In 1893, Swami Vivekananda travelled from India to Chicago by boat to take part in the Parliament of Religions. His opening line, "Sisters and Brothers of America", continues to echo throughout the world as the embodiment of interfaith, intercultural harmony and love. It also, many believe, catalysed a foundation of great love and fascination between India and America. At that time, the Parliament was focused on fostering peace through dialogue and understanding between the world's religions. It was the first official interfaith dialogue.
Today, 122 years later, the Parliament of Religions just concluded in Salt Lake City, Utah, after a five-day programme, which, according to the organisers, included 10,000 people from 80 nations and 50 religious traditions.
"Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, the co-founder of the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance, emphasised, 'We have built enough temples. Now we must build toilets. Meditation and sanitation must go hand in hand.'."
In addition to the incredible expansion of the Parliament and the pervasive presence of hashtags and urges to "follow" one another, there has also been another great change.
Today, the definition of peace has expanded.
In 1893, "peace" mostly meant an absence of violence, peaceful dialogue, and, ideally, an open acceptance of one another. Today, more people perish every year from lack of clean water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) than from all forms of violence combined. The total number of annual deaths due to terrorism, war, communal violence, domestic violence, drug-induced violence and other crimes pales in comparison to the number of those due to lack of WASH.
Today, the threat of climate change hangs heavy over our heads. Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, drought, record heat waves, and acre after acre of desiccated fields and dry riverbeds are the new normal.
This Parliament was, in many sessions, focused on a shift from prayer to action. Rather than exhorting audiences only to love one another or to live together peacefully, the leaders at this Parliament emphasised in myriad languages, myriad contexts and myriad themes that we must ACT and SERVE for each other.
His Holiness Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, the co-founder of the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance, from Rishikesh, India emphasised, "We have built enough temples. Now we must build toilets. Meditation and sanitation must go hand in hand." In India 600 million people still defecate in the open, with the approximately 300 million women having to wait for the cover of dark to relieve themselves in dignity.
The Global Interfaith WASH Alliance, the world's first initiative to engage the planet's many faiths as allies in efforts to create a world where every human being has access to safe drinking water, improved sanitation and proper hygiene (WASH), organised three major programs at the Parliament. One of these flagship panels, hosted in cooperation with UNICEF, focused specifically on "Worship to WASH," as the shift in emphasis required by the world's religious leaders. The panel brought nine renowned interfaith leaders all the way from India to speak to the Parliament about why they have shifted their focus from worship to water, sanitation and hygiene and why others should follow suit.
Imam Umar Ilyasi, president of the All India Imam Organisation emphasised: "On behalf of almost 500, 000 imams of India, we stand together with the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance in this crucial measure and we will work for water, sanitation and hygiene to save the children of our world."
Maulana Luqman Tarapuri, regional president of the Global Imam Council reiterated, "I pledge to bring all Imams together to spread and share the vital message of WASH with our communities and in our homes."
"Today, the definition of peace must also include ensuring that our brothers and sisters of every colour, culture, country and creed have access to healthy food to eat, clean water to drink, sanitation and hygiene."
Said Acharya Lokesh Muni, president of Ahimsa Vishwa Bharati: "I pledge to inspire and motivate the entire Jain community to join GIWA and walk to share and spread this message."
At another session focused on "Climate Change and You" the Indian leaders were joined by Rev. Michael Bernard Beckwith, the famous founder and director of the Los Angeles-based Agape Spiritual Ministries, a frequent guest on TV shows including Oprah, Dr Oz, and Larry King, as well as Rabbi Yonatan Neril, executive director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, Jerusalem.
Rev. Beckwith shared: "If everyone takes baby steps every day, beginning with a revolution of our forks, it will make a mighty and lasting difference. Let us not only just have a sustainable relationship with our planet, but rather let's have a blissful one, leaving behind footprints of beauty."
Imam Umer Ahmed Ilyasi and Imam Luqman Tarapuri both expressed their full commitment on a personal level as well as on behalf of their large organisations and all of the imams to work together for this great cause, to mitigate climate change through our choices, through our actions and through our decisions. They both said they would take this message back to their communities and their congregations to bring about a great change in the Muslim communities of India and the world. They pledged to bring all of the imams together to pray, to preach and to work to protect and preserve the planet.
Traditionally religious leaders are focused on helping their followers attain salvation, or liberation, or moksha or nirvana or heaven after death. Typically, religion focuses on helping us remove the ignorance which keeps us separate from the Divine. This is wonderful. Meditation, prayers, spiritual practice are crucial if we are going to be, as Pujya Swamiji famously says, "in peace not in pieces."
However, the emphasis, the glorious emphasis over and over from the leaders of every religion was, "The body is a temple. Life is sacred and must be preserved."
At this Parliament, the definition of peace has expanded. It is no longer enough for religious leaders to exhort their communities not to kill each other with bombs, guns or missiles. Today, the definition of peace must also include ensuring that our brothers and sisters of every colour, culture, country and creed have access to healthy food to eat, clean water to drink, sanitation and hygiene. To permit a billion people on this planet to sleep hungry and about 15,000 children to perish from starvation every day, to lose approximately 1800 children every day simply due to lack of water, sanitation and hygiene, to look away while 1.8 billion people live in extreme poverty is as deplorable as launching grenades in each other's houses of worship.
The theme of the Parliament was "Reclaiming our Humanity". The leaders emphasised that humanity does not exist in a vacuum. My humanity is inextricably linked with yours.
Many people, particularly in America, are disillusioned and disenchanted with religion. I frequently hear people say, "I'm spiritual but not religious," which, in most cases, translates as "I believe in the Divine but I am done with organised religion." Religious leaders have, indisputably, led their followers to bloodshed at times. At times they have indoctrinated and even brainwashed their followers. They are famous for dogma, for thick lines between right and wrong, for manipulation and guilt-induction.
"As faith leaders we emphasised, perhaps for the first time in history in such a collective number, that our meditation is not only meant to be for our own bliss and our own peace."
However, at the Parliament, thousands of the world's highest and most revered leaders of every religion from the indigenous to the Abrahamic, from the traditional to the new-age, stood on stages and urged crowds of the thousands to not only accept the other, but to actively, enthusiastically, indefatigably serve the other. Or, as Rev. Beckwith emphasised "To realize that there is no other. The other is self."
In our panel on "Shakti and Prakriti: The Divine Feminine and Mother Earth," spiritual teacher and author Marianne Williamson reminded us that a mama bear or lion may be perfectly gentle and loving until and unless you mess with her babies! Similarly, most of us may practice compassion and acceptance but none of us would tolerate someone messing with our mother! In the same way, she exhorted the audience to stand up, take action and stop accepting the rape, the abuse and the destruction of our Mother Earth and our Mother Nature!
As faith leaders we emphasised, perhaps for the first time in history in such a collective number, that our meditation is not only meant to be for our own bliss and our own peace. Our own joy, our own bliss is not the end goal. The end goal is that, through our meditation, through our connection to the Divine, we should be free of everything that blocks us from being a clear, clean vessel for the Divine's work on Earth. We should, ultimately, see the Divine in everyone and everything and therefore, automatically, reach out our hands and serve them."
With nearly 85% of the world's population belonging to a faith, a shift of this kind in doctrine is monumental.