The Second World Hindu Congress (WHC) opened on Friday morning September 7th in Chicago, the city where Swami Vivekanand delivered his landmark speech defending Hinduism at the World Parliament of Religions 125 years ago. The First Congress was held in Delhi in 2014. Some 2,500 delegates from 60 countries are attending the Chicago Congress. Hindus have come “to connect, share ideas and inspire one another and impact the common good”.
There was the traditional clarion sound of the conch (being blown by Swami Vigyananda, the prime organizing spirit behind the WHC) declaring open the conference. Speakers on the dais on stage at the opening plenary session included luminaries from business, religious, educational, political, musical, and theater walks of life. A message of Hindus uniting for the common good reverberated throughout the large hall at the Westin hotel. A huge statue of Swami Vivekanand on stage towers over the grand hall.
The Lt. Gov. of the state of Illinois, Evelyn Sanguinetti, welcomed the august gathering. She said: “Illinois is a very diverse state and has a robust Indian community. We honor your strengths, culture and the business you bring.”
The plenary session began with a moment of silence in memory of the late Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and late Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul, both outstanding Hindus.
There were many other illustrious speakers. SP Kothari, chair of WHC, explained the goal of WHC which is to enlighten the world about Hindu community through spirituality, harmony and inclusiveness and to advance Hindu causes. He said “Hindus must reform and be in the forefront in eliminating social and economic inequality, fostering cooperation among those with ideas and resources, and view commerce as a means to furthering Hindu dharma for a better tomorrow”.
Chandrika Tandon, chairperson of Tandon Capital Associates, recited the Ek Atamata Mantra amidst inspirational music.
Vice-president of the Republic of Suriname, Ashwin Adhin, in his address said, “We as Hindus never forsake our mission. Hindus have always been the missionaries of renunciation and service.” He added: “Words like peace, harmony and spirituality do not appeal to ordinary people easily and they have to be framed in the right perspective terms so that they become established in peoples’ mind. Much change is needed, and we need action”.
Adhin recalled Swami Vivekananda’s stirring cal of “Arise, awake and stop not till the goal is reached”.
WHC coordinator Dr. Abhaya Asthana stated “we have gathered to reaffirm the same message of diversity, cooperation and universal acceptance uttered by Swami Vivekananda 125 years ago”.
He said: “WHC is not an event, but rather a community movement. It seeks to encourage Hindus around the world to ascend to the highest levels of excellence. This Congress, he stated, was important so we may graduate from individual success to collective success.”
Dr. Asthana added: “As a people, we must once again create wealth creation, affordable quality education, promote a robust Hindu presence in media, cultivate future Hindu leaders and tap the unique strengths of Hindu women and encourage Hindu organizations to work together. It is also the only way to increase our sphere of influence and have a positive societal impact globally.”
He concluded: “This land mark event, he said, will help Hindus around the globe to introspect and deliberate the challenges and issues facing Hindus globally and to seek tangible solutions for progress and prosperity of Hindus”.
Award winning actor Anupam Kher stated that it was a big achievement for a poor Kashmiri Hindu boy to be speaking at the event. He saluted India for being the home to all cultures, religions and faiths. He said: “Hinduism is a way of life, he added, and one becomes a Hindu by living like one. Tolerance was the centerpiece of Vivekananda’s message. He stated that despite being refugees in their own country, Kashmiri Pandits have practiced tolerance for 28 years like nobody ever has”.
He praised Hindus and Hinduism. “My roots are steeped in Hinduism. I refuse to be defined by other people’s fears. My Hindu teachings and life’s experiences have taught me that there is time for peace and there is time for war. I use war as a metaphor; platforms like this from which I can speak to the world, remind me of my karmic duty. I draw inspiration from Swami Vivekanandaji to shine a light on all of us gathering here and beyond. As a Hindu, it pains me deeply to see how ignorance and half knowledge are trying to destroy one of the world’s oldest, most peaceful religion.”
Vice Chair Raju Reddy described the congress as an extraordinary opportunity to shape the dialogue about Hindus going forward and change the perceptions of Hindus as very positive change makers wherever they may be in the world. Dr. Reddy, a technology entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, said, “Hindu Americans – or more broadly, Indo Americans – today are known as great doctors, academicians, engineers and entrepreneurs, generally successful in different walks of life and their per capital income is twice the national average here in America. It’s a point of pride, but it also means we have the capacity to make a positive difference around the world”.
Conference host Dr. Shamkant Sheth spoke of the two years of hard work that went into bringing together the WHC, and of the opportunity ”to connect, inspire and learn to strengthen the global Hindu community in these productive three days of discussion”.
Dr. Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh from India, capped the long list of distinguished speakers in the morning plenary. He also ended the evening plenary review session. Bhagwat-ji spoke on the theme drawn from the Mahabharat, “Think Collectively, Act Valiantly” which is also the theme of the conference.
Shri Bhagwat-ji said collaboration and "oneness" is the most urgent need for Hindu society to progress. Yet, while pushing for a more abundant territory, Bhagwat used stories from the Mahabharata to explain right-distancing from leadership, obedience, dissent, and patience for results and why it's important to get in line once there's consensus.
Bhagwat framed "our values" as "universal values, now being called Hindu values". He said Hindu society is home to more "meritorious people" but "we don't work together".
He highlighted the need for Hindus to work together to achieve goals. He said: “It is an opportune moment. We have stopped our descent. We are contemplating how to ascend. We are not an enslaved, downtrodden nation. People are in dire need of our ancient wisdom”.
He continued: “In Hindu dharma, even a pest is not killed, but is controlled. Hindus don’t live to oppose anybody. We even allow the pests to live. There are people who may oppose us. You have to tackle them without harming them. Our universal values now called Hindu values lead to the welfare of the individual, the society, the nature and the environment. It is the duty of Hindus to remind the world of universal values from time to time. This duty of dharma to human beings should be performed till the world exists and thus, Hindu dharma will also exist till the world exists. Hindus know the basic values, but have forgotten to practice them”.
Bhagwat warn Hindus not to be disunited. “If a lion is alone, wild dogs can invade and destroy the lion. We must not forget that. We want to make the world better. We have no aspiration of dominance. Our influence is not a result of conquest or colonization.”
Stressing the need for unity, he said, “Hindu society will prosper only when it works as a society”. He also advised that Hindus need to have controlled egos. “We must control our ego. Participate in decision making. Make a case for your position. But when a decision is taken, you must support it even if your position lost out. Lord Krishna and Yudhishtra never contradicted each other. To work together, we have to accept the consensus. We are in a position to work together”.
Bhagwat-ji urged the conference attendees “to discuss and evolve a methodology to implement the idea of working collectively.”
A message from the Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi was read by Dr. Bharat Barai. His Holiness Dalai Lama and the spiritual head of BAPS, Mahant Swami, and a few other distinguished leaders delivered their messages by video. Other prominent speakers include Bharat Seva Ashram Sangh president Swami Purnatmananda, Art of Living Foundation head Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Chinmaya Mission Worldwide head Swami Swaroopananda and All World Gayatri Pariwar head Dr. Pranav Pandya.
The WHC recognized four organizations for their outstanding contributions to spreading Hindu philosophy: The Bochasanwasi Akshar Purshottam Swaminaryan Sanstha (BAPS) was honored for its extreme visual idealism around the world as it built architecturally beautiful mandirs; Chinmaya Mission for explaining the essence of the Gita; Geeta Press, Gorakhpur for making sacred Hindu literature easily accessible; and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness for spreading the message of Gita.