Global Dharma Conference (2003)

Organizers

According to a Global Dharma Committee press release on July 30, 2003, the Global Dharma Conference was considered by its organizers to be the “largest event ever organized by second-generation Indian American Community…(which)…brought together approximately 2,000 attendees from across the world.” The conference was aimed at members of ‘dharmic’ traditions including Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs. It was organized and overseen primarily by the Hindu Students’ Council (HSC). The HSC started in 1990, with the interests of exploring, experiencing and expressing Sanatana Hindu Dharma and the Hindu heritage. Other co-sponsors to the Conference included Young Jains of America, Network of Hindu Minds, the youth wing of the International Swaminarayan Satsang Organization (ISSO), the youth wing of the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, the Hindu Student Forum Netherland, HinduTRAC, the National Hindu Youth Federation of South Africa, the World Organization of Students and Youth and the World Hindu Youth Council Nepal.

Purpose

Dharma, a Sanskrit concept with a multitude of translations and interpretations, was most often quoted at the conference to be “that which sustains the natural order of things.” The concept refers to any action or thought that adds to the harmonious functioning of the universe, and it finds an overt place in the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh traditions. Organizers of the conference focused on how Dharma is a universally applicable concept, instead of a general approach to the study of particular religions. Subsequently, the goals of the conference were:

  • To introduce the concept and meaning of Dharma to the modern world
  • To bring together students from ancient and modern cultures to deliver the message of Dharma
  • To educate the world about the philosophical and cultural heritage based on Dharma
  • To establish a network of organizations, institutions and individuals who subscribe to the concept of Dharma and contribute towards global peace, harmony and progress

Attendance

The program was organized mostly by college students and aimed towards a student audience. For an example, in a video-conference address by India’s President, Abdul Kalam, addressed the group primarily as “youth” and “the younger generation.” However, the actual audience was comprised more young professionals, families, and adults over 50 years of age. The gender ratio seemed about half and half.

Gender Considerations

Even though the gender ratio among participants was close to equal, there were far more men speakers than women. Additionally, while many speakers briefly touched on how Dharma relates to contemporary issues of gender, race and class, no one presentation was solely devoted to any of these issues. Overall, the conference tried to take a non-confrontational nature. With an aim to mobilize the Western population of South Asians towards spreading Dharma and Indian tradition, the topics centered upon topics that would awaken pride and educate audiences, not highlight disagreement.

General Overview

To realize the goal of spreading Dharma to the modern world, the conference included speakers from a variety of backgrounds, traditional to modern. With opening addresses by local and state politicians, as well as blessings from traditional spiritual leaders from both the U.S. and India (via teleconference), the start of the conference was symbolic of its diversity. Friday’s daytime activities were largely centered on the opening and benediction of the conference, except for a “diaspora session” that included speakers representing Indians all over the world.

The evening’s plenary session opened with a definition of Dharma by spiritual leader Pujya Dayananda Saraswati, founder of the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam and teacher of Vedanta. He was followed by speakers of various disciplines who sought to highlight the importance of Dharma in their fields. Not unrelated to the political activism of South Asians in New Jersey, governor James McGreevey spoke eloquently on the importance of Dharma in American life. Whereas Indians and other immigrants are often frowned upon for their work ethic and their business savvy as they gain more of America’s market share, not to mention the general post-9/11 disdain for immigrants, McGreevey’s speech was supportive and congratulatory in all respects. For the South Asians in Edison, New Jersey, and from around the United States this political recognition and validation of immigrants, immigrant values, and immigrant culture has been a welcomed alliance in politics. McGreevey’s speech counteracted currents of exclusive American nationalism by actually soliciting help from Indians and Eastern concepts of Dharma for the problems America is currently facing.

Some of the messages from other speeches included: the importance of spirituality in the Western context; the universality of Dharma; the need for overlooking differences between religions; the importance of looking towards India for inspiration, and the duty of diaspora Indians towards the development of India; and, quite blatantly, the injustice of conversion by missionary religious groups. The emphasis of the talks, and of the conference overall, was seeing the similarities between religious traditions and promoting the framework of Dharma, or right action, within the Western world. Following the plenary session there was a celebration with traditional Raas and Garba, as well as the fusion of Bhangra and Western music by pop-star Apache Indian.

