Report from the Parliament of the World’s Religions: Notes From a Participant’s Journal
Participation in the Parliament of the World’s Religions (1999) was a most enriching experience, and I am sharing the following excerpts from my journal because the Parliament was essentially a shared experience for all of us. No one could have taken full advantage of everything that was there, and notes are based for the most part only on my own observations, reactions, and reflections.
It was most appropriate that the event took place towards the close of the present century: for with all its faults and pain, with all its scientific achievements and technological wonders, the single most significant feature of the twentieth century is “consciousness-raising.” Our century has fostered understanding and respect for different cultures and perspectives, it has made racism a bad word in the language, it made European colonialism of Asian and African peoples untenable, it has brought to light the absurdities of prejudices and the evil inherent in the oppression of women and minorities such as has been rampant all over the world, and it brought about a planetary consciousness the like of which never existed before in the long stretch of human history. The choice of the venue for the PWR was symbolic too: for Africa is the most recently liberated continent, and one with great promise and potential, and in a country where the human spirit has triumphed magnificently, where hatred and revenge have been tamed and transformed into understanding and reconciliation. The Parliament was held in a city not far from a spot bearing the name of Good Hope, for that, above all, is what the gathering exuded.
Cape Town is a lovely city, adorned by majestic mountains, impressive buildings, a vibrant waterfront complex of shopping mall, restaurants, and boating facilities, a magnificent botanical garden, and blessed above all with a citizenry that is courteous, helpful to strangers, and positive in its assessment of the country’s future despite its current economic and health problems. Much of what I saw was pleasant and impressive, although I was not unaware that there still are large pockets of unfulfilled dreams and unhappy circumstances for a great many people there.
Arrangements for the conference registration and distribution of the information package and program schedules went off smoothly at the multipurpose room in the Technikon (one of the two major universities). It was in the lecture rooms and halls of this university that most of the talks and symposia were held. But events took place in other centers as well. I learned that some six thousand people participated in the events. The organizers deserve commendation for the efficiency and grace with which they handled us all.
There were frequent shuttle busses connecting these various places, chauffeured by lively men some of whom not only dexterously maneuvered the huge vehicles through some pretty narrow paths, but also had a sense of humor when they made announcements. In the basement of the Good Hope Center – where many major events were held – were eateries with healthy vegetarian menus. People at the information booths and countless volunteers everywhere were consistently caring and helpful. At least one program chairman offered a rose to any speaker who exceeded the allotted time before escorting him or her back to the seat. The opening ceremonies took place under a scorching tropical sun; ironically, a member of a sun-worshipping cult who marched with the crowd swooned under the unbearable heat.
There were many private gatherings of members of particular groups and religious affiliations. The United Religions Initiative and The Temple of Understanding in New York are only two of several interfaith organizations that are currently active and growing all over the world. Their goal is to establish mutual understanding among the countless religions and cults that inspire people. Those who are committed to converting others to their own faiths may not resonate with such undertakings, but building bridges of harmony and mutual respect is likely to be a major refrain in enlightened religious circles in the century to come.
Variety in the Program
Like the sumptuous spread of the breakfast buffet at one of the hotels, the program list offered an incredible range of choice for discussions and lectures, not just in themes and topics, but in depths and insights as well. Just going through the catalogue of topics discussed is an eye-opening experience to the rich variety of convictions and religious expressions. Not just time-honored prophets and traditions, but newer ones were also there, vying to instruct a world hungry for spirituality. Twentieth century sages and seers, some of whom were described as incarnations of the divine, were celebrated in papers and speeches by their ardent followers. A price one pays for all-inclusiveness is having to put up with matters of only modest worth. So, I encountered in the Parliament not only highly rewarding moments of awakening and rapture, but also pompous platitudes and questionable claims here and there. There were prophesies of events to come, predictions of an imminent end of the world, methods of healing by incantations, an elaboration of Seswantology (African Science Spiritual Mathematics), and other such insights from different traditions.
Among the presentations I enjoyed was a brief report of a Church in Greenlandwhich is planning to celebrate its founding a thousand years ago. This is their gift to the world, the speaker said. I also attended an eloquent lecture on the empowerment of women in India, a talk spiced with a touch of humor. The paper was inspirational, and purported to show that in ancient Hindu culture women always held a position of respect. If this was not reflected in today’s society, the speaker said in answer to question, it was because of British influences. In another room, there was a spirited call for the reconciliation of Hindus and Muslims in India from two well-motivated men residing in the Chicago area from where it is far easier to articulate such commendable views. Here too, a commentator attributed Hindu-Muslim disharmony in India to the British.
