Should conversions be banned in India?

by Chaitanya CharanJanuary 2, 2015

Answer podcast:

Answer Condensed:

Transcription (edited) byBhaktin Raji Nachiappan

Question- Should Conversions be banned in India?

Condensed Answer:

No. Conversion by deception and destruction should be banned, but there should be education about the real purpose of religion and that education will solve the problem of the politicisation of the conversation issue. Conversion, generally the way it is talked about, is a horizontal transportation, a person changing from one religion, say Hinduism to Christianity or from Christianity to Hinduism. The actual purpose of all religion is to elevate people towards God, to help them develop love for God.

If we have a mountain, then to go to the peak of a mountain, there can be different paths from different sides to the peak. Different religions are like different paths to the same mountain peak. Somebody who just focuses all their energy on horizontal conversion, is just like a person who goes round and round at the bottom of the mountain, just getting people to one’s path but neither oneself goes up the path nor do other people go up the path.

Such conversion has no spiritual substance to it. The real conversion should be vertical, wherein people from being materialist become lovers of God, they go from outer to inner. It is a change of heart that should happen and not just a change of dress or a change of external religious designation.

When Srila Prabhupada, the founder acharya of ISKCON, went to America, he said that ‘I have not come here to convert from one religion to another. I have come here to help people develop love of God.’ He educated people all over the world in the principles of God consciousness and by that he attracted people all over the world to practice God consciousness.

People who are all trying to climb up by their different paths, they can advertise to join their paths and that is fine. People should be given the choice as per their inspiration about where and how can they go closer to God. Within the broad Hindu tradition there has been always the choice of freedom of faith.

In the Indian tradition there were six systems of philosophy and there were various schools of thought. They would often have sustained intellectual debate, but that never lead to violence. There was never destruction of anyone else’s faith nor was there any deceptiveness in converting people to one’s own faith. After intellectual confrontation and by personal example, people would get attracted. Different spiritual teachers, different exponents of different thoughts attracted followers. That is the broad Indian tradition.

India being a democratic country is ideally suited for continuing an example of that tradition. But in contrast with the dharmic religions of India, there are Abrahamic religions which do not have this tradition of tolerance because they believe that they are the only way to God. They think that people from other religions need to be converted to their religion and only then they have any hope of coming back to God. They do not think of other religions as different ways up the same mountain. At best other religions are pathways to come to our foothill and only by our path can people go up the mountain. Because of this exclusivist belief system, they often focus on converting people to their religion by any means possible. Sometimes even by destruction. For example, when the Catholic Christians went from Europe to South America, they practically destroyed the Aztec and Mayan cultures.

Conversions also happens by deception. Sometimes in order to get people, because the Hindu gods are thought to be false, and to get people from false to true gods, in some of the missionary hospitals patients are given sugar pills. They are told that ‘you are so sick that just medicine cannot cure you, so you pray to your God also’. When they are given sugar pills, obviously people don’t get better. When their health worsens, they are told that since your God does not respond to your prayers, try praying to our God and that is your only hope. When they pray to their God, they are given true medicines. Then they get cured. Now they are told that since our God saved your life, you should give your life to Him.

I’m not saying that all conversions happen this way, but some conversions, especially in tribal areas, do happen in large numbers in this way. Such conversions by destruction or deception should definitely be stopped because that is a violation of the spirit of tolerance and the right of people to choose the religion of their faith. But along with that, there should be opportunity for individual persuasion.

When Hindus are concerned about large numbers of conversion happening to different religions, the way to stop that is not by enforcing a law banning conversion but by systematic education and elevation. For example, the caste system is quite discriminatory in Hinduism and that is why many people go out of Hinduism. But if we study the Bhagavad Gita (BG), the caste system is not birth based. If there is real education of the Hindus, then instead of Hindus converting, they will actually get attracted, practice the actual import of the scriptures, and become spiritually elevated. In fact the spiritual substance within the BG and the scriptures coming from India is so great, that whenever spiritual teachers from India have presented this message properly, then people from various parts of the world have become attracted to this message.

