The twentieth century has been the bloodiest in the history of mankind. It was the late Pope John Paul II who termed it as the “century of tears” because 110 million people had been killed.1 Although the tentacles of violence have spread far and wide, there has been an increasing awareness of the need to work for a culture of peace.
One of the most significant events which ushered a period of interfaith dialogue and cooperation was launched by the late Pope John Paul II when he invited representatives of the various religions to the World Day of Prayer for Peace at Assisi on October 27, 1986. On that occasion, he emphasized that ‘the very fact that we have come to Assisi from various parts of the world is in itself a sign of this common path which humanity is called to tread. Either we learn to walk together in peace and harmony, or we drift apart and ruin ourselves and others.’ This meeting was a reminder that the problems of the world are so serious that we cannot solve them alone. Therefore, there is an urgent need for interreligious collaboration. It also signaled the importance of inter-faith dialogue. Today, the international interfaith movement is one of the most important features of the modern world. He played a prominent role in initiating dialogue not only with other faith communities but also with atheists.
It is perhaps time to stop focusing on the wounds and work towards healing. This paper, therefore, wishes to draw attention to the constructive steps being taken by persons in different walks of life, globally, to promote the culture of peace.
Hiroshima – City of Peace
64 years ago, on August 6, 1945, Hiroshima was destroyed by the first atomic bomb. It immediately killed 70-80,000 people and tens of thousands died later of radiation. Hiroshima, like Auschwitz or Pompeii, have become one-word synonyms for horror.
But the city of hope and peace has literally arisen from the ashes. In the mid-1990s, the planning policies for the city were formalized. Among the goals set by the government were: Hiroshima would become an “international city of peace and culture”. The message of world peace is written very boldly all over the city. The foremost tourist attraction is the Peace Memorial Park on Peace Boulevard. This is also where the haunting Peace Memorial Museum is situated. Besides this, there is also the Children’s Peace Monument. An annual world conference against nuclear weapons is also convened in Hiroshima.
Auroville, cynosure of the world
On February 28, 1968, about 5000 people of Puducherry assembled near a banyan tree situated at the centre of a future township for the inauguration ceremony of Auroville. On February 28, 2008, citizens of the world had once again gathered to celebrate the 40th anniversary of this city of dawn.
The teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother underline the deeper spiritual basis of human civilization and aim at bringing mankind together through understanding and reconciliation. Thus Auroville stands today, as a beacon light for all humanity, an ideal township devoted to human unity where people from 43 nations live amicably. May this noble model be emulated in different parts of the world.
Mohalla committees of Mumbai
By the end of 1993, after the Mumbai riots many committees were established in different areas (Mohallas), especially in sensitive areas of the city. It is an initiative of prevention and healing, which has now completed 24 years of successful work. Communal harmony remains the dominant theme. These committees are made up of Hindus and Muslims, comprising lay people, professionals, youth and the police. In times of peace they meet every fortnight to discuss the difficulties of education, cleanliness, conduct health camps and go on picnics. This dialogue helps them to build up friendship, and the rapport helps to put off the sparks before they become flames in times of tension. It is important to emphasize that interfaith dialogue is not an ambulance – one cannot expect instant results, if friendship and dialogue are not nurtured over a period of time.
The Swadhyaya Movement is a Hindu spiritual movement which was started by Pandurang Shastri Athavale, the 1997 winner of the Magsaysay Award for community leadership. This movement has become a formidable force in the Indian States of Gujarat and Maharashtra. It has established a number of educational institutions, pioneered many ingenious wealth distribution measures and several social welfare schemes in over 80,000 villages.
The concept that God is within every human being is the cornerstone of the Swadhyaya philosophy. There is an interdependence between the individual and humanity, and ultimately with the universe. The emphasis is on man working selflessly within a group and to transform Indian society at the grassroots level. Individual transformation gradually leads to social change. Bhakti (devotion) can be turned into a social force. Wealth should be redistributed among the poor and needy.
Sarvodaya movement in war-torn Sri Lanka
The island of Sri Lanka was plagued by a 26-year-long civil war which claimed about 80,000 lives. It was only on May 17, 2009 that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) conceded defeat and guns were silenced. All throughout this dreadful period, the healing touch was provided to this country by the Sarvodaya movement.
Winner of the Magsaysay award and the Gandhi Peace Prize, Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne had launched the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka in 1958 to build a spiritual and non-violent society cutting across ethnic borders and religions. By carrying out projects all over the country for the social betterment of all communities, Dr. Ariyaratne believes that the minds of people could be influenced. Meditation camps for thousands of people are held at the Sarvodaya Meditation Centre and participants have been urged to pursue non-violent ways and also to cultivate the art of forgiveness.