I enjoyed the open discussion on the “Walk Through Time” exhibit. This mile long tapestry of our planet’s history is presented with colorful images, scientific depth, and consciousness-awakening commentaries. An intensely enjoyable and enlightening experience, it highlights the fascinating geological and biological transformations that have occurred in this speck of ours in the cosmic expanse. Just inspecting it reminded me that there is something unique about our planet in that it harbors not just the throb of life, but a self-aware being, for in this creature called Homo sapiens, blind nature and the created multiplicity become beautiful, meaningful, and inquiry-worthy. Of what significance or charm would all this be were it not for an experiencing human spirit? The Walk, in which each foot corresponds to an eon, deserves to be displayed in every public school and mall across the country and all over the world. It adds poetry and majesty to the vision of science, and is certain to light a revelatory spark in any intelligent mind as to how man and microbe came to be.
Yet, the exhibit also provoked a response to the effect that all this knowledge was wrought with grave danger. Genetic engineering and microbial manipulation could lead to irrevocable damage and disaster. This was a legitimate warning, but it was provoked by some misunderstanding as to what science is all about. Science is an effort to grasp and account for the multi-faceted splendor of the phenomenal world, not a project to manipulate knowledge for good or for evil. Scientists do bear responsibility towards the use of science, but so do philosophers, religionists, politicians, indeed all people who have any concern for the well-being of the human family and of life.
This was surely not a conference simply of scholars and theologians. Much time and energy was devoted to discussing practical problems such as poverty and discrimination, social injustice and the stifling of ancient traditions, environmental pollution and global ethics, economic exploitation and health issues. Thus, for example, in one session a speaker expounded on the human-rights violation suffered by millions of untouchables in India, while in another, an eminent scholar interviewed some Native American Elders on how their religions and cultures have been marginalized in modern America. Little was said on whether the encounter with Christianity also enriched and transformed indigenous cultures in some instances in positive ways. But the session brought to light some of the injustices and psychological frustrations suffered for too long by dominated peoples. In another context, there was a call to dismantle all nuclear weapons, and in yet another there was a proposal for industrialized nations to forgive the debt of billions of dollars in the developing world.
This brings to mind a theme that was repeated in many different contexts during the conference: the atrocities that European intruders had inflicted on many local cultures. One commentator referred to the dominant Western culture that had all but destroyed the African way of life. True as this is, an irony of human history is that this very parliament with a common language and travel and communication facilities, not to mention the countless other positive transformations that have occurred all over the globe during the past few centuries (such as communication modes, eradication of diseases, the discovery of ancient history, and global perspectives) have also been among the byproducts of European expansionism. This is not to condone the countless cruelties perpetrated in the heyday of colonialism and imperialism, but to recognize the (perhaps largely unintended) good that ensued from it all.
A Feast of Creeds
There were presentations by many religious leaders who were persuaded that the prophet and doctrines of their particular affiliation held the key to clean up the quandary in which humanity finds itself today. We were assured by various speakers that the teachings of Hindu, Jain, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Muslim, Bahai, and a number of more recent messaiahs were ready and available to eradicate hatred and establish peace and harmony in the world. In a wing of the Good Hope Center, there were booths displaying the teachings and successes of many different cults and creeds, some of whom sold magnets to cure physical ailments and meted out messages to relieve pain and aches. Though I overheard a commentator describe the area as a flea-market for prophets, and though one might wonder whether so many messengers of God are really necessary for any of us to be a caring and compassionate human being, what was remarkable was that whether it was Quakers or CaoDaists, Sufis or members of the Ahlul Bait Foundation, everyone was there, not in a spirit of rivalry or competition, but of harmony and mutual respect. Indeed, the thrust of the conference was to foster and celebrate religious and cultural diversity in the context of deep personal faith.
There were some ardent religionists who protested the Parliament. They displayed placards outside the conference halls announcing their view that the entire enterprise had been inspired by Satan, for the conference was an insult to their own only God. While doing discredit to the great religious tradition to which they belong, these zealous true-believers also lent support to the thesis that evolution (in the cultural context) does not always occur. One should not forget that these well-meaning individuals have their spiritual cousins in many other religious traditions as well, except that these did not show up at the parliament with such embarrassing proclamations. A bomb explosion that had occurred recently in a local restaurant led some to the suspicion, if not the conclusion, that these defenders of their only God were perhaps planning something even more explosive for the conference. As a result, an extraordinarily strict security system was put in place compared to which airport checking seemed pale. As someone quipped, even if God had tried to enter the place He/She/It would have been searched.
The Role of the Robe
A renowned religious leader was expected to give a talk on the framework of a major religion in a large hall. Due to personal reasons, he could not be present, but he had requested someone else to present the topic on his behalf. When it was discovered that the long-haired, bearded monk in ochre robe was to be replaced by a scholar with a smooth-shaven face and in civilian attire, one individual was so appalled that he wanted the session cancelled. However, another person said that he had come to learn something about that religion and that it really did not matter who the speaker was. Upon this, the disappointed man from the tradition spotted another ochre-robed holy man in the hall and entreated him to do the talking. This wise man declined to be a substitute for a substitute, with the result that the scholar in hirt and trousers delivered the lecture. The incident revealed an important fact: Whether in science or in religion, for the masses, authority and appearance, externalities and celebrity status count a good deal more than sense or substance.
