IS CONVERSION AN ‘ISSUE’?
Debates on conversion have been quiet common in India starting from the period of the British Raj, becoming aggravated during the independent era. Although conversion is a matter of religion and personal concern of individuals, it often takes communal and political colour. Certain sections of people raise conversion as an ‘issue’ that triggers unwanted tensions. On October 21, 2008 at Rourkela, Yoga Guru Swami Ramdev criticised religious conversion by inducement and opined to stop it in the name of providing service. On October 22, 2008 the RSS demanded a central law to ban religious conversion in the light of the killing of VHP leader Laxmanananda Saraswati in Orissa. L. K. Advani has called for a national debate on religious conversion by asserting, “A free and honest democratic debate on the issue of religious conversions is the need of the hour.” By alleging either inducement or violence and killing, some of them urge to stop conversion or to put a complete ban on it; others call for a national debate on conversion. A different segment of people counts the right to conversion as a constitutional and fundamental right and so any attempt to ban it invites even international attention. Thus a religious affair is dragged into a communal, political, national or international scenario.
The questions that arise are—”What is conversion all about?” “Does conversion need to be a matter of political discussion, thereby becoming a national or international issue?” “If it is a political issue, which are the political parties concerned?” “If a religious group raises objection to it and makes hue and cry, what is their motive?” “Does not an individual or a community have the right to decide what to believe or practise?” “Is not conversion merely a matter of personal conviction and of individual faith?” “Who, in fact, owns the right to dictate terms to the others regarding what religion to profess?” One can also ask, “Is not conversion an issue ‘created’ or ‘constructed’ by those who have vested interests?” Is it an ‘issue’ at all for those who are converted?
This article takes the perspective of a convert while seeking to clarify these questions. Firstly, it clarifies the concept of conversion. Secondly, it briefly discusses the reasons behind opposing the conversion. Thirdly, it narrates the conversion experience of the author’s family and examines the same in the light of the reasons and process of conversion. Finally, it concludes with a couple of remarks. The ultimate purpose is to raise the suppressed voice of the ‘converts’ and thereby to let the subjects speak for themselves, instead of letting the ‘empire’ or ‘coloniser’ speak on their behalf.
Conversion is a dynamic, multifaceted process of change. For some, that change is abrupt and radical; for others, it is gradual and not inclusive of a person’s total life. Although human sciences limit the term conversion to sudden, radical alterations in people’s beliefs, behaviours and affiliations, conversion in its practical form allies with personal as well as communal metamorphosis. Conversion involves the following elements: i) it is an inward, personal, affective experience; ii) it is centred on God or Ultimate Reality; iii) its process begins in dissatisfaction, or a conscious crisis of self-identity, iv) it culminates in a conscious turning from one way of looking at life to another. Since conversion pervades mental, social and spiritual aspects, its result is variously called a new world-view, altered perceptual grid, a changed ‘universe of discourse’ or a rebirth. In India, the aspect of conversion, however, is not limited to inward matters of an individual, but has political and national implications ever since one’s religion is set as a criterion for the quota system. According to B. R. Ambedkar. conversion has two aspects—”social as well as religious; material as well as spiritual.”
Why Oppose Conversion?
It is evident that those who are unhappy about conversion are politicians with vested interest of power, and religious leaders who are inclined to their Hindutva agenda. Hindu leaders sensed disastrous consequences once the untouchables converted from the Hindu fold during the Ambedkar era. They feared that it might trample the social pyramid in which the untouchables served the foundation of the Hindu caste structure. Rajasekhar writes, “They (the untouchables) carry the entire weight of this Hindu human pyramid providing the cheapest and the most inexhaustible source of labour as menial servants, scavengers, sweepers, garbage men, shoe-makers, farm-hands, etc. essentially producers of wealth. Centuries of hard labour—under sun and rain without murmur, from daybreak to nightfall, from birth to death—has transformed their body into steel. They can withstand any stress and strain. Who is prepared to forego such a cheap, obedient, loyal and perennial working force?”
Their conversion would have two consequences: for the converts, liberation from the violence of Hinduism, and for Hinduism its oppressive pyramid structure will collapse when the foundation is destroyed. Rajasekhar claimed that such a collapse and mighty fall was avoided since the Dalits (untouchables) had joined Buddhism, which is an ally of Hinduism.
