United Religions Initiative (URI), in association with UNESCO Chair for Peace and Intercultural Understanding, Malaviya Centre for Peace Research, organised an interfaith gathering titled “Shanti Sangam: Towards Interreligious Understanding and Global Peace” from 22-24 November 2019 at Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi. As part of this conference, the UNESCO Chair, along with MCPR, hosted the 9th India National Assembly of the United Religions Initiative to celebrate unity in diversity at Varanasi.
The first day of the conference at Swatantrata Bhawan, Banaras Hindu University began with the traditional rituals of lamp lighting, floral tribute, and kulgeet. The event started with welcome speeches by UNESCO Chair, Prof. Priyankar Upadhyaya, Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Rakesh Bhatnagar, BHU, Prof. Rajen Harshe, Subhi Dhupar, and Biswadeb Chakraborty. The event was then led by Unity Earth members, who performed religious evocations, bringing positive energy to the conference. The conference had a variety of panel discussions ranging from topics like religion, environmental sustainability, spirituality, health, well-being, peacebuilding, dialogue by peacebuilding civil societies in action, etc., each moderated by pioneers in the field.
The event also had songs for peace including two musical performances by Unity Earth delegates. The stage was bedazzled by young participants waving flags of countries from around the world for peace, giving the message of ‘May peace prevail on earth’. The conference got adjourned with valedictory remarks from Prof. Anjoo Sharan Upadhyaya, Dr Raghav Sharma, Bhavna Luthra, and Ambassador Anil Trigunayat. The day ended with the breathtakingly beautiful aarti near the Ganga river at Assi Ghat, followed by dinner.
The peace family embarked on the second day for a spiritual healing journey on a visit to Sarnath. On reaching the Mulagandha Kuti Vihara Temple, the delegates were addressed by Lama Doboom Tulku on the life and Buddha and his teachings. The participants then took a mindful walk to the Dhamek Stupa, where they were addressed by Prof. Jamia Samten. The activity ended by lighting up of candles near the stupa. The delegates then proceeded towards the Sarnath International Nyingma Institute (SINI) where they savoured the lunch hosted by World Buddhist Culture Trust.
The delegates were then addressed by the Director of the institute, followed by speeches from various leaders. All the people then gathered for meditation and chants for peace led by Lama Doboom Tulku, followed by a tree-planting ceremony organised by Ganga Task Force and SINI. The day ended with a visit to the Deendayal Upadhyay Trade Facilitation Centre, where the delegates shopped for the uniquely beautiful Banarasi handicrafts and handloom. The evening was made special by an extraordinary classical musical performance at the trade centre, followed by dinner.
24th November, the last day of the peace festival, began at the MCEHV, BHU. The event started with a gathering of URI members who read the URI PPPs, followed by honouring the volunteers for their contribution. The delegates were addressed by the Executive Director of URI, Victor Kazanjian, followed by activities to improve communication and overcome challenges faced by the organisations in the cooperation circle, in order to strengthen the network and move forward with efficiency at a greater success rate. The regional chapters of URI gave presentations of the work done by them, which was highly motivating for everyone present there. The last evening ended with the astonishing performances at the Mahindra Kabira Festival at Shivala Ghat followed by dinner.
The three-day Shanti Sangam was a perfect balance of academic and cultural activities dedicated towards peace and interfaith harmony. The Shanti Sangam highlighted unique ideas and practices of interreligious and intercultural understanding. The give and take of ideas for peacebuilding and religious harmony were done on a large scale, where the peace community learnt to overcome the challenges and will continue the march towards peace.