By Surekha Vijh
WASHINGTON: The uplifting message of an Indian Hindu monk, born 150 years ago in Calcutta, came alive in the American capital recently when leaders from different faiths and believers, including Tulsi Gabbard (seen in the middle in the above picture) who is the first Hindu elected to the US Congress, converged to felicitate the life and works of Swami Vivekananda.
Swami Vivekananda was first introduced to the West when he delivered his fiery and enlightening speech at the first World Congress of Religions in Chicago in 1893.
A large gracious turbaned portrait of the Swami smiled on a lit screen overlooking the room. His message of the spiritual unity of human kind was conveyed by the participants, including representatives from the Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Jews, academics, students, activists and others.
The three-day Congress was interspersed with speeches, questions and answers, music and dances.
Addressed by prominent and luminary keynote speakers like Martin Luther King III, Dr. Condoleezza Rice and Congresswoman-elect Tulsi Gabbard, the World Congress of Religions also heard nineteen other noted speakers of different faiths and academic institutions at the Marriott Wardman Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Martin Luther King III, the civil rights activist and eldest son of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is continuing his parents’ quest for equality and justice for all people.
Addressing the World Congress with his presentation on “Vedanta and Interfaith Teachings,” he encouraged the World Congress to follow the example of Swami Vivekananda, reject violence and adopt peaceful ways to counter anger. He emphasized the importance of non-violence for conflict resolution.
Dr. Condoleezza Rice, the former Secretary of State, offered her thoughts on the role of people of faith in making our world a better place for all.
“The forward march of freedom and democracy is a moral issue. Democracy is the enshrinement of freedom, which must include all and must include protection from the tyranny of the majority. It is people of faith who often make sure that none are excluded,” she said.
“The faith-based community continually helps those in need and makes a lasting impact in communities all over the world,” she added.
Dr. Rice acknowledged the major role of interfaith cooperation in solving the problems of the world as she spoke on the “Importance of Interfaith Cooperation to Solve the World’s Problems.”
She said, “Governments cannot directly deliver compassion; that is the work of individuals and communities of faith”. She was applauded as an example of a woman’s achievement in one of the highest offices in government, as well as in a successful career in education.
Congresswoman-elect Tulsi Gabbard (Democrat from Hawaii), the first-ever practicing Hindu elected to the U.S. congress (who takes the oath of office on the Bhagwad Gita), pledged to teach the most powerful lawmakers in the world about her faith and Karma Yoga (the process of achieving perfection in action, or a selfless, altruistic service). She emphasized the importance of common efforts by people of all faiths and communities to build a harmonious environment for all to share.
Gabbard said that the time has come for change and it was up to us, “those striving towards the ideal of being servant-leaders in all that we do, to put an end to persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and work towards spreading the all-inclusive message of respect, love, compassion, and service.”
Her message that politicians should be ‘servant leaders’ for their constituents and that ‘respect, love, compassion, and service’ was appreciated by the audience.
“Whatever we do, it all comes down to relationships,” Gabbard explained, “You can have the best background, but unless you are connecting with people, it’s impossible to move them.”
In a Q&A session after her keynote speech on “Spirituality, Karma Yoga and Service to Humanity,” Gabbard told the gathering her views on Bhakti Yoga (a spiritual path for fostering love for Divine).
At a recent dinner hosted by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (CA) for incoming Democratic members in the national hall of the U.S. Capitol, Gabbard was asked to talk about her faith and she spoke of Karma Yoga. She explained that her colleagues and members of congress understood its message, saying “It is already happening.”
“Regardless of whether you call it Karma yoga or something else, each major religion celebrates and cherishes this practice of service to others,” she said she told the US law makers.
About the response from fellowDemocrats, she said, “the reception of most of the Democratic leadership among my fellow members was incredibly positive, very warm and one that was very uplifting both from what I saw on their faces as I was talking, some of them put their hands on their hearts because they felt it.”
The World Congress of Religions (WCR), held on November 30 – December 2, drew distinguished speakers from major religions on a common platform to explore the relevance of religions and spirituality in addressing the critical issues of poverty, empowerment of women, human rights and peace making.
The WCR ended with a message of peace and harmony for the world and held up Swami Vivekananda as an embodiment of this vision.
“Such a gathering is urgently needed in the present context of the global inter-religious movement and the striving for world peace,” said WCR chairperson Pradip Ghosh.
“Such a gathering is urgently needed in the present context of the global interreligious movement and the striving for world peace,” said Dr. Rajwant Singh, Chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education (SCORE).