Approaching Vrindavan’s Environmental Conservation

This article originally appeared on Vrindavan Today.

By Katie Jo Walter

The article following this commentary, “The Vrindavan Conservation Project,” was posted in the September 4, 2010 edition of Economic and Political Weekly.

What is an appropriate language for Vrindavan conservation efforts?

The September 4, 2010 edition of Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) and crossposed on Vrindavan Today, contains a new article looking at Vrindavan conservation, specifically studying the Vrindavan Forest Revival Project (later called the Vrindavan Conservation Project).

The article argues that the project employed rhetoric advocating the same religious revival championed by the Hindu right. The conclusion is therefore drawn that the “green” language of environmentalism in Vrindavan and the “saffron” language of sectarian Hindu politics largely overlap. In this article, I plan to discuss different takes on what languages are appropriate for Vrindavan conservation efforts, making my own conclusion that the biggest problem is not that Vrindavan’s “green” language resembles Hindutva “saffron” one, but rather that it needs to take on greater dimension, evolving into a system of a few different, yet still broadly spoken, languages that account for different communities and their needs.

Such language acquires so many distinct dialects of moral superiority and self importance that it often is not a language at all, but rather a means for many communities to simply speak to themselves.

An analysis of language used in Vrindavan conservation discourse vis-a-vis sectarian Hindu discourse

The Vrindavan Conservation Project was an undertaking of WWF India that started in 1991 lasted for almost an entire decade. The project was first proposed and lobbied by then WWF consultant Ranchor Prime in close collaboration with Vrindavan environmental activist Hitkinkar Sewak Sharan. In many ways, this project is not a fair case study, as it was undertaken as part of a broader project that explicitly sought to emphasize religious reverence for the environment worldwide, using Vrindavan as a global symbol for respect for the environment evident in Hinduism.

An article outlining the activities of the project can be found on Vrindavan Today. An interview series with Ranchor Prime in which he discussed his experiences in Vrindavan and other topics will also appear on Vrindavan Today in the coming days.

In the EPW article, author Mukul Sharma notes that the Vrindavan Conservation Project emphasized certain aspects of Hinduism and interpretations of Krishna that were completely invalid to Dalits and Muslims; he also noted that Muslim invasions and British colonialism had a negative impact on traditional Hindu practices in the area. Sharma says that, as a consequence, the conservation project “transformed diversified understandings, myths and religious histories into a fixed story, which help in promoting a homogeneous and exclusive Hindu community.”

This September, in the days preceding the High Court decision regarding the Babri Masjid complex in Ayodhya, Vrindavan Today published an article examining the relationship between Vrindavan conservation and Hindu nationalism. In the article, a presentation paper by Dr. Meera Nanda was cited as condemning religious conservation initiatives altogether.

Dr. Nanda claimed that such efforts toward improving the environment did nothing to serve or reach out to the general public since historically, large-scale public environmental activism has only taken place when material well-being has been threatened. In many of these cases, religious rhetoric was used as a means of generating greater attention throughout the nation and especially abroad, but economic concerns were always the motivating factor.

Nanda’s paper also mentioned Vrindavan specifically, offering ISKCON’s receipt of funding from the BJP national government for Vrindavan reforestation efforts as an example of the use of religious environmentalism to bolster sectarian political agendas. Nanda is worried by the common language identified by Sharma and upon seeing this language dominating environmental discourse she asks her fellow Indians: “Should we allow environmentalism to become the chief agent of Hinduization of politics and culture?”

So what language is appropriate to achieve our conservation goals?

As concerned citizens of every nationality, caste, gender and creed interested in the welfare of Vrindavan, we may not be interested in this question or may consider it a product of exaggeration. However, Nanda and Sharma’s observations and assertions do raise other serious questions for us.

The first of these questions was asked in the previous VT article on this topic: Should citizens support Hindu nationalists because they are expected to prioritize tirthas? Hindu sectarian politicians seem a logical place to turn for many of those desperate to stave off the ill-conceived development plans that have damaged Vrindavan for years and continue to do so in ever more irreversible and life-threatening ways. However, these same politicians sometimes advocate violent forms of vigilante Hindu justice and have been eying Mathura as a possible location for future action [more details on this are included below in Sharma’s article].

Many in Vrindavan will unhesitatingly answer this question positively. Scholars have not taken account of the fact that predominantly Hindu towns like Vrindavan whose identities are inextricably linked to Hinduism have felt themselves slighted by a government that has passed several laws favoring minorities and shied away from supporting largely Hindu interests in attempts to lend credibility to its professed secularism. Secularism, to many Hindus, has only served to unfairly place Hindus at a disadvantage.

The second question is: Is emphasis upon the environmental aspect of Krishna as a potential universal motivator in getting the public to make and keep Vrindavan clean and green? According to Sharma, emphasis on the environmental Krishna is far from universal, since it excludes Muslims and Dalits who are denied access to many Krishna temples.

The third question is related to the second: Is it possible to appeal to the economic and health concerns of the community to advocate participation in conservation efforts while at the same time giving Vrindavan the religious reverence it deserves as a town established on the basis of holy association? Aside from Muslims and Dalits, there are several Hindus who do not identify with Krishna-themed calls to environmental action. Many of these are people who have moved from elsewhere to make a living in Vrindavan and see Krishna only as the means by which they earn their daily pay in this pilgrimage town.

