- Why in the 21st Century "Conversion" is an Absurdity
After the attacks on Mangalore’s Christian churches (and others in Karnataka), the leaders have (finally) spoken, rightly condemning the Hindutva/Bajrang Dal organizations and the complicit administration, and praising the peace-loving nature and charitable activities and institutions of the Indian Christian community.
What this Ordinary and Undistinguished Homo Sapiens has to contribute is a slightly different perspective: on conversions, and on what makes a Hindu or Christian a real Hindu or Christian.
Truly, I have been the victim of conversion attempts on more than a few occasions by Christians, and once by the Hare Krishnas of Boston, run by Euro-Americans. Indeed, next to Osama Bin Laden and ex-Commie Vladimir Putin, I am considered the most convertible heathen in the world by a very close relative of mine, a Christian who I would rather not name (for his health as well as mine). Seriously, though I am a Christian by birth, a semi-agnostic by conviction (or more precisely, the lack of strong religious conviction), and a Mangalorean Catholic by community and identity-meaning, that’s what the Hindus and Christians around me in India would call me, or what I would call myself, when probed about my social identity, whether or not I regularly go to Church (and I don’t) – still, this close relative and his friends have tried to convert me to his brand of evangelical, American-influenced (Sarah Palin kind of American), rather intolerant Christianity. His group, or people like him, used to be called "Charismatics" a decade or two ago, but they have recently been "radicalized" or made more "fundamentalist" in their beliefs (but who comprise only a small section of the diverse body of Indian Christians).
So black and white is this close relative’s view of the world that he once called me the devil (it’s nice to have some distinction!), and at another time called my writings Satanic (though luckily, these writings were prosaic, not verses). Perhaps my novel "The Revised Kama Sutra" did anger some Christians (most of whom had not read the book), as indeed it gave other Christians, Hindus, and heathens like me joy, because I try in my writings to tell my truth as bravely and straight as I can, and believe that if we all speak our truths and never resort to violence, we would all be better off (Gautama Buddha, after all, was once a Hindu who decided to rebel against his religion and speak his truth).
Converting me, then, would be a major success in this close relative’s book: he would earn a reserved Balcony Seat in Heaven for that. And yet, even if had been more diplomatic and erudite and glibly persuasive, he has about as much chance of converting me as he has of converting the Sultan of Swat.
Because, as they say, you can take a horse to the water, but you cannot make him drink it. You can’t "convert" people against their will, which is why the Spaniards and the Portuguese decimated most of the Indian natives of South America, realizing that any "conversion," when it occurred, was only cosmetic, a temporary yielding to superior firepower or the force of circumstances, which were then overwhelming. The moment the Spaniards turned their backs, most of the Indians went back to being who they really were: wild, free, and happy.
Now, even though Mangalore has been a historically tolerant town in which often, an autorickshaw or taxi would simultaneously sport Hindu, Christian and Muslim religious images or symbols, I don’t doubt that some or most Hindus would be outraged by the doctrinaire assertions of some of the evangelically inclined Christian fringe. I myself am often outraged, flabbergasted, rendered speechless and sometimes burst out laughing. Sometimes, I try to counter with sane arguments about why they can’t possibly know The Truth any better than I or anyone else can, and that merely because something is printed or contained in some book doesn’t make it true (I should know: I write fiction sometimes, indeed most of the time). That many of these people don’t have a broad-based education and haven’t read widely doesn’t help matters, but only makes them louder.
…how about simply doing good for goodness’ sake, expecting no reward or gratitude….
And then, finally, I realize that laughter is the wisest choice, the sanest and healthiest choice. Laughter, and shutting your ears – and after a while, if the noise doesn’t stop, and you can’t laugh anymore, moving to a place where you can have peace, sane conversation, nature, beauty, and more laughter.
For me, most arguments between adherents of two different fundamentalist religious groups are absurd -like two people arguing about whether the teacup and saucer orbiting the sun between Jupiter and Saturn is of a blue or a green color. Neither of them, of course, having personally seen the said teacup and saucer.
