Interfaith Pilgrimage to India, February 2016.
We were a group of 7 people from Australia, wishing to visit four major sites in India that symbolize the great religions of the South Asian nation: Delhi for the Muslims, Varanasi for the Hindus, Bodh Gaya for the Buddhists and Kolkata for the Christians. We wanted to live our own faith more fully through understanding the faith of others.
We were Rev Dr John Dupuche, a senior lecturer at MCD University of Divinity, and Honorary Fellow at Australian Catholic University; Claudia Barduhn; Kate Daddo, a Baha’i; Pamela Ferrar, an Anglican; Tom Thomas from the Mar Thoma Syrian Church; Sister Corrie Van Den Bosch, of the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of Service; and Rev Robert Stickland, a married priest of the Ukrainian Catholic Church who chairs the Interfaith Network of Greater Dandenong. We work in Australia, helping to make Australia an outstanding example of religious harmony and diversity.
Through the good offices of Fr Edwin Victor sj we were privileged to meet Mufti Mukarram Ahmad, imam of the Fatehpuri Masjid who spoke to us at length about Islam. In the evening, we met Maulana Wahiduddin Khan who spoke of his work for peace through the Centre for Peace and Spirituality, which he founded. The Interfaith Coalition received us at a conference and dinner for Peace and representatives of the Henry Martyn Institute. We met with Mr. Tejinder Singh at the Guru Tegh Bahadur Gurdwara who received us cordially and explained his faith to us. We visited the Lotus Temple of the Baha’i’ faith and entered into its wonderful simplicity. We met with Fr Felix Jones svd and his colleagues at the Dialogue Centre, and also met Most Rev. Anil J.T. Couto, the Archbishop of Delhi, for a brief moment.
We realized that at times people are afraid. Faith, however, is always open to others. Those who close in on themselves do not understand their own faith.
At Humayun’s Tomb, at the Keenaram Temple, at the Mahabodhi Temple, at Belur Math, and at many other places during this pilgrimage, we explored some of the major texts of these faiths, trying to enter into their truth and holiness. We were on a spiritual journey and avoided the trap of frantic tourism.
In Varanasi, we walked through the winding streets of the ancient city, and spoke at length with one of the dombis at Harischandra Ghat. We met with Rakesh Pandey, a renowned yoga teacher, and met with Dr Bettina Sharada Bäumer, a noted scholar of Kashmir Shaivism. We visited Sarnath where the Buddha gave his first sermon.
The great variety of religious experiences during this journey enabled us to appreciate the rich beauty of India’s differences. These too easily spill over into contradictions where intolerance threatens religious freedom. This fact demonstrated the need for interfaith dialogue, because people can very easily close in on themselves and see the other as an enemy rather than as a friend. During these meetings and visits to the sacred spaces of the other faiths, we also came to face the ‘shadows’ of our own tradition and acknowledged our own need for development.
We were a very happy group, with lively exchanges, much laugher and in-depth discussion of major themes such as ‘emptiness’, ‘non-dualism’, ‘service’, ‘grace’, ‘freedom. Raising such questions has been a rich experience.
In Bodh Gaya we saw large groups from overseas: Japanese, Chinese, pilgrims from Tibet and Mongolia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. We joined them as they meditated under the Bodhi tree, where, according to tradition, the Buddha attained enlightenment. Perhaps we could not join them in reciting their mantras; however, we sat with them in silence in the presence of the sacred, for silence is also an important aspect of dialogue.
The immense emptiness of the space beneath the Bodhi tree reminded us of the Holy Sepulchre, the empty tomb in Jerusalem where Jesus rose from the dead.
The last city we visited was Kolkata, the site of Mother Teresa’s universal charity. This was a crucial part of the pilgrimage, because we did not come to India only as pilgrims, but also to serve. For this reason we spent some time helping out in Nirmal Hriday, Kalighat, the hospice for the sick, the poor and prostitutes founded by Blessed Mother Teresa. She served them without distinction of creed or race. Her work is a perfect expression of inter-faith dialogue. It was the opposite of the religious fundamentalism of those who want to impose their faith. The religion that serves shows the true depth and meaning of its teachings.
Our visit to Asha Niketan, the L’Arche community, home to people of different abilities and disabilities, was the climax. It taught us that serving others, regardless of creed or race, leads to intense joy and peace, which all religions seek. Here is a photo of three girls, with abilities and disabilities, all smiles. What would have been their fate without the sense of service?
The acceptance of all this diversity helped us understand each other more clearly. It helped us perceive the depths of God more deeply.
This pilgrimage aroused a lot of interest. Reports were published on three separate occasions in asianews.it as well as in the Vatican Newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano and even on Vatican Radio.