Interfaith Conclave on Peace and Religious Harmony in Assam

February 1st 2014

Guwahati, Assam, India, 1 February 2014 - Despite the early morning fog in Delhi, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s flight took off on time this morning and duly landed punctually in Guwahati, capital of Assam. His host, Bhaskar Dutta-Baruah, of the Lawyer’s Book Stall (LBS), a well-established Assamese publisher and bookseller, was there to receive him. Tibetans and Assamese were gathered outside his hotel on the banks of the stately flowing Brahmaputra to greet His Holiness and he was offered a traditional welcome by both communities.


His Holiness the Dalai Lama and fellow participants join together to light a lamp inaugurating the Interfaith Conclave on Peace and Religious Harmony in Guwahati, Assam, India on February 1, 2014. Photo/Tenzin Choejor/OHHDL
After lunch, a short drive brought His Holiness to Rabindra Bhawan, venue of an Interfaith Conclave on Peace and Religious Harmony. He met the spiritual representatives with whom he was to share the platform for some minutes before they all took their seats on the stage. Prof Ranjit Dev Goswami gave a welcome address in which he introduced them to the audience, before inviting them to join together to light the lamp inaugurating the occasion.

Swami Sumanasananda Maharaj of the Ramakrishna Mission, Cherrapunjee, gave the first presentation. He referred to the Sanatana Dharma or Eternal Dharma, comparing it to a great banyan tree that provides shelter for many, while its manifold roots and branches represent many paths to god. He quoted Sri Ramakrishna, who realized that all spiritual paths lead to the same goal, declaring "As many faiths, so many paths."

Buddhist bhikku, Ven. Bimalankur Mahathera of Jorhat Buddha Vihar spoke in Assamese, but remarked in English that Buddhism had never interfered with or damaged any other spiritual tradition. He was followed by Sri Narayan Chandra Goswami, Satradhikar of the Natun Kamalabari Satra, a local Vaishnav tradition, who is a noted literary scholar, who also spoke only in Assamese. 

Father Thomas Menamparampil, Archbishop Emeritus of Guwahati thanked God for bringing together this group of people of different faiths. He acknowledged His Holiness’s efforts to encourage people to cultivate compassion, which he views as the common ground between our various spiritual traditions. Dr. Taufiqur Rahman Borbora, an Islamic scholar spoke of Islam as a religion of peace and outlined the five articles and six principles of Muslim practice. Gyani Swaran Singh for the Sikh tradition, after a stirring chant from the scriptures spoke in Punjabi and described a path to God not through intelligence but through surrender. He also remarked the importance of living in society without disturbing others. After him, Sri Kapoor Chand Jain, a Jain scholar suggested that Jainism has roots in pre-Vedic India. It is concerned with the purification with regard to self and ahimsa or non-violence in relation to others, based on the determination not to do others harm.


His Holiness the Dalai Lama speaking at the Interfaith Conclave on Peace and Religious Harmony in Guwahati, Assam, India on February 1, 2014. Photo/Tenzin Choejor/OHHDL
After addressing him as Mahapurush or a ‘great man’, Prof Goswami request His Holiness to speak. He began by saluting his religious brothers on the platform and greeting his brothers and sisters in the audience. He continued:

“Although I have passed through Guwahati airport many times on my way elsewhere, this is the first time I’ve come back to visit the city formally since I left Tibet nearly 55 years ago. It’s appropriate that the occasion should involve an interfaith event like this and I’d like to thank the organizers for arranging it. I’d also like to thank each of the previous speakers for giving us a sense of their faith.

“The main practice of all major religions is love and to defend it against obstacles we need tolerance and forgiveness. Consequently, all major religions talk about compassion, tolerance, contentment, and self-discipline. The masters of our various traditions have been realistic in their teaching. Because self-centredness often leads to greed, they all advised cultivating contentment and simplicity in our lives. Over the last 40 years or so, I’ve had many opportunities to meet with teachers of many traditions and learned that we all talk about love. If we had really put it into practice, there’d be no barriers between us, and the cancer of corruption would not have arisen. And frankly, we have enough problems in the world without adding religious conflict to them.”

His Holiness clarified that while in terms of an individual’s own practice the idea of one truth, one faith makes a great deal of sense, the reality in society at large is that there are several truths and many faiths. There are people living in many parts of the world who don’t have much contact with other religions. However, India is a pluralistic, multi-religious society, in which home grown religions like Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism flourish alongside religions that have come from outside like Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism and Judaism. All these faiths live peaceably together in harmony.


His Holiness the Dalai Lama speaking at the Interfaith Conclave on Peace and Religious Harmony in Guwahati, Assam, India on February 1, 2014. Photo/Tenzin Choejor/OHHDL
“I consider myself a messenger of ancient Indian thought,” His Holiness said to some applause, “wherever I go I speak about ahimsa and inter-religious harmony. Although there are clearly philosophical differences between them, all religious traditions have a similar message. I often observe that the Hindu and Buddhist traditions are like brothers, but from a philosophical viewpoint we take different stands. Where Hindus believe in the existence of atman, Buddhists argue for its opposite, anatma or selflessness. I have discussed these differences closely. Although there are some Swamis and sadhus more concerned with performing elaborate rituals, there are others well-read and deeply knowledgeable. I met such a Swami in Mathura a couple of years ago and we had illuminating discussions. He shed a lot of light on the branches of the Samkhya tradition that don’t assert the existence of a creator. But when it came to the contradiction between atman and anatma, I said, “Theories about the soul, or atman, are your business; selflessness, or anatma, is mine.”“

His Holiness explained that just as the Buddha appears to have taught different things to different people at different times and in different places because people are of different dispositions, so we may think of our various religious traditions as having arisen at different times, in different places, appealing to people of different dispositions. He pointed out that once we take such variations into account, we must also remember that among the 7 billion human beings alive today, 1 billion say they have no faith or interest in religion.

“If we talk to such people about heaven and hell, or about God or the Buddha, they are likely just to say, ‘We don’t care about that.’ To appeal to them and introduce them to the sound source of human happiness, we need to present a sense of ethics that does not draw on any particular religious tradition. This I refer to as secular ethics. And to support this I suggest that just as we teach about physical hygiene in the interest of good health, we now need to teach about mental or emotional hygiene too.”


Members of the audience at Rabindra Bhawan, venue for an Interfaith Conclave on Peace and Religious Harmony with participants including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in Guwahati, Assam, India on February 1, 2014. Photo/Tenzin Choejor/OHHDL
His Holiness stressed that when he speaks about secular ethics he is not decrying religious tradition. Rather he uses the word in the way it is used in India to indicate not disdain, but respect for all religions and for those who follow none. He said:

“This has been just a report to my spiritual brothers about my concern to ensure the flourishing of human happiness and the fostering of harmony between our religious traditions. I am very happy we could meet together like this.”

As the audience expressed its appreciation with warm applause, His Holiness offered a kata, a white silk scarf to each of the participants. Sri Jatin Hazarika offered a vote of thanks. He expressed gratitude to His Holiness for gracing the occasion; gratitude to the Government of Assam for their help and support and to the LBS Foundation for taking the initiative.
 

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