Sri M’s Keynote Speech at the G20 Interfaith Summit Preconference (South Asia)

“When we say happiness for living beings, it includes human beings also. So, this is the subject that has been given to me today. I have noted down a few points. But I would like to start first with a little story, which was a favourite story with a great saint of our times – Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. I don’t know if many people have heard about him. In India, of course people have. We have heard of Swami Vivekananda. Swami Vivekananda was his disciple.”

“Now, this story actually comes from ancient Jain sources. You know they are one of the oldest religions of this country. This is the stream that is known as the Jain teachings. They have a philosophy that says, “Anaitadvat” which means something may be this or may be that. We cannot be sure. I think it is this, you may think it is that, but it may be something else altogether. So, based on this, is a beautiful story, which of course was adapted and made very popular by a great Sufi in Turkey, whose name was Jalaluddin Rumi. Maulana Jalauddin Rumi wrote the famous Maznavi and a lesser famous text called Fihi Ma Fihi, which means, “It is and yet it is not.” You know uncertainty is the beginning of all exploration. Too much certainty is dangerous because the mind gets stuck and it cannot move forward. So, Fihi Ma Fihi – “it is, maybe it is not.”

“Now the story goes like this. Three blind men went to find out what an elephant is. Well, there was an elephant and the three blind men decided they will go and explore what an elephant is like. One of them touched the feet of the elephant, one foot of course, and concluded that an elephant is like a big pillar in a courtyard and that if you go too close, it might land on you and crush you to death. This is the definition of elephant according to one because you could not see, but only touch the foot. The second touched the trunk of the elephant and concluded that an elephant is like a rubber hose, which keeps moving most of the times and keeps making phussphuss noise. If you go too close, you might be slapped on your face. The third blind man touched the tail of the elephant and decided that an elephant is like a big broom, which also keeps moving constantly. If you go too close, you might get a slap with the bristles. Now, this is the definition of the elephant. Soon a big fight ensued – each person trying to prove his own idea about the elephant as right. It went on to such an extent, I think, if we were present at that time, we might have had to call another interfaith harmony summit, until a man who could actually see walked in. Now in the Sufi teachings, the man who actually saw was a man who was a teacher. You know sometimes, we wonder we have eyes, but can we really see? Food for thought anyways. So, this man who could see came in and he said, “What is this fight about?” They said the elephant is this and the elephant is that… Okay, just a minute. Can you first jump off from the other guy’s chest? We can have a chat. He said, “You are right.” So the other guy got very upset. He said, “What about me?” He said, “You are also right.” “What about you?” “He is also right.” He said, “Then who is right?” “You are right, you are right and you are right. In the absolute sense, you are all wrong because the elephant is much more than anything the puny little human brain can conceive of, much more than that. We may have our definitions, but it defies definitions. It is that which can best probably be described if I use an Arabic word, La– meaning no. I hope the fight ended, I don’t know. I am not sure.”

“So, this is the situation when we try to find our own definition. Great men who could see made their definition about the angle at which they saw it. My contention is the whole is much bigger than anybody can define and, therefore, it is right to say, “We are right” but actually put together, we may all be still tottering in the darkness, including me. I am not outside. At least, we should think about this. If we think about this, the root of the problem is already beginning to be understood. We practice what we are taught – according to the situation, according to the teacher – but there are other parts of the country, other parts of the world where other teachers have come and taught according to the circumstances. But the major focus of this event is India, so that is why I am stressing on India. Look at this country – we have over 26 languages here. You know if you go to other countries, there is one language or two,probably.Here it is 26 languages and more than 150 dialects and yet, in spite of all the rumblings that go on, we somehow manage to remain as one. I think, it should be easier in a place where there is one language with one dialect. If we, who talk in so many tongues (like the whole story of the tower of Babel) can remain together – I say that this is possible in every part of the world because basically we are human beings. In the Indian context, I am sure many of you understand that – it is an example – the first mosque that was built outside the Arabi a region, even during the time of the prophet Mohammed, was in a place in south of India called Kodungallur. I am not trying to separate Kerala from the rest of India, please, nor from the rest of the world. I am just pointing out. There is a place called Kodungallur. I wish some of the delegates could go there. It’s the oldest mosque in the world after probably the mosque of Madina and it was built during the lifetime of the Prophet, when Malik Deenar came here as a traveler. Now, even today, they haven’t replaced the lamp that was already there. Because why should one, let it be there. A lamp is a symbol of lightafter all.”

