1993 –An Unforgettable Year
The World Celebrates the First Parliament of Religion
by Marcus Braybrooke
A quarter of a century ago, to celebrate the centenary of the first World Parliament of Religions, 1993 was observed in many parts of the world as a “Year of Inter-religious Understanding and Co-operation.” The best known centennial celebration , of course, was the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. But memorable events were held in India, Japan, and in the UK. My wife Mary and I, as members of the International Coordinating committee, were privileged to participate in events in many parts of the world.
Brahma Kumaris Host in London
For us it began in London at the Brahma Kumaris’ Global Co-operation House on January 27th, 1993. It was a day-long event in three parts. The morning was fairly formal, the afternoon was spent in workshops, and the evening was a cultural celebration. Speakers in the morning included Bishop Trevor Huddleston, known for his long campaign against apartheid, and Edgar D Mitchell, the Apollo XIV Astronaut, who spoke movingly of the sense of the oneness, beauty, and fragility of planet Earth as seen from space. That image had been shown at the start of the proceedings.
To create a link with the 1893 Parliament, a lively dramatization of the 1893 Parliament was presented. At the end of the morning, children from the local Barham Junior School, carried in a great globe, but on a stretcher – the world was dying and required urgent care. As the children started to rescue the world they sang Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World,” while an enormous “One World Quilt of Unity,” was raised as a backdrop to the stage.
The morning was punctuated by the Water Ceremony. A fountain was on the stage. Two members of each faith were asked to bring a gift of water and say a prayer. Christians brought water from the river Jordan, Hindus from the river Ganges, Muslims from Zamzam. The Christian prayer was from the Roman Catholic baptism service. From the Qur'an there was a verse about God making all things from water.
Because of suspicions that interfaith was really a new amalgamated faith, some care was taken with explaining the significance of the ceremony. The bulletin said:
Each religion has treasures to share with all people. In the ceremony, representatives of each World Faith will say a prayer and offer its treasures in the form of water. The water may symbolise the cleansing of the scars of conflict, the bringing of refreshment to the thirsty or the renewal of hope for a just and peaceful world where nature's bounty is valued and not polluted. The mingling of the waters symbolises how from their own rich and diverse sources faiths can come together in the service of humanity.
The evening included moving readings by Hayley Mills and John Cleese. Tibetan children from the Pestalozzi Children's Village and others sang and danced. Sacred music late in the evening blended in a wonderful weave of Eastern and Western sacred music traditions.
Celebrating the Parliament’s 100th in Kanyakumari, Bangalore, and Delhi
The highlight of this celebratory year for us was a trip beginning at the southern tip of India at Kanyakumari, a gathering arranged by the World Fellowship of Inter-religious Councils. Before the meeting began, we joined a group going to Vivekananda’s rock. It was there that Swami Vivekanada, a prominent figure at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions, dedicated his life to “My God, the poor of every land.”
The island was crowded and hot, and Mary almost fainted. Our doctor son, Jeremy, travelling with us, came to the rescue and found a taxi to take Mary back to the hostel. A Baha’i cleared the crowd aside so that she could be the first to get onto the ferry. The taxi driver was a Muslim. About an hour later, there was a knock on the door, and a Parsee (Zoroastrian) lady, a friend, was there, holding a large brown envelope. “I think you left this on the rock. Do you need it?” In the envelope were our tickets, passports, and traveller’s cheques. As Mary says, “it was a wonderful example of human kindness and caring.”
The main events in India were in Bangalore and Delhi. The gathering in Bangalore, called Sarva Dharma Sammelana, was attended by 600 people of many faiths and from many countries. It was arranged jointly by the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF), the Temple of Understanding, the World Conference of Religions for Peace, and the World Congress of Faiths. (A full record of the conference is in Visions of an Interfaith Future, edited by David Storey.)
Arriving in Bangalore, though, we found that nothing had been done to inform the media. However, Fr. Roger Lesser, who had served in India for many years, had excellent contacts. In less than 48 hours it was arranged for the opening ceremony to be shown on All-India TV. Having the press office in our bedroom, though, made it hard to take a siesta!
The primary purpose of Sarva Dharma Sammelana was to bring together interfaith activists to see how they could be more effective. The program was shaped around discussions rather than speeches, which was not the Indian pattern. The governor of Andra Pradesh was invited, and though hesitant to talk about religion, when spirituality was mentioned, he agreed to come to the opening ceremony.
