Hinduism and Ecology Conference at Govardhan Eco-Village, India

By Sadhana Board Member Christopher Fici

  May this Earth, replete with seas, rivers and water sources, excellent foodgrains from agriculture, prolific vegetation and abundant living creatures, bestow upon us munificent nutrition!

May this Earth, replete with seas, rivers and water sources, excellent foodgrains from agriculture, prolific vegetation and abundant living creatures, bestow upon us munificent nutrition!

May the Earth who is in the nature of a mother, hold us, her children, close to her life-endowing self, protect us, and may Parjanya (the rain-bearing clouds) in the nature of a father, tend our upbringing. 

May the Earth who is in the nature of a mother, hold us, her children, close to her life-endowing self, protect us, and may Parjanya (the rain-bearing clouds) in the nature of a father, tend our upbringing. 

May this Earth so charged with positive force, neutralise that element which impels ill-will, aggressive intention, subjugation of human beings and their elimination. 

May the Earth give us, her progeny, the capacity to speak pleasantly with each other, may our languages enable harmonious interaction between ourselves.

In daily life, on Earth, whether we are sitting, standing, or in motion, may our activity be such as would never cause injury or grief! 

I evoke the Earth which gives shelter to all the searchers of truth, to those who are tolerant and have understanding, to all things strength-giving, nutritious; the source of creative spirit, we depend on you, O Earth!

O Earth, in the villages, forest, assemblies, committees and other places on Earth, may what we express always be in accord with you.

 

Prthvi-Sukta-Hymn to the Earth-from the Atharva Veda

Nature is also our neighbor, she is alive with rights like everyone else, but too many people don’t see nature that way. The Vedic scriptures tell that the most simple and powerful method of cleansing the ecology of the heart and awakening this dormant love within us is to chant God’s names. In my tradition we chant the names of Krishna.

God has empowered all of us in different ways and if we agree on what the real problem is, then we can all contribute our part of the solution. The well being of Mother Earth is everyone’s problem. It is crucial for leaders in all fields to serve cooperatively.

--Radhanath Swami

 

What does it mean to be a true, honest, and loving sevaka of Bhumi-Devi, of our Mother Earth. A wise friend of mine once said, in her dialogue with Native American elders, that we make a mistake when we say “the” Earth, as if we are making her an object. Instead we must always say, in the language and service of our lips and our hearts, simply that she is Earth, that she is a personal, living, breathing, loving being, just like you and I. She is our Mother, who gives us all elements of flourishing life.

We do not risk oversimplification of the matter nor do we risk anthropomorphizing our planet by claiming she is personal and living. The very cutting-edges of climate science tell us, with increasing urgency, that Earth is a living system who reacts and responds to care, and to abuse, exactly as we do. The cutting-edges of eco-theology tell us that Earth is not just a personal living being, but as we see in the great sastras, the sacred texts of Hinduism, that she is also a beloved, especial devotee of God.

Sacred sastric texts such as the Bhagavat Purana direct us to theological narratives which personify Earth as Bhumi-Devi. The Tenth Canto of the Bhagavat Purana opens with Bhumi-Devi, “overburdened by hundreds of thousands of military phalanxes of various conceited demons dressed like kings.” She then assumes “the form of a cow” to beseech, with great emotion, Brahma and his fellow demigods to implore Vishnu to incarnate upon her very soil to protect her and her fellow devotees. Krishna's subsequent descent and full revelation of his Earthly lila in the cherished Tenth Canto of the Bhagavat Purana thus emerges from the devotion of Bhumi-Devi. Her bhakti compels Krishna to incarnate, in part, as an act of resistance and justice-making against the forces of systemic evil overrunning the flourishing of the planetary creation and community.

This past December, a wonderful community of religious scholar/practitioners gathered at the Govardhan Eco-Village project in Maharastra, India, for a conference on Hinduism and Ecology convened by The Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, the Bhaktivedanta Vidyapitha Research Center, and The Bhumi Project. This conference was a long-awaited follow-up to The Yale Forum’s initial series of conferences in the late 1990’s, done in conjunction with the Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, on the eco-theologies of the world’s diverse religious traditions and communities. This initial series of conference led to a series of publications, and the volume on Hinduism and Ecology continues to remain the gold standard for Hindu eco-theology.

In his opening plenary talk, Radhanath Swami, the founder of the Govardhan Eco-Village project, welcomed us into the experience of the Eco-Village as a community which attempts to combine cutting-edge climate science with the timeless wisdom of the Vedic spiritual sciences. The Eco-Village is a community which attempts to embody the consciousness of Krishna’s grace, of God’s grace, in every element of Earthly creation. Swami told us that if “we understand God as the source of all nature, then naturally we develop the mood and practice of Earth seva (service). This seva is the most holy principle of life, for life.” The teaching of para-dukha-dukhi, to understand and experience the suffering, and also the bliss, of all living beings, as our very own suffering and bliss, is essential for this practice of Earth seva, We must understand Earth, and all of her planetary children, as our “cherished neighbor. This leads to a deep, profound, and lasting change in the ecological quality of our lives.”

In the Eco-Village, an experiment of immersion in the radical substance of bhakti-yoga, the yoga of selfless and loving devotion, is ongoing, rooted in devotion to Earth and Krishna in concert, to create a sanctuary for re-developing and re-creating relationships. Swami’s words deepened my own conviction, as a scholar studying the Eco-Village (which is to be the subject of my upcoming Ph.D dissertation at Union Theological Seminary) and as a disciple of Swami inspired to serve and help develop this community to its utmost.

The Govardhan Eco-Village is truly, as the Christian eco-theologian Larry Rasmussen describes, an anticipatory community. Rasmussen, in his excellent book Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, defines anticipatory community:

Anticipatory communities are home places where it is possible to reimagine worlds and reorder possibilities, places where new or renewed practices give focus to an ecological and postindustrial way of life. Such communities have the qualities of a haven, a set-apart and safe place yet a place open to creative risk. Here basic moral formation happens by conscious choice and not by default (simply conforming to the ethos and unwritten ethic of the surrounding culture). Here eco-social virtues are consciously cultivated and           embodied in community practices. Here the fault lines of modernity are exposed.

The Govardhan Eco-Village is indeed (and please check out the visual essay which follows this written essay) a community which is actively, with full creativity, and immense theological depth, helping to anticipate, in the fabric of Earth-honoring dharma, justice, and compassion, the way forward into the Age of Climate Crisis. As Swami concluded, the practice of bhakti helps us to “return to dependence on our interdependence with all living beings, and with God, Bhakti helps us to become an instrument of Divine love on Earth and for Earth, which is the essential harmonic principle of yoga.” Bhakti is the renewable, sustainable energetic principle which heals the corruption of our own internal consciousness, and allows us to harmonize our inner and outer ecology.

If bhakti can be understood to one of the most exquisite ecological arts, then the most exquisite practitioner of these arts, Sri Krishna, can be understood as “the greatest environmentalist.” Shrivatsa Goswami, one of the head priests of the Radha-ramana Temple in Vrindavana, and one of the leading environmental activists of the Hindu community explains that “Krishna’s love is not to subjugate or exploit nature, but to celebrate it. With what technique do we protect our environment? This technology is relationship through love, through devotion, through giving and serving.”,  Earth seva, our eco-dharma, service in the mood of love, care, and devotion, can lead us to find and restore what has been lost to us, such as a freely flowing, pure, crisp, and clean Yamuna River.

Vaishnava scholar/practitioner David Haberman, one of the key architects of the conference, has spent years studying and working for the restoration of the Yamuna. His powerful and evocative book River of Love in an Age of Pollution: The Yamuna River of Northern India explores the deep tensions between devotion of Yamuna as a goddess and as a river. All too often, even the most sophisticated of bhakti theologies of river goddess worship are not enough to prevent and heal the devastation of Yamuna and other sacred rivers of India. How can devotees of Yamuna fully recover their understanding that one must worship Yamuna as both living goddess and living water? To do so, Haberman writes

The environmental activist as karma yogi must in effect learn to see everything in the world concurrently with two very different eyes: one trained on the finite and one trained on the infinite...the Yamuna is in trouble; she is polluted and unhealthy and is pleading for our help. The response she deserves is a tender one. Here seva means loving acts of kindness that aim to alleviate her pain. In this perspective, time is of the essence; we need to act now.

Goswami told us that “natural ecology is only a fraction, only a portion, of what we need to understand about the reality of ecology. We must restore the foundations of our social ecology, beginning with the ecology of our own individual being.” Goswami, like so many in the field of Hinduism and Ecology, takes cues from Gandhi, “especially the understanding that there is enough of Mother Earth’s care for our need, but never enough for our greed.”

The ecology of our own field of consciousness, our own ground of being, is ever a place where we find the contradictions of our awareness wrapped up together, like different vines competing and clashing in their ascent up the trunk of the tree of our spirit. In Vaishnava theology, as Goswami highlighted, there is the message of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the great Vaishnava acarya (teacher), who says that our sense of unity and our sense of difference with one another, and with God, is harmonized in the tattva (truth) of acintya-bhedabheda (simultaneous inconceivable oneness and difference). Rather that letting these two truths of oneness and difference devolve into polemics, or destructive dualities, Chaitanya teaches us that, beyond even the bounds of our ample but limited reason, we are both always one and always different with each other, with Earth, and with God. Without this dance of unity and difference, real love and devotion will never manifest. This understanding of the fabric of reality, at the core of our hearts, extends out, says Goswami, to the different elements of human meaning-making. He told us that “technology and politics has to dance with religion the way our genders dance together, the way the Lover and the Beloved dance together.”

To dance with Krishna, to play with Krishna, is to understand that Krishna is always revealing the heart of seva with love, and this heart must be the core of our environmental awareness and activism. We must understand that bhakti is truly bursting from every atom and element of creation, as proclaimed by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, the heads of the Yale Forum for Religion and Ecology, the co-creators of the Journey of the Universe project, and two of the leading and founding eco-theologians in the world. Their work has been in service of providing “a dance of spirituality to the equation.” Echoing Goswami’s call that our traditions and communities of knowledge must dance together, Tucker and Grim see the journey of creation through the “exquisite emergence of the processes and presence of life, as life expresses its constructive, destructive, re-constructive, and creative elements. Indeed there does seem to an element of relationship, an element of devotion, of bhakti, which is inherent to the ecosystems of Earth.”

Indeed, “as ninjas in the institution” of the academy, Tucker and Grim, alongside the Hindu scholar/practitioners present, are daring to insist there is a meaning and purpose behind the expressions of Earthly creation. In the cell itself is “the sense of self, and a sense of consciousness, and the process of consciousness is the search for the self.” Understanding that every living being, from macro to micro, is a conscious, searching, creative self, and that the universe is, as explained by Tucker and Grim’s dear mentor Thomas Berry, a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects, leads us to the consider the potential of radical theological and cosmological shifts in how we understand the very fabric of reality.

The universal communion of subjects is a fundamental idea at the core of Hinduism and Hindu eco-theology. If we can understand that every being and every element of creation is alive with sacred energy and presence, then we can, as Krishna teaches Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita, to see with sama-darsinah, with loving vision of equality and justice, with a vision which turns our bodies, minds, and souls in directions of Earth-honoring care and faith

