"THERE are Christian theologians who feel the conversion of others is not any more the business of the Church." This is indeed an encouraging statement from Dr Hans Ucko, Head of the Committee on Inter-religious Dialogue and Cooperation of the World Council of Churches, a powerful body that has over 350 member churches. This statement has the potential to promote harmony among religions, particularly between Christianity on the one hand and its two main targets: Hinduism and Buddhism, on the other. Dr Ucko, as I know him, is an upright, outspoken gentleman. Personally he has "never been interested in converting people". But, on the ground, the situation presents a total contrast. Christian missionaries, almost without exception, work with unabated zeal to convert. The conciliatory words of Dr Ucko ,seem to conflict with what he says next. While underplaying the conversion agenda, Dr Ucko also makes this seemingly innocuous, but profoundly theological, statement: "I believe it is more important for us to bear witness to Christ by our action of caring for people without any ulterior motive and by our exemplary living." Here is the clue to the potential for disharmony.
Christians, regardless of their denomination, are mandated by their theology to 'bear witness to Christ' which, in simple terms, means sharing the faith with a stranger. Why share the faith with a stranger? The vast majority of Christian believers are firmly convinced that unless a person 'accepts Christ as his saviour', he is, at the very least, denied entry to Heaven. More extreme, but not less common, believers are convinced that he will definitely go to Hell -- and forever. So, given the theological compulsion to share the faith with a stranger, a serious Christian has no option except to exert and 'save' the person, inevitably a non-Christian, from such a fate. That is to say convert him to Christianity. See the effect. Obviously the theological belief that no faith other than Christianity can guarantee salvation, or that other faiths can only lead to Hell, cannot amount to honouring non-Christian religions. Can a Christian, who believes this, view a non-Christian religion as anything but inferior or, as is often the case, dangerous? So in the innocuous mandate to 'bear witness' to Christ inheres the denigration of the religion of the 'other', if not explicitly, certainly implicitly. Herein lies concealed the propensity and the potential for disharmony, for, when one's religion is denigrated a great violence is done to what one holds most dear.
Older traditions, in contrast, do not believe in conversion. A Jewish person is born of a Jewish mother. A Zoroastrian is born of Zoroastrian parents. A Hindu is born of Hindu parents. And so are the followers of Shintoism, Taoism and other ancient religious groups all over the world. They acquire their religions by birth. They do not convert anybody to their faith. Hindus stand as an example of how this approach protects 'other faiths', not denigrate them. When the persecuted Zoroastrians, the Parsis, came here as refugees driven from Persia, they were received here as "Athithis" and were helped to settle in India. Identical was the case with the Jews. This is what a booklet "Indian Jews in Israel" [edited and published by Reuven Dafai, Consul, on behalf of the Consulate of Israel, 50 Pedder Road, Cumballa Hill, Bombay 26] says: "While most of the others came to Israel driven by persecution, discrimination, murder and other attempts at total genocide, the Jews of India came because of their desire to participate in the building of the Third Jewish Common Wealth their long sojourn in India, nowhere and at no time were they subjected to intolerance, discrimination and persecution". The Parsis and the Jews, protected thus, saved their religion and lived by it. The Hindus protected the early Christians and Muslims too. Our vision of God compels us to do that. We accept various forms of worship, prayers and Gods; one more really does not matter to us.
In contrast, in the other category of religions, mandated by their theology to convert, their followers practice conversion with conviction. Undoubtedly, they have a right to believe that unless one is a Christian, one will not go to Heaven. But to claim the right to go further and exert influence to turn all non-Christians into Christians to make them eligible to enter Heaven cannot but promote conflict. Dr Ucko identifies the "key issue that haunts people opposed to conversion" as what he calls "aid-evangelism" - a euphemism for conversion by "allurement" or "fraudulent means."
The key issue is not this, but the very assumption underlying the impulse to convert. Today we stand at a precarious juncture in world history, where a wide range of factors including monoculture, nuclear warfare, and ecological disasters threaten our survival as a human race. As never before, we stand in need of the rich knowledge base of various indigenous traditions. We stand in need of diversity, ecological diversity, bin-diversity, and religious-diversity. We stand in need of understanding how to live peacefully with one another, without destroying one another, and our environment. While our need is diversity, conversion endangers all diversities, not just religious. Conversion comes at the cost of extermination of native people's cultural diversity and way of living. Without preserving as they are, the existing religious traditions and the people that practised them, we cannot access these knowledge-bases that contain the lessons of harmonious co-existence.
I would unhesitatingly call the Jewish, the Zoroastrian and the Hindu traditions as non-aggressive traditions for just this reason: they do not convert. Conversion uproots individuals, devastates families, creates discord in communities and destroys ancient cultures. This is what we have been arguing for several years. We need all cultures, and therefore all religions.
With the destruction of religion comes the destruction of culture.
Our religion and culture are intertwined.
The religion has gone into the fabric of the culture.
When I say 'Namaste' to you, it is culture. It is religion. When you are doing rangoli, it is religion; it is culture.
There is a vision behind all that. Every form of culture is connected to religion and religion itself is rooted in spiritual wisdom.
As spiritual tradition informs all aspects of life, there is no cultural form or expression unconnected to religion.
Destruction of culture is destruction of religion. Destruction of religion is destruction of culture.
If this destruction is not violence, what else is violence?
Aggression need not be physical. It need not be the Kargil type.
There are a varieties of aggression. You can either be emotionally, economically or verbally aggressive.
But, the worst aggression, more than physical aggression, is cultural aggression or religious aggression.
That is why we say 'Conversion is Violence'. It is the deepest and most profound violence.
