Exploring new values through inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue
“If we keep the dream we can transform the system.”
“We will create a common language of love to communicate across the world.”
“It's so obvious, so simple, unity means dropping all the barriers between us.”
Listening to the high-powered idealism of the delegates at the concluding session of a recent five day conference in Auroville on human unity, it was difficult not to be a tiny bit sceptical. After all, we've heard all this before, particularly on the last day of youth conferences when it's usual for delegates to affirm universal fraternity and make high-toned commitments. This time, however, there were indications that this group was different: that, rather than simply parroting phrases from the 1960s, they were grafting their idealism onto a sturdier stem.
The international conference, “Youth for Human Unity”, was a collaboration between the Centre for International Research in Human Unity (CIRHU), Auroville, and UNESCO and was part of UNESCO's worldwide inter-religious dialogue programme. The main aim of the event was to create dialogue between the major religions and young people of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) region as a means – as the website put it – “to overcome the conflicts of the region and build peaceful, tolerant, multi-cultural societies”. The official delegates came from Pakistan , India , Sri Lanka , the Maldives , Bhutan , Nepal , Singapore and Auroville, but there were also participants from Germany , USA and Austria . They spent five days discussing issues like spirituality and religion, education, art and culture and science and integral development. As if that wasn't enough, they also went on field trips around Auroville, worked on tsunami relief, visited projects in the bioregion, and participated in group games and a cultural event in Kalabhumi.
Such a densely organized event inevitably had peaks and troughs. One of the troughs occurred on the first morning of presentations when representatives of different religions – Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Jainism and Buddhism – spoke. Although the Hindu representative began positively by elucidating the distinction between the ‘essential' and ‘non-essential' aspects of religions, subsequent speakers tended to offer merely thumbnail sketches of the tenets of their faith. The morning was salvaged by Ashramites Ananda Reddy and Sraddhalu. Ananda explained that religion is the first step in an evolutionary process which culminates in direct spiritual experience, while Sraddhalu clarified that all religions begin with a founder who has a transfiguring spiritual experience, but that after the founder's passing the disciples try to cling to the original experience through creating forms and rituals which eventually ossify into a new religion. Religions, he concluded, promote unity when the emphasis shifts back to the original living experience, to their spiritual basis, for the nature of this experience is common to all religions.
The real gift of the morning, however, was the young delegates' feedback in the plenary session after they had discussed the issues in small groups. “Religion is like scaffolding,” said one, “within which the higher faculties can emerge. When the edifice of the spirit is built, the scaffolding is no longer necessary.” “As long as mankind is afraid,” opined another, “there has to be a transfer of authority to a higher power. As long as humanity is not ready to break away from the security of ethics and morality it is not ready for the adventure of the uncharted sea which is the spiritual experience.” Wow!
The theme of the second morning was ‘Explorations in education, art and culture'. The delegates listened dutifully to an exposition of UNESCO's programme for peace education (“every teacher needs to become a peace educator”) and to an Aurovilian's perception that the minds of the young are less rationalistic, more intuitive today, but then they really got stuck into the present education system. “Schools are like conveyor-belts, turning out packaged goods,” protested one. “Let's not correct education, let's change the whole damn thing.” “Children don't quarrel about religion, caste or nationality. It's their elders who teach them to do this. So education should focus on understanding the differences between cultures and religions,” reasoned another, “and teach us to think for ourselves from an early age.” “The longest distance in the world is between the head and the heart,” added a budding orator. “Every educational system should try to close this gap.” “Grow better human beings!” was the sound-bite which came closest to summing up the mood of the morning.
Day three posed the questions, ‘How can the SAARC countries unite?' and, more particularly, ‘How can the Kashmir problem be solved?' Professor Kittu Reddy from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram stated that the roots of all social problems are egoism and desire. “Deep in the centre of every being is a jewel called the Divine, and every step to reduce the layers – like egoism and desire – which cover it over is a step towards spirituality and the solution of our problems.” For Kittu, the Kashmir problem can only be solved through solving the Hindu/Muslim problem, and unity between Hindus and Muslims can be attained through understanding and practising the common spiritual values of their religions. Indeed, as another speaker put it, this, along with the dropping of ‘national egos', is the key to the unity of all the SAARC countries.
The delegates, in their feedback, were both more immediately practical and more idealistic. “The main problems facing South Asia today are religious fundamentalism, overpopulation and illiteracy,” was one analysis. “To solve the India/Pakistan problem,” said another delegate, “we should begin by having student exchanges because this is the best way to break down the divisions between our countries. Send students, not ambassadors.” “Love across borders,” was another cry, “Let's encourage cross-border marriages.” “If we can live together so happily for three days, then why not forever?” asked Zahid from Pakistan .
On the fourth day the relationship of science to spirituality and integral development was examined. Marc Luyckx Ghisi, an International Advisory Council member, began by pointing out that a major paradigm shift is under way – from a belief that reality is only matter, to an understanding that it is not matter but consciousness that is primary. This has implications for science: a new science is evolving whereby the old rational, analytic approach is giving way to what Ghisi termed the ‘spiritual sciences'. “At this level, we can begin to investigate matters like life after death.” “Is Singapore a developed country? Is India ?” asked Toine van Megen in an attempt to get the delegates thinking about the real meaning of ‘development'. “Integral development,” he suggested, “is when there is growth of all parts of the being, both inner and outer.”
Raman Nanda, special rapporteur for the conference, offered his own definition of integral development. “How many times have you falsified the result of a scientific experiment so that it fits with your teacher's expectations?” he asked. Everybody's hand shot up. “It's time you began to trust in your own experience,” was his comment. “Until you have lived something, experienced it, it can't really exist for you.”
The feedback on this session was more muted, possibly because some delegates felt overawed by the topic. One delegate, however, pithily summed up his understanding of the morning's discussions as, “Science describes the how, spirituality the why.”
The final morning of the conference was devoted to evaluation and the framing of resolutions. The feedback regarding the organization and impact of the conference and Auroville was overwhelmingly positive. All the delegates felt more open to others and better equipped and more willing to bring change to their communities. They also had a deeper understanding not only of the obstacles to human unity – “war, cynicism, emphasis only on external growth, not being unified within” enumerated one delegate – but of the means to achieving it. “We need to work on two levels; on the material level there should be education for all. On the spiritual level, we should work on the evolution of consciousness. That's the key. Once that's achieved, unity will come automatically.”
Using the form of a ‘Wisdom Council' the delegates then framed some agreements. These included, “To have a positive attitude, to project onto the world what we want it to be and to commit to change”, “To educate ourselves in consciousness development, peace and spirituality” and “To create a common language of love to communicate across the world.”
All somewhat ‘sixties', perhaps. But the crucial difference from the students of the 1960s was that these participants had a deeper understanding of the interrelatedness of inner and outer, and thus of the need to work on themselves as an essential part of any change. They also saw the need to serve their communities by being role models (Gandhi's statement, “Be the change you want to see happen”, was quoted more than once) and of the futility of playing the blame game. “We agree to take responsibility for our thoughts and accountability for our actions,” was another of their resolutions, “to reach out to others and share responsibility for the challenges of the world today”, while one of the delegates characterized a ‘good decision' as “one in which you step back and do it for something larger than yourself”.
This generation are facing global challenges of a magnitude never experienced before. If the ‘Youth for Human Unity' conference is anything to go by, some of them have the will, the maturity and, crucially, the new understanding and consciousness to help pull the world back from the brink. If only, that is, their elders can learn to step aside gracefully, and in time...
see also: Youth Conference