INTERNATIONAL SYMPOSIUM ON RELIGIONS AND CULTURES FOR PEACE AND HARMONY
19 September 2009 was a red letter day for us, for we at St. Andrew’s College organized an International Symposium on Religions and Cultures for Peace and Harmony. This was the first major function held after the establishment of the “Cardinal Paul Poupard Foundation Chair for Inter – Religious and Inter – Cultural Dialogue” early this year on 30 January 2009.
The College was beautifully attired with red carpets and flowers to host the most prestigious event of the year. The International Symposium aimed at enlightening the darkness of prejudice with an objective to foster peace and harmony incorporating various religious perspectives.
A beautiful prayer dance by the students of the college set the tone for the events which were about to unfold. After lighting the lamp the dignitaries took their seats on stage.
The esteemed resource persons for this event were His Eminence Cardinal Oswald Gracias, His Eminence Cardinal Paul Poupard, Mr. Mahesh Bhatt, Justice H. Suresh, and Shri. Ashraf Ahmed Shaikh, Swami Nikileshwaran and His Grace, Archbishop Felix Machado.
Msgr. Nereus Rodrigues in his welcome speech articulated the need to establish the “Cardinal Paul Poupard Foundation Chair for Inter – Religious and Inter – Cultural Dialogue”.
In his Presidential address, His Eminence Cardinal Oswald Gracias drew our attention to the fact that we were living in challenging times. Our epoch, he said was characterized by amazing advances in technology on the one hand and conditions of extreme socio-economic retrogression and distress on the other. The widening gap between the rich and the poor was causing instability in the economy and hence had a host of negative repercussions on the poor people in our country. He voiced the Church’s commitment to pursue the path of dialogue and cooperation with people of other religions. He spoke of four types of dialogues we need to engage in. These include the dialogue of life, the dialogue of service, the dialogue of theological reflection and the dialogue of spiritual awareness.
His Eminence Cardinal Paul Poupard, our Chief Guest, quoting from Samuel Huntington, began his Keynote address by stating emphatically that the type of conflict we would witness in the twenty-first century would be a clash of civilizations. He then went on to highlight the four dimensions of religions that would foster a culture of peace. These included the spiritual, ethical, social and cultural dimension. He reasoned that the concept of a holistic culture of peace represented a shift from the secular towards the spiritual peace paradigm, a realization that inner peace and outer peace – spiritual and material were interconnected and interdependent. It was here he said that the contributions of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions could contribute to our understanding. He finally stated that for the establishment of lasting peace in the world, justice must its fulfilment in love. Justice must be complimented and completed by love. There could be no true peace and harmony without forgiveness.
After this our Principal, Dr. Marie Fernandes presented the Memorandum of Understanding which was signed by both Cardinal Paul Poupard and Cardinal Oswald Gracias which officially endorsed the setting up of the Chair for Inter-Religious and Inter-Cultural Dialogue at St. Andrew’s College, through the Cardinal Paul Poupard Foundation.
Our Guest of Honour, Justice H. Suresh then released the Inaugural Journal, Ethics and Society: An International Journal of Religions and Cultures for Peace and Harmony. The journal was edited by Archbishop Felix Machado and Rev. Dr. Gilbert de Lima and Rev. Dr. Stephen Fernandes. Members of the Executive Committee and research scholars from India and abroad, contributed articles to the journal.
Our next speaker, Mr. Mahesh Bhatt through his presentation questioned the current scenario of religion in relation to what the great teachers of different faiths taught us. He said, “It was 2,500 years ago when the Buddha spoke about compassion. Jesus spoke about love, “Love thy neighbour as thyself”. He inquired if we were practicing what was preached. He added that by merely showcasing and flaunting these phrases one cannot achieve peace and harmony. He believed it was time that we learnt to make these great teachings a living reality. He maintained that just as food that we eat becomes part of our blood and gives energy to deal with the challenges of day to day life, so also religion should empower and create a Saviour in each one to make this world a Heaven to live in. He emphasized that “peace could not prevail without justice”. If one wanted peace; justice was important and the highest form of justice, was to see without preference and bias.
After the singing of Patriotic songs by the students, Justice H. Suresh began his address by saying “Friends I think you have chosen a wrong man, I’m not a religious person, not that I don’t believe in God but if you ask me, frankly I don’t know what God is; I believe in Human Rights”. He went on to say that the essence of Human Rights is human dignity. It accepts everyone irrespective of caste, creed or sex. Human Rights is an “action” in understanding and promoting peace and harmony in society. Though our world today is heading towards Globalization yet we find large scale violation of Human Rights. He gave a judicial insight about the rights of citizens and stressed that peace would prevail not only in our state but the world at large when each individual would treat the other with respect and dignity.
