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, April 11, 2009

Religious conversion and interfaith dialogue

by Dr. Gautam Sen

There are two critical reasons why one cannot be converted to Hinduism from another faith. Firstly, conversion into Semitic faiths implies abandonment of an antecedent faith and the utter rejection of the beliefs and practices entailed by it. By contrast, Hinduism is sufficiently varied for Hindus to simultaneously espouse a multiplicity of ideas and practices, which need not be entirely consistent with each other. As a result, intellectual curiosity and self-interested spiritual generosity would motivate converts to Hinduism not give up an antecedent faith altogether if some aspects of it retain appeal. It means that a convert to Hinduism cannot really behave like an unyielding true convert as Semitic religious conversion demands. If many spiritual paths towards the divine are feasible, as Hinduism affirms, one cannot reject other paths because an individual chooses a particular one! Vivekananda, for example, though a committed Vedantist, found some aspects of Christian belief attractive, carrying with him Thomas á Kempis’, Imitation of Christ (the only text in his jhola) while on his arduous journey across India as a Rishi.

The key to Hindu belief and practice is fidelity to the Vedas, though their arguments and injunctions need not necessarily be mutually consistent. In a wider context, the revelations experienced by great Rishis are not unambiguously compatible either, as witness the important disagreements of rishis Ramanuja and Madhav with Shankara, their illustrious predecessor, over crucial issues of theism and worship. As a counterpoint to diverging views and convictions, Hindus are enjoined to accord a special place to reason as a method of resolving them although without making a fetish of contingent logical plausibility. In their inherited tradition, undue reliance on rarefied logic can turn out to be misplaced and the apparently contrary arguments of Rishis proven more viable. However, it should be pointed out in passing that Dharmic conduct is achieved only by scrupulous adherence to injunctions of the Vedas, including the circumstances in which violence is justified. It is far removed from contingent rational arguments about justice and truth though of course issues of interpretation of what is enjoined may remain to be determined.

The historical misnomer Hindu encompasses Sikhs and Jains and, for some observers, Buddhists as well since they are all considered overlapping expressions of faith. What they share is a degree of open-endedness though some are less willing to accord significant primacy to human reason and experimentation and privilege a revealed scriptural text instead. It is possible for an adherent to one specific set of Hindu beliefs to aim at a higher degree of internal coherence and dismiss other contiguous beliefs and practices as a consequence. Yet, that would still not entail an active renunciation of the kind sought by adherents to one of the Semitic faiths that enjoin an emphatic pronouncement of exclusive and indeed militant loyalty to one religious idiom. Hindu vegetarians are rightly sceptical of Hindu carnivores, but do not reject their claim to being Hindu altogether though quite clearly some are tempted to do so because they shrink from cruelty to animals.

Hindus may have committed secular crimes and some for which they sought to adduce religious justification, but they have not persecuted for heresy and apostasy over which Christians routinely committed mass murder and Muslims also punished with death. If one were to overcome this rather large practical problem of reconciling Hindu eclecticism with the absolutes of Semitic conversion and become a Hindu through conversion it would nevertheless still be necessary to decide if one form of conversion would suffice for all the varied Hindu belief systems or if several would need enumeration.

Secondly, if converted in some artificially prescribed manner into Hinduism a major problem arises if one exclusive god is embraced in the way prescribed by Semitic faiths? Such sectarian loyalty automatically subverts the very condition of being a Hindu, which is to remain eclectic and open-ended despite according an important role to the revelations of rishis as guides for thought and action. And being eclectic also implies the freedom to undergo religious experience in temples, gurdwaras and indeed churches, synagogues and mosques. In fact, Hindus face no imperative scriptural injunctions against doing so and many do join non-denominational worship, to use a Christian concept. Of course some Hindus do have objections to one or the other place of worship for political reasons or they may legitimately claim preference for their own particular religious institution as being more meaningful for themselves. But if eclectic Hindu conduct is permitted it defeats the very purpose of conversion, which, if it is to be meaningful, means adopting a singular divinity by decidedly rejecting all others as the Semitic faiths insist. Otherwise, the very purpose of conversion to a Semitic faith is rendered meaningless and irrelevant. Hinduism can be espoused by privately adopting its theology and practices without the formal intervention of an external agency to legitimise it though initiation by a teacher or guru might be sought.

