Light and Danger through the Crack in the Door: A lively report from the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions
Originally published by PARABOLA Magazine on November 2 by Trebbe Johnson
It was November 1, 1984. On the previous night, India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards, an act of retribution after Gandhi had sanctioned the Indian army to storm the holiest of Sikh temples, the Golden Temple of Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar, Punjab, in an effort to oust Sikh separatists. Gandhi’s death ignited outrage among Hindus. Armed with sticks, stones, and cans of gas, they surged through city streets, intent on massacring any Sikhs they could find. Telling this story at the opening plenary of the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions, Nitin Ajmera, follower of the Jain religion and Chair of the Parliament’s Board of Trustees, told how that night had given him direction for his life.
When a mob ran into his community in New Delhi, Ajmera’s father and other neighbors went out calmly to meet them. Young Nitin, age twelve, and his brother were told to stay in their room. Through a crack in the door, however, the boy could see light, and as he pressed closer, he heard the voices of the men telling the intruders that no Sikhs living in that area were to be harmed. Eventually, the mob left.
From then on, Ajmera told me later, “I struggled with disharmony. I struggled with people negatively talking about things. I became the person who is always the mediator.” Encountering a disagreement or crisis, he would think, “Let it not be that broken. The Jain point of view believes in a multiplicity of viewpoints. If you can realize different perspectives, it will drive you to solutions that will be better for all of us.”
A multiplicity of viewpoints, described, prayed over, celebrated, sung, danced, and debated by practitioners of many spiritual practices drove the five-day convening of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, held August 14-18 at Chicago’s McCormick Place Lakeside Center. There are those who think of religion as a lofty preoccupation, divorced from the sorrows and suffering of the real world. But from its beginnings, the dominant message and fervent plea of the Parliament has been just the opposite: to bring together people of diverse faiths, that they may face and resolve some of the world’s most grievous problems.
Since the first Parliament in 1893, also held in Chicago, much about the agenda has changed. Back then the organizers had assumed, perhaps more tacitly than expressly, that by the end of the event, representatives of the many religious traditions who attended from around the world would have come to the conclusion that Christianity was the superior faith. Among the most popular speakers at that historic assembly, however, were Soyen Shaku, the first Japanese Buddhist Zen monk ever to come to the United States, and the charismatic Hindu Swami Vivekananda of India, who was hailed by the New York Herald as “undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions.” In his speech Swami Vivekananda declared, “Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism.”1
Now, one hundred thirty years later, the sad reality of how greatly that prayer has failed to materialize is all too apparent. Far-right groups are gaining power all over the world, climate change advances inexorably and more violently each year, and people in many countries are targeted because of their spiritual beliefs. With its theme of “Defending Freedom & Human Rights” the 2023 Parliament invited its seven-thousand-plus participants, representing more than two hundred faith traditions in ninety-five countries, to come closer to the metaphorical cracks in the door that Nitin Ajmera described and ask themselves, What, then, is ours to do?