A delicate question was who to invite onto the platform to light the lamp at the opening ceremony. One swami said he would only come if he was the only person on the dais. It was decided to invite a friend, a woman in a wheel chair, to be the first to light the lamp. She was wheeled in and tensions dissolved.
The whole conference was set in a context of prayer and meditation. Indeed the hotel garden, where many events took place, has a tree under which Gandhi used to spend time in meditation when in Bangalore.
Bangalore featured three program tracks. One involved intensive small group work; the second included visits to a large number of local religious centres; and in the third included seven workshops on key issues, such as “Education for Understanding” and “Service and Solidarity.”
In the evening there were cultural offerings, some hosted by local communities. They allowed the citizens of Bangalore to share in Sarva-Dharma-Sammelana. I was greatly honoured when a Tibetan monk gave me a white silk scarf which had been sent by the Dalai Lama. My lasting memory was of the warmth of the friendships and the sheer enjoyment of the rich variety of people, all of whom were committed to working for a happier world.
A Japanese lady who had been afraid to travel to India because of reports of communal trouble, said Sarva-Dharma- Sammelana was “a foretaste of paradise, with the blue skies, beautiful flowers, butterflies, and everywhere smiling faces.”
It was then on to Delhi. When we arrived, Mary Kaur invited us to the peaceful Gobind Sadan spiritual community founded by Baba Virsa Singh.
The next day there was a meeting in city at which Dr. Karan Singh, a former member of the Indian government and chairman of the Temple of Understanding, presided. A highlight was a speech from Shri P V Narasimha Rao, the Prime Minister of India, who stressed that India's constitution gave equal respect to all faiths. Next day I was pictured with the Prime Minister on the front page of several Indian newspapers.
Japanese Celebrate the 1893 Parliament
That evening, we flew on to Japan. “There was a typhoon brewing and the plane lurched about,” Mary remembers. “Marcus slept through it undisturbed, while a delightful Indian doctor kept me company. When we got to Tokyo everything was flooded, although in the sunshine, the water soon dried up.”
On the following day, I spoke at a major Japanese interreligious gathering. The abbot of a monastery showed me the 1893 Parliament conference badge given to one of his predecessors.
With members of IARF, we were invited to a ceremony at the Ise Grand Shrine. Men and women – even if married – were in separate dormitories. When Mary asked if she could come and say goodnight to her husband, the other men asked her if she wanted them to leave, but a good-night kiss does not have to be private! With some of the other ladies Mary had her first Japanese hot bath.
We travelled on a bullet train for a brief visit to the beautiful Tsubaki Grand Shrine. It is one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan, although it has never been associated with State Shintoism, which was a militaristic perversion. Indeed, their priest was in hiding throughout the Second World War. His son, Yukitaka Yamamoto, about whom I have written in Beacons of Light, was conscripted into the army; seeing the full horror of war, he dedicated himself to work for peace, especially in his leading role in IARF.
Yukitaka Yamamoto especially valued the discipline of misogi harai, or water purification. We were privileged to be invited to take part in the misogi ceremony. Mary, who substituted Christian prayers, particularly remembers the sense of oneness with Nature that she experienced. Marcus, who had not been well earlier in the day, was more concerned with surviving the cold water.
And Finally, Chicago
It was then on to Chicago. There are many memories of the wonderful people we met, of signing “The Declaration Toward a Global Ethic,” and the Closing Plenary in Grant Park. I remember that the final session was delayed for nearly an hour as we waited for the arrival of the Dalai Lama. During the time I sat next to the much-loved Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, of Chicago. Mary with our good friend Hal French happily joined in the dancing.
Then, finally, back to our home near Bath for five days before we moved to a new parish and a new house in Marsh Baldon, so we could share in plans to create an International Interfaith Centre in Oxford.
We would love to be in Toronto this November for the coming Parliament, but health problems make travelling more difficult. We send greetings to all the participants, especially the many friends who have shared the journey.
Marcus Braybrooke’s history of the interfaith movement from 1893 to 1993, the standard text on the subject, is titled Pilgrimage of Hope: One Hundred Years of Global Interfaith Dialogue (1992).
Header Photo: Pxhere