But I’ll tell you why my close relative and most fundamentalist Christians have zero chance of converting me, the same chance as a fundamentalist Hindu or Muslim (whereas Buddhists, who don’t have fundamentalists among their number, might stand a marginally better chance).
Because to me, religion is not what you say it is. It’s what you do. It’s who you are as a human being. For example, if you try to convert me to Christianity, whose essence is love, charity, and compassion, and if you have not a charitable or loving bone in your body, it is as if you have disproved your own arguments.
A few months back, I was in desperate financial circumstances, and even lacked money for some essential medical care. But none of the ultra-religious members of my family came to my rescue, especially not my close relative, who had only a few months earlier been throwing money at the members and "pastors" of his fundamentalist sect. It was partly by accident that I ran into a sane Christian, meaning one level-headed, compassionate, intelligent, accomplished, and fair-minded Christian, who came to my rescue, approaching another similar Christian of means.
That’s comforting and inspiring, that a value such as Christian charity, which is responsible for running orphanages and hospitals for the poor, is sometimes also to be found in a few individual Christians–though a very small fraction of those who call themselves Christian. And if either of these two persons were to approach me and ask me to put up a statue of Jesus or Mary in my apartment, I would gladly do so, out of respect for them, for their true charitableness. And I know they wouldn’t demand that I pray to this statue, because they know that true love and true charity are unconditional. They are enlightened Christians; whereas the ones who preach and spout a virulent form of religion without practicing its fundamental ethical teachings are unenlightened boors.
Just because someone says they belong to this or that religion, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are – to me, the label is meaningless, except for giving me some understanding of their background. Often, the loudest Christians are the most un-Christian people on earth (George Bush, for example), and no religion seems much good to me unless it remarkably improves the character, charitableness, and benevolence of spirit of the persons following it.
Therefore, arguments or brazen attempts to convert are useless, are doomed to failure. Much better that you so impress me by your character and your inspiring thoughts and actions that I ask you what is it that you believe in that makes you such a fine human being. At that point, if I am hugely impressed, I may ask for more information, and if it seems to make sense to my life and to my personality, I may ask to join your religion, without your having made a single attempt to convert me.
But most of us, in our everyday lives-and I, very much so-lag way behind our highest ideals, and our religion will remain largely talk, and the repetition of the words, mantras, and doctrines we have been taught by parents and teachers. Religion is just the dress we wear, on Sundays or when visiting the temple. But so long as people stick to argument or better, to discussions with civilized rules, courtesy, and time limits, that’s fine with me.
Violence has absolutely no place in such a discussion, however. Thus the Bajrang Dal or whoever attacked churches and terrorized innocent Christians defeated their own argument, proving by their irreligious, unholy behavior that they are not worthy of being members of any religion, that any worthwhile and true religion would immediately disown them and their actions.
No doubt ignorance and politics played a part in what happened: the ignorance of the mob, which could not distinguish between two groups of people so different in character, temperament, and disposition, it would be as if someone were unable to distinguish between a Mafia thug and the Catholic cardinal of New York. And the politics of the few who have a stake in stoking anger and violence. And yet, as Christianity, like Buddhism, is a religion of compassion, this mob, and even harmless but deluded evangelical zealots, deserve some compassion as victims in turn-victims of a kind of brainwashing that they were not adequately equipped to resist, partly because our lowest common denominator education, which is a kind of brainwashing in itself, doesn’t provide us the tools to resist brainwashing.
In this century, conversion by physical force is highly improbable except in a theocratic and fascist state, and any other kind of conversion-meaning, as an active, transitive verb, one person changing the religion of another person–is a logical absurdity. In other words, it is ultimately the horse’s decision whether or not to drink the water being offered, no matter what the inducements or the persuasive means used.
In earlier centuries, conversions were often achieved by force; and when absolute monarchs changed their religion, the subjects often followed, either out of respect for the monarch or out of some feeling of compulsion, real or imaginary. Buddhism gained its initial following from Hindu converts; later on, most Indian Buddhists "re-converted" to Hinduism, while Buddhism spread to vast areas of Asia. Today, at least a few million Westerners follow some form of Hinduism or the other, whether or not they deem it as conversion; rare is the guru who shuts his door to such "converts."
