Leading the World Locally
URI’s Impact in Asia
by Abraham Karickam
Those of us in South Asia came to know about the birthing of a new international interfaith organization destined to change the world during the voyage of Bishop William Swing around the world in 1996. He addressed the Maramon Convention in Kerala, where over 100,000 people attend daily sessions for a week. He went on to visit religious leaders from Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Christian, and Sikh traditions. Mother Theresa welcomed him in Calcutta.
He traveled to a number of Asian countries, leading to the involvement of numerous religious leaders. These luminaries included Nirmala Desh Pande, veteran Gandhian and a Parliamentary leader; Swami Agnivesh, a leading religious thinker, former politician, and social justice activist; Dr. Mohinder Singh, secretary of the Bair Vir Singh Sadan in New Delhi; Dr. Meher Master Moos, president of the World Zoroastrian College in Mumbai; Justice P. K. Shamsuddin, president of the World Fellowship of Inter Religious Councils; Father Albert Nambiar Parambil, secretary of the World Fellowship of Inter Religious Councils; and Mohini Giri, daughter of the former president of India and a parliamentarian.
By 2000 URI became well known in India due to the involvement of these leaders and the large numbers of people attracted to this new movement. This was quite evident when I convened the first Indian National Assembly in Kottayam. That gathering was inaugurated by Metropolitan Philipose Mar Chrysostom, the longest living bishop in India. (He became a bishop 67 years ago and is still active at the age of 102.) We were privileged to offer the first URI Asia Peace award to him, a few years ago.
The second URI Indian National Assembly was held at the Santhigiri Ashram, Aluva, which was inaugurated by leaders from the Mar Thoma Church and the Ramanuja Mission trust in India. It likewise attracted a large number of religious dignitaries from across the country. Around 100 delegates attended, including a delegation of students from the Salwan Public School, New Delhi. We were active in helping students accompany us in our journey towards uniting the human family.
The third URI National Assembly was convened at the Viswabharathi University in West Bengal, founded by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Laureate. Biswadeb Chakraborti, our East India coordinator, convinced the world famous university about the prospects of URI ushering in a new era of communal harmony and amity. Subsequently regional assemblies were held in Mumbai, Bangalore, Puri, and Amritsar under the leadership of URI coordinators. The next one is to be held in Varanasi, India’s famous pilgrimage centre. These regional meetings are attracting so many participants that organizers have had to limit the number attending.
Three Pan-Asia General Assemblies have been held, first in Bali, Indonesia in 2002. The second was in Pune, India in 2009, and the third was convened last year in Sri Lanka. Regular assemblies are also being held in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Korea, and Sri Lanka, each with active national networks of CCs. They demonstrate how URI has flourished and is growing in Asia at an amazing pace. More than a third of all URI Cooperation Circles (CCs) are in Asia, no surprise since it is the mother of a number of world religions. URI is not just an organization here, but a necessity. We cannot forget the many wars in the past where one religion or another was destroyed and others given prominence, led by passionate rulers who were free to change the course of world history and play havoc with the lives of innocent people.
When we think of approximately 350 CCs and their impact on Asian soil, we should note that there are small CCs with as few as seven members and huge CCs spread out geographically, big organizations themselves. The Sarvodaya Movement CC in Sri Lanka is active in about 15,000 villages in the country. Dr. A. T. Ariaratne, the Sri Lankan Gandhi, founded this movement, holding URI principles dear from the very beginning. We were able to present the second URI Asia Peace award to him during the recent URI Asia Assembly held in Sri Lanka.
Due to the cost of assembling people from around the world, URI has had only one Global Assembly since its founding in 2000. It was held in Mayapur in West Bengal. Around 200 delegates gathered from different corners of the globe, preceded by an international assembly of youth. These summits were made possible through the hospitality of the ISKCON Centre (International Society of Krishna Consciousness) and the support of benefactors around the world. It had a major impact in Asia and has reaped fruitful results.
URI’s Travelling Peace Academy (TPA), a mobile university, is an offshoot of the 2000 Assembly. The seeds for it were sown by the Moral Imagination Development program, a series of peace-building training sessions conducted in the US, India, the Philippines, Ethiopia, and Uganda. More than 400 youngsters have been trained through the TPA. This new generation of leaders is playing a very important role in developing URI in their respective locales.
Bringing large numbers of youngsters into our fold has been a major goal. It motivated the creation of the Interfaith Students’ Movement in schools and colleges, which are also registered as URI CCs. Youth delegates are regularly included in national and zonal assemblies, helping them become rooted in URI principles. Several school CCs have been supported to do their own innovative projects.
The Holy Books Conferences project has also played a crucial role in promoting and spreading URI in this region. These conferences are held every other year and contribute a great deal in framing an interfaith point of view and philosophy, crucial for the growth of URI. Any organisation without a compelling philosophy will collapse like a castle in the sand. The binding threads have to be strong and stable.
The World Fellowship of Inter Religious Councils and the Sri Ramanuja Mission Trust are two CCs that have units and contacts all over India. Chavara Cultural Centre is a CC with a number of interfaith and educational projects. Santhvanam Cancer Care Society CC has so far helped more than 150 people receive treatment. Zero Limit CC has been doing outreach counselling programs in numerous schools in Kerala. Atma Darshana Yoga CC in Bangalore has been promoting yoga all around the world, and they have started a Yoga University in India. Cosmic Community Centre CC was in the forefront for helping victims during the recent floods which killed more than 400 people, and it is continuing its relief activities. The Women Development Society CC in Karnataka is running an orphanage and an old age home where they house more than 30 destitute residents. Blossom CC in Tamil Nadu has been working among eight tribal communities for the past 60 years and has a school for tribal children.
We need to develop a mechanism with which to measure the impact of various CCs. This has been an era of planting and consolidating with new challenges on the horizon. China remains a frontier, where only one CC has been established so far. Yet throughout Asia there is a growing interest in the movement. If we are able to capitalize on this enthusiasm, URI can become a strong catalyst of change in Asia’s future.
We look forward to a time when all URI regions are well equipped for playing a pivotal role in transforming society. We have been working to achieve this goal from the start, and those of us in Asia hope to take a lead role in the international interfaith organisations which work for unity and peace.
Header Photo: Pexels