When faith actors combine forces with climate activists

OpinionWhen faith actors combine forces with climate activists
  • Commemorating UN World Interfaith Harmony Week, some thoughts on a discussion about how interfaith collaboration can contribute to climate justice

By Sara Arshad

What does interfaith harmony have to do with climate change? For Mumbai-based peacebuilder and journalist Urmi Chanda there’s a natural intersection.

   

She points out that faith is a broader construct than religion. “Those who strongly believe in climate justice, are also people of ‘faith’.”

The global climate change crisis has serious repercussions for people of all faiths particularly in Southasia. There’s shared grief for the losses it causes – lives, livelihoods, and stability. So even those who approach the issue from a secular perspective and stay away from the polarising effects of religion, especially when it is misused, can join this conversation.

Fired with the need to explore how to direct religious energies “towards important issues like climate justice,” Chanda initiated a virtual panel discussion on the issue ahead of the UN World Interfaith Harmony Week commemorated during the first seven days of February.

Intergenerational

It was octogenarian Lalita Ramdas in Alibag village south of Mumbai who brought Chanda, in her late 30s, pursuing a professional doctorate in Interfaith Studies at the University of Wales, into coalitions like the Southasia Peace Action Network (Sapan) and the Navodaya Networks Forum. The goals of both intersect interestingly. Sapan aims to ‘reclaim Southasia’ while Navodaya aims to uphold the constitution of India.

A founder of Greenpeace India, Lalita Ramdas presented closing remarks at the discussion moderated by Chanda. Dhaka-based feminist activist Khushi Kabir who heads the Southasian feminist network Sangat founded by the late Kamla Bhasin also added her voice to the deliberations, hosted from the Sapan platform.

‘Can Interfaith Collaboration Contribute to Climate Justice?’ — the discussion was the fifteenth in the Sapan series ‘Imagine! Neighbours in Peace’. Like most Sapan events, it was held on the last Sunday of the month, in this case 30 January 2023.

Marlon Ariyasinghe, a journalist with Himal SouthAsian and a theatre activist in Colombo presented the Sapan Founding Charter that kicks off these discussions. The Charter calls for soft borders and increased trade across Southasia and a regional approach to all issues.

Environmental journalist Afia Salam in Karachi presented Sapan’s ‘In Memoriam’ section commemorating visionaries of Southasia’s peace movement like Asma Jahangir, as well as those who have passed on since the last Sapan event.

From the ‘roof of the world’ in the Himalayas, Nepali journalist Namrata Sharma hosted the event. Acclaimed singer Ani Choying Drolma, a Buddhist nun in Kathmandu, set the tone by presenting a Buddhist chant. Drolma, who participated last year in the Sapan discussion on Music and Mystics, also shared her personal efforts towards environmental sustainability, like switching to reusable sanitary pads from disposable ones. 

The framework of faith

So, what do different faiths say about the relationship between humans and nature and our responsibility towards it? Responses from invited speakers to Chanda’s question showed a clear consensus on the interconnected relationship between humanity and nature.

Christianity recognises and supports the connection between human beings and nature, commented Lahore-based human rights activist, Peter Jacob.

Sidharth, a prolific Delhi-based artist who engages deeply with the tenets of Sikhism, added that Guru Nanak’s teachings have always stressed on the unity of all beings, encouraging compassion and service towards all.

Buddhism holds that because humans are an integral part of this planet, destruction of the environment is essentially the destruction of human beings, explained Dr. Prof Surendra Man Bajracharya, a scholar of Buddhism in Lalitpur, Nepal. The Buddhist law of dependent origination or paticcasamuppada stresses this notion of interconnectedness.

Educational leader and spiritual coach Saima Nazir in Lahore quoted extensively from various Quranic verses, like Surah Rahman and Surah AL-Naml, to underline the notion that the earth is a beautiful creation of Allah. While enjoying the earth’s beauty and benefitting from it, mortals are duty-bound to look after these blessings.

