The next meeting of one of the biggest interfaith gatherings in the world, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, could be hosted in Brussels, Belgium in 2014—and an ISKCON devotee is front and center in the bidding process.
ISKCON’s European Communications Director Mahaprabhu Dasa goes back 117 years to explain how it came to this.
“The Parliament of the World’s Religions was first held in Chicago in 1893 as part of a large fair called the World Columbian Exposition,” he says. “An historic event, it was the first major meeting between leaders and thinkers of both western and eastern religious traditions, and is now seen as the birth of formal interreligious dialogue worldwide.”
But it wasn’t until 1993, when the City of Chicago decided to celebrate the Parliament’s 100th anniversary by having an academic conference, that it became a regular occurrence.
“As they planned it, it developed into a popular event that drew over 8,000 people from many religious communities,” Mahaprabhu explains. “The organizers decided not to wait another 100 years to hold the next one. So they held another in Cape Town, South Africa in 1999.”
After this, the Parliament was established as an event that was held every five years. The next two, held in Barcelona, Spain in 2004, and in Melbourne, Australia in 2009, were similar successes.
“Since the first four had been held in America, Africa, Europe, and Australasia respectively, I was sure the fifth would be held in Asia, the only remaining populated continent,” Mahaprabhu says. “So I began to campaign for Delhi as a candidate. But when I returned to ISKCON’s Radhadesh community in Belgium, several friends of mine who had attended previous Parliaments—including a Rabbi from the Jewish group Lubavitch-Chabad—contacted me and said, ‘Why not have it in Brussels?’ They expected that I might be able to get the ball rolling because of my connections in the interfaith world.”
They were right. Inspired, Mahaprabhu launched himself into the campaign. He began to meet with people from different religious communities and interfaith organizations. Following the Parliament of the World’s Religions’ sophisticated bidding system—rather like that of the Olympics—they formed a steering committee for Brussels’ bid to host the 2014 Parliament.
Mahaprabhu is accompanied in his efforts by seven other experts in various areas of interfaith relations, including committee chairman Miguel Mesquita, a former advisor on religious communities to the president of the European Commission. So far, they have received forty-five letters of support from major churches and interfaith groups, as well as from Brussels’ Mayor and its Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Brussels Convention Bureau—Brussels’ main tourist office—also fully supports the initiative.
Although two other cities—Dallas, USA, and Guadalajara, Mexico—are currently also bidding to hold the next Parliament, Brussels is the strategic favorite.
“It’s a political hub, and the Parliament’s central Chicago office feel that Europe is especially in need of dialogue about religious freedom right now,” Mahaprabhu says. “Our only major challenge is finances. In Chicago, the Federal government gives $2 million, the State government gives $2 million, and the city government half a million dollars. This is unlikely to happen in Belgium. We will have to gather more support in smaller amounts, and are even considering raising funds outside of Europe for the event.”
If Brussel’s bid is accepted, the steering committee that Mahaprabhu is a part of will transform itself into a non-profit organization that will organize the event locally. This is a huge, $8 million project involving hundreds of volunteers and professionals and requiring venues and event organization on a very high level.
“In the past, members of the steering committee would automatically be a part of this new legal entity,” Mahaprabhu says. “But now the Chicago office is a little more selective, so although my involvement in the next level is possible, it’s not guaranteed.”
Whatever his position, however, and whichever city wins the bid, Mahaprabhu is all set to help increase awareness and plan the involvement of devotees from all over the world.
“ISKCON Communications and other ISKCON representatives have attended all four Parliaments so far,” says Mahaprabhu. “We had an especially good presence in Barcelona—there was an ISKCON Communications stand handing out free brochures, and a “temple shop” selling devotional and cultural products. ISKCON guru Sivarama Swami did a presentation on Hungary’s eco-village project Krishna Valley, ISKCON Deity Worship Minister Krishna Ksetra Dasa participated in a panel conference, and one devotee did a cooking course. We also performed a fire sacrifice, or yajna, and held our traditional temple morning program.”
ISKCON’s participation in the Melbourne conference, however, was minimal, and Mahaprabhu hopes that its presence can be brought to a much higher level for the next Parliament in 2014.
“We really need to plan it well in advance, and to convince ISKCON leaders of its importance and receive their support,” he says. “It’s important for us to be present and to contribute in a positive way, because the Parliament—although still in its pioneer phase—is set to become a major interfaith event. For instance, last year it received heavy coverage by the media and a White House delegation even attended. So we would like to have ISKCON’s most talented leaders, thinkers and academics from around the world making proposals for workshops, conferences and presentations.”
If the Parliament is held in Brussels in 2014, the event will occur sometime between the end of June and the beginning of September, with Square, a convention center in the picturesque heart of Brussels, as its main venue.
The Parliament will run for one week, and will draw thousands of intellectuals, spiritual leaders, spiritual practioners, and seekers. It will feature 600 to 700 presentations, workshops, and programs. There will also be cultural showcases for music, dance and more, as well as exhibits where each organization can present its literature.
A wide variety of topics will be discussed in depth at the workshops and conferences, with attendance ranging from the thousands to fifteen or twenty people. In the mornings from 8am to 9am, each religious community will have time to hold their traditional services for everyone to attend.
“The Parliament is an excellent way for ISKCON to present its identity, theology, teachings, principles, and values,” Mahaprabhu says. “It has three components: the first is intra-religious, where a community can present itself and its message through qualified speakers, thus giving a good impression to other religious leaders, intellectuals, and the general public.”
The second component is inter-religious, where representatives of different communities can participate in panels on different topics—in ISKCON’s case, Mahaprabhu says, it’s an opportunity to show that we’re mature, healthy, and willing to do dialogue with other traditions.
And the third component is a chance for religious communities to give their solutions, analysis or perspective on burning issues in today’s world.
“I think that ISKCON could give a lot of good contributions if we really put our thought into it,” Mahaprabhu says.
He adds that there are already some ideas for the 2014 Parliament, including an interfaith panel organized by ISKCON, and a “kirtan in different faiths” program. He also stresses the importance of devotees participating in the event.
“In previous Parliaments, there have been Hindu-Jewish or Hindu-Catholic dialogues in which not only was ISKCON not present, but no Vaishnavas were represented,” he says. “Instead, there were Hindu Swamis from other traditions. So this time we would definitely like to be involved.”
He concludes: “I think ISKCON could play a very important role, explaining to representatives of other faiths that Hinduism is not all about mystic yogis and impersonal philosophy—it’s also about Vaishnava traditions and monotheism.”