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December 2008 - January 2009
Right to Choose or Right to Convert
The violence against the Christian community is condemnable. No one has the right to damage others’ worship places or attack their houses, let alone physically harm them. Even the most tragic and very provocative assassination of Swami Lakshmanand Saraswati in Kandhamal doesn’t justify the violence inflicted on the Christians in Orissa and Karnataka. If a crime takes place, the police and the courts need to deal with the matter – not the Bajrang Dal activists. Given their record of hooliganism and violence, this group should be banned forthwith, and those who have been responsible for carrying out the attacks on the Christians, should be put behind bars.
As long as the Christians did not use violence, the use of violence by the Hindu groups was totally unjustified and wrong. Even if the Christian missionaries have said derogatory things about the Hindu religious belief system, the answer does not lie in violence. An idea, no matter how abhorrent, deserves to be answered only with an idea. Answering an idea with violence only reflects a weakness in one’s own beliefs and argumentation skills.
Having said that, the wider issue before the country actually is the need to understand the phenomenon of religious conversions with their socio-political implications. India is a multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-cultural secular democracy. The question is – What is the motive behind the Christian drive to convert other people, particularly Hindus. And, is it compatible with the secular character of the country.
On the face of it, it looks quite innocent: Every person should have the right to choose their way of worship and practice their faith. So, a pre-requisite of freedom in the society is that everyone must have the right to freedom of religion. If, living in India or the UK, I am attracted by the religious and spiritual fervour of Shintoism or Scientology, I should be allowed to profess that.
However, things are not that simple, particularly when the conversion is a part of conversions organised by some group or organisation. The desire to convert others comes from the excessive belief in the superiority of one’s own religion. In fact both Christianity and Islam claim exclusive rights to God. Christians believe that ‘there is only one God, and Jesus is his son’. If you aren’t following Jesus, you aren’t following God. In the eyes of true Christians, all other forms of worshipping are false. During his visit to India in November 1999 Pope John Paul II proclaimed Jesus Christ as “true God and true man, the one and only Saviour for all peoples” (Ecclesia in Asia (10), (13) and (14)). This “extremely popular” Pope, acclaimed as “John Paul the Great” since his death, also said “Christ is the one Mediator between God and man and the sole Redeemer of the world” (Ecclesia in Asia (2)). As is obvious, the Christian Church has an extremely narrow and rigid approach towards the relationship between the man and God, and spirituality.
And, the Pope left no doubt about the place other religions have in the Christian world-view when he said that although the church respected other religious traditions and sought to dialogue with them, their religious values “await their fulfilment in Jesus Christ” (Ecclesia in Asia (6). Basically, the Church shows the same respect to other religious traditions that a butcher shows to a goat or a lamb before slaughtering them.
Likewise, the followers of Islam believe their religion to be the only true religion. Both these religions consider other faiths a waste of time, particularly the ones that use idols in their worshipping processes. Actually “idolatry” is considered to be a big sin in these religious systems. So, in the eyes of Christians and Islamists, Hindus are not only a “misguided” lot worshipping “stones” and gods like Hanuman and Ganesh (Animals!), they are positively sinners, who refuse to see “the true light of God” and recognise “the real Messiahs”.
Led by his blinkered view, the Pope exhorted the bishops of Asia that evangelism was their “absolute priority” and insisted that “just as in the first millennium the Cross was planted on the soil of Europe, and in the second on that of the Americas and Africa, we can pray that in the Third Christian Millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital continent” (Ecclesia in Asia (1).
As quoted by Dr Sebastian Kim in his scholarly work, ‘The Debate On Conversion Initiated by the Sangh Parivar, 1998-1999’, David Frawley in his article, The Missionary Position, described “organised conversion” by Christian missionaries as perpetuating “psychological violence” toward people of other faiths, and asserted that conversion is an “ideological assault”, a form of “religious violence and intolerance” – an “attempt of one religion to exterminate all others”. The Church’s insensitivity and arrogance towards other religions is certainly a recipe for confrontation and trouble.
