for ISKCON News on Dec. 18, 2012
Interfaith exchange has always been a powerful way for members of different faiths to understand each other’s differences, appreciate similarities and work together towards common goals.
But residents at ISKCON’s Villa Vrindavana farm in Italy have discovered that its benefits are even more far-reaching. For them, interfaith has torn down walls between devotees and the local community, completely transformed ISKCON’s public image, and opened doors for the organization to contribute something positive to mainstream society.
It all started back in 2005, when Villa Vrindavan was encountering major difficulties and was on the verge of being sold.
Residents turned to Parabhakti Das, who had been a celibate monk at the farm when it opened in 1979, but had spent years away focusing on his family and career. He accepted the position of temple president, hoping to help save Villa Vrindavana.
Days into arriving, he joined other devotees in chanting Harinama on the streets of nearby Florence.
“We encountered an interfaith group who were holding candles and doing a silent march,” he recalls. “They greeted us, and then the devotees continued chanting loudly beside them. Disappointed that we were insistent with our chanting even though they were doing a silent march, they left after just a few minutes.”
But Parabhakti had exchanged contact details with the leader of the group. And the next day, he called him. He apologized for imposing by chanting and for not attempting to understand the meaning of the group’s march. The leader appreciated the apology and asked if they could meet and talk more.
The group turned out to be Temple for Peace, one of Florence’s biggest interfaith groups. Counted amongst its members were followers of all the major faiths, as well as various Buddhist and Christian subgroups, Native Americans, B’ahai, and more.
Villa Vrindavana devotees started to build a relationship with the group.
“In the past, devotees always went into interfaith dialogue with a spirit of teaching, not learning,” says Parabhakti. “So in the beginning, it was quite difficult. But I tried to humbly start a relationship with them. We started to respect each other and cooperate together. And after just one-and-a-half years, they asked me to become a member of their board.”
In a large room in a separate wing of the historic Villa Vrindavana, devotees began to hold interfaith conferences with many different faiths.
In addition, they began to provide the room as a place for other groups to hold their retreats and conferences.
Today, there is a variety of different events and programs that devotees at Villa Vrindavana put on themselves and host for others.
Some conferences the devotees put on are related to society’s big questions such as the environment, the economy, and ethics.
One such conference, The Value of Peace, was held for the third year in a row on September 30th, 2012, with the subtitle Etiquette, Economy and Spirituality.
Featuring speeches from devotees representing Hungary’s Krishna Valley eco-village, it drew 120 university professors and members of different faiths.
At other meetings, devotees invite leaders of different traditions to read a ten-minute excerpt from their holy book on a particular theme. This is followed by fifteen minutes of silent meditation, and the meeting is concluded with the chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra.
At all meetings, devotees don’t try and take over or preach, but speak for only the appropriate amount of time when it’s their turn, and in a humble mood.
Hosting other groups’ retreats is also fulfilling and educating for Villa Vrindavana devotees. In April and September of this year, for instance, the farm hosted retreats for around 130 members of Sufism, the mystical Islamic spiritual path.
Devotees were also invited to attend the retreat, and many found the spiritual atmosphere and talk of God’s glories inspirational.
“To me it’s wonderful to see people that are just trying to love God in a slightly different way,” Parabhakti says. “Besides, when you reach a deeper level of understanding, you see that there is really no difference. The only difference is in a few of the methods.”
In return, many of the groups—particularly traditions like the Sufi, Ananda-Marg, and Sri Tathata—attend the morning program at the temple and dance in kirtan.
Others say that although the temple is not of their own tradition—the meeting room they’re provided with is surrounded by paintings of Lord Krishna and His avatars—they like the spiritual atmosphere and the devotees’ friendliness makes them feel at home.
Other, more public events at Villa Vrindavana include the Bhakti festival, held last June. With two days of workshops and seminars on yoga, meditation and Ayurveda, it also featured a three-hour concert with performers from many different traditions.
The show concluded with everyone chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, which devotees introduced as an ancient, non-sectarian spiritual prayer that is among the best ways to connect with others.
“Since then, everyone likes to end their meetings with the maha-mantra,” Parabhakti says. “They all agree that it brings everyone together so well.”
And that’s across the board. On one occasion, a group of Humanists—who are 99% atheists but are also members of the Temple of Peace—invited Parabhakti to the opening of their new center. When he couldn’t make it on time because he was stuck in traffic, all one thousand attendees sat in a circle and chanted Hare Krishna together. They then sent him a recording of the chanting, explaining, “It unites people.”
It’s this kind of work and interactions with others that has completely transformed the image of “Hare Krishnas” amongst local people around Villa Vrindavana.
“In the past, devotees created a barrier,” Parabhakti says. “People thought, if I want to become a Hare Krishna I’ll get close to them. But if I don’t, I’ll avoid them.
Now, as we interact more with society at a cultural and religious level, people see us as a more open community that they can come and interact with even if they are not from our religion and don’t want to be converted. And they respect us much more because of that.”
This new openness has also attracted the attention of government institutions. Their invitations to participate in different official events allows ISKCON to take interfaith to another level, working with other religions to find answers to the problems of the world and set good examples for society.
Once a month, devotees participate in an interfaith meeting at the Municipality of Florence, attended by 100 to 150 members of the public, where issues of the day are discussed from a religious point of view.
In October, Parabhakti attended a meeting at the Tuscanny Parliament with the local Imam, Rabbi, Bishop and leader of the Sokka Gakkai, a Buddhist tradition, regarding the economy and employment.
And on January 17th, he will once again attend an interfaith conference promoted by the Tuscanny government, about the role of volunteers in religious organizations and the positive effects they have on society.
The government not only facilitates these conferences, but also plans to use strategies developed in them to improve local politics.
“Religions have to work together, because society is going in another direction,” Parabhakti says. “And as well as official exchange, one of the most important ways to do that is to deepen the relationships between us.”
And that’s certainly happening. When Villa Vrindavan’s cow shelter was destroyed in a snowstorm in December 2010, all the local interfaith leaders, including some elderly persons in their seventies, came to spend an entire day working hard to build a temporary shelter. Afterwards, they continued helping by fundraising and creating awareness of the situation.
In the future, Parabhakti plans to host and participate in many more interfaith events. As well as speaking at the Tuscanny government’s interfaith conference in January, he’ll be part of a three-conference cycle on ethics, spirituality and the environment at a Florence theater in February. He’ll put on another Bhakti festival in Villa Vrindavana in May, and a “World Yoga Day” inviting members of different traditions to meditate together in June. Meanwhile on September 22nd 2013, Villa Vrindavana will host the fourth annual Value of Peace conference.
But the essence of the community’s interfaith work will continue to be relationship-building.
“Sometimes devotees ask me, ‘What are the techniques to develop interfaith dialogue?’” Parabhakti says. “I tell them, I can give you our booklet and some tips. But the most important thing is, you have to love the people you are having dialogue with.”