Before we conclude and you can take a look at some of the wonderful images from the conference and the Eco-Village, I also want to share a few thoughts from my own presentation on “Bhakti for Bhumi-Devi: The Yoga of Devotion for the Age of Climate Crisis”, as well as a few thoughts from our dear friend/colleague Kenneth Valpey on his presentation of “Tending for Krishna’s Cows.” In my presentation I made a wide-reaching case that the values and practices of bhakti-yoga are vital resources as we turn intensely into the Age of Climate Crisis. Enhancing our consciousness of devotion, even and especially as the ravages and tragedies of climate change intensify in kind, in one of our deepest pools of hope to respond to Climate Crisis with justice, care, and compassion for the most vulnerable planetary beings. However, as we have seen with the immense pollution which inhabits even the most sacred rivers of India, the Ganga and the Yamuna, we also need to confront and explore how even our common, traditional understandings of bhakti not only might not be enough for the wicked times we are in, but may also consciously and unconsciously contribute to the pollution we contribute to the flesh of Earth. I ask:                       

If even our conceptions and practices of bhakti as many of them now stand cannot properly address, and perhaps even contribute to the wickedness of our climate crisis, what Earth-honoring rasas do we need to cultivate, recover, and create anew? What deepens the affective and emotional experience of our bhakti so that it enflames our devotion for Earth? How do we call upon bhakti-devi, perhaps in ways we have never done before in any particular context, to assist us in the massive climate-justice making work at hand ,to resist and reverse the tides of the structural evil which creates our Climate Crisis?

Valpey, who is one of the leading Vaishnava scholars in the world and the author of the excellent book on devotional deity arati (worship) Attending Krsna’s Image: Chaitanya Vaishnava Murti-Seva as Devotional Truth, led us into an intriguing presentation on the connection between Bovinity and Divinity, and the worship/care of cows and bulls as an indispensable aspect of practicing dharma. Calling upon venerable sastras (sacred texts) such as the Bhagavat Purana, in which Cow as Earth and Dharma as Bull lay profound moral concerns upon the formation of planetary community, Valpey argues for an “ethics of divine preference of Cow Care as comprehensive ecological care.” Valpey’s numerous fruitful encounters with goshala (cow care shelter) communities in India convinces him that the care of cow and bull leads us to re-discover our own capacity as “agricultural co-creators in the matrix of dharma and bhakti rooted in divinity.”

When I questioned him about the complex knots which tie cow protection practices in India (and advocating for such practices worldwide) to the politics of Hindu nationalism and the mob violence and murder which attends such politics in India, Valpey admitted that these politics are certainly unavoidable and must be engaged with as much care and sanity as one can muster, but he insists we must not lose sight of the deep ecological, economic, and spiritual value of cow care and protection. This is a particular challenge for Sadhana and all progressively minded Hindus, and a challenge we should not shy away from. We should be able to write about, participate in, and advocate the powerful movements of cow care and protection without either overlooking the politics, without addressing the genuine concerns of our Muslim, Dalit, and non-vegetarian brothers/sisters who feel oppressed by the co-opting of Bovinity and Divinity for the purposes of Hindutva. Neither should we get lost in the politics, and find ourselves unable to pro-actively participate and advocate for our Mother Cow and Brother Bull, and how their intrinsic well-being is profoundly tied to the intrinsic well-being of Mother Earth.

I want to share some images from the Hinduism and Ecology conference and the Govardhan Eco-Village, so you can better experience this remarkable community and the incredible Earth seva they are creating.

  A living model of Keshi Ghat and the Yamuna River, originally in Vrindavan, India. Keshi Ghat is where devotees of Yamuna-ji, the sacred river goddess, go to bathe and worship in her spirit-giving waters.

A living model of Keshi Ghat and the Yamuna River, originally in Vrindavan, India. Keshi Ghat is where devotees of Yamuna-ji, the sacred river goddess, go to bathe and worship in her spirit-giving waters.

  The members of the community have re-created the original village atmosphere of Vrindavan, the eternal spiritual home of Krishna and his most beloved devotees. While walking mindfully and devotionally through Vrindavana within the Eco-Village, one is reminded at every step of Krishna and his exceedingly wonderful pastimes.

