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My Experience at the Parliament of the World Religions

When I heard that the Parliament of the World Religions was making a return to Chicago, I immediately scrambled to put in a request for a day off at work. This was the same Parliament where, in its inaugural form, Swami Vivekananda exclaimed “sisters and brothers of America!” to a thunderous crowd that knew little of Hindu Dharma back in 1893. I wouldn’t dare waste the chance to attend the Parliament’s 2023 incarnation in my own city.

I arrived at McCormick Place just in time for lunch and was immediately thrust into the microcosm of diversity this assembly represented. While I sat famished at a Sikh langar that had been set up in an outdoor pavilion, a pair of Kenyan Brahma Kumaris sat to my right, a group of Jewish delegates sat to my left, and a Wiccan faith leader sat across from me. From this wonderfully delectable introduction to the Parliament, I made my way throughout the convention center with wide eyes, open ears, and a full stomach.

I participated in a serene Devi puja, witnessed a mesmerizing Tai Ji Men martial arts and dance demonstration, held a massive khanda during a gatka seminar, and heard harrowing, first-hand accounts of Afghan Sikhs and Hindus who had escaped the Taliban. A particular highlight was a panel on the differences between the sacred swastika and the Nazi hakenkreuz. This panel consisted of representatives from the Dharmic faiths as well as Native American faith leaders and scholars of the Holocaust. To see this coalition of faiths and perspectives stand hand-in-hand against ignorance and misinformation was truly inspiring.

I finished off my day at a stunning concert hosted by practitioners of Creation Spirituality where the four corners of the stage were flanked by eye-catching, ten foot tall puppets that represented the elements of Air, Fire, Earth, and Water. As I watched joyful crowds spin and dance, I reflected on my time at the Parliament. In only a single day, I had experienced several lifetimes’ worth of faith. By any measure, we were not united in the sameness of our beliefs. Although mutual respect was the prevailing principle at the Parliament, our religions consisted of different sacred clothing, scriptures, holy figures, deities, etc. To say that we all believed in the same things would be a falsehood of the highest order. So, what did unite us, if anything?

Being a Hindu myself, I spoke to as many alternate perspectives of faith as I could. I even spoke to those attendees who had no spiritual inclinations in their heart. I inquired about what drove them all to attend the Parliament and what they hoped to gain from it. Based on their responses, in my mind, it seemed that there was a common thread. Although each of us had different beliefs, we were united in the notion of choosing to believe in something invisible and beyond physical grasp. We were united in our hunger for knowledge and by the touch of curiosity about what radically different views there are in the world. Rather than seek a sense of one-note universalism, we were united in the desire to be blessed with some modicum of understanding of our own inner nature.

As an attendee of the 2023 Parliament of the World Religions, I consider myself blessed, indeed.