Parliament of World Religions, 2004

Parliament of World Religions, Barcelona, Spain, 2004

Presentation at Barcelona, Spain.
July 5-13, 2004
report by Anu Sundaresan

Jai Nandalala!

Sri Akka and several members, representing both Nandalalala Seva Samithi and Nandalala Mission, recently returned from a busy, exciting week at the 2004 Parliament of World Religions Conference in Barcelona, Spain

The event attracted nearly 6000 attendees from around the world representing more than a dozen major spiritual/religious traditions, and was held at Forum 2000 Auditorium/Convention Center right by the shores of the Meditteranean Sea. Some have noted that “Barcelona, with a population of about 2 million, barely has enough room to breathe in the space NATURE has allotted to it” – the city is literally squeezed between Montjuic hills to the south, Serra de Collserola mountains to the northwest, and the Meditteranean to the southeast. It was a unique and beautiful setting for this worldwide gathering that meets once every 5 years.

350 presentations were held over the course of 7 days addressing a diverse set of topics from the relevance of Zoroastrianism in the Modern Age to Interpretation of Hindu Vedanta philosophy to a newly released film on the last days of Mother Teresa. In addition to these daily presentations, participants could choose from a wide variety of activities including:

  • More than a dozen special symposia, each exploring a particular topic or issue in greater depth over multiple days. Science and Religion, Religion and Human Rights, and Interfaith Education were among the many symposia offered
  • Plenary sessions and special gatherings held at the close of every day which included speeches by revered religious and spiritual leaders, spiritual observances, and spectacular music and dance performances from around the world
  • Special 2-day Assembly to discuss and brainstorm solutions for four pressing global issues: supporting refugees worldwide, eliminating international debt for developing countries, overcoming religiously motivated violence, and increasing access to clean water
  • Exhibitor booths with booksellers, vendors, and representatives from a wide variety of religious, spiritual and service organizations sharing information about their work
  • Parliament by the Sea – a unique venue just 5 minutes walk from the Forum site, where Sikhs (nearly 300 volunteers came from UK alone) set up a Mock Gurudwara to mark the 400 th anniversary of the establishment of the Sikh Scriptures…along with seminars, films, exhibits and observances of Sikh spiritual practices, a hot, free vegetarian meal called langar, was provided to all attendees.

As you can see, the conference was immensely ambitious in its scale and scope, but at the same time tried to foster intimate dialogue between peoples of different faiths and religions….this is what made the event so special and memorable for all of us who were there.

Our Presentation: Grassroots Community Outreach: Healthcare and Educational Initiatives in India (July 10 th , 11:30-1pm, Room 130):

We presented in Room #130 on the first floor of the Convention Center. We secured a young, smart Spanish translator named Jasmina who was able to grasp the meaning of our message and convey it eloquently to our audience….there were a few Indians, but majority of those who saw the presentation spoke Spanish and/or Catalan, the native language of Barcelona. Our presentation was audio recorded by the Conference and the Chennai chapter should be receiving the audio CD within the next 2-3 weeks. Translation was conducted real-time, from English to Spanish.

Shri Akka opened the presentation with a few words in English – her message was very clear: that it is love and selfless dedication that are important to the spirit of service, and that service ultimately leads to peace. Her words were translated into Spanish and then by Ms. Vaishnavi Ravindran into French. Next came the Education portion of the presentation by Ms. Anu Sundaresan. Due to the hard work put in by Mr. Muthuswamy Srinivasan, and others in Chennai, the Powerpoint presentation was polished and visually stimulating. Each powerpoint slide included one or more video clips that showed “Nandalala in Action” whether it be distributing notebooks at a rural village or holding Vedanta classes at the Nandalala Cultural Center in Chennai; this way, the audience could immediately see the work we are doing…it wasn’t just talk..they could see our mission translated into action and making an impact on the local community. Dr. Kris Yogam next discussed the activities of the Nandalala Medical Foundation, which ranges from cancer and osteoperosis seminars to blood/eye/medical camps at rural villages….The audience was interested and very engaged. We ended the presentation with an invitation to all to come and visit India and support/volunteer in Nandalala’s various projects.

We plan to make the presentation available on the http://www.nandalala.org web site shortly. The complete presentation can also be used by Samithi/Mission chapters as needed to educate others on the mission and activities of our organization. It is a great visual recording of our accomplishments to date, and the tasks still ahead of us to complete…We handed out four angosthrams to select members of the audience (upon Sri Akka’s suggestion) as a token of appreciation. We also distributed a beautiful large scale brochure especially put together for the Conference; copies of this brochure have already been mailed out to NJ and LA chapters, and will be distributed to Northern California committee members as well.

