By Jaganmohini devi dasi
On the occasion of H.H. Bhaktisvarupa Damodara Swami Sripada Maharaj’s 76th Vyasa Puja celebrations, Dec. 8th 2013, we are glad to share with you a heartfelt warm tribute by Rev. Charles Gibbs to Sripada Maharaj.
The following tribute by Rev. Charles P. Gibbs has appeared in the proceedings publication ‘Reflections on Science and Spirituality in the Age of Technology under its tribute section – ‘A tribute to Dr. T.D. Singh – A Visionary of Science-Spirituality Interface and Interfaith Dialogue for World Peace’, published jointly by Institute of Science and Religion, Navi Mumbai and University of Mumbai, Mumbai in 2013 as a tribute to 75th birth anniversary of Srila Sripada maharaj.
The Gift of Dr. T.D. Singh to the Founding of the
United Religions Initiative
Charles P. Gibbs
United Religions Initiative (URI), USA
Knowing Dr. T.D. Singh changed my life. And he vastly enriched the United Religions Initiative, an organization he helped found and which I have served as founding executive director for nearly seventeen years. He embodied the best spirit of interfaith cooperation and was a living exemplar of the contributions interfaith cooperation can make to world peace. While it is impossible to convey the fullness of his deep, gentle spirit and the extraordinary light he shone, I hope what follows will provide some picture of the transformative contributions of this remarkable person to helping create what is now, in 2013, the largest grassroots interfaith network for peace in the world.
I first met Dr. T.D. Singh in late June of 1997 at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. The embryonic United Religions Initiative was hosting a global interfaith summit to begin formal work to draft a charter to create a global interfaith organization that would be called the United Religions, a spiritual parallel to the United Nations. Dr. Singh, or “T.D.” as he preferred to be called, was one of 250 leaders of diverse traditions and vocations from around the world invited to be partners in creating this new organization dedicated to interfaith cooperation to end religiously motivated violence and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing. We prayed this new organization would be a symbol and a vehicle for unity in a far-too-divided world–a new global hope that people of diverse faiths might work together for the good of all life.
Sixteen years after that summit, URI is the world’s largest grassroots interfaith network, inspiring hope and working for peace, justice and healing in 83 countries. On a personal level, it has been unimaginable privilege to be part of the creation of URI. One of the enduring blessings and joys of that journey was the profound friendship that blossomed from my first meeting with Dr. T.D. Singh and not only inspired my work over the years but also helped imbue URI with the unique spirit that has made it a magnet for people of diverse faiths around the world who wish to bring more light into these troubled times.
Midway through the 1997 summit, I found myself with T.D. at a private dinner, one of many hosted by local families for small, diverse groups of participants in the summit. While T.D. and I hadn’t found time to talk before then, I immediately felt drawn to this small man in his saffron robes with a radiant smile, an engaging laugh, a disarming sense of humility and deep spiritual insight. I have long since forgotten what we talked about that evening, but I will never forget the moment when our host asked T.D. if he would offer a Hindu prayer – and T.D. began to sing.
As a Christian, I had heard many wonderful choirs in my years, and as a child of the Sixties I had often been transported by the remarkable voices of my favorite folk singers, but none of that prepared me for the experience of T.D.’s singing. It was as if time and space fell away and we existed in an eternal, light-saturated now permeated by the music of angels and an ineffable experience of the oneness of all that is. When the singing ended, there was a moment of silence, followed by enthusiastic appreciation.
Then the conversation continued, but in a transformed way. This diminutive Hindu sadhu, a scientist and a spiritual leader had helped us all touch the core of our humanity and experience our essential oneness in the Ultimate. It was clear to me in that moment that the work of the United Religions Initiative was at its heart the work of helping people from diverse religions, spiritual expressions and Indigenous traditions be inspired by experiences of our fundamental oneness into honoring our diversity and working together for the good of all. Though I have been privileged to meet many extraordinary human beings over the years of this great adventure, none has ever embodied this essence of URI, and I would also say the
fullness of our humanity, more profoundly, authentically, humbly and lightly than T.D.
Over the years of creating URI, I had the privilege to travel through India several times with T.D., as well as to be with him in various URI gatherings in different parts of the world. He was a man of remarkable heart and profound vision who also had the skill of translating vision into reality.
On many occasions, we dreamed together of the day when there would be URI interfaith peace villages in every region of the world. At these villages, interested people of diverse faith backgrounds would come together for a lived experience of interfaith understanding and cooperation. They would be centers where people would deepen their own spirituality and their openness to and appreciation of other spiritualites in community with people of diverse spiritualities. Also, they would gain practical skills to help them be spiritual activists for interfaith cooperation when they returned to their home communities.
The seeds of these interfaith peace villages have been sown all over the world. It is impossible to tell how they will grow and over what time frame, but I have no doubt that they will grow and become a strong force to develop mutual respect and equip people for deep spiritual engagement in addressing the issues that vex the world – slowly by slowly contributing to a more peaceful and just world. T.D. would never have wanted such a village to be named after him, but I have no doubt that they all will embody his spirit, his deep heart, his brilliant mind and his unshakeable commitment.
URI’s Charter was signed on 26 June 2000 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the city with most bridges in the United States. Dr. Singh helped turn Pittsburgh into an interfaith peace village that day by bringing drummers from Manipur, India to lead a procession of delegates from diverse religions, spiritual expressions and Indigenous traditions throughout the world on a celebratory pilgrimage through the streets of Pittsburgh to the hall where the Charter was signed.
The heart of URI’s Charter – the Preamble, Purpose and Principles –embody Dr. Singh’s spirit, wisdom and commitment, as well as the spirit, wisdom and commitment of countless others who came to know and love T.D. as a fellow traveler on the path of peace. His authentic way of engaging with other people is reflected in one of URI’s founding principles – We listen and speak with respect to deepen mutual understanding and trust. His extraordinary practice of hospitality is reflected in another – We give and receive hospitality. His commitment as an inclusive, deeply spiritual peace builder rings in these words from the Preamble:
We unite in responsible cooperative action to bring the wisdom and values of our religions, spiritual expressions and indigenous traditions to bear on the economic, environmental, political and social challenges facing our Earth community.
We unite to provide a global opportunity for participation by all people, especially by those whose voices are not often heard.
We unite to celebrate the joy of blessings and the light of wisdom in both movement and stillness.
We unite to use our combined resources only for nonviolent, compassionate action, to awaken to our deepest truths, and to manifest love and justice among all life in our Earth community.
Dr. Singh’s sudden passing in 2006 stunned the URI community around the world. We grieved his loss and celebrated the extraordinary gift of his life – dedicated to building bridges of mutual respect and understanding, and cooperative engagement for peace, all grounded in the deepest spirituality.
In 2008, two years after T.D. left this world, another of his visions was realized as over 300 members of URI’s global community from over 35 countries and a wide array of spiritualities gathered for URI’s second global assembly on the banks of the Ganges in Mayapur, West Bengal, India near the birth place of great saint Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who gave Love of God to one and all. This was a day T.D. had dreamed of and though he wasn’t there in the body, I am sure his spirit hovered over this beautiful spiritual center, which, for a week, was a vibrant interfaith peace village.
At the heart of the global assembly were 100 young leaders, the vanguard of a generation which will extend the work of interfaith cooperation for global peace far into the future. T.D. was always a strong proponent of the importance of bringing new generations into this critically important work, so it was fitting that URI launched its Young Leaders Program in Mayapur. Toward the end of the assembly, they presented a statement to their elders and to leaders throughout the world. I take the liberty of offering an extended quote from their statement:
We write to you as the changing face of this World. In total we are over 100 young leaders from 35 countries. We are Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jews, Jains, Buddhists, Baha’is, Zoroastrians and representatives of spiritual traditions of indigenous peoples from the Americas, Asia and Africa.
We have come together in a spirit of peace and to dedicate our lives to the creation of a world that honors individuals and their faiths. This letter represents our collective voice.
Never before has the relationship between religions been of such pressing importance for the future of our world. The global community has become intimately connected in a variety of ways. And as these connections grow in number and depth, interfaith dialogue will be an essential precursor to a unified global community.
Interfaith is not going to play a smaller role in the world; it will play a much larger role.
Our meeting in Mayapur, India serves as an exceptional model for interfaith collaboration. At the same time, yet another senseless act of terror and violence in Mumbai proves a bitter reminder of the continuing threat posed to all people by the specter of religious intolerance. These acts contradict the universal, human values taught by all sincere spiritual paths teach, chief amongst them being peace, compassion and truth.
In an era where common challenges will affect every nation, we have consciously rejected the notion that religious intolerance and violence is a given way of life. This meeting is proof of the possibility for peaceful coexistence. We want it and know that we can create it.
This can be seen today in interfaith conflict resolution efforts, in interfaith ecological projects, in interfaith housing builds, in the interfaith encounters that happen in our communities, businesses, and schools across the world.
The 21st Century presents us with the historic opportunity to ensure that the future of relations between faiths is characterized by respect, cooperation and concern for the common good of all peoples.
In this way, the power that religions have to harness and inspire the creativity and energy of their adherents can be used to achieve a shared solution to the many and profound problems we as a global community now face.
As a leader you have the ability to change the face of religious tolerance. We ask that you actively engage in the development of interfaith cooperation and understanding. Your role is not to lead one religion to victory, but to assist all the people of all the faiths to live in a more hospitable world.
We emphasize the role of individuals in this process. Peaceful individuals create peaceful families. Peaceful families create peaceful communities. Peaceful communities create peaceful nations. And peaceful nations create a peaceful world. You are in the unique position to spread this message far and wide.
Though he was no longer physically present on Earth when this letter was written, Dr. T.D. Singh was an exemplar of the quality of leaders these young people envisioned as essential to a more peaceful and just future for all. His spirit lives on, as does the work for mutual respect and peace that he modeled with each breath he took, in the work of the United Religions Initiative and in the lives of these young leaders and of all those who were touched by his inspirational life – an incomparable gift of peace to the world.
(The Proceedings contains talks/papers by 21 experts comprising esteemed scientists, academicians, research scholars from India and abroad and a lengthy foreword by India’s expert Artificial Intelligence scientist. The publication is the outcome of the national conference SSTech2012 convened and chaired by the author that was organized by Institute of Science and Religion and University of Mumbai last year at Mumbai University for students as a tribute to 75th birth anniversary celebrations of H.H. Bhaktisvarupa Damodara swami. A separate 1 hr slot was dedicated to Srila Sripada maharaj under tribute session. The packed auditorium witnessed participation exclusively only from students from fifty institutions from different parts of India including twenty five colleges from Navi Mumbai and Mumbai. Two-minute homage was paid to Srila Sripada maharaj before the inauguration of the function. Subsequently the inaugural function began with prayers by Srila Sripada maharaj’s recorded verses from Brahma Samhita.)
Paying homage to Dr. T.D. Singh