The much anticipated annual Interreligious celebration of Christmas, hosted by His Eminence, Oswald Cardinal Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay, is a fitting introduction indeed to the season of Christmas with its message of goodwill to all. This year’s theme was: ‘We are all brothers and sisters caring for each other and for creation’ in keeping with the Holy Father’s encyclical, ‘Laudato Si’ – a message that has reached and touched almost every heart on planet earth.
Ms. Jacintha Vales, the emcee for the evening, welcomed one and all and invited His Eminence to light the lamp and unveil the crib while the choir sang a heartfelt rendition of ‘Uta ho vishwasi…nishtene aaradhya swamila’ – ‘O come all ye faithful’ in Hindi and Marathi. This was followed by a presentation of the Christmas story – read from the Gospel of Luke, in Hindi, movingly enacted by the girls of Jesus & Mary Convent, Fort and set to the strains of Silent Night, Angels We Have Heard On High, Go Tell It On The Mountains, We Three Kings and Joy To The World. Truly, angels were present! And we were given this message to carry home: ‘Jesus came to give us the love of the Father and peace in our hearts….we share this with you and invite you all to take the message home to share with others.’
The heart of the programme – the interreligious dialogue with representatives of other faiths – was hosted by Fr. Ryan Alex,Director of the Diocesan Youth Centre, who opened the session with the following words from the Bhagvad Gita, “Use words which give peace, words which are good, and beautiful and true and also the reading of sacred books; this is the harmony of words.” The time spent together at this session would show us how all religions enjoin us to care for nature and each other, the role that we play in each other’s lives and the harmony that exists among different faiths.
Representatives of the following faiths were invited on stage to participate in the discussion:
The Hindu Faith: Prof. Upadhyaya
The Sikh Faith: Inderjit Singh
Islam: Maulana Zaheer Abbas Rizvi & Maulana Mustaquim Azmi
The Jewish Faith: Rabbi Ezra Moses
The Baha’i Faith: Nadeem Habadani
The Zoroastrian Faith: Dr. Homi Dhalla
The Jain Faith: Ms. Shilpa Chhedda
The Christian Faith: Swami Sachidanand & Fr. Stephen Fernandes
Prof. Upadhyaya, the first to speak, explained the difficulties experienced by Krishna at the time of his birth and throughout his life. He returns in every age to restore dharma and he continues to face difficulties because the world pulls in different directions. But he never complains of these difficulties and sufferings because they are considered to be the grace of God, which help us to evolve into better human beings. We should never complain of suffering because this is our path to salvation.
Next up was Fr. Stephen Fernandes who was asked to speak on pro-life issues and the difficulties faced in this area while protecting life from the womb to the tomb. Fr. Stephen reiterated that life is a precious gift from God – all life is therefore sacred and should be protected from conception till its natural end. We are called to promote a culture of life and for this all religions need to come together. The present trend in the world is ‘I can do what I want’ and the choices made, based on this trend, inevitably lead to moral degradation and the lack of respect for life.
When asked to comment and expand on the quotation from the Guru Granth Sahib, ‘Air is the guru, Water is the father and Earth is the great mother of all’ in the context of the earth linking all humanity and therefore, all faiths, Guru Inderjit Singh explained that water is essential for life, without it we cannot survive; the earth is the great mother because it supports life – all of us have our feet placed on the earth and the air is what we all breathe. When we understand this, we will treat all those elder to us as father and mother, all those of our age as brothers and sisters and all those younger than us as our own children, because we have one common father and mother in the air, water and the earth.
Maulana Zaheer Abbas Rizvi wished all present a ‘Merry Christmas’! In heartfelt terms, he expressed that many have received the wrong impression of Islam and of what is given in the Koran. These misunderstandings are baseless. The Koran speaks of peace and brotherhood and says, ‘Your religion is for you, my religion is for me.’ We should not interfere in each other’s religion and this is the message to live in peace.
Maulana Mustaquim Azmi indicated that the Bible and Koran have many similarities. Both call us to be as brothers and live in peace without fighting. We are all created by God and the differences that are created are man-made. In the Koran, love is not just for humans but for animals and all that has been created by God. The Maulana entreated everyone not to fall into the trap of hatred and ended by quoting from ‘Saare Jahan se Accha, Hindustan Hamara!’
Swami Sachidanand, who professes an inculturated Christian faith, had an interesting story to tell about his life and transformation. Before taking sanyas, he was an officer in the Air Force. He came to the spiritual path after being involved in an aircrash when he encountered Jesus in a very personal way. He started preaching in the style of a charismatic but felt the need to be a witness to Christ’s saving grace in other ways, particularly in the socio-cultural-spiritual milieu of India. It was his encounter with a Benedictine Monk, Bede Griffiths – who also gave him his name – that made him realise the depth of India’s own spirituality which led him to integrate his two loves: Jesus Christ and Mother India. He invited all to imbibe Tyaag Archana (Tyaag = sacrifice; Archana = offering to God with love). He also explained that satyagraha was in the socio-political context while the cross is to be accepted in the socio-spiritual context. When we accept the cross and surrender ourselves to it for the redemption of others, we experience a form of loadshedding that is wonderful!
Ms Shilpa Chhedda who represented the Jains, continued the theme of sacrifice. In the Jain faith, there are two types of sacrifice: the external, involving the body (giving up physical satisfaction e.g. forsaking certain foods), and the internal, involving the mind and soul (controlling passions such as anger, pride, ego). This, coupled with the reading of the scriptures, leads to respect for others and for creation.
Nadeem Habadani, representing the Baha’i Faith, spoke on how this belief was based on religious harmony and unity in diversity – where unity is strength and diversity is celebration. While there are independent religions, the Baha’i believe that we are leaves of one tree and fruits of one branch. Religion has always taught love; when we cooperate we grow as a society. All religions, previous and present, are recognized by Baha’I and are likened to the rays of the sun; they are relevant in their own time for the development of humanity. But truth is always one.
Rabbi Moses wished everyone Shalom Aleichem – Peace be with you. He was asked about Jewish Law and the harmony it calls for between life and nature. The Torah contains the 613 commandments given to Moses of which 10 are best known and widely used. But all the laws contained in the Torah are important: 248 are positive (what should be done) while 365 are negative (what should not be done).
The most important commandment is ‘Honour your Father and Mother’ and the other is to love your neighbour as yourself. The Rabbi touched briefly on the situation in Israel indicating that the Jews have always offered peace to their neighbours.
Dr. Homi Dhalla spoke of water and fire in Zoroastrianism, both symbols of purification which are part of nature itself. The followers of the Zoroastrian faith are committed to the conservation and protection of nature; it is an ecological religion established 3500 years ago with the emphasis on nature in which man is trustee, called to live in harmony with nature, the seasons and with one’s neighbours. He referred to Jamshedji Tata, the founder of the Tata Empire who is remembered for three major projects in his lifetime: Jamshedpur, Hydro-Electric Power supply to Mumbai, and the International Institute of Science at Bangalore. (In 1889) Roughly 120 years ago, he had given written instructions for the design of Jamshedpur which mandated the planting of trees and gardens and the building of roads. Jamshedji had also indicated that a temple for the Hindus, a church for Christians and a mosque for Muslims should be included in the setup, thus indicating a desire for harmony among the religions. The Tatas are known for their philanthropy and Corporate Social Responsibility in social and environmental spheres.
Guru Inderjit Singh spoke once again about Srishti (Creation, Nature, the World) and stated that the environment must be cared for, for people to survive. Climate change cannot be blamed on the deity but the human element. The human element poses many dangers – people want peace but fight in the name of religion! Knowledge is also important; knowledge is a guru.
In the final round of comments Prof. Upadhaya mentioned that Dharma and Prakriti are two aspects found in all the Vedas. All is God. Creator and Creation are seen by many as two different and independent aspects. This is not so. God becomes the Universe that He created – He enters every atom of creation. His divine spark is in all of us thus making us brothers and sisters. There is no ‘otherness’ because the other is the same; we all share the innermost force which is divine – we are one. We are different without difference! And we therefore possess the same moral values of sympathy, empathy and love.
Swami Sachidanand was invited to sum up on behalf of all the representatives. He applauded the Pope’s encyclical, ‘Laudato Si’ which calls for the care of creation and each other. We are part of and bound with each other through nature and are interdependent. The sooner we realise this - the sooner we evolve in consciousness - the better we will realise the need for harmony and we will become happier and peaceful. Pope Francis’ call will prove providential to human history; materialism and consumerism are causing ruin and we need a new vision – a holistic and realistic vision and mission: peace and harmony through the Cross. This was expressed by both Constantine and Gandhiji. He quoted Gandhiji (in 1939) as saying that we can be redeemed only by the cross, there is no other way. This was in the context of satyagraha. Institutional Christianity (introduced by Constantine) came from the West, spiritual Christianity will come from the East and this can be India’s contribution to the world. The concept of divine grace that we can reach is common to all religions. (He himself has lived in/experienced four of the Indian faiths).
The emcee thanked all the participants for the spectrum of ideas which had been shared and a token of appreciation was gifted to each one.
A Sikh gentleman took the podium, at his request. He mentioned that he had been attending this event for many years and suggested that the sentiments expressed that ‘we are one’ should be taken further. He requested that suitable extracts be taken from all the Holy Books of different faiths and compiled into one common book so that the message goes out to the world that we are, indeed, one. He was even prepared to share the expenses. He went on to say that even within faiths there are fractures and fights in the name of religion. If we read each other’s Holy Books we will be brought to a deeper understanding and mutual respect.
A choreographed presentation by Focolare followed on ‘the mystery of creation, harmony between humans and nature’ so that we can rediscover that we are all brothers and sisters. A spokesperson for Focolare explained that it is a universal fraternity and also spoke about the United World Week which they had celebrated, and which involved different countries and faiths. One of the participants of the UWW, Rahul, then narrated his experience and the outpouring of love and acceptance that he encountered. A representative, Prof. Minal Khathakar from Anamprem then spoke about the organisation and the work they do to spread love among the disadvantaged and also the civic workers – public servants like the police, postmen, scavengers – who serve us but whom we take for granted.
Anamprem organises events on a common platform in which everyone who is interested can participate. It was interesting to note that Article 51A of the Constitution of India expresses the fundamental duties of a citizen of India and Anamprem incorporates this concept in their activities! The message given was that we are different – we do not look the same, we do not speak the same, we do not think the same and we come from different backgrounds, but we do have one thing in common and that is a heart! Anamprem, jointly with Focolare is organising a function for the Kashmiri Hindu and Muslim refugees to meet and all were cordially invited.
Then it was time for Cardinal Oswald Gracias to speak and he expressed his joy at being present at the function. He also expressed the message of hope that Christmas brings, despite the conflicts in the world – in very recent times, Paris, San Bernardino, Nigeria. It is expected that as we make progress, love and mutual respect will increase but this does not always happen. It is good that world leaders meet to resolve issues and the recent meeting in Paris regarding climate change is an example of this. It indicates a basic unity and understanding; we should continue to pull out of despair to keep doing something positive and never give up hope. Laudato Si with its message to care for creation has revived and raised consciousness about the environment. We need to look to the future that we leave for our children and grandchildren. Christmas reminds us and assures us of hope! His Eminence then wished each and everyone the Joy, Peace, Hope and Love that Jesus gifts to us, and invited us to follow His example to make the world one family and overcome prejudices and misunderstandings. He cited the city of Mumbai as being a good example and indicated that we should not allow the feeling of mutual understanding to diminish.
His Eminence expressed special thanks to the representatives of all faiths who attended, particularly those who took part in the panel discussion. He also thanks the Consuls of different countries who had taken time out of their busy schedules to be present.
It was coincidental that the day marked the 45th Anniversary of Cardinal Oswald’s ordination to the priesthood, so everyone sang ‘Congratulations!’ to him as he cut the cake that was brought on stage. Actually, it was a double celebration as his birthday on December 24 was anticipated and ‘Happy Birthday’ was sung as well!!
Our emcee and host for the evening, Jacintha, expressed thanks to all who attended and also to Fr. John Lopes, Principal of Holy Name High School, Sr. Arina, RJM Principal, Jesus & Mary, Fort, Fr. Alban D’Souza, Dr Marilu Rossi, the representatives of the different faiths, Fr, Ryan Alex, Dr. Abraham Mathai, the Archdiocesan Commission for Interreligious Dialogue and the representatives from the different Consulates.
The choir came back onstage to render a beautiful medley of hymns while His Eminence met and greeted each one individually. Refreshments were served and there was a general intermingling and sharing of goodwill.
:December 21, 2015
:Catholic Communication Centre, AOB
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