The Parliament of World Religions

The theme of this Parliament is Make a World of Difference: Hearing Each Other, Healing the Earth. It will focus on indigenous peoples around the globe, highlighting the Aboriginal communities of Australia, but also general issues of deepening our spirituality and recognising the humanity of the other. Some of the main speakers include His Holiness the Dalai Lama; Fr. Laurence Freeman, Director of The World Community for Christian Meditation, UK; Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, Founder of JUST, Malaysia; and Dr. Karan Singh MP, former Minister for Education and Culture, India. Negotiations are currently underway for the Australian Section Headquarters to host an exhibition at the Convention Centre in conjunction with Melbourne Lodge. The National President has submitted a proposal for a talk or interactive workshop entitled The Scientific Basis of Universal Brotherhood. Decisions regarding program acceptance will be made by June 2009. The summary of the proposal follows:

If we wish to cultivate harmony among the religious, spiritual and other traditions of the world, without which there can be no peace on earth, it would be helpful if more of us understood that universal brotherhood is not just an ideal towards which we might strive, it is the truth about reality. Universal brotherhood as a fact in nature has the potential to heal cultural, religious and social rifts. It refers to our physical and spiritual oneness, to our shared origins and shared IDENTITY in the âtman or universal Self which permeates all of matter and nature as the source of our lives, the final goal of our endeavours and the space from which all of matter arises.

This identity of origin and goal is the ultimate rationale to the brotherhood of mankind: each of us is literally made of the same stuff. The physicist David Bohm once remarked that the truth about reality is undivided wholeness, if we are fragmented we must blame it on ourselves. This paper presents some of the scientific evidence for wholeness and unity, in support of the first Object of the Theosophical Society.

Historical Material Related to the Parliament of the World’s Religions

The first World’s Parliament of Religions was held in 1893 in Chicago, in connection with the Chicago World’s Fair, which was partly a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the “new world”, and in part the resurrection of a city that had been practically razed to the ground in the great fire of 1871. This year it is to be held in Melbourne, Australia; as it happens, not long after another terrible conflagration.

The text of many of the addresses given at the Parliament of Religions in 1893 was soon made available in a publication edited by Rev. John Henry Barrows. A copy of the two volumes was donated to the Adyar Library, Madras, by Dr Barrow. In an anonymous review of the publication in The Theosophist, January 1895, it was described as ‘the most valuable brief of religious beliefs ever published’. This remark was followed by a comment concerning the aims of the Parliament:

As the now confessed object of the promoters of the Parliament of Religions was the vindication of the superiority of Christianity, we can understand the very strong bias of this religion which pervades Dr Barrows’ work. However, as many visitors at the Congress were of opinion that the religions of the East were by no means thrown into the shade by the blaze of Christianity, we may safely leave readers to judge for themselves whether the lesser object of vindicating Christianity was accomplished, or the far greater and nobler one of emphasizing the underlying unity of all religions.

Not having read Dr Barrows’ work I cannot say whether or not it exhibits a strong bias towards the Christian faith, but I was interested to find the following remarks of his on the website of the Unitarians and Universalists of the Free Religious Association, from the Preface to the volumes in question:

RELIGION is the greatest fact of History. This book will show that it is one of the most picturesque and interesting. These volumes are enriched with views of Eastern Temples, painted and tiled Pagodas, superb and stately Mosques, humble meeting-houses and all the beautiful forms of Christian architecture in Europe and America…. This book records a grand event, the most important incident of the greatest of World Expositions. In preparing for it, the editor of these volumes has been brought into friendly and delightful relations with Catholic Archbishops, Greek Priests, Jewish Rabbis, disciples of the gentle Buddha and followers of the gravely-wise Confucius. Pleasant friendships have been formed with men of a score of Christian denominations. Contact with the learned minds of India has inspired a new reverence for the thought of the Orient. He has seen in imagination Milton’s ‘Dusk faces, with white silken turbans wreathed.’ And, in the disciples of Zoroaster and of the Prophet of Islam, he has found the spirit of the truest human brotherhood … In this book will be found Theology, Science, Philosophy, Biography, History, Poetry, Experience, Political and Social Wisdom, Eloquence, Music, the rich lore of the head, the richer literature of the heart, Revelations from God, the story of Man’s outreachings toward the Infinite, his triumphs and partial failures, his hopes and despairs, the bewildered efforts of noble souls… [1]

Still on the subject of the Parliament of Religions we find the following entry in Colonel Olcott’s Old Diary Leaves:

How great a success it was for us and how powerfully it stimulated public interest in our views will be recollected by all our older members. Theosophy was presented most thoroughly both before the whole Parliament, an audience of 3,000 people, and at meetings of our own for the holding of which special halls were kindly given us. A profound impression was created by the discourses of Professor G.N. Chakravarti and Mrs Besant, who is said to have risen to unusual heights of eloquence, so exhilarating were the influences of the gathering. Besides those who represented our Society especially, Messrs Vivekananda, V.R. Gandhi, Dharmapala, representatives of the Hindu Vedanta, Jainism, and Buddhism respectively, captivated the public, who had only heard of Indian people through the malicious reports of interested missionaries, and were now astounded to see before them and hear men who represented the ideal of spirituality and human perfectibility as taught in their respective sacred writings. Said one Chicago editor: ‘We have been for years spending millions of dollars in sending missionaries to convert these men, and have had very little success; they have sent over a few men, and have converted everybody’.

Colonel Olcott then includes a report made to a London newspaper by Annie Besant:

The Theosophical Congress, as said one of the leading Chicago papers, was a rival of the Parliament itself in the interest it excited. The plan of the Department of Religion was a good one. Each body strong enough to hold one had a congress of its own on one or more days, fixed by the committee; in addition to this chosen speakers occupied one session in presenting the views of their body to the Parliament. The Theosophical Society was given two days for its congress, the evening of the second day being devoted to the presentation of Theosophy before the Parliament. The hall originally granted to it seated about 300 people, but it was so densely packed before the first meeting opened, that the managers gave us another hall seating about 1,200. This was promptly filled, and at each succeeding session the crowds grew, filling passages and packing every inch of room, until at our fifth session two adjoining halls were offered us, and we held two overflow meetings in addition to our regular session. The sixth session was the presentation of Theosophy to the Parliament, and some 3,000 people gathered in a large hall. So intense was the interest shown that the management most generously offered us the use of the great hall for an additional meeting on the following night, and it was packed with eager listeners. [2]

The Theosophical Society was represented by William Q. Judge, Annie Besant and Isabel Cooper-Oakley, among others.



[2] H.S. Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, Volume V, TPH, Adyar, Madras, 1975, p.35-7.