Dalai Lama Criticizes Proselytizing

A L L A H A B A D, India, Jan. 25, 2001 -- Stepping into one of the hottest religious controversies in

South Asia, the Dalai Lama today joined Hindu leaders in condemning

the Muslim and Christian practice of proselytizing.

Hindus and Buddhists generally do not proselytize.

"Whether Hindu or Muslim or Christian, whoever tries to convert, it's wrong, not good," the Dalai Lama said after a meeting with the leaders. "I always believe it's safer and better and reasonable to keep one's own tradition or belief."

He spoke after the Hindu Council's general secretary, Ashok Singhal, had said, "Buddhism, Hinduism and other non-aggressive religions have to unite to douse Islam … an aggressive religion."

The Dalai Lama and others signed a statement saying: "We oppose conversions by any religious tradition using various methods of enticement."

Joins Others in Ganges

The Dalai Lama later joined millions of Hindus and sprinkled himself with water from the Ganges river, but said it was too cold to join millions of Hindus bathing in their holy river at the world's largest religious gathering.

"I'm very happy to be here," the Dalai Lama told journalists at the Kumbh Mela festival. Asked if he would join the devotees bathing in the icy river, in a centuries-old ceremony Hindus believe will wash away their sins and avoid reincarnation, the Dalai Lama said, "I don't think so. It's too cold."

A festival official said more than 50 million worshippers had visited by late today, and more continued to arrive, drawn by an auspicious astral arrangement that Hindu astrologers say coincides with the Kumbh only once in 144 years. The festival began Jan. 9 and is held every 12 years.

The exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhists, whose followers believe he is the reincarnation of Buddha, had earlier tossed marigolds at schoolchildren who greeted him with garlands and met journalists in a barracks-style building, protected by Indian commandos and his own bodyguards, in the center of the 3,460-acre festival site.

The Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, first met for lunch and discussions with leaders of the World Hindu Council, an influential group that criticizes Christians and Muslims and wants to make multi-religious India a Hindu state.

Makes Special Prayer

At dusk, he joined the Shankaracharya of Kanchi, one of India's four top Hindu religious leaders, in a special prayer on the river banks.

The two stood on an elevated wooden platform covered with white sheets and worshipped the Ganges with 108 lighted lamps in a tradition that goes back centuries. An estimated 20,000 people watched from behind wooden barricades, while hymns were sung in the background.

The Dalai Lama then scooped up water from the river and sprinkled it on his head in a mark of respect. Allahabad is the site of the confluence of the Yamuna, Ganges and mythical Saraswati.

"This confluence has become a very important venue for Hindu and Buddhist religious congregations. Now this function should come up as an important venue for a change of character and thought of people to make them work for peace," the Dalai Lama said in a speech, translated into Hindi for the public.

The Dalai Lama planned to stay through Friday, to meet and bless Buddhists and give a public speech on world peace at the festival grounds.

The festival has been marred in past years by stampedes. Organizers have asked celebrities not to come and banned vehicles on the cramped grounds, but an exception was made for the Dalai Lama.

Worshippers who were pressed against each other on pontoon bridges, waiting hours for their turns to bathe, watched and waved as his convoy of white cars drove through the center of the festival site, 380 miles east of New Delhi.

Organizers said more than 70 million people will have visited by the time the festival ends Feb. 21.