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The Question of Conversion in India Author(s): Sarah Claerhout and Jakob De Roover Source: Economic and Political Weekly

, Vol. 40, No. 28 (Jul. 9-15, 2005), pp. 3048-3055 Published by: Economic and Political Weekly Stable URL: . Accessed: 27/08/2011 11:36
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has not advanced much. This paper suggests that this is due to the fact that Hindus and Christians refer to two different objects when they discuss 'religion'. The traits which the Christians ascribe to religion account for the premium they put on the right to convert, while the traits of the Hindu view of religion explain the opposition to conversion. As the two parties attribute mutually exclusive properties to religion, they encounter difficulties while seeking to

However, the mutual understandingbetween the advocates and the adversaries of conversion

The Indian debate on religious conversion has been an ongoing one for a few centuries now.

make sense of each other's claims about religion and conversion.


India.Fromtheearly20thcentury debateincontemporary nwards,it has surfacedagainand againin the political realm,in themediaandin thecourts.Duringthe lastfew decades the disputehas attaineda new climax in the plethoraof newspapers, journals,and books whose pages have been devotedto a thequestionof conversion.Apparently, largegroupof Indians considersthis to be an issue of crucialimportto the futureof theircountry. The positionsin the disputeare clear.On the one hand,there arethosewho pleadfor a banon conversion,becauseit disturbs the social peace in pluralIndia.This groupconsists mainlyof drive of ChrisHindus.The aversiontowardsthe proselytising variousHindugroupsand Islamis widespread tianity among fromtheradical of to spokesmen the Sanghparivar the moderate On Gandhians. the other hand,there are those who arguethat conversion is a fundamentalhuman right, which should be in the of protected anydemocracy. Generally, proponents theright and In to conversion Christians secularists. spiteof theclarity are of thesetwo positions,whichhaveremained unchanged throughout the previouscentury,the debate has not seen significant The progress. discussionsarestillgoverned feelingsof mutual by The participants in unease, and resentment. incomprehension, the debateseem to agree on one thing only: the gap between the differentviews on conversionis unbridgeable. Thereis much to be said in favourof this conclusion,since all attemptsto settle the conflict have failed. The IndianConstitutionaddressedthe issue of conversion more than half a century ago. InArticle25, it is statedthat"allpersonsareequally entitledto freedomof conscienceandthe rightfreelyto profess, practiseand propagatereligion".Soon, it would turnout that this piece of legislation was not able to resolve the problems in around conversion Indian society.In 1954,theMadhyaPradesh state governmentlaunched an inquiry into the proselytising activitiesof foreignmissionaries, whichresultedin a report that recommended on legal restrictions conversion.In the next decade, the Orissagovernmentendorseda Freedomof Religion Act that put such recommendations practice.Otherstates into wouldfollow. Recently,the TamilNaduProhibition Forcible of of Conversion Religion Ordinance addedmore confusion.The that ensuingpolemicsdemonstrated the questionof conversion is still as contentiousas it was before. Thesituation growingworsetoday.Theencounters is between theHindu traditions theproselytising and of Christianity religions

R eligiousconversionhasbecomethe subjectof passionate

and Islamare moreexplosive thanever. Little is needed,these days, for hostile feelings to flare up. In recentyears, a similar enmity towardsthe proselytisingactivities of Christianshas surfacedin Sri Lanka.Conversionseems to play a crucialrole in these conflicts. Thus, there is an urgentneed to understand why so manysouthAsiansaredisturbed the issue of religious by conversion.Why has this issue become a bone of contention? As yet, our researchdoes not allow for conclusive answers. However,given the current weight of the issue, we would like to submitsome provisionalresults for consideration.

and Religion Conversion
Thecurrent explanations suggestthatthecausefor theconflict is not to be locatedin the issue of conversionitself, but in some hiddenagendaof thedominant Hinducommunity. Some say that casteHindusfearthey will lose theirgripon Indiansociety high if moreandmoremembers thelowercastesareconverted of away fromHinduism[e g, Vyas 2002]. Otherssuggestthatthe attack on Christian conversionis merely a convenientpretextof the to [e Sanghparivar supportits agendaof Hindunationalism g, Sarkar are 1999;Menon2004].Theseexplanations notsupported by ananalysisof thedebateon conversion. Theyseemto consider theviewpoints thisdebateas sideissuesin thestruggle in between the aggressiveHindutvamovementon the one hand and the castes, and their secular religiousminorities,the downtrodden on protectors the other.At the very least, a genuineexplanation of the clash over conversionin contemporary Indiashouldgive us insightinto the viewpointsof the differentparties.It should tell us why so manyIndians haveinvestedso muchtime,energy, and emotion in discussingthis particular issue. As SebastianKim's recent overview (2003) illustrates,the debatesof the last 70 yearsor so haverevolvedaround same the concerns.One of the early 20th centurydebateson conversion took place when Mahatma Gandhiwas interviewedin 1931b by TheHinduaboutthe role of foreignmissionaries independent in Indiaof the future.He said he would ask them to withdrawif they engaged in proseiytisingby means of medical aid and education.His arguments were clear:"Everynation'sreligion is as good as any other.Certainly India'sreligionsareadequate for her people. We need no convertingspiritually" (Collected Vol Gandhilaterpointedout thaL Works, XLV: 320). A!tr.ough :he reporter twistedIh'swords,the modificationshe mare. had


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did not changethe picturemuch. His true standpoint, said, if a person purposely undertakesthe conversion of anotherperson he was the following:"Everynationconsidersits own faith to be to his religion ... that would impinge on the 'freedom of conas good as thatof any other.Certainlythe greatfaiths held by science' guaranteed to all the citizens of the country alike" [cited the peopleof Indiaare adequate her people. Indiastandsin in Kim 2003: 79]. From the very beginning, the Christians had for no needof conversions fromone faithto another" India, argued that freedom of conscience also implied the freedom to (Young 23, 1931). An Americanmissionary,E Stanley Jones, convert: "Freedom to believe without freedom to spread that April repliedin an open letterto Gandhi.He assertedthat- although belief is nothing but bondage" [Christianity Today 1999:28]. he agreed that hospitals and schools should not be used to Justice Ray, however, thought differently. Religious conversion, humanrightanda fundamental to him, is a violation of the freedom of conscience of the Indian proselytise it is "afundamental humanduty"to sharewhat one finds preciousin the spiritual citizens. Thus, to one group, freedom of religion means to be realm.OpposingGandhi'sclaim thatevery nation'sreligionis free to convert; to the other, it means to be free from conversion. as good as any other,he said thatreligioustruth- like scientific What is happening in the Indian debate on conversion? The truth- is by its very nature universal.Jonesreproached Gandhi two parties do not seem able to make sense of each other's claims for denyingChristians rightto sharethe truthof Christwith about religion and conversion. The Christians consider it selfthe others [Kim 2003:28]. evident that conversion lies at the heart of what religion is all Intheconstituent assemblydebates(CAD),similarviews were about, while the Hindus cannot see how this could possibly be the expressedduringthe quarrel regarding questionwhetheror the case. In the words of a participant in an internet discussion not Article25 of the Constitution should grantIndiancitizens on the topic: "Indeed this whole notion of conversion seems all the right"topropagate theirreligion". Christian The participants wrong to me. What are they converting? Why can't anyone who had very strong feelings about this matter.They repeatedly wants to practise Christian religion do so without converting? asserted "millions Christians" passionately that of felt about"this I may be asking stupid questions here, but at this moment, the theirreligion"andthatit is perhaps "themost whole premise of conversion strikes me as odd." In this article, rightto propagate fundamental Christian of [F rights" R Anthonyin theConstituent we take the first steps towards an explanation of the difficulties Assembly Debates III: 489-90]. The Hindus involved in this the two parties have in making sense of each other's claims. Our on did quarrel, the contrary, not at all agree that belongingto tentative hypothesis is that Hindus and Christians are not talking a religion entailed a right to convert others. Purushottamdas about the same object when they discuss 'religion' and its relation Tandon it thisway:"WeCongressmen deemit veryimproper to conversion. Religion according to the Hindus is something put to convertfrom one to anotherreligionor to take partin such completely different from what the Christians refer to as religion. activitiesand we are not in favourof this"and "it is absolutely On the one hand, we will look at how Christians have attributed futile to be keen on convertingothersto one's faith"[CAD III: certain traits to religion throughout the history of their encounter 492]. Nevertheless, they agreedto retainthe formulaaboutthe with the Hindu traditions. These traits explain why, according of religion, because they desiredto stay on good to the Christian view, belonging to a religion entails the duty propagation terms with the Christianminorities in India. Tandon again: and the right to convert others to that religion. On the other hand, do we, "Generally, Congressmen, not thinkit at all right- I say we show that Hindus have attributeda different set of properties so frankly- that people should strenuouslygo abouttryingto to religion in their encounter with the Christians. From this convertpeoples of otherfaiths into their own, but we want to perspective, the incomprehension they express towards the The debatesof the last few decadeshave been variations on the same theme. On the one hand, there are Christiansand secularistswho insist that conversion is a fundamental right, whichis partof the universal freedomof conscience:"Theright of anindividual convertto another to religionmustbe considered a universalhumanrightand shouldbe vigorouslydefendedby Christians other religious leaders.No state, church,or inand stitutionshould stand in the way of an individual'spursuitof religioustruth" [Christianity Today1999:28].Ontheotherhand, we have Hinduswho say thatconversionis an act of violence, which violates religioustraditionsand disruptsfamilies, comand munities, societyin general:"Religiousconversiondestroys centuries-old communities incites communalviolence. It is and Saraswati violence,and it breedsviolence"(SwamiDayananda 1999).Whileit is obviousto one partythatbelongingto a religion impliesthe need andthe rightto convertothersto thatreligion, the otherpartyshows nothingbutincomprehension towards this professedlink between religion and conversion. These differentstances bring aboutconfusion.Considerthe of following interpretation the constitutional rightto propagate In A chiefjustice N Ray religion. a 1977Supreme Courtjudgment, saidArticle25 does not grantthe rightto convertanother person toone's ownreligion. fact,hecontinued, In "there nofundamental is right to convertanotherpersonto one's own religion because
Economic and Political Weekly carry our Christian friends with us [...]" [CAD III: 493]. professed link between religion and conversion becomes understandable. Finally, we come to the suggestion that Hindus and Christians do not have the same object in mind when talking about religion. If this turns out to be true, the current debate on conversion is predestined to remain the dead end it is today.


