Posting #3 from India

28 August 2011

Dear Friends,

Greetings of love and peace.

Today began at KIPS with a peaceful interfaith prayer gathering under a mimosa tree planted seven years ago by Abraham and now big enough to provide shade for our group, seated in a circle of chairs on the red dirt, listening to the music of the Earth and sharing the sacred wisdom of different traditions, listening with open hearts and minds, with joy and gratitude, as small yellow petals floated down from the tree.

A day of many presentations began with Dame Meher Master Moos, former URI Global Council Trustee and head of the world’s only Zoroastrian college, providing an engaging overview of Zoroastrianism, making a particular point of raising up the openness to and respect for diverse expressions of the holy she sees expressed in the heart and true practice of the Zoroastrian faith.

I followed offering a paper – The Heart of Holy Books: Blessings for People of All Faiths.Among other points, I spoke of the privilege I’ve had over the past many years to meet, learn from and be inspired by people of diverse faiths, and how I pray that people all over the world may share this privilege because I believe it will help us minimize the shadow side of religion and maximize the light, in service to our world.

Dr. Sujatha Wijethillake, an accomplished woman, who has participated in a URI Moral Imagination peace training and is a key leader of the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka, which sponsors URI CCs, spoke next. Acknowledging that she is a Christian with a strong interfaith background, including having married and raised a family with a husband who was Buddhist, she spoke of the mandate she sees in the Christian scriptures for interfaith engagement. She spoke movingly of how, following her husband’s death two years ago, her husband’s family held a Buddhist ceremony and then she interned her husband’s ashes in the family plot in an Anglican cemetery where her ashes will one day rest.

After a break, we heard Rev. Dr. Ruwan Palapathwala’s presentation: Virgin Birth – An Intertextual Reading of the Birth Narrative of Jesus the Christ and Buddha Gotama. In a presentation he acknowledged would be controversial in many places, he spoke about sacred texts as being spiritual writings that rely on symbolism rather than purely historical writings presenting objective truth. In the end, he proposed that the many virgin birth narratives we find in sacred writings, including those of Jesus and the Buddha, represent a symbolic way of expressing the extraordinary nature of the person being born rather than being factual descriptions.

In the final presentation before lunch, Dr. Ian Fry provided a thought-provoking overview of the evolution of religion and the contemporary world scene – Recognition of Covenants, Partnerships, Epochs. Providing a chart that presented a comprehensive overview and integration of the epochs of revelation of divine covenant with the political/economic challenges facing humanity in the 21st Century (challenges framed differently in different parts of the world), Dr. Fry sees an overall movement from dominance by the White Western Christian Blok (WWCB) to an epoch of equity and justice for and mutuality with World Majority Peoples (WMP).

Following another delicious lunch (by the way, it’s worth noting that each day we have been able to move from KIPS in busses and cars to a nearby restaurant where a delicious buffet lunch awaits, eat, and return to KIPS for the afternoon session in one hour without feeling rushed! a tribute to local organizing skills), we experienced a colorful powerpoint presentation by Kesava Dasa Swami, who was one of the great hosts when URI held our global assembly in Mayapur, India. Originally from Argentina, Kesava Dasa Swami is now a global citizen who spends his time teaching in different parts of the world. His focus was – Wisdom and Sacred Education Holy Books: An Alternative Knowledge from The Bhagavad Gita and Srimad Bhagavatam. He stressed the need for disciplined spiritual education to help individuals grow beyond a short sighted attention only to the material world to being able to live in the material world in a way that integrates spiritual wisdom and service.

Next came Fr. O. Thomas, a local religious leader whose focus was – Pluralism: A Gandhian Perspective on Religion. His presentation paired well with the following presentation by Francis Halder, leader of the Ananda movement in Bangladesh, which is a URI CC. Francis, who also participated in a Moral Imagination peace training here in Kerala and then sponsored a training in Bangladesh, focused on Gandhi and Moral Judgment. Both men explored the guidance Gandhi’s life and teachings offer for people of diverse faiths in developing mutual respect among diverse faiths and working in service to the world, especially to support the most vulnerable. Francis spoke compellingly about the process of developing a strong conscience to guide action in the world, and of the necessity of courage to put the insights of the still, small voice of conscience into action.

The day closed with a second presentation by Galina Ermolina, this one focused on the Indian spiritual leader, Baba Virsa Singh, whose life work is a model of interfaith respect grounded on a profound spiritual experience of the fundamental oneness of creation; and an explanation of the significance of the symbol that represents Zoroastrianism by Meher Master Moos.

I finished the day feeling like a sponge that had reached its saturation point and could not take in any more thoughts; and grateful for the pioneering, boundary-stretching, courageous work of my colleagues at this conference. I also look forward to a little quiet time and a walk, a good dinner and a good night’s sleep before tomorrow’s final day of the conference.