Peter Jacob also quoted several gospel verses highlighting this interconnectedness, like the Luke, chapter 4, verses 17 – 19.

The artist Sidharth found echoes of these references in Guru Nanak’s words,” While creating your comfort you are creating uncomfort for yourself?” He also shared Guru Nanak’s ‘Mul Mantra’ which he termed the greatest love poem of all time because it speaks of the great oneness of all species – “all beings, the visible and the invisible, come from one source”.

Two invited speakers could not join the panel due to network issues caused by heavy rainfall in parts of north India – Swami Shivanand Saraswati, a Hindu spiritual leader and renowned Ganga activist from Haridwar; and Syed Salman Chishti, spiritual successor and head of the Ajmer Dargah.

On behalf of Swami Shivanand, Urmi Chanda shared the Hindu/Vedic perspective, illustrating the interconnection of humans with the environment through Hymn 1, Mantra 12 from Chapter 12 of the Atharva Veda – translated as: The Earth is my mother, I am the son of Earth. Rain is my father. The Rishi adorns Motherhood and Fatherhood in the Earth and the Rain. He sees himself as one with them. In the same way, trees, plants, animals, seasons were revered and protected, and in turn they protected us and made us prosper.

In the same Chapter, Mantra 10, the Rishi says: Hills, mountains, snow-clad mountains with woodlands and forests, may they all flourish us.

These verses imply the importance of protecting these natural bodies. Water, without which life cannot sustain, needs our foremost protection – a principle the Swami has long upheld as a devoted activist to save the River Ganges.

Translating faith to action

The second question Chanda asked was, in what ways can we hold people of different faiths accountable for their actions – what would make them regard climate action as religious duty? “How can faith leaders and climate activists come together to accelerate climate justice in Southasia?”

The principle of interconnectedness makes it incumbent to hold the Buddhist communities accountable to the earth, said Prof. Bajracharya.

The Christian community is bound to participate in the fight for climate justice, with the Franciscan and Jesuit orders in particular stressing that all elements of nature are related and interdependent, added Peter Jacob.

The Prophet of Islam (on Him be peace) took great care to protect the environment, said Saima Nazir. Those who love Him are duty-bound to follow His example.

Sidarth echoed these views in terms of Sikhism too.

In her closing remarks Khushi Kabir wished that the voices of indigenous communities had been included in the discussion. She lamented the lack of interconnection between institutions and communities given that the larger concern and cause of climate justice is common to everyone. What message can we give those who use religion to plunder and pillage the earth, she asked. “We need to also counter and question the harmful practices within religions that harm the environment.”

Religious leaders are indeed a great influence on people all over the world, concluded Lalita Ramdas, commenting that through this discussion, Sapan had addressed an important issue. She also stressed the need to continue to question and hone exactly how interfaith collaboration can contribute to climate justice, and have more such discussions. Ramdas presented the catchy music video ‘Gaon Chodab Nahi’ (We will Not Leave our Village) directed by activist filmmaker K. P. Sasi. Having passed away in December after a prolonged illness, Sasi was featured in the In Memoriam section at the start of the event. 

The video lyrics and footage capture the essence of climate justice from the lens of the Adivasis in India, the marginalised indigenous peoples who face displacement and destruction due to developmental projects. The video begs for an answer to the question: “In whose favour does the God of Development work, and whom does it curse?”

Concluding the event from her perch in Kathmandu, Namrata Sharma acknowledged that the discussion was a first step in a long road. Any feasible collaborations between faith actors and climate activists will need sustained dialogue, deliberation, and action.

The organisers hope that the discussion will lead to more engagement, with followup discussions focusing on gender and indigenous communities.

Sara Arshad is a teacher, poet, and writer in Lahore, Pakistan.

 

Note: The above piece was originally published by the South Asia Peace Action Network (SAPAN), a coalition of peace activists working towards soft borders or visa on arrival for Southasians, freedom of trade, travel and tourism in the region especially between India and Pakistan.

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