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Hindu's message for religious unity

Parliament of the World's Religions, Chicago, 1893Barack Obama's inaugural address evoked another great speech, also given in Chicago, in 1893. Swami Vivekananda delivered it to the first Parliament of the World's Religions. That event, originally intended to be one of a series of conferences marking 400 years since the arrival of Columbus in the Americas, was a stunning success because it brought together so many religious groups.

Vivekananda's ringing call for an end to 'Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism' made a strong impression on an audience of 7000 people. Some see it as the beginning of the global interfaith movement.

Yet Vivekananda's vision was never realised. Nationalist bigotry, just as dangerous as religious sectarianism, tore the world apart in a way that he could scarcely have imagined. But within academic circles, the study of world religions did develop, pre-eminently at Chicago.

Only in 1993, following a proposal from two Chicago-based monks of the Vivekananda Vedanta Society, was a new Parliament of the World's Religions convened. It was not intended to pass laws to create a world religion, but rather to be a place where people could talk to each other.

In the face of many obstacles, the Parliament re-assembled in 1999 in Cape Town, and then reconvened in Barcelona in 2004, establishing a five-year rhythm for the meetings.

According to the founding document of the Council for the Parliament of the World's Religions, the goal of the meetings is 'to cultivate harmony between the world's religious and spiritual communities and foster their engagement with the world and its other guiding institutions in order to achieve a peaceful, just, and sustainable world'.

From 3–9 December 2009, Melbourne will host the Parliament. Its theme is: 'Make a world of difference: hearing each other, healing the earth.'

Chicago, Cape Town, and Barcelona all experienced periods of great repression, and so understood that religious bigotry has to give way to dialogue and understanding, In the United States, South Africa, and Spain, too, religion has historically helped shape public discourse. Movements of religious dialogue have also challenged the way individual religious traditions have buttressed the power of particular groups in society.

The differences between these cities and Australia may lead us to ask whether Australians will see this Parliament as an event of global significance and an opportunity to challenge insular attitudes, or whether the Australian habit of considering religion to be primarily a private affair will lead them to see it as yet another talk-fest, unlikely to change lives.

In Australia, public debate about religion is often bogged down in petty arguments. Religious conservatives may complain about a loss of traditional values, while die-hard secularists may distrust any claim to divine authority and ignore the complexities of religious traditions.

The major problem is not so much bigotry as insularity. The Parliament in Australia offers an opportunity to join in dialogue and open a public conversation within religions, between religions, and between believers and non-believers.

Australia may not have experienced the same issues of civil unrest as the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, but its treatment of indigenous peoples and of the refugees who have sought to come to our shores is just as shameful. The Parliament recognises the significance of its being held in a nation with spiritual traditions that go back tens of thousands of years, based on the land.

At a time of both economic and ecological crisis, the world has lost its sense of balance. Participants at the Melbourne Parliament will celebrate these indigenous traditions and reflect on how they may help religious and cultural traditions more generally reconnect to the planet on which we live.

In the late 19th century, Vivekananda railed against ectarianism and bigotry. Here in Australia, in the early 21st century, the challenge is that of insularity generated by a society in which religion is treated as a private rather than a public matter. We must learn to become comfortable in encountering religious difference and exploring common values, without stereotyping other people's beliefs.

During 2009 many events will be held. They will include a series of monthly public conversations, held at various venues across Melbourne, on questions that will be raised at the Parliament. As with all such major events, its outcome will depend on the imagination and good will of those who wish to participate and contribute towards it.

The 2009 Parliament of the World's Religions


Constant MewsProfessor Constant J. Mews is Director of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Theology, Monash University.


Melbourne: Making a Difference is a pre-Parliament event, to be held this Sunday 8 February 2009 at the Melbourne Town Hall, 4.00–8.30 pm.

Topic tags: Constant Mews, obama, Swami Vivekananda, religious unity, parliament of the world's religions



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