the exploitative logics of labour of late industrialism.

Gardens by the Bay, in fact, have eclipsed from public memory the Tiger Bahn gardens for which Singapore was famous for many decades. Every year that my family spent in Malaysia in the early 1970s, when rubber was still king, we drove from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore past dozens of plantations to visit Tiger Bahn gardens, the visionary terraced landscape commissioned by the mentholated ointment and newspaper magnate, Aw Boon Haw, for his brother, Aw Boon Par. The Aw brothers, whose father was a small herbalist from Fujian, became the richest family in Rangoon by 1918 through their medicines. Originally built in 1937, the garden contained gateways, ponds and pavilions drawn from Chinese architectural traditions and exhibits from Buddhism, Taoism and Chinese history and mythology. These exhibits, such as the Virtues and Vices Tableaux, or the Courts of Hell, were meant to educate visitors - several of its terraces were free and open to the public - about filial piety, resisting temptation and evil-doing, loyalty, community service or judgement in one’s afterlife. The Aw family fled Singapore on the eve of the Japanese occupation, and one brother returned after the war. Some descendants of the family made additions until about 1971. The park was acquired by the government in 1985, had a life for several years as a theme park, and is now a free public park, although there are fewer visitors to it, unlike in its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.4

An ethics of human/non-human fellowship

Tiger Balm gardens embodied a religious-pedagogic project, an iconic product and colonial networks between Burma, China and Singapore, while Gardens by the Bay can be thought of as designed for the Anthropocene. The gardens of the Theosophical Society in Chennai/Madras across the Bay of Bengal, however, are a repository of biographical, religious and botanical tracks between South Asia, Europe and the Americas that sought to embody an ethics of human/non-human fellowship, among other objectives. On the one hand. Theosophy’s articulation of religion with ideas of race, nation, science or gender bore a somewhat direct relationship to empire. The ideas of universal brotherhood or various races and subraces deployed by Theosophists such as Madame Blavatsky appropriated racial evolutionism even while they were reflections on the dominant place of Christianity within the colonial project. On the other hand, Theosophists' foregrounding of spiritualist cosmologies inspired critiques of imperialism or produced anticolonial manifestos as in the case of Annie Besant, the socialist-feminist turned Theosophist (see Ramaswamy 2004; van der Veer 2001; Viswanathan 1998). My focus here is on the different versions of life (including religious life) that appear in the garden, the garden that escapes enclosure by spilling across global networks and the botanical garden that defies colonial classification.

In 1882, Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott - founders of the Theosophical Society - purchased the 28-acre Huddleston Gardens on the right bank of the Adyar River in Madras near its confluence with the sea for the society's international headquarters. Huddleston Gardens, then a country residence, consisted of a main building with a garden and two riverside bungalows. In early photographs this area seems less densely covered by shrubbery, brush or trees than it later became and had some open vistas. The main bungalow became the headquarters building (where Blavatsky lived between 1882 and 1885), which underwent many alterations over time. Additional construction at the estate took place under the direction of Olcott, who remained society president for life from 1875 to 1907. Under Annie Besant, the next president, further land acquisition took place, and by 1925, the estate had grown to 262 acres.

Although several new constructions appeared - the Vasanta Press, a library, Leadbeater Chambers, Olcott Bungalow (where Maria Montessori lived for several years), the Bhojanasala and others - most of the acreage was given to various groves and separate garden spaces: Blavatsky Gardens, Alsace Grove, Damodar Gardens, Besant Gardens, Besant Grove and Olcott Gardens. Some parts of the landscape included native trees and plants, such as tamarind and Ashoka. Local trees and plants also backed exotic species in other parts, including baobabs and cannonball trees. "Founders Avenue” is inspired by an internationalist vision and contains mahogany trees planted on soil brought from all the nations where Theosophical Society sections existed: 41 were planted in 1925 and another eight in 1950 (although many did not survive). Fruit trees are also to be found in parts of the estate and there is an extensive coconut grove; there were also experimental spaces given to an orangery and for cultivating spineless cactus as animal fodder.

The famous banyan tree, said to be about 500 years old and spread over more than an acre of land until its central trunk was uprooted by a gale in 1989, still occupies a central place in the estate. It is recalled that J. Krishnamurti, the

Timelines and lifelines 135 philosopher, gave his first talk there, Annie Besant gave her "Twilight Talks” under the tree, and it functioned as a meeting place regularly. Near the Big Banyan also stands one of five trilithons brought to the estate by Col. Olcott from a temple in the North Arcot district. Several spaces of worship currently exist: the Bharata Samaja, a Buddhist shrine, a Zoroastrian temple, a Liberal Christian church, a Masonic shrine, a Hanuman temple, a village temple, a Jain temple and a mosque; the Jewish synagogue was not completed (Adyar Through the Lens 2011; Muthiah 1995: 72; Ninetyfive Years 1978). The garden, trees and plants, thus, are generative spaces of confluence and dispersion of discourses and communities.

The Flower of Flowers

Adyar's renaturing was largely the project of C. Jinarajadasa (1875-1953), who, more than anyone else in the society, consistently articulated a place for Theosophy’s ecological potential, especially the interconnectedness temporally between humans and non-humans, in his writings and practice: “Life is everywhere. There is no dead substance. . . . The life of the plant, of the animal, of man ... is not different in kind from that invisible life which exists in stone” (Jinarajadasa 2007 [1923]: 18-19). I have discussed details of his life elsewhere: his birth in Ceylon to Sinhalese Buddhist parents; his encounter with Charles Leadbeater at age 13 and travel with him to England in 1889; his meeting Madame Blavatsky and becoming a society member in 1893; studies in Cambridge and the University of Pavia; and his linguistic accomplishments in European and Asian languages. He was married to the Irish feminist Dorothy Graham (who founded the Women’s Indian Association with another Irish feminist-Theosophist, Margaret Cousins, in 1917), was an admirer of Maria Montessori (who stayed at the Theosophical Society headquarters in Adyar during the Second World War) and bore the enormous challenge and strain of his Theosophical work post-war and post-colony valiantly (Srinivas 2015).

Many remember his quiet charm and sense of duty, his erudition, his extensive travels as society president and his motto, “I am that Work, that Work am I.” A magazine picture of him as a young man remains with me: a rather small man dressed in a suit, a gentle yet serious expression in his eyes, cradling a street tabby to whom he gave the honorific “Ji.” Ji lived with him for ten years in Cambridge and later accompanied him on many of his travels to Italy, Ceylon and India: “So we were chums. But soon I began to understand that in my cat was taking place a wonderful transformation; she was ceasing to be a cat and was becoming a soul. ... In one thing I have succeeded - I have loyally and lovingly served one little soul” (Jinarajadasa 1993 [1908]: 82-83). A few record his occult or psychic abilities and, in addition to his love for cats, his great love of trees and plants. "He communed not merely with the souls of the trees and plants, but also the many devas and nature spirits who had their home in them. ... For him the Sangha included ‘a brotherhood of venerable trees’” (The Trees and Plants of Adyar 1975: 148). Trees were not felled but allowed to grow in freedom to their fullness: "Brother Raja looked on plants not as mere mechanical things existing for the comfort of man but as living organisms slowly evolving” (Venkatara-manan 1953: 328).

Jinarajadasa became vice president of the society (1921-1928), president of the International Fellowship of Arts and Crafts (1923-1927) and later president of the society after George Arundale’s death in 1945. Long before he became president, however, Jinarajadasa supervised the vast acreage of the Adyar gardens to which he had contributed greatly. In a reversal of colonial journeying to the tropics and the South for the collection of flora and fauna but in concert with the expansion of a global network of botanical gardens, Jinarajadasa brought to Adyar about 300 species of seeds and plants from various countries, including bougainvillea from Australia and Panama, guanacaste trees from Mexico, a pithaya creeper from Guatemala, hibiscus from Cuba and tea from Paraguay. I have argued that three norms produced the Theosophical Society gardens (Srinivas 2015): First is the “South Indian Victorian,” which draws on European 19th-century wild and pastoral visions of arcadia, along with South Indian designs for horticultural gardens and the scrub jungle typical of the area. Second, there is a "greening of the idea of comparative religions,” with religious shrines from several traditions set amidst nature. Third, the gardens are rooted in the idea of a Buddhist fellowship of all living organisms (including trees or plants) that are evolving into sentient beings.

