By Alon Goshen-Gottstein
There is a special power in the coming together of religious leaders in their diversity to deliver a message at a given point in time, especially a time of global crisis. Forty important voices are taking part in this project. I am grateful to editors of Tablet magazine for their eagerness to feature the project in its entirety.
Together, we set out to answer seven questions:
What have been your greatest challenges in dealing with the present Corona crisis?
Corona is bringing out a lot of fear in people. How does one deal with fear? What spiritual advice could you offer to people struggling with fear?
Corona has forced people into solitude. How should time be spent in solitude? Many people do not have experience and habits that would allow them to make the most of this opportunity. What advice could they be given?
Corona brings about deprivation. We are deprived of our freedom, of our habits. We lose things, and even more so- people we love. How does one deal with all forms of deprivation?
What does Corona teach us about our interconnectivity? What are spiritual applications that people can practice consciously?
Corona forces us into our own protective space, but it also calls us to solidarity. How to practice solidarity? What are teachings that support solidarity? What actions express solidarity? What can one do to express solidarity, even from within the confines of one's home and protection?
Many people say the world will be different after this Corona crisis. What blessings do you see Corona bringing to the world? How can the world be different, for the better, following this crisis?
One of the most important conceptual threads that runs through the project is the recognition that for all its hardships, the coronavirus is in some way also a blessing. To uncover that blessing we may need the eyes of the other and the experience of another spiritual tradition and how it is able to find blessing even in hardship.
Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, Bosnia
Dr. Mustafa Ceric is Grand Mufti emeritus of Bosnia. He is a noted advocate for interreligious relations.Solitude was practiced by Hasan al Basri, the paramount devoted worshipper and is part of Ramadan celebration. Corona creates a similar effect. It is a message that our houses of worship are becoming useless to us, when our devotion is insincere. Rumi – I came home and found God in my heart. This is today’s invitation. Dr. Ceric puts forth a grand vision for how humanity must reset its priorities and cultivate unity. Corona unites us by fear. Now we must grow to unity in love and respect. Our connection must be enhanced to a genuine spiritual connection.
Geshe Tashi Tsering, India
Geshe Tashi Tsering is a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Abbot of Sera May monastery in India, where he oversees the life of 5,000 monks. He is the Dalai Lama’s representative to the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders. He shares his worries in protecting his monks under conditions of lockdown and the possible onset of the virus. We Geshe must realize and internalize the inevitability of disease as a function of our bodily existence.This is a means of reducing our anxieties. In reality we are not more insecure now than before the virus came into being.Shantideva, the great Buddhist teacher, stated – if there is something to be done, what’s the point of being upset? And if there is nothing to be done, what’s the point of getting upset? The interview concludes with a chanting of the Tara Mantra, that calls for liberation from all dissatisfaction. The Dalai Lama has recommended chanting this mantra during the present COVID crisis.
Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, India
Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati is an American born renunciant in the Hindu tradition (sanyasi), who serves humanity through her position at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh. Administrator, social and religious activist, popular speaker and author, she is a driving force for spiritually-based social activism. Her message is a call for spiritually based activism precisely at this point in time. The depth of meditation bears fruit in our service. If we seek a better tomorrow, we must draw into the fields of service and activism the finest of spiritual practitioners. If those remain apart from the field of service, we will not be able to rebuild our world.
Rabbi Berel Lazar, Russia
Rabbi Berel Lazar is Chief Rabbi of Russia and the emissary of the Chabad movement. Corona is an opportunity to practice trust in God. Positivity impacts our health and recovery if we were to get sick. We must trust that we will come out better people and more compassionate in our orientation. Corona places us before our limits and teaches us humility, and hence invites us to trust. Community shifts to the family and there is a discovery of how religion is practiced in the family. The message of the interview is encapsulated in a concluding song: I do not fear anyone; There is nothing besides God. Everything is God. Don’t despair.
NOTE: Yesterday, June 7, news broke that Rabbi Lazar had himself been hospitalized in Moscow with the coronavirus. We wish him what we know he would wish for others: a complete and speedy recovery. Please pray for the healing of Shlomo Dov Pinchas ben Yehudit.
Patriarch Sahag II Mashalian, Turkey
Patriarch Mashalian is the recently elected Patriarch of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople/Turkey. In Turkey, the Christian faithful pray at the same time as theminarets call for prayer, as a sign of union in praying for the sick across the world. Coronavirus unites us. We become brothers in sickness. It is an invitation to cultivate this unity at other times. The finest spiritual medicine at the moment for dealing with our fears is prayer. We should build up a storage of spirituality so we can use it at the time of need. Prayer brings us to spiritual consolation with the fullness of faith and a deep relationship with God. Our being is founded on God and the living God infuses us with the feeling of security. By reciting the Psalms we gain courage. The solitude forced upon still leaves us with freedom of choice: will we use it for distraction and entertainment or for spirituality and coming closer to God.
Swami Chidanand Saraswati, India
Swami Chidanand Saraswati is President of Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh and the initiator of multiple ecological and humanitarian programs, relating to water, hygiene and care of rivers, nature and culture. Swamiji profiles the opportunities that Corona brings into our lives. Primary among them is the opportunity for spending quality time in the family. Swamiji also addresses head on the issue of domestic violence and its potential increase during lockdown. Being locked down is an invitation to gain inner freedom from shopping, to discover the coherence and meaning of our lives and to take up spiritual practices that in fact will boost our immune system. Our hearts must be open, even if our doors are closed and we must use this as an opportunity to deepen our sense of interconnectedness and care for nature and culture. Swamiji’s way of teaching through word play combines potent and direct life messages with catchy phrases by means of which his message is delivered.
Alon Goshen-Gottstein, Executive Director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute, Israel, is the author of The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism: History, Spirituality, Identity.