The way to benefit and protect Hindu culture, which is what the anti-conversion law wants to do, and the way to promote people’s, Hindu’s and other’s spirituality, is by education and not by legislation that bans conversion. Such education should teach people to understand the true glory of the Vedic scriptures. If they are further facilitated to practice the processes, by which they actually get elevated and get a higher experience, then they will never want to leave. What to speak of they leaving, others may also come.

Some right wing Hindus are becoming the Hindu versions of the intolerant elements of Christianity and Islam where they are also becoming counter-aggressive. That sort of approach is not going to solve the problem. Neither legislation nor counter-aggression is the solution. Education and elevation, both internally and externally is the solution.

Detailed answer:

No, conversions should not be banned but the methods of conversion need to be streamlined and regulated.

When we talk about banning conversion, it is against the rights of the individual (as is there in the political dispensation today) and also it is against the broad Indian tradition. Every individual has a right to choose which faith to practice and that is inalienable. Faith is something which every individual chooses.

Some people practice religion without any commitment to its practice. This is nominal and does not bring any substantial transformation. Purpose of different religions is ultimately to bring about a vertical elevation and not a horizontal transportation. Vertical elevation means to raise our consciousness from the external to the internal, material to spiritual, world to God. For that purpose, different religions offer different methods.

It is like climbing up a mountain having different pathways. The different pathways may have different pluses and minuses but ultimately the purpose of each pathway is to climb up the mountain. If someone just goes round and round at the bottom of the mountain, trying to pull others to one’s own path and does not focus on climbing up, then there is not benefit. Similarly, those who focus just on conversion from one religion to another religion, they are doing nothing more than a horizontal transportation, not a vertical elevation. They are not really raising the consciousness of people. Such conversion is not of much use from a spiritual perspective. They don’t benefit the person who is converting – they don’t take that person spiritually any closer to God. Of course, these conversions do have socio-cultural and political consequences that need to be considered.

Matter of faith is such a personal and intimate matter for every individual, that it cannot be legislated by the government or by any other external authority. The freedom of choice has to be given. At the end of the Bhagavad Gita (BG) also, Krishna does not give commandments, He gives choices and consequences. He says in 18.63, (vimṛśyaitad aśeṣeṇa yathecchasi tathā kuru) ‘Deliberate deeply and decide what you want to do’. The BG offers an example of a deep intellectual discussion followed by a deliberated, consciously chosen decision. Even in Hinduism today, there have been many further branches having histories of discussion and debates among them but these have never degenerated to the level of violence. Their confrontation would be intellectual and not be violent, brutal or destructive against the opponent.

Unfortunately, when the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) came to India, these religions have a significantly different perspective on the Absolute Truth, in the sense that each of them claim to have a monopoly over the Absolute Truth. For them, other paths do not exist, except as a progression to bring people to their path. Their claim is that they have the only way to the mountain and other religions if they have any good, it is simply to get them to the level of joining their path.

Because of this exclusivist belief system, these religions when they did conversions, often if it was not just by intellectually defeating other religions, but it was also by physically destroying them. For example, Christianity during the middle-ages, when there was a war within Christianity (the 100 years of war between the Protestants and Catholics), both groups decided to evangelise the world. The Protestant came to the east (Asia) and the Catholics went to South America. In South America, the Catholics practically destroyed the entire culture (e.g. Mayan and Aztec cultures) and now these cultures are nothing more than historic fossils. They converted large numbers of people and their conversion was through destruction which is decidedly non-Vedic.

Often conversions were done through deception as well i.e. by cheating people and it continues to happen today also. In missionary hospitals, people are not given proper medicines (but some sugar pills) and when they do not get cured they are told that, ‘You are so sick that just medicine cannot cure you, so you pray to your God also’. But without real medicines people don’t get better. When their health worsens, they are told that since your God does not respond to your prayers, try praying to our God and that is your only hope. When they pray to their God, they are then given true medicines. When they get cured, they are told that since our God saved your life, you should give your life to Him. That is how people get converted through deception.