This ecology of life and fellowship also appears in many of Jinarajadasa’s writings. I focus here on two of them: Flowers and Gardens: A Dream Structure and A Divine Vision of Man, Nature and God. The first text is an outcome of a vision Jinarajadasa had while contemplating a beautiful garden at Septeuil, France - we could speculate that it was the gardens of Claude Monet (1840-1926) at Giverny about 34 km away. All we know from his description, however, is that it was early spring, the gardener had not thought to mow the lawn, the grass was carpeted thick with daisies and primulas (both flowers are found in Monet’s Clos Normand) and after some showers in the night, the sun was shining again. Jinarajadasa writes about a utopian community and its beliefs that he sees in the vision: “When a person does what is serviceable, they say, ‘His flower is opening'; when he dies, they say, ‘He has seen his flower.' They believe in a Supreme Intelligence guiding all things, but they call Him ‘the Flower of Flowers’” (Jinarajadasa 2006 [1913]: 8-9). Following the analogy between flowers and humans further, he writes that in this community, they strive to create the right conditions for their flowers to open and grow. "For when ‘the flower in man' grows, it is really the Flower of Flowers that is growing in him and through him. for there is One Life in the Flower of Flowers and in ‘the flower in man,’ and the growth of the two is inseparable” (Jinarajadasa 2006 [1913]: 47-48).

Jinarajadasa’s second text is a collection of lectures delivered in London in 1927.1 want to focus on the relationship between humans and nature that is articulated in this text: "When, with the aid of Theosophy, you analyze life’s processes, and especially when you begin to understand the mystery of your own suffering, you begin to realize that life is forcing us, driving us to learn certain lessons; and one great lesson is that of the One Life” (Jinarajadasa 2005 [1951]: 5). Nature is ethical, not mechanical, he states, and there are four avenues to approach this vision: the worship of nature, the study of nature, the love of nature and the refashioning of nature, for example, through art (reflected in his writings is his admiration for poets such as Wordsworth, Shelley, Yeats and Tennyson, as well as Wagner and Ruskin). Then we begin to understand "the rhythm of life,” “how life comes, possesses a form and grows in it, and then, when it has come to the limits of its growth, vanishes, and then, after an interval, comes back again” (Jinaraja-dasa 2005 [1951]: 41). We understand then that “rocks, too, long as men long; the plants have their own aspirations; and all nature ... is the embodiment of divine life” (Jinarajadasa 2005 [1951]: 45).


I want to gesture to the affinities between Jinarajadasa’s ideas - for example, of the similitude between humans and flowers - and those of two other figures. The first is the figure of Edward Bach (1885-1936), originator of the Flower Remedies for healing. In his writings, for example, Heal Thyself: An Explanation of the Real Cause and Cure of Disease, first published in 1931, Bach argues that disease cannot be eradicated by present materialist methods because disease is not material in its origin (Bach 2009). Voicing his objections to materialist and vivisectionist methods, he writes that with the homeopathy of Hahnemann (who was following in the tracks of the Buddha and Paracelsus) there was a streak of light after a long darkness, and "it may play a big part in the medicine of the future” (Barnard 2007: 167). In an articulation that resembles the Buddha's Four Noble Truths, he states, “Thus we see that our conquest of disease will mainly depend on the following: firstly, the realisation of the Divinity within our nature and our consequent power to overcome all that is wrong; secondly, the knowledge that the basic cause of disease is due to disharmony between the personality and the Soul; thirdly, our willingness and ability to discover the fault which is causing such a conflict; and fourthly, the removal of any such fault by developing the opposing virtue” (Barnard 2007: 176). The healing arts, thus, will concentrate on "remedies” from "the most beautiful plants and herbs to be found in the pharmacy of Nature, such as have been divinely enriched with healing powers of the mind and body of man” (Barnard 2007: 177).

In "Ye Suffer from Yourselves” (an address given in 1931), he states that we must go one step higher than Hahnemann's principle of "like curing like” to understanding that disease itself is "like curing like”; our remedial action is “to develop the opposing virtue” (Barnard 2007: 145). These remedies in the pharmacopoeia have "the power to elevate our vibrations, thus bringing more union between our mortal and Spiritual self, and effecting the cure by greater harmony thus produced” (Barnard 2007: 147). Bach’s original 12 remedies - agrimony, centaury, cerato, chicory, clematis, gentian, impatiens, mimulus, rock rose, scleranthus, vervain and waterviolet (English names, not botanical ones) - were joined over time by others, including trees like oak, pine, chestnut, olive and so on, making the total number of remedies at the time of his death 38. Apart from Hahnemann, we find ample evidence in Bach’s writings of his familiarity with Theosophical ideas with references to the Buddha, the "white brotherhood,” the Masters, the evolution of the soul, life on earth as a “school” and India (see Bach 2009; Barnard 2007). Weil (1984: 16) writes that Bach "spiritualized” disease in the same way that Theosophy “spiritualized” evolution and recognises that Bach was familiar with Theosophy's wisdom. It is Jinarajadasa, among the Theosophists. who may have been the specific inspiration for Bach’s Flower Remedies developed in the 1920s and 1930s.