“Come to Christianity. I am sure Father George is here. He knows more about it than I do. The Marthoma Church is the oldest church in this country. They say even St. Thomas came here and many people became Christians. Well, we don’t have many of the original documents because the Portuguese made short work of the manuscripts that were available. But it’s a fact. Either St. Thomas – I beg your pardon, Father- or somebody like him definitely sailed in here and we had the first set of Christians who were called the Syrian Christians, the Marthomites who still hold the litany in a language called Syriac; it is an Aramaic, language spoken by Jesus Christ. Look at this country and you see all religions have come, settled down, and the local rulers never evenobjected to anybody coming here. People of the most ancient religion of Persia, the Parsis, were welcomed with open hands, when they left Iran and came to this country and they have survived here. In fact, one of our greatest industrialists, Tata of the Tata group of industries, is a Parsi. If you go to Cochin or to Bombay or to Machilipatnam, you will see small groups of Jews who are settled there. In ancient times, when the Jews were shunted out from different parts of the world, some of them sailed in here and they were welcomed by the rulers and given a place to stay. If you go to Fort Cochin, you still have a Jew Town over there and probably one of the oldest synagogue, where you can see beautiful porcelain Chinese tiles for the flooring. And when Islam came, as I told you, the first mosque even at the time of the Prophet Mohammed’s life, was built in Kodungallur in Kerala. It still exists for you to go and see. So, India has always had a tradition of welcoming all religions and treating them at par. My only fear is that this isn’t done away with, that we get stuck to particulars and forget about the general.”

“I noted down some points. So, now having given you a historical background, is there some way by which the ancient 3000-year-old saying in the Rig Veda, “Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudavadanti” can be implemented. There is one truth, but the wise will name it in different ways. Why name it in different ways? Depending on the geographical location, the people who practice it, and the language in which it is taught.But the Truth is one, “Ekam Sat.” This is 3000 years old. Of course, the Buddha did not talk about God per se, but I think the greatest practical understanding of Godliness, is the compassion that he preached. Love and compassion was the essence of the Buddhist teaching. Also, the ancient Jain teachings define itself as “Ahimsa paramodharmaha.” The greatest religion is the practice of nonviolence, according to the Jains. Now this is where I want to elaborate a little bit.”

“Nonviolence does not mean an external manifestation alone of being not harmful to others. I think nonviolence is a state of mind. I personally believe and I have seen this happen with my Master – with whom I lived in the Himalayas for many years – that if you cease to hate or not feel hatred or will never hurt another living being, even the wild animals become very good and happy with you. I have seen him sit with a leopard; I was shivering, of course. So when the mind begins to be kind, animals begin to see that somebody really and genuinely doesn’t mean to harm or hurt them, that violence has been completely wiped out of his mind or her mind, then the animal senses it. Why I am saying this, it has to start from here first at home. We ourselves are one bundle of contradictions, conflicts, with the mind that’s violent, that’shidden behind smiles. This smiling, you know.In the airlines, you are taught how to smile so. You can smile, but that does not mean anything. You have seen the smile of air hostesses or steward? It comes and vanishes in no time. It’s an external expression. Look inside, what can you do. Can we live in peace with ourselves? If we live in peace with ourselves, if we stop harboring hatred for others, I think that is the only possibility from here, this living together and interreligious harmony. So, it has to start with oneself first and then I also practice it, I can talk about it here in front of you. Do I practice it myself? Do I practice it with my neighbour? By chance, if the neighbor throws something in to my compound, do I fly into a rage or do I decide to have a one-on-one summit with him? See, I am saying it starts here. Then if I set my house right, then I can talk to my neighbor with conviction. I can’t talk to the neighbor with conviction if I can’t set my house right. So people come to me in this country and say that there is violence happening out there, we have to do something. Yes, we have to do something, but where does it start? Here in our house first. Can we put our house in order? If each country puts its house in order, then the global peace and interfaith dialogue will happen. If we don’t, there is no chance of it moving forward. From our side, we are doing our best to bring this about, because actions are necessary. Thinking is important, thinking is the root of action, but action is necessary. How do we do it?”

