Recently, Victoria Region East and West conducted an All-Faiths Musical Festival at Box Hill Town Hall. This year, the festival was attended by Mayors of three councils, local MP and former Speaker of the House Anna Burke, the Chair of the Victorian Multicultural Commission and the Multicultural Liaison of the Victoria Police. Sam Navarria, President of Communities’ Council on Ethnic Issues (CCOEI) also attended the event. There were also speakers from the Whitehorse Interfaith Network and the Unity of Melbourne Group. What follows is a reflection on this event and the challenges the Sathya Sai International Organisation might consider.
Organisations that took part in the festival include: Veda Group of Melbourne, Brahma Kumaris Australia, In2Worship Gospel Choir, Sufi Group, Sathya Sai Organisation, Sikh Group, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Ahmadiyya Muslim Association of Victoria, Eckankar and the Sri Lankan Buddhist Dancers.
Music and Spiritual Identity
Many people write, sing and speak of the Sound of Silence; there is no sound and vibration in silence but there is awareness, and perhaps, in seeking the sound of silence, those people come to their own awareness of emotion, thoughts and feelings. Sometimes, they come to a higher awareness of spirit. Searching for the echoes of the sounds of silence within those people may well be a hankering for being and awareness, and mayhap, the bliss that come with these.
I was recently listening to ABC Conversations on Radio National where a biologist, Tim Low, was interviewed about his latest book, Where Song Began. In this interview, Tim Low spoke about the scientific agreement that songbirds all over the world emerged from Australia and adapted to their new environment. Birds of song first began in Australia with the Lyrebird, the Kookaburra, the Bell-Birds, the Bower birds and the marvellous collection of parrots that Australia is home to. Nature, Tim Low noted, is not silent, and greets each new day with the sounds of nature, as birds and animals of all kinds greet the dawn with their distinctive songs.
Australia was never a silent place. The indigenous peoples of Australia had their clap sticks and their boomerang clap-sticks (which can be shaken together to produce a rattling sound). The indigenous peoples had their songlines, the journey of the sacred ancestors, and “sing the country”, to sing and tell the stories of the creator ancestors, stories of the Seven Sisters, stories of Rainbow Serpent creating the landscapes, of great snakes making rivers, of the great mother Goolagaia, of Bunjil and Biame the creators, and of Alcheringa, the protective spirit. These were tribal songs which proclaimed their identity, their relationship to their totems, to their ancestors. Our indigenous peoples had their sacred music and sacred songs which declared their relationship with the Divine and their personal identity.
Humanity excels in music for we have traversed from the tribal creation stories of our Aboriginals to songs celebrating the glory of divinity in all its forms by St Francis of Assisi, to the splendour of Handel’s Messiah. It seems that whenever we encounter another religion, our encounter begins with music and song. We may visit a Buddhist monastery where the bell clarifies our consciousness and listen to the chanting of Om Mane Padme Hum; we may visit the Benedictine Monastery and listen to the monks begin their day with the psalms in plainsong chant:
Come, ring out our joy to the Lord
Hail the God who saves us
Let us come before him giving thanks
With song, let us hail the Lord.
We may visit an ashram and hear the recitation of Chamakam, the prayer to Lord Shiva; we may visit the Gurdwara, and listen to the Gurbani intoning the slokas of the Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred book of the Sikhs, and listen to Wahe Guru being chanted. Wherever we go in faith, we encounter song. And it is in these songs that we remind ourselves what God has done for us, and how we are the people who chant and sing his holy Name. Our sacred songs proclaim our sacred identity.
Events like this All Faith Music Festival coordinated by Victoria Region East and West in collaboration with Whitehorse Interfaith Network are sanctifying, for they give access to devotional activity in other religions heretofore not encountered. When I experience the Sufi Whirling Dervishes and the accompanying chant, I reflect on discipline and devotion and how concentration of my senses on that whirling raises consciousness to a new awareness of the Divine, an awareness I do not ordinarily have. I take time to reflect on this new aspect of seeking and experiencing the Divine, for we humans can never know the Divine completely, except when we search and encounter, and take the time to reflect on the sacred disciplines involved.
Exploring another – perhaps totally new or different – sacred discipline calls for contemplation and experience. It sets aside judgement, comparison, or any other kind of evaluation. This calls for humility and self-awareness, as I allow myself to experience more of the divine, like a mirror shining and reflecting light in a myriad of different forms.