A Convert’s View
Having been born in a Hindu family and having had the upbringing in a Christian environment, it is appropriate for the author to express his personal view to shed light into the subject from a convert’s perspective. An attempt is made to place the conversion experience of the author’s family in the context of the motive or reasons for conversion and the process of conversion as explained by Plamthodathil S. Jacob and Lewis R. Rambo, respectively.
a. Personal Conversion Experience
Here is a conversion experience of a family, comprising my parents and three children. It happened when I was young. My father, K. Krishnan, a staunch traditional Hindu believer, got afflicted with a sort of skin disease while he was serving in the Indian Army. Even after being treated in various military hospitals and performing various rituals as per his faith as a professing Hindu, his condition continued to worsen. My grandmother, meanwhile, proposed to invite some Christian sisters from our area to pray for him since no one else could find the way out. With much hesitation, my father agreed to invite the Christians since the sickness had prolonged for almost three and a half years. Those sisters asked him to believe in Jesus as they prayed for a couple of days. Gradually and steadily his condition improved. Consequently he regained his health and joined back for duty in the Army in twenty days time. This became a turning point in our life to embrace the new faith and my father himself wanted to join the prayer group and take baptism, as he read the New Testament. This event also led later to establish a church in our native place at Manjakode, near Neyyattinkara in Thiruvananthapuram District of Kerala.
This narration is not to belittle any faith or tradition, or to deny the genuine religious experiences of the adherents of any other tradition. It is to insist that an individual deserves the right for conversion according to his own free will and choice of his conscience.
b. In The Milieu Of Jacob’s Hypothesis
Plamthodathil S. Jacob in his article on “Hindu and Christian: Conversions and Transformations” discusses conversion in a religiously and socio-culturally pluralistic scenario. He begins by raising a question, “Why do people get converted?” He then explains that the type of answer one receives to such a question depends on the differences in perception. He then states, “The answers from the religio-political camp of Hindutva cover a wide range such as the use of force (physical and psychological), enticement (socio-economic, educational, health and monetary guarantees) and an international conspiracy to wipe out the mother of all religions, i.e. Hinduism, from its own land. Others say that conversion gives hope for freedom from blind beliefs, socio-economic oppression, traditional intellectual pursuit, and the Christian evangelists could add the dimension of freedom from sin and eternal damnation including the assurance of salvation.”
The assumed answer explained by Jacob to the question raised is not primarily applicable to the conversion of my father and the whole family. In my father’s case, in contrast to what many religio-political camp of Hindutva would argue, there was no force, enticement, or conspiracy against wiping out his earlier faith by any Christian. There was neither socio-economic oppression nor any monetary benefit that compelled him to change his old faith. He never counted his faith as a blind belief or longed for freedom from sin or assurance of salvation. He was very much content in his faith and was actively involved in religious affairs. But during a crisis it was purely his own will, or more specifically, his own initiative, to embrace the newly found Christian faith. As the journey began as Christians, undoubtedly, the doctrines of sin and salvation were imparted and we got accustomed to it.
Although the explanations on the reason behind the conversion vary, according to Jacob, “the undisputed understanding among all religions is that each religion offers its own version of transformation of the individual.” It implies that an individual is challenged to become a better human being and is led to a process of transformation into a condition of holiness/purity which comes from God. Even religions like Buddhism and Jainism which do not have a place for God challenge humans to follow the path of enlightenment. All these require an experience of divine transformation. Jacob further argues that the general practice of the missionaries of all religions today is to put a lot of emphasis on the external departure from the old religious context and the acceptance of a new set of practice and community as such, rather than insisting on transformation as the basic condition for conversion. The current understanding of conversion in general by Christians and the people of other faiths is in effect “the change of membership from one religion to another.” Thus the prerequisite of transformation is often literally ignored.
It is, no doubt, a wrong tendency seen in many groups who promote conversion that ignores transformation, but insists merely on change of membership. However, coming back to focus on my father’s life, although the healing from the skin disease was the reason to embrace Christian faith, the people who led him to the new faith insisted on transformation and Christian values. This firstly led him to quit smoking, drinking and other bad habits at once that were harmful to his personal, family and social life. Secondly it also gradually changed his attitude to fellow human beings, to love them irrespective of any caste tags or social status. This transformation was due to further spiritual experience and close association with the new faith community through prayer and fellowship.
Nevertheless, ‘change of membership’ felt by many individuals as well as masses who converted cannot be nullified as unnecessary or invalid. The ‘discontinuity’ within or without, at one point of time, is integral to transformation. ‘Continuity’ often perpetuates the undesired, and prevents genuine transformation.
c. In The Milieu Of Rambo’s View
Lewis R. Rambo brings out a ‘heuristic stage model’ that elucidates the complex processes involved in conversion. According to him, the process of conversion involves the following: (i) Context:- One’s context refers to both macro-context which consists of one’s socio-cultural environment like globalisation or industrialisation that generates alienation and confusion, causing people to opt for a new religion to reduce anxiety and find meaning, and micro-context which refers to one’s immediate world of the family, ethnic group, religious community, and local neighbourhood that plays a vital role in producing a sense of identity and belonging. (ii) Crisis:- Prior to conversion people face some sort of crisis corresponding to religious, political, psychological, cultural or a life situation, during which myths, rituals, symbols, goals and standards cease to function; therefore, an individual opts for change in order to rediscover the meaning for the same. (iii) Quest:- When people try to maximise meaning and purpose in life and look for resources to ‘fill the void,’ the notion of quest begins and such search is intensified under abnormal and crisis conditions. (iv) Encounter:- Potential converts bring certain intellectual, emotional, and practical needs for religious change to the advocates of faith who follow specific methods for prayer, worship, meditation, and so forth which draw people to it. (v) Interaction:- The continual interaction of the potential converts with the advocates of faith paves the way to learn more about the teachings, life-style, and expectations of the group; and the group in turn enable people to transcend conflict, enhance self-esteem, and gain a new perspective on life. (vi) Commitment:- Potential converts believe that they are faced with a choice between the way of life and the way of death, and in the conversion process there occur a radical rejection of the old and a thorough absorption of, and commitment to, the new. (vii) Consequence:- After the initial turning, a convert needs to transform every aspect of life, and that involves a re-orientation which may lead to compassion, sacrifice, and service.
When the above experience of conversion is examined in the light of the process of conversion explained by Rambo, I see many points of agreement between the two. As far as my father’s conversion is concerned, the crisis, the quest and the encounter have played vital roles. When he became ill, being a devout follower of a particular deity in the Bhakti tradition, he conducted special rituals on the advice of priests, besides daily pujas as usual, visited certain famous worship places and took vows and pledges and gave special offerings but all in vain. He was in a real crisis, as Rambo points out, which compelled him to look for possible new options. The sickness has already created a ‘void’ and meaninglessness in him to the extent that he even pondered embracing death, and the quest for new faith was to fill that vacuum the illness created in him. The prayer and worship, conducted by the advocates of Christian faith could meet his emotional and practical needs during the encounter with the new faith community. It also helped him to develop a new dimension of the transcendence and religious experiences. His continual interaction with the advocates of Christian faith gradually instilled in him a new perspective of life and a sense of belonging. Thus the crisis, quest, encounter and interaction further led him to a radical commitment to the new faith, i.e., Christianity, and rejection of the old. The natural consequence of embracing the new faith for my father was transformation, as Rambo points out, and it is proven by quitting some bad habits which had evil consequences and adopting a new approach towards fellow human beings.
Hence the conversion experience of my father is more in line with Rambo’s description than Jacob’s assumed views on how the conversions take place. There are genuine conversions which lead to transformation as in the case of my father and viewed by Rambo and Jacob alike. Nevertheless, as the converts sail through and overcome the crisis, the discontinuity with, and the rejection of the old faith often become natural consequences of genuine transformation which, although Jacob would disagree, a convert could undoubtedly appreciate and easily accept.
Is conversion an issue? The answer is both ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’ It is an issue for some, but a non-issue for the most. If conversion is an issue, the question arises, for whom is it an issue? As Anvir Ali Khan rightly points out, “It is the political hypocrisy of India that makes conversion an issue.” Outcry is made against conversion to achieve and maintain dominance, power and political mileage. Who dares to opt for conversion? It is the meek or those who face crisis of various kinds in life. For a convert, conversion is a matter of religious experience and personal liberation. Ideally, the term ‘conversion’ should have been replaced with ‘transformation’ which every religion stands for. Transformation mostly refers to the ‘inward’ whereas conversion is generally concerned more on ‘outward’ elements of a religion. Considering its wedded relation with the society at large and having the implication on political decisions and national policies of our country, conversion cannot be limited to the ‘inward’ alone, but has implications on ‘outward’ and on social mobility/transformation. Since conversion assumes socio-cultural implication, discontinuity from the ‘old’ is often essential for a genuine transformation.