From Prayer TO ACTION
This article was published on The Speaking Tree, here.
SADHVI BHAGAWATI SARASWATI was a participant at the Parliament of Religions, the same conference that Swami Vivekananda attended back in 1893. She filed this blog from Salt Lake City in the US.
In 1893, Swami Vivekananda travelled to Chicago 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.At that time, the Parliament was focused on fostering peace through dialogue and understanding between the world’s religions. A hundred and twenty two years later, the Parliament of Religions met again recently in Salt Lake City, Utah, for a five-day programme that was attended by 10,000 people from 80 nations and 50 religious traditions, according to the organisers. 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. Today, the total number of annual deaths due to terrorism, war, communal violence, domestic violence, drug-induced violence, and crime pales in comparison to the number of those due to lack of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (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, 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. Swami Chidanand Saraswati, cofounder 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 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 programmes 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 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.” Said Acharya Lokesh Muni, president of Ahimsa Vishwa Bharati: “I pledge to inspire and motivate the entire Jain community to join the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance (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, Agape Spiritual Ministries based in Los Angeles as well as Buddhist Dharma Master Hsin Tao, founder of the Museum of World Religions and Rabbi Yonatan Neril, executive director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, Jerusalem. 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 Swami Chidanand Saraswati famously says, ‘in peace not in pieces.’ However, the emphasis 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 1,800 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. 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 and serve them. With nearly 85 per cent of the world’s population belonging to a faith, a shift of this kind in doctrine is monumental.