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.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Challenge of religious conversion and Hindu response

Excerpted from the address of Dr Subramanian Swamy as Chief Guest at the Anniversary Celebration of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam.

We are again at a moment of history of our ancient nation when the Hindu foundation of the nation is being challenged and sought to be undermined. But never before in our history has the challenge been as dangerously deceptive, pernicious, and sophisticated as it is now. It is therefore difficult to respond to this challenge since it cannot be easily perceived.

Hence, the response to this challenge and the implicit threat has to be well thought out and profound, but as before in our history, the response to be fruitful has to be designed and structured by the confluence of spiritual guidance and political resolve. Such a confluence has been the fundamental basis of our past responses to such challenges in history, from the installation by rishis of Adi Raja Prithu as King of Bharatvarsh, Chanakya’s founding of the Mauryan kingdom, the establishment of the Vijayanagaram empire at Hampi by Sringeri Shankaracharya, to inspiring the fighting armies of Shivaji by Swami Ramdass. Even Mahatma Gandhi and Jayaprakash Narayan in their respective struggles for independence of the nation from colonialism, and for the restoration of democracy in a nation that was drowned in the darkness of the Emergency, had followed this unique Hindu model of spiritually guiding a political movement without seeking the fruits of office for themselves.

Here I shall elaborate in some detail the threat in one of the dimensions, that is, the threat arising out of the forced and deliberate demographic changes in the country caused by three factors: induced religious conversions, illegal migration into India, and differential application of family planning programmes.

The bottom line of my concern is that no matter what the threat is, India must remain a predominantly Hindu country to be the distinctive nation that it has been over the centuries. That distinctiveness includes the acknowledgment by the people of the nation that all religions, if practised faithfully, are equally capable of leading to God. No other religion outside the Hindu family of theology holds forth thus. Hindus because of this enlightened secular outlook have a long tradition of being hospitable, accommodative and even to assimilate peoples of other religions who have come here seeking refuge. The Parsis, Jews, Syrian Christians and even Arabs [in Kerala] are examples of this hospitality and assimilation.

The Hindu foundation of modern India is why India has been and is even today referred to, in India and abroad, as Hindustan. Hindustan is defined as a nation of Hindus and those who accept that their ancestors are Hindus. The concept also includes refugee minorities who accept the core values of the Hindu culture and therefore recognised as a part of the Hindustan nation. Thus, when the Dwarka Mutt Shankaracharya gave the arriving Parsi refugees in Sanjaan [Kutch coast] a five-point requirement for settling in the country, they readily accepted and have not deviated from it even today. These five points were: Giving up Persian language and adopting Gujarati; wearing Indian clothes instead of Persian; treating the cow as sacred; reciting some select Sanskrit shlokas in their marriage ceremony; and laying down of weapons. Despite being the smallest minority, with disproportionate share in offices of power and national wealth, and perhaps also the wealthiest community, there is and has been no tension or conflict between Hindus and Parsis.

Today Hindus despite de facto in power and in the organs of the state, are victims of that same targeting, but of course in a very subtle and sophisticated manner. In furthering the objective of this targeting, Islam and Christianity, more so the latter, have been able to leverage the influence of prominent Hindus themselves.

Parsis and Jews do not threaten the Hindu character of the nation. They do not seek to proselytise or convert Hindus by monetary inducements or by obscurantist preachings such as curing persons who convert, of incurable terminal diseases. But on the other hand, the preachings of the religious leaders of Islam and Christianity in India, altogether for a thousand years, had targeted Hindus and sought the religious conversions to their faiths by creating deprivation and loss of self-esteem, through the abuse of the power of the state against Hindus. They were not subtle about it. For example, in 1545, King John III of Portugal gave a command to the then Governor of Goa that neither public nor private ‘idols’ of Hindu heathens be tolerated on the island of Goa and that severe punishment be meted out to those who persist in keeping them. Thereafter, a terrible inquisition followed during which Hindus were killed, brutalised and their temples razed to the ground. Still we must not forget only a minority of Hindus converted to Christianity. No other religious community other than Hindus suffered such prolonged and atrocious persecution and survived as a religion of a vast majority on their own soil. Let us not forget this defiance in our past.

