27.09.2006 / The interfaith dialogue: Towards a universe of peace, Dr. Karan Singh
ALMATY. September 27, 2006. KAZINFORM . /Raushan Tolenkyzy/ – India from the dawn of civilization, has nurtured many great religions of the world, Dr. Karan Singh, the president of the Indian Council for Cultural Ties has told Kazinform correspondent.
Four of these – Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism – were born in India, while four others came to us from West Asia and flourished in our country for centuries – the religion of Zarathustra, Prophet of Iran, Christianity which reached India as far back as in A.D. 57, Judaism of which we have a small but flourishing community, and Islam with which we have had interaction for thousand years resulting in our having the second largest number of Muslims of any country in the world after Indonesia.
If one thing is clear in the present situation it is that world peace will remain a futile dream unless we can establish peace between and within the great religions of the world. Even as I speak, the forces of fundamentalism and fanaticism are misusing religion to target innocent people and create a sense of insecurity and ill will between various religious communities.
As against these negative approaches, however, all the great spiritual traditions of the world tell us that there is, deep within our consciousness, a creative power that, if invoked and nurtured, can bring about a benign transformation in our thoughts and behavior. The lives and thoughts of saints and seers from all the great religions of the world bear this out, and impel us to look deeper into this holistic philosophy of peace in its varied dimensions.
The image used on the first postage stamp issued by independent Kazakhstan on 20 March 1992 depicts the Yesik Gold Man, as the burial site came to be known, found about 45 kilometers east of Almaty in southern Kazakhstan. The site contains the body of a young male Saka chieftain dating to the fifth-century B.C. It is a matter for further historical research to trace the common linkages between the community of the Gold Man and the Saka tribes, who we know came to India about 2000 years ago. However, the Gold Man symbolizes the common heritage that has linked our societies together over the centuries.
Scholars of Buddhism have pointed to the northward spread of Buddhism from India to Central Asia and beyond, using the Silk Route.
Exactly 150 years ago, in 1856, the great Kazakh explorer and ethnographer, Chokhan Valikhanov, during his journey into the Semirechiye region, around Almaty, recorded the images of the Buddha carved on the rock faces of Tamgali Tas, in the Ili River valley which both in their artistic style and metaphysical characteristics, typically belong to the Vajrayana school that originated in Northern India, particularly, known as Kashmiri Buddhism, which later flourished in Tibet and Central Asia. Another common linkage is the example of Mirza Haider Dughlati, a Kazakh hero, who is buried in Srinagar in India. Dughlati was a maternal cousin of Babur, who played a prominent role in the politics of this region during the early years of Mughal rule in India.
If Buddhism travelled northward to Central Asia using the Silk Road, Sufism travelled from Central Asia to India southwards using the same route. All across India, Sufism has a special place in the evolution of our social and philosophical traditions. This is especially true of Jammu and Kashmir. It is useful to point out, for example, the contribution of Kashmiri musicians to the tradition of stringed music that is appreciated in both our regions, which uses the santoor, a typically Kashmiri instrument, as accompaniment for spiritual compositions, many of which are influenced by Sufism.
It needs to be emphasized that the elements we all appreciate in our Sufi saints is their message of peace, love and human brotherhood. Indeed some of the largest Muslim shrines outside Saudi Arabia are located in India such as the Dargah of Khwaja Moinnuddin Chishti in Ajmer which is visited by millions of people every year regardless of their religious affiliations. The presence of numerous local shrines in rural Kazakhstan where Sufism is a living tradition attests to the fact that, in contemporary Kazakhstan, Sufi traditions play an equally important role in daily life. Kazakhstan has always claimed the philosophy of Ahmad Shah Yassavi, for example, as an integral part of its national heritage.
Over the centuries the central ideas incorporated in religion have overlapped and spread across geographical boundaries. In a sense this illustrates the basic truth that religions, at their inner core, have a universal message and resonance, and have inspired deeply rewarding creative interaction cutting across national boundaries. It is for this reason that I strongly believe that an inner spiritual link is the true foundation of the Interfaith movement. It binds the entire human race into a single family, cutting across all barriers of nationality and religion, caste and creed, sex and social status. What the Hindus call antarik shakti, Buddhists the Bodhi Chitta, Chinese the Tao, Christians “the peace that passeth understanding,” Muslims the Noor-i-Elahi, in fact seeks to describe the inner light that is the common heritage of the human race.
The Interfaith Movement, in modern times, can be said to have begun in 1893 when the first Parliament of the World Religions was held in Chicago, attended by thousands of delegates from around the world, including Swami Vivekananda from India, who took with him the message of human brotherhood and inter-religious harmony which is so integrally a part of the Hindu tradition, as expressed in the famous words of the Rigveda – Ekam Sat Vipraha Bahuda Vadanti – “The truth is one, the wise call it by many names.” In the twentieth century, a large number of interfaith organizations came into being, including the Temple of Understanding of which I am Chairman worldwide, and interfaith meetings were held in various parts of the world, including the Second Parliament in Chicago in 1993; the third in Cape Town, South Africa in 1999 and the fourth in Barcelona, Spain in 2004.