After our presentation, which lasted for about 50 minutes, Sri Nirbhayanand Saraswathi, President of Ramakrishna Ashram, Gadag, Karnataka spoke about what he believes are the key issues facing Indian education today, and how his organization is trying to make a difference. The Ashram currently runs a free Residential School for the Blind at Shimaga and a residential school for rural children at a local village called Managuli in Karnataka.

Other Activities to Increase Awareness of Nandalala:

  1. On July 11 at 1:30pm, we did a Group Indian prayer/Chant at the Speaker’s Corner right outside the Forum Entrance for about 40 minutes – this venue was open to the general public and all those interested and curious to learn about different spiritual practices and traditions were encouraged to attend. We stood on a raised platform around 3-4 sets of microphones and as a group, clearly and loudly chanted in unison a few slokas praising Lord Ganesha, followed by chanting of Vishnusahasranamam. Mr. Ravindran explained the significance of the chants to the audience; his words were then translated into Spanish by a translator. As we raised our voices and sang in Praise of God, it was clear to the audience that chanting has power to change the mind and heart, and even though they couldn’t understand the words, they could feel the vibrations in the air and sense the peace that can come from chanting God’s name. Mrs. Srinivasan later recounted to us that one person in the audience supposedly fully knew the Vishnusahasranamam and was chanting all along with us; unfortunately, when we tried to later locate him to find out how he knew the chant, he could not be found…interesting anecdote, huh?
  2. Every day from July 8 th through July 13 th from 9am to 6:00pm, we were busy talking to people as they came to our “Jai Nandalala” Booth #63 in the Exhibit Hall. We were one among nearly 50 exhibitors; others included ISKON, Ramanayam Ahsram, Sri Chinmoy Center, Bahai Community of Spain, and Federation of Jain Associations of North America. Henna generated the greatest interest and the most traffic to our booth as it really distinguished us from the other exhibits who primarily sold books and literature – Mrs. Jayashree Ravindran, Mrs. Vaishnavi Ravindran, as well as Mrs. Janani diligently and lovingly applied henna to all those who came by, young and old, male and female….it is amazing how interested people are in Indian customs and practices…they just all loved the delicate and intricate henna designs, and often brought their colleagues, family and friends to also come by and have their hands done! We also sold handicrafts, paintings, artwork, and handbags at the exhibit. We proactively talked to people about Nandalalala Seva Samithi/Nandalala Mission and if they showed keen interest, we gave them a Nandalala brochure, and took down their contact information. Social activists from Nigeria and Mexico stopped by as did Buddhist, Muslim and Catholic religious leaders.

Other Key Highlights:

  1. Opening session on July 7 evening: A crowd of nearly 3000 gathered for the opening plenary session that kicked off the week long conference. 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, a human rights activist/lawyer from Iran was the main speaker. Other religious leaders also participated including Sri Chinmoy and a leader of a Shinto sect from Japan. As we sat in the Edifici Auditorium as part of the large global gathering, we got a clear sense of the majesty and import of the occasion. We knew we had all come together for a much larger cause: how to make this world a better, more peaceful one for our generation and the generations yet to come.
  2. World Music Concert (at La Sagrada Familia church) on July 10th evening: This was by far the most riveting, heart-tugging, and uplifting celebration during the week. All conference attendees were invited to attend a 2.5 hour music concert held right outside THE most famous landmark in Barcelona – a 150 year old “unfinished” cathedral called La Sagrada Familia built by late Anton Gaudi. Nearly two dozen top-notch artists from Buddhist, Shinto, Hindu, Christian, Sufi, and Native American traditions performed on a raised platform surrounded by large columns of speakers, and stage lights. It was a well-choreographed diverse set of performances that kept all of us glued to our chairs until almost midnight. It exposed us to some music we have never heard (e.g. Sufi) and brought us in touch with “new” aspects of traditions we know only too well – for example, a Hindu musician performed bhajans/chants mixing Christian, Hindu, and Muslim references, using a combination of instruments including mini sitar, harmonica, keyboard and synthesizer. The closing performance was by an Israeli band with both Jewish and Muslim singers/musicians. It is fitting that the night ended with a spirit of hope for peace in one of the most violent regions of our world. The evening proved that despite our different religious traditions and beliefs, that music has the ability to unite, heal and inspire.

For all including Sri Akka, the Parliament of Religions Conference was a memorable and truly special event. With Sri Akka’s divine grace, we hope that this seed we have planted in Spain/Europe will germinate and bring increased awareness and support for Nandalala programs and activities throughout the world. We will share photos as they become available. Thank you all for your support and hard work.

-Written By Anu Sundaresan