With Nostra Aetate, the Roman Catholic Church has set an example and other religions should likewise open their doors.
This was the sentiment of Hindu Swami Chidananda Saraswati, as he praised the spirit of Nostra Aetate
, and the leadership, warmth and humility of Pope Francis. Nostra Aetate was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on Oct. 28, 1965, and on Wednesday, Pope Francis held an “interreligious general audience” to mark the anniversary. As the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Church’s relation to Non-Christian religions, the document condemned anti-semitism in all its forms and signified an opening or widening of relations with other religions.
In this interview with ZENIT, Saraswati, founder and trustee of the Fowai Forum, speaks on the landmark document’s impact and how the conference held on it this week at Rome’s Gregorian University will have a lasting impact.
The scholar, who has been working in the United States recently and is now on his way back to India, also explains his belief that terrorism stems from a lack of understanding and that if religions work together, “hearts can be changed.” In this context, he warns about why one shouldn’t make assumptions and even asks permission to make a joke.
The Fowai Forum is a Public Trust aimed at the dissemination of spiritual and secular wisdom, especially based on Indian culture and India’s heritage, for promotion of holistic living and right action.
ZENIT: Could you briefly share a little about yourself and why you are in Rome?
Saraswati: Hello. I am Swami Chidananda Saraswati. I represent Hinduism. I live in India. Over the last 30 years, I have been a teacher of Hindu scriptures, like Bhagavad Gita, and others. And I am actually in the United States pretty often. I periodically visit.
ZENIT: How was it to be with Pope Francis [Wednesday] morning when he held the interreligious general audience for the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate?
Saraswati: I feel very blessed to see the Holy Father, Pope Francis. I was very touched by his warmth, humility, and friendship. It was a great day for me. It has been an immense joy for me to be here, listen and share. And I am hear to learn so much more. I have no more words to express this happiness and am so grateful for all those who have brought about this very significant collaboration.
ZENIT: How do you feel the conference held at the Gregorian has had an effect and how do you believe it has brought attention to Nostra Aetate?
Saraswati: This conference has been a beautiful experience. It has been a great privilege to have taken part in it. Three days commemorating the 50-year anniversary of Nostra Aetate. Nostra Aetate is a wonderful document. Its spirit is great, inviting all religions, in fact, to become friends. Of course, it primarily opens the doors of the Catholic religion to other religions, to have dialogue with non-Christian religions, but if you see the spirit of it and slightly elaborate on the content of it, it is like an ideal, exemplary document for any religion to operate primarily in the same way. By declaring Nostra Aetate, the Roman Catholic Church has definitely set an example. People, other religions, should also open their doors.
And of course, it is well known that much violence and much bitterness is because we don’t know each other. We jump to conclusions. And, oh, if you don’t mind I joke: the other day, I asked some executives in a company, “What exercise do you do daily?” And one responds, “I do one exercise daily: I jump to conclusions.” [smiling]
So coming back to what I was saying, I think religion has the power to bring the best out of us, but unfortunately, in a lot of places, religion is bringing out the worst in the human being because of the simple reason that there is a misunderstanding, of the so-called other religions. If we sit together and have dialogue, and we then identify common goals, what we share, what is similar, then half the problem is gone. The other half, also, where we differ. For example, the Semitic religions do not believe in rebirth. The eastern religions — Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism — all of us believe in rebirth, reincarnation. At first it appears like a big gulf, but I don’t think that is such a big issue at all. Or for that matter, worshipping images. At first, it appears like an irreconcilable difference. Worshipping images. Blasphemous! One group thinks. Another group thinks that worshipping images is a stepping stone to realize the ultimate truth which is beyond images. The ultimate truth is not an image. So that’s just to give two examples.
But I am very confident that beginning with finding common ground, then one can begin to find areas of differences also, we will be able to appreciate each other’s views. For instance, my colleague here from Jainism who gave the analogy, the world is like a garden. Different flowers may look different, may have different fragrances, but it’s wonderful to have a garden of diverse flowers, and we can work together and make this world a wonderful place. Violence should end.
ZENIT: Do you see this interreligious dialogue with helping combat violence?
Saraswati: I think if we work together we can also work on this terrorist problem too and change their hearts. All they need is a little bit of relocation. I think they are jobless and that is why they are doing all these things. They need to be engaged. They have so much energy. If they are given some respectable, good jobs, I think they will drop the weapons. What do they say, “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” There’s that old saying. So many times these terrorists [do this] because of some misinformation, many times they are driven to these things because of poverty too. They are poor and agitated and somebody comes and says, “Come, I teach you,” and guns are given to them.
So I think this conference is well thought out and conducted in a very graceful way, and I am feeling so good, so much warmth, not a trace of an attempt to put down anybody. On the contrary, they are showering love and respect, coming from other religions. So “Hats off,” and I would like to do such things in my own ways, carrying this forward to other places. Thank you, Deborah, so much.
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