Written for ‘Positive News’, HongKong.
The Sonda Swarnavalli Samsthana is an 800 year old matha ( a Hindu monastery) which carries down the ancient tradition of Adi Sankaracharya – the greatest exponent of Advaita Hindu philosophy. Located in the Uttar Kannada district of the state of Karnataka, India this institution lies in the midst of lush forests and flowing rivers. Traditionally, the head of the matha is also a leader to the residents of the region in many other ways. However, the present head, Shri Gangadhareshwar Saraswati Swami has gone way beyond his prescribed duties to take on several social and environmental issues plaguing the Sonda region. This vision has earned him the title of ‘Hasiru Swamigalu’ – the green swami!
Although India has a very ancient and rich spiritual heritage, the speed of development and globalization seem to have disconnected the roots of this wisdom which lay in a deep reverence for Nature. Here is one spiritual leader that is teaching people to see God in trees, forests and rivers once again. Swamiji believes that the current disconnect between nature and religion has come because of a misunderstanding of spirituality, the stiff competition for survival in urban contexts and inappropriate industrialization.
Every year, the matha organizes tree plantation programmes and training camps in which young children are taught the importance of conservation. In place of the traditional blessed sweet, the swami offers blessed saplings to those who come to him for guidance and urges them to look after the sapling as their own children. The matha also sets an example by engaging in organic farming, and using ecosensitive technologies like solar heating and composting.
However, beyond this consistent effort to educate people the Swami is famous for the leadership he provides to agitations against harmful and ill conceived development projects. The Bedthi river is sacred to the people of Sonda and has some amazing religious landmarks along its path. Since the 1980s the Bedthi has been targeted for several development projects with an aim to harvest its waters to generate electricity. Just within one year of being instated the leader of the matha, at the young age of 21, he lead a six day procession on foot along the Bedthi river, to mobilize people to protest against a dam and a hydro electric project that would have submerged most of the abundant forests of the region. Almost 50,000 people gathered at the end of this procession and the government had to withdraw the project.
To the residents of Sonda, who are mainly agrarian Brahmins, the Swami is an inspiring figure, urging them to fight to protect their natural environment. Everyone is welcome to join his movements, irrespective of their religion, and Muslims and Christians also respect him. Over the years, even the government has begun to recognize the extent to which he inspires the hearts of the people. Environmentalists rely on him for his support and he brings a calm apolitical quality to the conservation struggle. Finally, his students who come to get educated at the matha, learn about agriculture as well while tending to the matha’s farms, and when they graduate they either become priests or return to farming, carrying with them a deep reverence for the green Gods of this Earth!