At a time when religious tensions have been increasing, this rural area in the state of Uttar Pradesh recently saw 30 village chiefs, or pradhans, of different religions, castes, and affiliations gather for a constructive and united discussion on their shared responsibility for the prosperity and the spiritual well-being of their people.
This one-day conference was organized by the Baha’i community, which is engaged in social and economic development initiatives that address various aspects of community life in the country, especially the empowerment of women.
“I have been a pradhan for 20 years,” said one of the participants, “and have been to many meetings, but never have I seen a gathering where I have felt such joy, talked about the purpose life, and had such a holistic consultation on so many aspects of our work.”
“The work of pradhans,” added another, “has been for the physical needs of the residents of our villages – providing shelter for the homeless and care for the sick. But at a gathering like this our thinking changes: we begin to consider the spiritual needs of the population as well.”
The 30 pradhans represent some 380 villages in the region, comprising a total of 950 villages and around 1 million people. Each is the leader of an elected council responsible for several villages.
Inspired by news of similar gatherings in other countries, notably the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Baha’is of the region decided that it was timely to hold a focused conversation on social issues that could unite thought on serving the common weal.
“Right now in India, people look at differences between religions and make them a cause for division,” says Elham Mohajer, chair of the Baha’i administrative council that serves Uttar Pradesh, “so we invited some officials to come together and discuss their role in light of a profound reflection on the life of the spirit and the meaning of service. We made an effort to show how all religions have teachings that illuminate any subject of social importance.”
Study material prepared for the conference focused on several ideas that are emphasized in the Baha’i teachings, including the eternal life of the soul and its implications for one’s purpose in this world , justice and trustworthiness in positions of responsibility, and the promotion of a vibrant community life. Each theme was accompanied by quotations from the Baha’i writings and the Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, and Christian scriptures.
This conference was brief, but in spite of their busy roles the pradhans asked for such conversations to become a regular occurrence, saying that more than a day would be needed to address these themes. “This was a special opportunity because all of us were able to participate equally,” was one comment. “It is often only the most senior officials who get to express their views.”
Planning is also under way for conferences in other parts of India.
“This is, of course, a long process, and it needs to start and follow on a trajectory,” the Baha’i community explained at the conference. “At every stage there needs to be consultation, planning and then reflection on how to move ahead. The energies of the entire population need to be channeled both in implementing government schemes and in creating spaces focused on the betterment of the community life.
“But as we work together and learn together, we start moving towards the establishment of vibrant communities, one step at a time.”