Religious conversions and Hindu society

Propagation of religions is a right guaranteed under our constitution. No doubt, propagating the tenets of a religion is quite desirable. Hindus, for instance, may want to know and understand the principles of Christianity or Islam and follow those they like.
The Bible, for example, has many enlightening instructions, proverbs, moral stories, and sermons from which non-Christians, like Hindus, can help. Gandhiji treasured his favourite Bible passages and Christian hymns, sang ‘Ishwar Allah Tero Naam,’ and loved the essence of other religions as a Hindu. After all, it is almost a cliché that all religions teach the same morals, ethics and provide similar spiritual experiences. So, anyone can choose any belief or practice of any religion to derive practical and spiritual benefits without converting to that religion.

So, why would any religion demand formal conversion? Is it because the God of that religion would refuse salvation or spiritual comfort to an individual even if that individual lived up to its tenets but without ‘converting?’ Do different religions have different Gods, each offering His own scheme for salvation and maintaining a separate heaven for His devotees? This notion is unconvincing. To further assume that Hindus lack heaven- and cannot attain heaven without conversion to a religion that has one- is preposterous.

But such beliefs arise because religions have two sides to them: one, spiritual that ‘elevates’ and the other, the tribal. It is the latter that converts the followers of any religion into an insular group with a siege mentality. The proselytising religions inculcate a tribal identity in their followers by making them unquestioningly accept and take pride in the faith’s symbols, customs, exclusive God, holy book, myths, theology, prophets, etc.

Like tribes, they have initiation ceremonies to make a person a ‘genuine’ member of that faith. The so-converted person will then be governed by the religious law of apostasy, which says death or eternal damnation awaits those switching to another religion or marrying an unconverted partner from another faith. This is why some men find a girl from another faith good enough to fall in love but not good enough to marry unless converted. Hindu communities (castes) have the same tribal character, while Hindu society neither demands nor allows caste conversions. Hence, for Hindus, inter-caste marriages are theoretically ruled out, but if willing to convert, interfaith marriages are possible.

Mandatory conversion implies that a person can choose a proselytising religion only in its totality, and that is, by converting, unlike Hinduism, which, as practised today, allows its followers the freedom to choose from its many deities, alternative paths of salvation, religious practices, and beliefs- and even to pray to gods of other religions at their shrines, or follow the teachings of other faiths. Hindus visiting churches, dargahs, Sufi shrines, or gurudwaras for praying and votive offerings is too common to deserve any special mention.

The proselytising religions forbid their followers to believe in deities other than their one ‘true’ God or share the spirituality of other religions. This makes their adherents a part of a close-knit, insular group, forbidden from sharing the religious beliefs and practise of others. So, conversions create social divisions when there are enough divisions along race, ethnicity, nationality, ideology, language, and others, as witnessed by the many global conflicts. Nothing good can come out of an additional division so virulent that people even kill each other for the only reason they follow different religions.

For the Hindu society, conversion is a concept alien to its premises. It evolved at a time the Indian Subcontinent, across its breadth from Baluchistan to Assam, was peopled by tribal communities of many ethnicities having a wide range of customs, cultures, and faiths. The Hindu society became a federation of these communities, enabling them to co-exist, practice their faith, and follow their traditions without hindrance or disparagement from others while sharing their beliefs and deities with other communities. This relatively tolerant coexistence led to the evolution of the syncretic faith, now known as Hinduism, having many regional and community-specific variations across India. Hinduism never ‘converted’ but took whole communities into its fold without erasing their identities.

Hinduism, the syncretic faith of the Hindu Society, took an identity only after the advent of Buddhism and Jainism. These religions remained outside the Hindu ‘federation’ and rejected its idea of communities (castes) staying independent while sharing their beliefs and deities. These new atheist faiths’ thoughts differed from Hinduism’s, and they believed in ‘converting’ people to their faith to take them out of the Hindu federation and the caste system.

Buddhism and Jainism flourished till they did not overly vilify Hinduism or its beliefs and deities. Jainism eventually made its peace with Hinduism. However, Buddhism remained antagonistic to Hinduism till it became extinct in India, but not before Hinduism absorbed its essence – to the extent that Shankaracharya’s Advaita was considered crypto-Buddhism by his detractors. This proves Hinduism’s remarkable capacity for inclusiveness of thoughts while disproving its unlimited tolerance for forces working against Hindu society and Hinduism.

Hindus are accommodative of other religions; they even pray at the shrines of other faiths. So, why do they oppose conversions? Because they are free to look to other religions for their spiritual needs without abandoning their community (caste). In the past, new cult groups remained within Hindu society and followed its unwritten rules of tolerance and sharing. So, any proselytising religion that aggressively asks Hindus to abandon their society would conflict with the idea of Hindu society, which expects each community to share its deities, beliefs, and values with others while respecting and sharing those of others. A Hindu looks to fulfil her/his spiritual needs and salvation and lets others do the same without conversion and alienation from his community.

Apparently, for a millennium or so, Hindu society lacked the vigour or clout to oppose the conversion of its members. But the recent political developments have energised the not-so-tolerant side of Hindu society to defend what it perceives are the basic societal rules.

All this brings up the question -Does propagation of religion mean ‘conversions’, too?



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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