What leads to proselytisation?

A DICTIONARY gives the meaning of the word `religion' as ``monastic condition, monastic order, practice of sacred rites, one of the prevalent systems of faith and worship'' etc. All these definitions would fit well to describe Hinduism as a religion. The concept of an organised religion arose, as far as India is concerned, from the time Buddhism and Jainism came into existence with religious philosophies distinct from those of Hinduism - or that which existed at the time of their birth. Basically the philosophy of pre- Buddhist and Jainist times was based on the Vedas and the Upanishads and the concepts and teachings conveyed by the great seers and saints.

The vedas had prescribed various rituals for achieving worldly prosperity and spiritual advancement. Buddhism and Jainism were founded as alternatives to the highly ritual-based religion. Due to simplicity of observance and absence of the system of varnas, these religions had a spontaneous appeal among the lay men and grew fast and found ready acceptance not only in India but even in the neighbouring countries. Before their advent, the prevalent system of faith and worship constituted what in the later period came to be recognised as a religion - Hinduism - distinct from the new faiths in many respects - Buddhism and Jainism. In later years, the arrival of Christianity and Islam which were based on one book, one God and one Prophet, gave a definite form and shape to Hinduism despite worship of God in any number of forms, personalised and otherwise. The large number of great saints who spent a life time in penance and realised the `Ultimate Truth' had given their own interpretations of God-head and laid down practical methods for spiritual advancement which also enriched the Hindu philosophy. This paved the way for a highly liberalised religious thought and culture linked to it. But all these various schools of thought converged on the definite concept of the `Supreme' as believed in Hinduism.

The purpose of any religion is, in addition to laying down certain social codes for ensuring morality, integrity and creation of an ideal society, also to provide guidance to spirituality and realisation of God-head. Though the Hindu pantheon permits worship of many gods, such worship does not lose sight of the ultimate goal of realising the `Supreme' of which the various gods are but different aspects. This can be seen from the scriptural statements; ``Sarva Deva Namaskaara Kesavamprati Gachhathi'' (Worship of all gods leads towards Kesava); ``Ekam Sath Vipraaha Bahudha Vadanthi'' (The Truth is but one, the learned describe in many ways). The Hindu philosophical concepts are extremely complex and not easily comprehensible like; ``Aham Brahmasmi'' (I am the Brahman) and ``Thath Thwamasi'' (Thou art that (meaning the Brahman)). Therefore the sure way to ensure a sustained effort for reaching the path which will lead to realisation of the `Supreme' would be to worship a `deity' or `form' which is in tune with the worshipper's aspirations, spiritual and mundane.

The need for strict observance of certain disciplines and a code of conduct had been emphasised by the Hindu scriptures for day-to-day life and for spiritual practices. Similarly occasions of festivity which attracted social and mass participation were also connected with the worship of gods which took a distinctive mass-based form and all-India acceptance. Even the dress, the type of food, one's conduct in social interactions, etc. had a religious orientation. Family functions such as marriages, birth day celebrations, etc. were designed in such a way as to have primacy to religious ritualism though importance is also attached to social participation. Thus a distinct culture had developed over the thousands of years and religion had essentially become a way of life and purported to be of universal adoption described as `Sanatana Dharma' for ephemeral and esoteric betterment of mankind.

It is often said that Hinduism is only a way of life and not a religion. The argument advanced is that the religion permitted multi-theism and a multi-cultural society unlike other religions say Christianity or Islam which believe in `One Book, One God and One Prophet'. The argument is untenable since as stated earlier, the Hindu way of life is closely linked with worship of God. Every aspect of life in the Hindu society has an orientation to teachings of the religion as explained above. Thus Hinduism is both a religion and a way of life. The Hindu religion has no organised hierarchical clergy like Christianity vested with authority to speak on behalf of all Hindus. The Brahmins still practising the Vedic edicts as in ancient days do not constitute an organised clergy in the strict ecclesiastical sense of the term. They do not also have the inherent or vested authority to declare anyone or a group of persons as Hindus or non-Hindus.

