Friends of Vrindavana – Environmental Charity
Friends of Vrindavan is a community project which has arisen from the existing World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Vrindavan Forest Revival Project. This project focusses on environmental regeneration and care based on the spiritual values of Hinduism, which are deeply ingrained in the cultural traditions of Vrindavan.
The pilgrimage town of Vrindavan is the focus for a unique experiment in conservation, in which environmentalists and religious leaders are working side by side to reverse the dramatic decline of its forests, wildlife and river. In so doing they are sending out a distress signal and a call to action that is reverberating round the Hindu world.
The story began in the 1980s when Sevak Sharan, a local retired engineer, was made suddenly aware of the environmental danger threatening his community. One day his peace was broken by the sound of three men cutting down the only large tree left in the area, home to several peacocks. He tried to stop them, but to no avail. He went to persuade their guru to stop them, but he refused to get involved. Finally he reported the incident to the police who also did nothing. By the next day the tree was gone. Sevak resolved to do something.
“What was the use of my chanting and worship in the temples and bathing daily in the Yamuna,” he recalls, “If I couldn’t protect these trees and animals which were part of my devotion?”
Sevak began a campaign which took him to the state capital Lucknow and the national capital Delhi in search of support. Meetings were organised and promises made, ideas and concerns were set down on paper. But after several years Sevak remained a lone voice and was beginning to lose heart. Around this time I heard about him.
I had been visiting Vrindavan since the mid-seventies and had watched its environmental problems develop. Rural India has faced transformations in the last twenty years that took two hundred years to evolve in Europe. The latest western technology now exists alongside rural life patterns that have hardly changed in a thousand years. The resulting disparities have created huge pressures on an unstable social infrastructure and a fragile environment. In such circumstances, religion can have a powerful role to play in setting an example and bringing people together, and Vrindavan was an ideal place to encounter and work with its possibilities.
Together we gathered support in the community for an approach to WWF International (World Wide Fund for Nature) for practical help. Through the contacts which Sevak had already built up in the capitals, and my international links, we were able to make a convincing case and in November 1991 the Vrindavan Forest Revival Project was launched, boldly funded in its first year with £25,000 from WWF in Geneva.
WWF get involved
Our main proposal to WWF, the World Wide Fund for Nature, was to organise tree-planting along the parikrama, the seven-mile pilgrim path which encircles Vrindavan. Every Hindu holy place has a parikrama around which pilgrims walk to honour the sacred place and to symbolise the centering of their lives about God. In focusing on this path WWF would involve the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who walk the path as well as the people in the ashrams and temples lining its route.
From the beginning the project caused a stir. At the opening ceremony community leaders were quick to speak out in support and many made the trip from Delhi. Even the State Minister for Energy unexpectedly turned up to show his approval. But it quickly became clear that we would have to be patient.
For example, it is estimated that for every ten trees planted in the open by India’s Forest Department only one survives. This is because of brousing animals, careless drivers of tractors and bullock-carts, theft of tree-guards, drought and heat, and in Vrindavan the biggest menace of all, monkeys, who make short work of newly-planted trees due to their love of new shoots, seeds and fruits.
The only way to overcome the tree failure-rate short of mounting armed guards was to have the community looking after the trees as if they were their own and feeling that they had a vested interest in their survival. This, coupled with a sound maintenance plan, gave a survival rate well above fifty per cent.
With this in mind WWF made education a priority from the start, particularly with the young. They commissioned an environmental curriculum in Hindi from the Centre for Environmental Education in Ahmedabad, based on the religious and cultural traditions of Vrindavan, and by the second year had appointed part-time ‘Environment Teachers’ in each of Vrindavan’s thirty-five schools and were running regular training workshops for them.
Entering in the schools
Two early experiences showed the value of working in the schools. One was when the teenage daughter of the head priest at Vrindavan’s most orthodox temple won a nature painting competition and declared publicly at her award ceremony that she wanted to spend her life working to restore the environment of Vrindavan. In so doing she set an important and influential precedent among her peers and future community leaders.
The second cause for hope came when the community was asked to turn out in protest at the bull-dozing of hundreds of established trees to make way for a new road. To everyone’s surprise and joy, hundreds of school-children joined with their teachers in a peaceful but powerful procession through the town centre. What was unique about this demonstration is that it followed the time-honoured Vrindavan tradition of religious street processions, with singing and musical instruments, but directed this at a specific environmental issue. This potent combination of religion and environment immediately brought to a halt the tree-destruction.
After seeing the progress of the project in its first two years WWF India’s incoming director, Samar Singh, raised its priority. He felt that the combination of education, practical work and religious depth gave it a special relevance to the Indian scene. He extended its programme under the headings Greening, Cleaning and Education, re-named it the Vrindavan Conservation Project to reflect its broadened remit, and formed a community advisory committee to guide the project forward.
Friends of Vrindavan forms in the UK
Around this time an international dimension to the Vrindavan project got underway in Leicester, a British city with a roughly one-third Hindu population from East Africa. Here we launched a group called Friends of Vrindavan, partly to gather much-needed funds to support WWF’s work but also to forge practical, spiritual and cultural links between the two communities. Over the last four years we have taken Hindu conservation to the Asian community of Leicester and involved them in developing a ‘Vrindavan Gardens’ in the main city park, and in organising a cycle expedition to India to raise funds for Vrindavan.
The first Yamuna Cycle Expedition in October 1996 took forty riders to India to cycle from the Himalayan source of the Yamuna River over five hundred miles to Vrindavan. Apart from its tremendous value in raising awareness and understanding among the participants and over a thousand sponsors, it raised nearly £20,000 for work in Vrindavan. Friends of Vrindavan continue organising this event.
Involving other agencies
As the Vrindavan Conservation Project continues to flourish, funded by WWF and more recently by ARC and Friends of Vrindavan, others are getting involved. Sulabh International, India’s largest development organisation, have been given funding by the Government of India, as part of the national Yamuna Action Plan to clean up the Yamuna River, to make Vrindavan one of four settlements to target for sanitary rehabilitation and education, including tackling the town’s major problems of sewerage and waste disposal.
Another participant is the government of the state of Uttar Pradesh. As a result of growing concern about the plight of Vrindavan they have recently announced a grant of 40 crores of rupees (£8m) for restoring the cultural and environmental heritage of the region around Vrindavan.
The Vrindavan Declaration
At WWF India’s 25th Anniversary Congress in 1994, a declaration written by a senior religious figure of Vrindavan, Shrivatsa Goswami, was presented to the President of India along with a sacred Kadam tree from Vrindavan. The declaration explained how Lord Krishna had acted to restore the ecological balance of Vrindavan, and underlined the community’s commitment to conserving their environment.
‘Nature enjoys being enjoyed, but reacts furiously to exploitation. Today’s situation is caused by our separation from Krishna and his message of commitment. Let us act on his message to play, not to exploit. ‘
- To preserve and enhance the sacred forests and ecology of Vrindavan in order to protect its culture and traditional way of life for the general good of the community
- To advance the education of the general public, both in the UK and in India, particularly in the region of Vrindavan, by and through improving the environment and ecology of the sacred forests of Vrindavan, as a focus for understanding sacred values and cultural traditions.
- To advance the education of the public, particularly children, by encouraging them to undertake practical environmental projects, such as planting, preserving and protecting trees.
- To conduct research into ecological practices appropriate to Vrindavan and to publish and disseminate that research for the benefit of the general public both in UK and India.
- To relieve poverty among the inhabitants of Vrindavan.
(taken from the ‘Memorandum of Association of Friends of Vrindavan Limited’)