Considering that the Hindu America Foundation is issuing press releases and statements condemning the Parliament of the World’s Religions withdrawal from Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America’s event, it is important to clarify why the Parliament made the decision to withdraw. This press release clarifies our positions.
Chicago, IL—“The reason for the Parliament’s decision not to be involved in the World Without Borders event in Chicago was, and always will be, the Parliament’s identity as an interfaith organization. ‘To cultivate harmony among the world’s spiritual communities . . . in order to achieve a just, peaceful, and sustainable world’ is our guiding principle, one that cannot be adjusted or ‘bent’ because of pressure from any outside organization, whether on the right or the left,” said Dr. Rob Sellers, professor of religion from Texas and a Vice Chair of the CPWR Board of Trustees.
Swami Vivekananda, who was not only a Hindu saint but an historical luminary whose conviction about harmony among the world’s religions, initially inspired the formation of this organization. The Council itself was the brilliant idea of two Chicago monks from the Vivekananda Vedanta Society. To remember the influence of this 19th-century holy man, each of the modern Parliaments in Chicago (1993), Cape Town (1999), Barcelona (2004), and Melbourne (2009) have honored Swami Vivekananda’s legacy in multiple ways. We have organized three programs on Vivekananda in the last couple of years and plan to do more this year including one on November 10th where our chair is schedule to speak which is organized by Vivekananda Vedanta Society of Chicago and another on November 16th when the Parliament celebrates its 120th anniversary. So it is both historic and current that the Parliament continues to uphold an unbroken tradition of acceptance, collaboration, and respect for Hinduism and Swami Vivekananda.
It was, rather, two of the sponsoring bodies of the event, and its two main speakers, which caused the Trustees to uphold their earlier decision not to be involved in World Without Borders, despite strong lobbying by the Hindu American Foundation to reverse this position. “As an interfaith body, the Parliament simply cannot co-sponsor an event with political parties, organizations, or individuals,” explained Ms. Phyllis Curott, an attorney and the other Vice Chair of the CPWR Board of Trustees. Some have questioned the Parliament’s use of the word, “controversial,” in referring to these groups and speakers, but Sellers points out that “the word ‘controversial’ means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘marked by controversy, or giving rise or likely to give rise to public disagreement.’" While there may be disagreement about whether the event can be interpreted politically, Sellers asserts that “It is not simply a matter of perceptions or of differing opinions, for the facts are clear and have been verified.” Here are some of those facts.
1. A political party is involved. One of the cohosts of the event, The Overseas Friends of Bharatiya Janata Party (OFBJP) is connected to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India, a political party led by Narendra Modi, who has been banned from entering the United States.
2. The BJP and anti-minority speakers were an advertised presence at the event. There are two individuals of concern:
a. Dr. Subramanian Swamy, the keynote speaker of the event, is a leader of the BJP. A vote taken by the Harvard faculty decided by a large margin to deny Swamy the right to teach at the University since he calls for the destruction of mosques as well as the disenfranchisement of Indian Muslims who refuse to acknowledge Hindu ancestry.
b. Swami Ramdev, “Chief Guest” of the event, not only endorses BJP’s leader Narendra Modi but also campaigns for him in India.
3. The U.S. State Department has classified the VHP as “extremist.” Almost every year since 2001, the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report has classified the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), in India, with this terminology because of its activities against other religious groups in India.
4. The VHPA claims that Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists are Hindus. Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), the main organizer of the event in Chicago, states on its website that Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists “are Hindus.”
Concerning this last point, Curott asserts that “as an interfaith body, the Parliament also cannot co-sponsor an event with an organization that does not respect the independent nature of Jain, Sikh, and Buddhist communities.”
The Trustees did not come to their decision easily or quickly. Numerous emails were exchanged between Board members seeking clarity and understanding of the issues; lengthy phone calls, some between Board leaders and the two Hindu Trustees, gave an opportunity for serious reflection and debate; multiple versions of resolutions for moving forward were drafted for consideration by the Council; a special meeting with the seven Trustees of Indian heritage enabled valuable sharing about Indian history and politics; and four Executive Committee meetings and two full Board meetings totaling many hours were held. CPWR has reached out to the Hindu community, and to the various organizations and faith groups that have contacted us. The trustees have also offered to facilitate dialogue among various communities and faith groups and have been attending and speaking at various apolitical events across the United States to honor Swami Vivekananda.
And all of this labor-intensive research and deliberation, lasting almost a full week, was conducted by persons of integrity, honesty, spiritual depth, and compassion—persons who are respected members of many faith communities, professions, and walks of life. The Trustees of the Parliament are people who, if we did not believe in justice and fair treatment of all, would certainly not have used our time and money as volunteer Trustees of an organization dedicated to that very end. They have done nothing other than what Trustees are expected to do in every circumstance in which we must make decisions on behalf of the Parliament—namely, to listen attentively to information that is shared and then to vote our consciences and best judgment.
In the end, CPWR’s Hindu Trustees presented their case passionately and cogently, and it was heard and considered carefully by representatives from nine different faith traditions, who then democratically concluded that the wisest course of action for the Parliament, as an interfaith organization, was not to co-sponsor the event.