An ‘old-school Hindu’ takes on the future of climate

An ‘old-school Hindu’ takes on the future of climate

An ‘old-school Hindu’ takes on the future of climate

‘He’s very good at understanding how the UN works, how the NGO ecosystem works and where the opportunity is for change.’

MONTCLAIR, New Jersey (RNS) — Nearly two decades ago, at the age of 21, Gopal Patel moved into an ashram on the banks of the River Ganges to study the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism’s foundational Scriptures.

One of just a handful of Indian students at a “very racist” high school in England, he said, Patel, now 39, found comfort in the epic conversation between the sacred text’s warrior prince Arjuna and the god Krishna.

“It made me go into myself and try to discern who I was as a person, my identity and my cultural background,” Patel said. “By the time I finished reading it, I was like, ‘I want to give my life to this.’”

Today Patel lives in Montclair, New Jersey, a short commute from New York City, and travels the world as the founder of Bhumi Global, a faith-based environmental movement rooted in Hindu principles. The organization, named for the Hindu goddess who represents Earth, focuses on the “triple crisis” of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.

Tulasi Srinivas, a professor of anthropology and religion at Emerson College, says Patel’s experience as a diasporic Indian and “old-school Hindu” born in the U.K. and living in the U.S., bridges, meaning he applies both Eastern and Western approaches to the climate crisis.

“You need a big tent to do this kind of work. And to mobilize people globally, one can’t have technocratic answers only,” Srinivas said. “You need Indigenous answers, Hinduism, animism, stuff that we’re coming back to in a scientific way — yoga, flow and balance. Solutions can come from these areas.”

At the U.N. Biodiversity Conference in Montreal in December, Patel will work to galvanize faith-based groups around biodiversity — the variety of life on Earth — which he said often gets drowned out in the larger climate conversation.

Gopal Patel participates on a panel at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, in Nov. 2022. Courtesy photo

Gopal Patel participates on a panel at COP27
in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, in Nov. 2022.
Courtesy photo

The shared goal of the meeting is to leave Montreal with what has been called a “Paris moment” for nature, a global biodiversity framework that Patel and his allies have been working on.

“The faith community has been strong on climate for many years, but on biodiversity they haven’t,” Patel said. “This is the first time there has been a concerted effort by faith groups to engage.”

This year, a global research effort called the Forest Declaration Assessment found that while deforestation is slowing worldwide, the pace of change is not fast enough to achieve world leaders’ goal of net zero tree loss by 2030.

The World Wildlife Fund recently reported a nearly 70% decline since 1970 in the wildlife populations it tracks, “which,” it said, “comes at a time when we are finally beginning to understand the deepening impacts of the interlinked climate and nature crises and the fundamental role biodiversity plays in maintaining the health, productivity and stability of the many natural systems we and all life on Earth depend on.”

Patel makes it clear that Hindu environmentalists have known this all along. “Eastern traditions and Indigenous traditions are much more comfortable talking about the sacredness of a tree or a plant or a river,” he said. “That’s why I gravitate to biodiversity work. I felt like in the climate space I wasn’t able to bring my whole Hindu self into that. All these trees and everything, I can look at them and talk about them in a way that in the climate space, you can’t have those kinds of conversations.”

Patel is an initiated student in the Vaishnav lineage of Hinduism. His teacher is Radhanath Swami, an American monk and spiritual activist.

Sitting at an Ethiopian restaurant in Montclair earlier this year, Patel recalled his teacher initiating him with a new name, Gopal Lila Das.

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