matriwords

Research, Essays, Commentaries – Inspired by the Social-Cultural-Political Thought of Sri Aurobindo (PLUS a bit of photography too!)

Of Conversions, Re-conversions, and the Truth

Nandi at Gangaikonda Cholapuram, Photo by Suhas Mehra

Nandi at Gangaikonda Cholapuram, Photo by Suhas Mehra

 

In the last few months much has been reported, misreported, misinterpreted, re-interpreted, challenged and counter-challenged about the whole religious conversion issue in India. There are sections of Indian intelligentsia and media who claim they are profoundly disturbed by some of the incidents of ‘ghar-wapsi’ (homecoming/re-conversion) that have been conducted by a few Hindu religious-political organisations in various parts of the country.

Strangely enough (but then if you understand the distorted and warped nature of social-religious-political discourse in India you are not surprised), these sections of our society are not disturbed or outraged by the questionable and downright disturbing actions of the massive and massively funded Christian evangelical and religious organisations that have been working, for decades and decades, to convert Hindus and many other groups following various dharmic and/or pagan traditions. And the fact that this has been going on in various regions of the country under all kinds of pretexts and often in many sinister ways isn’t alarming for these intellectuals whose conscience and secular credentials are only disturbed when Hindus start to organise something similar.

But in this post I am not interested in arguing whether Hinduism should also fall into the same trap of other religions, which for their survival and continual growth rely on increasing their numbers. I am also not interested in debating whether the Hindu organisations working on ‘ghar-wapsi’ or re-conversions (bringing back Christian and Muslim converts to the fold of their ancestral Hindu traditions) are doing what they claim to condemn in the first place. I am also not interested in discussing whether Hinduism at its very core has anything remotely resembling conversion or re-conversion. Interested readers can find plenty of research pieces, opinion pieces, and analyses on many different aspects of this debate on the internet. A few important examples may be found here, here, and here.

I am interested in a deeper truth. A more fundamental truth. Truth that is expressed in a certain passage of Sri Aurobindo, excerpted from a letter he wrote to a disciple. In this letter he presents his response to a particular statement made by Mahatma Gandhi on this whole issue of religious conversion, thereby helping us deepen our understanding.

I first present what Mahatma Gandhi had said on this issue:

“But religion is not like a house or a cloak, which can be changed at will. It is more an integral part of one’s self than of one’s body. Religion is the tie that binds one to one’s Creator and whilst the body perishes, as it has to, religion persists even after death.”

~ M.K. Gandhi, on a statement by B.R. Ambedkar concerning change of religion, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 62 (1975), p. 37

This is what Sri Aurobindo’s response was to Mahatma Gandhi’s statement:

If it is meant by the statement [of Mahatma Gandhi] that the form of religion is some thing permanent and unchangeable, then that cannot be accepted. But if religion here means one’s way of communion with the Divine, then it is true that that is something belonging to the inner being and cannot be changed like a house or a cloak for the sake of some personal, social or worldly convenience. If a change is to be made, it can only be for an inner spiritual reason, because of some development from within. No one can be bound to any form of religion or any particular creed or system, but if he changes the one he has accepted for another, for external reasons, that means he has inwardly no religion at all and both his old and his new religion are only an empty formula. At bottom that is, I suppose, what the statement drives at. Preference for a different approach to the Truth or the desire of inner spiritual self-expression are not the motives of the recommendation of change to which objection is made by the Mahatma here; the object proposed is an enhancement of social status and consideration which is no more a spiritual motive than conversion for the sake of money or marriage. If a man has no religion in himself, he can change his credal profession for any motive; if he has, he cannot; he can only change it in response to an inner spiritual need. If a man has a bhakti for the Divine in the form of Krishna, he can’t very well say, “I will swap Krishna for Christ so that I may become socially respectable.”

~ The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol. 28, pp. 412-413 (emphasis added)

Maybe it requires another reading. Perhaps one more. And perhaps even some silent reflection.

Once we grasp this fundamental truth, we may be able to see all the social-political discourse that is happening on this issue of conversions and re-conversions in a much deeper light. In the light of the Truth.

The absolute falsehood of the whole ‘clash of religions’, ‘mine is the only true religion’ and other such things becomes abundantly clear in the light of this fundamental truth. The only worthwhile questions that now demand serious reflection are – what is the need for a conversion to begin with? Whom is it for? Whom does it benefit? In what way?

These are questions to be asked by all those who are suffering from selective outrage. These are questions to be asked by all those who in any way contribute to the work of organisations involved in conversion business. Re-conversion exists only because conversion exists. Think about it. These are questions to be asked by all those who shout – “I got religion, wanna get some.”