Conversion by destruction happened especially in Goa, where there was a severe, almost like an inquisition and destruction similar not in scale but in manner to the genocide that happened in Europe of the Jews. That was very brutal, especially the way the Portuguese Christians destroyed the Goanese culture. Anyway, conversions that happened by destruction in the past is not happening anymore because now we are a democratic country and there is much more social awareness. However, conversion by deception is still happening and this sort of conversion naturally raises the heckles of concerned people. Government has to regulate such practices through greater vigilance, monitoring, and awareness.

Apart from this, there is a concern among people today. There are some Christians and Muslims, who are out to convert because they believe that their way is the only way and everyone is going to hell unless they come to their path. Often they have a front, where they do social service activities to attract people and get them converted.

When we talk about deception being used a tool for conversion, this is not a universal practice. There are many Christians and Muslims who are dedicated to their spiritual faith and genuinely want other people to come towards God. Often these people preach, serve and lead devout lives and attract people towards God. If someone feels genuinely inspired to go closer to God, and feels that changing one’s religion will enable one to go closer to God, then that is something which is an independent choice which cannot be stopped and should not be stopped.

There are many right wing Hindus who feel very concerned when people are converted. There is a reason to be concerned if the conversion is happening through deception or destruction, but there are other reasons for conversion also. Rather than making a big hue and cry about so many people getting converted, such Hindus need to first check in their own home, what is wrong. If people are not choosing one path and are migrating more and more to another path, then maybe there is something wrong with the path itself. For example, within the broad Hindu culture, there is a huge amount of caste discrimination that still exists. Actually this caste discrimination does not come from Vedic scriptures. The BG talks about division based on qualities and activities and not on birth, but over the centuries, division has become stratified into a rigid birth centred caste system which is very discriminatory and has led to a lot of exploitation.

Of course, still the amount of exploitation that has happened due to caste is far lesser than the exploitation that happened because of say the protestant Americans going to America and the way they dealt with the Native Americans. Despite, whatever discrimination that was there in India, still the lower castes are existing and they are existing in large numbers. But the Native Americans who actually possessed and ruled over America have now been practically exterminated. They only exist in a few reserve areas. The kind of destruction that has been done, that is nightmarish; it is in genocidal proportions. Certainly that has never happened and the evils of the caste system have on many occasions been exaggerated beyond the actual reality and beyond what has happened in other places. But still what has happened in other places does not counter the evil of the caste system as it exists today.

Therefore, if we look at the path of bhakti, it transcends the caste system. Krishna says te pi yanti param gatim (BG 9.32) which means that whatever varna one is born in, they can still attain the supreme destination. The BG helps us transcend the caste system. The discriminatory caste system is definitely not supported in the BG, rather a method is given for transcending even if belongs to a lower varna. Therefore, we first need to set our own house in order. We need to educate people about the true teachings of scripture by which caste discrimination will decrease and overtime disappear. If we just reduce Hinduism to one more sectarian group without any substantial, intellectual, scriptural or practical understanding, then there is not much spiritual benefit to being a Hindu at all. Much of right wing Hinduism today is political posturing. It is bereft of any spiritual content.

Besides caste, Hindus also chose to convert to other religions because of not having proper social support systems. For example, when people are starving and they don’t have any food or hospitals to go to, Christian missionaries offer them all these for free, and people get converted because they feel that this is the only way to live. When the tsunami disaster struck, Christian missionaries went around to people who had lost their families, homes and had no prospect. They told such people- ‘you get converted, we will give you home, job, and help you settle back in life’- and people got converted. At times when people need relief, it is within the responsibility of the Hindus also to offer relief.