We watched In2Worship, the young people with their song and dance and elements of hip-hop and rap music. I thought about youth culture with its hip-hop and rap and reflected that as we, humans, approach the Divine in music, song and body expression, we are never asked to not be ourselves; we are not asked to pull ourselves out of our environment into something else – we are simply asked to be ourselves and give expression to that divine worship that arises within us. And we listened to their songs, they have the same message: give love, tell the person next to you about Love, there is love in our world. They also experimented with chanting the Divine Name of Jesus.
Just as the whirling of the dervishes we witnessed today hinted at raising of awareness and consciousness, so also, the playing of the musical instruments allowed a resting, a peaceful presence, and consciousness may drift along with the melody from the sapta swaras (the seven great sounds) and a letting go, a lightening of the mind, a receding awareness as the sacred tunes hint of higher awareness, higher realities. I felt a stirring of a response within, energy rising up toward the crown, hinting at how sacred devotional music may also lift us to a new awareness, a new experience of the divine, as a new sacred identity emerges within.
I return to Shepparton, my home town, where, many years ago, I was attending an Anzac Day service along with many others – perhaps 1000 people who spilled over the roads – in their keeping of the flame of sacrifice our Anzac warriors and servicemen and women. On that day, we listened to the Naval Captain, to the Ode, and observed the silence. We sang the National Anthem; we listened to more talks. Somewhere near the end of this, a very popular song promoted by one telecommunications corporation was sung, with the refrain, “I am, You Are, We Are” … and the people present sang and proclaimed their common identity as Australian with gusto, verve and vigour.
On that day, as happened this day, my reflection was about how music integrates mind, body and spirit. When we sing together, we sing with one voice; we raise the song of creation, we are the choir of the Universe. Just as the indigenous Australians are with their clapsticks, chanting and dancing the song of the Creator. Song gives them a sense of place, a sense of sacred connectedness and identity, so also, our All-Faiths Music Festivals reveal dimensions of the unknown that adds more to who you and I am. It addresses both ourselves and the Divine: “I am, You Are, We Are“, a people with a song of the Divine in our lives.
In giving the Vote of Thanks on this occasion, I made the point that each group had shared their beliefs, their teachings and their worship with us. A sharing of worship. This was very much a sacred sharing, a sacred trust, and an opening of the heart unto the other, and recognising the other in that shared experience of worship Also highlighted was that each and every sharing of worship enlarges who I am as a person, and my journey toward the Divine is ever so much enriched by that sharing.
The challenge is to attend to presence and experience and not be disappointed if we are unable to engage in human values and the practice of values right from the very first encounter. In the journey of dialogue between adherents of religions, we must first encounter the other and both give trust and gain trust and understanding. This is love in action. This is the practice of Help Ever, Hurt Never. Then only, may we begin a mutual, respectful dialogue and explore where we meet in our everyday living and worshipful presence, day by day.
There are many challenges facing our world at this time. There is the challenge of religious fanaticism, the challenge of ecosystem collapse, the challenge of Climate Change and the challenge of corporate greed and manipulation. There are also other challenges. The Sathya Sai Organisation is meant to be the glue that binds society together. Keep in mind that Swami tells that culture is just another name for spirituality. The challenges that we might reflect upon for the Sathya Sai Organisation in Unity of Faiths might consider:
- We may know the leaders of our local communities. (You will note the presence of leaders of municipalities, multicultural groups and ethnic groups. Such outreach is important to consider from the regional perspective.)
- We may know the leaders of our local faith communities and be in regular contact with them.
- We may make effort to visit other faith communities and become familiar with their form and rituals of worship
- We may seek to understand how the practices of faith communities build belonging, social justice, participation in society, acceptance and a sense of worth;
- We may initiate contact with faith communities and establish conversations on human values as the foundation of what makes all persons truly human.
Unity of Faiths in our organisation must be outwardly focussed, engage other faith communities, seek genuine dialogue and understanding and promote harmony, unity and co-operation. We must not stop at one event but be in ongoing encounter with our culture, our local faith communities, the society and the nation. Where we build harmony, cooperation and understanding based on selfless love – in our local environment – this will bring change to the society, the nation, the world.