While there are no authentic research findings to throw light on the circumstances leading to the division of the people into hundreds of castes and sub-castes throughout the country with trappings of oppressive inter-caste feelings which developed during the thousands of years of social evolution in India, what is apparent is the fact that the various castes do have a link to the professions pursued according to the varna system and the total affinity of the followers for a social identity based on their castes.

The vedic religion, with its complex dictats and procedures of rituals insisted on a high degree of personal purity and spiritual disposition to practise them. This called for a set of exclusive people to become proficient in the performance of rituals such as Yagnas and to guide the lay public, with the required qualities. These people had to be necessarily spiritually bent. Such people had opted for the spiritual path or priestly path on their own volition. They were not `appointed' by any authority for such profession. They were, however, patronised by the rulers who provided the wherewithal for an honourable life. The society held them in high esteem. The religious texts chose to call them the `Brahmanas' meaning thereby, in a broad sense, those who had known the `Brahman' because of their deeply spiritual pursuits and high erudition. This was not meant to have any caste connotations. Economic prosperity and proximity to and patronage of rulers and the acquisition of vedic knowledge with the consequent high social status must have led the `Brahmanas' to consider themselves as a superior class. That `Brahmanas' were not a caste can be seen from the statements in the smrithis such as ``Janmana Jayathe Sudraha; samskaarath Dwija. Uchythe (At birth one is a sudra; by refinements he is called Dwija). The refinements are a process of initiation involving upanayanam and other ritualistic procedures and ``Brahmaethi Brahmanaha'' (one who knows about `Brahman' is a Brahmana). The efflux of time only has made `Brahmanas' a caste which has no sanction of the texts.

The oppressive caste system and social ostracism of the lower castes by the upper castes and acute economic distress have provided scope for the proselytising agencies of various non- Hindu religions to convert the low-caste people to their faith. The nearly 200 years of British rule had provided covert state patronage to the efforts of the Christian missionaries to convert Hindus to Christianity. The tribal population in many stages has become the target of proselytisation. It is even argued that the tribals do not belong to Hinduism to justify conversion. The argument is incorrect. The customs, the mode and deities of worship and the names given to new born children are all derived from those of the Hindu religion. Many examples can be cited to prove this. As in any other ethnic group, tribals in each State have their own customs and mode of worships and way of life. To say that the people belonging to a religion should have one culture, same customs, mode of living and worship, etc., irrespective of the regions separated by huge distances would amount to cultural suppression and violence to individual spiritual development.

The pick and choose conversion method would naturally create social tensions among the communities especially the tribals who are proud of their ethnic distinction due to interference in their cultural moorings and customs by the neo-converts. The advantage claimed in embracing Christianity (or any other non- Hindu religion) is the elimination of caste- based social discrimination. It is not so much the availability of the Bible in one's mother tongue or the facility of praying in a common prayer hall or church as the attraction of social equality which tempt one to change one's religion. If converts are to be described as SC/BC Christians, Dalit Christians, etc. which caste identities are likely to become permanent in course of time with their much-hated lower caste description retained in the adopted religion too what is the advantage gained by embracing that religion? The constitutional provisions for certain privileges to SCs, STs, etc. are due to their socially backward status and not economic backwardness and meant to uplift them socially. If the claims for extending such privileges to such castes converted to Christianity (or any other religion) is admitted it would tacitly mean continuance of caste-system and social backwardness even after conversion. Why should a religion which claims absence of caste-discrimination permit caste-appellations to the names even after conversion?

On account of the frequent communal violence incidents resulting from conversions, the Prime Minister suggested a national debate on the subject. Though the suggestion invited fierce opposition from the political parties, a debate is indeed taking place in the print media.

