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.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Hinduism and the Contest of Religions

by Subhash Kak
Published on Friday, February 11, 2005

These are extraordinary times, given how technology is transforming the world and the unprecedented migration of people. Different cultural and religious groups have come in close contact physically, some for the first time; and television has brought to the home new images and possibilities. One would have hoped that people would simply accept cultural and religious diversity; instead, it has become a great opportunity for the proselytizing religions to gain adherents. This is happening in the background of the destructive gale of modernity, whose fury is pointed at all religious traditions.

The efforts of the missionaries have been enormously successful in many Buddhist countries such as South Korea, where it is estimated that half the population has embraced Christianity. Missionary efforts are also strong in other countries of Asia and in Africa. On the other hand, many intellectuals in the West are adopting Buddhism. Islam is also gaining converts. It is expected that with the falling fertility rates of its women and increasing immigration, Europe will be slowly assimilated into Islam.

India has become a big battleground for harvesting of souls. For some evangelical groups conversion of India to Christianity is essential before Christ returns to earth. The religious clash in India is playing out most strongly in the tribal areas and amongst the poor. Hindus are reacting by calling for a ban on money-induced conversions and trotting out their Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi, both of whom spoke strongly against changing religion.

Personally, I am for a complete separation between state and religion, and also the freedom to choose one's religion and the freedom to proselytize. But if religions must compete as in a marketplace, the playing field should be more or less level. As things stand, Hinduism is in this contest with its hands tied behind its back.

Hindus claim that although theirs is an ancient tradition, it is most suited to modernity, as it is not in conflict with science. While it is true that Hinduism accepts all outer science, it also claims to be the science of the inner self or consciousness. Hinduism's explanation of consciousness in transcendental terms runs counter to the main current of modernity, in which only machine-like explanations are accepted as valid, and consciousness is viewed as an emergent phenomenon that does not negate materialism. Hindu ideas of reality are popular amongst the educated but they can hardly be considered to be the mainstream.

Hinduism is very unfavorably placed because it has few institutions to protect it, and those who claim to speak for it in the universities are often non-Hindu and antagonistic to it. The Jews have their yeshivas, the Christians their seminaries, and the Muslims their madrasas; Hindus have no religious schools or universities. Hindus in India don't even have control of the most important of their shrines and temples, which are being administered by the government. Many temple properties have simply been expropriated by the government.

The governmental temple management is geared to facilitate the visits of the pilgrims; there is no thought given to the spiritual and social needs of the larger Hindu society. Other religions have their clergy which ministers to the laity; the priests of these temples serve the murtis, they have no resident acharyas.

Tainting Hinduism

As India embraced socialism around 1950, temple priests and businessmen became part of the official demonology. The economic reforms of the 1990s rehabilitated businessmen, but the tainting of Hinduism and its institutions has continued in the textbooks and the media. The ordinary citizen in India is so influenced by this negative stereotyping that the respect for the temple institutions is very low. This has provided the opportunity to the government to confiscate temple properties. The absence of a transparent donation-collection system has helped the critics to tar the temples.

Popular Hinduism works as a sort of spiritual bank account. Doing bad things are withdrawals; giving donations to temples and other charity is a deposit. Modern temples are essentially centered on the activities of the gods and not the community. For ministering, individual swamis have filled in the vacuum. Hindus run to them with gifts for counsel and for all sorts of blessings.

The typical Hindu intellectual is likely to say: Does it really matter what happens in the temples? Isn't it true that temple going is not essential to the Hindu way of life? If Hinduism has lasted a long, long time facing all kinds of challenges in the past, won't things sort themselves out this time around as well?

The challenges in the past were not as serious as the present challenge. Hindu communities were essentially isolated. Prominent temples may have been razed in the medieval times, but the common man was generally left alone. Hindus living in Islamic states took up the Persian language and fashions in their official lives, but their women remained connected to the tradition, keeping it alive generation after generation. The force of modernity, in the absence of countervailing renewal of the tradition, is taking men and women alike away from Hinduism. Now technology, the nature of the workplace, and the media are leading to a disruption with the past. Each tradition must be renewed with deliberation now for it to survive, and if Hinduism doesn't have the tools for this renewal then it is in grave danger.

