Beginnings of Interfaith Initiative in Sai Organisation in Malaysia
1980s - 2000
The SSIO of Malaysia has become a leader in fostering cooperation among the various religious bodies in the country since the 1980s. The Sri Sathya Sai Central Council of Malaysia (SAI) is a founding member of the Malaysia Interfaith Network, an association of many religious bodies with the aim of engendering cooperation and good will between the religions of the country.
This short article describes the beginnings of the SAI Malaysia interfaith activities. After the 9-11-2001 disaster in the USA, SAI Malaysia changed their strategy to foster more unity among religious groups within the context of active joint service projects called Friendship Group for Inter-religious Service (FGIS).
At the SSIO World Conference 2015, longtime devotee of Bhagavan and Sai Organization of Malaysia leader J Jagadeesan lead a discussion on Interfaith activities as a part of the Public Outreach workshop.
“In Malaysia there are five major religious and cultural festivals: Buddha Purnima for Buddhism, Christmas for Christianity, Islam’s celebrations after the fasting period, Chinese New Year and Celebrations by Chinese following traditional religious festivals comprising most Chinese, and Deepavali or Diwali for Hindus. In the 1980s the SAI Council of Malaysia began organising a major service activity in conjunction with all of the religious festivals mentioned above, and invited religious leaders of that religion to come and launch that service activity. The religious leader would come and hit a gong, cut a ribbon,etc. to launch the activity and we would ask him/ her to say a prayer in his/her own religious tradition and we the SAI devotees would sing songs praising that religion or in that religious tradition. For example, for Christmas we would dedicate the service to Christ, invite priests to launch the event, do a prayer, give a speech, and we would sing Christmas carols.
“However, what was significant was that the religious leader would come but would declare ‘I am doing this in my personal capacity and I am not doing this on behalf of my religious organisation or church.’
“So in addition to the normal service and human value activities, SAI in Malaysia would have five major service activities dedicated to each of the five major religions. For the launching of any SAI building or medical clinic we would invite the representatives of the five major religions in Malaysia to help in the launch, all jointly cut ribbons etc., say their respective prayers and to bless the event. This went on for a number of years and began to create a positive understanding of SAI and His ideals and the religions began to invite us to join in some service activities of their own.
“Significant was our breakthrough with the Catholic Church in 1980s where we lent support for a major charity event for Christmas. Due to a severe economic recession the church did not receive much donations for their major annual Christmas charity event. This news was reported in the media. At once SAI moved forward and provided what they needed and joined them to help in their Christmas Charity Project.
“The priest told us, ‘We welcome you but you should not mention anything about Sai Baba when you speak or sing.’ I assured the priest that we would not mention Baba’s name even once to the public. The only indication need be a banner that SAI Council was supporting the event. We were happy that the church leaders were aware that SAI was extending a hand of love.
“On that day, the amount of goods we provided for their charity, the volunteer support we provided and the universal songs we sang, so moved the chief priest, that though we did not mention Baba’s name once, he mentioned Baba’s name five times in thanking us and asking us to give away gifts to the needy.
“I told our members, ‘Let us just do what Baba does.’ He says ‘I give you what you what, so you will desire what I have to give.’ We did exactly that. We gave them what they wanted without asking for anything in return, not even mentioning Baba’s name, and they mentioned SAI’s name five times.
“Also the service arm of the Catholic Church is called ‘Society of St Vincent De Paul’. They wanted help to build a service centre for the handicapped and since they knew us well, they asked for help and we gave the support they needed. As Christ Himself has said, ‘by our work we shall be known’, and this became true for SAI in Malaysia.”