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Connecting the Past to the Present

Legacy of the Parliament of the World's Religions

Connecting the Past to the Present 

by Tarunjit Singh Butalia 

It was the summer of 2017. My three children and I were on our way to Delhi to spend three weeks with the extended family in sweltering heat of over 110F. The children didn’t care about the heat while I baked like a potato in the hot sun. My refuge was the air-conditioned bedroom at my parent’s home in Delhi.

The day before we were to leave Delhi for the US, we were invited for tea by a family-friend of my dad. My dad passed away many years ago, but his friends still keep in touch with my mom. So we all piled in a car with my mom and drove to the friend’s home. As I stepped out of the car, I saw this huge billboard of the street outside.

Billboard in Delhi, India – Photo: Tarunjit Singh Butalia

Billboard in Delhi, India – Photo: Tarunjit Singh Butalia

As a trustee of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, I immediately recognized the towering photo of Swami Vivekananda. He was a speaker at the 1893 Parliament in Chicago, bringing the message of the Eastern religious traditions to the Western world. When I looked closer at the banner, to my surprise an extract of his speech delivered about 125 years ago in Chicago was printed in bold letters:

“Sectarianism, bigotry, and it’s horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and send 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 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.”

As I read these words, it struck me that what afflicts the world today are the same diseases of human sectarianism, bigotry, and fanaticism that were prevalent 125 years ago.

John Dayal – Photo:    Wikipedia

John Dayal – Photo: Wikipedia

I had the privilege to attend my first Parliament in 2009 in Melbourne, Australia. At the closing ceremony, the Dalai Lama rightfully challenged the Parliament to become an agent of change in the world. Following this, I also attended the 2015 Parliament held in Salt Lake City, Utah – where I was touched at the closing ceremony by the words of John Dayal, a Christian human rights activist from India who highlighted the persecution of Christians in the world’s largest democracy, India, and highlighted the need for reconciliation and mutual understanding.

As I reflect on the speech of Swami Vivekananda from 1893, it seems to me that the Dalai Lama and John Dayal’s words highlight the same essence, the same critical issue facing humanity today: how to deal with our own inhumanity of greed, prejudice, dehumanization, and persecution of our fellow human beings.

Religion has received quite a bad reputation in the last several centuries for being a source of conflict and violence. Some argue  that nearly every conflict in the world today has a religious cause associated with it and the media seems more than happy to present religion in ways that affirm this view. If I may say: Religion has not been the cause of violence, religious people have been the cause of violence. Religious fanatics and divisive politicians alike stand ready to make religion a tool of their arrogance and power.

Photo:    Max Pixel

Photo: Max Pixel

Since we as “religious people” have allegedly been the source of conflict, it is up to us as religious people to also be those that help resolve conflict. If religion is a part of the problem, it must also be a part of the solution.

I take this challenge with me to Toronto this November 1-7  as I attend the next Parliament of the World’s Religions: How can people of faith be a part of the solution? I am looking forward to learning from you and other people of faith and conscience. Come dream with me in Toronto!