The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Multi-national Conversion Business is like any Multi-national Economic Business

by Dr. David Frawley
President Vedic Astrology Association USA

(Text of Speech delivered at a public discussion organised by Pragna Bharati, A.P., on "Ethics of Religious Conversions" on February 9, 1999 at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Hyderabad)

Namaskaar. Thank you Archbishop, for your enlightening and very insightful discourse. I am going to look at this matter from another angle and hopefully we can have another perspective on this problem, which is not simply an Indian problem, but which is occuring all over the world, including the United States where we have encounters between different religions.

I was raised as a Catholic and went to Catholic school. My uncle was, and still is, a missionary. We were told by him that he was going to South America to save the souls of the native Americans; to save the souls of people we were told were non-Christian and without conversion would go to eternal damnation. This is the background that I came from.

Today, throughout the world, and in the United States, with very little exception, there is no "Sarva dharma sama bhava" taught in religion. It is something I never encountered in my Christian education in the West.

We were taught that Hinduism was a religion of idolatry; it was a religion of polytheism and superstition and there was no place for Hindus in heaven. Even a great Hindu like Mahatma Gandhi might be revered on a certain level, but he was not given the type of religious credit that he would have been given had he been a Christian.

These attitudes still exist and India does not exist in isolation. And Hindus in India are, and India as a whole is, still being targeted for conversion.

Why is this so? If all the religions teach the same thing, why is it that certain religions are seeking to convert the members of other religions to their belief?

Hinduism is a pluralistic tradition. It teaches that there are many paths, many scriptures, many sages, many ways to come to the Divine to gain self-realisation and it should be free for the individual to find and follow whatever way he or she thinks or feels works best for him or her.

But not all religions are pluralistic. In fact, most religions are exclusive in their mentality and in their beliefs. The two largest religions in the world, particularly, with some notable exceptions, I will grant you, teach that their's is the only true faith. The average Christian throughout the world has been taught to believe that only Christians gain salvation. The idea has been projected as an eternal heaven for the Christians and an eternal hell for the non-Christians, particularly for idol-worshipping Hindus. And so far, we do not have the major Christian leaders in the world contradicting that statement.

To date, there is no major Christian leader, or Moslem leader, in the world, who is saying that Hinduism is as good as Christianity or Islam. I do not know of any Christian leaders in the West who would say that a Rama or a Krishna is equal to a Jesus. I do not know of any of them who would honour a Ramana Maharshi, a Sri Aurobindo or a Mahatma Gandhi as a God-realised or self-realised sage. I realise there are some exceptions to that, in the Indian context. But that is not the case with, and that is also not the official policy of, the Vatican. It is not the policy of the Pope at all!

In fact, I want to read a statement, from " The Coming of the Third Millennium ", which was issued very recently by the Pope, in relation to the situation in Asia:

"The Asia Synod will deal with the challenge for evangelisation posed by the encounter with ancient religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. While expressing esteem for the elements of truth in these religions, the Church must make it clear that Christ is the one mediator between God and man and the sole Redeemer of humanity."

That is a direct quote. Now, what is that saying about religious tolerance? Christ is the only way. He is saying we accept what is true in these religions, but we do not accept them if they do not accept Jesus as the way. We still have to convert them. That is the message. That is not a message of tolerance and live and let live. That is not a message of let Hindus have their way and we have ours and both are good. That is not a statement that Buddha or Krishna is equal to Jesus.

That is a statement of exclusivism and it is my contention that such exclusivism is going to breed intolerance. If I think mine is the only way, how can I be really tolerant and accepting of you if you follow another way? And such intolerance is going to end up causing conflict, division, disharmony and poor communication. It is going to divide communities and cause problems. So, please bear in mind that, in the Indian context, as Hindus, you have to deal with these religions, as the majority of the people in the world are practising and believing in them, and this conversion process is continuing.

I also think that we should have a free, open, friendly dialogue and discussion on all religious matters, both in terms of social interaction and doctrinal matters. There should be complete freedom of discussion, freedom of criticism and freedom of debate just as we have in science.

What generally happens in the field of conversion is that certain groups are targeted for conversion activity. I would like to discriminate between two different things. One is the change of religion, which people may opt for, based upon open and friendly discussion, debate, dialogue and studies. Nothing is wrong with that. And I would discriminate that from what I would call the global missionary business.