Science and Religion
The PWR was a gathering of men and women from all over the world, representing a rich variety of religions and traditions that have been giving meaning and purpose to millions over the ages. But there is another major force in the modern age which also molds our lives and shapes our destinies: and that is science. It was good that the organizers recognized this, for there were many sessions devoted to the role and responsibilities of science in our complex world, and to the newly emerging dialogues between science and religion. The many interesting and informative presentations here were essentially on cosmogony and biogenesis such as current science has figured them out. Unlike the universe story of our ancestors, the scientific visions have not flowed to a handful from a higher source, all ready made, but have evolved from the tireless and collective quest of innumerable dedicated hard workers. This fundamental difference in methodology in this context makes science unique as a human enterprise, and in a sense, makes it irrelevant, not to say suspect, in an arena were revelations and scriptures dominate. Nevertheless, the scientists present argued their case with sensitivity and intelligence, though in at least one exchange, the scientific position was described as “arrogant” by a participant from whose post-modernist perspective every myth and metaphor is as valid a version of truth as any scientific proposition. [A separate essay may have to be written to discuss this accusation.]
I attended a reception for some of the delegates at a local synagogue where the members were standing graciously with loads of food and welcoming smiles while the hall was tested out because of a bomb-scare. We all sat around near a central table with ample vegetarian edibles. A holy man from the Hindu tradition did the opening prayer, and the youthful rabbi of the synagogue led us through joyous Hanukkah songs in Hebrew and in English. This was followed by a beautiful ceremony during which we listened to a short speech by a visiting rabbi from Chicago on the significance of the eight-day Jewish festival and its relevance to the eight-day conference of the WPR.
Plenary sessions, Mandela, and the Dalai Lama
Every night there was a plenary session. There was a different show at the huge hall of the Good Hope Center: songs and dances, story-telling and poetry-reading, short speeches and proclamations, youths and elders, announcements and appeals, prayers from different traditions and offers of gifts to the world. Here one heard readings from the Zend Avesta as also a prayer from the Mayans of Guatemala. It was all a veritable cultural/religious treat, but the highlight of the entire week was the presence and pronouncements of the Nelson Mandela, the joy and pride of Africa today. Here was a hero whose charisma provoked not only a thunderous ovation but also a prolonged, heartfelt, and spontaneous welcoming shriek of adulation that, to all appearances, had not been okayed by the programs committee. The 81-year old Mandela stood there with a modesty becoming of a truly great personage, and began with a couple of self-effacing funny stories. Then he spoke from personal experience on the relevance of religion in crucial junctures in one’s life. He acknowledged the role that the church had played in his education, and the ecumenical enrichment that sustained him and his fellow prisoners during the dark days. It was a telling statement that should silence the cynics who refer to religion only in the context of its fanaticism and holy wars. Everyone in the hall was touched by this extraordinary individual whose dedication to his people and commitment to their freedom reflects the glory of the human spirit even in the midst of intolerable adversity. Someone murmured it was ironic that one who had engaged in acts of terrorism was now receiving the Gandhi-King Peace Prize. This was, I said, not ironic, but symbolic of the fact that no matter how harsh one’s struggle might be, ultimately it must all be transformed into love and understanding. It was this transformation that earned him the prize. As everyone knows, the fact that there has been no blood bath in the aftermath of the South African Revolution is largely due to Mr. Mandela and others like him. Mandela was also presented with the Juliet Hollister Award which commemorates the founder of the Temple of Understanding. Another eminent religious leader who honored the WPR by his presence was the Dalai Lama. He spent at least half an hour conversing with members of the next generation who played a significant role in the Parliament, for they are the ones who will be carrying the torch of religious enlightenment in the first few decades of the twenty-first century. Known for his wit and disarming simplicity, the Dalai Lama infused the air with a serenity such as only a truly spiritual individual can do. When he arrived, some members in the hall began singing “We shall overcome” with great enthusiasm, and kept repeating the refrain, much to the appreciative impatience of some organizers, since time was limited.
Beyond the Conference Halls
As is not unusual in international conferences, while sessions were in full swing, some of the attendees signed up for guided tours. Early one morning, more than a hundred people went in a ferry boat to Robbens Island where the World Peace Prayer Society had put together a most moving ceremony in front of the prison where Mandela had spent some twenty eight years behind bars. Everyone was thrilled by the brief speeches that affirmed peace and love and efforts to make the island a center for learning and mutual respect. The ceremony included the planting of a Peace Pole with the prayer, “May Peace Prevail on Earth.”