Today Hindus despite de facto in power and in the organs of the state, are victims of that same targeting, but of course in a very subtle and sophisticated manner. In furthering the objective of this targeting, Islam and Christianity, more so the latter, have been able to leverage the influence of prominent Hindus themselves, who wittingly for money or unwittingly because of a programmed mindset of being defensive about being a Hindu [thereby ready to ape the West] are tools of this targeting.

What is the nature and scope of this targeting, and is there a way for us to end it by conciliation with Christians and Muslims? In other words, can we seek to end religious conversion in India today by the ancient Hindu way of shashtrarthas as Hindu saints did, as for example Adi Sankara did with Buddhism and Uttara Mimamsa theologies and Azhwars and Nayanars saints in the south did with Jainism? Will indeed Christians and Muslims recognise the sanctity of shashtrarthas?

There is a serious problem here because as an interesting study of Sarah Claerhout and Jakob De Roover titled: The Question of Conversion in India [Economic and Political Weekly, July 9, 2005] concludes, Hindus and Christians have fundamentally different and mutually exclusive concepts of religion and thus also in their approaches to the question of conversion. Hence, say the authors, for Hindus and Christians to dialogue on conversion would be fruitless because they will have “great difficulties making sense of each other’s statements and arguments”. This is because Hindus do not consider any religion as wholly false, and as Gandhiji put it, all religions have some errors in them. Since all religions lead to God, hence there is no need for forcing a conversion. Christians [and Muslims] think that their’s is the only true religion, and it is God’s work to convert heathens and kafirs to their only true religion.

I have thus come to the conclusion after much study and observing what has been, and is happening in India, that there is a fundamental disconnect between the religious outlook of Hindus and the Christians and Muslims which makes it impossible for a fruitful debate and mutual understanding on the question of religious conversion.

Therefore, either Hindus will have to capitulate on this question by permitting religious conversion in India, or in the alternative be united and assertive to ensure that laws are enacted and effectively enforced against religious conversion of Hindus. There is no third way.

I am persuaded that it is urgent now that Hindus be mobilised to assertively oppose any further conversion from Hinduism to any other non-Indian religion. There is no room for indifference here. This is because that status quo is damaging to the Hindu faith, since the Christian missionaries and Muslim mullahs are already fully at work, funds being no constraint, to convert Hindus. If conversions are not explicitly opposed, then Hindus are implicitly acquiescing in the atrocity.

There is a fundamental disconnect between the religious outlook of Hindus and the Christians and Muslims which makes it impossible for a fruitful debate and mutual understanding on the question of religious conversion.

Reflect on the past trends: In 1000 A.D., Muslims and Christians in undivided India were in negligible numbers. By 1400, they had become 3.5 per cent of the sub-continent. In 1700, they rose to 11 per cent, and by 1891 to 13 per cent. By the time of Partition, they were 23 per cent, and today in South Asia, the Christian and Muslim population is 36 per cent. What will it be in 2050 or 2150? This is an extraordinary rise, which has continued even after freedom from British colonial rule. De facto power in the hands of Hindu majority has not changed the attitude of the proselytisers, only their strategy has changed and become invisible for most Hindus. And those Hindus who have been power in government have been soft on this issue entrapped by the lack of a Hindu mindset and bloc voting by the Muslims and Christians.

Even the most secular Hindus should however worry about this demographic trend, because secularism is itself under threat, if the Hindus lose their majority share in population. That is why even Gandhiji and Dr. Ambedkar [no Hindu fundamentalists but highly regarded secularists], during the freedom struggle had stoutly opposed religious conversions. In Mahatma’s interview given to The Hindu in 1931 [see Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol XLV, p.320] he stated:

“Every nation’s religion is as good as another. Certainly India’s religions are adequate for her people. We need no converting spiritually.”

Gandhiji went on to add that if foreign missionaries in independent India sought to convert by inducement such as by medical aid and in providing education, then he would ask them to withdraw from the country. Lest his remarks be treated as a misquote or off the cuff, Gandhiji later authored an article to reaffirm the same view in different language:

“ India stands in no need of conversions from one faith to another” (Young India, April 23, 1931 issue).

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