Dr. Ishanand Vempeny
In 1970 I was a P.G. student in M. S. University, Vadodara. At that time there was a popular Christian priest in the university doing PG studies in the department of psychology. When he had finished his supper at about 9.00 pm, two hostelites, natives of UP, came shouting using all sorts of abusive words against those who were having their meal. These two students were fully drunk. They began to pick-up puris and sweets from the dishes of other students without washing their soiled hands. They even over-turned the plate of one student when he expressed his displeasure at their behaviour. He was sitting near this priest. After pacifying the student he mildly advised the drunkards not to disturb the others. One of the drunkards caught hold of the collar of the priest and slapped him twice until other students intervened. They kept on abusing the priest and the students.
On the following day the priest with two other students reported the matter to the warden. According to the rules of the hostels in Gujarat anybody caught drinking alcoholic beverages could be expelled. Besides, their beating another student could have incurred serious punishment. But the UP boys knowing the seriousness of beating up a Christian Priest got the advice of a couple of RSS leaders and went about saying that in order to prevent his conversion activities they beat him up. Perhaps the priest might not have even thought of or talked about conversion during his 1.5 years of stay in the university hostel. But the conversion-bogey in some of the states like Gujarat was so viciously powerful even at that time that no action was taken against the UP students. Today, the all-powerful Sangh Parivar (SP) with numerous specialists, lying and lynching innocent people around, gang-raping consecrated Christian nuns as in Orissa or desecrating churches and crucifixes as in Mangalore, can easily escape punishment with the conversion-bogey.
In 2003 an international peace conference was held in the Gujarat University. There were many foreigners including quite a few NRI god-men with many Western, White Disciples with them. When one of the sadhus spoke against conversion by the Christian missionaries, a professor asked him how he could speak against conversion to Christianity while he himself was converting American and European Christians to Hinduism. His thoughtless answer with an air of infallibility made some professors laugh: "Christian Missionaries are CONVERTING people but we Hindu sadhus are TRANSFORMING people". The sadhu did not realize that the original Biblical word for conversion is metanoia (Greek), which etymologically means transformation.
About the conversion activities of the Hindu Missionaries in the West, a liberal Hindu professor in an IIT, Ram Puniyani writes:
While our VHP brethren decry the transparently beneficial Christian services in India, they have no word of criticism about their co-religionists engaging themselves in proselytization work in the most degrading manner in the West, or becoming billion dollar Bhagavans…. They offer the experience of levitation for 1500$. They promise Nirvana for 100$ a day. They assure you of instant salvation…. Acharya Rajneesh is supposed to have converted hundreds of thousands of Westerners to Hinduism. So did Maharshi Mahesh Yogi. So did other sanyasis, Godmen, Bhagavans, Acharyas… and Hare Krishna propagators…. Gopal Krishna Goswami Maharaj is quoted in Times of India, 2.9.1999 as saying that "devotees living in temples are engaged in full time missionary activities" (Conversion and Missionary, P. Ram and I. Vempeny, Varanasi: Satya Manthan Sanstha, 2000, pp.15-16).
Let us take the example of another incident which adds to this verbal weapon many nuances. In 1999 in Gujarat, when anti-Christian propaganda and attacks were going on in full swing, in January, some six hundred people from the Dalit Families of a village called Undhai, near Mehsana, declared that they were going to convert themselves to Christianity. They began to decorate their homes with Christian symbols like the pictures of Jesus and Rosaries. There were no Christian missionaries nearby to entice or motivate them. The Indian Express reported: "The saffron brigade has been affected by a deeper shade of red. For, tired of the continued harassment and social boycott by upper-caste Patels, a large clutch of Dalit families in Gujarat has decided to convert to Christianity. The Dalits have little or no idea of what Christianity is" (Jan.31, 1999, p.2). The mass conversion of a large number of Dalits, in Meenakshipuram, Tamil Nadu, some years back had the same story to tell. (For a more elaborate study on this topic, cfr. Ishanand Vempeny, Conversion, Anand: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1999, pp.12-19).
Recently when I was in Mumbai during the first week of September (2008), I read a report in the Malayalam daily, Manorama, that the Orissa Christians who ran for their lives into the forest were forced to convert themselves into Hinduism. They were told menacingly by the weapon-wielding activists of the SP that if they wanted to get back to their villages alive, first get converted into Hinduism. For this, there and then they should submit themselves to the ritual of getting their hair shaved off ritualistically. In the villages they would undergo some other rituals the end of which would be a puja before a Hindu Idol, offering a coconut each. Then they would be publicly declared Hindus. In spite of the threats only few of them submitted themselves to these conversion rituals. Was it not conversion to Hinduism for these tribals who were Christians for two or three generations? Not at all. It is called shuddhikaran or gharvapasi. Incidentally Christian baptism with water is a ritual of shuddhikaran and gharvapasi, returning to "God's Family" accepting God as their Father-Mother and all human beings as brothers and sisters. The SP act of gharvapasi by force is a patriotic act whereas the free gharvapasi by baptism would be an anti-national act of conversion.
Reflections on the Conversion Bogey
Let us have a 'camera-check' of some of the allegations by the SP. If conversion of the Hindus is going on in full swing, how is it that the percentage of Christians is going down from census to census? For example, if the percentage of Christians in the 1971 census was 2.8% it was going down gradually from census to census until it reached 2.3% in the latest. Some years ago the Mother Teresa Sisters were attacked in North Kerala, by the RSS activists on the plea that they were indulging in conversion. But the truth is that both Mother Teresa and her followers had decided right from the beginning of their congregation not to convert anybody. Even today they stick to that policy. Similarly the contemplative Carmelite Sisters (Cloistered Carmelites) mostly remain within the walls of the convent spending most of the time in meditation and in necessary household works. But one of the chapels vandalized by the SP recently in Karnataka belonged to these sisters accusing them of conversion. In these instances, is the SP opposing only conversion or the good works of these Christians which attract people to them?