Saturday Events

Saturday’s events followed a similar format. There was a spiritual discourse by Swami Dayananda Saraswati at 7 a.m., followed by parallel lecture sessions from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.. The layout of the parallel sessions, between Saturday and Sunday, were meant to walk the participant through the relations between Dharma and the self, Dharma and the family, Dharma and society, and Dharma and the world. The parallel sessions were taught by swamis, western scholars, and enthusiasts alike, and were well-regarded by most of the participants. The sessions covered, but were not limited to, topics such as yoga, meat-eating, relationships, rights and responsibilities, money, spirituality in daily life, management and Dharma, spirituality and science, and the future of Dharma in America.

Secrets of Meat Consumption: PETA (Aaron Gross)

Introduced by posters bearing attractive youngsters and slogans connecting Dharma and vegetarianism, PETA was represented by an energetic Harvard Divinity School graduate who was passionate on educating the audience of the horrors within the meat, dairy and egg industries, and the Dharma inherent in avoiding their food products. Aaron Gross eased into his presentation by trying to gauge his audience with questions such as “How many of you eat meat?” and “Do you know what veganism is?” After determining that most of the audience, a self-selecting group that chose to attend this presentation over two other simultaneous ones, was mostly lacto-ovo (eggs and dairy OK) vegetarian, as is common amongst many Hindus, especially the older generations, Gross then launched into a more provocative portion of his presentation.

What followed was a PETA video detailing what they considered “common practice” in the meat, dairy and egg industries. The video was made up mostly of undercover clips that showed uncensored violence towards animals, showing complete disregard for their quality of life. Debeaking of chickens to reduce the damage that they do to each other when kept in close quarters; de-tailing of piglets to reduce the risk of their tails being eaten by other pigs due to the mania that they experience when they’re kept in extremely close quarters; still moving cows with slit throats hung upside down by a single leg for their blood to drain; chickens with abnormal feet grown around wire cages, unsuitable for walking; old milk-cows being dragged out of the milking factory by a metal claw after they have been exhausted of milk, and hormones no longer induce them to produce were all images narrated by Gross throughout the video, and are considered common practice their respective industries. Aaron Gross founded his final message on the premise that most Indians do not eat meat from a desire not to hurt animals: “if dairy and egg production is as gruesome as meat production, shouldn’t dairy and egg consumption stop as well?” He was controversial to say the least.

Between the PETA posters and a handful of the vendors, it became clear that some people at the conference were not only spreading Dharma, but they were also using Dharma to spread their own socio-political messages.

Practical Application of Ayruvedic Medicine (Dr. Pratichi Mathur)

Dr. Pratichi Mathur’s session on the Practical Application of Ayruvedic Medicine was aimed at those who knew little or nothing about India’s ancient medical system. Dr. Mathur conducted the entire session without the overhead lights, using only scant afternoon light that filtered through the window. She started the session by patiently awaiting the silence of the audience, asking for their utmost respect and attention for the following discussion on the ancient science, and then singing a Sanskrit hymn as invocation. According to Dr. Mathur, Ayurveda was in its formation during the 7th through the 10th centuries BCE. Using Western medicine as a contrast, Dr. Mathur explained that Ayurveda is a system of medicine that takes into account mind, body, and spirit. By extensively interviewing a patient with questions regarding their personality, their habits, and their surroundings, the Ayurvedic doctor is able to classify the patient according to ancient categories of personality which in turn influence the doctor’s prescription for the patient. A major goal of Ayurveda is understanding the patient and his or her tendencies–a “self-understanding” as Dr. Mathur termed it. With this understanding, the doctor can then manipulate the patient’s diet and surroundings in order to reduce or, most importantly, prevent disease and achieve happiness. For more information about the ancient science, Dr. Mathur referred her audience to David Frawley’s book on Ayurveda.

