by Kamalrukh Katrak Karkaria
Some Zarathushtis, like Trity Pourbahrami of California, define “interfaith service” as “peace-building inititiatives.” “The first and most important role I play in interfaith settings is to listen without judgment and prejudice to what is being said,” she says. “The second role I play is to share experiences and understandings about my religion that enhances peace-building efforts and promotes interfaith dialogue.”
Others, like Rohinton Rivetna of Illinois, say that “interfaith” is simply “the interaction with faiths.” “An individual who is steeped in interfaith matters has the benefit of a very wide perspective. He or she has a better understanding of others; motivators and likewise the demotivators,” he explains. “Such an individual has a distinct advantage over others as growth and success of an individual are closely related to one’s ability to relate with others. There is then every possibility that an individual with interfaith exposure will stand at an advantage.”
My personal journey with interfaith started in the streets of Mumbai, India, where our idea of interfaith was the festivities that surrounded the different celebrations and the holidays marked in red on the yearly calendar. It was great! I loved it! Since we did not all believe in the same method of celebration of light and color or the victory of good over evil — or for that matter the changing of the seasons — we got to doing it more than once a year and got to take extra days off from a routine week. As children, we were accepting of one another’s differences without question. We were overwhelmed by the beauty of the environment as well as the transitional beauty created temporarily through color and sound, rhythm and movements, by the eloquent expression of affection amongst people and of their deep religious faith.
The Zarathushti household that I grew up in did not restrict any of this development — in fact, it was encouraged. On Our “Dadaji ni table” (table for God), we had imagery and iconic elements from various other religions and beliefs and photos of different saints and gurus. For me interfaith service has included my mother following the rituals associated with almost all the festivals of every other religion, of neighbors coming to my grandmother to have her say a prayer to a saint from another faith on their behalf, and of my husband telling me stories of how he watched his grandfather — a practicing Zarathushti priest — providing comfort through conversation and prayer to the merchants and vendors of varying faiths and religions who lived in his neighborhood.
This helped me develop my appreciation of different beliefs and also of the study of humanities, in the acceptance of the iconography of different cultures and beliefs, of the subtle adaptations of general practices. I have always been overwhelmed by the beauty of what the knowledge of interfaith brings.
These packages of experiences and thoughts came with me to America. Before then, my association with religions had been one of acceptance. That soon changed, however, to one of questioning and verification. Some of the questions arose from the people around me. Some arose from the desire to understand one’s existence so far away from home. I was fortunate to involve myself with the Parliament of World’s Religions celebration, Chicago (1993) — a centennial celebration of the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, and the first recorded attempt to create a global dialogue of faiths.The initial declaration for this event spoke about commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life, of solidarity and a just economic order, of tolerance and a life of truthfulness and of equal rights and partnership between men and women.
What I wanted to get out of it was most eloquently explained by Dr. Steven C. Rockefeller, a member of the religion department at Middlebury College, in “A Source Book For Earth’s community of Religion”: “Each is inspired by a unique vision of the divine and has a distinct cultural identity. At the same time, each perceives the divine as the source of unity and peace. The challenge is to preserve their religious and cultural uniqueness without letting it operate as a cause of narrow and divisive sectarianism that contradicts the vision of divine unity and peace. It is a question whether the healing light of religious vision will overcome the social and ideological issues that underlie much of the conflict between religions.”
I came away with two other important elements that made a difference in my life: making people realize that the Zarathushti Community was not just a religion described in history books and the speech by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his message to the people, and the idea that religious beliefs need to be adapted to the times in which they are being practiced. These two very strong facts lead to my involvement with the Council for the Parliament of World’s Religions (www.cpwr.org) that was formed following the Parliament. Its annual fund-raisers, the events that it organizes at different community centers and the different vigilances that are organized to spread tolerance and understanding, all help create a holistic understanding of deep religious faith and examples of interfaith collaboration and understanding.
My cultivated belief is that one’s relationship with faith will remain as a history of humanity’s relationship with the natural world and the five senses. Words like “religious tolerance” are not part of my interfaith belief; I prefer “religious exchange” and “understanding.” As explained in the Vedas, “Reality is one. Those who know call it in various ways.” In my professional practice being fully conversant with contemporary technology and international developments, I like to develop or have an approach towards developing projects with a deep understanding and feeling for vernacular traditions and faith in humanity.
Kamalrukh Katrak Karkaria was born in Bombay, India, and traveled to the US after earning a Bachelor’s degree in order to further her studies in architecture. She lives and practices architecture in Connecticut.