Many Hindus who demand a ban on conversion sometimes also parade how people all over the world are erupting Hindu religion by wearing dhoti-kurta, putting tilak etc. This is inconsistent behaviour. At one level these Hindus say that people should not get converted from our religion to another religion and at another level when other people get converted to Hinduism then they appreciate it and boast greatness of Hindu religion. We should not reduce Hinduism to an Indian version of Christianity or Islam. We should not think of religion as a perpetual competition, as a matter of one’s upmanship, and as a means for socio-political power.

There is another example. Different religions are like different hospitals. People are diseased because of their selfish desires and self-destructive drives and because of this they are harming themselves and others. Religion brings out the nobler sider within us. Religious practices are meant for that purpose. Imagine that there are different hospitals and if people make it their business to drag people out of one hospital and put them to another but not offering any treatment, then what is the use of such change. We may drag a few people from someone else’s hospital to our hospital but if people are not being treated properly in our hospital, then people will soon leave from our hospital to another hospital.

Hindus should rather focus more on strengthening the intellectual foundations of the spiritual culture by teaching scripture and by communicating the true import of the scriptural message. Such approach will be like treating the patients in our hospital by giving the right medicine. We have many Indian spiritual teachers who have attracted people not just from India but from all over the world by focusing on presenting the spiritual philosophical message.

Conversion issue should not be reduced to a socio-political issue of one upmanship. That will have no spiritual values and will only create social unrest. High profile ghar-vapsi (back to home) programs, which claim to bring many people back to our religion, are basically reflective of Hindus adopting the intolerance of Christianity and Islam. The world has seen much religious violence because of intolerant religions. Here, I am not saying that Christianity and Islam are entirely intolerant but often in their history they have had wars because the intolerant elements within those religions got prominence. If Hindus also start thinking that in order to protect and spread Hinduism, we have to become like Christians in terms of becoming intolerant and aggressive, then the special contribution that Hinduism can make to the world will be lost. Hinduism offers a culture, religion, philosophy, and spirituality that is inclusive and broadminded. It offers room for different paths to co-exist and have a healthy debate without getting to each other’s throats physically. Very few religions can offer that contribution. Instead of trying to be aggressive copy-cats of the intolerant elements within other religion, Hindus can focus on going deep within their tradition to understand it, exemplify it in their own lives, and then share it with others. Such an approach will lead to vertical elevation of the Hindu leaders and Hindu people in general. If people truly become spiritually elevated, they will by their character, charisma, and example will attract more and more people.

To summarize, conversion should not be banned because it is against the individual right and the spirit of the Vedic culture which invites healthy debates. Certainly conversion by deception and destruction should be stopped. The in-house problems that are there which are making people go away from the Hindu culture needs to be addressed. This means that there has to be proper education and proper care for people who are already following the Vedic culture. When there will be systematic education, then it will enable people to become elevated. The Krishna consciousness movement has attracted people all over the world and many people from various religious backgrounds have become Krishna devotees.

Srila Prabhupada, when he was asked in America whether he was there to convert people, replied – ‘No, I’m not here trying to make Christians into Hindus, I’m here to make people lovers of God.’ Prabhupada exhibited a very healthy respect towards Christianity. He said ‘Jesus Christ is our guru’. The word ‘guru’ at that time was restricted to a Hindu or Buddhist religious teacher, but Prabhupada referred to Jesus Christ as guru because he understood that Jesus had so much love for God that he was ready to even lay down his life for Him. For Prabhupada, such a person is surely to be respected and worshiped.

Prabhupada also said that by understanding the universal principles of God consciousness, a Christian can become a better Christian i.e. a Christian can actually climb up the mountain towards the peak of the Absolute Truth, realisation of God, and love of God. We should focus on elevating ours and other’s consciousness. For that we should present our path attractively to people so that they get elevated. The real conversion is the conversion within, where one’s consciousness gets raised upwards, towards God. Horizontal conversion in the media becomes a big issue because people are not really concerned with vertical conversion. The purpose of religion is vertical conversion and when religion focus primarily on horizontal conversion, they become bankrupt of spiritual substance, and become battlegrounds for socio-political power and not for spiritual growth which is what they are meant to be.

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Chaitanya Charan

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