of Triumph the CrossoverIdolatry
From the earliest encounters, missionary zeal characterised the way the European Christians approached Hindu traditions. The Portuguese Catholics who conquered the isle of Goa were the first to put the typical Christian stance towards the traditions of the Indian subcontinent into practice. In 1545, King John III of Portugal gave a series of detailed instructions to the governor of Goa about dealing with Indian heathens: In this brief the king ordersthat neitherpublic nor private 'idols' be toleratedon the island of Goa and that severe punishmentmust be meted out to those who persist in keeping them. The houses of people suspected of keeping hidden idols are to be searched. Heathenfestivals are not to be toleratedand every brahmanis to be banished from Goa, Bassein and Diu. Public offices are to be entrustedto neophytes and not to heathens; Christiansare to be freed from heavy labour at the port of Goa, such tasks in the

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future being reserved exclusively for heathens. Portuguese, under pain of severe punishment, are forbidden to sell heathen slaves to Muslims. since heathens are converted more easily to Christianityunder the Portuguese and to Islam under Muslim ownership.Revenues previously used for the supportof mosques and temples should be diverted to aid in spreading the gospel [Lach 1965:239-40]. In the Portuguese view, the future of the indigenous traditions was clear: these had to be eradicated. The 'idols' could not be tolerated and neither could the heathen festivals. Measures had to be taken to spread the gospel and to promote the conversion of heathens to Christianity. The Christian religion was something to be spread, if not peacefully, then through force. Apparently, there was something deeply wrong with the native traditions, and the only way to right this wrong was to guide the natives into the Christian faith. What exactly was wrong? To answer this question, let us turn from the Catholic Portuguese to a German Protestantwho landed in India a few centuries later. In the early 18th century. the Lutheran missionary Bartholomeus Ziegenbalg composed a pamphlet entitled Abominable Heathenism, which contains a clear formulation of the reasons behind conversion. Originally written in Tamil, this pamphlet was spread in Tamil Nadu in order to convince the local Hindus that their lives were rooted in error. Using the word a-jnana to convey the idea of sin or error, Ziegenbalg told these Hindus the following: "We have come to you to save you from a-jnana. ... Make a study of the Christian precepts and accept them in faith, and so become the people of God" [cited in Grafe 1972: 59]. In the eight chapters of the pamphlet, Ziegenbalg told the heathens how the gospel would save them from their ignorance: (i) What is a-jnana? - It is idol-worship and moral perversion accordingto Rom 1: 21-32. (ii) How a-jnana spreadin this world. - It did so because of the devil's deceit and men's guilt and not because of God. (iii) There is much a-jnana in the whole of Tamil Nadu. (iv) How detestable a-jnana is - Because by a-jnana soul and body will be pervertedand punished.(v) How God is helping those in a-jnana to be saved. - Jesus Christ took upon himself the burdenof a-jnana and delivers from a-jnana saving soul and body. (vi) What the things are which those who wish to be saved from a-jnana have to do - Answer: Scripturereading,realisation and confession of sin, faith in Jesus Christ, asking for baptism with renunciationof a-jnana and acceptance of the triune God, living in thecommunionof theWordof God andtheLord'sSupper, living a life of witness and suffering and a life of love andjustice. (vii) The trials and tribulationswhich those who give up a-jnana and enter the church experience in the world for the sake of righteousness.(viii) The benefits promised to those who give up a-jnana, accept the true religion and stand in the Christianfaith unshaken [cited in Grafe 1972: 59]. This summary discloses what type of a phenomenon religion is to a Christian like Ziegenbalg. On the one hand, the false religion of the heathens consists of sin and error. It perverts soul and body. It is the religion of the followers of the devil. The heathens should be saved from this false religion. On the other hand, there is the true religion of the people of God. This Christian faith is a divine gift to humankind. It is the only way to salvation of body and soul. To escape from false religion, the heathens have to turn to God: they have to read the scripture, accept the triune God, confess their sins, have faith in Jesus Christ, etc. In short, they have to give up false religion, "accept the true religion and stand in the Christian faith unshaken".

Naturally, not all Europeans travelling to India in this period shared the missionaries' fanaticism to do away with the heathen idolatry. Some of the East India Company officials, for instance, gave more sympathetic accounts of 'the Hindoo religion'. Among the latter was Alexander Dow, who wrote a dissertation on 'the Hindoos' in his History of Hindustan (1768). What struck him about these Hindus was that they did not try to convert: Contraryto the practice of all other religious sects, they admit of no converts; but they allow that every one may go to heaven his own way, though they perhaps suppose, that theirs is the most expeditious methodto obtainthatimportant end. They chuse (sic) ratherto make a mystery of their religion, than impose it upon the world, like the Mahommedans,with the sword, or by means of the stake, after the manner of some pious Christians [Dow 1768:110]. As he repeats a few pages further, the Hindus never tried to convince others that theirs was the one true way to heaven: Itis, as we have alreadyobserved,a principlepeculiarto the Hindoo religion, not to admitof proselytes. But insteadof being solicitous aboutgaining converts,they always make a mysteryof theirfaith. Heaven, say they, is like a palace with many doors, and every one may enter in his own way [ibid:115]. Many would laterjoin Dow in pointing out the peculiar absence of an urge to convert in the Hindu religion. This absence becomes peculiar only if one expects each and every religion to convert. How does one come to such a belief? On the one hand, Dow could have reached this point through induction. All religious sects he had encountered so far did convert, and thus he expected the same to be trueof the Hindus. Considering the limited number of religions he could possibly have known in the 18th century, this makes a rather weak case. On the other hand, Dow could simply have assumed that all religions do proselytise. That is, he may have held an image of religion which told him that there is continuous competition among religions with respect to gaining converts. Dow may not have been a fanatic or a missionary, but of course he was a Christian. He shared this image with his fellow Christians. It derived from the belief that religion revolves around the struggle between God and the devil for the souls of men and women. Satan seduces humanity with subtle lies; God saves with the gift of truth. Given this background, the surprise must have been great indeed when one came about a religion that did not in the least bother about gaining converts. To the more zealous Christians, the Indian subcontinent literally appeared as a battleground of the clash between God's truthand Satan's fraud. In the early 19th century, the evangelistic missionaries of the London Missionary Society already knew what to expect when they set foot on Indian soil. One of them, George Gogerly, tells us "an unusual feeling of solemnity" gradually crept over his mind as he caught his first sight of India: Before me was the land of idolatry,concerningwhich I had heard and read so much; and I was now to come into contact with that mighty system of superstition and cruelty which was holding millions enslaved in its bonds; to see its hateful rites, and by the exhibition of the contend with its dreadfulpower [cited in Kitzan 1970:29-30]. The missionaries had their expectations confirmed everywhere in the traditional practices and stories of the Indians. When they were confronted by "the vaunted holy books of the Hindus," the


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strongest terms of denunciation could not do. In the words of William Campbell: InwhattermsshallI describetheHindumythology?Therewas never, in any age, nor in any country,a superstitionso cruel, so atrocious and so diabolical as that which has reigned over this people. It is a personification of evil. Satan seems to have used all his ingenuity, his malice and his gigantic power to create a system which would representall his own attributes uponthe earth,render its votariesas muchlike his angelsas possible,andmakeHindosthan an image of the infernal regions [cited in Kitzan 1970:31]. When this is how one views the practices and the stories of the Hindus, the desire to convert must be strong indeed: the Hindus have to be liberated from the mighty system of superstition that holds them enslaved in its bonds. What should come in its stead? Why, the Truth, of course! That is, the true message of the atoning death of Jesus Christ has to replace the false Hindu mythology. The worshipof the trueGod must replacethe honouring of the false gods. For instance, when Christian Wolff arrived at Goa on October 31, 1833 and saw the cross of Christ planted and heard the church bells ringing, he could not help but exclaim: "Behold! the triumph of the cross over idolatry" [excerpted in Kaul 1998:56]. This was not just the victory cry of an aggressive religion out to rule the world. Instead, these Christians were honestly and deeply concerned about the souls of the Indian subjects of the Empire. In his Letters on India: With Special Reference to the Spread of Christianity (1840), for instance. Reverend William Buyers writes the following: The fact that nearly one hundredmillions of our fellow-subjects are living and dying in a state of awful estrangementfrom God, and without the means of having that estrangementremoved the victims of error, superstition,pollution and horrid cruelty while we possess every facility of access to them, involves a responsibilitythe most tremendousthatcan possibly be conceived [Buyers 1840:viii]. Another missionary, William Carey, also reminds the Christians of their obligations in his An inquiry into the Obligations of the Christians, to Use the Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. He asks rhetorically: After all, the uncivilised state of the heathen,insteadof affording an objectionagainstpreachingthe gospel to them,ought to furnish an argumentfor it. Can we as men, or as Christians, hear that a great partof our fellow creatures,whose souls are as immortal as ours.andwho areas capableas ourselves, of adorningthegospel, contributingby theirpreaching,writings,or practicesto the glory of ourRedeemer'sname,andthe good of this church,areinveloped Can (sic) in ignoranceandbarbarism? we hearthatthey arewithout the gospel, without government, without laws, and without arts, and sciences; and not exert ourselves to introduceamongst them the sentiments of men. and of christians? [Carey 1792:69-70] Why were the Reverend Buyers, the Reverend Carey, and their Christian audience burdened by the responsibility to bring their fellow-human beings back to God? In Christ, they believed. God had disclosed His will to humanity. It is only through belief in - and submission to - His revealed will that human beings can be saved from the devil and eternal damnation. Thus, it becomes tlw duty of the Christians to try and convert others. It would be sheer cruelty and a violation of God's will not to do so. This background allows us to make sense of the claims of both Indian and European Christians that conversion is a right and a duty of the religious. They simply have to share the universal

truth of Christ with the rest of the humankind. They should at least attempt to convince the heathens that the latter's corrupt beliefs ought to be replaced with pure Christian doctrine. This explains why E Stanley Jones reacted so strongly to Gandhi's claim that every nation's religion is as good as any other. And it also accounts for the position of the Indian Christians in the constituent assembly debates. Listen to how two Christianauthors, J F Butler and S Samuel, summed up the issue in a pamphlet entitled The Right of Conversion, issued shortly before the inauguration of the constituent assembly: Truthis universal- true, and thereforegood, for all: hence, when it fully grips a man, it (or what is sincerely taken to be it) grips him not only as a thing to hold, but as a thing to spread. And (subject to the usual provisioes (sic) about anti-socialconduct) a manhasa rightto give dueexpressionto so fundamental conviction a as this. This right is a universal one (cited in Kim 2003:40). As the true religion conveys the will of God for the humankind, its truth should be spread among all the nations. Although God and Satan are not always explicitly present in the contemporary pleas for the right to convert, the notion of turning from false to true religion presupposes the opposition between the true God and the false god. This remains the implicit background that propels demands for the right to convert.1 From the 16th to the 21st century, the Christians have viewed their encounter with the Hindu traditions as a battle between Christianity and idolatry. This theological framework attributes certain characteristic properties to religion: it is conceived of as a struggle between the true and the false. The struggle has different aspects to it. Firstly, it involves rivalry between religions with regard to the truthof doctrines. Insofar as different religions are either true or false, they revolve around a set of doctrines or beliefs. Therefore, the Christians oppose the Hindu traditions to the Christian religion in terms of the beliefs these 'rival religions' proclaim. The main issue of religion is to make a choice between these different sets of beliefs - the message of the atoning death of Jesus Christ and the related precepts on the one hand or the errors of false religion on the other. Secondly, the competition between religions revolves around the gaining of converts. The true religion strives to save the souls of men and women, while false religion keeps them in the command of the devil. This can also be put in terms of their respective ends. The true religion is the only path to salvation. Hell is the fatal destination of all other religions. Thirdly, the rivalry does not only concern the life to come, but is also expressed in the conduct of the followers of the different religions here on earth. As false religion, Hinduism embodies immorality.2 And the true religion of Christianity exemplifies morality. Conversion, then, cannot but be a fundamentalright, since it allows individuals to be guided from falsity to truth and from depravity to the good.

Ill CountlessRiversFlowing Seaward
The attacks of the Christian missionaries on the native traditions provoked reaction among the Indians. Surprisingly, this did not take the form of a plea for the truth of the Hindu religion. Nor did the response consist of a counter-attack on the Christian teachings. We can move back to the 18th century to get a flavour of Hindu resistance to the missionary zeal. In 1719, Ziegenbalg published reports of some conferences in which he had discussed the truth of the Christian religion with the 'Malabarian' natives.

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The first conference gives an account of Ziegenbalg's attempt to convince one of the local brahmins of the falsity of his religion. When the missionary urged him and his fellow Hindus to "break off the Cords of inveterate Errors, and save your own Souls, seeking diligently the knowledge of the One only True God," the brahmingave the following retort;"OurReligion is Venerable for its Antiquity, and has been professed by many pious Kings and holy prophets. thro' an Uninterrupted Succession of many incircling Ages ..." [Ziegenbalg 1719:4-5]. His religion could not be an imposture, the brahmin continued, since so many generations had continued its practice. In Ziegenbalg's opinion this was a ridiculous argument: succession, and great throngs of proselytes are no Uninterrupted of characteristicks the truthof any religion; else it would follow, thatthedevil is veryorthodox:Forhe is as famousfor the multitude of his disciples, as he is for his hoary venerable antiquity. But you must judge of the goodness or badness of religion, by the FundamentalArticles thereof, agreeing or disagreeing with the revealed word of the true God; but you Malabarianshaving no Knowledge of God's Word, can take no Cognisance of what is true Worship, believing with an implicit Faith, the Fables and Reveriesof Tradition-mongers, yourPoets andDoctors ... [ibid:5].

