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 couple of important examples may be found 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