Upon entering the vibrant ambiance of the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, a tapestry of faiths unfurls before my eyes. Here, amidst the city’s towering skyscrapers, stands a conclave that celebrates the profound richness of human spirituality. Amidst the multitudinous attendees from seventy countries and over 200 faiths, I stand in humility, cognizant that I am part of a continuum that began in 1893: the revered Parliament of the World Religions.
Conceived concurrently with the 1893 World’s Fair, it initiated the odyssey of structured interfaith dialogues across the globe for over a century. Historically, similar meetings convened in various global hubs: Cape Town, South Africa in 1999; Barcelona, Spain in 2004; Melbourne, Australia in 2009; Salt Lake City, Utah in 2015; and Toronto, Canada in 2018. Notably, the 2021 Parliament adapted to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and was conducted virtually. This gathering’s legacy was tangible, acting as a luminous guide that historically ushered diverse faith traditions into dialogic rendezvous.
Walking through its hallways, I was immediately struck by the diversity of the attendees. Monks in deep-orange robes brushed past scholars in western suits. The melodic intonations and the harmonious chants intermingled with indigenous spiritual leaders sharing their ancient wisdom with enraptured audiences. In this oasis of diversity, I also witnessed moments of profound connection. I watched as a Jain monk shared a meal with a Catholic nun, both deeply engrossed in conversation. An imam, a pastor and a rabbi collaborated on a presentation about shared Abrahamic roots. A Taoist master taught meditation techniques to a group of curious atheists while Hindu swami in saffron robes discussed next to a full-size cardboard cutout image of Vivekananda.
Echoes of Yesteryears: Swami Vivekananda’s Aspirations
That image reminded me of Swami Vivekananda’s seminal words at the First Parliament in 1893: ”I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance…I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth.” His fervent hope for religious harmony, however, now felt like whispers lost in the winds, especially against the backdrop of prevailing dissonance in his (and my) ancestral land, India.
Given Vivekananda’s portrayal of pluralistic Hinduism, the assembly of Hindu delegates espousing the Parliament mantra of “Defending Freedom and Human Rights’ seemed to be a stark paradox, between the representation and on-ground reality in India.
Under the Modi administration, persecution of Muslims and other minorities continues, challenging India’s long-standing tradition of religious coexistence. The disparity between Vivekananda’s vision and the current reality of Hindutva politics under Modi is striking and clear.
The creeping rise of religious nationalism and persecution of many, across the globe, epitomized by India’s scenario isn’t isolated; the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar and the Palestinians, amongst others, illustrates a broader pattern of using religious and ethnic identities to oppress certain groups. This growing divisiveness challenges human rights principles and threatens the cohesiveness of diverse societies, necessitating urgent international attention. Luminaries across faiths spotlighted this, urging a fortified stand against forces attempting to fracture global cohesion.
In the midst of a global tableau, the serene grace of Jain ceremonies merged beautifully with the compassionate gestures of white-robed Sikh delegates at the Langar, where they fed multitudes every day. This captivating blend painted a rich panorama of the Subcontinent’s diverse faith traditions.
WCMIR’s Dialogues on Social Justice: Humanity’s Unifying Ethos
At the World Council of Muslims for Interfaith Relations’ panel during the Parliament of World Religions, the focus on Social Justice stood out as particularly impactful. Engaging in spirited discourse as a panelist with my esteemed co-panelists, Mufti Barkatullah from the UK and Dr Zahid Bukhari, under the watchful gaze of Dr Ahmadullah Siddiqi who had made this possible, I voiced a deeply held conviction: “Social justice is a unifying thread in the tapestry of humanity, binding us beyond our differences.” The consensus among the panelists was clear and powerful: that this sentiment echoed the overarching ethos of the Parliament itself, emphasizing that through mutual understanding and shared goals, the diverse tapestry of world religions can unite and chart a harmonized path forward.
Horizons Ahead: Envisioning Unity Amidst Faith’s Kaleidoscopes
As the Parliament of the World Religions 2023 ended, I was inspired by the global community of interfaith activists’ goodwill. It was more than an assembly—it represented humanity’s unity in diversity. The event was a testament to what can be when we come together in our shared humanity, despite our many differences. Amidst divisions across the world, the Parliament became a symbol of aspiration and unity.
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