ISKCON Devotees Attend Rome Environmental Convergence
Young religious environmental leaders from around the world, including four ISKCON devotees, attended an environmental “convergence” and march in Rome at the end of June.
The event was put on by Our Voices, a New Jersey based international organization created to encourage religious communities to put pressure on political leaders for the upcoming 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris this December. Our Voices also encourages religious communities to be more vocal about environmental concerns in general.
The convergence began with the “Una Terra, Una Famiglia” or “One Earth, One Family” march on Sunday June 28th. Rather than being a protest march, it was an uplifting, joyful event thanking Pope Francis for his recent encyclical, or papal letter, supporting environmental action.
Around 2,000 people, including members of the World Wide Fund For Nature, Oxfam, other environmental NGOs, and various religious groups participated in the one-and-a-half hour march through Rome. A group of local Rome devotees also participated, chanting Harinama Sankirtan.
Major media outlets such as the Guardian, the New York Times, and the Washington Post covered the event, which featured banners showing quotes from the Pope’s encyclical, various religious symbols, images promoting wind and solar energy, and of course Krishna’s Holy Name.
The march culminated in St. Peter’s Square in front of the Vatican, where the Pope’s encyclical is traditionally broadcast from to over 1 billion Catholics across the globe.
Pope Francis appeared to give his weekly Sunday afternoon address, and was greeted by the marchers holding up 1,500 oversized green leaves cut from cardboard.
“It almost looked like St. Peter’s Square had turned green,” says participant Gopal-Lila Das, who is the Director of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies’ Bhumi Project. “It was a really beautiful sight.”
In his address, the Pope specifically addressed the marchers, thanking people for participating and Our Voices for working with faith communities around the world to raise awareness about climate change.
Banners fly for the Earth at the March (devotees are visible in the front row)
Following the march, a “convergence of young religious environmental leaders” was held from Monday June 29th to Wednesday July 1st at a conference hall in the Comunita di Sant’Egidio church in downtown Rome.
One hundred young professionals from faith-based environmental organizations in Africa, the United States, Canada, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Australia and Fiji attended.
They included representatives of the Global Catholic Climate Movement, Green Churches Africa, The Hindu American Foundation, the Franciscan Action Network, Buddhist organization Shyambala International, and ISKCON.
As well as Gopal Lila Das, the other ISKCON representatives present were Nimai-Lila Das, sustainability officer at Radhanath Swami’s Govardhana Eco Village outside of Mumbai; Raghunath Das from the Bhaktivedanta Swami Gurukula and International School in Vrindavana; and Sheila Chauhan, a sustainability officer who develops environmental policies for Bhaktivedanta Manor in the UK.
The convergence featured two main sections. In the first, participants were asked to create an “eco autobiography.” To do this, they looked through their lives to find a moment where they felt a spiritual connection to the earth; talked about places that held deep meaning or sacredness to them; and quoted a verse or passage from their tradition that inspired them in their environmental work.
For Gopal Lila, the first verse of Sri Isopanisad is inspirational: “Everything animate or inanimate that is within the universe is controlled and owned by the Lord. One should therefore accept only those things necessary for himself, which are set aside as his quota, and one should not accept other things, knowing well to whom they belong.”
“I’m also inspired by aspects of Srila Prabhupada’s life,” Gopal says, “Such as the way he would take a walk every morning in a place of nature, and the way he requested devotees building the ISKCON Vrindavana temple not to cut down the tree in the courtyard.”
“The exercise was quite powerful,” he adds. “It’s really delving deep down and saying, ‘Okay, I’m an environmentalist, I’m a person of faith. But why do I do these things? What in my faith actually pushes me to act or to care for the earth?’”
The joyful march makes its way through Rome (devotees chanting Harinama Sankirtan are visible in the background)
The second section of the convergence put participants in groups based on regions and religions, and asked them to put create an outline for their 12-month environmental action plan.
Gopal-Lila runs the Bhumi Project, which mobilizes Hindus around the world and supports their environmental efforts. His plan included organizing the third annual Hindu Environment Week, which has only run in India so far but will have six to eight events in North America for the first time in February 2016.
“Hindu Environment Week is the Bhumi Project’s main focus right now,” Gopal says. “In India, we’ve had 15,000 people participate in the Week’s events. We work primarily with religious pilgrimage sites such as Vrindavana, Dwarka, Puri, Hrsikesh, Varanasi and Chennai, and do a variety of efforts including cleaning, spreading awareness, holding seminars and organizing school essay competitions.
” The Bhumi Project also plans to set up regional offices in India – it already has one in Mumbai, but is looking to add offices in Puri, Delhi, and Varanasi.
Gopal also plans to connect all the Hindus that attended the Rome convergence and to facilitate their work in their local areas.
“Now that we’ve got a group of volunteers from across the world, we’re just keen to see how we can support and serve them in their efforts,” he says.
Overall, Gopal was glad to see Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and others all coming together without tension.
“Everyone was able to just step out of their own religious identity and say ‘Look, I’m a citizen of this planet, and we need to work together to care for the earth,’” he says. “That was a very powerful thing that came through.”
Gopal was also happy to see ISKCON strongly represented at the event.
“By and large, ISKCON is quite behind on the environmental stuff internationally,” he says. “So what was interesting was that while the ISKCON leadership is behind the curve, the young ISKCON people are very much engaged with environmental issues.”
A second convergence is already being planned for next year.