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The Gurus Go Green

By: Lovejeet Alexander Email By: Lovejeet Alexander
August 2010
The Gurus Go Green

Woken up by holy chants at 4.30 a.m., I walked out of the ashram to buy myself a cup of tea. I was all prepared to get squeezed and squashed by hordes of devotees, just like the earlier six days of my stay here. Much to my surprise, the lanes of Haridwar were deserted – in striking contrast to the prior six days of the Kumbh Mela, when millions of devotees thronged the streets and river banks of the sacred town, right from dawn to dusk.

The world’s largest human fair had drawn to a close only last evening and the city looked almost deserted, just within a few hours! Strolling freely on the relatively quiet streets, the first thing that caught my attention was the series of billboards fencing the roads. They were unlike most I had seen in India. The common theme of these billboards could be summed up by a slogan on one of them: Hara to Hari (From “green” to “God”). The saffron-clad gurus had turned into environmental crusaders preaching the gospel of green. Going green, caring for the environment was being exulted by various gurus as Godly. The trend was new and exciting. The scribe in me was inquisitive to learn more about this green drift.

Without further ado, I sketched my itinerary and made my way to the ashram of Baba Ramdev, the iconic yoga guru who makes daily sojourns into the living rooms of millions of homes in India and the world through his popular TV appearances. When I shared my observation about the gurus going green, he said with missionary zeal, “A clean environment is the cornerstone of a clean, healthy and strong India!”

Baba Ramdev talked about the campaign he was leading to clean the banks of the Ganges. Under the banner of “Ganga Raksha Mandal,” Ramdev, along with several other spiritual leaders across the country, is waging a battle against the brazen development forces, to save the dying river. The government, he noted, had granted the Ganga the designation of “National Heritage” thanks to their sustained campaigning for over a year.

The Baba informed me that the Ganga has found yet another messiah in Swami Chidanand Saraswati, who has vowed to purge it of the accumulated filth and breathe new life into its shrinking course. In the midst of the Kumbh Mela, Swami Saraswati —the well known guru from Rishikesh— launched the Ganga Sparsh campaign.

Moving on onto the trail of green gurus, I remembered that the most repeated face on billboards was that of Soham Baba. There were many remarkable things about this clean-shaven man—too young to bear the ‘Baba’ title—who was posing in the backdrop of melting glaciers, a dirty river and razed trees. This was the only advertisement among scores of others that invited people to join the Baba’s website and not his camp. Attracted by this religious guru’s cosmopolitan appeal, I headed for his uninviting camp, only to meet a 40-year-young spiritual guru who runs a Netherlands-based mission with chapters in 120 countries. This was Soham Baba’s first appearance at the Kumbh. His mantra ‘Recycle, Renew, Rejuvenate’ suits his environmentalist approach.

Soham Baba has partnered with another holy man, Pilot Baba, to launch an initiative in Haridwar named Friends of Environment Project (FoEP). Volunteers from these two religious camps placed garbage bins and piled up plastic bottles and poly bags from the river banks of Haridwar, later sending them to New Delhi for recycling.

The Kumbh Mela—the world’s largest human gathering—had, this year, set a perfect stage for generating awareness towards the environment. The event, which hosted more than 60 million pilgrims, was not confined to religious sermons and ritualistic holy baths. Many leaders from different holy sects took full responsibility of spreading awareness about global warming. Even the Shankaracharyas of various peethas (heads of the four institutions of Hinduism) supported the cause of saving the Ganga.

Exulted to see the gurus doing a great job as green missionaries, I marched to Rishikesh. With the cool breeze blowing down the valley, kissing the bubbly Ganges, ringing the temple bells, and inviting crowds for the world-famous evening aarti at Parmarth Niketan ashram, spending an evening in Rishikesh is a spiritually enchanting experience. The ambience at the ashram was green and serene, yet vibrant.

“By gradually destroying Mother Nature, we are all headed to our own doom,” Swami Chidanand Saraswati said to me after the aarti ceremony. Expressing concern over ecological imbalance, he added, “Polluting the river Ganga in the name of worship is no worship.” Swamiji, whose list of devotees include celebrities like Uma Thurman and Vivek Oberoi, involved several other popular gurus like Swami Agnivesh, chairperson of the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the campaign launch during the Kumbh this year.

It’s not only about Ganga. Her kin Yamuna, too, is receiving the blessings of a spiritual guru. In the last week of April, the globetrotting guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s organization, Art of Living, launched a similar campaign, Meri Dilli Meri Yamuna. Aimed at cleaning the river Yamuna before the commencement of the Commonwealth Games 2010, this initiative, partnered by UNICEF, started with the participation of 600,000 school kids.

Mission Green Earth is another eco-initiative of Sri Sri aimed at large-scale tree plantations. “ People should be encouraged to treat the plant as sacred, to treat trees and rivers as sacred, and to see God in nature and in people. This will foster sensitivity and a sensitive person can’t but care for nature.” This is the message Sri Sri Ravi Shankar propounds.

The green movement of gurus is not just centered around the Kumbh Mela and the North Indian gurus. Down South, in Tamil Nadu, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, the influential spearhead of Isha Foundation, has been busy with an environmental revolution that has not only found mention in the Guinness Book of World Records but also promises to transform the landscapes in the region. His brainchild, Project GreenHands was responsible for a mass tree-planting marathon where a record 852,587 saplings were planted across 27 districts in a single day by 256,289 followers of Sadhguru.

“GreenHands is our one step towards preventing and reversing environmental degradation and enabling sustainable living. We have already planted more than 7.5 million trees in the state of Tamil Nadu,” Sadhguru said. The project aims to plant 114 million saplings in the state. Isha f oundation has both India and U.S. headquarter s, set amidst lush green forests. “Trees and humans are in an intimate relationship,” Sadhguru says on the foundation’s website. “ What they exhale, we inhale, what we exhale, they inhale. This is a constant relationship that nobody can afford to break or live without.”

U sing their wide reach and strong influence, the spiritual gurus of India are successfully spreading passion for the environment amongst the masses—much to the shame of government ministries and professional organisations that have failed to make much impact so far. With the green gurus propagating the eco-gospel so religiously and setting such superb examples, we could indeed hope for a greener and cleaner planet in times to come.

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