Multifaith Celebration 2017 – Climate Change – a Burning Issue

This was the title of this year’s annual multifaith gathering which took place on 28th January at Kingsley Hall where Gandhi Ji had stayed in 1931 while attending the Round Table Conference.  The title had been chosen some time ago but, in view of the drastic change in US policy, it could not have been a more fitting subject. Often pushed aside in the light of apparently more pressing issues, this is a subject which unfortunately is bound to come into higher profile as the results of global warming become more evident – unless of course there are serious policy changes worldwide.

The subject was discussed by representatives from a number of faith communities, some of whom also had a keen interest and involvement in environmental issues. They were invited to say a few words on the subject in the light of their own tradition and also to bring the subject into practical focus in keeping with Gandhi Ji’s own philosophy of grass root involvement at local level.

The meeting was chaired by William Rhind from the Gandhi Foundation who first introduced Reverend Nagase, resident Buddhist monk from the London Peace Pagoda, whose teacher had stayed for some time with Gandhi Ji at Wardha in the 1930s and who was greatly influenced by him.  Nagase Shonin offered a short prayer, Na mu myo ho ren ge kyo, a chant which is still heard at morning prayers in Wardha today. He drew from the Lotus Sutra which speaks of the importance of ‘politics and economics coinciding with the True Law’ while warning of the dangers to the world if this does not happen. Nagase Shonin quoted John Ruskin’s words from Unto this Last, the small book which Gandhi Ji read on a train journey from Johannesburg to Durban: ‘There is no wealth but life’.  He went on to describe how today’s world politics are ruled by a ‘military industrial complex’, against which we should take a stand.

Next to speak was Bob Gilbert, a Quaker, who for many years had been biodiversity officer for the London Borough of Islington and whose wife is vicar of a local church in Bow. Bob quoted from the Old Testament which made clear that it was the duty of humanity to be guardians of the earth and not to over exploit its assets. Bob said it was important for each of us to respect nature and natural resources and to reduce over consumption, protecting the environment for future generations. He went on to describe how nature is viewed as sacred by many peoples throughout the world.

Francesca Cisqueta from Jamyang Buddhist Centre who works for a government body involved with environmental issues, discussed the issue with reference to the Middle Way, extolled by Buddha, and the ‘3 poisons’ – greed, hatred and ignorance. Practising moderation and reducing our self centred attitude, would help to reduce our carbon footprint on the earth. Francesca spoke of the need to invest in more renewable energies and encourage a greater awareness of our mutual interdependence not only with each other but also with the earth.  A deeper understanding of the law of cause and effect could help us become aware of the reasons behind our present situation in terms of climate change and also allow us the opportunity to take steps to start to reverse the process. This, Francesca stated, was our collective responsibility and was essential to protect future generations. 

Rev Nagase, Bob Gilbert, Jonathon Fitter, Kajal Mehta, Francesca Ciquita, William Rhind

Jonathan Fitter, representing the Jewish faith, explained how in the Torah cautionary advice was given not to over exploit natural resources. He gave the example of how it was prohibited to fell food giving trees and the importance of caring for the environment.  Jonathan spoke of the early Israeli settlers being among the first to instal solar panels to heat water, and to encourage the use of electric bikes to reduce congestion and pollution. According to Jonathan, there is a very high percentage of vegans and those who take a plant based diet amongst those following a kosher diet.  In contrast, he stated that 20% of carbon dioxide produced can be attributed to the farming of animals.  Jonathan went on to point out that 80% of Israel’s water comes from desalinated sea water, while 80% of ‘grey’ water was reused for irrigation, the highest in the world, with Spain coming second, using 20% in this way.

Kajal Sheth from the Jain tradition, explained how the philosophy of Jainism had had a profound effect on Gandhi Ji’s life and how its main tenets support extreme respect and care for the environment and all its inhabitants. One of its principles, ‘Parasparopagraho Jivanam: all life is bound together by mutual support and interdependence’, could be seen as key to helping deal with the current challenges. Ahimsa or nonviolence is also a key belief and one which Gandhi Ji followed throughout his life. The practices adopted by adherents of Jainism could be seen to benefit the individual and also the planet and delicate eco systems: strict vegetarianism, regular fasting, frugal use of resources, Aparigraha or self limiting of possessions, setting limits to travel, refraining from engaging in occupations which could harm living beings or the environment, refraining from the use of products tested on animals, encouraging charitable concerns, providing shelter to animals and rescuing them from slaughter houses, promoting the planting of trees and recycling all materials.

Finally, Sadia and Rahela Begum, both pupils at Mulberry School in Tower Hamlets, represented the Islam faith.  As practising Moslems, they said it was one of their many duties to be a Khalifa or steward on Earth, caring for the environment and its well being. They said that this encouraged them to help support organisations which aim to improve the quality of the environment, eg those which help reduce the risk of climate change. “It is expected of us to treat the world with respect, as it is not ours to abuse. Guardianship allows humans to make use of the environment for their survival, but should never be taken advantage of’.”  Sadia then quoted from the Quran.

A short discussion followed with questions to the panel before Kajal, a professionally trained singer, sang two of Gandhi Ji’s favourite bhajans most beautifully. Further discussions followed over tea and cake, with home made Indian snacks kindly brought by Sabia Begum, the girls’ mother.

By serendipity, a World Peace Pathway, which had been 10 years in the planning, was finally completed the day before the event with the final touches being made that morning. The pathway was constructed on sand brought from Gandhi Ji’s ashram at Ahmedabad, with earth being collected from every country in the world, including the West Bank, Mecca, Assisi, the Berlin Wall and Machu Picchu. Words for peace in many different languages were carved into its outer circle.  At the centre is a solar powered World Peace Flame. Designed to help bring together people from all faith traditions and none and from all cultures, it seemed a very fitting conclusion to the afternoon for those present to walk together around the path.  Khajal and her husband, Ashwin, then offered framed plaques to the faith representatives, commemorating the 150th birth anniversary of Shrimad Rajchandra who had been spiritual guide to Gandhi Ji.

Jane Sill

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