Thus, formal conversion to Hinduism cannot be regarded as conversion at all in the sense in which it is understood by adherents to Semitic faiths and from whose sectarian agenda it is now corruptly entering Hindu discourse. Hindus could invent a distinctive new term for conversion, which allowed for their peculiar pluralism but the content it implied would still remain incommensurable with the vocabulary of conversion historically understood by adherents of Semitic faiths. The significance of even such a mode of conversion to Hinduism, by inventing a ceremony, would immediately be subverted by the innate eclecticism of Hinduism once the person began to practise Hindu beliefs unless a new and genuinely sectarian version of it was to come into existence in which case it ceases to be Hinduism. There are some newer sects like the Swaminarayan movement that might apparently approve such a development since they are enlarging their congregational reach and simultaneously identifying whom they wish to exclude - Semitisation after all in all but name!

It is precisely because conversion into Hinduism cannot be achieved in the sense intended by Semitic faiths, which have an unambiguous and specific meaning for it, Hindus can only be born. Hindus are mostly born into the faith in India, but they are also Hindus by birth wherever they may be, from either or both parents (in Judaism it is only possible through the maternal lineage). But of course there is no barrier for anyone to adopt Hindu beliefs and practices and indeed attain a degree of perfection and high status in terms of achievement greater than those born Hindu. This possibility transcends time, place and pre-existing status, removing the notion of absolute primacy for anyone by virtue of belonging to a particular social group. The children of those who have to taken to espousing Hindu beliefs and adopting its practices, can then become born Hindus and it therefore only takes one generation to become a born Hindu. But it occurs without conversion since the child concerned did not already possess an existing faith from which conversion would have had to occur.

Thus, when Hindus join dialogue with other faith groups like Christians about religious conversion and legitimate methods of approaching the issue in the context of interfaith dialogue they are only discussing a method for the abandonment of their Sanatana Dharma. There can be no meaningful counterpart for them as a quid pro quo, which, in any case, has little relevance for their eclecticism and practice of allowing diversity. This is why Christians are anxious to engage them on the issue of religious conversion because it pertains almost exclusively, in practice, to enticing Hindus into their fold. The same holds true for Islam, but Muslims are less duplicitous on the subject and openly denounce Hinduism and its entire evil, pagan works. However, the same offensive behaviour is usually true, in practice, for evangelical proselytisers on the ground since they find a dose of fear and demonisation of rival faiths like Hinduism and Buddhism, coupled with bribery of the poor, hastens religious conversion.

As an aside, it might be noted that interfaith dialogue ought to imply mutual respect and as a corollary should mean abstaining from the aggressive and devious proselytising methods that evangelists invariably adopt. The reason they do not desist is that evangelical activity has been absolutely central to Christianity historically as a faith and is inconceivable without it. In the aftermath of the adoption of Christianity by the fourth century Roman Emperor, Constantine, as it happens because it supposedly aided a crucial military victory that ensured his rise to political pre-eminence, conversion and evangelical activity acquired a potent political rationale. In subsequent centuries it was the political necessity of imperial expansion that dictated the genocidal conversion of pagans and others, whether by the eighth century Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne or the post-renaissance empires that Europeans established worldwide. In the light of insatiable evangelical zeal, interfaith dialogue is meant to distract Hindus, lulling them into a false sense of security and apparent mutual regard, while the real business of conversion proceeds unchecked through every devious means possible.

In the modern world, evangelical activity has become a political vehicle for self-proclaimed Christian States like the US that regard it as an useful adjunct to more obvious economic, political and cultural means of controlling other countries and cultures. It is this rationale that led to the forcible conversion of the Philippines in the late nineteenth century and the later sophisticated subversion of the Republic of Korea by Christian evangelists. Imperialist Christian evangelical activities have in fact grown steadily as nations of European Christian origin have weakened and found it difficult to subdue other rising centres of national power by using traditional political and military instruments. India and China have become the most valued targets for Christian evangelical activity though other smaller countries like Nepal are experiencing a wave of successful conversions to Christianity. The fact that such religious conversions precipitate social tensions and conflict by dividing families and communities does not appear to trouble evangelists. Nor are they prepared to reflect on the bitter on-going disputes among Christians owing to the conversion of older Latin American Catholic communities by aggressive American Protestant evangelists. Adherents of Sanatana Dharma need to recognise that Christian evangelists, especially the myriad variants of American Protestantism, but also the Papacy, are essentially business corporations striving to enlarge market share and revenues.