The global missionary business is one of the largest, perhaps even the largest, business in the world. Not only the Catholic Church, but various Protestant organisations, have set aside billions of dollars to convert non-Christians to Christianity. They have trained thousands of workers, have various plans of evangelisation and conversion and have targeted certain communities for that particular purpose.

To me, this multi-national conversion business is like any multi-national economic business. And it is not something that is simply fair and open. It is not simply a dialogue or a discussion.

So what we see, with this missionary business, is a definite strategy for one religion to convert the members of other religions. This conversion business is not about religious freedom. It is about one religion triumphing over all the other religions. It is about making all the members of humanity follow one religion, giving up and, generally, denigrating the religion which they have been following.

Why is this conversion business so big in India? Because India is the largest country, and largest non-Christian country, in the world, where missionaries have the freedom to act and to propagate. Islamic countries - Pakistan, Bangladesh - do not allow this missionary activity to be conducted. In Saudi Arabia, you cannot even bring a Bible or a picture of Jesus into the country. China, also, does not allow missionary conversion activities.

So India, because of its very openness to and tolerance of these missionaries, has become the target. You know, one missionary was killed in India, which is unfortunate. No one should be subject to violence for what they have done. But in that same week, 50 Christians were massacred in Indonesia by the Moslems there. The religious violence is going on all over the world.

In India, for centuries, Hindus have been routinely killed for their religion. Even recently in Kashmir, a number of Hindus were massacred, but you will notice that, in the Western media, the death of Hindus for their religion will never count and will never constitute a story. However, if one missionary - one white man - is killed in India, then these Western countries will throw out their sanctions, criticise, and take some moral highground in this missionary business.

There is a great and long history of this missionary activity as a bloody history of genocide on every continent of the world. I am not going to go into all the details here. The Inquisition was also in operation in Goa in India. The British also used their influence, inovertly, to force conversions, and certainly the missionaries had some advantage under colonial rule all over the world. In a number of countries, colonial interests used force and persuasion to bring about conversion.

We are told today that we should forget all about that. After all, it has only been a generation or two after the colonial era. I say we cannot forget about that so easily because the very religious groups which performed those atrocious acts have not yet apologised for having done it. If they recognise that this missionary aggression and violence that was done before 1947; that was done in the 19th century; that was done in Goa; that was done in the Americas was wrong, then why don't we get an apology for it?

You will notice that the Christians in America have made some apologies for what they did to the native Americans and what they are continuing to do to them in that country. We have yet to see any apology relative to Hindus. If the missionaries want us to believe that they have changed their ways and are now purely non-violent and purely helpful, then why do they not at least apologise for what they did in the past?

Why should there be conversions at all? What is the motivation behind most conversions that is coming out of the Christian background?

It is the belief that Christianity is the only true religion, Christ is the only saviour of humanity, Christians gain salvation or heaven and non-Christians gain damnation or hell. That is not a policy of harmony and tolerance but a blueprint for disharmony and conflict.

What ultimately happens when someone who has that attitude comes into a community and converts people? People are taught that they have to reject their ancestors and their traditions. Families are broken up. Division and conflict almost inevitably occur wherever this missionary business goes on.

There are actually many different forms of Christianity and several different kinds of Christian missionary activity going on. And there are Christian groups which are not missionary promoting at all, for example, the old Greek Orthodox and the Syrian Christians, but which represent fairly old and very tolerant traditions. There is the Catholic tradition which is promoting its missionary activity all over the world but which is doing it in a more subtle way today. They are no longer using the force that they used in the colonial era, but they are still aiming at global conversion. There are also the old Protestants, the Anglicans and the Lutherans, who are still promoting various types of missionary activity. That has come down to some degree as well.

However, there is a new evangelical force in the world today, particularly that coming out of the United States. What are the fundamentalist Christian groups of America? The World Vision, the Christian coalition including Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Baptists and so on.

They are very actively asking for donations in America in order to convert Hindus in India. We see this routinely in the various television channels which they have.

Pat Robertson, one of their main leaders, has said that Hinduism is a demoniac religion. They show Hindu gods with animal heads and say, "Oh! Look at how primitive these people are." They look at the political and social problems of India and say, "These are owing to Hinduism. Please donate money to our cause so we can go to India and convert these people from this horrible religion that they have."

These same evangelical missionaries are going all over the world and also targeting Catholics. Recently, in Brazil, the Pope called these evangelical missionaries "wolves" because of what they were doing to, what he termed, "his flock of Christians".