“As I explained to you yesterday, we started this Walk of Hope – as we call it. We have given a small film to our friend about the Walk. It is a 30-minute presentation. Whenever you have time – today or tomorrow – please take a look at it. Fact is we walked for 7500 Km starting from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. I am not boasting, just trying to point out, can some of the delegates here do it in their own place? I don’t have to come. It’s not our banner that is important. This is a good enough banner. Why walk? Somebody asked me, this is an age of jet planes, why are you walking so slowly? I said we are walking, because when you walk, you are actually – it’s an expression in English, called “down to earth.” So, here you are actually down to earth; your feet are on the ground. Look at all the teachers from ancient times who have walked. So, when you walk, you actually meet the ordinary man. Today, in India, generally if you walk, if you go in a wonderful shining car to a village, the villager will probably think this guy has come to buy my land. He must be a real estate shark. But, if you are walking, they welcome you like their own. They talk to you, even the ones who are in bad shape financially, and they will not leave until you have a cup of tea. We had many such discussions under the Peepal Tree sitting down—chatting and sipping a cup of tea. That also has been branded now “Chai ke Upar Charcha”. Doesn’t matter. So, this is so important that we actually walk, and we meet people. You don’t have to walk, you can also go and get down in a village, meet people, shake hands with them, share a cup of tea, and talk to them.Can’t we live in peace together? Why are we fighting with each other? If it starts from the village level, it will then spread out into the local community. I believe that seeds have to be planted. You know when you plant the seed of Peace and Harmony, like any other seed, it can’t become a fully developed tree in two days. It needs to be nurtured, it needs to be pruned, water has to be there – first, the soil has to be fertile – and then, you get this huge wonderful tree under whose shade we can all sit in peace and enjoy ourselves. So, one step is to meet people actually. This is fine, this is where the seed is sown, but then go out in your own locality, meet people, have little councils set up.Schools and colleges are very important because it is the young who are going to take over tomorrow. We are grey and balding, we might soon disappear, but what about the young, they are the future of this country. So, my advice to the youngsters, especially, in colleges, schools, in the institutions that you study, in your home, with your neighbor, make little circles. They need not be official. Have a cup of tea, you can have a little wine, and it does not matter. Sorry Swamiji, but sit together, talk, bring people together.”

“So, this is one thing we have kind of started in our own way and as I said yesterday, I am ready to go anywhere. If somebody says come, walk here, I would go. The other initiative which we have kind of started in one place and we would like to replicate – it is not necessary only we have to do it, you should be able to do it too – to have what is known as Sarvadharma Kendra; translated into English, it means, a Centre for all religions. We have started one in Bangalore on the outskirts. It’s not like this, when you say a Centre for all religions, you have one room and put all the different religious symbols there. I am telling you nobody would go there. We have tried this out. Nobody goes. In Ayodhya, we are having trouble with two acres of land. There you have two acres of land, have a temple, have a mosque, not in the same place, but different locations inside. Connect them through different pathways, have a water body. Make an island there. Make Buddha sit there. You know, when you do that, people from all religions would come. Even in a hall if we put everything together, nobody usually comes. So, we have initiated one near Bangalore. That’s for Karnataka. We are trying to put it up in every state. I wish and pray, that all of you in your respective countries, wherever you are, can have small such Centres, with a library for study of religious texts, inter-religious hall where you can discuss these matters openly without coming to blows. If we can do that, I think it will have a great impact on the world in general, your own nation in particular. This would be a great thing to do.”

