Two of the world’s biggest faith groups have decided to lead by example in showing how each one of their places of worship can be managed more sustainably
One thing that most religious groups have in common is that they own a lot of buildings. Mainly they are centres of worship, but they often fulfil other functions – feeding people, hosting community events, education and more.
Frequently they are large and take lots of energy to heat in the winter and cool in the summer. Equally, their leadership teams are often focused working with their congregations, not on minimising the impact their buildings have on the planet.
That’s where the Green Guides come in – plans for making centres of worship less wasteful of the Earth’s resources, and for enabling faith communities to have a positive influence on the divinely-created world.
Hindus and Sikhs now have their own Green Guides providing detailed suggestions on how their temples – known as gurdwaras to Sikhs and temples or ashrams to Hindus – can cut their carbon footprint.
Hindu Green Temples Guide
The Hindu Green Temples Guide was drawn up by the Bhumi Project (now known as Bhumi Global). It started from the premise that 'Everything in the universe belongs to the Lord. Therefore take only what you need, that is set aside for you. Do not take anything else, for you know to whom it belongs' – from the Isa Upanishad.
It follows that environmental damage within a temple or devasthana would be displeasing to the deity. Yet the environmental in many holy places is being harmed, by too many visitors, by traffic pollution, by waste, and by clearances of land and forests.
‘Everything in the universe belongs to the Lord. Therefore take only what you need, that is set aside for you. Do not take anything else, for you know to whom it belongs' – Isa Upanishad
The Green Temple Guide takes a three-step approach to improving this situation. It calls for those responsible for running a temple to hold a roundtable event, and to link with other temples in the area. Step two is to make a formal environmental assessment, using a template in the Guide. The third step is to draw up a strategic plan to bring about real change.
Ideas are many. They including greening the temple landscape, and making sure it uses water efficiently, and that temple gardens grow fruit and vegetables in the most natural way possible. Milk should come from cows that are treated well, following the principle of ahimsa – non-violence and the avoidance of harm.
It asks temples to set a good example, and educate worshippers and visitors on their green agenda, and why it reflects Hindu values.
It calls for effective waste management, including recycling, and for energy efficiency, reducing energy use and installing renewable power sources.
The guide gives many examples of good practice. At the Art of Living ashram in Bangalore, for example, organic farming is practised and lighting is by solar power, while rainwater is harvested for irrigation.
The nine-day Durga Puja festival in Kolkata and Howrah attracts around 30 million visitors each year. They now hold green-themed pujas at every festival on subjects including climate change, water conservation and conservation of tigers. Nowadays the thousands of idols used are painted with lead-free colouring, while LED lamps have replaced less energy-efficient lights. The organisers aim to use the pujas as a tool to inspire communities to engage in green practices throughout the year. Picture: Parmarth Niketan/Green Temples Guide
At the Muni Seva ashram in Gujarat, there are three types of renewable energy in use – solar, wind and biogas. And at the Ambaji temple in Gujarat, there is rigorous waste management, a tree planting scheme and cooking from solar-powered steam.
Some Hindu festivals can attract millions of devotees and leave an area strewn with rubbish and affected by pollution. The Guide urges organisers to dispose of waste sustainably, to source food locally, to minimise transport using fossil fuels, and to link celebrations to eco-themes.
Green Gurdwara Guide
The Sikh environmental organisation EcoSikh is behind the Green Gurdwara guide. It contains much in common with the Hindu Green Guides but the Sikhs have a unique tradition: they will serve free meals to all who visit a gurdwara, whether they are a member of the faith or not.
As early as the 15th century, Guru Nanak deemed the earth as ‘mother’, directing followers to respect ‘mother earth’. Sikhism has a strong history of compassion, with countless anecdotes that demonstrate the Sikh Gurus’ love for animals, plants, trees, mountains, and rivers.
As early as the 15th century, Guru Nanak deemed the earth as ‘mother’, directing followers to respect ‘mother earth’
This leads to huge demand on the gurdwaras’ langars, or kitchens. At major sites of Sikh pilgrimage, they can serve tens of thousands of meals a day. This demands large quantities of diesel or other fossil fuels.
In the mainly hot climate of India, solar cookers are the answer – large parabolic mirrors which focus the sun’s rays to produce steam, ideal for cooking. At the Shirdi Saibaba temple in Maharashtra, 73 reflectors on the roof are aligned with the sun each morning, and then automatically track the sun each day. The system saves so much on LPG gas bills that it’s estimated it will pay for itself inside four years.
The Green Gurdwara Guide also calls on langars to compost all food waste, along with paper, cardboard and twigs. The compost can be used in gurdwara gardens to grow some of the food needed in the kitchens. Disposable plates and cups are to be avoided, and other waste, from plastics to printer cartridges, should be recycled wherever possible.
Gurdwaras often have education facilities, which can host courses to urge the whole community to pursue environmental goals. And all purchases – from food to building materials – should be as natural, locally-sourced and as low in its carbon cost as possible.
The grounds of gurdwaras are sacred places: The Green Guide advises how they should be planted to benefit the environment and the community. Picture: EcoSikh
Taking care of gurdwara gardens
Gardens are a part of most temple grounds. They should not be planted with exotic species, states the Green Guide, but plants native to the area which will need less irrigation and maintenance. Landscaping should not destroy natural habitats and hard surfaces which let rainwater run off (and contribute to flooding) should be avoided where possible.
Water is held sacred by both Sikhs and Hindus. Gurdwaras were traditionally surrounded by a moat or sarovar, used for ritual cleansing. The GreenGuide suggests how the water in the sarovar – now often a pool or trough – can be kept clean, and how it can be reused for irrigation.