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Frontiers of Peace and Pluralism: Legacy of Virchand Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda

Written by Dr. Veena Howard
September 14, 2021

The August 26th, 2021 New York Times’ article, “The New Chief Chaplin is at Harvard? An Atheist,” might provoke anxiety in the people of faith who find inspiration and solace in their religion. However, the selection of atheist and humanist Greg Epstein, the author of Good without God, as the University Chaplain has been cheered by students and faith leaders alike at Harvard University. Still some religious believers might consider this choice at odds or inconsistent with the very foundations of religion as we understand generally (God, doctrine, etc.).  As a religious studies and Gandhi scholar, I suggest that this selection of an atheist/humanist serves two functions:  firstly, it places humanity/personal quest/morality at the center of religious discourse instead of religious dogma; and secondly, it encourages respect for a diversity of beliefs and perspectives without privileging one over others. This move may seem new and bizarre to us, but it has been at the forefront of India’s philosophical and religious systems for over three millennia. It is also embraced by the inclusive, moralistic, and pluralistic vision of the World’s Parliament of Religions, one of the oldest and largest international interfaith organizations.

The Parliament of the World’s Religions remains the most inclusive interfaith gathering in the world today.

Rev. Stephen Avino, Acting Executive Director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions
At the first Parliament (convened in 1893 in Chicago), this vision was highlighted by India’s two visionary leaders: Virchand Gandhi (b. 1864), a Jain representative, and Swami Vivekananda (b. 1863), a Hindu monk, both of similar age. In many of the photos of the assembly of faiths, both individuals can be seen dressed in their Indian attire: one in royal kurtas and the other in ochre robes. With turbans dawned on their heads, both charismatic men stood out among the dignitaries, most of whom were dressed in western suits. At a time when exclusive dogma guided religious discourse, and the idea of respect for diversity of thought was in nascent state, the 1893 convening of the Parliament provided a platform to affirm and showcase the diversity of voices and beliefs.As the preparations for the 8th Parliament (to be held virtually in October 2021, due to the Covid Pandemic) are underway, the list of invited plenary speakers from different backgrounds— culture, language, gender, race, status, class, ethnicity, and belief (or no belief)—confirms the continuation and even augmentation of the vision that was put forth at the first Parliament in 1893. In the variety of invited speakers, Virchand Gandhi’s and Swami Vivekananda’s messages of inclusivity, universalism, and call to right action resound loudly. These two thinkers, although deeply attached to their faiths, demonstrated the spirit of inclusiveness not only toward the people of all faiths but also to those of no religious faith (termed as atheists or agnostics). Drawing on Jain and Hindu thought, both individuals defined “faith” broadly, including faith in goodness, humanity, and the mutual bond among humans, and humans and the natural world. Their contemporary Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi (b. 1869), similarly defined God as “Truth” and “Love” to include religious believers and non-religious people.

In the 1893 assembly of esteemed theologians, preachers, and scholars, Virchand Gandhi proclaimed: “God in the sense of an extra cosmic personal creator, has no place in the Jaina philosophy. It distinctly denies such [a] creator as illogical and irrelevant in the general scheme of the universe” (Virchand Gandhi Speech: 1863). This statement must have been shocking to the ears of those whose religion rests on both the belief in the existence of God, and on a conviction in a particular form of God. Virchand Gandhi goes on to focus on the law of Karma and call to perform right action: “‘With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again’ and ‘Whatsoever man soweth, that shall he also reap’ are but the corollaries of that most intricate law of Karma” (ibid).

Jainism is an ancient religious tradition that does not adhere to the belief of a personal god, but emphasizes the law of Karma, practice of nonviolence, and plurality of viewpoints. Anekāntavāda is the Jain teaching that affirms that reality is multifaceted and each one of us approach it differently. These teachings align with current day’s humanistic ideals of, and the Parliament’s continued commitment to, ethics and pluralistic world vision. Virchand Gandhi’s words at that first Parliament won the hearts of many great minds , as well as the American people. As the Rochester Herald published on October 3, 1893,  “These [Gandhi’s] lectures are instructive to both old and young, and should be seen and heard all over America.”

While Virchand’s spiritual and humanistic message, based in Jain principles, continues to reverberate through the Parliament’s mission, Swami Vivekananda’s prophetic 1893 Parliament opening speech also hangs printed on the walls of the Chicago office as a reminder of his lasting impact. His words, “We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true” (Vivekananda, 1893), are even more relevant today as the forces of religious fanaticism and extremism continue to assert their influence. He invoked the Hindu sacred text, Bhagavad-Gita (4.11), not to assert the superiority of Hinduism but to emphasize the message of the multiplicity of paths to reach the Truth, the Divine.

We are all looking at truth from different standpoints, which vary according to our birth, education, surroundings, and so on… This makes the difference between man and man, and occasions sometimes even contradictory ideas; yet we all belong to the same great universal truth.

Vivekananada, 1900
Swami Vivekananda, drawing on his Hindu faith, extended a charitable attitude toward all people (of religious faith or no religious faith). He lamented that “sectarianism, bigotry, and it’s horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth,” and called for cherishing our shared humanity and respecting diverse viewpoints. He elaborated on this point: “We are all looking at truth from different standpoints, which vary according to our birth, education, surroundings, and so on… This makes the difference between man and man, and occasions sometimes even contradictory ideas; yet we all belong to the same great universal truth” (Vivekananada, 1900). Such understanding embraces humanistic values and rises above dogmatic and sectarian confines.Swami Vivekananda hailed the mission of the Parliament: “If the Parliament of Religions has shown anything to the world it is this: It has proved to the world that holiness, purity and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world, and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character… .” (Vivekananda, 1893).  If Virchand Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda were alive today, they would champion the Parliament’s commitment to the issues of global peace, sustainability, and initiative of global ethics. They also would not see any predicament in appointing a Harvard Chaplin with humanistic values and no specific religious adherence because they saw goodness and care as hallmarks of true faith.

The 8th Parliament’s theme, “Opening our Hearts to the World: Compassion in Action” is consistent with the basic tenets of various religions as well as the humanistic vision of caring for all humans and our planet, which is the source of all life. Rev. Stephen Avino, the Acting Executive Director of the Parliament, affirms that  “The Parliament of the World’s Religions remains the most inclusive interfaith gathering in the world today”. This vision embraces people of all religious faiths and spiritualities as well those who put faith in human goodness for our global sustenance and mutual flourishing.