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, July 22, 2006

Conversion: Others Attract, Hindus Repel

By N. Kunju
[The following is the translation of a news-item in Malayala Manorama, dated June 6, 2006:]
Jose Baby weighed with sugar in Guruvayoor

We insist that the Hindu has to be born a Hindu, should have a caste and the converted can’t be fitted into a caste. The Brahmins will obviously object to take a converted to their caste.

While other religions debate on religious freedom, Hinduism is a religion of freedom. Others insist on one God, one prophet and one scripture. Hindus have as many deities to choose from, as many acharyas to follow and as many books one can consider holy as to cater to individual taste.

The Muslim missionaries have almost abandoned their agenda of converting others to their religion. The reason is, Muslim mode of conversion had been through coercion rather than by propaganda and as the days of invaders and fanatic rulers are over, this method can no more be practiced. But mullahs, through their patronage of the oil-rich Arab kings and Sheikhs, spend crores of rupees to bring Muslims of the East to the path of fundamentalism so that they may not be attracted to Hindu liberalism.

Yesterday (June 5) at 5 in the morning, Mannarkad MLA and CPI leader Jose Baby performed the ritual of weighing himself (tulabharam) in front of the Guruvayoor temple. Deputy Speaker-designate in the newly constituted Kerala Assembly, Jose Baby was weighed with sugar.

The ritual, performed for non-Hindus outside the temple walls, required 60 kg of sugar and the Christian MLA paid its cost to the temple office. Besides, he paid Rs. 1000 towards palpayasam (milk porridge to symbolically feed the deity) and had his darshan from outside the temple.]

This is an example of Kerala contradictions: A godless communist being an ardent devotee of God; a Christian in love with a Hindu God; Hindus treating him as an outcaste because he is a Christian, yet the temple authorities having no hesitation to allow him to perform the Hindu ritual outside the temple premises; and the Marxist Christian performing the ritual in spite of the humiliation because of his love of Krishna...

The listing of contradictions could go on and on, but that is not the reason for reproducing the news here. Hindu leaders tell us to proclaim: “Say with pride we are Hindus!” Are we proud of being Hindus? One is not so sure, not because Hinduism is not a faith of which one cannot be rightly proud of. In fact, Hinduism is the best religion in the world. While other religions debate on religious freedom, Hinduism is a religion of freedom. Others insist on one God, one prophet and one scripture. Hindus have as many deities to choose from, as many acharyas to follow and as many books one can consider holy as to cater to individual taste. Hindus can as well not believe in any God. While other religions consider the unbeliever apostate, fit to be killed for the crime, Hindus had atheist saints too, no less revered than their pious counterparts.

Anyone should be proud of belonging to such a religion and, no wonder, others, especially people from the West, are attracted towards Hinduism. But how do we welcome them? By treating them as outcastes and shutting the doors of our temples on their face. We refuse to take them into our fold. We insist that the Hindu has to be born a Hindu, should have a caste and the converted can’t be fitted into a caste. The Brahmins will obviously object to take a converted to their caste because they are superior twice-born elite, the favourites of gods. The Scheduled Castes and OBCs will hesitate to welcome the convert fearing that he would cut into their reservation quota!

We complain that Hinduism is in danger because others are converting Hindus to their religion through propaganda and allurements. This is an undeniable fact. Especially the Christian world, that is more or less the West, has enormous amount of resources and missionary zeal to expand its faith in the third world countries through conversion of poor vulnerable people. The Pope, the fountainhead of Christian conversion, has already declared that Europe, Americas and Africa have been won over, and the target of the Cross should now be Asia.

The Muslim missionaries have almost abandoned their agenda of converting others to their religion. The reason is, Muslim mode of conversion had been through coercion rather than through propaganda and as the days of invaders and fanatic rulers are over, this method can no more be practiced. But the mullahs, through their patronage of the oil-rich Arab kings and sheikhs, spend crores of rupees to bring Muslims of the East to the path of fundamentalism so that they may not be attracted to Hindu liberalism. Even a non-practicing Muslim will not dare change his religion for the fear of social ostracism and even being killed by the mullahs' henchmen for the crime of apostasy, which is justified by the scripture. Moreover, polygamy, poverty and illiteracy act as multiplying factors for Muslim population.

It is not that Hindus are in any danger of being swept away by the tide of Muslim and Christian proliferation. Around 900 millions are too strong a solid body to be nibbled by ants. Despite the best efforts of the missionaries, the percentage of Christians in India’s population has not increased. This is because, despite a religious ban on practicing birth control and resorting to abortion, the majority of Christians, being educated, limit their family for their economic and social well-being. Of course, the population of Muslims is increasing, but that is leading to their qualitative deterioration. Indians, irrespective of their religious following, should strive for increasing the country’s GDP rather than try to beat China in numbers.

