Ahimsa: Protecting Our Sacred Waters

Written for GreenFaith Our Voices and originally posted at http://ourvoices.net/evoke/blog/sacred-waters/view

In June, I had the honor of joining fifty-five other young religious leaders in a GreenFaith Climate Convergence to learn about challenges presented by climate change in Louisiana and to find our voices in responding to ecological destruction. The very first part of our week together was a water ceremony led by Beata Tsosie-Peña, an indigenous community organizer for Tewa Women United. Each of us circumambulated the water bowl, offered our own sacred water into it, and offered a prayer for peace.

As a Hindu, beginning our week of sacred learning with a water ceremony felt fitting. 

b7e0f854789e1a61d05887240838c714Water plays an important role in Hindu practice, especially as a means of purification during and before a ritual. Physical or symbolic water baths cleanse the body and mind and prepare the practitioner to focus on the object of worship or study. Hindu cultures also understand that water sustains life and have historically taken great efforts to revere and protect our waters.

During our week, we learned about the impact of Hurricane Katrina, visited the coastal science research center, and learned about the impact of coastal erosion. Although nominally the focus of our convergence was to understand the impacts of climate change on Louisiana’s ecosystems and human population, in practice our experience was focused on imbalances in water-based ecosystems. It was no accident that water was such an important refrain during our experience in New Orleans. Water is sacred in Hinduism – and in many other religions. Water is the womb of the world.

Today, the world’s waters are suffering.

8751585-largeRising global temperatures have raised sea levels, contributing to coastal land loss and worsening the storm surges that had devastating impact during Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and others. These are only the most visible impacts to the human eye. Major changes in ocean ecosystems due to acidification, oil spills, transportation of non-native species, and over-fishing have also developed drastic levels of stress in the world’s oceans.

Most of these problems can be linked to human action over time – actions fueled by ignorance, negligence, and spiritual disconnection. It’s hard for one person to see how her actions can have a harmful impact on such a massive ecosystem, but when most modern cultures are so focused on exploiting the earth to fuel our consumption, following the mainstream means that our individual actions add up – with devastating consequences.

jalsatyagraha_650x400_61429559020As Hindus, we are called to live in harmony with the Earth. Foundational principles of ahimsa and svadhyaya encourage us to do as little harm as possible to other forms of life and to humbly reflect on our consciousness and our actions. These principles can lead us to change not only our own actions, but to inspire transformational social change. History has known the impact of such movements, not least the Swadeshi movementSatyagraha/Quit India movement, Chipko movement, and Narmada Bachao Andolan.

Climate change is a big, scary, global phenomenon that can feel far away and hard to understand.

During our visit to Louisiana, it was up close and real. For residents of many other parts of the US and of the world, it is also very near and real. If you are moved by climate change or if you consider yourself a dharmic (spiritual or ethical) person, I encourage you to use svadhyaya (humble reflection) to find out what impacts may exist in your local area, or to discern whether some of your actions in your personal life, business, or community may be causing himsa (harm) to the Earth. What can this look like?

hollybeachhouseIn Louisiana, it looked like neighbors helping neighbors to restore their houses after storms or to lift up their houses onto stilts to prevent flood damage. It looked like citizens lobbying oil companies to use different practices that would not accelerate coastal erosion. It looked like 55 religious leaders from around the country joining hands with Louisiana residents to pray for healing of the Earth and for insight into how we can serve this noble cause.