So this missionary threat continues and these mission- aries are going back to the old hell-fire, damnation, condemnation of Hinduism such as the Catholics used to do in the Middle Ages and in the colonial era. So do not believe that there is religious harmony all over the world and that the other religions respect Hinduism and are willing to live together with Hindus.

In fact, even in textbooks in America, it is often taught that Hinduism is not a religion because Hinduism does not have only one God, one book and is not a missionary religion seeking to convert or conquer the world.

So it is this missionary business which needs to be questioned and not simply conversion. And do not be naive about it! Now there is also this use of social upliftment and charity to promote conversion. Social upliftment and charity are very good things but they should be separated from religious conversion. If you want to raise up a country and help another country economically, please do so, but do not bring religion into it. When you put the picture of Jesus everywhere obviously religion and conversion are part of the motivation.

You will note that no country in the world has been raised up economically by religious conversion. What has made Japan a great country economically, even what made the United States a great country economically, are economic means, not change of religion. Christian countries include some of the poorest countries in the world. The Philippines is the most Catholic and the oldest Christian country in Asia. It remains one of the poorest countries in Asia which has one of the greatest gaps between the rich and the poor.

The most devout Catholics in the world are probably in Central and South America. They are certainly not in North America and in Europe, where Christians are more nominal than strong believers. Central and South America also have tremendous social inequality and a tremendous gap between the rich and the poor. But the Catholics there are not telling the poor people that they should convert to another religion in order to raise themselves economically. In fact, they are trying to use the religion to help to raise the people economically.

So this whole attack on Hindu society by stating that we will raise the poor on religious grounds is also based upon this motivation of conversion.

Then there is the whole issue of hospitals, orphanages and schools. It is all very wonderful to selflessly help other people. But why do you not just do it as it is? Why do you have to put the religious form there? As long as the picture of Jesus is there, particularly when you have a 2000 year history of aggressive conversion activities, how can you expect people to believe that there is no motivation? No seeking of conversion? That it is purely selfless service and love of God?

If we love God, if we love our fellow human beings, we will love them regardless of what their religious belief is. We will love their religion as well. We will honour and respect their religion whether they are aboriginal people, Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Moslems or Christians. We will not see any need to convert them. In fact, we should not even be conscious of their religion at all. True love of God does not seek converts. It is not based upon names, forms or identity. It is based upon recognising the Divine presence in all.

One of the great swamis of India, Swami Ramatirtha, when he came to America, was asked about religion and religious identity. And he said,"You do not belong to any religion. All religions belong to you."

A human being is not a property of any Church. It is not something which is owned by anyone or anything. The soul does not need to be saved as it is the eternal and immortal part of our nature. We need to understand the Divine within us. You cannot change the nature of any human being. Hinduism is based upon respecting each individual and the swadharma of each individual. We should have many paths and many religions. The idea of only one religious faith for all humanity is like having only one set of clothing for all humanity. It is like people having to eat only one type of food, or people having only one type of job. There should be diversity, abundance and freedom in the religious realm.

Now, unfortunately, all religions do not have the same goal. Religions have various goals. Religions are various paths. We should also note that all religions are not theistic. There are non-theistic religions like Buddhism and Jainism where there is no creative God. There are also religions where there is a multiplicity of deities. Monotheism is not the only form of religion in the world and it is not the only true form of religion in the world. All forms of religious worship have their validity and Hinduism can recognise them whether they are polytheism, monotheism or monism. Even atheists have their place. People should have complete freedom to reject religion if that is what they want to do.

Hindu tradition is a sadhana tradition that aims at spiritual practice for self-realisation. Most of the Christian traditions, for example the Protestant tradition, claim that faith alone is enough to save you. This means that a person may be a mass murderer, but if on his death-bed, he converts to Christianity, he will go to heaven. Another person may live the life of a saint, but if he does not convert to Christianity, there will be no heaven for him.

Recently, in the United States, a woman who had been convicted of murder was converted to Christianity on death-row and the Christian leaders - particularly the fundamentalist Christians - asked for that death sentence to be removed because that woman had converted to Christianity and therefore the sin no longer counted. The same people would not have made the statement had the woman been converted to Hinduism or any other type of non-Christian religion.

So we do need religious harmony and dialogue throughout the world. One of the most unfortunate things is that there is so much misinformation and even disinformation about Hinduism in the world. For example, in the New York Times, only last year, there was a story about the Amarnath pilgrimage in India. And what did the New York Times call it? "Hindus going to worship the sex organs of Shiva, the God of Destruction." What kind of tolerance is there? What kind of point of view is being projected by that?