To overcome this violence we need to think of conflict avoidance and conflict resolution. Conflict avoidance implies the abstention from propaganda for conversion as that is the major cause of violence. Conflict resolution demands that the conflict-prone faiths and civilisations understand the need to internalise the acceptance of others' view of God. Here is where the world, as two of the greatest historians Will Durant and Arnold Toynhee had said, has to look to the Hindu civilisation for relief from conflicts. Durant told the West that "in return for conquest, arrogance and spoliation, India will teach us tolerance and gentleness of the mature mind, the quiet content of the un-acquisitive soul, the calm of the understanding spirit and unifying, pacifying love for all living things".
Toynbee prophesied that "a chapter which had a Western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in self-destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in human history, the only way of salvation is the ancient Hindu way. Here, we have the attitude and spirit that can make it possible for the human race to grow together into a single family". The two historians have exposed the source of disharmony and pointed to where to look for solution.
By Swami Dayananda Saraswathi
The New Indian Express (Hyderabad), Monday, January 21
Saturday, February 16, 2008
Conversion is the deepest &
most profound violence,
Conversion is a form of terrorism.
-- Swami Dayananda Saraswati
Date: Thu, Feb 14, 2008 at 11:05 PM
Subject: Open letter to Pope John Paul by Swami Dayananda Saraswati
An open letter to Pope John Paul II
Conversion is violence
Swami Dayananda Saraswati
On behalf of many Hindus whom I know personally, I welcome your visit to Bharat. This is a country with an ancient civilisation and unique religious culture which accommodates many religious traditions that have come to this country throughout the centuries.
Being the head of the Vatican State and also the Catholic Church with a great following all over the world, you enjoy a highly venerable position and can play a significant role in defusing religious conflicts and preserving the world's rich cultures. You have in your Apostolic Letter tertio millennio adveniente, 38 (November 10, 1994) voiced your intention to convoke a Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Asia. After seeing the report of the Pre-Council of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops Special Assembly for Asia appointed by you, I want to bring to your kind notice the concerns of many Hindus in this country about religious conversion. In the Second Vatican Council, the status accorded to the world religions was that of a means of preparing them for Christ. We all understand that the Catholic religion does not accommodate other religions, except in this context. But I am appealing to you here to accept that every person has the freedom to pursue his or her own religion.
In the recent past, you mentioned that reason should be respected. On the basis of reason, no non-verifiable belief is going to fare any better than any other non-verifiable belief. Therefore, according to reason, there is no basis for conversion in matters of faith.
Apart from reason, there is another important issue which I request you to consider. Among the world's religious traditions, there are those that convert and those that do not. The non-converting religious traditions, like the Hindu, Jewish and Zoroastrian, give others the freedom to practise their religion whether they agree with the others' tenets or not. They do not wish to convert. I would characterise them as non-aggressive. Religions that are committed by their theologies to convert, on the other hand, are necessarily aggressive, since conversion implies a conscious intrusion into the religious life of a person, in fact, into the religious person.
This is a very deep intrusion, as the religious person is the deepest, the most basic in any individual. When that person is disturbed, a hurt is sustained which is very deep. The religious person is violated. The depth of this hurt is attested by the fact that when a religious sentiment is violated, it can produce a martyr. People connected to a converted person are deeply hurt. Even the converted person will suffer some hurt underneath.
He must necessarily wonder if he has done the right thing and, further, he has to face an inner alienation from his community, a community to which he has belonged for generations, and thus an alienation from his ancestors. I don't think that can ever be fully healed. Religious conversion destroys centuries-old communities and incites communal violence. It is violence and it breeds violence. Thus, for any humane person, every religious sentiment has to be respected, whether it is a Muslim sentiment or a Christian sentiment or a Hindu sentiment.
Further, in many religious traditions, including the Hindu tradition, religion is woven into the fabric of culture. So, destruction of a religion amounts to the destruction of a religious culture. Today, for instance, there is no living Greek culture; there are only empty monuments. The Mayan, Roman and many other rich cultures are all lost forever and humanity is impoverished for it. Let us at least allow humanity to enjoy the riches of its remaining mosaic of cultures. Each one has some beauty, something to contribute to the enrichment of humanity.
In any tradition, it is wrong to strike someone who is unarmed. In the Hindu tradition, this is considered a heinous act, for which the punishment is severe. A Buddhist, a Hindu, a Jew, are all unarmed, in that they do not convert. You cannot ask them to change the genius of their traditions and begin to convert in order to combat conversion. Because it is the tradition of these religions and cultures not to convert, attempts to convert them is one-sided aggression. It is striking the unarmed. I respect the freedom of a Christian or a Muslim to practise his or her faith. I do not accept many of their beliefs, but I want them to have the freedom to follow their religion.
You cannot ask me to respond to conversion by converting others to my religion because it is not part of my tradition. We don't believe in conversion, even though certain Hindu organizations have taken back some converted people. Thus, conversion is not merely violence against people; it is violence against people who are committed to non-violence.
I am hurt by religious conversion and many others like me are hurt. Millions are hurt. There are many issues to be discussed regarding conversion, but I want to draw your attention to only the central issue here which is this one-sided violence. Religious conversion is violence and it breeds violence. In converting, you are also converting the non-violent to violence.
Any protest against religious conversion is always branded as persecution, because it is maintained that people are not allowed to practise their religion, that their religious freedom is curbed. The truth is entirely different. The other person also has the freedom to practise his or her religion without interference. That is his/her birthright. Religious freedom does not extend to having a planned programme of conversion. Such a programme is to be construed as aggression against the religious freedom of others.
During the years of your papal office, you have brought about certain changes in the attitude and outlook of the church. On behalf of the non-aggressive religions of the world, the Hindu, the Parsi, the Jewish and other native religions in different countries, I request you to put a freeze on conversion and create a condition in which all religious cultures can live and let live.
The writer is the head of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam