ST. LOUIS — At a time when threats to burn Qurans undermine interfaith relations, the Vedanta Society of St. Louis offers an alternative to religious conflict.
For the last 42 years, the scriptures of eight world religions have resided under glass in the society's chapel on Skinker Boulevard, abutting the western end of Forest Park.
They are the sacred texts of the globe's major faiths, each in its original language: the Christian texts in Greek; the Jewish in Hebrew; the Taoist and Confucian in Chinese; and the Buddhist in the language of Pali. Along with them are the scriptures of Hinduism in Sanskrit, and Zoroastrianism in Avestan and Islam in Arabic.
A plaque next to the scriptures bears the symbols of the eight religions, arranged in a circle with rays connecting them to a symbol in the middle representing Truth. And beneath is a quotation from the Vedas — the oldest religious texts in the world and Hinduism's foundational scriptures.
"Truth is one," it reads. "Sages call it by various names."
It is a display that traces its history to a 19th-century mystic saint from India and a disciple whose St. Louis society for religious understanding faced 20th-century discrimination.
And its message is at odds with recent religion in events in the public square of American culture, especially when it comes to Islam.
This year, an evangelical Christian pastor in Florida threatened to burn a copy of the Quran on Sept. 11. He later relented, but the threat inspired others. Qurans destroyed by fire and bullets were left in mosques in Knoxville, Tenn., and East Lansing, Mich. The riots that followed in India, Afghanistan and Indonesia resulted in fatalities.
The same month, a man from Fairview Heights, Mo., triggered an eight-hour FBI standoff complete with hostages and suicide belt mock-ups after threatening to burn a Quran and threatening the president.
Much of that would have disheartened Swami Vivekananda, who represented Hinduism at the Parliament of Religions, held during the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.
Earlier this month President Barack Obama mentioned Vivekananda in his address to a joint session of the Indian Parliament. He spoke about the diversity of "colors, castes and creeds" in India.
"It's the richness of faiths celebrated by a visitor to my hometown of Chicago more than a century ago — the renowned Swami Vivekananda," Obama said. "He said that, 'holiness, purity and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world, and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character.'"
Vivekananda was the chief disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, who died in 1886 and was one of the mystic saints of India. During his life, Ramakrishna followed various branches of Hinduism, practiced Islam and, later, Christianity. He was also exposed to Sikhism and Buddhism through his followers, who ultimately argued that Ramakrishna's experiences testified to the universality of faith — that all religions lead to spiritual truth.
His disciple, Vivekananda, later founded Vedanta Societies and the Ramakrishna order of monks, called swamis.
In 1938, a Ramakrishna monk named Swami Satprakashananda founded the Vedanta Society of St. Louis in an apartment on Delmar Boulevard a bit north of Forest Park. His aim, according to the center, was in part "to establish religious harmony by cultivating the comprehensive vision that all religions are so many paths leading to the realization of God."
The term Vedanta comes from the Vedas, and refers to the final texts of the Vedas, the Upanishads. Vedanta means the end (anta), or essence, of the Vedas. For centuries, Indian thinkers considered the largest questions about self-realization and ultimate being. The Upanishads are the mystical and philosophical teachings of the Vedas.
In 1952, the society moved to its current home on Skinker. Because "we had brown skin," as the society's current minister, Swami Chetanananda, put it, the organization had had difficulty buying property. Eventually, Washington University religious studies professor Huston Smith bought the Skinker building, then turned around and sold it to the Vedanta Society.
In 1968, Satprakashananda decided he wanted the world's important scriptures in the center's new chapel, and requested them from the order's base in India.
The young man who fulfilled the request — tracking down, over the course of several months, the entire Buddhist canon, the four Vedas, the Zoroastrian Hymns of Zarathustra, the Analects of Confucius, the Septuagint and New Testament in Greek, the Torah, the Quran and Taoism's Daodejing — was Chetanananda.
Ten years later — after a stint as an assistant minister at the Vedanta Society of Southern California — Chetanananda moved to St. Louis and took over as minister of the Vedanta Society of St. Louis.
Each religion's scriptures are important, Chetanananda said, "because they allow us to know the unknown."
The swami edited a book of Vivekananda's writings called "Vedanta: Voice of Freedom," in which Vivekananda asked "mankind to recognize the maxim, 'Do not destroy.'"
"Break not, pull not anything down, but build," he continued. "Help, if you can. If you cannot, fold your hands and stand by and see things go on. Do not injure if you cannot render help. Say not a word against any man's convictions so far as they are sincere."
Sitting in the Skinker chapel in front of the plaque with the symbols of the eight major religions and the glass bookcase filled with ancient scriptures, Chetanananda said that "truth never becomes old, and never changes."
"The 10 commandments of Moses are still true," he said.
And despite the incendiary nature of religious discourse in today's world, Chetanananda retains hope that Vedanta's message of universal spiritual truth will win out over the blindness and ignorance of religious extremists.
"Religions are not God," he said. "Religions are paths."