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, April 03, 2005

Fighting to Preserve a Tribal Heritage

A pilgrimage through Northeast India reveals a rich Vedic lifestyle threatened to the core by sometimes violent Christian insurgents

By Stephen Knapp, Detroit, Michigan

In December of 2003 a few of us from the Vedic Friends Association traveled through Assam, Arunachala Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, and later Sikhim on a spiritual journey. Unfortunately, the trip wasn't all love and light. The local tribesmen in that part of India face a major threat from sometimes violent Christian insurgents whose conversion efforts too often result in murder and mayhem. This article is about the plight of these noble people and the danger they face on a daily basis from religious zealots who have no notion of the vast spiritual heritage they debase or the terrible consequences they incur for doing so.

This is not the first time that Hinduism Today has reported on the plight of the 30 million tribal Hindus in Northeast India. In November/December, 2000, the magazine published a five-page feature article by Renu S. Malhotra entitled Missionaries Roil Northeast India in which the author detailed the disastrous effects Christian conversion efforts were having there. In 2004, Mrs. Malhotra took another trip through that same area and was disappointed to report that the situation has not improved. Instead, she said, it has gotten worse. (See page 65.)

During our trip, the tribal people seemed less concerned with aggressive Christians than they were impressed with us--white Americans who had been raised as Christians but had now chosen to follow the Vedic and Hindu path of spirituality. Our presence in their cultural rituals touched them deeply. They asserted again and again that we were the only Westerners they had ever met who weren't hell-bent on convincing them to give up their traditional ways of living and convert to Christianity.

Many tribal cultures all over India are immersed in Vedic traditions, or contain elements that are carried over from the Vedic way of life. Today, however, the world is slowly coming to understand that Christians are thoroughly infiltrating the Northeastern region. Nagaland in particular--long famous for its ancient, ascetic, Naga culture--is an area where conversion tactics are most successful. According to census figures just released for 2001, Nagaland is 90 percent Christian.

Many tribal people of India's Northeast are being hammered with the idea that if they want to progress into the 21st century, they must become modern like the Westerners. Since most Westerners they meet are evangelical Christians, they presume that Christianity is the essence of the Western value system and that they must therefore become Christian to be progressive.

As these tribal people innocently and enthusiastically strive by this reasoning to stay in touch with the times, they adopt very little of the best the West has to offer and take instead much of its worst. Abuse of alcohol and drugs is escalating and so is sexual promiscuity, fueling the spread of AIDS and causing more abortions to be performed. Abortion never used to be an issue in this part of India, and AIDS was almost unheard of.

According to local tradition, if a boy and girl were caught in a sexual act, they were forced to marry. Illicit sex was not allowed. Now, many local people, wanting to sidestep local punishment, become Christian just so they can handle a vast array of sexual indiscretions under the protection of Western leniency.

In one area of Arunachal Pradesh that we visited, new converts to Christianity were being told to not associate with their "heathen " friends and neighbors. They were also being discouraged from participating in their traditional festivals, dances and music, or even joining in community harvests and group house raisings. They were being motivated to wear only Western clothes, listen only to Western music and celebrate only Western holidays. This was creating divisions in families and communities, and creating social unrest.

Further complicating conversion matters today, even as I am writing this article, different Christian sects are quarreling with each other over converts. This is having an interesting effect on the tribal people. While it is confusing them, it is also sending them an important message that perhaps they were better off before these Christians came into their lives. Many are beginning to think now that perhaps their old culture was fine just the way that it was. In the old days, tribal wars were only fought for land and resources. Quarrels and crimes over religious differences were almost unheard of.

The most significant conflicts arise from the sometimes violent aggression of Christian insurgents (See page 64). In the last two decades 10,000 people have been killed for religious reasons in the state of Tripura alone.

During our travels, we tried to stress that from our Western perspective the indigenous cultures could easily survive in the modern world if some sense of flexibility could be brought to bear with regard to incorporating technological developments and advanced education. We tried to present the idea, for instance, that much good could come from the amalgamation of the old with the new, such as improvements in communication, medicine, farming, construction, transportation and more.

At the close of this most educational journey, it became apparent to me that, more often then not, it is old values--not new ones--that provide solutions to modern day problems. This can be an important lesson learned too late. One of our more sobering observations during the trip was that when a culture is lost, it is almost impossible to bring back, or even to fully understand in retrospect.

The indigenous cultures of India are treasures worth saving. They offer an important connection to the best India's past has to offer. It seems to me that the social and environmental problems of the country are not due to some inherent problem in the traditional culture itself, but rather in the choice many make to abandon this culture. Remaining fixed in the true principles of this ancient lifestyle and passing these principles on to the next generation certainly can't hurt India in its attempts to carve a future which is at least as powerful as its past.

Stephen Knapp has written many books and articles on Vedic philosophy and is the president of the Vedic Friends Association, an organization dedicated to protecting and sharing Vedic culture. For more information see: and


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