Nearly 10,000 delegates from 80 countries attended the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions from November 1stto 7thin Toronto, Canada. They represented nearly 200 religious, spiritual and indigenous traditions, comprising the single largest interfaith gathering in the world.
The Parliament was first held in 1893 with the aim to cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities, and foster their engagement with the world and its guiding institutions to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable planet. It began again in 1993, and has occurred every few years since then.
ISKCON members have participated every time, with devotees attending Parliaments in Salt Lake City, Chicago, South Africa, Australia, and Barcelona. This year, ISKCON members from Canada, the U.S., England and India participated.
The event, at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, featured dozens of high-profile guest speakers such as author Margaret Atwood and former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell. There were more than 1,000 spiritual programs, lectures and interactive cultural experiences, including a film festival and a sacred music night. Each day different themes were highlighted such as indigenous peoples and their wisdom traditions; the dignity of women across the world’s wisdom traditions; climate action; peace vs war; and youth’s role in change and the future.
ISKCON members contributed several of the multiple workshops and presentations that went on concurrently throughout the day, on a variety of topics.
ISKCON Communications director Anuttama Das was part of a presentation coordinated by the Hindu American Foundation on the different paths of yoga, speaking about Bhakti.
Anuttama pointed out that most song lyrics talk about hankering for love, and that this desire for a deep, meaningful relationship is what we all search for most in life. The process of bhakti-yoga, he said, recognizes this as our deepest spiritual need and helps us awaken it by learning how to do everything in relationship to the Divine. Thus yoga becomes a way of linking with our self and God.
Gopal Patel, Anuttama Dasa, Mat McDermott and Krishna Parmer led the yoga session at the Parliament.
Anuttama also contributed to a panel on the current hot topic of cultural appropriation, along with seven other religious leaders.
“These days, many concerns are being raised in a spirit of being respectful to different traditions, that people shouldn’t just assimilate others’ deeply held beliefs in a cheap way,” he explains. “For example, someone might think that a picture of Vedic Deities are cool, so they put them on their tennis shoes. Or they might think Native American spiritual clothing is hip, so they put it on for a night out. The panel explored, where do you draw the line?”
Several panelists took an assertive and somewhat defensive tack, cautioning people not to cross the line. Without disagreeing with them, Anuttama presented a different point of view, citing the Vaishnava aphorism athato brahma jijnasa, that the purpose of life is to enquire about the Absolute Truth.
“We should be open and encourage people that any spiritual or religious practice, or cultural activity, that helps us achieve that awakening is good,” he said.
A scene from the drama ‘Many Fathers, Many Mothers,’ presented by Bhaktimarga Swami
Recalling how previously in the Parliament, a Jewish politician had quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, and a Christian scholar had quoted a First Nation chief, Anuttama said no one would consider that improper cultural appropriation – rather, we are learning from one another. Similarly, Vaishnavas take the point of view that if people want to practice yoga in a Christian church, as long as they respect it as a sacred tradition, that is a good thing.
“If it helps them calm their minds and come closer to God, that’s exactly what we want,” Anuttama said. “We don’t care who owns yoga – we care about who makes progress from yoga.”
We want to embrace and encourage people, he concluded. So we should in fact learn about and and use others’ cultural and spiritual practices. But we should do so 1) in a respectful way 2) while understanding the boundaries that other people put around their traditions, and 3) we should give credit to where we have gotten the practice from.
Srila Prabhupada disciple Rukmini Dasi also spoke, contributing to a panel entitled “The Power of Women’s Voices: How They’ve Changed the World’s Spiritual Landscape.” Alongside her, other scholars delved into women’s contributions to Buddhism and Christianity.
Rukmini, meanwhile, talked about important women in the history of Vaishnavism, including Kunti Devi, Pingala – a prostitute who became self-realized – and Mirabai. She presented them as examples of women from very different backgrounds who were drawn, through their difficulties in life, to call out to God. Thus they became purified, and their words and examples have been passed down through history for others to follow.
Rukmini Dasi spoke on a panel about the power of women’s voices
ISKCON guru Bhaktimarga Swami made an hour-long presentation at the Parliament, showing a film of his famous cross-country walks, and answering lots of questions from the audience about the importance of spiritual pilgrimage and walking in different traditions.
In addition Bhaktimarga Swami and a troupe of Toronto devotee actors performed the drama “Many Fathers, Many Mothers” about King Chitraketu’s son, who came back to life to explain the philosophy of the soul and reincarnation to his father.
Bhaktimarga Swami speaks about spiritual pilgrimage and chanting
Gopal Patel, an ISKCON member, also participated in half a dozen different sessions in his capacity as the head of the Bhumi Project, an environmental organization affiliated with the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies.
Representing the Govardhana Eco-Village in Maharashtra, India, Gauranga Das spoke on several panels about the attention the Village is receiving for its environmentally conscious efforts.
On the day of the Parliament highlighting environmental issues, a three-minute video about the Govardhana Eco-Village was shown during the main plenary session to a huge audience of around five thousand people.
Gopal Patel, Director of the Bhumi project, speaks during a plenary session of the Parliament introducing the Fifth Direction of the Global Ethic
Reflecting on the Parliament of the World Religions 2018, Anuttama Das says: “The Parliament is an evolving assembly of religious people, who are understanding more and more that together they have a powerful voice in trying to redirect human energies towards a more spiritual focus.”
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Sunanda Das, Temple of the Vedic Planetarium