Interfaith dialogue seems like a wonderful idea, a great way to bring harmony among people of different religions. It is such a popular idea that it has been tried for hundreds of years.
When Akbar became the Mogul Emperor of India in 1556, he began calling representatives of Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, and Christianity, to join him, a Muslim, in exploring the common ground among all religions. But the effort died with him and more exclusivist rulers followed.
Another great effort was made in Chicago in 1893, when Judge Charles Carroll Bonney organized the World’s Parliament of Religions as part of the city’s World Columbian Exposition. As a follower of the Swedish Christian theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), Bonney believed that sincere followers of all religions are united in the “church Invisible.” (1) He proposed that the Parliament would “unite all religion against all irreligion, make the Golden Rule the basis of this union, and present to the world … the substantial unity of many religions in the good deeds of the religious life.” (2) It was a compelling idea. At the Chicago Parliament, thousands of people came to hear representatives of religions from other parts of the world, accepting the possibility that they were speaking valid truths.
This approach seemed so promising that it was followed by many global assemblies of religious leaders during the twentieth century, especially after two devastating world wars. Reverend Sun Myung Moon from Korea was inspired to found the Inter Religious Federation for World Peace in 1961 with the idea that inter-religious dialogue could lead humanity to a more harmonious future. In addition to numerous international conferences and projects by the IRFWP, Rev. Moon and his devotees also made great efforts to organize large-scale Assemblies of the World’s Religions in 1985, 1990, and 1992 and many Religious Youth Service projects bringing young people from different cultures together.
Also starting in 1961, leaders of major religions began to try to put together a “religious summit” to discuss their concerns about political and social problems, resulting in 1970 in the World Conference of Religions for Peace in Kyoto. World assemblies of this sort have been organized by Religions for Peace approximately every five years afterwards in different parts of the globe. Through its networks at local, national, regional, and international levels, Religions for Peace continues to promote interfaith dialogue in 92 countries, trying to “harness the power of multi-religious cooperation to end war and create the conditions for lasting peace.”(3)
Another set of world interfaith conferences was initiated by Pope John Paul II in 1986, when he invited 160 representatives of the world’s religions to gather in Assisi, home of St. Francis, to pray for world peace together. Participants were so touched by this gathering that they got together again two years later in Oxford, England, for what was called the Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders on Human Survival. They did it again in Moscow in 1990, two months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev addressed over one thousand religious and political leaders in the Kremlin, heralding what seemed to be a new period of openness and optimism about a future in which people would unite to solve pressing global problems such as environmental destruction.
As the centenary of the pioneering 1893 Chicago Parliament approached, a group of people thought it good to repeat the Parliament. They invited over 150 religious and spiritual leaders to give presentations which attracted over 8000 people, and also to meet each other privately as the Assembly of Religious and Spiritual Leaders to discuss ways to act together to promote peace, relieve human suffering, and preserve the planet. The method chosen was to have the Assembly leaders discuss the Global Ethic framed by Hans Kung, a Swiss Christian theologian, with the goal of having the religious leaders sign the already-drafted “Toward a Global Ethic: An Initial Declaration.” Many objections were aired, but most participants signed the Declaration at the end nonetheless.
Despite such huge efforts and expenditures, violence, human suffering, and ecological destruction continued apace—and so did the idea that global assemblies for interfaith dialogue could help to alleviate these problems. For instance, The Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders brought this idea to the United Nations in 2000 and then met in following years in other locations. Some countries have adopted the interfaith dialogue model, as in international gatherings sponsored by the government of Kazakhstan in its capital, Astana, under the umbrella of the World Forum of Spiritual Culture, with the idea that multi-cultural Kazakhstan could show the way to more peaceful co-existence. Innumerable local dialogue groups have also sprung up over the years. Singapore’s Inter-Religious Organisation was founded back in 1949 with the goal of preventing misunderstandings among people of various religions in the country. His Eminence Maulana Mohamed Abdul Aleem Siddiqui, one of the main founding members, said, “It is not religion that causes disunion; it is rather the ignorance of religions that causes disunion.” (4) Another founding member, Rev. Sek Hong Choon, observed,
Every religion comes to the same conclusion just as the doors of a house lead to the same parlour. The task of religion is to teach people to live in harmony. (5)
Friendships formed in such conferences and dialogue groups have helped to create an informal international network of people promoting interfaith appreciation. But in general, those who speak in the meetings are preaching to the choir—to those who already hold rather open views about other religions. The messages of unity voiced have not touched the masses. Instead, public sympathies have been more easily swayed by extremists who paint negative pictures of other religions. People become tools of power politics, and as a result violence between people of different religions continues to increase. Human suffering and dislocation because of such violence has reached epic proportions in our times.