The realisation that "nature is living,” that clouds, waves, rocks, grass or trees are “life veiled indescribably in matter” (Jinarajadasa 2005 [1951]: 42) with their own aspirations, also has parallels not far away from Adyar in Pondicherry in a second figure. The visions of Aurobindo (1872-1950) and Mirra Alfassa (1878— 1973) - popularly known as the Mother - of life veiled in living things in the course of cosmic creation, of spiritual self-development as consisting of efforts to reverse this process and of its translation into reforestation of the Auroville plateau since the founding of the utopian community in 1968 have been discussed (see Kent 2013). Aurobindo’s philosophy was the "soteriological framework” (p. 124) for the labours of Aurovillians, but the Mother gave the concrete and organisational contexts for practice. "For instance, the Mother was passionate about gardening. Flowers were to her a profound symbol of a key concept of Integral Yoga - aspiration . . . the germ of consciousness present in matter and the aspiration of that latent consciousness to find expression” (Kent 2013: 129). The Mother applied her powers to discover the "psychic prayers” that flowers represented. Thus, lotuses signified Divine Wisdom, the night jasmine carried the name Aspiration, and the coconut tree was called Multitude (Kent 2013: 129). "This kind of animism, attributing a form of consciousness to plants ... in the years since environmental restoration of the region has become one of the central organizing features of Auroville. [It] has taken on new importance” (Kent 2013: 129). There are other parallels between the Theosophical Society in Adyar and Auroville that deserve mention here, including the place of trees in gathering and facilitating religious communities, transnational discourses and renatur-ing efforts. One of Auroville’s “origin narratives” is that sometime in 1968, the Mother drove north from Pondicherry and stopped her car somewhere in the dry landscape and pointed in the direction where two banyan trees could be found. On 28 February 1968, Auroville’s inaugural ceremony took place under a banyan tree; its “internationalist ambitions” were signified by a marble urn in which soil from 124 countries was placed (Kent 2013: 122, 130). Alongside the creation of a utopian township went the hard labour required to reforest and reclaim land in the plateau. Apart from soil and water conservation, thousands of saplings were planted: one of the most successful species was a quickly growing acacia from Australia (which the Mother called "Work Tree”) under whose shade grew indigenous species; seeds were also collected from reserve forests and sacred groves in the region (Kent 2013: 131).

The temporality of the One Life

The sociality of humans and nature in the temporality of the One Life in Jinaraja-dasa’s thought emerges more from the central place of the Buddha in his imagination than from Theosophy; we could also say that his was a Buddhist Theosophy. The iconic form of lifelines and timelines is the Mahabodhi tree under which the Buddha sat about 2500 years ago, which was transplanted and replanted in many locations globally, bridging the time from the Buddha's life to ours through many roots and shoots. Under the direction of Jinarajadasa, three saplings from offshoots of that tree in Bodh Gaya were brought to the Theosophical Society gardens in 1950 (one of them was sent to Vietnam); of the two remaining, one occupies a central place near the Buddhist shrine and lotus pond.

Walking through the Foster Botanical Garden in Honolulu in 2015,1 encounter another bodhi tree. I learn that the garden is named after Mary Foster, a native Hawaiian woman who first met Anagarika Dharmapala when he passed through Hawaii on his way back to Ceylon after the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Dharmapala, founder of the Maha Bodhi Society in 1891 that played a major role in the revitalisation of Bodh Gaya, maintained close relations with the Theosophical Society for many years although his modernist-nationalist Buddhist project was clearly a historical counterpoint to Jinarajadasa’s gentler Buddhist Theosophy. Dharmapala’s ship made a one-day stop in Honolulu, and he spent that day in conversation with Mary Foster, the beginning of a long friendship in which the latter became his most faithful patron.5

Born in 1844 as the eldest child of Janies Robinson, a shipwrecked Englishman who became a prominent shipbuilder in Hawaii, Mary Foster was part Hawaiian royalty through her mother Rebecca Robinson. In 1861, she married Thomas Foster, a shipbuilder from Nova Scotia who worked for her father; he died in 1889 and. apparently, she found no solace in the Christian beliefs in which she had been schooled. The year she met Dharmapala coincided with the overthrow of the monarchy, and she was part of the growing resistance against American and European domination, including being a member in an underground religious organisation that combined Christianity and Hawaiian spirituality. The spiritualist movements that arose in Hawaii in response to Christian conversion efforts in the late 1800s included Theosophy, Anthroposophy and the Bahai movement; in addition, there was a revival of interest among Japanese and Chinese plantation workers in Buddhist practices. In 1894, Mary Foster and Auguste Marques established the Aloha Branch of the Theosophical Society in Honolulu; it appears that Colonel Olcott visited Hawaii in 1901 and received an enthusiastic response from the Japanese Buddhist migrant population.