The Sarvodaya movement also has a rich history of organizing spiritual leadership and change and is rooted in Buddhist and Gandhian principles. It operates in 15000 Sri Lankan villages and emphasizes a change of consciousness when it refers to development as a process of ‘awakening’.
Bhutan’s experiment with GNH
Bhutan’s King Jigme Singye Wangchuck first coined the term GNH (Gross National Happiness) when he ascended the throne in 1972. It signalled his commitment to building an economy based on the Buddhist values of right livelihood, compassion and sharing. Over the last three decades, Bhutan slowly evolved GNH as a guiding principle. At its core, GNH is a vision of civilization that is anchored in non-material values such as living in harmony with nature, social equality and the spiritual quest for higher levels of being. The four pillars of a happy society involve the economy, culture, the environment and good governance.
Madrid Platform for Interreligious Dialogue
The brutal terrorist attacks on March 11, 2004 in Madrid took the lives of 192 persons. A series of bombs exploded on four separate commuter trains which were entering Atocha and Charmartin stations in Madrid – by far, the worst terrorist attacks in Spanish history. Thereafter, Spaniards and Madrilenos united in a spirit of solidarity and harmony exhibiting their abhorrence of terrorism.
In order to prevent any form of violence and to affirm the desire for peace by all religious traditions, the Madrid Platform for Interreligious Dialogue decided to hold events every year for peace and interfaith harmony. The Madrid Platform and other interfaith groups had taken up the challenge to break down the invisible barriers of distrust and foster interreligious interaction. Interfaith groups continue to work for peace and harmony to this day all over Spain.
Recital of Bible encourages dialogue
On Sunday, September 28, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI read the opening verses of the Book of Genesis about the creation of the world. This was the launching of the longest live television broadcast in Italian history when the entire Bible was recited continuously for 139 hours. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State read the final verses from the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation. In between, these two recitals, 1250 readers from various walks of life and religions took turns at reading every word of the 73 books which comprise the Roman Catholic Bible. A few Muslims, Jews and others also participated. Prof. Adnan Mokrani, a Muslim at the Institute for the Study of Religions and Culture at the Pontifical Gregorian University having also read a passage said “I think this can be a positive sign, an opportunity to begin a new kind of dialogue through the scriptures to get to know each other better”.8
Seeds of Peace
Seeds of Peace (SOP) is a nonprofit, non governmental and secular organization which was established in March 1993 by award-winning author and journalist, John Wallach. SOP has been launched with the purpose of resolving conflicts through a unique approach – creating leaders of tomorrow and empowering youth by providing them with the tools required to bring forth reconciliation ad coexistence. It has been working with teenagers from the Middle East and in other regions of conflict. It provides opportunity for the children of war to plant the seeds for a more secure future. It combines recreational sports and arts activities with daily coexistence sessions. It creates a total living environment where peace is encouraged and nurtured. In the coexistence sessions, they live, eat and sleep together, learn to listen to each other, establish relationships based on trust, understanding, respect, tolerance, empathy and compassion. It offers opportunities for future leaders to be conscious of the fact that it is a common humanity which binds them together and induces them to work together to usher in a brighter future.
Music as a vehicle for peace
Over the decades, music has been used as a diplomatic instrument to help bring cordial relations among certain countries. The Boston Symphony’s triumphant appearance in the Soviet Union in 1956 and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s concert in China in 1973 are a few examples of this.
The Orchestra made up of Israeli and Arab musicians called the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra was founded in 1999. Concerts are held in different parts of the Middle East with the aim of developing peace and intercultural dialogue.
A landmark event took place in the year 2000, when the World Festival of Sacred Music was launched by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in different parts of the world. In India, this event was organized by the Tibet House in New Delhi. On this occasion, he stated, “…Among the many forms in which the human spirit has tried to express its innermost yearnings and perceptions, music is perhaps the most universal. It symbolizes the yearnings for harmony, with oneself and with others; with nature, and with the spiritual and the sacred within us and around us. There is something in music that transcends and unites. This is evident in the sacred music of every community – music that expresses the universal yearning that is shared by people all over the globe. It is in this spirit that the World Festival of Sacred Music is being initiated as a coming together of people of diverse backgrounds and traditions to share and nurture the profoundest expression of the human spirit that is part of each one of us…”