Founder Acharya His Divine Grace
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

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ISKCON’s 54-Year History with Earth Day and Environmentalism
By ISKCON News   |  Apr 22, 2024

Fifty-four years ago, on April 22, 1970, millions of people gathered around the world for the first Earth Day celebration. New York City’s festival, held at Union Square Park, was the largest, with 100,000 attendees. In the midst of the speeches, marches, and music, the unique presence of Hare Krishna devotees at that event marked one of the first opportunities for Vaishnava theology to propose an elevated and respectful understanding of the natural world that continues until today.

Some senior devotees trace their beginnings in Krishna Consciousness back to their attendance at this historical Earth Day event, where they encountered members of ISKCON’s 2nd Street Temple. The devotees were chanting the Maha Mantra, distributing prasadam, sharing literature, and engaging participants in philosophical discussion about Mother Earth, Bhumi Devi. Several participants followed the devotees back to the Temple, moved in that night, and later became disciples of ISKCON’s Founder-Acharya Srila Prabhupada.

In many of his writings and presentations, Srila Prabhupada advocated for what he called “a simpler, more natural way of life.” He encouraged his disciples to be wise stewards of earth’s resources and use natural materials and means when possible, seeing everything as a gift from God. In the Srimad Bhagavatam 1.10.6 purport, Prabhupada said, “…conscious cooperation between man and God and man and nature, as exemplified by King Yudhiṣṭhira, can bring about happiness, peace and prosperity in the world. The attitude of exploiting one another, the custom of the day, will only bring misery.” He also warned in a 1973 speech, “Human prosperity flourishes by natural gifts and not by gigantic industrial enterprises…The natural law is that the human being may take advantage of these godly gifts of nature and thus satisfactorily flourish without being captivated by the exploitative motive of lording it over material nature. The more we attempt to exploit material nature according to our whims, the more we shall become entrapped by the reaction of such exploitative attempts.”

Inspired by Srila Prabhupada’s vision, devotees launched the ISKCON Environmental Initiative on Earth Day 2022. It works to promote environmentally sustainable Krishna-conscious practices in ISKCON communities around the world by providing education, training, research, organization, networking, and other resources. As the project was in development, the Governing Body Commission (GBC) said, “The GBC strongly encourages all ISKCON temples, communities, and projects, and wherever possible individual devotees, to apply the principles and guidelines [provided by IEI] in their daily lives and practices.” The IEI developed a website that is full of practical ideas and philosophical grounding for the project and hosts in-person and online events. 

The theme of this year’s Earth Day is “Planet vs. Plastics.” It is estimated that within 25 years, the mass of plastic in Earth’s oceans will equal the biomass of all living beings in the oceans. A key effort by IEI is to help temples shift from the use of plastics and other toxic materials to more biodegradable options. In what is called the “Three Tiers of Environmental Practices,” the IEI offers guidelines for temples and communities, highlighting important steps to take in five areas: 1) Food, 2) Energy, 3) Waste Management, 4) Water, and 5) Education, Outreach and Culture. The first tier encourages entry-level sustainability practices. The second tier encourages practices that require significant commitment from a temple. And the third tier includes advanced practices for those fully dedicated to living Krishna Conscious environmentalism.

Since this program was introduced, many temples have responded with concrete and creative actions. New Vrindaban, one of ISKCON’s active farm communities and pilgrim destinations, is one example. “Given we feed tens of thousands of pilgrims and visitors every year, we have been working consciously to use biodegradable materials whenever possible,” said Anuradha Dasi, Director of Communications and Events, “We’ve been using areca catechu (pressed palm leaf plates) from Southern India instead of plastic or styrofoam. To date, we have used tens of thousands of these plates, as well as biodegradable utensils, and are looking at more and more sustainable practices.” One of New Vrindaban’s devotees, Lalita Gopi Dasi, who has a passion for Mother Earth and sustainability, collects these items as well as other organic materials, folding them into a large compost pad that she created with a grant from the USDA. Additionally, she has expanded her service to collect cardboard, paper, plastics, metal, and glass from devotees, which she then takes to a local recycling station. Her efforts have inspired her fellow devotees, and they are grateful to participate in her efforts. Other enterprising devotees like Murari Mohini Devi Dasi from Mayapur Green and Clean are doing significant work to protect Sri Mayapur Dham through education, recycling programs, and trash management. 

Each temple community and devotee household can look for practical ways to care for the Earth. IEI has even provided a downloadable and printable poster with 16 easy steps one can take to make our temples and homes green, sustainable, and Krishna conscious.

Last year, IEI hosted a presentation by Radhika Raman (Dr. Ravi Gupta) on Principles of Vaishnava Ecology that readers can watch here. It was the inaugural lecture in a seminar series entitled “Divinity and the Environment.” On Earth Day 2024, Krishna Kshetra Swami offered the latest presentation in the series, entitled “Cow Care is Earth Care: Can We Connect the Dots?” “Devotees of Krishna have great regard for cows, with a strong conviction that they should be protected,” said Krishna Kshetra Swami, “But can we see the big picture of how this activity could be an essential component in saving this increasingly ailing planet? And can we see the close-up picture of how we, as devotional communities and individuals, can address this great need?” During the presentation and discussion, he drew themes from his book Cow Care in Hindu Animal Ethics, which is available for free here. The presentation will soon be available on the IEI YouTube channel

To discover more resources and learn about upcoming events, please visit the IEI website and follow them on their Facebook page.