The thought that Hinduism is imperiled appears nonsensical at first sight. After all over 80 percent of Indians are Hindus, and they are a large number, more than 850 million. I am not suggesting that Hinduism is going to disappear tomorrow or next year, but that if the current trends are not reversed Hinduism might very well become fatally enfeebled in the next hundred years. Such extinction has occurred for dominant religions in the past. The Greek religion in Greece, Roman religion in Rome, Zoroastrianism in Persia, and the Tengri religion of Chingiz Khan disappeared fairly quickly. In India, Buddhism disappeared in the medieval ages, and in Indonesia, Hinduism disappeared almost equally rapidly about three or four centuries ago, with its remaining Hindus fleeing to the island of Bali.

It is true that many Indians are devout; this is for all to see at festivals such as the Kumbha Melas and other festivals, but this expression of religiosity can always carry over even when people have traded one religion for another. Ordinary folk carry on with their pilgrimages, with only a slight change in the symbols of worship. In Mexico, Pakistan, and Persia, the earlier Aztec, Hindu-Buddhist, and Zoroastrian shrines are the new centers of pilgrimage.

The forces of modernity and colonization, as explained in my earlier essays, The Assault on Tradition and Colonizing Body and Mind, are major challenges facing tradition. The tainting of Hinduism in the media has led to a hollowing of the tradition, and the Indian state's discriminatory policies are also weakening it.

The Hinduism of the Indian schoolbooks and the media is in terms of the 19th century colonial theories about it. Hinduism is projected in negative stereotypes, as an irrational belief system. On the other hand, Hinduism is also presented as radical universalism according to which all religions are the same.

The individual who is not lucky enough to be connected to living Hinduism through relatives or teacher (so as to know that the 'official portrayals' of Hinduism are a caricature) is ground out by the mill of these twin messages: Hinduism is negativity, and all religions are the same. This leads to confusion and sloppy thinking at best, and hate for Hinduism at worst. Although these people remain socially a part of the Hindu community, this self-hate is sensed by the children.

As in other religions, Hinduism consists of many different religious communities, which have their own traditions of validating their way and criticizing that of other communities. The caricature of Hinduism that is being presented doesn't tell them that the temple was not just ritual but also the centre of the cultural life as well as a school and college. Temples not only had purohits but also acharyas.

The empty talk of equality of all religions, when in one's own heart one would like to believe that one's tradition is better in some unique sense, also breeds hypocrisy. But the children take it seriously, and often they come to the parents saying that if they have joined another religious group they should not grieve because of the equality of religions.

Lack of conviction

Hinduism has become a shadow. Most Hindus, if they have not consciously done sadhana, cannot explain what Hinduism is. Many have become hostile to not only the ritual but also the entire Indian culture. Most significantly, the confusion caused by the mixed messages about their history is responsible for lack of convictions.

In Assault of Tradition, I mentioned the incongruity of the government of India, a self-declared secular state, running Hindu temples. Many of my correspondents were unimpressed. This is what one of America's most prominent Indian activists wrote:
Is this workable knowing full well that this might lead to endless disputes, inter-caste and within castes, and with the well known proclivity of Hindus to fight among themselves? You know this happens even in the US. A dispute within the Board of a New York City temple went to Court.
Another one, a leading academic in America and an orthodox Hindu, said:
Hindu tradition and civilization are dysfunctional. It would not be terrible to let it all go. It will not be the end of the world. For a time, there might be chaos, later, a new era will begin and what is best about the tradition will return automatically. With all this talk about Hindu tradition, my desire is to let go of all of it all at once. Destroy everything once, and let a new civilization flourish in India.
A third, another leading academic, was very fatalistic. He said that the world resides in the body of Ishvara and, therefore, if Ishvara wished for Hinduism to disappear that was perfectly fine with him. When I reminded him of Krishna's exhortation to fight for truth and against injustice, he changed the subject.