The scale of the Christian evangelical operations in India has grown hugely in recent decades. Various Christian denominations have long undertaken their own missionary operations in different parts of India and they regard Hindu opponents to proselytising as the main hurdle to their designs. As a result, they co-operate with each other and any local group or political dispensation not opposed to evangelical activity or unable to comprehend its significance. They discreetly coordinate their activities with Muslim groups who, in turn, regard potent Christian influence within India’s socio-cultural milieu, academia and the media as less controversial than their own presence and a facilitator of their particular aims. Muslims are also confident that their own communities are immune to Christian evangelical blandishments and consider them unlikely to grow sufficiently in numbers to constitute a greater threat to Islam than a dominant Hinduism. The use of local converts to engage in Christian evangelical activities has also been an inspired decision because easily identifiable foreigners are more likely to attract unwelcome attention from the general population and oblige some government reaction to constrain it. In addition, Christian evangelists have recognised the centrality of intervening in domestic politics and the ease with which the Indian polity can be subverted.

Superior numbers and higher educational levels proved decisive for Christian evangelical activity in Kerala once they had reached an understanding with communists and Muslims to disempower the nominal Hindu majority though tensions are now surfacing over a division over the political spoils of success. More generally, Christian evangelists and their many co-conspirators in India and abroad have long understood that caste animosities were an essential pre-condition for constraining the self-conscious religious and politically active forward castes. They have incited and fuelled such caste divisions at every opportunity and successfully institutionalised deep hatreds in Tamil Nadu, intimidating local politicians and offering financial inducement as well to facilitate their evangelical mission. The accident of the rise of a Catholic to the pinnacle of political power in Delhi, along with an extraordinary sectarian cabal of Christian advisers, has created an opportunity for evangelical activity that they have taken advantage of fully. They have made rapid inroads into Andhra Pradesh by resorting to brazen actual and symbolic acts of political subversion and of course a massive infusion of funding to aid their local political protégés. India south of the Vindhyas is politically Christianised on a scale that will be difficult to reverse. The arrest and public humiliation of the Kanchi seer Jayendra Saraswathi and the complete elimination of all Brahmin trustees from temple management, a traditional preserve for them, under state purview in Tamil Nadu is indication of the calamitous situation for Sanatana Dharma.

Let me conclude with the two unrelated issues associated with contemporary concerns over the diabolical threat posed by Christian evangelical activity to the future of Sanatana Dharma. The first is the phenomenon of Ghar Wapaysi, which is mistakenly regarded by many as a Hindu form of re-conversion. It is nothing of the sort. It is essentially a defensive political act to resist the machinations of evangelical activity to subvert both Sanatana Dharma and Indian nationhood by creating religious enclaves that harbour extra-territorial political loyalties. Ghar Wapaysi is equivalent to the rescue of a kidnapped person, returning the person to the family and community from which effective kidnap had occurred. It does not create a new religious persona nor does it imply outright rejection of all Christian values the evangelist supposedly espouses though it is exactly what the evangelist sought to achieve in relation to Sanatana Dharma through the original conversion. Ghar Waypasi is merely a restoration of the status quo ante.

New adherents to variants Hindu belief and practice are welcomed by Hindus. A disproportionate number originate from well educated and wealthy societies and cannot altogether overcome their sense of social and racial superiority that they had already acquired as members of such better off societies. Once they have embraced Hindu ideas, practices and often joined a Hindu community or congregation they seem to quickly aspire to leadership positions of that community, accustomed as they are to enjoying social primacy over the perceived lesser breed of Hindu Indians in their midst. There is also a somewhat worrying tendency to assert superior knowledge and understanding or religious texts and practices than members of the host community they have joined. Such a situation is not in play because of some dark conspiracy or an innate tendency towards supremacist impulses, but it has an awful ring of familiarity for the pre-existing members of the Hindu faith community. Wisdom and basic decency counsel that such newer adherents to Sanatana Dharma exercise a measure of self-restraint and espouse modesty in their relations with other Hindus to ensure that the harmony they wished to experience by espousing Sanatana Dharma does indeed prevail.

Dr. Gautam Sen
March 2009.

(Taught political economy to graduate students at the London School of Economics & Political Science for more than two decades and is the co-author of Analyzing the Global Political Economy, Princeton University Press 2009)

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