Conversion need not be an agenda of Hindus to attract people towards Hinduism. As seen earlier, Hinduism has its intrinsic qualities—tolerance of other faiths based on freedom, productive inquiry and out-of-the-box thinking. The need is to practice these precepts and allow others to enjoy these unique qualities of Hinduism instead of arrogantly shutting its doors.

Now going back to the news of the incident that provoked to write this piece. It was not the only instance of intolerance and rude behaviour of the Guruvayoor temple authorities shown towards lovers of Hinduism belonging to other religions. The management not only does not allow non-Hindus’ entry into the temple but also tries to find out the “Hindu purity” of one who is allowed to enter. And if he/she is found not “pure” enough by examining the antecedents, the management performs the prescribed rituals of purification of the temple!

Sometime back, a Congress leader and presently a minister in the Manmohan Singh Cabinet, Vayalar Ravi conducted the marriage of his son in the Guruvayoor temple. The ceremony went on well, but later someone pointed out that Ravi’s wife was a Christian, so the bridegroom had Christian blood in him. The mother did not attend the marriage, yet the boy’s entrance to the temple was considered to be polluting the temple! The premises required decontamination by performing a ritual of punyaham.

In another instance, the wife of Mahindra Rajapakse, the Sri Lankan President, visited the temple to offer prayers. The temple authorities welcomed her as a VIP under the impression that she was a Buddhist. A few days later, it was revealed that the Sri Lankan first lady was a Christian before her marriage and had embraced Buddhism. The temple authorities considered allowing entry to her into the presence of Lord Krishna a lapse and decided to do penance for the sin! They ordered repeating the puja for several days by the priests to please the God, who had been polluted by the presence of a woman of another religion!

The intolerance of the Guruvayoor temple authorities was such that they did not allow the Indian President Gyani Zail Singh to enter the temple to pay obeisance to the Lord. They insisted that he should remove his turban before entering the premises, which he refused to do.

Devotional songs in praise of Krishna written by the distinguished Muslim poet Yusafali and sung by the reputed Christian singer Jesudas blare out from loudspeakers in the premises of the Guruvayoor temple to spread the waves of bhakti in the air. But neither Yusafali nor Jesudas is allowed entry to the temple because they are not born Hindus. The Hindu by birth stipulation is insisted not in Guruvayoor alone; it is a practice followed by temples all over the country.

Not long ago, an American woman, who was married to an Indian Hindu and had embraced Hinduism, was stopped at the doorsteps of a temple as the authorities felt she, being a foreigner, was a non-Hindu. Pamela, married to Anil Kumar Yadav, was the woman who had to suffer the indignity at the hands of Hindu orthodoxy at the ancient Lingraj temple of Bhubaneswar. When Pamela’s husband tried to explain to the priests that she had converted to Hinduism and insisted that she had every right to enter the shrine, he was manhandled and dragged to the police station where the law “took its own course” with lathis.

What do all these incidents show? People from other religions cannot be converted to Hinduism. Foreigners, especially those who can be distinguished by their features or colour, cannot be considered Hindus if they have embraced Hinduism or even if their parents are Hindus.

Restricting temple entry to brown Hindus only is against the spirit of Hinduism, the precept of seeing the world as a family (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam). Hindu leaders do not see conversion of Indians from other faiths to Hinduism as conversion, because they were originally Hindus. Reconversion is only a come-back, they say. It means that all Indians are originally Hindus and banning their entry to temples is against the theory of re-conversion to original religion.

Hinduism is a way of life, a path of sticking to Indian ethics, morals and good traditions. What is objectionable is detaching the Hindus from their tradition and uprooting them to transplant them to an alien faith of exclusiveness. Gandhiji considered Jesus Christ as good as Sri Ram. But he did not convert himself to Christianity in spite of the tremendous emotional pressure of his well-meaning Christian friends in South Africa. This was because he found he could love Jesus even while remaining a Hindu, whereas he could not be a devotee of Ram if he were a Christian. It is this uniqueness of freedom of conscience that attracts the world to Hinduism from faiths that straightjacket human thoughts and spiritual development. If Hindus could preserve this unique quality of freedom of thought and inquiry, then there is no need of any other incentive to attract others to Hinduism. Therefore, what Hindus should realise is that we need not go on a mission to convert or reconvert non-Hindus, but keep Hindu society open for others to interact, to keep our gods and their abodes approachable to all who are attracted to them.

(The author, a veteran journalist, can be contacted at 42-B, Pocket 1, Mayur Vihar-1, Delhi 110091.)

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