My Experience in the Parliaments of Worlds’ Religions

N.S. Xavier, MD

The first Parliament of the World’s Religions held in Chicago in 1893 in connection with the Chicago World Fair. The Parliament which promoted dialogue among various religions was a great step in the history of religions. Swami Vivekanda from India was one of the impressive speakers at that conference. In 1988 an organization called Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions headquartered in Chicago was incorporated to promote interfaith activities and work together for a just, peaceful and sustainable world.

The second Parliament was held in Chicago in 1993. At that conference, Christian Theologian Hans Kung who presented the Global Ethic, had stated that there could be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions. That insight has reverberated since then. I have participated in the second Parliament and  three other ones including the 2015 Parliament held in Salt Lake City Utah on October 15—19th. Each Parliament has been enjoyable, exciting, inspiring and educational. I spoke on conscience at the previous conference and premiered my documentary in the recent meeting.

Since I grew up in Kerala, India, and had read many books by Raimundo Panikkar, a Catholic priest and great scholar, whose father  was a Hindu from Kerala and mother a Catholic from Spain, I listened to his eloquent and very insightful speeches at the 1993 and 2004 conferences. He promoted inter-religious and intra-religious dialogues. In one of his sessions, somebody asked what to do when religious leadership pursues wrong agendas and he advised the person to practice “holy disobedience.” At the 2004  conference, I was probably among te few who could follow the speech of Amma [a Hindu sage from Kerala] in Malayalam. I have included part of that speech [in translation] in my documentary.

It was wonderful to participate in the 2015 Parliament along with about 10000 people from 80  different countries and 50 faith traditions promoting Compassion, Peace, Justice and Sustainability. Thousands of participants ate the free vegetarian meal, the langar, provided by the Sikhs. With a head cover on and shoes off sitting on the ground being served by volunteers, was a spiritual experience without any formal prayers, making an everyday activity sacred. The same point was made in a Huffington Post article.

The messages from Pope Francis read by the Vatican’s  representative to the UN was inspiring. It was exciting to watch the interview the President of the Parliament had with the Dalai Lama. Vice President Al Gore’s taped speech about the dangers of climate change and the urgency of taking action was warmly received by the audience. Al Gore’s daughter Karenna Gore was the MC for that plenary session. Primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodal gave a rousing speech exhorting religious groups to work on saving the environment. She and Al Gore drove home our moral responsibility to protect the environment. Those who consider it not a moral issue misunderstand are not using their consciences with open minds.

My son and I presented my documentary The World’s Most Enlightening Region. It was  enthusiastically received. People wanted to share the film with others and so I promised to put it on the internet which I have done on my website. The film is about the 2000 years’ ongoing religious harmony, peaceful transformation of extremism within  many religions, and the influence of six, may be seven religious mystics  in the Kodungallur-Kochi region of Kerala..

Karen Armstrong, the famous historian of Religions was the main speaker among the major speakers.  She championed compassion which she has passionately promoted for many years. She was forthright in her criticism of extremists misusing religious texts to support violence, She talked about the teaching of the third century Christian thinker Origen [who was the first scientific Christian theologian according to Hans Kung]. Origen taught that there are four levels of interpreting scripture: literal, allegorical, ethical and mystical. Fundamentalists  tend to use literal or even worse interpretation.

Regarding mystics, I discussed with Mathew Fox, the expert on mysticism, about the mystics I refer to in my film. He didn’t know of any other region in the world closely connected with the number and variety of significant mystics. Rabbi Rami Shapiro, an author and public speaker, who was very excited about my film and recorded a radio interview with me, found the story of the Jewish mystic Nehemiah Mota in Kochi very interesting. Among the entertainments, the Sufi mystics’ whirling dervish dance performed by young boys was the best.

A presenter with Chinese background was talking about karma in connection withTaoism. So I asked whether karma is part of Taoist philosophy. She answered that although it is not in the popular Tao book Tao te Ching, the idea equal to karma is present  in some other Taoist writings. As to my question about the status of religions in China, she said China is now approving of religions now.

The openness, the promotion of reason and the Golden Rule, the emphasis on goodness, love and compassion all at each Parliament were excellent examples of conscience working. The four Parliaments I have attended have been among my most precious experiences.

whirling 1

(Dance of the young Whirling Dervishes)

The Inner Voice of Conscience and the Inner Parrot

Conscience is a word commonly used but, in my view, often misused. As a psychiatrist who incorporates ethical and spiritual issues in therapy, every day I encounter people who are confused about conscience. They benefit from my explanation of the real conscience versus the inner parrot or the “superego.” I borrow the word “superego” from Sigmund Freud who described it as the internalized external authority. In other words, the superego is the judgment of right and wrong or good and bad programmed by one’s family and social group including one’s religion.  The word superego is mistaken by many as super pride, taking ego to mean pride. In psychology the word   “ego” stands for the “I” or the self of a person. To avoid the confusion of superego with pride, I refer to it as the “inner parrot” also because it is parroting the values picked up from its influential sources.

While Freud viewed conscience as the negative or guilt producing part of superego, I give a different perspective.  As I see it, the real conscience uses reason and the Golden Rule with an open mind to decide what choice is right or wrong, good or bad. While the superego may use good reasoning and the Golden Rule  if it is shaped by such influences, it often tends to deviate from this standard depending on the conditioning it receives. A child who is programmed by very rigid and punitive parents would likely have a rigid and punitive superego. Another child who is praised excessively would tend to have an unreasonably proud superego. External influences with varying intensity continue in our lives. We can notice members of extremist groups parroting the group’s ideology. Conscience uses reason and the Golden Rule in processing social values instead of parroting such influences. Many people think of conscience as God’s voice within us but others consider it a product of our higher evolution. In any case, the real conscience is our best guide from an ethical and spiritual angle.

Several examples would illustrate and clarify the difference between conscience and superego as well as the enormous importance of understanding these two inner guides. A business man saw me with severe depression and suicidal ideation after his business had a serious setback, He was condemning himself as a loser. He viewed people as either winners or losers as his successful father had viewed. He took full responsibility for his financial setback although the problem was   almost entirely caused by the real estate bust in the country. He was judging himself by his unfair and unreasonable inner parrot which was repeatedly calling him a loser. He was a Christian who had read the Bible numerous times but did not quite grasp the deeper meanings of love and conscience. As I pointed out the fact that the word conscience is used 31 times in the New Testament and explained the difference between conscience and superego, he realized that he was judging himself by his superego, not his conscience. Superego doesn.t easily give up. It took him a few weeks to get his inner parrot to stop calling him a loser but once he understood the problem, he was on the right track and his depression improved greatly.  Also, his narrow views about various aspects of life, including religion and national and world conflicts transformed.

Another example is a couple whose marital relationship was quite unhappy and both of them had much anxiety. They were blaming each other for their poor relationship. The husband grew uo in a family which emphasized financial and personal security and showed very little affection. So he had strong need for security. And he had strong sexual need. The wife grew up with a very affectionate mother and had strong need for affection.  Although her sexual need was fairly strong it depended closely to getting overall affection.  When husband’s business was not doing well because of market forces, he was insecure, focused more on business, showed much less affection to wife and wanted more sex to relieve his stress. She was distressed by these changes as it went against her needs and she became withdrawn and less sexually active. They judged the problem with their individual superego angle and blamed the other, escalated the tension and got close to divorce. I pointed out how they could use conscience and apply George Bernard Shaw’s version of the Golden Rule, that is, not to do to others as you would have them do to you because their taste may be different. A crucial part of living by conscience is in understanding and trying to meet the needs of oneself and the other. As they worked on it they became happy individually and as a couple.

Conscience promotes a broad view of a situation.  An unfair superego tends to use a narrow view and an angle of argument to support the resulting unfair judgment . We can often notice when people who take extreme positions address issues. Extremism and prejudice are connected with unfair and unreasonable superegos. Pride about such superego stance by considering it as being a strong person or showing loyalty to one’s group, and group support of the extreme position tends to perpetuate the problem.

Hatred is connected with superego. In this regard, self-hate is interesting and informative. When a person hates himself or herself, who really hates who? I have treated a lot of people who hate themselves more or less. In each of these cases, , the individual’s  superegos hated the person for not living by this or her superego’s standard. So, the person’s inner parrot kept picking on him or her. Interestingly as we dealt with this issue, one patient called her harsh superego her “inner terrorist.” Recently, Pope Francis mentioned the famous Catholic monk Thomas Merton as one of the great Americans. In a very interesting article Merton wrote about hell as hatred.

Jesus taught to love the enemy. Confucius taught to be fair to the enemy. Buddha’s teaching was to rely on the wisdom mind, not the ordinary, judging mind, and compassion as the active aspect of wisdom. We can understand these teachings from the perspective of conscience and superego. If we use our consciences,  we would apply genuine reason, understand the enemy with a broad perspective,  balance our feelings from being extreme and be fair in our reaction while protecting ourselves. The frequent tendency is to use harsh superego judgment and overreact.

So, it is apparent that understanding the inner voice of conscience and the voice of the inner parrot is crucial for us as individuals and groups. I will be blogging more on these and other such matters later.