In present times, some people convert themselves for personal advantage or as a practical consideration. For example, a Dutch man told me he "officially" had converted to Islam so he could marry his Muslim Indonesian girl friend. It was required by Indonesian law, and though he, like most Europeans today, was an agnostic/atheist, he did it simply as a practical matter, presenting himself at a mosque one day, getting "converted", and never returning to the mosque again. Also, if a woman or a man decides to get converted to the spouse’s religion to overcome objections to the marriage by in-laws, that is also a practical recourse often by people who don’t really mean it. It is not true conversion, and yet, in the modern age, we need to respect everyone’s freedom to be any religion they choose; there is nothing we can do about this, no more than we can ban someone from wearing blue shirts or ban someone from falling in love with the adherent of a different religion.
All of which suggests that were someone to choose to change their religion, in a country like India, in which no one today can physically force others to change their religion, the circumstances must be either ones of self-interest (and everyone has the democratic right to pursue that within legal limits), or they must be so extraordinarily spiritual and personal that we need to respect the individual’s democratic right and freedom to follow any form of religious belief (or unbelief) that they choose.
A Hindu friend had an even more advanced idea. He said, "Who is anyone to tell me that Jesus is not mine, or that Buddha is not mine? I am heir to all that is good in human history. Nobody owns Jesus or Buddha. Also, why should my religious identity be so important? I have so many other identities, and it is more important to me that I am a writer, a teacher, and a good father, than that I am a Hindu." He further said, "If my God is so great, then how can I possibly make him greater by having one or a hundred more persons follow him? Is he so insecure that he needs one more human being to praise Him? Therefore, conversion is absurd." In other words, conversion is a non-issue for any enlightened person, because what someone else chooses to believe is entirely their decision. And the Dalai Lama regularly advises Westerners not to convert to Buddhism, telling them there is no need, that you can be a good human being in any religion.
This, to me, is enlightened thinking-sadly, the minority thinking.
So I say to my Hindu brothers: Don’t you realize how oxymoronic the phrase ‘Hindu fascists’ sounds? You can only be a Hindu or a fascist, not both. The Hinduism I admire is the Hinduism of Namaste ("Greetings to the god in you!") and Tat twam asi (That thou art), not the Hinduism of khaki shorts and dandas which some of your misguided brethren seem to follow. Why not laugh at the subject of conversions, as I did, both during the Hare Krishna conversion attempt (when I was a poor student who wished to enjoy their delicious Indian vegetarian feasts, but not their feast of eardrum-splitting chanting) and that of the evangelical Christians? After all, religion is a personal affair, and to worry ourselves about which God others choose to pray to when we can barely manage our own lives: it is absurd and unnecessary. But educating your brothers, teaching them, with a broad-based education, how to think for themselves, rather than just equipping them to make money, and showing them the greatness of your religion through the example of your lives: that would be the noblest and most dignified and democratic way to stop self-conversions.
To my Christian brothers, I say (lacking any credentials whatsoever, yet knowing that wisdom can sometimes come from the mouths of fools): how about simply doing good for goodness’ sake, expecting no reward or gratitude, respecting everyone simply because they are children of God by virtue of being human? It would be the best way to practice our religion. There would be no conflict. And if you can, at least some of you, why not learn to admire the good in other religions, perhaps even telling your children stories from the Hindu epics, and the best ideas from Hindu philosophy?
For if religious groups, including fundamentalist groups, continue to mistrust, hate, and war with each other as they are doing now, then future generations will probably abandon organized, formal religion altogether, as is happening in Europe, where a few centuries back wars and genocide were committed in the name of religion, and where, in France and England for example, Sunday church attendance hovers around the five percent mark.
Which, from the point of view of my agnostic friends (and I must not forget them), would probably be the best thing for peace on earth.
Richard Crasta, USA [Richard Crasta is the author of six books, including "The Revised Kama Sutra", and his books are available at ]
Author: Richard Crasta- USA