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. 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. 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. It is heart-rending to observe thousands of hibakusha (explosion-affected people). There are about 73,000 victims who were near the hypo-centre or were exposed to radiation from the fallout. Their average age is 75 and they are in constant state of suffering from PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder).
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 were: Hiroshima would become an "international city of peace and culture". It would be environmentally friendly, paying maximum attention to "harmonious coexistence" with the city’s rivers and greenery. And it would become "a city of charm and vitality". 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.
There are river cruises, open-air cafes on the river banks and other historical sites which relate the history and culture of Hiroshima. There is not an iota of hostility and the city is proud of its hospitality, openness and an aura of peace.
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. On this occasion, Matrimandir, described by the Mother as the soul of Auroville was also declared open.
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. The essence of their teachings arouse the consciousness of mankind. The Mother conceptualized Auroville and gave physical manifestation to this vision in 1968, by founding this international cultural township. 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 15 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.
In February 2003, the completion of ten years of Mohalla committees was marked by cricket matches. Each team was composed of both Hindu and Muslim youth as well as policemen. The various police stations and the city’s Mohalla committees sent in 81 teams. These Mohalla committees have been greatly responsible for holding on to peace in the city when other parts of the country experienced communal riots. When Gujarat was ravaged in 2002 by Hindu-Muslim riots, Mumbai remained calm. In the last few years when bomb blasts have rocked Mumbai, there have been no communal disturbances in the city. This successful experiment may be replicated in other cities of India.
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 80000 villages.
The concept that God is within every human being is the cornerstone of the Swadhyaya philosophy. Swadhyaya literally means the study, knowledge or discovery of the Self or Atman which makes the individual a part of the cosmic self and the manifestation of God within. 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. Athavale’s purpose is "to create a new man who pursues the divine mission in which God is at the centre". 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 emphasizes the Gandhian values of non-violence, truth and self-sacrifice. It is the only non-religious people’s organisation working towards multicultural integration and reconciliation.
It operates in 15000 Sri Lankan villages and emphasizes a change of consciousness when it refers to development as a process of ‘awakening’. It believes that ‘awakening’ or inner change is imperative for building societies that are no longer "open to hatred, greed and delusion. This awakening has to begin with oneself, with every individual, then extend to the family, the country, the nation, the world. The awakening must be an integrated whole where spiritual, moral, cultural, social, political and economic aspects of life are included" says Dr. Ariyaratne.
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.
In the 1990s, many international agencies asked Bhutan to share its unique approach to development with the rest of the world. In February 2004, over 82 scholars and experts from 20 countries gathered in the capital, Thimphu for discussion on ‘Operationalizing GNH".
Countries as diverse as Canada, Ireland, Costa Rica, Netherlands, Sri Lanka and Mongolia have established well-being indicators. This kernel of Buddhist wisdom is increasingly finding an echo in international policy and development models, which seek to establish scientific methods for finding out what makes us happy and why.
Saffron revolutions of the Buddhists
Activism has become common in Asia’s Buddhist societies as they oppose oppressive rulers, foreign domination or injustice. Monks and nuns are leaving their quiet monasteries to face tear gas and guns in the streets. Samdhong Rinpoche, the Prime Minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile says, "There is the responsibility of every individual, monk and lay people, to act for the betterment of society". Christopher Queen, a Buddhist specialist at Harvard University says that this movement is known as ‘Engaged Buddhism’. "Engaged Buddhists are looking at the social, economic and political causes of human misery in the world and organizing to address them. The role of social service and activism is growing in all parts of the Buddhist world".
In 2006, followers of a Buddhist sect demonstrated in the streets, which led to the overthrow of the Prime Minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra. A few months ago Tibetan monks openly protested against the oppressive Chinese rule in Tibet.
