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A.S. Goswami: Prospects for Dialogue and Reconciliation in Syria

Speech at the UPF Interfaith Consultation on the Crisis in Syria
Amman, Jordan, October 11-13, 2013

Published in Dialogue & Alliance, Vol. 27, No. 2, 2013

In 1920 Mahatma Gandhi opposed the then British Government of India by returning the highest civil honor bestowed upon him for one single reason: the British and allied forces did not keep their promise to treat the interest of Turkey well. Under Gandhi’s leadership the Hindus participated in the famous Khilafat Opposition Movement in support of the Muslim brothers and sisters of the Middle East.

In the same spirit, I feel privileged to greet you all on behalf of India, home to over a billion Hindus, along with all major religious traditions of the world – and the only home to some. I stand here with a humble awareness that I may not have a solution to your problem, but I can surely share your pain and suffering. Our guiding principles, uttered already in the Vedas, have been: “Let noble thoughts come to us from all directions.” Hinduism’s pride is that it celebrates diversity, and that has often made it possible for dialogue to win out over conflict in Indian history.

The dialogical strength of the Hindu tradition comes from its comprehensive worldview. It values and respects four realms of life: Artha, the economic forces, Kama, the aesthetic ones, Dharma, the spirituality of righteousness and Moksha, the hope of total freedom from our various sufferings. Standing on these four pillars, Hinduism sponsors a multi-layered dialogue that embraces both the material and spiritual realms.

Hindus proclaim that human welfare centered around a family is the highest truth. Such a deep concern I also hear in the views of the organizers of this consultation, the Universal Peace Federation. Conflict mediation, disaster prevention and response, sustainable development and strengthening of the United Nations need to be addressed as utmost priorities. These concerns are the raison d’etre of the United Nations. The UN and its various institutions have worked over time to alleviate human suffering on these scores. Yet the results tell us that much more needs to be done. What is missing?

As Mahatma Gandhi reminded us, “There is no department of life which can be divorced from religion.” Until recently, the UN tended to keep religious institutions away from the realm of human service. There have been legitimate worries that religious bodies might try to subvert these efforts for their own ends. But one can go too far with such cautions. It’s like trying to keep electricity away from the appliances. Hindus believe in what Shri Krishna said: “Let spiritual wisdom be in harmony with mundane sciences.” (Jnanam parm guhyam me yad vijnana samanvitam.) Any act of good intention will surely be wasted if it is not based on a value system.

At the core of Hindu religiosity is a value system called dharma. Dharma champions truth, non-violence, peace, compassion, penance, contentment, sharing and respect for others. Hindu dharma and the Purpose and Principles of the UN Charter resonate closely. Their common end is human welfare. Yet it has been hard to actualize this vision in the real world. Why?

Part of the reason is civil society is missing its religious partner, which is a major facet of human experience and expression. Interfaith bodies like the Universal Peace Federation have been calling for institutionalizing this partnership. I agree. I am sure that if an interfaith council were established at the UN, Hindus and for that matter people of all religions would welcome it. It is a long-standing need.

In the end, I bring you greetings from Vrindavan, Krishna’s paradise on earth. But it was only in 1598 that this holiest of Hindu places was fully actualized as a this-worldly reality. This happened as a result of a dialogue between religion and politics that involved my ancestor gosvamis on the one hand and the great Mughal emperor Akbar on the other. This partnership between Hindus and Muslims and between religion and politics thrived.

Such partnerships are not the dream of the past alone. Recently, for example, the Alliance of Religion and Conservation and the consequent World Faith Development Dialogue has achieved fine tangible results under the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the President of the World Bank.

I hope that the dream of the Universal Peace Federation can also be fulfilled. In that cause I would offer a prayer. It was first uttered by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, under whose leadership the gosvamis talked to the Muslim Emperor Akbar. Here is Caitanya’s prayer:

Be more humble than a blade of grass,
Have forbearance like a tree,
Have no conceit, Always respect others.

One can then have the dialogical dalliance between religion and politics, spirituality and economics.

These are simple words, but they go to the heart of what an alliance between religion and politics, and between spirituality and economics, must mean. I offer them to you with hope today.

Acharya Sri Shrivatsa Goswami, Director, Sri Caitanya Prema Samsthana, is a member of an eminent family of spiritual leaders and scholars at Sri Radharamana Mandir, Vrindaban. His writings on Vaisnavism, Krishna, Radha and the Hare Krishna movement have been published by the university presses of Princeton, Berkeley and others. He is the editor of the forthcoming volume on Chaitanya for the Encyclopaedia of Indian Philosophy, published by the American Institute of Indian Studies. He is the Director of Sri Caitanya Prema Samsthana, an Institute of Vaisnava culture and studies at Vrindaban, whose Vraja Research Project is sponsored by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts of the Government of India. Pope Benedict XVI invited him to represent Hindu tradition at the 25th anniversary of the World Day of Prayer at Assisi in October 2011. He is connected with several important international peace, interfaith and environmental movements such as the World Council of Churches, Religions for Peace, International Religious Foundation, UN Environment Programme and the Universal Peace Federation.