A Report on 13th Interfaith Dialogue & Pilgrimage

The 21st century is a regular attempt of bringing together humans who have drifted apart in the name of religion, caste and colour.

Started as two – Adam & Eve, today human population is increasing immense fold with no exact count of how many of us exist on the planet Earth and many of whom have moved outside into the universe to look for new habitats to live at.

With our struggle to find ways and adjust to everyday lives we either think about crucial issues in a discussion or learn to accommodate ourselves to a situation which best fits us. We have changed our living style, clothing, food and language to be among those who are not even themselves.

Everything is so complex that even I have lost the track of the argument. This is how our lives have become.

The 13th Interfaith Dialogue & Pilgrimage organised by The Foundation for Universal Responsibility by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama came in my life at a point where I was looking for an insight. I wanted to pause and reflect on various aspects of self and surrounding.

I am a recipient of the 20th Gurukul program as well which introduced us to Tibetan Culture and Buddhist Teachings. The program had changed my life for better and had made me humble towards all beings.

This program wasn’t largely focused on one community and religion. Hence it wasn’t a specific one like the Gurukul but to me appeared much more significant. In all our studies and work places we talk of being ‘Secular’ but we fail to understand the literal meaning; following is a much later stage.

His Holiness has three commitments on which he is working—

  1. Creating a comfortable and liveable environment for Tibetans In Exile
  2. Education for All
  3. Religious Harmony

On a larger level he has somewhat provided Tibetan settlements to Tibetans in exile with the help of Indian Government. He is now a representative figure for World Peace and Harmony and his words are magical. If we get even a percentage of it we will be able to make our lives better.

His Holiness is an everyday man with an extraordinary understanding of Life & beyond. He is not a ‘babaji or black magician or a politician in a negative way’. He is a simple monk who over the years has been making continuous efforts on Gandhian terms to seek independence for Tibet and simultaneously create opportunities for people to live a better and more understood life.

Touched by his approach and teachings, I became more inquisitive about the organisation.

As a student of Literature, I have always theoretically talked about religion and its impressions but never got a chance to interact and raise questions to those who are practicing it and have a refined knowledge.

The programme stretched over 16 days was an exploration of self in context of religion, identity, duties and moralities. The programme though was formatted on having a dialogue and since it involved visiting different places of worship became a pilgrimage but it was something more which can only be experienced.

Considering the diversity in which we live, the foundation picked some prominent and dominantly practised religious faiths whose centres were located in parts of Karnataka and majorly in Bangalore.

Before indulging in a detailed explanation of events which happened, an overview is what I am going to start with first.

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There were 33 participants from Indian and foreign origin who were either students or working professionals and had traveled to reach Bangalore where we stayed for 10 days and probably covered a huge number of religious faiths within this 10 days. We stayed in Tibetan Youth Hostel in limited arrangements and managed well.

The schedule was tough and packed but there were no delays and problems created by the participants. This practice made our programme all the more disciplined as there was un-programmed synchronization.

The 16 day programme covered places Bengaluru – Shravanbelagola- Bylakuppe- Bangalore within Karnataka. We learnt about Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Mind Science and Nature within Bengaluru and for Jainism and Buddhism we went to Shravanbelagola and Bylakuppe.

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Every morning began with an early Yoga & Meditation session and ended very late in night in our dormitories where huge debates happened over the information we received every day. It was initially difficult to accept what the religious practitioners told about their respective faiths because it appeared as if there is no flaw in their religion.

We have reservations about Muslims as Jihadis/terrorists; Christians as dominant practitioners; Sikhs as Violent beings, Jains as the one committing suicides and what not. Our mind already had preconceived notions about everything which didn’t allow us to take in what we already believed.

The first premise or a very important learning we developed was that of ‘unlearning’- to basically format our mind of already existing information.

When we started looking at things from an unlearned person’s perspective we were able to take in more and were left with less useless questions and were replaced with relevant doubts.

My purpose or approach for each session was to seek answers for women related subjects and to gather more stories around them. Somehow this journey became a very integral platform in my understanding of the women subject from a religious perspective.

