UNITED RELIGIONS INITIATIVE Southeast Asia & the Pacific Regional E-Newsletter

CATHARSIS OF THE SOUL: My Experience in Mayapur

By Sharon Danisha M. Vaswani*

Who would have thought that a short stay in a little rural town with a population of just over 9,000 in West Bengal, India would have such a profound effect on me?

Not that long ago, my world was amazingly cosmopolitan in comparison to the outlying villages around Mayapur but, I must admit that when I first arrived in Sri Mayapur Dham last November 24, I was surprised at the big complex of the Temple and buildings, all painted pink & white in a garden setting and at the bare foot ISKCON pilgrims walking across the campus silently chanting the Hare Krishna mantra with their prayer beads. Mayapur Dham, 130km north of Calcutta across the Ganges River, is the Spiritual Capital of ISKCON. Considered as one of the most holy and peaceful places in all of India, it amazingly houses over one million pilgrims each year.

Mayapur Dham was also the venue for the Young Leaders Program and the 2nd Global Assembly of the United Regions Initiative held from November 24 to December 6, 2008 where I was privileged to be part of the delegation from the Philippines and experience beautiful and enriching moments.

During this period, Mayapur Dham became a melting pot of people – both young and not so young- from various faiths and cultures from across the globe. Once, to my left there was a delegate from Ethiopia and to my right, another from Italy and I was chatting with someone from Iran! Although we were from different backgrounds, countries and continents, we were all united in our purpose as Pilgrims of Peace, and Taking the Initiative in seeking ways for a more peaceful and harmonious world.

Each day of our program was filled with learnings and invigorating activities - from the solemnity of the sacred practices in the morning, to the adrenaline rushing activities such as football with a very interfaith team, and mural painting with the local children at a school, as well as the exquisite cultural performances at night! Truly, it was a unique feeling with the elegant and creative initiatives from people of diverse faiths and nationalities at one of the most vibrant places of spirituality in India!

The workshops and the sharings ranged from topics such as peace, sports, the environment, healing, and CC empowerment among a few, which covered a wide range of topics and were food for the soul. One very inspirational workshop I attended was on spiritual leadership or leadership from the self given by someone from Argentina. Despite us all being natives of different countries, speaking different languages; this did not act as a barrier at all. We transcended this difference, and focused on other commonalities that went beyond understanding words, that even got me learning quite a few more phrases in other languages!

Unity is great, but diversity is even better! This was the sentiment as various youth from all the seven different continents of the world came together and taught each other dances from their native places! Even more interesting is that each one taught their fellow dancers the steps and we all took part in performing it in unison! So I was not only performing mudras and traditional Indian steps, but incorporated the stylish beats of the Native American, African and also the tangy Samba in to my routine!

This was accompanied by indigenous music such as the nose flute, and traditional drums! It all ended as we came into a circle, and each one chanted the name of God in his/her own language, which the whole group echoed. This was symbolic of the whole notion of the conference, which was to take the initiative, in leading others towards the path of interpersonal and interfaith dialogue, mediation, and conflict resolution and project management.

It was a very enriching two weeks. I got to forge bonds and create ties with a lot of people. Many of them are very memorable for several reasons ranging from the most obvious to the obscure. For example, there was Yaser from Egypt, who's ever friendly face turned any hint of frown into a grin and brightened one's day, Nagmeh from Iran whose demure movements filled us all with a sense of grace and understanding, my fun loving and ever adventurous roommate Elyse from Australia, with whom I discovered the various streets of Mayapur, in all different modes of transport, from a bus, steamboat engine, to even a human-powered rickshaw (three wheeled cart which seats 2 persons) and the list goes on and on… Out of the unique assortment of memorable people during my trip, trying to choose one of them is rather like trying to select my favorite strand of hair – an impossible feat!

But if I there was one person, however, who had quite an unexpected and significant impact on my life – that would be my dear friend Abrar from Egypt. Despite not even being in one single photograph (as in her Muslim family, she is not allowed to do so), the memories of the times I shared with her echo and reverberate in my heart. Ever thoughtful and caring, she is very simple yet sublime. In the simplicity of her heart, she is the pearl, the precious pearl filled with love and concern for others. I have fond memories of the various shopping escapades we had together around Mayapur and also the time when she took time to help me prepare for my solo dance number. Funny, how we only realized how close we were (spatially speaking, as her room was right next to mine!) on our last few days together, and it is my fervent hope that our friendship blossoms even more despite the miles that separate us in our current homelands.

And so while, history might remember those two weeks, as the time when some people wreaked violence in Mumbai, I will forever remember it as the incredible, amazing, and awe-inspiring time when pilgrims all over the world journeyed to Mayapur in the endeavor of promoting enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings…

*Sharon is a Hindu youth from Manila, Philippines. She is a core group coordinator of the Y4U (youth for unity) – the interfaith group of The Peacemakers’ Circle CC. She is also the daughter of URI SEAP Regional Coordinator, Dr. Shakun Vaswani.

This colorful URI Young Leaders Program (YLP) 2008 logo was the winning entry for the logo-design contest conducted by URI. The prize--which was a full scholarship to attend the YLP and the Global Assemby 2008-- was awarded to a young artist from the SEAP region by the name of Mr. Ramesh Balgos of Manila. He is a long-time member of The Peacemakers’ Circle CC family. During the YLP, he led the youth delegates in facilitating the Mural Painting community service project with the local primary school in Mayapur.

CONGRATULATIONS, RAMESH! We are proud of you!

URI Statement on the Crisis in the Middle East

(Approved by the Standing Committee on behalf of the Global Council of
the United Religions Initiative)

As trustees of the Global Council of the United Religions Initiative, we write to urge an immediate and complete ceasefire of violence that is currently happening in the Middle East, and a commitment by all parties, including the international community and the world's religions, to find the will to complete, implement and invest in a comprehensive peace agreement that will allow current and future generations of Palestinians and Israelis to live their lives in peace.

We write as leaders of the URI, a global interfaith organization active in 70 countries, through the work of 400 member Cooperation Circles. URI's purpose is to promote enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings. We have many members in the Middle East, including Palestinians, Israelis, Jordanians and Egyptians. The URI has consultative status at the UN through ECOSOC.

As leaders of an interfaith organization dedicated to resolving conflict without resorting to violence, we recognize and laud the heroic work of Palestinians, Israelis and peace advocates all over the world who are dedicated to rising above the violence and working for peace, justice and healing.

We believe that a new day is possible when a comprehensive, just peace will allow current and future generations of Palestinians and Israelis to live their lives in peace.

We call on all involved - Israelis and Palestinians, people of other nations, international bodies, religions, and grassroots groups working heroically for peace - to take the following steps to speed the dawning of that day:

* To stop the violence immediately.

* To supply immediate humanitarian aid to address urgent suffering and long-term aid to rebuild.

* To commit to negotiate, invest in and implement a comprehensive peace agreement that will allow current and future generations of Palestinians and Israelis to live their lives in peace.

* To invest in every means possible to weave a fabric of genuine, mutually honoring community among Palestinians and Israelis at the grassroots level.

* To invest less in armaments and more in social and economic infrastructure.

We commit to do all we are able, beginning with support for URI member Cooperation Circles in Israel and Palestine, and engaging our members around the world to help these steps be fulfilled.

And we commit to pray and meditate that violence will cease, peace prevail and a life of hope be restored to the long-suffering people of this region.

URI Global Youth CC Statement on the current situation in Gaza.

We, the members of the Global Youth Cooperation Circle of the United Religions Initiative, wish to express our concern at the current situation in Gaza. Conflict creates hardship and fear for people on both sides and takes its toll on civilians, both young and old, and the livelihood of communities and economies.

As a youth network we sympathise with our fellows, the young people who are caught up in the crisis, in both Gaza and in the Israeli communities that live in fear of rocket attacks. Young people are the future of any community and we feel that they should not have to live amidst a cycle of violence and hardship. In order for young people to make meaningful and healthy contributions to society, it is imperative that they grow and develop within a space of security and integrity.

We are also concerned about those who are vulnerable in these times, such as the elderly and the sick. They need access to medical resources and clean, safe environments. In times of crisis these people suffer the most because basic facilities are less accessible.

They also need to live without the fear created by constant attacks. This situation is robbing people on both sides of basic human rights that are theirs by international law.

We implore both sides to pursue the path of peace and reconciliation and reduce hostilities so that aid and supplies can reach the people of Gaza to alleviate their suffering and so the Israeli people can live without fear. It is our hope that both sides can cooperate in order to achieve a lasting peace and quality of life for all people. Our goal, as members of a global interfaith community, is to achieve this all over the world.