Growing up in 1960s and 70s in India, I learned that Swami Vivekananda’s speech in the first Parliament of World’s Religions on September 11, 1893, in Chicago was an instant success. He was given just five minutes to talk about his religion, Hinduism. But his greetings “Sisters and Brothers of America” made the audience burst into an emotional applause. Ultimately, he spoke for several minutes and delivered a very impactful speech, that resulted in invitations for a series of lectures in the West. In my school and college days, I never thought that one day I will attend the Parliament of World’s Religions. But I did it in 2015, when the Parliament of World’s Religion was held in my hometown, Salt Lake City, Utah, United States. I would like to share my life-changing experiences with the readers.
Parliament of World’s Religions (PWR) is the world’s premier interfaith convention of civic and spiritual nature, organized by a 501 (C) 3 non-profit organization with its headquarters in Chicago, Illinois, where the first convention was held in 1893. The PWR is held periodically, with no defined intervals. For instance, after 100 years, it was held again in Chicago in 1993, then in Cape Town (1999), Barcelona (2004), Melbourne (2009), Salt Lake City (2015), Toronto (2018), virtually in 2021, and the most recent one was again held in Chicago from August 14 to 18, 2023.
For the PWR convention in Salt Lake City held from October 15th to 19th, 2015, the theme was Reclaiming the Heart of Our Humanity: Working Together for a World of Compassion, Peace, Justice, and Sustainability. Over 10,000 delegates from all over the world, belonging to different religions and faiths attended the convention. They represented over 50 faiths from 75 nations. There were over 200 stalls or booths representing different faiths. Over 800 programs with eight major plenary sessions were held, where systemic and human-caused challenges of our time were discussed. Specifically, the delegates discussed climate change, bigotry and hatred, rampant violence, preventable wars, abuse of human rights, and unchecked income equality. Emerging issues, such as preservation of the rights, hopes, and beliefs or diverse indigenous people also received equal attention. Women representative spoke about gender equality. Overall, it was a convention that focused not only on religion and faith, but also on human values as they relate to our belief in the Almighty as the caretaker of the world.
From the point of an ordinary attendee like me, one could experience the beautiful things religion and faith can offer to humanity. The world does not need new religions or faith. The existing ones are adequate if they are properly understood and followed in the right sense. What is needed is proper understanding and mutual respect among different religions or faiths, with love and compassion in the heart for all with no barriers. Then tolerance and acceptance will come automatically. This was clear to anyone who attended the convention. When I spoke to people of some unknown faiths from remote parts of the world we had never heard of, I found that they also shared our aspirations for a better world. Then where is the problem? It seems only a few people in each religion stir the issues that divide us. If we can develop the understanding to live with mutual respect and love and compassion, the world will change and become heaven in no time. The question is can this message be carried across the globe? May be if this type of interfaith conventions is held more frequently in different parts of the world, it is possible to bring the badly needed transformation at the individual level. That only can assure welfare of humanity. As Swami Vivekananda said in his first speech in PWR in Chicago, “Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendent, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often with human blood, destroyed civilizations and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.” Those words were uttered 130 years ago by Swami Vivekananda. Now, the time has come to get rid of those evils and move into a promising future for our children and grandchildren. We cannot afford to have these age-old evils in our backyards with Artificial Intelligence in our homes and offices.
Apart from attending the convention in Salt Lake City, we also hosted a booth about our newly launched SAI Kuteer, a faith-based charity. The world needs charity as much as it needs faith. Faith cannot be nurtured without selfless work for the community. Although so many religions and faiths were represented at the PWR convention in Salt Lake City, the highlight was Langar organized by the International Sikh Confederation. While we rented 10 feet x 5 feet stalls in units of one or more, the Sikh organizers rented the space equivalent to a football field. They cooked food on the spot and served delicious lunch for about 10,000 delegates on every day of the convention. It was an amazing feat or service for most Americans, who never saw such mass scale cooking of fresh food and serving. Many Americans were motivated and volunteered serving the food, cleaning the place etc. Some even wore turbans as a token of solidarity with the Sikh community. Sitting on the floor and eating delicious food with many varieties and a glass of mango lassi, I was transposed momentarily to the days I spent in Prasanthi Nilayam, the abode of Sri Sathya Sai Baba, my favorite place on earth. Without my notice, tears rolled down my cheeks. That happens when Divinity manifests in a place where there is absolute selfless service.
Finally, on the last day of the convention, while dismantling our booth, I realized that God could manifest anywhere, provided we have the love and compassion in our heart and realize this world is His place and we should behave like His children and stop fighting among ourselves thinking that our path is the right one or the best one or superior one. It is all a myth. There is no such thing as the best or superior ones. All paths lead to Him. When more and more people among us start realizing this fact, the world becomes a pleasant place to live and grow. So, next time the PWR convention is held near your place or anywhere in your country, please attend it. It is equivalent to going on a pilgrimage. You will come home with lots of pleasant memories, peace of mind and reassurance that despite all its problems, the world is still a good place to live, and we can make it even better, like Vasudevakutambakam
(Prof. Bellamkonda K. Kishore, M.D., Ph.D., MBA is an Academician, Innovator, and entrepreneur. Visit: