This account, published in a prominent Malaysian newspaper, reveals the appreciation of a spiritual pilgrim who attended the United Religions Initiative in Mayapur late last year.
A gathering in India of different religions and different people offers hope for the unity of religions.
I recently spent nearly two weeks as a vegan, interfaith explorer and peace-pilgrim at the world headquarters of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness, more popularly known as the Hare Krishna movement) at Sri Mayapur, West Bengal, India.
I was there with about 300 members and youths of URI (United Religions Initiative, www.uri.org) for our triennial global assembly, hosted by ISKCON and the Bhaktivedanta Institute of Manipur.
Mayapur is about 100km north of Kolkatta, but the journey by 4WD took three hours because the road was full of potholes and the trip was more like an obstacle race, zigzagging to avoid craters, rickshaws, bicycles, cars and cows. Then there were the oncoming buses and over-laden lorries threatening to smash us head-on as the vehicles on both sides took turns transgressing into the wrong side. I was praying frantically through much of the journey, which was appropriate as I was going there as a “pilgrim” of peace!
Mayapur is the spiritual centre of Hare Krishna devotees. It is located just beside the sacred Gangga (Ganges) river in the agricultural heartland away from the hustle and bustle of Kolkatta.
The temple complex is walled like a castle, and on the outskirts are numerous stalls, shops, eateries and hotels catering to the pilgrims and tourists alike. Inside is a small town with several temples, halls, restaurants, hostels, apartments and meeting venues. There is a bank, communications and Internet station, travel agency and other services that the thousands living inside and outside may require.
There are also schools and several sacred places in the surrounding area. Transport to the neighbouring towns or places of interest is easily available, and one can even cross the Gangga on a boat or ferry across to the small town of Navadip.
Although it was approaching winter then, global warming showed its impact this year, as it was unusually warm, being cool only at night. I had gone there expecting the worst, bringing winter gear to protect me from the biting cold, but it turned out that even a T-shirt was sufficient.
And although the place was well maintained in terms of cleanliness and food preparation compared to what you may expect of India, the water supply was still suspect. The dry, dusty conditions made it worse. No matter how much precaution we all took, many still ended-up with diarrhoea or fever. Some got really sick.
Apart from us, there were hundreds of their devotees from all over the world who were there on their own pilgrimage, while many also came as volunteers for our global assembly. Just like us, they came from all the continents. I was fortunate to have been dinner guests of a Hare Krishna devotee couple from Moldova and Ukraine. There were also many African devotees who were very active in the dancing and singing.
Just outside the gates there is a well-planned housing estate where most of the Western devotees stay. Many are permanent residents with their children attending nearby schools, while others divide their time between their homelands and this spiritual home.
There was always activity in Mayapur. The singing and dancing in the main temple started at 4.30am. Since my room was just nearby, it served as my wake-up call, since my own prayer time was about that time too. Their devotional chanting, singing and dancing would go on at scheduled times throughout the day, often ending past midnight.
Every Saturday night, there was a festival with a parade headed by a decorated elephant, followed by a chariot carrying the deities, and devotees chanting and dancing down the streets within the compound. Thousands of devotees and tourists would throng Mayapur during each festival, more so if there were special events or celebrations.
Even though men and women freely mixed, there were strict rules against touching, holding hands, hugging or kissing in public. In fact, at the entrance, there was a sign which says “No playing; no games; no mundane music”. Before we went there, we were already warned about the no-hugging, no-meat, no-smoking and no-caffeine rules, but they actually allowed caffeinated-coffee for the URI group. That was the only compromise.
The vegetarian food was always delicious. I had never seen more varieties of fruit and veggie dishes, and enjoyed all of them. Many of us became sluggish in the first few days because we ate too much, trying to savour every dish that was new to us.
It was only after cutting down the portions and avoiding the sugary desserts that I felt energetic again, and managed to lose the weight gained previously. Our food was lovingly cooked and served by volunteers from all over the world, so the spread was also international.
After almost two weeks of being a strict vegan (the food also excluded onions, garlic or leek as these can arouse the libido and hamper the spiritual quest), I hope it will help me drastically cut down on my meat intake for the rest of my life. I have been espousing a low-meat diet and must practise what I preach.
The URI plenary sessions were held at a temporary structure erected at the site of the future Sri Mayapur Vedic Temple, which will be the largest Hindu temple in the world. When it is completed, it will bring many thousands more to Mayapur. It will dwarf the current icon, the Samadhi Temple, dedicated to the movement’s founder, His Divine Grace A C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
Unity of religions
URI, which was established in 2000, is the fastest growing global interfaith movement. It is grassroots-based, being composed of over 400 interfaith groups (called “Cooperation Circles” or CC) spread all over the world.
Each group is made up of people of diverse religions, faiths or spiritual traditions doing any activity that promotes enduring interfaith cooperation and helps end religiously-motivated violence. Activities may include interfaith dialogues, sports, mountain-climbing, dance, music, art or anything you can think of. Together, over one million people are directly or indirectly involved in our activities.
So you can imagine how fun and activity-filled it was when 300 of us gathered for the Global Assembly at Mayapur. Our theme was “Pilgrims of Peace – Many Paths, One Purpose”. There were songs, dances and story-telling from the Sufis, Native Americans, indigenous South Americans and others, interspersed with prayers, plays and performances from every region of the world.
Our hosts further enriched our experience with their continuous chanting, dancing, processions and prayers.
Of course there were the serious meetings too, but we always had sing-and-dance interludes whenever the meetings got too long or too boring.
And probably for the first time, the Jewish Sabbath, Christian Mass, and Muslim azan (the call to prayer) and Friday Prayer were held in Mayapur. The prayers of all the other religions were also heard as our programme was full of such prayer occasions. We have proven that the people of all faiths can unite for peace, and have fun together, while keeping true to their respective beliefs.
If you would like to be part of this global family, do write to me. If you already have a group of friends from different religions doing any activity that promote harmonious living among yourselves, I encourage you to form a CC. If you already have a society or organisation that promotes peace among religions, then you should get it registered as a CC too.
A charter for unity, peace and prosperity
As we celebrate the New Year, I would like to invite you to join me in this declaration: “We, the people of all races and religions of Malaysia, unite to promote a safe, harmonious and prosperous society, to end racial and religious conflicts, and to work for peace, justice and equity in our beloved country.”
I hope this declaration will be a starting point for those of us who love this country. I hope we can then work together towards a Charter for unity, peace and prosperity that will help us achieve that elusive dream – a united Malaysia where every citizen feels equally at home, has equal opportunities, and be equally proud of being a Malaysian.
My duty is not just to help heal those who are physically sick or spiritually weak, but also to help heal the rift that has surreptitiously crept in between the people of different races and religions here since our fathers and mothers proudly and sincerely held their hands together and cried “Merdeka” over 50 years ago.
Now we, their children, are not so united any more, and it’s anybody’s guess what is simmering below the calm surface of “official unity” as displayed through open houses and other programmes. I hope many of you will join hands with me to achieve this dream.
May God answer our prayers, bless this country, and bless us all. Salam, Peace.
Dr Amir Farid Isahak is a medical specialist who practises holistic, aesthetic and anti-ageing medicine. He is a qigong master and founder of SuperQigong.