Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Hindu's message for religious unity

  • 05 February 2009

Barack 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