In Myanmar, suppressed hatred against the military’s 45-year rule exploded in mid-August 2007, after the price of fuel was increased by 500%. This had evidently created great hardship to the common man. On September 22, 2007, about 10,000 Buddhist monks marched through Myanmar’s second largest city Mandalay. They chanted ‘Democracy, democracy’ and recited prayers as they walked peacefully through the city. In Yangon, the largest city in the country, monks were allowed to walk through police barricades and pray outside the house of democracy icon Aung Sab Suu Kyi - she came out in tears to greet them. This 1991 Nobel Prize winner has spent 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest. The monks further challenged the military, when a monks’ organization, the All Burma Monks Alliance, urged the public to join in protesting against the "evil military despotism". As the demonstrators gathered momentum, many were killed or detained - this led to global protests against the junta in many cities around the world in support of the pro-democratic movement led by the defenceless monks.
On August 27, 2008, Korean Buddhist monks held a prayer service at a park in Seoul during a rally to protest against President Lee Myung-Bak’s alleged pro-Christian bias. 50,000 monks had gathered at this rally and they demanded an apology from President Lee.
In India too, a question is being asked whether Buddhist monks are turning political. In May 2007, 1,00,000 people had collected at the Mahalaxmi Race Course in Mumbai when thousands of tribals and Dalits converted to Buddhism, thus marking the 50th year of B. R. Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism. The monks spoke on politics as well as Dharma thus indicating that the clergy may be prepared to play a political role in the future. Lobsang, a Tibetan monk stated that the monks and the people had a symbiotic relationship. "While the community took care of the material needs of the monasteries, the monks look after the community spiritual needs", he said. Whilst adding that their political action is an extension of their spiritual role.
Zaw Mying, a Burmese monk living in exile in India stated that "When people are suppressed by dictators, it’s the duty of monks to give them hope and lead them".
Bhikshu Sadanand, a Dalit from Eastern UP stated that "Buddhism is the only way to liberate ourselves form the caste system. And political action is the way to empower the Dalits".
Recent important initiatives for interfaith dialogue
In March 2008, 138 Muslim scholars wrote to Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders asking for a dialogue between Islam and Christianity in order to reduce tensions between Islam and the West. This was issued by Jordan’s Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought. As a result, Muslim representatives met the Pope in November 2008 in Rome. This has created a permanent Catholic-Muslim Forum, which would serve as a type of a hotline to defuse crises between the two faiths.
Once again in March 2008, King Abdullah the Saudi Monarch called for a dialogue among Muslims, Christians and Jews. This was the first proposal from Saudi Arabia at a time of mounting tensions between Islam and the two other religions. King Abdullah stated that he had discussed this proposal with Pope Benedict XVI the previous year at the Vatican. Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger of Israel welcomed this call and said "Our hand is outstretched to any peace initiative and any dialogue that is aimed at bringing an end to terror and violence". Furthermore, Rabbi David Rosen, Head of the Interreligious Relations at the American Jewish Committee was ‘delighted’ by this offer and stated that "Religion is all too often the problem, so it has to also be the solution, or at least part of the solution, and I think that the tragedy of the political initiatives to bring peace has been the failure to include the religious dimension".
Another historic concord between Judaism and Hinduism was the Second Jewish Hindu Summit, which took place in Jerusalem in February 2008. The first summit was held in India the previous year. This resulted in a joint declaration between the chief Rabbi of Israel and the Hindu leader Swami Dayanand Saraswati. The two parties are committed to learning about one another on the basis of respect for their particular identities and seeking, through their bilateral relationship, to be a blessing to all.
A further important development is taking place at New York’s largest mosque, the Islamic Cultural Centre (ICC). Rabbis who have spoken there call it an open and welcoming community. The Jewish Theological Seminary and the ICC are planning a joint soup kitchen for the homeless, and the mosque is organizing an interreligious studies programme for teenagers. Credit for most of this work goes to Mohammad Shamsi Ali, the Indonesian born Imam who arrived about 12 years ago in New York.
Under the leadership and direction of Dr. M. D. Thomas, National Director for the Commission for Interreligious Dialogue, CBCI, has been doing very laudable work in the field of dialogue in India. Through about 50 Centers for Dialogue and Harmony, very constructive work is being done in the following areas: to promote awareness amongst Catholics, training lay people and priests for holding dialogue, promoting unity with other Christian sects and preparing students in schools and colleges for a broader and more pluralistic outlook.