Such questioning, such reflection demand sincerity, honesty and steadfastness to the truth. On the part of all those advocating, defending and protesting against conversions and re-conversions, all in the name of religious freedom, propagation of religion and choice. Debates to win political brownie points can survive for a while on falsehood, pretense, bigotry, and even apathy and indifference. But walking on the path of the truth demands extreme patience, clarity of reasoning and a constant reaching out for a higher intelligence.

Those who will not reason, are bigots, those who cannot, are fools, and those who dare not, are slaves.

~ Lord Byron

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About Beloo Mehra

Beloo is the author of two books, one on Indian Education, titled "ABC’s of Indian National Education" and an ebook featuring a selection of her essays, titled "The Thinking Indian." She holds several degrees in Education and Economics, has extensive teaching experience at school and university level in India and the US, and has a keen interest in the educational, social and cultural thought of Sri Aurobindo. She currently lives in Pondicherry, spends her time doing some reading, some writing, some teaching, some gardening and a whole lot of reflecting on life, living, society, politics, religion, art, literature, India, the World, and everything else under the Sun and the Moon.

21 comments on “Of Conversions, Re-conversions, and the Truth

  1. Dagny
    May 9, 2015

    As I’ve said to you before Beloo, reading you is a two fold pleasure. For one, I find absolute congruence with your thoughts… and that gives me the validation I crave from. Secondly, you say everything that I could have wanted to say… and you say it much better. All I need do is fold my hands over my stomach and nod complacently.
    Oh but LIFE IS GOOD!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Beloo Mehra
      May 9, 2015

      Life IS Good, isn’t it? 🙂 And I should also add that after I read you I always say – o how I wish I could write like that! So you see, different perceptions but all so good and yummy 🙂 Life is good, after all!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Such a lovely piece. As long as religion in its narrow interpretation rules the hearts of many, there will always be discord, Beloo. As soon as man sheds the shackles of blind faith and the idea that there is only one true religion (his own), then he can see the goodness in other men, free from the veil of religion.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Beloo Mehra
    May 9, 2015

    Welcome to matriwords, Shailaja! Good to see you here. I like how you use the phrase ‘veil of religion”. When misused it can indeed become a veil through which people see the world and everyone and everything. And sometimes a very thick and dirty veil. But in its truest and widest sense religion should really help us remove all the veils, isn’t that so?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Zephyr
    May 9, 2015

    I am amazed everytime you quote a perfect letter or extract from the works of Sri.Aurobindo to bring clarity to an issue that seems to be spinning out of control. I find your posts enriching for another reason in addition to Dagny’s, which I share too: you are feeding us the nectar of spiritual truth as envisioned by the Master after extracting it from his extensive works. Thank you so much for this,

    The conversion and re-conversion debate have completely disillusioned me as to the role of media in any meaningful debate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Beloo Mehra
      May 10, 2015

      Thank you Zephyr for such kind and generous words. As you know this researching and writing is an extremely rewarding experience for me, and none of this would have been possible without the grace of my Gurus. I am happy that these little offerings resonate so well with a few dear friends and open-minded/open-hearted seekers and fellow aspirants on the path of inner growth. So thank you for reading!

      Like you I too was quite disillusioned by the level of debate (or rather lack of it) regarding this whole conversion/ghar-wapsi issue. Media was as usual doing its own thing instead of facilitating an open and honest discussion. O well…

      Like

  5. chsuresh63
    May 9, 2015

    I have, in a sense, been a-religious almost all my thinking life. To me, this thing about belonging to any religion has always been something that seemed to relate to how I comported myself in Society – nothing more. As in, how I dressed, the rites performed at various stages of my life etc. etc. We are all human and that, to me, means that ALL our perceptions about God are bound to be limited if not outright flawed.

    I have never managed to vibe with this idea that calling the Creator by one name and not the other means anything at all – at the core the way we CONCEPTUALIZE the Creator widely varies, even within people who purportedly belong to the same religion (Some think of Him as someone who rushes to help but ONLY when prayed to in specific locations; others think of Him as liable to anger if flouted; Yet another set of people think of Him as infinitely merciful; He is considered Just BUT totally set against people who do not accept A religion; AND these conceptions cannot be safely parceled off, one to a religion or so. They seem to be held by various people belonging to various religions.)

    To think that the way we think of our Creator is less important than what we call Him seems to me outright stupid – we do not believe that a person is a face and a name; if we did all identical twins would be considered the same as the other twin. A person is the composite of the characteristics we see in him. So, when we think of God with a different character from the next person, we are actually believing and worshiping a different God. AND if we each have different ideas then it is but facile to call ourselves as belonging to the same religion – if, by religion, we mean the God(s) we worship and not the codified system of rituals – including the manner of worship – that we follow.

