Bodhinatha gives a talk on inter-religious harmony at the University of Arkansas at a conference put on by the Hindu Student Council and Muslims of the University.
We wish to express our thanks to both the Hindu Student Council and the Muslims of the University of Arkansas for hosting this event and for giving me this opportunity to share some thoughts on the important topic of the role of religion and spirituality in bringing harmony and peace amongst people who follow the Hindu religion and those of other religions. Before focusing on how Hindus can relate harmoniously and peacefully with those of other faiths, let me present an introductory section that applies to all religions.
Eight years ago there was an important event involving all of the world's religions held in New York city. It was the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders convened by the United Nations. Secretary-General Kofi Annan gave the opening address from which I will quote a few portions.
"Religion can be a realm of extraordinary power. It can offer solace in troubled times. It can make sense of the seemingly senseless because that's the world we live in. It can give us strength to meet the physical and spiritual challenges of life. Religion helps us find our place in the cosmos; it knits families and communities together; it endows individuals with compassion and morality. Whether one believes without question or wrestles with doubt, whether one is part of a religious community or worships in the privacy of the soul, religious practices and beliefs are among the phenomena that define us as human. For many of us, the axiom could well be: "We pray, therefore, we are." "Of course, the practice of religion differs widely. But at heart we are dealing in universal values. To be merciful; to be tolerant; to love thy neighbour; no religion can claim a monopoly on such teachings. "There is no mystery here. Such values are deeply ingrained in the human spirit itself. It is little wonder that the same values animate the Charter of the United Nations, and lie at the root of our search for world peace..."
Secretary-General Annan also spoke about the problems within religion: "Religion is frequently equated with light. But we all know that the practice of religion can have its dark side, too. Religious extremism has too often oppressed or discriminated against women and minorities. Religion has often been yoked to nationalism, stoking the flames of violent conflict and setting group against group. Religious leaders have not always spoken out when their voices could have helped combat hatred and persecution, or could have roused people from indifference. Religion is not itself to blame: as I have often said, the problem is usually not with the faith, but with the faithful.
"So I humbly suggest that today's meeting is also an opportunity for religious, spiritual and political leaders, as well as their followers, to look within, and to consider what they can do to promote justice, equality, reconciliation and peace. Men and women of faith are a strong influence on group and individual conduct. As teachers and guides, you can be powerful agents of change. You can inspire people to new levels of commitment and public service. You can help bridge the chasms of ignorance, fear and misunderstanding. You can set an example of interfaith dialogue and cooperation."
As the UN Secretary-General states so well, the challenge that faces each of the world's religions is for the moderate voices within it to take a more aggressive role and to speak up more often and share the peace-loving, high-minded principles contained within the religion to counterbalance and influence the more extreme voices advocating intolerance and violence.
To illustrate this concept, I would like to share two examples in the US which I am familiar with, one of the extreme and the other of the moderate, both from the Christian tradition. In 1995 the Christian evangelical Baptist leader Pat Robertson, as part of his goal of making the United States a Christian nation, made the statement on his television show that Hindus should not be allowed to immigrate to the United States. His exact statement was: "We're importing Hinduism into America. The whole thought of your karma, of meditation, of the fact that there's no end of life and there's this endless wheel of life, this is all Hinduism. Chanting too. Many of those chants are to Hindu Gods-Vishnu, Hare Krishna. The origin of it is all demonic. We can't let that stuff come into America. We've got the best defense, if you will-a good offense."
Contrast this approach with the Christian groups, such as the Episcopal Church, who participate in the leadership of interfaith initiatives such as the "United Religions Initiative" based in Northern California which promotes enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings.