I attended the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions as an individual representing no particular group. With no organizational responsibility I was free to pick and choose the sessions I would attend.
My own religious tradition and spirituality derive from my birth as a Hindu; my early education in Canadian Presbyterian Schools in Trinidad, West Indies; my three-year association with the Unitarian Church in the US; and most recently from my affiliation with the Theosophical Society, as well as from my profession as a scientist.
I went to the Parliament not to attend lectures and seminars, of which there were hundreds; not to receive facts and knowledge, for which there were several opportunities; and certainly not to learn about other religions, about which I have only a passing yet respectful interest. But I did go looking for something spiritual. Conseqently, I went possessed with the same zeal and fervor a pilgrim would have on the road to Mecca, Jerusalem, or Varanasi. Chicago, home of the largest collection of abattoirs in the US at an earlier time when America's most celebrated gangster, Al Capone, was plundering the "windy city" into infamy, could hardly qualify for the lofty spiritual plane of the other cities mentioned. Nevertheless, stranger things have happened.
Since I did not stay at the Palmer House Hilton Hotel, home of the Parliament, my daily ritual was different from those at that hotel. Instead I stayed with a friend in a small town 30 miles west of Chicago. In the morning I would catch the 8:05 train which would get into Chicago at 8:45 a.m. From there I would walk the mile-and-a-half along Monroe Avenue to the hotel. I usually got there in time to have some coffee and a currant scone before the sessions began at 10. In the evening I returned by train. Each night on the way home, I would go over the next day's sessions from the Parliament's program catalogue. I tried to arrange my day so that I would be able to attend the plenary sessions, some of the major sessions, some lectures, seminars, and workshops, as well as some unique offerings from local academic institutions and some cultural events. But above all, I made time to frequent the lobby and other gathering places such as hallways, intersections, and elevator access areas. Walking into the Palmer House lobby each morning to a multitude of diversely clad men and women from all walks of life provided daily uplift. The atmosphere was always positively charged and spiritually nourishing. Almost daily during the luncheon break (12-2 p.m.) I would walk through the Book Exhibition Hall and the Art Gallery.
Some highlights were:
After listening to many spiritual leaders and representatives from diverse traditions, I came out with a powerful affirmation of my own feeling towards oneness, universal brotherhood, interconnectedness of all things, and the sense that "we're all drawing from the same well" —perhaps from different parts of the well and at times at different depths, but always from the "same well."
Those spiritual leaders who had the greatest impact on me were those who gave from the heart as well. On this line I was moved by Swami Chidananda Saraswati, "one of Hinduism's most senior and respected monks." I first saw him as a tiny bespectacled figure clad in his saffron robe during "The Inner Life" plenary session Tuesday evening. When his turn to speak came, he became energized, and could refer with such ease to Chicago's unsavory past or to Swami Vivekananda's presence and impact at the 1893 Parliament. I next saw him Wednesday morning when Sadguru Sant Keshavadas sang and lectured his way through the "Tenets of Hinduism and Its Universality." It was rumored that the swami would make a guest appearance midway through the session, which occasioned this quiet response from the person seated next to me. "Boy, that's like Luciano Pavarotti walking into a Placido Domingo concert." Sant Keshavadas, between bhajans (songs), was providing additional commentary on the nature of the Divine: "God is everywhere — and here he is now," observed the obviously excited Keshavadas as all eyes turned towards the rear of the room. Sant Keshavadas continued, "In India you would have to wait days at Rishikesh and would only receive his darshan (vision) if you're one of the lucky ones. Here you can get it right now." At this point Sant Keshavadas sprang to his feet, hands clasped in the "namaste" manner, and bowed in reverence to the beaming swami walking towards the front of the room. The third time I saw the swami was during the tribute to Swami Vivekananda on Wednesday: he was sitting silently in the audience in the front row of the State Ballroom. Another moving moment for me was seeing Mata Amritanandamayi giving darshan to hundreds of people — many of whom probably never heard of her previously — I had not. What was impressive was the sheer joy and energy of the exchange. The thought occurred to me that one should never be afraid or shy to give — or receive — as long as it is from the heart.
Then there was Ma Jaya Bhagavati. Here was a "Jewish housewife" (her own description) with eight kids who had her spiritual awakening in 1972 in Brooklyn. After a long and arduous holy trek in India, she founded the Kashi Ashram in Florida where she devotes her time to helping those afflicted with AIDS and other incurable diseases. Ma Jaya's devotion and commitment to her cause were unquestionable.
Another moving moment for me occurred during Tuesday evening, when Dadi Prakashmani, Head of the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University, addressed "The Inner Life" plenary session on the "Path of Contemplation" (raj yoga). She spoke reverentially and engagingly in her native language, Hindi. Her translator, Sister Jayanti, an instructor at the University, translated not only with flawless elocution but did it with such serene devotion that by example she underscored another significant path, the "Path of Devotion" (bhakti yoga).
There were some minor moving moments as well. Dr. Gerald Barney's opening talk was mildly touching, not for its message so much as for his unquestioned sincerity. Ecotheology (a form of which he and his Millennium Institute offered) and its biospheric component have been self-servingly championed and badly abused by politicians with their apocalyptic forecasts and subsequent exhortation that, "Now that I've told you what the problem is, I am the only one who can save you." These no longer impress me, perhaps because as a scientist I studied and understood the issues long before they became politicized. Besides, it is my opinion that the goal of all religions, all faiths, all traditions, and indeed all spiritual groups, should be to address the innermost yearnings of humankind first. Biospheric custody and protectorship will follow therefrom. The fact that most religions have not done a good job so far in fulfilling man's innermost need is no reason to pursue another path, or to adopt some artificially contrived "religious agenda." Rather, instead of trying to save conventional religions, why not continue to promote an environment which would allow those religious and spiritual entities a chance of addressing our innermost yearnings. This is what the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions turned out to be, at least for me.
Another moving moment was the African-American who sang selected gospels at the Wednesday night plenary session. His singular and deep devotion to his music was obvious as well as infectious to the audience.
Even the train ride added to the elan of the pilgrimage. Two incidents in particular stick in my mind. Very early in the week I ran into half a dozen students, 17 to 22 years old, from South Africa, who were also commuter participants in the Parliament. They were of Hindu background and this was their first trip outside of South Africa under their government's new "open policy." They spoke in positive terms about their country, and just seeing the smiles and hopes on their faces reminded me how much better the world is becoming; and how much faith and trust we should have in our younger generation.
The other incident on the train involved a couple of local young passengers on the 12:40 a.m. run. The train was bound ultimately for Geneva, just past Wheaton, home of the Theosophical Society in America. One of the youngsters asked the other, "Are you going to the Kenny Loggins concert on Saturday? The Dalai Lama will also be there." The second replied, "Who is this Dalai Lama, and where did you hear about this?" to which the first youngster replied, "The Dalai Lama is a holy man from Tibet. I read about this at the Theosophical Society in Wheaton. . . ." I was flabbergasted that such a poorly advertised event as "The World Parliament" had permeated the level of these youths, and I was even more dumbfounded that theosophy, which does so little to promote itself, was being mentioned by the youths of Chicago. This reminded me of the "chipping away" notion underlying so much of theosophical thought.
There were of course some negative experiences as well. At the Publishers' Forum on Friday morning, a frightened looking woman from the audience, who identified herself as a publisher of children's books from the Southern part of the US, spoke of the responsibility of publishers to publish only "good Christian books for our children." She remarked that as a publisher she never got involved in any "faiths or traditions but only in the teachings of the Bible." The publishers patiently and quietly listened, then unanimously said, "Thank you," upon which, the Southern publisher stormed out of the room, tape recorder in hand.
Other negative moments were the street-side encounters by those claiming that the Parliament was the "Doing of Devil Worshippers and other Neo-Paganists." The encounters generally took the form of handouts which we could refuse without any further harassment. But the mere reminder that such thoughts still abound in our society was not especially comforting.
What did I leave the Parliament with?
— The validation that my search for purpose and meaning in my life is on the right track; and, most importantly, that I am not alone. All of the swamis, monks, priests, spiritual leaders, ministers, rabbis, and lay folks had arrived at their own truths through this self-same process of pilgrimage, be it an external path leading to the inner, or just the all-powerful and direct inner search.
— My journey is about spirituality and not about religion, and it cannot be about intellect alone; it must embrace the heart as well.
— The spiritually evolved person is generally humble, human, and humorous.
— Be a leader when you must, but never be so mistrustful or insecure that you cannot follow with equal aplomb and grace.
— Of all the great virtuosos, of all the yogas and paths, "selfless service" seems to be the most pervasive, the most readily available, the simplest, and for me the most powerful mediative force binding oneness, supporting interconnectedness, and cementing universal brotherhood.
— Finally, after witnessing so many pray day after day for peace, and after seeing the first major step toward peace in the Middle East, with the historic signatures between the Palestinians and Israelis in Washington, DC, I couldn't help but make peaceful associations with the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions. May it continue forever.
(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1993; copyright © 1993 Theosophical University Press)