Every religion has some guidelines on which the followers have developed faith over the centuries and are so rigid and firm about it. For religions like Islam, Christianity, Sikhism the word of their holy book is the supreme word. They believe in the scripture – The Quran, The Holy Bible and The Guru Granth Sahib respectively. They either believe it to be the word of god or of the messenger of god. In all these sessions held we learnt how every honest follower is bound by the scripture and it’s important that they follow what is said for it is the right and correct word. It is what they believed to be the way of life.

The prominent questions in the discussions which were held with these faiths were on validity of the written word, amendments possible with changes in time, role of women and so on. Some answers were satisfactory but some are still ringing the questions of doubt.

The people we met were everyday beings in different professions and were not pandits or maulvis but ones who try to follow their respective religion with utmost sincerity and have a knowledge which they wished to share with the world so that there are less people who question the purpose of faith.

A very important discussion on media representation was held where the media has led masses to believe in the negative sides more than the positive sides. Each religious faith believes in communal harmony, peace and betterment of the society. No faith promotes killing of animals or humans or depriving women of their human rights.

I was amazed to know how each scripture treats women as an equal of men with defined set of responsibilities for both but with time and lack of understanding has given a very sour picture to us.

The meaning of sacrifice and charity is common but the ways might differ.

The sessions were intense and were not just meagre lectures and paper presentations but direct involvement with the very key issues which question the faith and make people hate these faiths. The practice of the dialogue came with the pilgrimage part when we visited a mosque, a church and a Gurudwara and observed how prayers are offered and rituals are performed on an everyday basis along with understanding the significance of a particular action and verse done by the follower. It was pleasing to see how punctual and disciplined the followers were for it was no matter of joke or blind following for them.

Within Bangalore apart from these three dominant religions, we had a session on Judaism which was a very new piece of information for me.

Hinduism to me appears the most complex religion to understand due to numerous gods and goddesses, temples and practices. I always fail to come to a conclusion as to which particular one to follow, which verse to learn and what not. We visited Ramakrishna Mission and the Art of Living centre which were two chosen places to give us an understanding of what Hinduism looks like from a very general perspective.

There is variety and rigidity at a lot of levels but I understood that it too follows a scripture code which was acceptable.

At Sharavanbelagola which is an ancient centre for Jainism, was a very empowering experience for me as a Jain. I have known a lot of things belonging to a family which practices Jainism but all my information was either incomplete or moulded with time. It was a very fresh and updated version of the information which I received and it made me more sensitive to the religion I am following. There are tough customs and rituals but some of its elements seemed worth following. We climbed about 900 steps in two days to experience ancient carvings and statutes in caves preserved.  The 57 inch monolith statue of Lord Bahubali was an enchanting and divine experience.

Bylakuppe is the oldest Tibetan Settlement in India where we learnt different aspects of Buddhism and understood how Lord Mahiavira and Lord Buddha were from the same time but separated due to a clash on one point – ‘Enlightenment’. Lord Mahavira believed that once a human being attains enlightenment he cannot become a human again and Lord Buddha begged to differ.

Religion is not just about what the god has said or systematic following of verses and rituals- there are other dimensions to it as well.

To understand these other aspects we had a couple of sessions which were a great addition to this larger purpose of the tour. We had a visit to NIMHANS centre where we had few discussions with clinical psychologists who talked about role of mind and emotions. It was a very key step in our understanding.

We also visited their Human Brain Museum where we touched and felt real human body parts and had close discussions with doctors. It was interesting to know when they said we have a religion to follow but we also have a karma and this is our karma of finding about what lies within skin.

There were interesting discussions and ever lasting impressions. How brain and heart allows us to think the way we do and how then religion squeezes in to disturb its balance.

Do dead have the religion? There are still questions which need answers and maybe we will have time to find them through other channels.