And, given the warped thinking behind the Christian missions to convert, it is immaterial whether the conversion is induced/forced or not. As Frawley put it, it no longer remains a question of whether conversions are carried out by ethical means or not. Conversion itself is “inherently an unethical practice”, which “inevitably breeds unethical results” (The Missionary Position)
When a person converts to another religion, the process of conversion does not end with them abandoning a particular way of worshipping and adopting another. That is just the beginning, and a very small part of the process. The idea behind conversion is to lead the person to a particular mind-set. Firstly, unless the convert looks down on his previous religion, he cannot remain a convert. So, re-enforcing that now he belongs to a “superior culture” is essential for him to hold on to his newly acquired “beliefs”. And since he “finds” that the culture he previously belonged to is “inferior”, the desire to destroy that culture completely is awakened in him. To prove the genuineness of his conversion, the new convert is expected to convert a few more at least.
Secondly, a demand is made on the convert to forget his local customs, his culture & history, his ancestors, and in some cases even his language. Once Jinnah told Bengali Muslims (at that time, East Pakistanis) that Bengali is a language of Hindus, not Muslims. Of course, the thesis failed there. However, there are still a lot of people in India from the states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Orissa who deny any relation with Telugu, Kannada or Oriya on the basis of their being Muslim. Similarly, the converts to Christianity know nothing about Ashoka, Buddha, Akbar, Shivaji or Guru Gobind Singh. Not to speak of great Indian texts like the Mahabharat and the Vedas, even Yoga and Ayurveda are just “Hindu non-sense” for them! That’s what conversion does to people!
And such persons are very likely to go through the process of separatism and militancy against their former co-religionists. Though most of the Muslims in the Indian sub-continent are converts from the Hindu society, even before the demand for Pakistan was made, for the Muslim leaders their community wasn’t just a religious community. The basic tenet Sir Syed Ahmed Khan formulated for the Aligarh Movement was that not one, but two nations with distinct social, political, religious and historical traditions existed in India. Sir Syed even called on the Muslims that their interests were quite safe in the hands of the British; they should confine their attention to cultural development, and avoid politics except in so far as it was necessary to counter-balance the mischief of Hindu political agitators (RC Majumdar, British Paramountcy and Indian Renaissance, Vol. X, Part 2, p. 311). Religious conversions lay at the root of the holocaust of Partition.
The protagonists of Christianity advance the argument that they are only facilitating those to convert who feel deprived under the Hindu caste system. The question is why worshipping is necessary at all to fight caste violence and repression. If the object was just to save the downtrodden from the caste repression in the Hindu society, these self-appointed saviours would have fought against the caste system wherever it exists. Instead they lure people into worshipping another set of gods. In the hands of Christian missionaries, liberation from caste repression is relegated to a secondary place while changing deities occupies the pride of place. And, it is a myth that once you change your religion, you are free from the shackles of the caste system. The reality is, the caste repression never leaves the poor convert! Though theoretically there is no caste system in Christianity and Islam, in practice the converts from the so-called lower castes of Hindu society continue to belong to those lower castes, even within the Christian and Islamic folds. The dream of being liberated from the caste system turns out to be a mirage when the so-called lower caste convert finds himself in a church designated for “lower caste Christians”. Respect and dignity still elude them!
However, in the process, the convert loses touch with the spiritual system of his ancestors, and a demand to look at the world through a new prism is made on him, quite often leading to the problem of identity crisis. New converts rarely have a stable and relaxed personality and self-confidence. The new converts constituted a disproportionately high number among the Muslim youths accused of terrorist activities in Europe and the US in recent years. While the individual goes through the tribulations, the society suffers as well.
Religion is not just a spiritual system, it is also a tool to rule over people. Religious beliefs have political dimensions, and religious groups are political groups. All over the world, politicians manipulate these groups. In the previous centuries, the White man went around the world, particularly to America and Africa, with a gun in one hand and the Bible in the other. Once the natives were converted into Christianity, it became much easier for the Europeans to “manage” their colonies.
Organised religious conversions represent a grave threat to the integrity and identity of India, particularly its secular milieu. The Christian stance towards other faiths is in total contrast to the basic Indian belief in the concept of Sarv Dharm Sambhaav, meaning all religions are equal. The idea to convert others is an anti-thesis of secularism. While the violence by the Hindu groups is an immature and wrong response, the blind and blinkered attitude of the Christian establishment towards other religions is the root cause of the problem. So, while the right to choose and practice one’s way of worship deserves to be protected, the zeal to show “the true light of God” to “infidels” must be curbed.
And, the self-styled guardians of Bharatiya Sanskriti must realize – the caste system is a curse. As long as the so-called low castes feel repressed in the Hindu society, they would continue to look for salvation outside – whether a myth or mirage. And, India would have to face the consequences.