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, October 12, 2008

Spare the ‘sinners’!

by T R Jawahar

As a columnist I have a marked distaste for back to back sequels. But with bouquets and brickbats flying thick and fast over last week’s article on religious conversions, the Pandora’s box will perforce have to remain open this week too.

I am grateful for the bouquets but the brickbats will naturally merit most attention.The reactions on that count vary from the extremely violent to soft censure to righteous indignation.For some I dont have answers and rue my limitations. Yet, that does not in anyway dilute the basic assertions: Conversions are a mass endeavour, all denominations indulge in them with varying degrees of success, the convertors derive divine sanction on the basis of a superior god and a super salvation, huge funds that can pale MNCs are at their disposal and the methods are by no means fair and by all means foul. And the unkindest cut comes when the predators in search of prey preach from the pulpit, delivering secular sermons to the truly tolerant. For, if the ‘targets’ were communal they would have given the boot to the evangelists who claim an exclusive franchise to faith and God, long before the Bajrang Dals were even born. If saying this is to fuel ‘communal fires’, well, the original sin of starting it all, at least, does not lie with me. Now over to the devil’s advocate.

Many have blamed the overzealous evangelists. But I sincerely believe there is scriptural sanction to convert too. In any case, that’s how the high priests down the ages have interpreted the word ‘propoagate’. The insistence on religious freedom in non-Christian lands is only a ruse to usher in the ‘true faith’. And this not just a Protestant ploy as some others have suggested. The urge to convert transcends denominations. Many would not know Robert Di Nobili. He was a medieval Roman Catholic who set shop in Madurai. Having failed to make even a dent in that seat of Hindu religiosity he hit upon an ingenious, albeit evil, project. He sported a sacred thread with a cross dangling from it, raised a tuft (kudumi) and announced himself as a Roman Brahmin. He even forged a document to ‘prove’ that he was a descendant of Brahma and claimed that the Bible was the fifth Veda! The imposter soon flourished and was said to have converted over a lakh. And the Pope of his time blessed him, notwithstanding the liberties with morality of means!

The spirit of Nobili is still alive and kicking. Four hundred years hence, in 1969 the Catholic Bishops conference of India sent a proposal to the Vatican seeking to include Hindu religious practices for worship by the newly enrolled faithful. The Vatican not only put the seal of approval but even issued detailed guidelines. Some samples: genuflection may be replaced by the profound bow with the anjali hasta, folding of hands ...footwear may be removed also ... kissing of objects may be replaced by touching with one’s fingers or palm of one’s hands and bringing the hands to one’s eyes or forehead ...angavastra could replace the traditional vestments of the Roman rite...the corporal can be replaced by a tray or Thamboola thattu...oil lamps can replace candles ...single aarti, washing of hands can be used to welcome... All these pass under lofty labels like Inculturation or Indigenisation for what is essentially impersonation. That Christianity would become more heathen than even the heathen seems to be of no concern. But if the idea is to project that faith as totally Indian with its own hoary Indian history and Indian flavour, then why claim minority status?

There is also this familiar argument that it is the rigid and oppressive caste system that feeds the evangelists and fetches them the converts. Well, the other side is not greener either. Sample this letter to the editor written by a Dalit woman and published in a super secular newspaper over a decade back: ‘Anyone who is aware of the rural social scenario will agree with me that Dalit Christians get the same treatment as Hindu Dalits. Adding salt to injury, they are also looked down upon in their own religion ... Is it proper that few upper caste communities corner all the benefits under the pretext of minority rights and corner power? Is it proper to seek funds from abroad under the guise of evangelism and social uplift by selling Dalits’ shame and helplessness in the West? Is it proper to attach caste surnames to their Christian names and identify more with caste than Christ? Is it proper to allot separate places in the Churches...’ The litany of woes is long!

The cold fact is converts to Christianity continue to be ‘caste’ in the same mould. However, I won’t say Christianity has failed them. But, nevertheless, it is a fact that the original promises were downright fraudulent. Really, there is a crying need for reform in every religious society, nay the whole of humanity, which wallows in discriminations of all kinds. But conversions are not the solution, for it could only be a jump from the frying pan to the fire. Also, I would not want someone, whose own house is in disorder, to try and set my house in order. Particularly when his motive is to benefit from my disarray, like that proverbial monkey and two cats. Indeed, with four fingers pointing inwards, it is better if every religion addresses its ills.

My own instinctive revulsion to conversion, be it individual or mass and be it owing to conviction, for convenience or for cash, stands undiminished. I have my grouses with my god, but I find no reason to shift loyalties, certainly not for better material prospects. My understanding of religion precludes that. Religion is premised on the existence of a higher power and guides one in realising and understanding it. It is an intensely personal affair and there could be as many paths as there are humans. Therefore, despite my own theological convictions, I have no problems when a neighbour worships a different god. Nor is my God worried either. He is not jealous but self-confident enough to say that ‘in whatever form you worship me, I will be there’. If still one loses faith in that higher power, one can become an atheist at best, the only conversion that looks logical. Also religion being a personal pursuit of truth it cannot be held accountable for the State’s failures on the social and economic front, as well as one’s own follies. Again, for one to lose faith and reject, he should have studied his religion first. And for him to embrace another, he should have studied that too. How many have that mental faculty? Is one lifetime enough to fathom the Vedas and the Bible? Indeed, most, if not all conversions are knee-jerk!

Let me assure critics, I am not alone in this, er., communal outlook. Conversion is resented by most, though they may not say so out of courtesy. But that courtesy should not be mistaken for consent.The provocations are dire, the hurt is deep and the repurcussions could be damning. Hindus have been slapped on both cheeks and have no more cheek to spare. In fact, it is time conversion too is added to the list of sins that the Vatican releases from time to time. For, instead of loving, it hurts ‘thy neighbour’ who loves his own God! And no more sequels ...for now!


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