Sunita Viswanath Honored As ‘Champion of Change’

Sunita Viswanath was among 12 faith leaders who was honored as “Champion of Change” on July 20 for their continuous efforts towards climate change. Viswanath, who has worked in women’s and human rights organisations for almost three decades, “is being honored for her work to encourage Hindus in protecting environment and communities from the effects of climate change,” the White House said in a statement.

Viswanath is co-founder and active board member of the 14-year old women’s human rights organisation Women for Afghan Women (WAW).

“Sunita is also co-founder and board member of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, living and building a Hinduism that prioritises social justice, and upholding the Hindu principles of ekatva (oneness), ahimsa (non-violence) and sadhana (faith in action).”

Through our grassroots green project, Project Prithvi, we mobilize Hindus, especially the youth, to live out the principle of ahimsa by taking care of the environment. We have adopted a beach in Jamaica Bay, New York, where Hindus worship almost every day. Devotees place their offerings into the bay, but the offerings wash up on shore and become entangled with all the other litter lining the beach – beer bottles, Styrofoam containers, used condoms. It is deeply painful to see our religious offerings, broken idols, trays of flowers and fruits, fabrics that had adorned the deities, washed up on the beach as garbage. We reach out to local Hindu temples, and we enlist priests to help us advocate to devotees that it is important to worship in more environmentally friendly ways. We mobilize temple-goers to come to the beach with us on a monthly basis, and together we clean up the beach. At every beach cleanup, devotees tell us how hurt they are to see broken idols of Ganesha and Lakshmi lying face down in the dirt. Rivers and oceans are considered sacred by Hindus, as are trees, all life forms, and the Earth herself.

 “I have always been secure in my identity as a Hindu,” she told the media. “Growing up, I thought a lot about faith and religion, but I also had a very strong sense of social justice, what was fair. I imbibed profound lessons of love and justice from my religious upbringing, from the stories we were told, the prayers we learned, the texts we read. I went on as an adult to devote my life to advancing social justice causes, particularly women’s human rights. If Hinduism cares deeply about all people and all living beings, then there must be an active, vocal Hindu movement for social justice and human rights today.”

Through our grassroots green project, Project Prithvi, we mobilize Hindus, especially the youth, to live out the principle of ahimsa by taking care of the environment. We have adopted a beach in Jamaica Bay, New York, where Hindus worship almost every day. Devotees place their offerings into the bay, but the offerings wash up on shore and become entangled with all the other litter lining the beach – beer bottles, Styrofoam containers, used condoms. It is deeply painful to see our religious offerings, broken idols, trays of flowers and fruits, fabrics that had adorned the deities, washed up on the beach as garbage. We reach out to local Hindu temples, and we enlist priests to help us advocate to devotees that it is important to worship in more environmentally friendly ways. We mobilize temple-goers to come to the beach with us on a monthly basis, and together we clean up the beach. At every beach cleanup, devotees tell us how hurt they are to see broken idols of Ganesha and Lakshmi lying face down in the dirt. Rivers and oceans are considered sacred by Hindus, as are trees, all life forms, and the Earth herself.

Through our grassroots green project, Project Prithvi, we mobilize Hindus, especially the youth, to live out the principle of ahimsa by taking care of the environment. We have adopted a beach in Jamaica Bay, New York, where Hindus worship almost every day. Devotees place their offerings into the bay, but the offerings wash up on shore and become entangled with all the other litter lining the beach – beer bottles, Styrofoam containers, used condoms. It is deeply painful to see our religious offerings, broken idols, trays of flowers and fruits, fabrics that had adorned the deities, washed up on the beach as garbage. We reach out to local Hindu temples, and we enlist priests to help us advocate to devotees that it is important to worship in more environmentally friendly ways. We mobilize temple-goers to come to the beach with us on a monthly basis, and together we clean up the beach. At every beach cleanup, devotees tell us how hurt they are to see broken idols of Ganesha and Lakshmi lying face down in the dirt. Rivers and oceans are considered sacred by Hindus, as are trees, all life forms, and the Earth herself. Born in Chennai, Viswanath is known as a fierce leader whose passion for women’s rights and faith-based activism has made her a beacon of hope for the people of New York City.

Sunita Viswanath
Sunita Viswanath

A central component of Sadhana is Project Prithvi, which is an environmental initiative.

As part of Project Prithvi, Sadhana is involved with cleaning up a beach in Jamaica Bay, Queens which is a place of worship for Hindus.

Sadhana has officially adopted this beach, conducts regular clean-ups, and also does outreach through Hindu temples to advocate that Hindus worship in environmentally conscious ways, said the interfaithcenter.org. Viswanath was a 2011 recipient of the “Feminist Majority Foundation’s Global Women’s Rights Award” for her work with WAW.

She lives in Brooklyn in New York with her husband Stephan Shaw and their three sons — Gautama, Akash and Satya.

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