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Unity in Diversity at Parliament of World's Religions

by Philip Goldberg November, 2015

Audience at Parliament of World Religions

Parliment of World Religions 2015

In mid-October I spent six days at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was my second parliament, the first being 2004 in Barcelona, and the differences were significant.

For one thing, there were more people, nearly 10,000 as opposed to about 8,000 in Spain. It is hard to know if the growth reflects greater worldwide interest in interfaith activities or merely the ease and convenience of the location for Americans. While participants hailed from some 80 countries, this gathering was far more America centric than Barcelona and, I’m told, Cape Town (1999) and Melbourne (2009). That said, it was incredibly diverse, with a gorgeous bouquet of complexions, clothing and headgear. By official estimate, 50 religions were represented, and, based on my own observations, so were independents, eclectics, ‘nones’, ‘spiritual but not religious’ and others who defy categorization. This, in itself, is an interesting development; to the credit of Parliament officials, among the 900 or so workshops, lectures, practice sessions and other presentations - an overwhelming number, with 20 or 30 sometimes running at the same time - were many that reflected the growth of non-traditional spirituality. Fittingly, indigenous traditions were spotlighted, and one plenary session was devoted entirely to that long-neglected segment of world spirituality.

Sutra readers will, I think, be pleased to know that the Dharmic traditions were more visible and more prominent than they were in 2004 - or so it seemed to me. In the entrance hall to the Salt Palace Convention Center, which virtually everyone passed through at least twice a day, were a small Jain temple and a trio of Tibetan Buddhist monks fastidiously creating a sand mandala, which was, in accord with custom, dissolved before an appreciative crowd when the Parliament closed. And, as in previous Parliaments, the Sikhs blew thousands of minds by providing a tasty vegetarian lunch every day, for free, to any and all. For these langars they commandeered a huge meeting hall, where a well-organized cadre of smiling volunteers walked up and down aisles with heavy pots and serving trays, spooning rice, dhal, paneer, and other dishes to row upon row of happy eaters of all nationalities and religions, with everyone except the physically unable sitting on the floor with their heads respectfully covered and their shoes parked at the door in numbered racks.

Judging from the ovation the Sikhs received when thanked at the closing plenary, the way to a pluralistic crowd’s heart is through its stomach.

The Hindu presence was felt mainly in presentations. My informal and unscientific observation is that there were more Hindu-oriented sessions than in previous Parliaments. Not nearly enough for my taste, but an improvement over the past, and, given the state of current events, it was understandable that Islam would receive a great deal of attention (anyone who thinks Muslims don’t speak out against extremists and terrorists, should get transcripts of the speeches). There were talks on Hindu philosophy and practice sessions featuring meditation, asana, pranayama and kirtan.

There were also Hindu and Hindu-inspired speakers on mixed panels that could be considered implicitly dharmic by virtue of their themes or the backgrounds of the speakers. The panel I organized was a good example. Titled “Seeking Unity Within Diversity: Are we Really One?” it focused on transcendent spiritual experience as the truest and deepest source of unity, and unbeknownst to the audience, every one of the five panelists had a deep involvement in yogic practices and Hindu philosophy – not just Rita Sherma, professor of Dharma Studies at Graduate Theological Union, but also Dana Sawyer, a professor religion at Maine College of Art (and biographer of both Aldous Huxley and Huston Smith); Mirabai Starr, an expert on the Christian mystics; Sufi teacher Ayshegul Erdal; and me.



The orange-robed swamis of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda lineage (Vedanta Society in the U.S., Ramakrishna Math and Mission in India) were highly visible, and brought a Vedantic perspective to several sessions. One was dedicated to the legacy of Swami Vivekananda, who is, of course, revered in Parliament circles because of his triumphant appearance at the very first of these gatherings, in Chicago in 1893—easily the event’s most memorable and historically significant feature.

Some of the plenaries and other sessions that attracted big crowds included Hindu speakers, most notably agricultural and environmental activist Vandana Shiva (Monsanto’s biggest enemy in India) and Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswati, the President of Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh, who (along with his American disciple, Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati) served as an effective link between dharmic spirituality and social activism. I should add that the indomitable Vandana Shiva was one of many powerhouse women at the conference, which placed female spiritual leadership in a long-overdue spotlight. I’m sure most in attendance would agree that her combination of passion, science, erudition and inspirational energy was a highlight of the conference.

This progress is a reflection of the evolving interfaith movement.

Once upon a time, interfaith gatherings resembled the setup of a joke: A priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into a room … That changed, at least in big American cities, as society became increasingly diverse and right-minded people sought to represent the true religious and spiritual landscape.

Perhaps more important than representation, however, has been the unmistakable growth of respect for and understanding of the Dharmic traditions. To be sure, there are many miles to go in this regard; there is a great deal of antipathy and obliviousness still to overcome. But ignorance does, over time, yield before accurate information and close encounters of the personal kind. I have seen this shift accelerate over the years, and I documented aspects of it in American Veda. The change between the Parliaments of 2004 and 2015 seemed palpable to me, and while those in attendance were preselected for open-mindedness and religious liberalism, it marks, I believe, a larger trend.

Interfaith events often bring out my inner cynic, and the Parliament was no exception. Too many sessions were on banal or overdone topics. Too many interfaith clichés about respect and tolerance were voiced as if the messages were new. Too many standing ovations were given to what amount to peace-and-love platitudes (If only we all followed the Golden Rule. We need to be more compassionate). Too many inspired calls for social justice, women’s rights, an end to extremism and climate change will be forgotten by Thanksgiving. Too much horizontal religion and not enough vertical, experience-centered spirituality. Too much emphasis on the standard Western categories of religion and the usual silos of belief. In truth, I wish interfaith would hurry up and evolve into transfaith.

But, while those cynical thoughts came up - justifiably, I think - I felt far less frustration than I have at similar events. The significant advancement in those areas of concern is a reason for optimism. In addition, the commitment of Parliament officials to issues like women’s equality, social justice and the climate crisis was commendable and the support of the 10,000 was full-throated. Maybe, just maybe, some Fox News watchers will take home the message about climate change and convince their church brethren that action is needed. Small shifts of awareness, little changes of behavior, reconsidered attitudes - maybe that’s how things change. And the extent to which hearts and minds were opened on matters of religion should not be underestimated. Thanks largely to the informal and unpredictable interactions among thousands of friendly people, individuals who had never met a Muslim, or a Sikh, or a Wiccan, or whatever, will go back to their homogeneous communities and tell their friends how nice those people were, and maybe, just maybe, they had the wrong idea about them.

1893 Parliament of World Religions

1893 Parliment of World Religions

These small openings are not to be pooh poohed. In 1893, Vivekananda concluded his famous opening speech with this:

“Sectarianism, bigotry, and its 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 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.”

Needless to say, the message is as relevant today as it was twelve decades ago. Which is exactly why the Parliament was revived, and why, for all its shortcomings, it represents a glimmer of sunlight.

Philip Goldberg

by Philip Goldberg

November, 2015

About Philip Goldberg

Philip Goldberg has been studying India’s spiritual traditions for more than 45 years, as a practitioner, teacher and writer. An Interfaith Minister, meditation teacher and spiritual counselor, he is a skilled speaker who has lectured and taught workshops throughout the country and in India.

He is the author of numerous books, most recently American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West, which was named one of the top ten religion books of 2010 by Huffington Post and the American Library Association. He blogs regularly on the Huffington Post.

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