On Religion and Interfaith Harmony

I see a swami talking to an indigenous man in colourful regalia—a Christian priest shaking hands with a Sikh—a rabbi talking about the need to overcome the ongoing Islamophobia—and a Muslim scholar condemning the recent terrorist attack on a synagogue. Hundreds of people sit together on the floor of the Langar Hall and share communal food regardless of their skin colour or spiritual background. Not far away, several dozen people from different parts of the world have transcended religion in the Universal Dance of Peace ceremony, holding hands together and dancing in concentric circles. I see a unique world within the world, a place where you would wish to live in. They call it Parliament of the World’s Religions!

Parliament Of The World’s Religions

Parliament of the World’s Religions is the world’s most inclusive and largest interfaith gathering. Its goal is to “cultivate harmony among world’s religious and spiritual communities to create a just, peaceful and sustainable world.” The theme of this year’s Parliament was: “The Promise of Inclusion, the Power of Love: Pursuing Global Understanding, Reconciliation, and Change”.

The key topics at the convention were: indigenous people, interfaith harmony, women empowerment, climate change, compassion movement, and countering hate and violence. The convention took place in Toronto, the most ethnically diverse city in the world, between November 1-7, and was attended by over 10,000 people from 80 nations and 200 different spiritual backgrounds.

Toronto is the traditional territory of the Wendat, Haudenosaunee, Anishinabek Nations, and the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. It was only appropriate that the event kicked off with a spiritual ceremony from the Indigenous Nations; “We honour our ancestors. We honour our land. We honour our guests. The fire is what keeps us warm. The earth is what nourishes us. We ask for the blessings from the Creator.”

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The elders sang indigenous ceremonial songs and offered medicinal plants to the fire. “Whenever we take anything from the Mother earth, we offer something back.”

People from all faiths stood shoulder to shoulder in a circle and made offerings to the fire while the rain continued to pour outside. “The Creator is blessing us with the rain!”, said the elder leading the ceremony. The ceremony then proceeded to a hall where the indigenous people sang traditional songs on drums and attendees danced in a circle. 

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Later in the evening, everyone gathered in the big convention hall. Indigenous dancers from all over Canada presented their traditional dance. Afterwards, distinguished speakers welcomed the guests to the 2018 Parliament and spoke beautifully about the need for religious harmony.

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Dr. Veena Howard and Maduba Ahmad hosting the keynote session.

What Is Going On In Pakistan?

Sitting there, I couldn’t help but relate those topics to the situation back home. I was deeply disturbed by what was happening in Pakistan. Fundamentalist groups were demanding the death penalty for Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. She has spent almost a decade in prison as her case hearing moved from one court to another. Recently the Supreme Court of Pakistan acquitted her and ruled that the accusations of blasphemy were false. The extremist groups, notably TLP under the leadership of Molvi Khadim Hussain, were out on the roads. Violent protesters demanded the death penalty not just for Aasia Bibi but also for the honourable Supreme Court judges. 

Molvi Khadim’s hate speeches and words enticing masses for violence went viral on social media. His hateful remarks echoed in my head and were a world apart from what the spiritual leaders were teaching at the convention. I couldn’t understand how someone could spread hatred in the name of Islam which literally means peace.

I was also shocked to see that Molvi Khadim had amassed so much support on social media. It made me realise that nothing, neither education nor internet tools can help a mind that has been paralysed.

Such people believe that theirs is the only way and everyone else is wrong. They are ready to use fist over rational argument. They are offended by anything that differs from their point of view and would attack anyone who they think is threatening their religious values. Perhaps they are insecure about their own religion and so they resort to aggression to maintain their self-image. Hate filled, intense, and emotionally charged speeches have a contagious effect on people who have a very narrow view of the religion.

How nice it would be if these religious leaders put their followers to a noble cause? Community service—cleaning streets—volunteering for a school or a hospital—helping old people cross the road. But no, they want to direct people to burn public and private property and kill someone!

Thomas Jefferson aptly said: “It does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Former CNN new executive Parisa Khosravi delivering a powerful speech
Word’s by Parisa khosravi’s son Payam, “Centuries of discrimination have created geysers of hate and intolerance. These acts erupt and hurt the children of the world needlessly. Teaching acceptance is my life’s work.”

About two months ago, the news broke out that the new Government in Pakistan had chosen Atif Mian, a highly distinguished Pakistani-American economist, as a member for the Economic Advisory Council. It was shocking to see that many groups opposed the nomination simply because of Atif’s Ahmadiyya faith. The government succumbed to the pressure and withdrew the appointment. It was not Atif Mian’s loss but the nation’s loss to have lost a competitive economist in trying times.