There was also a trip to the Cape of Good Hope where the Indian Ocean and the South Atlanticmerge. We were reminded of Vasco da Gama and of Bartholomeo Diaz, and we saw the tall lighthouse which had served mariners in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We drove to a spot where flocks of African Penguins bask in the warm waters, braying away now and again; and then on to the lush botanical garden. Some of us also tasted an ostrich steak. Another evening, we took the cable car to reach the top of the Table Mountain which stands majestically near Cape Town, partly covered now and again by white fluffs of ethereal clouds. Once or twice, eager visitors were disappointed when the cable car service was suspended (no pun intended) because of unruly winds. According to the researches of one speaker in the Parliament, the mountain itself is an “Archeo-Astronomical and Geo-Mystical phenomenon that honours the vital force of the African spirit.” Not everyone could understand what this means.
Then there was an unplanned visit to a township. These are the enclaves where the non-white citizens of “apartheid South Africa” were compelled to live. Not unlike the bustees near some cities in India, the dwellings here are of unimaginable modesty, but there is a sparkle in the eyes of the children here that radiate an inner joy. We went to the home of a selfless single mother who runs a soup kitchen for two hundred kids. This, I felt, was religion at its best. When she spoke to us of the hardships and the struggle, of the lack of teachers in schools and funds for books and medicine, some of us were moved to tears.
Yet, in all the conversations I had with the local black people, there was only slight bitterness and very little hatred for the whites of South Africa, and the whites, in turn, confessed to a grievous moral error they had committed. All expressed the sincere hope that in due course the current phase of reconciliation would evolve into a richer harmony among all the peoples of South Africa.
Gifts of Service
An interesting and potentially very powerful idea introduced in the Parliament was that of “gifts of service to the world.” Its goal is to harness the untapped sea of goodwill, caring and generosity that resides in every human heart. The Council of the PWR, in collaboration with the Millennium Institute in Arlington, Va, has been inspiring people to come up with whatever they can think of to offer as a gift to humanity. During the closing three days, the Parliament assembly was dedicated to this commitment. It was wonderful to see the range and variety of some two hundred and fifty things and services: modest, meaningful, or grand, that people came up with. These included the compiling ecumenical prayer books, building schools for the outcaste children in India, developing interfaith courses in universities, arranging to deliver medicines to the poor, preparing an index of five hundred leading companies in terms of their social commitments, establishment of peace-museums, bringing together youths from the major religions of the Middle East for constructive dialogues, the like. A list of these will soon be published.
The PWR-1999 served the cause of religious harmony in a grand way. It was a major contribution to human civilization to have set up an arena where Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhist, Zoroastrians, Jains, Native American Indians, traditional Africans, and more talked, exchanged views, and prayed together. Beyond this, the Parliament brought knowledge and understanding, awakened the spiritual sensibilities, and stirred the souls of the participants through many meaningful programs. Most of all, it has infused governments, businesses, and the peoples of the world with a sense of commitment for the good and the noble. It has paved the first steps towards the materialization of a great number of valuable projects for the betterment of the human condition.
The organizers of the first PWR in the 1890s could hardly have thought that a century hence a similar parliament, but of far grander scope and purpose, would be convened in South Africa. Likewise, even our most fertile imagination cannot envision what is in store for the close of the impending century. But, seeing the joy and enthusiasm, the commitment and creativity of the participants this year, I am convinced that notwithstanding all the complexities and threats facing the human family, there is something unique in the human spirit that will right the wrong, beautify the ugly, and clean up the polluted. When religion banishes narrowness and hatred, and instills love and goodwill in the human heart, it can only raise us to more sublime heights. When science erases the dark fears of ignorance and the ugly faces of superstition, brings light and knowledge to the human mind, and offers its powers of perceptions for the common good, the human race can reach even grander glories than it has thus far. The Parliament of the World’s Religions (1999) has served us well in all this.
In striving to recognize the primacy of Fire and Light. I feel kinship with my Zoroastrian brethren.
In striving to obey the Ten Commandments, I feel kinship with my Jewish brethren.
In striving to be kind to neighbor and the needy, I feel kinship with my Christian brethren.
In striving to be compassionate to creatures great and small, I feel kinship with my Buddhist and Jaina brethren.
In striving to surrender myself completely to God Almighty, I feel kinship with my Muslim brethren.
In the recognition that religious wisdom flows from the gurus, I feel kinship with my Sikh brethren.
In the recognition that serving fellow humans should be the goal of religion, I feel kinship with my Bahai brethren.
In feeling that all these and more are all paths to the same divinity, I feel kinship with my Hindu brethren.
In my love and laughter, joy and pain, I feel kinship with my fellow humans.
In my need for nourishment and instinct to live on, I feel kinship with all beings on the planet.
In my spiritual ecstasy with this wondrous world, I feel kinship with the Cosmic Whole.