“This is my other suggestion. In this context, we have also started what is called the MyTree Program. In Sanskrit, Maitri also means friendship. Here I mean, MyTree where we encourage people to plant as many trees as possible wherever they can and adopt the tree and look after it. Believe me, its not just about uniting humans, I consider trees also to be living beings and to plant a little sapling and to see it grow into a big tree is a great discipline which can result in looking after humanity as a whole. The attitude of caring for a little sapling till it becomes a tree. So these are some of the things we have started. When I say we have started, please don’t think I am setting myself apart from you. I meant if different people from different organizations could do some of these things in different places. I think by now we should get out of this idea – my organization, your organization.It should be for humanity. The link should be like that. It has happened. Now there are people who don’t believe in God. What do you do? Are we to say that those who don’t believe in God are all bad people? Their belief system doesn’t agree with them. Fine. That is okay. But are they good people? Is it possible for them to be good? Is it possible for them to love each other? Well if you can, then I think you have done the exact thing a religion would want you to.”

“Compromise is essential. You have to live together. I want to tell you a little story about compromise. This is a story staged in ancient Mecca, even before the Prophet Mohammed became a Prophet and before Islam came. He was one of the traveling Arab merchants. When the Kaaba was broken down in some places, and they wanted to rebuild it, the big fight started on who would put the first brick. You know, the region was full of so many tribes. So one tribe, the Queresh said, we are superior, we are going to lay the first stone and it went on and on. So this man was travelling and when he came back, they asked him what did he think because he also belonged to the Quresh Tribe. He said, “I have a solution for this. Will somebody bring a cloth? Put the cloth there. I would put the first brick in the middle of the cloth, all the tribes can lift the different corners of the cloth and take it out there.” See this is compromise. What happened to these compromises now? Where have they gone? Have they been swept under the carpet? Why do people behave like this? So peace is essential. When somebody greets another, a Muslim greets another Muslim, he says Salaam alaikum, may the Lord’s peace be on you. What do we say in this country? Om shanti shanti. Please forget the language. Look at the essence. What is Shanti? Peace. When you go to a temple and they give you something, it may be tasty and it’s called the Prasad. In Sanskrit, Prasad also means, peace and well being. Prasadam – tranquility and peace. So this is of the essence. When the Jews greet eachother, they say Shalom. What is Shalom? It is another variation of Salaam, peace. But what is happening out there? Shooting each other. So, I am saying it is not because of religion but rather we have forgotten the essence of it. I have great hopes that one day this will be sorted out and all of us should contribute in some way to it by not looking at others as different, but as part of a single global humanity. Thank you very much and I am open to discussion. Anything, except politics. Thank you.”

Q: Thank you very much, Sri M. Before we open it up to questions / comments, preferably more of the former less of the latter, there is one thing that struck me and it is the second of the three bits of advice on how we can build peace in the world, that is to actually build a place that has various places of worship, rather than one place that all people come and worship together. Is that because you found in your work that people feel more comfortable having a place that they understand, relate to and go and worship, but having it in proximity allows them to engage with other? What are the different merits in bringing them in one compound, shall we say, which would facilitate them learning from each other?

