Three ISKCON devotees participated in a week of faith-based climate change leadership training in New Orleans last month, with a view to leading more environmentally-friendly efforts for Srila Prabhupada’s society.
Gopal-Lila Das from England, Director of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies’ Bhumi Project, was a facilitator at the training. Joining him as attendees were Sarita Telhan, who works on green initiatives at ISKCON of Washington D.C.; and Archana Prasad, who serves at ISKCON of Towaco, New Jersey and is taking her Masters in environmental/sustainability science.
The three were part of a group of sixty young Hindus, Buddhists, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims between the ages of 21 and 35 from across North America who attended.
“The idea of the event was to find young people who aren’t necessarily in positions of leadership in their faith communities right now, but who are on that trajectory,” Gopal-Lila says. “And then to equip them with the tools, networks and resources they need so that as they develop their careers further, they can be stronger advocates for climate change, specifically from a faith perspective.”
From left to right - Gopal Patel, Archana Prasad (ISKCON Towaco), Sarita Telhan (ISKCON of DC), and Allegra Lovejoy (Executive Board Member of the Hindu Students Council)
The training was put on by the New Jersey-based GreenFaith, the Bhumi Project’s primary partner for its international work. It took place at Tulane University in New Orleans from Monday June 20th to Friday June 24th.
The Archbishop of New Orleans, Gregory Michael Aymond, opened proceedings in the University’s chapel by welcoming everybody. With water being one of the week’s major focuses, during the opening ceremony everyone was asked to bring water from their home towns and mix it into a big bowl with local water from New Orleans.
“This was to signify that all the waters of North America have come together in solidarity with the people of New Orleans, and the issues that they faced and continue to face since Hurricane Katrina in 2005,” Gopal says, explaining that extreme weather is a result of climate change.
Attendees were also asked to each bring a sacred object from their home town, and these ranged from natural items such as wood from a tree, to overt faith symbols such as the Bhagavad-gita one of the devotees brought, or the prayer beads others brought from their traditions.
“It was very moving,” says Gopal.
On Tuesday morning, participants visited museums in New Orleans to learn about the history of Louisiana and the effects of Katrina. Meanwhile in a powerful evening session, people affected by the hurricane spoke about how they were still trying to get their lives back on track over a decade on.
The climate change training group
On Wednesday, the group went to see the direct effects of global warming and climate change in the Louisiana Bayou, where rising waters have drastically changed the residents’ ways of life. They also saw presentations on the effects of Katrina including environmental impacts such as land erosion.
Meanwhile on Thursday, participants formed a semi-circle outside of the offices of Republican congressman Steve Scalise, a well-known climate change denier although his district is one of the places most vulnerable to climate change in the United States.
Rather than banging on his door and making demands, everyone read prayers from their traditions about climate change, water, or the need to address environmental concerns, as a way to raise awareness.
Notably, ISKCON devotees Archana and Sarita read Bhagavad-gita 7.9, in which Lord Krishna states that He is “the original fragrance of the earth” and “the heat in fire.” They also read Srila Prabhupada’s purport, in which he writes, “In Krishna consciousness we become aware that earth, water, ﬁre, air and every active principle, all chemicals and all material elements are due to Krishna.” And they quoted Gandhi saying, “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”
Throughout the rest of the training, people attended seminars on how to lobby for environmental causes, launch campaigns around climate change, use social media to create awareness, do advocacy work, and more.
During mealtimes, they networked and talked with each other about how they could work together as interfaith groups in their cities.
Finally, each individual was asked to make a twelve-month plan for what they would do after the training.
For ISKCON, Sarita is working with D.C. temple president Ananda Vrindavana Dasi on a variety of environmental efforts. Current projects include composting leftover Sunday Feast prasadam, a bring-your-own Tupperware policy to eliminate Styrofoam, and providing biodegradeable tableware and utensils at large festivals.
Short term future goals include a community garden to provide locally grown fruits and flowers to the deities and devotees. Meanwhile among the long term goals are resource-efficient green buildings, extra insulation and solar panels in the temple, ultra-low flush toilets and low-flow shower heads to minimize waste water.
D.C. devotees are also intertwining the environmental elements of Bhagavad-gita and Bhakti philosophy into Sunday school classes and other classes to subtly nurture children and others to care for nature.
“The Bhakti tradition is amazing in that Krishan clearly shows us He is in nature,” Sarita says. “Tying together the many traditions of Bhumi puja, Yamuna aarti, Ganga aarti, Tulasi maharani worship, etc. it is without doubt that we are to uphold the sacredness of the environment. Using this knowledge, we hope to bring awareness to the community so they can take greater strides to protect Bhumi-devi.”
Archana also says that the training program in New Orleans has “really fueled my desire to make sustainability more accessible to the general public, including our temples,” and adds: “I really feel like even the smallest steps can help make a difference in improving Bhumi Devi's health.”
Meanwhile Gopal-Lila is working on an ISKCON North America Environmental Initiative with GBC Anuttama Das. They are currently bringing in devotees who are already working on green issues, either for their temples or professionally, to develop practical plans for making ISKCON temples nationwide more eco-friendly.
“Faith groups have been very vocal in things like the Paris Climate Agreement in the past 24 months, and the environmental movement now takes religious voices very seriously,” says Gopal.
“So since there’s a lot within our tradition, both in scripture and in Prabhupada’s day-to-day life, that is very environmentally friendly, I think it’s important for devotees to be part of the conversation. We have a lot to offer in this space, and I think we’ll find allies who share and resonate with our message. It’s a wonderful opportunity to show the relevance of Krishna consciousness in today’s world, where the environment is such a huge issue.”[ environment ] [ nature ]