    IF, on the other hand, we take the view-point that all of us worship different facets of the same God; that He is infinite and we perceive ONLY a part of Him due to our own limitations, I see no reason why THAT should cease to apply beyond the boundary of one religion. It should be apparent that in the face of such infinite divinity, the so-called differences in religions are paltry and not worth mentioning.

    My God is personal to me and my worship is equally as personal, which is why I call myself a-religious.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Beloo Mehra
      May 10, 2015

      Welcome to this space, Suresh! And thanks for such a long and thought-provoking reply. I am not sure I can respond to each and every point you make here! I have read it three times already and I see so many threads and such interesting points but I think it will take me a few blogposts to present some of my views on things you bring up 🙂 So I will just keep it brief for now and more relevant to this issue of religious conversion.

      I agree with your last sentence – “my god is personal and my worship is equally as personal…” But I have a feeling you don’t mean “personal” in the sense say a Christian would use Personal God instead of an Impersonal, Transcendent God….because that again would take us to the debate (un-necessary) over what is God. All this naming business of God is immaterial as long as we don’t look into our conception of what God is. What, not Who. Who assumes a name and form. What is much more than that. Sure such conceptions of what God is are infinite, but if we go into the history of different religions we know that most of those came into being with some realisation of a particular conception – not just mental but a real, experiential one – of what God is. They may not have called IT God, but that naming thing is just a mental act after the experience and is coloured by the cultural-linguistic baggage.

      The religious conversion issue has nothing to do with what God (or Goddess or IT or THAT) is, it simply has to do with business of religion. God and religion are two different things. Religion is a man-made construct. And organised religion is even more man-made because it has institutional power attached with it. Conversions, therefore are about the power of those institutions who want to create a monopoly of one particular business of selling one particular religion to everyone. And like any salespeople those who are engaged in this business they do whatever it takes to ‘sell’ their product.

      I don’t like to use the word Creator for God because to me this sounds like a Christian view of God, an outside creator sitting somewhere up there, far far away from His Creation and creating things, people at His will/fancy, manipulating and enjoying the game….I am more inclined toward a view of the Divine which is not limited by He or She or It or That; which is ALL and still Beyond; which is Here, There, Everywhere, Nowhere and Beyond, Transcendent and Immanent, Universal, Individual, Cosmic all at once, Personal and Impersonal at the same time; which manifests Itself in numerous gods and goddesses (33 crores and counting), each with a different name and form but which is still not contained or expressed in any of these names or forms and is beyond all the gods and goddesses; which is in me, outside of me, in everyone and everything, and beyond me, beyond everyone and everything….Infinite and fully manifest in the Manifest Finite…this and all that isn’t….

      But this again is my preferred view, I don’t have to try to convince another person to ‘accept’ this as the “only” conception of God or Divine. If I do then I am trying to convert the other. And I have a problem with that. If I truly believe in this conception of God then I shouldn’t have a problem with the person who likes to think of his/her God as a Creator outside of Creation. But if that person tries to “sell” me that my view is less valid or less true because their “book” says so then that’s a problem for me. It is not about a personal preference only, it is about saying that one view or one conception is less true (or even false).

      Religion in its limited meaning is only an outer form, and the conversion business is all about changing of that very limited outer form because to them what matters is only the outer form because form gives them power, institutional power. Religion in its truer sense is not about form alone, if we get stuck in looking at religion only as a form (rituals, traditions etc) then we are not really getting to the crux of understanding what religion is. But like I said, this discussion will take us too far away from the topic at hand…but thank you for giving me an idea for another blog post, maybe two or more 🙂 Who knows where the inspiration might lead….Thanks again, Suresh for engaging with this post.

      Like

      • chsuresh63
        May 10, 2015

        You are right, Beloo! I meant a personal God ONLY to say that it is MY conception of God that I worship and THAT conception may not match, in some particulars, what ANY religion prescribes as the characteristics of God. (In fact, the main difference, as it seems to me, is that most religions, if not all, seem to think that God can be defined and I start from the premise that He cannot 🙂 )

        Yes – I use the He/She etc. as only referent conveniences and have no conception about the gender of God OR, indeed, that He has a gender. All religion is, indeed, a man-made construct AND considering that all organized religion started off with people seeking power, either in self-defense or otherwise, PLUS that all scripture handed down by God was interpreted by people, who are subject to all the fallacies of human nature, I take any divine revelation with a pinch of salt – even where the divine revelation is indubitably the Word of God, what has come down to me may well not be.

        AND i used the word ‘Creator’ as a referent only and NOT in any way as a reflection of my own conception of God as someone who stands outside His Creation. Given that I start off assuming that I cannot encompass the idea of God in His entirety, it is unlikely that I would go ahead and trammel Him with limitations of any sort 🙂 AND to see Him as outside His Creation IS to see some areas of the Universe as areas where God cannot be 🙂

        End of the day, we are all seekers after the truth. And a seeker who knows he does not know would never dismiss any idea, conception or thought – for who knows what illumination it may throw on areas that were hitherto hidden from your own view?

        Liked by 1 person

  6. the little princess
    May 10, 2015

    I agree that religion is a means of one’s communion with the Divine, It has nothing to do with which god you follow, if you are not communicating with him, then the very basis of religion is destroyed. if you are using it for purposes other than as your voice to reach the divine, then it really does not matter whether you follow some religion or not.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Beloo Mehra
    May 11, 2015

    Aah, Titli, you have said it! If religion is being used for a purpose other than some kind of connecting experience or communion with the Divine, it isn’t religion at all….but only a sham of a religion. Thanks for this thoughtful comment.

    Like

  8. Archana Kapoor
    May 28, 2015

    Wonderful piece Beloo. A topic very close to my heart. Lots of food for thought, and at the same time it disturbs me a lot too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Beloo Mehra
      May 28, 2015

      Yes the way this issue plays out for the most part in our media is indeed disturbing, and also deeply disturbing is the fact how so well-financed and well-orchestrated the whole evangelical establishment is. Thanks Archana for reading this, and welcome to matriwords!

      Like

  9. Religion to me is a way of connecting with the Divinity. I have my own way and, I respect the ways other people try to do the same. When some very ‘religious’ persons try to impose their thoughts and rituals on others, I find no logic in it.
    Your words always make me think and, most of the times, I nod while reading your articles. This one is no exception to that…. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Beloo Mehra
      May 28, 2015

      I am glad you find my posts thought-provoking 🙂 Yes, I agree with you that this tendency to impose ‘my way’ is quite illogical, but that’s how so many things in this imperfect world are, I suppose! Thank you, Maniparna for your encouraging words. And welcome to matriwords!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Sunila Vig
    May 31, 2015

    Loved the piece, same as I do everything that u write, coz uncannily it all seems to be coming out of my own heart. Be blessed and carry on shining light as you do, in dark and muddled nooks with your torch of Truth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Beloo Mehra
      June 1, 2015

      Thank you Sunila for such lovely words of appreciation and love! As for why these words resonate so deeply with you, I can only add what the wise have said, all great minds/hearts…. 🙂

      Like

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  12. Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay
    March 30, 2016

    Such a fabulous post, and some amazing comments! And all the 3 quotes you have shared are spot-on (Gandhi, Aurobindo,Byron). Sri Aurobindo being a Rishi has already answered all our questions – those which we have asked, and those which we are yet to articulate. 🙂

    My two-paisas:
    a. conversion has to do with the basic ethos of the religion (history-centric vs integral) and we all know which is which
    b. [now a controversial comment] – I support ghar-wapsi as I believe that a Dharmic India is a pre-requisite for our future generation, for world peace and for progress of humanity
    c. [even more controversial] – while at it, we also should encourage our neighbors to ghar-wapsi and become the pre-independence punya-bhumi that we were

    To ignore the perils of known enemies within is sheer foolishness in my view.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Beloo Mehra
    March 31, 2016

    Thank you for this wonderful comment, Subhodeep. And especially for sharing what you think as your ‘controversial’ comments 🙂 I admire the sincerity and honesty in saying what you think and believe. And in some ways I agree with the deeper point you make that there is a need to strengthen the dharmic roots of our civilization. I also support a strict anti-conversion law. But all these I see as temporary but necessary solutions. Temporary though could mean a long, rather very long while.

    Ultimately, a true dharmic renaissance of Indian civilization (and by India here I don’t mean only the current geographical state of India, but rather the ‘greater India’ or what you speak of as the “pre-independence punyabhumi”) will have to create its own rhythms and means as to how the work has to be done. I have firm faith in Sri Aurobindo’s and Mother’s dream that the greater India will one day be united, because that is the inner truth of India’s soul, the soul of the land of dharma. All these ghar-wapsi and other efforts could serve important time-specific purposes for that larger dream. But the real work will have to do with the inner change of consciousness. On the outside, all this discontent, social discord, etc serve Nature’s purpose in bringing to the surface all that is rotten, all that needs to be cleansed. And Nature uses all sorts of means to do her work, sometimes using the most violent and crude ways. Clash of civilizations, clash of Abrahamic faiths vs. Dharma, all these are part of her ways. And she doesn’t seem to be in a hurry! Looks like this work will take some time 🙂 We can support and take part in some of this outer work of the Nature in our own ways, using our capabilities, faculties and means. But simultaneously on the inside, we have to slowly work on ourselves, cleansing and purifying our own natures so that we are worthy to pursue a life of dharma, so that we will be ready to receive the new dharmic time-spirit that the future will bring. Both are necessary. Neither can be or should be ignored.

    Your last sentence is so apt! Thank you for saying it.

    Liked by 1 person

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