The interfaith dialogue includes interfaith prayers, roundtables, seminars and symposia, and interaction at many levels. It is particularly important that interfaith values are reflected in educational curricula around the world. Exclusionist and monopolistic claims to religious truths must give place to a more balanced and inclusivist approach. While in the twentieth century the Interfaith Movement did grow, it is not yet a central movement. My hope is that in the same way as the Environmental Movement moved quite recently from the periphery to the centre of human concerns, the Interfaith Movement too will become central in the years to come. Of course, a great deal is being done in the various faiths. Beautiful temples, mosques, churches and other places of worship are being built, but the Interfaith Movement, as such, is yet nobody's first priority. Unless the Interfaith Movement comes centre stage, things are not going to fall into place in the global society emerging before our very eyes.
The question is not whether we are going to have a global society, but what sort of global society we are going to have. Will it be based upon exploitation, negativities, crime, hatred and fanaticism, or are we going to have a sane and harmonious global society based on interfaith understanding and peaceful conflict res
olution? Like the roads in Robert Frost's poem, or indeed in the Katha Upanishad thousands of years earlier, two paths now lie before us. One could lead through a concerted and multi-dimensional quest for peace and continuing interfaith dialogue, towards a sane and equitable world civilization, in which the scarce resources of Planet Earth are used to provide the necessary material, intellectual and spiritual inputs for a decent civilized life to all human beings. The other is the path of conflict and disharmony, fundamentalism and fanaticism, which will inevitably result in the destruction of human civilization as we now know it.
Contemporary discussion has to revolve around an integrated, holistic philosophy in which human existence is looked upon as a rare gift to be utilized both for inner development and for the welfare of society and the world. It is essential that such discussions should continue to be held around the world so that, despite significant theological differences, the common factors between the various religions of the world can be highlighted. The concepts of human brotherhood, of kindness, of compassion, of respect for elders, of ecological preservation, of mutual regard for differences, need to be re-emphasized in the present age. Science and technology have given us tremendous power, but this can be used both for good and for evil, for creation and for destruction.
If used with wisdom and compassion, we now have the capacity to eliminate poverty, malnutrition, hunger and many diseases from the face of the Earth. However, we see that technology is also being used for escalation in weapons of destruction, and that, obnoxious activities such as gun-running, drug proliferation and, most shameful of all, trafficking in human beings including children continue to flourish. Despite all the much-vaunted achievements of modern civilization, it is a shame and disgrace that such activities continue unabated and, in fact, seem to be growing. Related to this is the growth of terrorism worldwide which has injected an element of insecurity, fear and even paranoia into large sections of the world’s population.
It is my firm belief that a dialogue between the great religions of the world, including what are known as the “traditional religions,” is the only way to create an atmosphere of peace and harmony and ensure the welfare of the human race, specially the emancipation of half the world’s population that still lives on or below the poverty line in a state of deprivation and suffering. Millions of the world’s children still suffer from hunger and malnutrition, and grow up stunted in body and mind due to lack of crucial nutritional inputs during their childhood. If the vast resources of religious organizations could be used to help our future citizens and strengthening the Interfaith Movement, it could go a long way towards improving the human condition.
The most beautiful photograph ever taken is the one taken of our planet from outer space. That shows our world as it really is, a tiny speck of light and life against the unending vastnesses of outer space, so beautiful and yet so fragile. It is this Earth that has nurtured human consciousness from the slime of the primeval ocean for billions of years to where we stand today. It is now for our generation to decide whether we will destroy this beautiful planet and convert it into burnt-out cinder circling the Sun unto eternity, or whether we will have the wisdom, the courage and the compassion to create a new, equitable and harmonious global society. This is the challenge facing not only our political leaders but particularly our religious leaders who claim to be servants of the divine. It is my sincere hope and prayer that we are granted the wisdom to take the right decisions at this crucial juncture in our long and tortuous history of planet Earth.
One of the most ancient prayers for peace known to humanity, one that has echoed and re-echoed for millennia down the corridors of time from the dawn of Vedic civilization, and is chanted in India even today as it was thousands of years ago in the incomparable glory of the great Himalayas:
Peaceful be heaven, peaceful the earth,
Peaceful the broad space between.
Peaceful be for us the running waters,
Peaceful the plants and herbs!
Peaceful be all the Devas,
Peaceful be the Brahman,
Peaceful be the entire universe,
May peace and only peace prevail,
And may that peace come unto me.
Aum Peace, Peace, Peace.
Kazinform expresses gratitude to the Indian Embassy in Kazakhstan for assistance in interviewing.