What does professional duty have to do with the faith one practices? I discussed with my friends. I was shocked to see that a few of them who are highly educated and living abroad were also opposed to his nomination. If the same people were to be denied jobs in foreign countries due to their Muslim faith, they would cry discrimination. I realised that it is not possible to have an open debate on this topic even with my friends, that I might be labelled as blasphemous and might even have to run for my life. But I wondered; Isn’t religion a personal matter, between an individual and God?

The paradox of tolerance states that a tolerant society which tolerates intolerant people would eventually become intolerant.  Therefore, it is the duty of tolerant people to counter the intolerant behaviour.

Back at the Parliament of World’s Religion, the whole space felt like a spiritual village. There were stands from many different faiths under one roof. Free literature, meditation and healing sessions were available. People from all backgrounds were having a conversation, trying to learn different beliefs from each other and finding commonalities among their religions. There were a plethora of courses, lectures, and dialogue sessions across the convention centre. The environment of the convention was conducive to learning. I began exploring something I have been thinking about for quite some time: what is the need of religion in human life?

Juan, a member of the Huichol community from Mexico.

Intrinsic Need for Spirituality

Humans have always been spiritual. There is an intrinsic need to be part of something bigger than the self. Scholars describe this “the feeling of dependence on the infinite—source or power that is distinct from the world.” This feeling is at the heart of a spiritual experience and lays the foundation for religion.

A person seeking spirituality goes on a mystical journey beyond the realms of rationale where they feel unconditional love for the infinite and surrender their own identity. It is somewhat akin to what Sufis describe as “a moth so overcome by the love for the candle flame that it flies into it.” In mysticism, this experience is called spiritual annihilation—the ultimate reunion, experiencing God, or reaching the truth. Mystics spend their lives searching for it.

Science doesn’t answer existential questions like: why are we here, what will happen to us after death, and how we should live our life. Religions address those questions. Holy Scriptures guide people in doing “the right thing” when they find themselves in a state of conflict.

However, if a child is taught from the beginning that “their” religion is the only truth and that the followers of other religions will go to hell, and is beaten up if they were to question or challenge a religious belief, then the child loses the ability to think. Thus, the lessons of conformity are deeply ingrained into their conscious and subconscious brain, so much so that, they are not even aware of implicit biases, let alone, question them for critical evaluation. This leaves the field open for fundamentalists to sow the seed of hatred and violence against other groups in minds that are certain that they are doing “the right thing” and protecting their religion.

Common Message In All Religions

As the world is becoming a global village where people find themselves in close proximity to people from other faiths, there is even a greater need for interfaith harmony. The parliament session stressed upon the Golden Rule common in all religions: “Don’t do to others what you would not have them do to you.”

The Charter of Compassion lays a good foundation for interfaith harmony stating that “…any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate.”

Love is at the core of all religion, love for the Divine, and the love for fellow human beings. Love is what overcomes separateness we feel inside and brings us in the spiritual company of the Ultimate. It is through love we experience the wonders of nature and why some people devote their entire lives to serve others. Love is what brings the utmost satisfaction.

The Dalai Lama said: “Every major religion of the world has similar ideas of love, the same goal of benefiting humanity through spiritual practice, and the same effect of making their followers into better human beings.”

So we must think when all the religions have the common objective to achieve universal peace and love, why fight over “my way vs your way” of worship. Why not bring back humanity to where it belongs, at the heart of every religion? Why not chose forgiveness over punishment, charity over objection, social justice over discrimination, and diversity over uniformity.

We all yearn for peace, and love is the only way.

PoWR 2018 Highlights

Nowhere else before had I seen so much religious diversity in one place as I did at the Parliament of World’s Religions—I see a swami talking to an indigenous man in colourful regalia—a Christian priest shaking hands with a Sikh—a rabbi talking about the need to overcome the ongoing Islamophobia—and a Muslim scholar condemning the recent terrorist attack on a synagogue. Hundreds of people sit together on the floor of the Langar Hall and share communal food regardless of their skin colour or spiritual background. Not far away, several dozen people from different parts of the world have transcended religion in the Universal Dance of Peace ceremony, holding hands together and dancing in concentric circles.

At the convention, the LGBTQ community organised the engagement ceremony of a converted Muslim man with a Buddhist man.

The Sikh Community in Ontario served Langar, communal food, to everyone for five days at the convention. Thousands of people came to eat each day. While they were eating, volunteers would pour water in their glass and offer them more food. One could eat as much as one wanted. No questions asked. It was a beautiful example of selfless service. Young students in skirts, Muslim students in hijab, monks, swamis, all sat next to each other. When everyone is together at an equal level in the same room, it is a good start towards harmony.