We also went to Krishnamurthi Foundation which was a more Natural and Humanitarian experience. This visit allowed us to ponder upon nature which is as existent as any scripture and there is a duty and bond we share with them. Nature isn’t harmful, our actions towards it has made us believe that. The Valley School accommodates students and teaches them to live life as a human being devoid of any imposed religion, customs and so on.

Apart from direct understanding of religion, we had few elements which were about exploring self.

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The foundation in association with an organisation formed by ex –gurukul members organised a day log workshop called ‘Paalam’. This aimed on pausing and reflecting on ourselves through various activities.

This was an intense personal experience- there were tears, there was emotional shattering and bonding with fellow beings. We explored ourselves in the way we never had.

I always wanted to perform in a play and got a chance here through an activity we did and it turned out to be great.

One impossible event of the entire tour was a Conference on Interfaith Dialogue in association with Sera Jey Monastery. Here representatives of all religious faith whom we had interacted with were present and shared their views and their approach from their religion’s perspective. As beautiful a sight it was, I was scared if at any point the discussion becomes a heated debate. But everyone had polished and sane comments and the event was a success.

We had a group activity where we had one person of a religious faith as a mentor and we discussed immediate measures to be taken to bring harmony.

The religion and the pilgrimage got covered in the 16 day journey but there was more which came to us as hidden package in our own understanding of things.

Tibetans are very beautiful people who have escaped from Tibet to save their lives from Chinese and are residing in Tibetan settlements in India struggling for freedom and educating themselves to strengthen as individuals who are trying to stay up to date with the world. Half our group members were Tibetans who were either monks, nuns or everyday people.

The purpose of visiting Bylakuppe was not just to know about Buddhism but also about the oldest Tibetan settlement and the Tibetans residing there. I had a previous experience with Tibetans and also have friends in the community but here the interaction and the bonds we shared were purer than the relationships I already have with my Indian friends and family.

In our traveling, dining, living together of 12-13 days before reaching Bylakuppe we had made a different kind of relationship with Tibetan friends. They had already shared numerous stories of their leaving behind of their homeland but what was nice to know was how they were grateful for their Indian friends who love them and accept them.

At Bylakuppe we visited Monasteries which were no less in demeanour and grandeur of a foreign country visit. They were huge and beautiful and filled with history to be known to the world. To me the closest visit which has left an impact was the one to The Old Age Home and another to the Karuna Centre for Mentally Able children belonging to Tibetan community.

There is lack of funds, people and providers to facilitate a space for them to meet the needs but there is immense love and care with which they take good care of these old and young.

We got a lot emotional visiting here.

We received great hospitality and were loved by monks from Sera Jey who met the ends to provide us with everything.

In the course, have I made friends? Yes.

Am I still in touch with them? Yes.

Are they fancy people with whom pictures look good? May be

Do I really feel for them? Yes

Will I be a host to them when they come to my city or will be there when they need me in actual situations? Yes

Some experiences leave you touched to the core and you don’t leave them behind once you return to your home.

I have made a very dear relationship with a monk friend – Kalsang Tashi and his profound interest in learning languages, translation and writing has brought us together to a level where we are collectively developing stories. He has become a beautiful companion and I am his family in India now.

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As for our other group members we share something every day and stay in touch. Some reunions have already happened and some will continue to happen as we will be in the same city.

The 16 day tour taught me to be aware of myself and surroundings. It has taught to me to be mindful and to experience what sharing means in practice.

I feel fortunate and blessed that I got an opportunity to experience something which is extraordinary in thought and was remarkable in experience. We can always go as tourists but to know things as learners was sheer brilliance.

As everything appears right, it is not so in the real world. Our duty begins here where we at least begin by learning a few right things and spread it within our circles. This is the least we can do by being informed.

After returning, I left my job to explore the real self which can be of use and I feel that Interfaith Programme played a great role in helping me discover my lost self. I regained my confidence and purpose of life. I met some amazing people and got wonderful fresh perspectives.

Wishing and always being available for any future projects with the foundation I am trying to extend my gratitude in my maximum capacity possible.

There were few promises we made, some have already started taking shape.

We can be as dutiful as we wish to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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