I was in Kolkata just before Christmas, always a great time to be there because of the enthusiasm with which Kolkatans celebrate that festival. This time, while attempts to prevent Christians celebrating were made in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, in Kolkata , chief minister Mamata Banerjee joined in singing carols .
Whenever I speak about India’s tradition of religious tolerance, of accepting that there are different ways to god, I quote the way Indians of different faiths enjoy celebrating each other’s religious festivals. an example, I tell of my amazement to find Sikhs in the congregation at my first midnight mass in the Cathedral of the Redemption in New Delhi. I had just arrived from an England where my Roman Catholic friends were barred from coming to a Church of England service with me. But here were people of a completely different religion attending a Christian service. Since then I have frequently been invited to join in the celebrations of Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim and Parsi festivals.
I went to Kolkata to attend the 10th World Confluence of Spirituality, Power, and Humanity organised by the Srei and Kanoria foundations. Several speakers at the conference suggested that India should be the vishwa or world’s guru because of its tradition of religious plurality. That plurality was highlighted by the wide variety of faith leaders at the conference.
Among them were the Roman Catholic archbishop of Ranchi, Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, and Imam Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, chief imam of the All India Imam Organisations, the Venerable Bhikkhu Sanghasena of the Mahabodhi Meditation Centre in Leh, and Srimat Swami Shuddhianandaji, of the Advaita Ashram. The RSS was represented by Indresh Kumar. Former President of India Pranab Mukherjee also spoke.
I chaired a session discussing the possibility of India playing the role of vishwa guru in tackling the problem of climate change. The recent snowfall in Florida might even persuade United States President Donald Trump that this is a problem. In the session the threat the world faces from climate change and the degradation of our environment was discussed in a spiritual context. The disappointing progress made at the 2015 United Nations Paris Conference on Climate Change and Trump’s reaction to the limited accord which was reached there indicate how little the world’s political leaders will do to avert this threat.
But where do spiritual leaders come in? Climate change is a crisis which requires much more fundamental changes than technology can provide. The fundamental changes we need are changes in the way we live our lives. Those changes will only come about if we revive our respect for nature and it is faith traditions which teach that the earth and all that is in it is sacred.
In introducing the topic ‘Spirituality and Nature – Climate Change at the Confluence’, I quoted from Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. rangement is our madness in failing to realise the danger of the unthinkable happening if we don’t get real about climate change. Ghosh wrote, “The most promising development (in the environment movement) is the growing involvement of religious groups and leaders in the politics of climate change. If the securitization and corporatization of climate change is to be prevented, then already existing communities and mass organisations will have to be in the forefront of the struggle. And of such organisations, those with religious affiliations possess the ability to mobilize people in far greater number than any others.
The lifestyle changes we need to make are widely seen as burdensome, giving up a lot which makes life easier and enjoyable, but faith traditions demonstrate that we will live deeper, fuller, and hence happier lives if we do make the required changes. However, the impact of the faith communities would be much louder if they all spoke with one voice. At the end of our discussion the speakers, a Jesuit priest, Father Francis Gonsalves, an Islamic Scholar, Aslam Parvaiz, and two prominent Hindus, Swami Chidananda Saraswati, and Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, all agreed it was worth continuing the search for that one voice.
Maybe India’s New Year’s resolution should be to become the Vishwa Guru on climate change by showing to the world that this one voice exists here and manifest its ability to mobilise people.