At the Langar, I noticed an indigenous shaman from Brazil and a Buddhist teacher from Myanmar sharing spiritual wisdom with each other and exchanging laughs and gifts.

Here, I also met Ralph Singh. He told me how he became a Sikh in the 1970s. He recounted how he was sitting with his friend in a room when suddenly everything disappeared from the room, and he came face to face with someone in a remarkable Vision. Although he soon came back from this experience, he couldn’t shake it away from his memory. He decided to leave everything behind and leave on a mystic journey. He travelled to Europe and Asia by road. He crossed the border into India from Lahore and happened to be in a small village where he met Baba Virsa Singh, the man whose voice he had heard. They both didn’t speak each other’s language. Babaji asked him to recite, “Ek Onkar Satnam Sri Waheguru” mantra which Ralph repeated the whole night. By the next day, Ralph was ready. He had found the teacher and thus became a devoted Sikh.

Ralph Singh spoke beautifully about his mystical journey and religion as a way to attain love for God and for others. He knew a lot about Islam which he had learnt from Babaji. Meeting him was a deeply spiritual and emotional experience. I had tears in my eyes. I touched his knees and thanked him for what he had taught me.

Ralph Singh with his wife Joginder Kaur

I asked Ralph Singh’s wife, Joginder Kaur, “where does the humility in highly spiritual people come from?” She said, “when you recognise the sublime majesty of God, you realise how small you are in comparison to the Creator. Your ego dissolves. You become nothing. Those who are not humble haven’t connected to the God yet.”

It made sense. Those involved in the recent events in Pakistan, the ones who speak loud and proud, fabricate stories to claim the status of saints and entice people for violence, have not connected to God. In fact, they couldn’t be further removed from the basic principles of a religion or from God. As I am writing these lines, news broke out that Khadim Rizvi has been arrested by the police.

Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) could have used this convention to present the true meaning of Islam and project its soft image, but they couldn’t go beyond issuing Halal Certification Services, and even then, their stand remained closed most of the time. Another “Islamic” representation was the “Halal Socks” selling Justin Trudeau “Eid Mubarak” socks. Elsewhere, stalls had posters depicting the core message of other religions and provided free literature as well as had friendly staff who would engage with you in conversation. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen’s stand run by a Pakistani American couple was an exception.

At Bawa Muhaiyaddeen’s bookstall run by a Pakistani-American couple.

The Way Forward

Bawa Muhaiyaddeen said, “people with strong faith know that it is important to clear their own hearts, while those with unsteady faith seek to find fault in the hearts and prayers of others!”

A keynote speaker said, “your religion tells you a truth. My religion tells me a truth. Why not combine them both and create a bigger truth.” In her TED talk, Karen Armstrong said, “compassion…is not only the test of true religiosity, it is what will bring us into the presence of what Jews, Christians and Muslims call God or the divine.” Her efforts led to the launching of the Charter of Compassion. Go read it online and make your children read it.

In the times of ideological turmoil and intolerance, what we need is not just tolerance but a genuine acceptance, unconditional love, and compassion towards other groups. Instead of enforcing religious unity, we should cherish diversity. Instead of fighting over who is right and who is wrong and arguing about “your truth” and “my truth” we should seek the unity of hearts. Our religious beliefs are formed at an early age and shape what the psychologists call life scripts held at an unconscious level. They control what we think. For universal peace, we will have to make a lot of mental effort to identify and bust biases in our own thinking.

We should be compassionate, not only to our own family and friends, or to our own religious community, but to all human beings, and to the animals too. We should further extend our love to the Mother Earth.

We should celebrate each other’s festivals. Some parents don’t send their kids to school on a day if the teacher has scheduled a festive from another religion. Don’t do that. Teach your kids about other religions and promote interfaith understanding.

Haft-sin, seven primary items, which are traditionally displayed at the Iranian New Year’s day Nowruz.

We need to cry and laugh together, participate in each other’s rituals. Emotions are contagious and bond people together. Feeling of love for other can lead to the shift in the unconscious belief system. There is a proverb in Buddhism: “Never is hate diminished by hatred. It is only diminished by love. That is the eternal law.”

Peace should be the ultimate goal. Don’t only challenge others about what is right or wrong, but also yourself. Don’t enforce, inspire. Don’t just tolerate, accept with the open heart. Extend the circle of love and include people from other countries and religions.

Imagine a world where people of all faiths eat together and dance together every day. Like the one at the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Just imagine!