We do not quite know why Mary Foster embraced Theosophy or Buddhism, but we know that after meeting Dharmapala she began to contribute generously to schools, hospitals, orphanages and temples, including the Foster Robinson Memorial Hospital in Colombo and the Mulagandhakuti Vihara in Sarnath that commemorates Sakyamuni Buddha's first teachings. Her donations were so extensive that she is described as one of the greatest benefactors of Buddhism in South Asia by Sangharakshita in his biography of Dharmapala: her first gift in 1903 alone was about $44,000 for educational and publication work in India and Ceylon. When she died in 1930, despite her very substantial philanthropic activities in South Asia and Hawaii, her estate was valued at over S3 million and included Hillebrand Gardens, the estate of Thomas Hillebrand, a horticultural specialist who travelled the world bringing back tropical plant species. Mary acquired this estate in 1880 and gave 5.6 acres of it to the City of Honolulu to build a public tropical park. The park includes a bronze Buddha and a bodlii tree, most likely from the Bodh Gaya original or its offshoot in Anuradhapura.

Mary Foster was not only a benefactor of Buddhism; her life connects to the figure of Paramahamsa Yogananda, with whom we began this essay. The year 1924 was a momentous one for Yogananda, who not only met Luther Burbank at his home in Santa Rosa but also bought the property on Mt. Washington in Los Angeles that became the Self-Realization Fellowship headquarters and home to the spineless cactus. He had barely managed to secure the property by raising funds among his admirers through courses he taught, especially with the support of two wealthy women; but the mortgage was still to be met and Yogananda - in spite of a hectic lecture tour all over the West Coast - apparently had only $200 in the bank. In San Francisco, where he was giving classes for six nights in a row, he was approached by Mary Foster. She had heard him speak, discussed his plans and offered to support him. She wrote him a cheque for $27,000. The maiden issue of the fellowship's East-West (which also contained an essay by Burbank) published later that year was dedicated to Mary Foster (see Goldberg 2018: 145-158).

I have tried to show that the lives of plants and plant personalities are intertwined with “human plants” (to use Burbank's image) and through gardens-as-landscapes enmesh several communities, philosophical ideas and religious refabulations across time and space. Working against enclosure, these gardens open us up to other imaginaries: some of this is through memory-work; some of it is through the labours of planting, replanting and transplanting; and some of it is through networks of religious philanthropy or practice that imbricate many lives and urban places. Within these processes and practices, different ideas of inheritance, heritage and belonging operate. On the one hand, we have to acknowledge the growth of a global environmental consciousness that arose with trade, maritime and colonial expansion, what Richard Grove calls a “green imperialism” (Grove 1995), as well as the role of botany in tropicalising many landscapes (Arnold 2006) in India, Singapore or Hawaii. On the other hand, seen through the practices and lives of Jinarajadasa, Edward Bach, the Mother or Mary Foster, and the mobilities of gardeners, plantation workers, trees, plants and seeds, other timelines and lifelines appear.


  • 1 ‘Tabulation” has several genealogies including Claude Levi Strauss’s 1963 discussion, “The Sorcerer and his Magic” in Structural Anthropology-. My use of “refabulation” follows Allen Roberts and Mary Roberts's deployment of the term stemming from their two decades of work on arts in Senegal to indicate the ways in which people re-world the cultural topography of their cities by replacing colonial names, monuments and the like with those of their own yearnings, histories and collective imaginations (see especially Roberts and Roberts 2003). See also the recent roundtable, Spirited Topographies, for a detailed discussion of the terms “refabulation,” “mobilities” and "underscapes/over-scapes” in the context of religion and urban place-making (Hancock and Srinivas 2018; Srinivas 2018).
  • 2 accessed 16 January 2019.
  • 3, accessed 15 February 2019.
  • 4, accessed 11 May 2018.
  • 5 For this account of Foster’s life, I depend entirely on Masters and Tsomo (2000).


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11 Land-grabbing deities

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