A charge thrown at Hinduism in the context of conversions is that the right of religion is not granted to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Backward Castes, etc., as in the case of ``inclusionist religions'' of the world and therefore the religion (Hinduism) practises ``exclusionism''. This charge is untenable as any person from among any of these communities without any difference of caste or sex has access to all places of worship, festivals and temple rituals on an equal footing with the so-called higher caste people. Further many of these caste- people had chosen to worship deities which were for generations worshipped by their ancestors and for which temples were built and maintained by them without let or hindrance by any other castes. These deities and their modes of worship are derived from the manner and method adopted for the Hindu temples. They have the right and choice to practise the Vedas in much the same way as the so-called `Brahmanas' do.

The Hindu scriptures do not proscribe any person or community on the basis of caste from learning the vedas or other scriptures. In fact, it is of interest to note that when the Vedas and Upanishads were propounded thousands of years in antiquity, there were no castes or communities with acute social disparity as in the present day. To say that the so-called lower castes do not belong to Hinduism on the ground that they were not declared as such by the Hindu clergy would mean that clergies and ecclesiastical bodies are to be appointed and vested with powers to recognise any set of people as Hindus.

There are no such methods in Hinduism. Any cultural divide between groups or castes does not mean that they do not belong to Hinduism since the Hindu culture is a composite one of several sub-cultures based on regional and ethnic affinities. The greatness of the Hindu religion itself lies in the diversity of cultures within its main culture and the liberalism to have distinct and characteristic sub cultures, modes of worship, cooking, food, worship, etc, while maintaining a homogeneity, of religious values.

The Hindu religion, basically has its scriptures - the Vedas and the Upanishads - and believes in the great efficacy of the Manthras which form part of them. Great occult power is attributed to the manthras formed by certain alphabets and their phonetic sounds. They happen to be in Sanskrit, each alphabet or combination of alphabets considered capable of attracting occult powers. There is however, no bar to chanting hymns in the regional languages and dialects. In fact, the Nayanmars of Tamil Nadu had composed and sung hundreds of hymns in Tamil which are even now popular and in wide use. They are replete with philosophical content. The Divyaprabandham, the Tiruppavai and Tiruvembavai are monumental works. Surdas and Kabirdas had sung hymns in Hindi, while Purandaradasa did so in Kannada and saint Thyagaraja in Telugu. These hymns are widely used in prayers in all parts of the country irrespective of language and caste differences. Many of the `Nayanmars' and saints were `non-dwijas' and some even belonged to the lowest castes. The number of `non- dwija' saints who composed hymns and prayers in non-Sanskrit vernacular languages is large. The established system of Bhajans has compositions in all the languages of the country. Even today people composing hymns in their mother tongue and using them for prayers are quite significant. The case of the pilgrims visiting Sabarimalai hill shrine singing prayers in all languages is an example in point.

Hinduism has always welcomed reforms. From Ram Mohan Roy in the North to Sri Narayana Guru in the South social reformers have succeeded in great measure in eradicating many social evils. The process is even now taking place. It is worth noting that the evils which have crept into the Hindu society over thousands of years could not be eradicated so easily and quickly. Other religions too are not free from divisions. How Protestantism and the new Testament came into existence is an example of degradation taking place in religions.

Even now are Harijan converts accepted in equal terms by upper caste converts in matters like matrimonial relationships? There are several divisions in Christianity like the Catholics, Protestants, Pentecost, Syrian Christians, etc. with identifiable differences within the religion. Even in Islam such differences exist and some sections are not even accepted as Muslims. In many countries, Shia-Sunni clashes are not uncommon even in the present day.

Hindus, whether of organised groups such as the Sangh Parivar or religious leaders like Mahants are not against conversions as such; but only oppose proselytisation using unfair and questionable means. Very often distress conditions like acute poverty, ill health, severe mental agony arising from various causes and illiteracy are exploited in effecting conversions. A person who desires to change his faith on conviction about the suitability of another religion to his or her spiritual advancement can hardly be persuaded not to convert and none can find fault with such a person or the religion which accepts him into its fold.