But I have to tell you that the fault for this is not really so much with these Western people. The fault lies with Hindus themselves. They have been very poor at expressing what their religion is and in countering disinformation and propaganda against them. They do not study their religion properly and so, they cannot even explain what it is. Often, they are also very much misinformed about other religions as they think that other religions are Hinduism in another form. But you would not find these rich traditions of yoga, meditation, Vedas and Vedanta, in these other traditions. Particularly in the Protestant tradition in the West, they are rejected almost altogether and, to these evangelical Christians, they are considered to be the work of the devil.

Some people tell me that all religions teach the same thing. Well, Hinduism teaches the Law of Karma and Rebirth. Christianity and Islam do not accept that. Some people say all religions teach the same things and they only differ in inessentials. Is the Law of Karma and the process of Rebirth something inessential?

Now, certainly there should be a respect for universal, ethical values such as truthfulness, non-violence, peace and harmony. These should be accepted and projected for all human beings regardless of their religion. In fact, they should be projected for all of nature. One of the problems that I see in Christianity, as most Christians believe, is that animals are considered to be devoid of the soul and only human beings gain salvation.

One of the reasons we are exploiting and destroying this planet is because we do not see the presence of the soul and consciousness in nature and the animals and the rest of the Universe. In fact, we must move beyond all our narrow, human-centric creeds. True religion is not a matter of name, form or identity. It is a matter of that which is eternal, that which is universal, that which no one owns and is a matter of consciousness, awareness and Truth.

The highest goal of the Hindu religion is self-realisation, not simply knowing God, but understanding who we are and the Divine presence within us. One of the main problems of humanity is that we do not understand ourselves and our motivations. Instead, based upon some dogma or belief, we are trying to get others to think and act like we do before we understand ourselves and understand them.

So let there be a dialogue. Let there be open, friendly and also critical communication in religion just as in science. But please let us expose and put an end to this missionary business and let us not think that the missionary business is tolerant. The missionary business is not about freedom of religion. It is about the triumph of one religion. It is not about secularism. The missionary business accepts that only one religion is true. It is a religious war aimed at religious control.

The way to challenge this is not through violence or through intolerance, but through being properly informed. It is through being open, friendly, dialoguing and talking to people, so they understand what the Hindu point of view is, so that any distortions about Hinduism and about human beings are removed. We are all the same Divine being. We all share the same human nature and we must recognise that in all human beings for harmony to exist.

At the same time, we should not be naive about the forces of the world or the forces that are trying to disintegrate the society and this culture. I think it would be a tremendous loss if India gave up Hinduism and became another Christian or Islamic country. We have enough of them already. India has a wealth of spiritual traditions.

Why do Westerners come here? They come here for this wealth of spiritual knowledge. In fact, you should be exporting your religion. That is one thing you have enough of. There are other more important things which you need to import.

I believe I have taken enough time here to introduce this point of view. So let us move on to the next phase of our dialogue. Thank you.

(Text of Dr.David Frawley's responses to questions at a public discussion organised by Pragna Bharati,A.P.,on "Ethics of Religious Conversions" on February 9, 1999 at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Hyderabad)


Firstly, I want to thank the Archbishop for his wonderful views and insight. I just wish they were more commonly accepted in the Christian community. Unfortunately, Hindus do not have to deal with people like the Archbishop in most circumstances. And certainly the missionaries who are active in India, do not share those views or they would not be doing what they are doing. So I think he is giving a good model for Christianity to follow and also for Hindus to respect.

But you also live in the real world and you have to deal with the missionary influences, with the propaganda in the media and the textbooks and with what those people are doing. He said that there is more liberalism in the Church. There was a teacher named Father Anthony De Mello, head of Vidya Bharati in Delhi, who was also teaching liberalism in religion and giving honour to Hindu and Buddhist traditions. His works have just been banned by the Vatican. So this activity is still going on.

There is definitely more liberalism in Catholicism than in Evangelical Christianity. There is 100 times more liberalism! But to say that it is completely liberal... I offer this suggestion. I think Hindus should honour and accept Christianity as a true and valid religion for those who seek to follow it and should not hold that any Hindu teacher, teaching or deity is the only way or the only manifestation of God. I would also call on Christianity to accept and honour Hinduism as a true and valid religion for those who seek to follow it and accept that Christ is not the only son of God. I have yet to find any one major Christian leader willing to make that statement - that Christ is not the only son of God.

