Our spiritual traditions enjoin us to remember our interconnectedness with the world. They exhort us to not only worship the Creator but also to protect, preserve and serve creation. When we meditate, we experience true oneness with God and with the entire universe, but we must then bring that meditation into action because true meditation leads to a vast change in the way we act and live. People turn to their religious leaders for guidance and direction in their lives for the criteria of sin and merit (pap and punya).
Our scriptures emphasise the interconnectedness of all life. We have been created, not only by the Creator, but of the Creator which means that the entire natural world – all our sisters and brothers of every race and religion, color and caste, and every species, all beings of the natural world, are sacred and it is our duty to care for them as we care for the members of our own family. When we say Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam it literally means the Earth is Mother and we are all Her family.
Our disconnection from our own true nature and from Mother Nature has led to the current state of depletion and destruction of this glorious planet. Our rivers are drying up, filled with trash, industrial waste and feces, bringing sickness and death. Our air has become toxic. Temperatures reach new records every year with once-in-a-lifetime natural disasters becoming annual occurrences.
When honourable Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi took up the Swachh Bharat Mission, approximately 600 million Indians were defecating in the open and approximately 1,600 children under the age of five were perishing every day mostly due to poor water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) conditions. Over the past five years the statistics of numbers of deaths due to diarrhoea, number of people who defecate in the open are plummeting incredibly!
We formed the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance in 2013 to harness the power of faith to help bring about a world where everyone has access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene. I had built so many temples around the world but now was the time to shift my focus to building toilets!
“Faith can move mountains” with approximately 84 percent of people in the world and nearly 100 percent of the people in India subscribing to faith, it is perhaps the most powerful force we have to move the minds, values and behaviours of the people of India. The role of faith and faith leaders is not merely to show people the way to attain moksha, or liberation, or Heaven after death. Faith has been a mighty and robust force in the Swachh Bharat movement guiding our beliefs and therefore, our actions.
A basic tenet of religion is our places of worship. We go to temple, we go to mosque, we go to church, we go to gurudwara. In Hinduism, we see a temple as the abode of God. A manifestation of the divine has been enshrined in the temple and hence it is holy. However, our body is also a temple. God lives within us all as well. Hence we are taught, “sharir ek mandir hai.” In the same way that we keep our temples clean and pure, we must keep our bodies clean and pure. The temple purifies our minds and hearts. The toilet purifies our bodies.
I remember when I first put trash cans around the premises of Parmarth Niketan ashram and built bathrooms attached to rooms so people would not go for their morning nature calls on the banks of Ganga, people were shocked. They joked that I was trying to make it America. I explained that, no, I was simply trying to make India, or our corner of it, clean. That was many decades ago. Now, truly a swachta kranti has taken place, much of it due to the great initiative of the Swachh Bharat Mission.
We are committed to embodying and exemplifying Mahatma Gandhiji’s teaching of “be the change you want to see in the world.” In addition to our Global Interfaith WASH Alliance’s extended work on the “Grand Level” of advocacy, outreach and mass communication and “Ground Level” of education, community mobilisation and implementation of WASH infrastructure, our Secretariat is also fully green!
At Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh our secretariat, our ashram of several hundred rooms runs on solar electricity and we actually put electricity back into the grid! We also have built a plant that treats all the sewage from the ashram and of the huge floating population, and then the water is reused.
We have also set up clean drinking water machines for the public with a technology that, compared to Reverse Osmosis which wastes approximately 85 percent of water, wastes barely 1 percent. Additionally, last year we brought in technology that filters and treats sewage entering Ganga. It has been so successful that after our first pilot project in Rishikesh, the technology has now been used in many places of Uttar Pradesh and we are planning for other places across India.
For every Indian who wants to help the environment and be an agent of positive change, one of the most powerful things they can do is to plant trees. We have been engaged in large-scale tree plantation programs for many years, inspiring over a million trees to be planted in just over a week’s time, and also planting seeds of love, peace, harmony and oneness. I have been overjoyed to see so many faith leaders taking up the mission to keep our land, water and air clean and healthy.
This is truly the power of faith!
The author is the president of Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh, and co-founder/chairman of the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance.