The World Congress of Religions 2012 conference is sponsored by the Institute of World Religions of the Washington Kali Temple, and the Council for a Parliament of the of the World's Religions, to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda, the person most responsible to introduce the Indian philosophies of Vedanta and yoga to the western world.
The conference weaves together a rich net of current interfaith elements. The Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions was founded in Chicago on the centennial of the 1893 Parliament of the World's Religions.
It was at the original 1893 conference that Swami Vivekananda first introduced Hinduism in his historic speech to open the Parliament. The Chicago Parliament of the World's Religions was the first attempt in modern times to create a global dialogue of faiths. It was part of the “World Columbian Exposition,” an early world's fair that included conferences and expositions on such life work as labor, medicine, temperance, commerce, finance, history, art, philosophy, and science. The religion section was chaired by clergyman John Henry Barrows, and it was there that Swami Vivekananda represented India, and offered his inspiring speech at the opening session.
It was Vivekananda's impulses toward the unity to be found in all religions that had the additional effect of unifying Hinduism across its many and diverse branches, and subsequently, by extension spawned an inner sense of a wider patriotism across all of India. Independent India's first governor general said, “Vivekananda saved Hinduism, saved India,” and Mahatma Gandhi, India's great non-violent liberator of India from British rule said Vivekananda's influence influenced his “love for his country a thousand fold.” The same Gandhi after whom America's great liberator, Martin Luther King Jr. forged his mighty thoughts and deeds in non-violent victory over America's greatest curse.
Fitting is it then that the inaugural and keynote address for this important world congress honoring the birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda was offered by Reverend Martin Luther King III. Participants heard a humble, carefully built address from King, and enjoyed afterward a private photo session and reception.
King, though absent the fiery Baptist style of his father, speaks with no less passion and devotion to the cause and vision of non-violence as sufficient to give rise to social transformation and human liberation. King's stood fast by this radical activist posture throughout his address, unfolding and defending a philosophy that is challenged by many, and fully ignored and violated by most.
The vision of non-violence and the extreme risk and challenges under which both Gandhi's and King's freedom fighters lived and walked awakens in the hearer the highest part of ourselves, and confronts us with a true gage and study of our courage inventory. One cannot hear even the description of commitment to non-violence without having your own claims as good called out onto the test ground and examination. For King, even in quiet ways to stand before the world leaders at the conference, and be the one placing hearers in this uncomfortable zone requires more than coming to his views as a theorist. His devotion to non-violence as a his personally chosen way, was his offering to the peace-seekers gathered here in DC this weekend.
That this must be a life lived, and more than a theory expounded was made most evident in the autobiographical dimensions of the King speech Friday, in which he spoke (honorably and without cheaply pulling at heartstrings) of the murders of his family members, and the path to forgiveness he battled to attain. Indeed it is in the God-given ability to forgive that the path to non-violence is rooted. And here too, our own qualities and integrity were laid bare within us as he spoke.
The clarity of King, and his genuine integration into the hard course he calls for was seen as strongly or better in the session for questions and answers. There King made himself truly vulnerable to real challenges to non-violence, “is it right to revolt violently against slavery, against tyranny,” and other questions with hard, living examples, of the evils that surround us. King fielded the questions with humility, openness, and nothing rote. He allowed the questions to be hard, and responded in ways that showed that the path of non-violence must be chosen every moment, and to do so requires hard work in all ways, intellectually and philosophically, but more importantly requires constantly burnishing of the steel of courage.