As per these various questions, like the Archbishop, they can probably be dealt with in a more simple way. I will deal with a couple of them at least though.

What is salvation and through what can it be had?

Frawley : Well, salvation is a Christian word and it generally implies salvation from sin. The Hindu term is Moksha or liberation which implies liberation from the cycle of karma and rebirth. So, the Hindu concept of Moksha is rather different from the Christian concept of salvation. There are also various ideas about the ultimate goal of life whether it is Advaita, Dvaita or whether it is any other thing.

For the majority of Christians, the ultimate goal of life is going to heaven and in many Christian sects, heaven is also defined as a physical world where you have a body that does not die. There are various views of salvation as a goal of life and that depends upon the particular religion. All religions are moving to some degree towards something Divine, universal or eternal. But they do not all necessarily have the same goal and, in fact, in Hinduism we also recognise that you can have more than one goal. Whether it is Dvaita or Advaita, each has its validity for those who seek to follow them.

Does the Bible anywhere say that Christianity is the only way to ultimate salvation?

Frawley : The Bible can be interpreted in various ways. Many Christians, and in particular, many Protestant and Evangelical Christians claim that the Bible, in fact, does say that. There are, however, some Christians who probably disagree with that.*

What is the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant? Both of these are Christian. If they are, what are the accurate definitions of these?

Frawley : Technically, the Catholics are those who accept the Catholic Church as revealed through the Pope and the doctrines taught through the Catholic Church. The Protestants are those who reject those doctrines. That is what Protestant means. Protestants, in general, do not accept the Pope. In fact, you might be surprised to know that major Protestant organisations in the world consider the Pope as an unspiritual figure and they also put that in their propaganda.

There are various contradictions within Christianity and you should know that your different Hindu sects are also warring among themselves and sometimes portraying each other in a negative light. As well, there are also Christians who are neither Catholics nor Protestants like the Greek Orthodox. For example, I was in Israel recently. And if you go to Israel, the old churches are not Catholic and they are not Protestant. They are Greek Orthodox. Because the Greek Orthodox represented the older form of Christianity that was more prominent in the Eastern world.

What do you think of the conversions of the poor in our country? Don't you think that the conversions of the poor in this country will raise their social status which cannot be done by any other government in this country?

Frawley : There may be instances where conversions may help people to raise their economic status. But generally, if you want to raise your economic status, the most direct way to do it is through economic means. The government could certainly do more. The Hindu society could certainly do more. It is strange that Hindus have to get this sense of compassion and charity from Christians, because the Vedas, all these traditions, are filled with this idea of compassion, charity, the different yagnas that are given to help the poor, to help animals, to help other creatures. It is not that Hinduism does not have that charitable spirit, but somehow modern Hindus have forgotten about that. And so long as they do, then some other religion will be given the space to come in there and propagate itself. But I guarantee you, if Hindus had the advantage of wealth over America, and if Hindus brought missionaries into the core parts of the United States and did the same type of conversion activity, people in America would convert to Hinduism and they would also look to Hinduism for economic benefit. That is simply the nature of human beings.

I think we must discriminate, as the Archbishop said, between the dogma and the ritual and the Churches and the inner spirit of the different religions. If we look at all religions as they are manifest in the outer world, there is much imperfection. In all of them, if we look at the ideals in religion, there is much that is beautiful in all of them. But again we have to be practical too and know how to deal with the people in the world.** When Hindus in America are dialoguing with Christians, they are not going to run into an Archbishop like that. They are going to run into people who have the regular views of Christianity, so they are going to have to know how to deal with them.

Another closing point I would like to make relative to these comments is that Hinduism is not so faith-based as are the Western religions. Hinduism does not require that we believe in something irrational like the Virgin Birth or like a final Prophet. Some Hindu groups may believe in that and some may not, but you are not required as a Hindu to have any belief like that. Most Hindu systems work through reason, but also through direct perception. That is why the whole practice of Yoga is emphasised. Through the purification of your own mind and heart, you can have a direct experience of the Divine, not mediated by any book, Prophet or Church, so that you can know directly what that is. And it is that direct realisation of Truth which we need to promote in all religions and to do that we have to go beyond all dogma and learn to perceive things as they are.

Thank you.


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