Priya Parrotta Natarajan on the Emerging Leaders Multi-faith Climate Convergence

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It is always a pleasure to see new generations working hard to preserve our planet and to join forces to create a better future. Recently, we posted a letter from Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve by Maya Spaur [see previous post Letter from Costa Rica: Effects of climate change felt every day] calling for awareness of climate change. Now, I’d like to share another beautiful piece, “A Hindu Puerto Rican’s Reflections on the Emerging Leaders Multi-faith Climate Convergence” by Priya Parrotta Natarajan, who was chosen to participate in the Emerging Leaders Multi-faith Climate Convergence, which took place in Rome, Italy, from June 27 to July 1, 2015. 

Dear readers,

I am grateful for this opportunity to tell you about my experiences at last month’s Emerging Leaders Multi-faith Conference in Rome. Writing this post would be impossible without telling you about those life experiences which led me to regard the Convergence as a miracle, and a validation of everything I’ve come to believe in and struggled to find in this world. I’m happy to share this story.

When I was a child, a kathak dancer from an ashram in upstate New York came to my hometown of San Juan. He was there to help choreograph a show called ‘Encuentros’ (‘Encounters’), that wove ballet, flamenco and kathak together in a single performance. The event was organized by my mother, with the support of San Juan’s Indian community. It featured several family friends, including a classical Spanish guitarist and a flamenco dancer who had, several years prior, taken a sudden and sincere interest in classical Indian art and spirituality. Their interest in India has not diminished in twenty years, and they, along with many other neighbors, mentors and friends, have given me the support I’ve needed to stay close to India, and to Hinduism in particular.

As many of you might know, Puerto Rico is a largely Catholic country. Most people go to church, and it is common to see postcards, framed photos, and/or magnets of the Pope in people’s homes. But spirituality in my country is deeply inclusive—for the most part, difference is honored and celebrated. Because of this, San Juan was a wonderful place for me to develop a close relationship to my own faith, as well as an unshakeable belief that all religions have their magic—and that we would be the sorrier if we refused to understand belief systems and spiritual practices that were different from our own.

As a child, my spirituality developed through the shlokas my mother would teach me, and my regular visits to my grandparents’ home in South India. When I was a bit older, my spiritual inclinations took me to a few places. One was my local yoga studio. Unlike many yoga studios in the United States, this place was small. It had a dedicated group of practitioners—about twenty of us. We would meet there every night, practice a bit, and then go downstairs and drink batidas (milkshakes) made from fresh bananas and papayas. The studio was close enough to the ocean to be able to feel and smell the sea air.

As is the case for people within most every counterculture, we were radically different from many of the people in our schools and/or workplaces (in how we dressed, what we said, etc.) but were reassuringly similar to each other. It was as a teenager that I developed a taste for handmade jewelry, morning meditation, and sitting under trees even when no one else around me wished to do the same. My spirituality made me a bit of an outcast. But it also helped me develop a close relationship to what remains the most cosmic aspect of my world: the Atlantic Ocean.

I was born several meters from the ocean. My entire childhood was spent in an apartment a couple of blocks away from the hospital where I was born. Every day from around age fifteen onwards, I would walk to the ocean and follow my intuition.

This meant different things on different days. Sometimes I would shoot frustrated glances at the tourists. Often I would stand knee-high in the water, feeling the sea advance and retreat with alarming force. At times I’d walk down the beach and marvel at how little of the water’s movement is captured by the phrase ‘back and forth.’ On occasion I would watch the couple of other people who, like me, came to the beach and sat for hours in contemplation, over troubles and questions that I never dared to ask them about.

And, in different ways each day, I would pray. Passages from the Upanishads, lines from Tagore, shlokas my family taught me, a bit of time in padmasan, bars of music that spoke to the events of the day in some way, deep breaths whose sounds were immediately overpowered by the waves… all of these were options.

For me, Hinduism has always been about preparing myself to intuit the beauty of this planet—to honor it, and to live in its service. Living near the ocean, in a spiritually inclusive community, has helped me to learn a couple of lessons. First, that the natural world is as powerful as it is sacred. We must respect it, or else feel the vast and intimate consequences of our disregard.

This precious ocean has borne witness to a number of wonders and horrors. It has served as the inspiration for poets, musicians, and painters all over the world. It has provided marine biologists and geographers with the incentive to continue their work. Countless people (myself included) turn to it for comfort and wisdom.

But at the same time, it (and by ‘it’ I mean the Atlantic) has transported shiploads of indentured and enslaved men, women and children to unfamiliar shores. It safely brought conquistadors and profit-seekers to islands that did absolutely nothing to deserve their terrible attention. When I was a bit older, I began to look out onto the Atlantic and grimly contemplate those stories.

I’d also remember the natural disasters that we in Puerto Rico have faced. The most notable of these disasters are hurricanes, which pass on without much drama to people with the right walls and windows, but which devastate the lives of those who do not. There are some other dangers, too. I look at the ‘Tsunami: Ruta de Desalojo’ signs around my apartment building and wonder if they will ever be used. And when I look out at the coastline that stretches across my neighborhood, and I see that the sea has crept ever closer to the streets, I feel a sort of ominous awe – another word for that, I suppose, is dread.

Hinduism has equipped me to regard the natural world with a combination of often contradictory emotions—such as tenderness, fear, and trust. In my opinion, this is one of Hinduism’s greatest strengths. The diversity of its art and its mythology and its philosophy allows us to make peace with contradictions. But that said, climate change is not something I want to make peace with. Many places are being more severely affected than Puerto Rico. I felt so lucky to have been able to meet people from some of those places at the Convergence. It reminded me that the leadership exists to tackle this problem now, and that we all need to give these leaders all the support they need.

The Convergence was characterized by a remarkable and rare combination of tremendous enthusiasm and a sort of calm wisdom. Perhaps that is what happens when you bring a group of faith leaders together to talk about a challenge which must be taken extremely seriously—and at the same time, must be responded to creatively. Many, many people who attended have already said this, but even still, I want to say it again: being at the Convergence felt like coming home. I felt like I was returning to that crucial intersection of cultural diversity, reverence for nature, laughter, and the sort of love that transcends boundaries of all kinds. It reminded me of my (largely) solitary inquiries as a young adult into the nature of spirituality in a multicultural and environmentally fraught world. Except now, I wasn’t alone in this process. I am so looking forward to working closely with all of my new friends in the future. And I hope very much that all of you readers, in whatever capacity works best for you, will help us. Namaste para siempre.

Priya Parrotta Natarajan is a climate activist. Her dream is to involve diverse musicians in the multi-faith, multicultural climate movement. She can be reached at priya.parrotta@gmail.com.

See the original post on her blog at https://priyaparrotta.wordpress.com/2015/08/01/prana-y-mar/

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