Finding Your Inner Passions (Pujya Swami Shantananda, Chinmaya Mission)

To describe the connection between Dharma and finding one’s inner passions, Swami Shantananda first introduced the concept of karma. Karma is the theory which states that for every action executed by a human, there is a reaction that is dealt to him or her by the surrounding universe. For positive actions, the reaction is positive; likewise, for negative actions, the reaction will be negative. Reactions may be dealt immediately or over a period of lifetimes. If a person has outstanding karmic debts, or desires that are left unfilled at the end of a lifetime, that person will reincarnate to satisfy the laws of karma. Karma, Swami described, is like a shopping list that one enters into this world with; the aim of this life is to exhaust the shopping list and not add more to it. Acting in accordance with this “shopping list,” and simultaneously trying not to add more to it, is what Swami called acting one’s “personal dharma.” Understanding personal dharma is equivalent to understanding one’s inner passions, as the two are synonymous. By adhering to the laws of universal dharma–those of truthfulness, virtue, integrity, service, honesty, and all other non-harming and sustaining actions and thoughts–one can reduce the accumulation of karmic debts, and also allow the personal dharma (“shopping list”) to manifest itself through the situations that then arise.

Program of Events

Following the presentations and dinner, the “International Concert: Harmony through Music,” featured music, drama, story, and was highlighted by Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain’s performance with violinists Shankar and Gingger and percussionist Shivamani. See an online Program of Events.

Sunday Events

Sunday began with another 7 a.m. spiritual discourse, as well as yoga, meditation and elementary Sanskrit lessons. There were two panel discussions planned for the morning: “Panel on the various faiths and religions,” and “Panel on the various disciplines and facets of life.” However, confusion and delay caused by India’s President, Abdul Kalam, Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Kanchi, and Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s video-conference addresses caused both discussions to be abbreviated. Because all of the addresses were given live to the audience, there was difficulty getting each of the parties on the line at the particular time that they were scheduled (due in no small part to the unreliability of phones, equipment needed to videoconference, and the busy schedules of the speakers). Thus, during the interim between video addresses, the panels were conducted. The discussion on various faiths was presented first. This included a short presentation by religious leaders representing Hinduism, Jainism, the Theosophical Society, Sikhism, Buddhism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Paganism. The leaders were mostly heads of district or area societies (as most of the traditions represented lack a national/world-wide structure as seen in something like the Catholic Church), but were from around the world. Notably absent nor mentioned were representatives from Christianity and Islam. Except for Buddhism, all the other faiths were represented by men. Because of the lack of time, presenters weren’t able to engage in dialogue, but judging by the concluding remarks of moderator David Frawley, the panel was aimed at raising awareness regarding the similarities of each religion, and also at developing a respect and acceptance for those of different faiths. Each leader highlighted a set of tenants or maxims that their respective religions hold in high esteem, to which Frawley then pointed to as evidence of the similarities between traditions.

The “Panel on the various disciplines and facets of life” was scheduled to include discussions on science, social justice, governance and education, business management, religion, and the environment. However, because of time constraints, only Subhash Kak, professor of electrical engineering and professor of Vedic studies at Louisiana State University, was able to comment on science and its relation to the Vedas. His talk focused on the relationships between inner and outer worlds and how science has allowed modern man to better understand these relationships as detailed in the ancient Vedas.

The panels were the final educational presentations of the conference. Starting with the smaller parallel sessions regarding Dharma and the self, Dharma and family, Dharma and society, and Dharma and the world, and ending with the large panel sessions created an atmosphere of community throughout the conference as one was progressively introduced to ways of conceptualizing and acting upon Dharma. The final panel of the various faiths highlighted the goal of acceptance and networking among different faiths. The lack of representation or mention of Christianity or Islam, however, and the zealous anti-missionary rhetoric portrayed both major faiths as in part implicitly countering the progress of Dharma in the modern world, thus undermining the message of complete acceptance.

Closing

The conference closed with addresses by the Dharma Committee and a recap of all the events. There were also five resolutions passed by the Dharma Committee, paraphrased here:

  1. to spread the concept of Dharma to all “peace loving” people of the world,
  2. to encourage students, the future leaders of the world, to adopt a “Dharmic” lifestyle and outlook,
  3. to fight Adharma in the form of global terrorism,
  4. to respect all religions, but also to not tolerate coercive conversion by any religious traditions, and
  5. to oppose the denigration of Indian traditions by scholarly misrepresentation.

The resolutions can be found in full text.