The members of the community have re-created the original village atmosphere of Vrindavan, the eternal spiritual home of Krishna and his most beloved devotees. While walking mindfully and devotionally through Vrindavana within the Eco-Village, one is reminded at every step of Krishna and his exceedingly wonderful pastimes.

  Nimai-Lila Dasa, one of the directors of the Govardhan Eco-Village project, and a practicing brahmacari (monk) spends some time in the goshala with the resident cows. Radhanath Swami asks each resident monk to spend at least two hours a week in cow care.

Nimai-Lila Dasa, one of the directors of the Govardhan Eco-Village project, and a practicing brahmacari (monk) spends some time in the goshala with the resident cows. Radhanath Swami asks each resident monk to spend at least two hours a week in cow care.

  This is the community’s ingenious composting/waste treatment garden/system. All the community’s wastewater is pumped into the garden atop the structure, where an array of particularly plants filter out and compost the waste through their minerals and roots. The filtered water is then reused for the community’s organic agriculture.

This is the community’s ingenious composting/waste treatment garden/system. All the community’s wastewater is pumped into the garden atop the structure, where an array of particularly plants filter out and compost the waste through their minerals and roots. The filtered water is then reused for the community’s organic agriculture.

  The composting garden atop the waste-treatment facility.

The composting garden atop the waste-treatment facility.

  Nimai-Lila lovingly takes in the aroma of a fresh flower grown from the compost of the community.

Nimai-Lila lovingly takes in the aroma of a fresh flower grown from the compost of the community.

  The community’s rural development/empowerment program helps local villagers recover their economic and ecological base for right and just living. The different components of the program include such elements as seed conservation, water resource development, women’s empowerment, and a number of diverse skill development and education programs.

The community’s rural development/empowerment program helps local villagers recover their economic and ecological base for right and just living. The different components of the program include such elements as seed conservation, water resource development, women’s empowerment, and a number of diverse skill development and education programs.

  Each evening a local pujari (priests) offers arati (worship) to the Yamuna River, while devotees assemble and sing the Yamunastakam, a musical prayer of devotion for the Yamuna River written by the Vaishnava acarya Srila Rupa Goswami.

Each evening a local pujari (priests) offers arati (worship) to the Yamuna River, while devotees assemble and sing the Yamunastakam, a musical prayer of devotion for the Yamuna River written by the Vaishnava acarya Srila Rupa Goswami.

  Your author subjects the cows to hipster doofus selfies...

Your author subjects the cows to hipster doofus selfies...

  ...and then gets the bovine divine side-eye.

...and then gets the bovine divine side-eye.

  The resident deities of the Eco-Village, Sri-Sri Radha-Vrindavan-Bihari, along with a deity of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the avatar of Krishna at the root of the community’s Caitanya Vaishnava theology, practice, and culture.

The resident deities of the Eco-Village, Sri-Sri Radha-Vrindavan-Bihari, along with a deity of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the avatar of Krishna at the root of the community’s Caitanya Vaishnava theology, practice, and culture.

  His Holiness Radhanath Swami launches the Hinduism and Ecology conference with deep prayer and profound words of wisdom and encouragement.

His Holiness Radhanath Swami launches the Hinduism and Ecology conference with deep prayer and profound words of wisdom and encouragement.

  The conference attendees had a chance to visit the goshala and engage in some cow care.

The conference attendees had a chance to visit the goshala and engage in some cow care.

  Radhanath Swami and Vaishnava scholar/practitioner David Haberman in a few loving moments with Prema-ji, one of the community’s newest calves.

Radhanath Swami and Vaishnava scholar/practitioner David Haberman in a few loving moments with Prema-ji, one of the community’s newest calves.

  Your humble author gives his presentation of “Bhakti for Bhumi-Devi: The Yoga of Devotion for the Age of Climate Crisis”       

Your humble author gives his presentation of “Bhakti for Bhumi-Devi: The Yoga of Devotion for the Age of Climate Crisis”