World Congress of Religions in Washington Commemorates 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, November 30, 2012 – Making a strong pitch for peace and non-violence, the eldest son of the 1960s civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., told an interfaith conference that permanent peace can only be achieved by a commitment to active non-violence.
Delivering the inaugural keynote address on ‘Vedanta and Interfaith Teachings’ at the three-day World Congress of Religions 2012 and commemoration of the 150th birth anniversary of the spiritual and social visionary Swami Vivekananda, here in the nation’s capital, Reverend Martin Luther King III categorically stated that “military power and terrorism can never achieve permanent peace. Only a commitment to active non-violence can do that”.
A human rights advocate and community activist, King lamented “that so much war and terrorist violence occurs between people of faith who practice different religions. Sometimes what is called religious conflict emerges because extremist groups have corrupted their faith or by replacing tolerance with violence”, he said.
King insisted, “We must do a better job of teaching people of all nations that terrorism is not the way to achieve freedom, self-determination and human rights. We must promote greater understanding that violence and terrorism cannot lift them out of poverty and deprivation and that economic empowerment and opportunity can only be achieved through peaceful means”.
Citing the examples of Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Vivekananda and his father, he noted that the “non-violent philosophy and method which liberated India and African Americans in the US has been adapted and used with success in many nations including Poland, Philippines, the Bahamas, South Africa. All over the world, people have tapped into the power of non-violence to expand and protect human rights”, he said.
About the World Congress of Religions, King called it “a great conference”. He believed it was particularly relevant “at this time because the world is in great need of a sense of unity. Clearly, this nation needs some unification”, he said.
King’s address was the highlight on the opening day of the interfaith dialogue and set the tone for ensuing keynote speeches by Condoleezza Rice, the 66th and first female African-American Secretary of State, currently a professor of political science at Stanford, and Congresswoman-Elect Tulsi Gabbard (Democrat-Hawaii), the first ever practicing Hindu elected to the US Congress who will take the oath of office on the Bhagavad Gita.
Majority Leader Kumar Barve (Democrat), Maryland House of Delegates, told the audience at the interfaith event, “We, Indians, come from a nation which is said to have a genius for spirituality. Tolerance is typical of Indian culture”, he said.
In his introduction of Rev. King, Barve underlined that “like his father and mother, he is an iconic figure”. Recalling the civil rights movement, Barve said, “it was ecumenical. It was a movement which spanned the entire breadth of the religious and cultural landscape in the US. Everyone was involved in this movement”.
The interfaith conference, held in the cavernous Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, drew distinguished speakers from major religions – Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism – on a common platform to explore the relevance of religion and spirituality in addressing the critical issues of poverty, empowerment of women, human rights and peacemaking.
Sponsored by the Institute of World Religions of the Washington Kali Temple and the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, the conference was inspired and informed by the message of Swami Vivekananda on the 150th anniversary of his birth and offered an opportunity to pave the path for a new era of cooperative action among the world’s religious and spiritual communities as well as civil and political societies. “Such a gathering is urgently needed in the present context of the global inter-religious movement and the striving for world peace”, stated the organizers, among whom were activists such as Chairperson Dr. Pradip Ghosh, Surabhi Garg, Kamanashis Chakraborty, Jogobrata Mazumdar, Progyan Basu, Debasri Mitra and Surinder Puri.
King told this gathering of interfaith leaders, religious and spiritual experts and believers: “I am honored to be here this evening on this momentous occasion marking the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda, certainly one of the world’s great spiritual leaders. His wisdom, teachings and example have inspired millions of people all over the world. So, I first salute the organizers of this 2012 World Congress of Religions for the wonderful work that is consistently promoted – the universal values of love, truth, compassion, peace, harmony and the unity of all people, the very same values that empowered the leadership of my father Martin Luther King, Jr., and Swami Vivekananda. Your leadership is helping to raise the spiritual consciousness of humanity through greater understanding, tolerance, forgiveness and reconciliation. Swami Vivekananda, like my father, did not live to see his 40th birthday. But, in their relatively short lives, they were able to inspire millions of people to embrace the higher values of peace and brotherhood”.
There is a humility, honesty and openness about Rev. King which endears him to the audience. In his inaugural address, he spoke with a devotion to the cause and vision of peace and non-violence. He dwelt on the creed of non-violence propounded by Gandhi and drew attention to Swami Vivekananda’s belief that conflict need not erupt in violence. Quoting Jesus Christ, he said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God”.
Referring to the scriptures of all religions, he emphasized, “We find references to peace, love and non-violence in the sacred wisdom of all faiths spoken in many tongues by every race. These are sacred values of divine origin, common to all spiritual traditions and they are inter-connected values: peace can only be attained through non-violent practice and non-violence is rooted in love, unconditional love, even for those who abuse us”. Quoting Gandhi, he said: “Whenever you have truth, it must be given with love or the message and the messenger will be rejected”.
King bemoaned that “young people of all races and religions are too often seduced by advocates of violence”. He attributed this to a “spiritual vacuum which occurs because they have not been taught the ecumenical virtues of tolerance, brother and sisterhood, peace and harmony. In every nation, we must train our young people to be makers of peace, not war”, he said. “We must create a generation who understands that peace is not just the goal, but the way as well”.
King underscored the necessity to find new and creative ways to educate future generations. He told the interfaith gathering: “Let us resolve that our young people will be taught the principles of non-violence common to all religions so that they can bring in a more loving and compassionate era of human history. Let us rekindle a firm commitment to non-violence in their souls and a radiant vision of interfaith diversity in their hearts. Let us teach them that economic security, environmental harmony, freedom and human rights can only come from a firm foundation of spiritual unity. If we accept this challenge, we can put an end to war and terrorism throughout the world and begin to invest the resources of every nation in human development instead of military arsenals”.
It is fitting that the interfaith event began with a peace concert for music is such a unifying force! The Mitchell Sharoff Group and Suchismita Das presented an enchanting blend of western and eastern styles. The highlight was the finale, the ‘Let It Be’ classic number by the Beatles. The audience may never have heard a fusion of this song before, let alone an Indian-American merging. Suchismita called it the ‘Let It Be Indian Connection’ where English lyrics were sung together with Indian classical vocal music or as she told us, Braj Basha. It sounded divine!