Peace caravan in strife-torn Mindanao
From November 21-28, 2008, the "caravan for peace" passed through Mindanao Island of the Philippines which has had civil war lasting for almost 20 years. Many religious and social organizations traveled to various locations on this island to sensitize the population to end the conflict between the MILF and the government forces. This initiative has been supported by the Filipino bishops’ conference together with the Presidential Advisory Council for the peace process. This project is also called "The people’s caravan for peace and solidarity in Mindanao". An interreligous group is also being led by Fr. Angel Calvo, a Claretian missionary. The aim of this entire project is to create awareness that "War is not an option".
The growing impact of Gandhian Thought
In February 2006, former US Vice President Al Gore said, "In much of the world, the spiritual and moral leadership of Mahatma Gandhi still resonates and inspires".
Non-violence has achieved many successes. The American civil rights movement of the 1960s, led by Martin Luther King Jr., culminated in political rights for African-Americans. Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe when confronted with non-violent resistance, led by forces like Solidarity in Poland and Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia. In 1986, a massive show of people’s power toppled Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship in the Philippines. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu played major roles in South Africa’s relatively peaceful transition from apartheid to a democracy that granted blacks political rights.
It is heartening to note that in the last few years about 50 universities and colleges in the United States have launched courses in Gandhian thought. Harvard School of Business Management has crowned Mahatma Gandhi "Management Guru" of the 20th century. In a world that’s split apart by violence, the message of non-violence is very relevant and continues to spread with greater vigour throughout the world. Is there any wonder then, that the Flag of an Italian political party viz., Radicali Italiani bears an image of Mahatma Gandhi? Gandhi is truly a global activist.
Let us not build walls but bridges of peace
Across the globe walls are dividing neighbours for various reasons. The wall that snakes through Jerusalem is to seal off the eastern part of the ancient city from the West Bank. Iran is building a bulwark with Pakistan, Botswana has constructed a 48-km. electric fence on the boundary with Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia is spending large amounts on a boundary with Yemen in the south and from Iraq to the north. The US is building a fence along its border with Mexico and India is constructing a fence with Bangladesh. It is unfortunate, that when we are trying to bring people together through dialogue in order to foster understanding, trust and love, some countries are building walls to divide them. Danny Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer says that walls are more than just concrete and barbed wire. They are corrosive symbols of social and economic rifts and iniquities, divisions that eventually must be healed, not merely bottled up. We remember that the Berlin Wall was demolished after decades. Let us hope that the above walls that divide countries are also demolished one day and bridges of peace built in their place.
It was heartening to know that on June 15, 2007, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution tabled by the Indian government to declare the Mahatma’s birth anniversary October 2 as the International Day of Non-Violence. History was created when a Hindu prayer was recited at the opening of the US senate in Washington, DC, on July 12, 2007. On October 17, 2007, a historic event took place in the White House at Washington. Tibetans all over the world celebrated in jubilation the conferment of the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal Award (the highest United States Civilian Honour) to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. There was a thunderous applause when President Bush in his address said that "Americans cannot look to the plight of the religiously oppressed and close our eyes or turn away. And that is why I will continue to urge the leaders of China to welcome the Dalai Lama to China. They will find this good man to be a man of peace and reconciliation".
The last three years have been very eventful, as three protracted wars have ended. In December 2005, peace dawned on Aceh, a province at the westernmost tip of Sumatra in Indonesia after three decades. A peace agreement between separatists and the government of Aceh was finally signed. In May 2007, Northern Ireland’s hitherto divided Protestant and Catholic leaders brought Europe’s long and bitter conflict of about three decades to a close. In October 2007, the leaders of North and South Korea pledged to seek a peace treaty to formally end the Korean war of the 1950s. The two Koreas "agreed to closely cooperate to end military hostility and ensure peace on the Korean peninsula". All these three peace agreements have been successful experiments in conflict resolution. These have also been remarkable examples where constructive dialogue between two parties have borne fruit.