In order to answer these questions, we need to define what participation we are actually trying to obtain from the public. Next, we must identify which communities of people can best accomplished defined aspects of participation. Finally, we need to encourage those communities to participate in the ways relevant to them by communicating in a way that is relevant to them.

We want people to incorporate practices that are less polluting in their daily routine: reduced use of plastics, an end to burning of plastics and other toxic waste items, less throwing of waste into the street, more tree planting and maintenance, more kindness to cows, less public urination/defecation in the open drains and more. These objectives are difficult to achieve, especially when marketing, packaging and inadequate infrastructure all encourage people not to act in this way.

We also want people to demand that the municipal, district, state and national governments respect Vrindavan both as a tirtha and as a place of human habitation. As mentioned above, ongoing ill-conceived development plans are damaging Vrindavan in ever more irreversible and life-threatening ways and poorly enforced regulations coupled with lack of infrastructure inhibit change in personal behavior.

I think that the first two of the questions asked above will have different answers for different communities and thus we should move forward accordingly. We do not have to personally agree with every aspect of the motivations and means of our partners in this battle. We must learn to be humble and to realize that we are all part of the problem and thus we must all be part of the solution. “Part” is the critical word here. We cannot see our own communities as the only ones involved.

Those of us who have the time, money and desire to act with more environmental consciousness should do so in ways that set a visible example while refraining from condescension toward those who do not see things as we do. Those who have the rights and powers to demand government action should do this. Devotees and others who feel that endeavors of this kind merely entangle us in undesirable worldly struggles should be allowed to have their point of view as well. Everyone deserves to have their voices heard and their needs addressed. This means that the third question must be answered in the affirmative.

An example of combining languages of the secular and the sacred: Demanding a say in the marketing of devotion

I think the conclusion naturally flowing from this line of thinking for the broadest possible community with which I identify — that of all devotees and visitors who have love and respect for Braj — is that we must demand that respect be shown to us both as lovers of Krishna and as consumers of Krishna.

Krishna is sold to us in more than a million ways; it is inescapable. The more money we put into this system, the longer it perpetuates itself. We must strongly support those who are establishing eco-friendly ashrams and shops and boycott eco-damaging ones, using signs and conducting sit-ins if necessary.

The town of Vrindavan was established as a place of pilgrimage; it has been exploited as a kind or carnival or theme park ever since. The commodification of Vrindavan is something that, I feel, we have no power to stop. What we do have the power to do, however, is to influence in what ways in which it will be commodified by making our preferences heard loud and clear via our money.

It is important to note that the bulk of the money coming into Vrindavan is not from foreign visitors like myself. The throngs of Indian pilgrims from all over the subcontinent are the ones whose rupees speak the loudest. When Indian and foreign visitors and pilgrims are taken in combination, we number around 3 million according to this article, which takes most of its information from sources that are at least 10 years old. More recent estimates place the numbers of pilgrim-tourists as high as 5 million.

Even at 3 million and Vrindavan’s population estimated at about 65,000, we as outside visitors outnumber local residents by a 460:1 over the course of a year. Residents do not necessarily respect our love of Krishna; we are called “seasonal birds” who are not committed to the Dham in a tangible, credible way. I argue that for us, it is not our devotion that will win them over, but our purchasing power.

Furthermore, this is not to be regarded as an outsider versus insider battle. I am not putting down local residents, only those within the local citizenry who would place quick profits obtained from devotees and lovers of Krishna above all else… such people working against the beauty, health and prosperity in Vrindavan in this way are not necessarily located there — they can be found all over the world just as easily as devotees.

This is a battle of consumer versus vendor. If you do not provide lovers of Krishna goods, services, accommodations and infrastructure that inflict the minimal possible harm on the sacred surroundings, you will not get our “business.” If this means a worldwide boycott of Vrindavan Dham for one Karttik or several, so be it. What good is being in the Dham to honor Krishna if by doing so we are allowing so many others to dishonor Him?

The “devotion leads to destructive commercialization” paradox at its worst

I do not feel that this would make the real difference, however, because I think that the more powerful contingent is that which has driven commodification into its current realms of absurdity: the pilgrims and visitors that honor Braj in word, in thought and in religious imagination, but do not have this love and honor at the forefront of their minds when they come for their ever-more commodified darshan — something that is becoming more similar to a Western concept of “sight seeing” every day — or when they come to ask a special favor of Banke Bihari.

Conclusion

Creating relevant language to communicate conservation needs and methods to key communities is a true challenge and something that we must continue to discuss with open minds and hearts, with full knowledge that acknowledging the existence of certain forces and groups of people does not mean that we have to identify fully with them if we agree of some or part of what they do and we do not have to condone their actions if we disagree with them. This discussion makes one thing abundantly clear: there is no one single language; different communities will be motivated by different factors.

There are many times when I feel that perhaps the biggest stumbling block of all is that the majority of people speaking loudest about protecting Vrindavan speak languages that, if not necessarily the green-saffron ones referenced in Sharma’s article, are still ones that create “homogeneous, exclusive communities,” prioritizing moral superiority and/or desire for attention over the goal of a beautiful and prosperous Vrindavan. These people express problems and solutions in absolute terms and try to dominate communication pathways that should reasonably have room for everyone concerned. There should be a clear differentiation between creating different languages to achieve success on several broad fronts and breaking down into myriad dialects that allow us to only talk to ourselves.


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