Hindus are tired. They don't want any intellectual fights. They are job seekers, content to devote their energy for the welfare of their individual families. In India, political parties have exploited Hindu grievances to capture power and then done precious little to address these grievances.

A couple of generations ago, most Hindus knew something of the philosophy, some Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, or other scriptures. Now these texts are becoming less known. Most people are absorbed in Bollywood movies, and their practice of the Hindu ceremonies amounts principally to the enactment of the wedding scenes from the silver screen.

Is the Indian State anti-Hindu?

The India state is controlling the temples in the name of 'justice', just as totalitarian regimes and empires have used this slogan to brainwash whole classes of people, to suppress freedom of action and speech. Two provisions of the Indian Constitution, the discriminatory Articles 26 and 30, have been used by the government to appropriate Hindu temples and to prevent Hindus from running their schools and colleges.

M. Venkataraman suggests that the Indian state is anti-Hindu in his Times of India column 'Secularism or state oppression', published on January 27, 2005:
Our Constitution treats all religions as equal. The powers given under its Article 26 are only for positive intervention or for intervention regarding financial and welfare aspects. The founding fathers of the nation could not have visualized that the power invested in the state to intervene in distress situations would actually translate into a weapon used by the state for its arm-twisting tactics.

The government has cleverly used this law to usurp power at many Hindu religious shrines, be it Tirupati, Shirdi or Vaishno Devi.

The state laws pertaining to government intervention in temples, even if emanating from Constitutional provisions, need to be debated and reviewed by the apex court, keeping in view the ways and means deployed by the state to throw out autonomous management and administrators.

The government claims to be acting for the interests of the Hindus, but the truth is, it is actually acting out of self-interest and against the interests of those it claims to be protecting.
These temples are being systematically looted by government functionaries. Here is an illustrative example from the famous Banashankari temple of Bangalore, being managed by the Karnataka government, as reported in the Times of India (Wednesday, October 6, 2004):

BANGALORE: Lok Ayukta N. Venkatachala and his team found that the temple had shrunk in the last several years. In Lok Ayukta's own words:
The 140 acres of temple land is no longer with the temple but had been encroached upon or given away to various persons. Less than 20 acres remain with the temple presently.

This means that the temple has lost approximately Rs 250 crore worth of land at Rs 2 crore per acre. The Lok Ayukta, who had visited the temple last year, had ordered that a compound wall be built to prevent further encroachment. One good thing came of that visit.

Several people who had encroached upon two acres had been evicted; the recovered land is worth about Rs 4 crore. Not just land, the team found that valuables too vanished. The temple receives expensive silk sarees, gold jewelry and other valuables from devotees which are supposed to be auctioned. But no auction takes place and valuables are disposed off for a fraction of their value.
The hollowness of Hindu intellectual response is clear from the fact that when they do complain about discriminatory laws, their complaint is to ask why Christians and Muslims are exempt from them. By doing so, they have alienated other potential partners in this struggle for liberation. Hindu leaders wish to extend their servitude to other communities, not liberate everyone from it.

Rather than insisting that the state and religion be completely separated, Hindu leaders have asked for subsidies to go for pilgrimage to Lake Mansarovar in Tibet like the subsidies to the Hajj pilgrims to Arabia.

Hindu intellectuals must find a way to appropriately respond to the mechanical aspects of modernity, while embracing whatever is liberating and good about it.

The individual Hindu is in despair. He feels he has no one to turn to. Lacking vision, Hindu parties in power did nothing, because they didn't know where to begin. There is much tamas; no attempts to do the careful analysis which will help define the new legal framework for the collective ownership of the temples. Neither is there effort to make Hinduism a vehicle for spirituality and wisdom for all in these difficult times.


Post a Comment

<< Home

Home | Syndicate this site (XML) | Guestbook | Blogger
All trademarks and copyrights on this page are owned by their respective companies. Comments, posts, stories, and all other content are owned by the authors.
Everything else © 2005 The Conversion Agenda