The Bogey of Conversion by Force
More than 95% of roughly 200 crores of Christians belong to the Main Line Churches (MLC). These churches come under the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Churches and the Protestant or Reformation Churches. The modern and the most authoritative views of the Catholic Church can be found in the documents of Second Vatican Council (Vat.II) and of the non-Catholic MLCs, in the documents of the World Council of Churches (WCC). Vat.II unequivocally opposes conversion by force or allurement as it can be seen in the following statement:
The Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. Freedom of this kind means that all men should be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups and every human power, so that within due limits nobody is forced to act against his convictions in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in associations with others. The Council further declares that the right to religious freedom is based on the very dignity of the human person as known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom must be given such recognition in the constitutional order of society as will make it a civil right (Dignitatis Humanae, No.2).
The WCC is equally emphatic in upholding religious freedom and opposing conversion by force:
Christian churches as well as community of other faiths cannot be faithful to their vocation without the freedom and right to maintain their institutional form and confessional identity in a society and to transmit their faith from one generation to another. In those difficult situations Christians should find a way, along with others, to enter into dialogue with the civil authorities in order to reach a common definition of religious freedom. With that freedom comes the responsibility to defend through common actions all human rights in those societies (J. A. Scherer and S. B. Bevans, (eds.), No.44, p.50).
True, during the colonial period the Western Colonial Powers used for conversion some intimidating techniques in Asia, including India, and in South America. At that time they followed the medieval axiom cuijus regio eijus religio (= the religion of the ruler is the religion of the ruled). This will partly explain some incident of forced conversion by the Portuguese in Goa.
It is difficult to say the exact number or the types of doctrines held by the Fringe Group Churches (FRG). Some of them have very exotic doctrines like the church led by Alexander Jones who committed suicide a few decades back together with almost a thousand followers in Georgetown in British Guyana. The New Life Church, accused of writing derogative remarks on Hinduism belongs to the FRGs. Even in these groups, because of their profession of fundamental human rights, human freedom and the dignity of man, no instance of forced conversion has been proved by the governments of Orissa, Gujarat, MP or Karnataka where allegations of forced conversions are at their loudest.
Conversion and Christian Works of Compassion & Love
It is a fact that the missionaries usually go to the economically poor and the socially marginalized. The Biblical word, in the Hebrew original to indicate such people is anawim (anawim literary means a person who cannot stand straight, a person with diminished human dignity due to economic poverty and social marginalization). In India most Dalits and Tribals belong to the category of anawim. Why do the missionaries go with such enthusiasm for the well-being of the anawim while the Hindu Missionaries in the West go for the rich and the affluent?
One of the most unnegotiable teachings by Jesus for Christian life and Christian struggles for salvation is compassionate help for the anawim. One of the typical texts in the Bible is Mt. 25: 31-46. It is a description of the scene of Last Judgement (kayamat) by Jesus himself as the Eternal Judge or Eternal King. This is what the Heavenly Judge tells the good people who would be made to stand on his right side as considered worthy of salvation:
The King will say to those on his right. Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me… (Then he replies to their query how they did such things to him). Amen. I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me (Mt. 25:34-36 and 40).
At the beginning of Christ's Public Life, in his inaugural speech (Lk 4: 16-22) He declares that His primary mission is to liberate the anawim from all sorts of oppression and slavery. This is the chief reason, if may not be the only reason, why missionaries in India have been going after the SC and ST, especially when untouchability and bonded labour were rampant.
Soon after the Korean War, an American nun was cleansing the foul smelling sores of a leper in South Korea. Her brother who came to visit her happened to see this work. He said: "Judy, if I were to get 50,000 dollars a month I won't do such a work". Pat came the reply: "Tony, neither would I have done this work had I been offered hundred thousand dollars. But for the sake of Jesus who loves me and makes me experience his resurrection every day, I will do even more repulsive works than this".
The Covert Reasons of SP for opposing Conversion
The SP is all out to capture power in the Centre and in the States. In a democracy like India number counts. In today's situation of hate-campaign and minority-bashing no thinking Christian or Muslim will vote for the SP. Hence the efforts by the SP to stop by hook or crook, by fair or foul means, any conversion from Hinduism to these two religions.
In the tribal belt in Gujarat there had been cases of the business community and some industrialists paying money to the parents of the tribal children for not sending their children to school especially to the Mission Schools. Conversion to Christianity meant good education, effective health care, socio-economic upgradation. These vote-bank groups of the SP want cheap labour and captive voters for the SP, but good education thwarts these designs.
The Great Hindu Reformer Sri Narayana Guru wrote in his famous Aatmopadesa Satakam:
Victory by fight is impossible here; one as against one,
No religion by attacking it gets uprooted;
Not knowing this the opponent of another faith,
Invites his own doom by a futile fight, beware!
(Free Translation from Malayalam)
The saintly Guruji must have been aware of the history of the spread of Christianity in Europe. The first three centuries of Christianity until the Edict of Milan by Emperor Constantine, Christianity was outlawed by the ruthless Roman Emperors like Nero. Any Christian could be killed with impunity during this period. But lo and behold! When one Christian was killed a thousand became Christians, until the whole of the Roman Empire became Christian. Emperor Theodosius the Great declared Christianity as the State Religion at the latter part of the fourth century. A great Christian Philosopher of the third century Tertullian wrote: "sanguis martyrum semina ecclesiae" (= "The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christianity"). Does the SP in Orissa know this when it is presiding over the most cruel of the persecutions of Christians in India?