Advocate Ashraf Ahmed Shaikh who put forward the Islamic perspective, agreed with Justice H. Suresh on the fact that peace could not be attained unless we worked on our Human Rights. He went on further to explain the various Islamic codes of conduct. He
stated that Islam was the best religion but unfortunately had the worst followers. He said that religion had become more of a “pick and choose” kind where people followed certain codes of conduct and left out the rest. He appreciated a course started by the Archdiocese of Bombay a year ago on Inter –faith studies which would help to understand different religions and erase the block we have towards other faiths. He also affirmed that once we acquaint ourselves with the facts and beliefs of other religions we come to a realization that every religion echoes the same message ‘oneness, brotherhood, peace and harmony.”
To highlight the rich and vibrant culture of India, a vigorous and colourful folk dance - the garba by the students of the college, left the audience enthralled. This dance was specially chosen as it was the first day of the Navratri celebrations.
Swami Nikileshwarand began with the words “Let all be happy; let all be healthy; let all attain goodness; let none get misery; peace, peace, peace”. However he said that it looked like this prayer has recently been changed to exclude people of other faiths, people we disliked and people who hurt us in some way; that is why we have witnessed large scale violence and destruction in the name of religion. He made a humble appeal to the youth present to be the beacons of peace and harmony because they are the ones who would put into practice what was being preached. He said that youth all over the world were practicing a global culture, a global civilization which ultimately would lead to “global peace and harmony”.
He threw light on Swami Vivekanand’s address presented at the First Parliament of World Religions held in Chicago on 27 September 1893 –“Let there be no more bloodshed in the name of religion, let us accept all religions equally true, let us tolerate if we cannot accept” He insisted that more catastrophes in the name of religion were in store if we did not wake up to the call of all great religious leaders over the world – “To unite and love the whole of Humanity; to break all barriers and love and respect all religions of the world”. He concluded in the words of Swami Vivekanand –“Help and not Fight,” “Assimilation and not Destruction,” “Harmony and Peace and not Dissension.”
The East and West Fusion Music by the students of the college beautifully synchronized with alternating beats of the tabla and drum and the music of the organ, flute and guitar beautifully showed how harmony between the East and West could be achieved. Songs sung in Hindi and English encouraged people to live in peace.
Archbishop Felix Machado in his Special Address dwelt on the theme of peace in world religions. He said that the urgent task of dialogue was to overcome prejudice. In order to achieve this, accurate introductory information was the first step to overcome false ideas and negative views of one another and for breaking down barriers of understanding. He then underscored the need to cultivate inner peace which he said was indispensable for building peace in the world.
Our Principal Dr. Marie Fernandes while giving the Vote of Thanks first drew our attention to the fact that this was the International Year of Astronomy to commemorate 400 years since Galileo looked through the telescope and 40 years since man landed on the moon. She added, while we have made great progress in Science and all other fields, we have not been able to live together like sisters and brothers. She acclaimed Cardinal Poupard as a visionary for envisaging the need to foster peace and harmony and for setting up centres of peace through this Chair around the world. Our Principal expressed her bountiful thanks and said Mille, Mille, Mille Grazie a sua Emenenza. St. Andrew’s College, she said was in an envious position for receiving the honour and being able to network with other centres in Moscow, Cairo and Paris. She beautifully summed up the points made by each speaker.
She thanked all those who were responsible for helping in the event, the members of the Executive Committee for organizing the event. She expressed her depth of gratitude to the College Committee headed by Prof Sharmila Dhote for taking care of the décor and other arrangements, to Prof Saudamini Bhagwat for working very closely with her, Dr Kashmira Mody for being the commentator, Prof Harmeet for the folk dance, Prof Ayesha Qureshi and Prof. Preeti Oza. She also thanked Dr. Graciella Tavares and Prof Charmaine Braganza for the other help rendered. She then thanked the students who performed and the Student Organizing Committee for the help rendered. To Sunil Decorators she expressed her heartfelt thanks for his beautiful arrangements.
She concluded with the words of the song sung by our students that since, ‘We are the world, we have to undertake the task of making the world a better place’. Finally through her invocation of peace – Shalom, Salaam, Shanti, Shanti the proceedings were brought to a close.