Sri M: What I meant was, imagine a Muslimor a Jew, who does not pray to anything that is an image or an idol. It’s a fact. Now you have a room, and you have different religious symbols there. It could be very uncomfortable for people who do not worship form, or don’t do any kind of worship. In the same way, there are the Sikhs. They worship the Granth Sahib. It’s their holy book. They don’t worship anything else. Incidentally, I want to tell you a story. During the Walk, we were walking upto Delhi and we got into a small little mosque, which was run by an Imam, and there was a madrassa where children were studying. He gave a beautiful talk to us in Hindi on how we should respect the other’s religion and so on.Wethen had tea. We got tea wherever we went. So, then from there, he asked me where we are going next. I said, in about half an hour, we will probably go to a Gurudwara. So he asked me, can I come with you? I said sure you can come. This is the first time I am going to any such a place. I said, please come. It’s okay. I will talk to them. Don’t worry. So he came with me. We went to the Gurudwara. We entered the Gurudwara and deliberately I introduced him to the people who were running the Gurudwara. I said this is this Imam from that mosque. He has come. You know when you enter a Hurudwara, you need to cover your head. Ladies have to cover their head and the men have to also have a turban, which is the custom of the Sikhs. This man didn’t have to do anything because he already had a turban on his head. Anyways, we went inside. Well he didn’t bow down. He just sat down. Usually, they bow down. Nobody minded. He sat down. Then, they started reading the GranthSabhib. It’s so happened that the part that they read, this is not the Quran, it is the Granth which said,”Awwal Allah Noor Upaya Qudrat Keh Sab Banday” which meant, ” First, Allah made this light and from that light, came all living beings. In the Granth Sahib, “Allah” meant God. You know that. So the Maulana leaned to me and asked me, “Are they trying to interpret the Quran?” because he heard Allah. I said, “No.” So the thing is, what I am trying to say is, when you are exposed to other religions, we shut ourselves, we refuse to learn from others. When you open up and look at others, you find many good things. So, for that, if you have separate place of worship, a mosque for the Muslims, a little church – we are now in the process of doing the church, a temple is all ready and build a little place where we have a Buddha sitting – people will do their own worship. and when they want to come together and discuss, we have a common hall with no symbols. Let them have their religion as they want and yet have peace, keeping them together. I think this is the better way of doing it.

Q: As far as interfaith dialogue in Kashmir is concerned, what are your views?

Sri M: I will try to answer. First of all, you said when you go to Srinagar. We did go to Srinagar from Jammu. In fact, I don’t know if you listened to me yesterday, I begged the authorities not to send any uniformed security people with us because that provokes, especially the locals. And, of course, the local police you cant help, because when you go into a state, they are with us. All other people, I said please if you want to feel safe, keep them at a safe distance. We don’t want them to walk. We walked in the street up to the Dal Lake, up to the end. We stopped at the Centaur Hotel. It was a Friday afternoon, after the prayers. People told us we are going to be pelted. Believe me, they shook hands with us and some of them gave us flowers. So, it’s the way you approach that matters. If we had gone full band, with olive uniform and army, I am sure we would have got stoned. So, force can never be neutralized by force. You need affection and love. My suggestion is we should give back the dignity of those people. It is very essential. As you said, they are very poor. I had the opportunity of being interviewed by young Kashmiri boys and girls with the newspapers and, after certain discussions, I would tell them please switch off the tape recorder, let’s have a talk now. Between you and me. When I asked them, what about the mounds of money that have been pumped into Kashmir?Has it reached you, and the unanimous response, was yes it has reached the politicians. Did you see the walls that were built by so and so? I don’t want to use names of who made a golf course out there. It hasn’t reached them. So, politics is played in Kashmir as in other parts. So, they said please come again and spend some time with us. We would like to take you to little villages, so you can actually meet people and get a proper feedback and I had an advantage, of course. It was like when I met the Muslims, I said Salaam alaikum. Just one sentence. You understand what I mean. It is a question of actually opening up our mind and talking to people and not treating them as strangers. Their colors may be different; their speech may be different. So what? They are human beings. So, you are right. I think before attempting the Sarva Dharma Kendra in Srinagar that is not possible at the moment, we should want to engage them in dialogue. Guns are not going to help. Yes, we need guns for security; you can’t suddenly pull everybody out. You will be in trouble there. It will start burning, but the final solution is only through dialogue and I wish that the dialogue comes from people who are there, rather than we going there and thinking that we are big brothers. Doesn’t work. Dialogue should come from there. People should start working. I think we have planted some seeds. Hopefully, I will go back. I am going to the West in September. I will be back in October. November-December, I might go once again there. Not with the jing-bang whole walk, but alone and sit with them. We will try what we can. Thank you.

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