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.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Equality is a Hindu heritage. Others only profess

The plight of the converted dalits

By Shachi Rairikar

For decades dalits have been converting to Christianity or Islam in the vain hope of being liberated from their dalit status. The proselytising forces of these foreign faiths market their religions as not recognising the caste system and giving equal status to all. Only after conversion do the dalits realise the fraud that has been perpetuated on them in the name of equality when they find discriminatory treatment in Christian and Muslim societies and even their places of worship.

And this is not a new phenomenon. Many decades ago Dr. Ambedkar had studied the plight of dalits converted to Christianity and observed, “Indian Christians like all other Indians are divided by race, by language, and by caste. Their religion has not been a sufficiently strong unifying force as to make difference of language, race and caste as though they were mere distinctions.” The same was the case with the Muslim converts. He said, “Everybody infers that Islam must be free from slavery and caste. (While slavery existed), much of its support was derived from Islam and Islamic countries. While the prescriptions by the Prophet regarding the just and humane treatment of slaves contained in the Koran are praiseworthy, there is nothing whatever in Islam that lends support to the abolition of this curse. But if slavery has gone, caste among Muslims has remained.”

Dr. Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism was his way of revolting against the caste system in Hinduism. When he announced his intention to convert to another religion in 1935 many Christian and Muslim leaders and organisations tried to lure him into their religions. To those people he said, “We are fully conscious of the fact that go anywhere we will, we would have to fight for our welfare if we took to Christianity or Islam.”

For 20 years he studied all the alternative religions for the purpose of conversion. Christianity did not satisfy the criteria laid down by him for determining a true religion. About Islam he wrote, “The brotherhood of Islam is not the universal brotherhood of man. It is brotherhood of Muslims for Muslims only. There is a fraternity but its benefit is confined to those within that corporation. For those who are outside the corporation, there is nothing but contempt and enmity.” He was of the opinion that “Islam can never allow a true Muslim to adopt India as his motherland and regard a Hindu as his kith and kin.”

But the most important factor that desisted Dr. Ambedkar from converting to Christianity or Islam was that both these religions were foreign, born outside of the Hindu civilization. Adopting these religions would de-Indianise the dalits, which would be against the national interest. He wrote, “If the depressed classes join Islam or Christianity, they not only go out of the Hindu religion, but they also go out of the Hindu culture. What the consequences of conversion will do to the country as a whole is well worth bearing in mind.” So after the detailed study and great introspection, he chose Buddhism, an offshoot of Hinduism. The Dalai Lama has considered Buddhism a part of Hinduism. He has said: “When I say that Buddhism is part of Hinduism, certain people criticise me. But if I were to say that Hinduism and Buddhism are totally different, it would not be in conformity with truth.”

Dr. Ambedkar himself perceived Buddhism as a part of the larger Hindu family. When he introduced the Hindu Code Bill in Parliament, he included the Buddhists, the Jains and the Sikhs in the Hindu fold. On being questioned for doing so, Dr. Ambedkar replied, “The application of the Hindu Code to Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains was a historical development and it would be too late, sociologically, to object to it. When the Buddha differed from the Vedic Brahmins, he did so only in matters of creed, but left the Hindu legal framework intact. He did not propound a separate law for his followers. The same was the case with Mahavir and the ten Sikh gurus.”

The Christian and Muslim proselytisers have no interest in the welfare of the dalits or the integrity of the nation. Had their concern been genuine they wouldn’t have permitted the caste discriminations to be carried over to the church or mosques. All they are interested into winning converts and increasing their numbers. The dalits are the soft targets whose impoverished conditions are exploited to change their religion. Pope John Paul II had exhorted the bishops to target the dalits for conversion. He had said, “At all times, you must continue to make certain that special attention is given to those belonging to the lowest castes, especially the dalits.” It is common to see the different Christian and Muslim religious organisations boasting of the number of converts they had obtained and competing amongst themselves as to which religion has the largest number of followers. For them, it is just a number game.

The demand for reservation for dalit Christians or Muslims arises not out of sympathy for the depressed classes but out of the fact, as confessed by the president and founder of Gospel for Asia K.P. Yohannan, that the denial of affirmative-action benefits for dalit Christians and Muslims is “a huge, huge roadblock for masses of communities to embrace the Christian faith.” Reservations and privileges for dalit Christians and Muslims will only strengthen the dubious designs of the proselytizing forces that are using dalits for furthering their goals. Dalits converted on the false promise of equal status in a casteless society, must be reconverted to Hinduism. The dalit icon Babu Jagjivan Ram had said, “…we oppose the way in which conversions are done. Therefore, we have to reconvert those who might have been converted by deceit or under some temptation.”

R. Thirumalvalavan, leader of the Dalit Panthers Party of India, said, “For emancipation of dalits, conversion is not the solution.” The solution lies in the comprehension and adoption of the real essence of Hinduism by all the Hindus, irrespective of their caste.

Hinduism perceives divinity in everything, whether living or non-living. One of Adi Shankaracharya’s finest poems, Manisha Panchakam, was inspired by his dialogue with a chandala, a member of the lowest caste. Once, when Shankara was on his way to the temple after a bath in the Ganga, he found a chandala with four dogs blocking his path. He got furious when the chandala refused to step aside, and asked him to do so. The chandala asked, “If there is only one existence, what is it that you want to drive away: My body or my soul? If it is my body, both your and mine are made up of the same physical elements. But if it is my soul, it is also no different from yours. How can therefore be any distinctions of caste and creed?” Filled with remorse, Shankara prostrated himself before the chandala, thinking: “He who has learnt to see one existence everywhere, he is my master—be he a Brahmin or a chandala.”

The need of the hour is a collective effort of all sections of the Hindu society to reinstate the true spirit of Hinduism. Dalit activist and poet Namdeo Dhasal says, “Yes, I do feel that the fight to eradicate caste has to be fought by dalits and caste Hindus together carrying forward the tradition of Adi Shankara, which got broken somewhere in between.”

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