Monday, September 18, 2006

Statue of famous monk to be erected in Halifax


Swami’s words of an earlier Sept. 11 warned against religious fanaticism
By LOIS LEGGE Features Writer


He called for an end to religious fanaticism. He spoke about the holiness and purity of all faiths. And he spread the ancient Hindu philosophy of universal acceptance.

Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda first brought those ideas to the west more than 100 years ago to be precise, on Sept. 11, 1893, during the World Parliament of Religions convention in Chicago.

In this century, Sept. 11 has become synonymous with tragedy, fear and religious fanaticism.

But as the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States approaches, the Hindu community in Halifax is hoping those long-ago words by a revered leader will resonate in today’s world.

In fact, a statue of the Hindu Swami the first of its kind in Canada will soon stand in Halifax as a symbol of the acceptance he preached a century ago.

A life-sized fiberglass statue of Vivekananda will be unveiled Sept. 17 on the front lawn of the Vedanta Ashram Society, a Hindu temple and community centre on Cork Street which serves about 400 families.

"We were looking for an appropriate symbol of Hindu philosophy, what Indian culture or Hindu philosophy had to contribute to our Canadian society and then we figured . . . that he would be the most appropriate symbol," says Prabir Basu, chairman of the statue installation committee.

The monk’s words are as relevant today as when he first appeared at the convention, becoming an instant celebrity and subsequently travelling across North America, says Mr. Basu, who notes that many wars and deaths have been caused over the years by religious fanaticism.

In fact, the Swami’s speech at the Sept. 11 opening session of the convention, which included religious leaders from across the world, seems both profound and prophetic given the history of world affairs.

"Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often . . . with human blood, destroyed civilization, and sent whole nations to despair," he told the gathering.

"Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time has come and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal."

He went on to say that no religion is better than another; that "holiness, purity and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world."

But Basu calls Vivekananda’s words "the gift we did not open." People of different faiths are still often more concerned with the rituals than the substance of their religions, he says.

"If you really go to the philosophy of all religions, they are essentially the same. All religions (say) we are essentially divine, we are the children of the God, nobody disputes that. But when it comes to how we worship, whether we bow three times or four times, whether I go to this building or that building, that’s where our difference comes so that’s why that we say the biggest gift that he gave us, we did not open it," says Mr. Basu, a professor in Dalhousie University’s mechanical engineering department.

"And if we had opened that and used what he told us, then we would not have the animosity of infighting in our today’s society."

Even in today’s society, Swami Vivekananda is considered the "spokesperson of Hindu philosophy," says Mr. Basu, noting that in India virtually everyone knows his name. His writings are also well known in other parts of the world, adds the professor, who calls Vivekananda "an extraordinary genius." He became a monk at a very early age and traveled through the poorest areas of India in order to understand "the misery and suffering of ordinary people." And he was just 30 when he addressed the Chicago convention with a philosophy Basu says is still so important today.

He says unveiling his statue so close to the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, is a fitting commemoration of the man and that horrible day five years ago.

"Sept. 11 to every one of us is one of the most tragic days and the tragedy comes from inherent hatred of one group of people for others and so in order to fight the hatred, we really need to cultivate within us that concept of universal acceptance. . . . We need to accept that every path, every culture, every faith is just as good as others. So that’s why we thought this would be the right and fitting response to what happened on Sept. 11th."

( legge@herald.ca)

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