There’s that moment in the movie Ratatouille when our friend the rat comes above the city streets and floors of human buildings, and discovers for the first time that he’s been living underneath Paris all this time.
Coming down the street toward the convention center where the Parliament is taking place, I glanced up and realized that over the center was the CN Tower, one of the major landmarks of the Toronto skyline.
Oh. This is where I am.
Surrounding the Convention Center on nearly all sides are tall buildings of glass and granite surfacing; underneath they’re likely iron rebar, steel beams, and concrete. Toronto is not a city of tree-lined streets, at least not downtown; like many cities, there’s this sense of being crowded-in at street level, surrounded by monstrous blocks of window offices for the senior executives and cubicles for the peons; whole floors of internet wiring and HVAC systems; vast loading docks and staging spaces.
And then, over the convention center, there is this gap of space, where light and air come into the city. And in the midst of this gap, the CN Tower rising into the sky.
And that’s kind of what being at the Parliament is like. There’s a sense of a space, a place, made for interfaith discussions. I’ve done a deep-dive with the Sikhs on this visit — tried on a turban at their invitation, gone to langar to eat a lovely vegetarian meal with complete strangers, spoken with about forty Sikhs about their tradition, listened to concerts of Sikh music, read translations of their scriptures, shared a bus with them on the ride home talking all the way… It’s been quite an education in a tradition I knew nothing about.
My partner had to take a cab to our hotel. Her driver picked her up at the entrance, and started off, “You’re here for the Parliament of the Religions, yeah? You know what the truth about religion is,” and she thought, “Oh, gods… where is this going??” And the cabbie said, “When the British took over India, they gave a lot of power to the Muslims and the Sikhs. So they got counted in the first Census of India. If you were a Muslim or a Sikh, you got counted. Everyone who wasn’t a Muslim or a Sikh, they got labeled Hindu… because the country was called Hindustan. So… I’m a Hindu. I came to Canada forty years ago because there was no water in my village, I couldn’t be a farmer like my father. But the Government of India can’t tell me — or anyone else — what it means to be Hindu. There’s an article, you should look it up, how the government couldn’t define Hindu under the Truth in Information Act. Every village, every tribal area, every town, every region, has slightly different ways of doing Hindu, of being Hindu. Some places a god is a god statue in a temple, sometimes it’s a stone, sometimes a tree, but it’s different everywhere. It’s just how we live our lives, making beauty and making song and dance in gratitude for how the gods appear in our lives And that’s how all religions should be. None of these big ideas about God or how this person or that person is thinking the wrong thing and needs to be punished … just… how we live our lives.”
There’s a sudden sense of spaciousness in this thinking that I find refreshing; a sudden sense that the crowd of buildings is opening up, and there’s an arrow pointed out into the open sky, that there’s a widening in the road, that there are many paths diverging from this point. That there’s a crossroads in open country, and a way to move off-road from here.
It may be that a Toronto cab driver does not know all the subtlety and nuance of the world’s great theologies. It is VERY likely that he doesn’t know all the ins and outs of the political, social and historical landscape of British colonialism and India’s time under the imperial yoke, or all of the complexities and varieties of Hindu theology. Still, there’s a certain sense in me that for the vast majority of people at the Parliament, that this is kind of what most people believe. Maybe not the great leaders, the hierarchs with the funny hats, or the officiously-serious frowners in dark scowls and darker attitudes who fill the middle-ranks of the world’s religions.
But there’s a curious absence of those sorts of people at the Parliament. There’s more than a fair share of hippie-adjacent folks who seem to believe “all religions are one! All gods are really just facets of the great unity, and that unity is love!” Yet the vast majority of people are casting about for a set of guidances that let them connect with their past, enjoy the present, and awaken to the possibilities of the future. They came in the hope of peace, the desire for inclusion and representation, and out of a sense of compassion for their fellow human beings.
Any individual religion, indeed, may be a branch off of a single great tree… but any human being seated on any one of these branches is simply a bird trying to understand their wings for the first time. Some of them may never take flight; others may fly for a bit and come back to the same branch.
And some may simply take flight into the open sky, and never nest in the same tree again.