Since violent clashes between people of different religions has increased rather than decreased despite attempts to bring religious leaders together in interfaith dialogue, perhaps it is time for a new idea. A different idea was proposed and enacted for decades by the Indian teacher, Baba Virsa Singh (1934-2007) and is still-ongoing. Illiterate, Babaji did not get his idea from reading books. Rather, he spent much of his youth in deep meditation in his home in rural Punjab and eventually received inner instruction by two great figures from Sikh tradition: Baba Siri Chand ( the elder son of Guru Nanak, the First Sikh Guru) and Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth Sikh Guru. Guru Nanak had travelled extensively to meet and have dialogues with powerful spiritual figures, challenging them to develop true inner connection with God rather than engage in empty rituals, money-making, and divisive power-mongering in the name of religion. His son Baba Siri Chand continued this non-sectarian mission, and attracted so many followers of all religions and all social levels that a survey sponsored by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan revealed that he was the most respected saint of India at that time. He was so revered for his spiritual powers that he had a great impact on rulers. Research scholar Bhai Kirpal Singh observes:
Such were the spectacular miracles which shook evil-doers and saved the innocents from tyrants, forcible conversions and tortures. Baba Ji travelled widely but his mission in Muslim-dominated areas, especially Kashmir, Sindh, Peshawar, Kabul, Kandhar, etc. at the call of the people was notably for the uplift of the downtrodden. He advised the rulers to give equal and loving treatment to all their subjects as that was the only way to please Allah.
The obedience and enthusiasm that Babaji’s miracles and advice inspired was so spontaneous that there was a wave of joy and hope all around. The Hindu temples closed for so long were thrown open and people were again allowed to worship in their own way. (6)
Nine more enlightened Gurus continued Guru Nanak’s mission, culminating in the Guruship of Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708). His composition “Tva Prasad Svaeeyay,” recited by Sikhs as one of their basic daily prayers, expresses his disillusion with institutionalized religious traditions:
I have viewed the creeds of the whole land but have found none truly seeking the Lord of life….
Listen all, I proclaim the Truth: Only those, who with loving devotion seek God, shall attain Him. (7)
In his “Akal Ustat” (Praises of the Timeless), Guru Gobind Singh advocated transcending all apparent differences of caste, creed, and culture, saying , “Let all humanity be recognized as one human race.”(8)
Under the inner guidance of Baba Siri Chand and Guru Gobind Singh, Baba Virsa Singh realized that all prophets have come from the same Light and are part of the same holy family. He explained to Juliet Hollister, founder of The Temple of Understanding,
I have not adopted any particular religion, because God has given me the feeling that institutionalized religions are fortresses. He said, “I want you to speak about dharma (the essence of religion).” Dharma has been created by God. What is dharma? Love for everything.
From childhood, I kept questioning God, “In order to love Jesus, must one become a Christian or just love?” He told me, “It is not necessary to become a Christian. It is necessary to love him.”
I asked, “To believe in Moses, does one have to observe any special discipline or just love?” The divine command came: “Only love.”
I asked, “Does one have to become a Muslim in order to please the Prophet Muhammad, or only love?” He said, “One must love.”
“To believe in Buddha, must one become a monk or a Buddhist?” He replied, “No. To believe in Buddha is to love.”
Again and again, He said, “I created human beings. Afterward, human beings created sectarian religions. But I created only human beings, not religions.” (9)
With this foundation in genuine love for all prophets, rather than theory or intellectual tolerance, Babaji spread appreciation for all religions to everyone who came to him. Whenever he spoke, he seamlessly and spontaneously wove together stories from the lives and teachings of all prophets, with no boundaries between them. He emphatically stated,
All the prophets have come from the same Light; they all give the same basic messages. None have come to change the older revealed scriptures; they have come to remind people of the earlier prophets’ messages which the people have forgotten. We have made our separate religions into walled forts, each claiming one of the prophets as its own. But the Light of God cannot be confined within any manmade structures. It radiates throughout all of Creation. How can we possess it?
None of the prophets belongs to just one caste, one creed, or one nation. Jesus is not confined to Christianity; Moses is not a Jew; the Prophet Muhammad is not a Muslim; Guru Nanak is not a Sikh. They have not come to establish institutionalized, sectarian religions. Those institutions are created by humans and reflect their own policies. By contrast, the prophets come into the world with a message from God. They come to remind people of God’s teachings, making them fresh and new again; they come to teach love, to encourage service to humanity, to remove ignorance by enlightening people with the knowledge of God. They come to change our consciousness; they come to show us how to live. (10)
Baba Virsa Singh therefore felt that any project trying to unite representatives of different religions will not succeed, since the structures that they represent are not valid. He predicted to the founder of one large interfaith initiative that the big meetings model would not be successful:
By contrast, when the prophets came, the paths on which they walked were healed. The trees by which they passed, the wind through which they passed were healed. People would gather around them, and that was their meeting. They had no buildings. Their roof was the sky; their bed was the earth. . . . If we truly act upon the message of the prophets, religion is already united. But if I offer my thoughts, and you give yours, there will always be a clash of thoughts. (11)
Babaji proposed to another big conference organizer that he shift to influencing lower-level leaders:
Today you will not agree to what I am saying, but I want to propose spreading the message in the lower levels in society—the officers, government officials. The higher-level people know policies. They are famous and they know how to win the hearts of people and be successful. But you should enter that level of society where people don’t know anything. Take any country: The lower-level people are always cheated. Why? Think carefully. Because they are ignorant and they are bought. A person who is doing corruption is not doing anything for society, not thinking about the public welfare. Nobody likes him. But still he is able to buy everyone. Why? You should worry about how to handle these sharks. . . .
Society has always been improved from the lowest level. I feel that through the well-known people peace will never come. Whenever a Messiah comes, he has never been from the top level or rented big halls. (12)
What did Babaji do instead? Loving all prophets, he began to build holy places in their honour in his communities, collectively known as Gobind Sadan—meaning “The House of God, without walls.” According to Baba Siri Chand and Guru Gobind Singh’s instructions, he first established a havan—sacred fire—in his main community on the outskirts of Delhi. Worship by fire and lights is common to all religions, but is especially associated with Hinduism in India. That distinction was of no concern to Babaji. He built a havan in Gobind Sadan and instructed his followers to keep it burning perpetually while continuously reading Jaap Sahib, Guru Gobind Singh’s universal hymn of God’s praises, beyond any sectarian religion. That havan has been burning since 1968 and is so powerful that it has been the site of countless miracles of healing and answers to prayers.
Babaji also built Darbar Sahib, a holy room devoted to Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred scripture of Sikhs, and instructed his followers to carry on Akhand Paath—continuous reading of the scripture around the clock. When one enters that holy space where great reverence is paid to the scripture as the living Guru, the divine Light and sacred Presence are palpable.
From time to time, under inner guidance, Babaji established other holy places in Gobind Sadan, including a mosque, a place of Buddha and Mahavir, temples to major “Hindu” deities, a place of Jewish worship, and Jesus’ Place, where a life-sized statue of Jesus with outspread arms marks the spot where Babaji saw Jesus standing and giving blessings in 1983. He explained that he had not created these places to please their followers. He built them as an expression of love and reverence for the prophets. People are welcome to worship in any of them. Babaji never encouraged conversion from one religion to another, because all the prophets came from the same place, all carrying God’s messages for all humanity. He encouraged people to find God through their own prophet, while at the same time appreciating all other prophets.
Thus any evening at Gobind Sadan, one may see Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Jews, and Buddhists joining evening prayers at Jesus’ Place. The prayers include the Lord’s Prayer in the languages of the participants, the Sh’ma Israel of Jews, passages from the Old Testament, a prayer from Babaji for transcending all boundaries of caste and creed, and a song about Jesus composed by a Sikh woman from Gobind Sadan. Parents of all religions bring their children to bow at Jesus’ feet and lift them to his hands for blessings. At the same time one may hear the Call to Prayer from the mosque nearby, bells being rung in honour of the deities in the World Peace Havan in Babaji’s garden, and perhaps evening prayers by the Sikh Gurus wafting up the hill from the central community. In this atmosphere of love for all prophets, amid peaceful natural environments, people naturally drop the idea that there are rigid boundaries between religions, preferring instead to imbibe the bliss of God’s Love that pervades throughout Creation.
Not many people have the possibility to replicate Gobind Sadan’s living interfaith community life. But Babaji also did something else that can be replicated anywhere in the world, with minimal resources: He proposed that the best way to spread interfaith appreciation is to celebrate the holy days of all religions in all religious places. This is what he did at Gobind Sadan. When Christmas came, he celebrated it with myriad lights in all the trees, candles everywhere, and a big cake to share with everyone, and he spoke about the greatness of Jesus to the Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians who came to enjoy the occasion. In celebrating Christmas 1994, he said,
If we see clearly, what was Jesus? Jesus was Light, born of Light. What is the sect, caste, or country of Light? God’s energy is Light. That Light is present in all the countries, planets, animals, oceans; it is in everything. We find the Light when we go inside. (13)
Janamashtmi (Krishna’s birthday), Navatratri (the 9-day festival of the Goddess), Buddha Purnima, Mahavir’s birthday, Guru Gobind Singh’s birthday, Baisakhi, Christmas, Eid-ul-Fitr, Eid-ul-Zuha, Eid-ul-Milad-al-Nabi—all such holy days are celebrated by the whole community at Gobind Sadan with equal passion, and no one is excluded. In such an atmosphere of mutual celebration, people naturally adopt a spirit of love and respect for all prophets and all religions. For Janamashtmi, one year the community began celebrating with a traditional stick dance by indigenous people of central India in front of Krishna’s temple on the hillside, and then made a happy informal procession to the mosque, Jesus’ Place, and the central community, where Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus sang sweet songs about Krishna together until midnight, after which they shared the rich milk sweets he loved and tenderly rocked little Krishna in his hanging cradle. Gobind Sadan’s imam, Jabar Ali, addressed the celebrants at the mosque, affirming,
This is a message of love from Gobind Sadan to the whole world: that we respect and celebrate all prophets’ days, be it the birthday of Lord Krishna, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), Lord Jesus, or even Baba Virsa Singh Ji, with great love and joy. . . .We will tell the people the difference between a life full of love and a life full of hatred. Where there is cruelty and war, we request the people to learn the message of love from Gobind Sadan, to understand that love is more powerful than sectarian religion. (14)
Does this idea put into practice by Baba Virsa Singh—of enthusiastically celebrating all holy days in the same spiritual space—have any genuine effect on people? Does it transform narrow-mindedness into open acceptance and even appreciation of other religions? Imam Jabar Ali reports, “All the Muslims change after coming to Gobind Sadan. They are very happy to come to the celebrations of all religions.” (15) Gurdev Singh as a young man attended lectures in his village by touring Sikh identity groups, and thus had faith only in Sikh Gurus and Sikh traditions. But in 1973 he met Baba Virsa Singh and learned from him that Guru Granth Sahib teaches respect for all prophets and avatars of God. He recalls,
Maharaj Ji was celebrating all the prophets’ birthdays and simultaneously telling us appreciatively about each one. All walls in our mind between religions were broken by his teachings. He himself was personally participating in celebrating all holy days and in his lectures quoting from Gita, Bible, Torah, Quran, as well as Guru Granth Sahib. Thus I came to know that every scripture has the same message. (16)
The popularity of this programme of interfaith celebrations speaks for itself: Thousands of Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims as well as Christians come to celebrate Christmas at Gobind Sadan’s Jesus’ Place. Thousands of Muslims are joined by Hindus and Sikhs as they do Namaz for Eid celebrations at Gobind Sadan’s mosque. Thousands of Sikhs are joined by Hindus, Muslims, and Christians when they celebrate Guru Gobind Singh’s birthday and Baba Siri Chand’s birthday. Janamashtmi, Navaratri, Buddha Purnima, Diwali, Holi, and Mahavir Jayanti are celebrated by Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, and Christians in Gobind Sadan’s holy places, happily mixing with each other without distinctions of caste or creed as members of one human family. Far beyond “tolerance” or “acceptance” of other religions, these are occasions of great love and joy at being together to collectively honour a messenger of God. Celebrations of all holy days are in fact the lifeblood of Gobind Sadan. Whenever community life becomes a bit dull or inharmonious, along comes another holy day, and everyone enthusiastically pitches in to help with preparations and then joyfully celebrate together. Each holy day brings a new wave of love and joy in the community.
Eleven-year-old Komal, daughter of Gobind Sadan’s Hindu plumber, attends weekly interfaith classes at Gobind Sadan as well as participating in the celebrations of all holy days. Komal says,
It seems to me like there is no such place anywhere else where all religions are celebrated without walls. I like it so much. I hope that when I get old enough, I will bring all my friends here to show them. Perhaps they will be very happy because they have never seen such a place. I am very proud that I got the chance to live in Gobind Sadan. (17)
With such enthusiastic participation in this model at Gobind Sadan, perhaps those who have been working so hard and so sincerely elsewhere with the interfaith dialogue model might consider a further evolution in their efforts: to move beyond talking about all religions to actively celebrating all religions in everyone’s holy places.
- org/journal-articles/2012/6/15/Charles-bonney-and-the-idea-for-a-world-parliament-of-religi.html , accessed 16 August 2016
- org/what-we-do/how-we-do-it, accessed 17 August, 2016
- His Eminence Maulana Mohamed Abdul Aleem Siddiqui, in Amstutz, Rev. Dr. H. B. and Ahmad Bin Mohamed Ibrahim, eds., The Contribution of Religion to Peace, Singapore: Singapore Inter-Religious Organisation, 1949, 2014, p. 15.
- Sek Hong Choon, in Amstutz and Ibrahim, op. cit., p. 8.
- Bhai Kirpal Singh, “Baba Sri Chand Ji,” Seminar Papers on Baba Sri Chand Ji, New Delhi: Gobind Sadan, 1994, pp. 14-15
- Guru Gobind Singh, Tva Prasaad, Sva-eeyay, English translation by Dr. Santokh Singh, Nitnaym Baanees: Daily Sikh Prayers, third edition 2001, Princeton, Ontario, Canada: Spiritual Awakening Studies
- Guru Gobind Singh, “Akal Ustat,” Dasam Granth 15:85
- Baba Virsa Singh, News from Gobind Sadan, August 1997, p. 1
- Baba Virsa Singh, “Prophets of One Light,” Loving God, third edition, New Delhi: Sterling Publishing, 2006, pp. 20-21
- Baba Virsa Singh, “Caution to the United Religions,” News from Gobind Sadan, June 1997, p. 4
- Baba Virsa Singh, in “Daniel Tries Again,” November 18, 1994, storiesfromparadise.org , accessed 20 August 2016
- Baba Virsa Singh, “True Religion,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFVY20popRA, accessed 22 August 2016
- Jabar Ali, “Love Among Religions at Gobind Sadan,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6UdJMMNGik, accessed 20 August 2016
- Jabar Ali, personal communication, 21 August 2016
- Gurdev Singh, personal communication, 22 August 2016
- Komal Sharma, personal communication, 21 August 2016