subjects of conversion maintained that "every one may be saved by his own religion, if he does what is Good, and shuns Evil" [Ibid: 15]. And when Ziegenbalg tried to show how wicked and Hindus stood ridiculous their Gods were, one of the "Malabarian" up and told him "that it does not become an holy Man to blaspheme our Gods: for true Piety despises no Man upon Account of Religion; and 'tis therefore we Malabariansdo neither condemn nor despise the Christians upon the Account of their Religion" [ibid:107]. Over the next few centuries, the Christiancolonials would make more attempts to convince the Indians that Jesus Christ was the only way to salvation. In 1839, the East India Company servant and Orientalist John Muir published the Matapariksa, a Sanskrit tract that - as always - was to prove that Christianity was true religion while Hinduism was false. When three Hindu scholars wrote rejoindersto this tract,they opposed the idea thatone single religion was to be followed by all human beings. One of them, Nilakantha Goreh, pointed out the many different ways of attaining 'moksha': If someone located in Gaya wants to go to Kasi, he asks people thereandthey tell him, 'You must go west,' whereasan inhabitant of Prayaga,wanting to go to Kasi, asks people there and is told, to the contrary,'Go east'. Going both east and west, which is by The brahmin's conclusion that his religion must be 'true', all means contradictory,yields one result on account of being because it had existed for so many ages, was "altogetherillogical located in different places. By the same token, one way (to and an unjust Way of arguing," according to Ziegenbalg [ibid:6]. salvation) would not be rewardingto (all) men, whose aptitudes Nevertheless, the Hindus consistently defended their tradition of maturation theirgood aredifferent,on accountof the unarguable in terms of its antiquity, rather than in terms of truth. In another and bad deeds. Reflecting in these terms, Bhagavan,an ocean of while Ziegenbalg was heaping ridicule on the Hindu conference, compassion, made various kinds of margas by which everyone deities. "a Venerable Old Man" stood up and said: "... that we may attain salvation. For instance, among all the scriptures,the have no True, but false Gods in our Country, this you are still Sankhya, Vaisesika and others, likewise the devotional margas to demonstrate: For tho' the Christians call us Heathens, we are of Vaishnavas,etc, in which theirfaultsarecompletely done away not so in Reality; but we are a very Ancient Nation, whose with by means of much examinationand meditation,some people Religion is as Old as the World itself..." [ibid:103]. esteem the Vaisesika, some the Sankhya or others, some the Vaisnava marga, and others the Saiva, etc. This indicates that To a Christian missionary. these claims to antiquity provided people have differentaptitudes... Yet only one among the margas no proof for the value of a religion. The European heathens yields a directresult,it alone is followed by people whose aptitude had also worshipped the devil for thousands of years before is pure [excerpted in Young 1981:123]. were enlightened by Christianity. Besides, Ziegenbalg they asserted, God had from the beginning of time given to human As there are various kinds of people with different capacities kind the promise of sending his son as the redeemer: "And thus and skills, so there are several paths they can take to arrive at you see, that the Christian Religion has been professed from the moksha. This is not to say that all paths are equal. As another Beginning of the World. and is certainly the most Ancient of critic of Muir's, Somanatha, wrote: all Religions; and your Religion is nothing else but the Men who travel on other roads are not said to be competent for Corruption of ours" [Ibid: 11]. But when Ziegenbalg explained the Vedic marga. It is for this reasonthatHariwould be displeased the promise of God's grace in Christ, his brahmin opponent was when someone spurnshis own religion. ... When men who dwell equally unimpressed: in variousquarters going to a certaincity, in no way whatsoever are would they reach it by [travelling] only on one path. Likewise, I believe all you say of God's Dealings with you WhiteEuropeans, those men, whom the all-creatormade to possess differentqualito be true;but his Appearancesand Revelations among us Black fications (adhikara)and (put into) different situations, would be Malabarians,have been quite otherwise: And the Revelationshe unableto attainGod by meansof any single path.... Foreach person made of himself in this Land are as firmly believ'd here to be his own religion is best; the same religion would be perilous for true, as you believe those made in your Country:For as Christ anotherperson. Now, therefore,praise be to those who worship in Europe was made Man: so here our God Wischtnuwas born Hari according to their religion without reviling other [paths] us Malabarians; And as you hope for Salvation through among [excerpted in Young 1981:145]. Christ;so we hope for Salvation through Wischtnu:and to save one way, andus another,is one of the PastimesandDiversions you The religion one should follow depends on one's specific of Almighty God [Ibid:14]. situation. Therefore, persons belonging to different religions The Christian religion might be fine for the Europeans, the should neither dismiss their own religion nor that of others. In brahmin suggested, but the Hindu traditions were as good for fact, the deities would be displeased to see this happen. If this the Indians. In other words, the Hindus simply refused to see is basic to religion, this 'religion' is different from the phenoChristianityas a rival to their own traditions. No matterhow much menon the Christians were describing. In one case, the diversity the missionaries stressed the falsity of the Hindu religion, their of religions is said to consist of one path through which God


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saves humanity from eternal damnation, while the other paths are the devil's snares. In the other case, the diversity of religions corresponds to the innate diversity among human beings. Various valid paths exist, which have been developed for - and by different groups of people. In the 18th and the 19th century, the Hindus had not as yet adopted the tendency of the Christians to conceive of religion in terms of truth and falsity. This would change in the 20th century, when Mahatma Gandhi began to expound his views on the relation between religion and truth. In a 'discussion on fellowship' between Gandhi and some members of the Council of InternationalFederation, which was published in YoungIndia in 1928, Gandhi explained his position on this issue: I came to the conclusion long ago, after a prayerfulsearch and study and discussion with as many people as I could meet, that all religions were true and also that all had some error in them, and that whilst I hold my own, I should hold others as dear as Hinduism, from which it logically follows that we should hold all as dear as our nearest kith and kin and that we should make no distinctionbetweenthem.So we can only pray,if we areHindus, notthata Christian shouldbecomea Hindu,or if we areMusselmans, not that a Hinduor a Christianshould become a Musselman,nor should we ever secretly pray that anyone should be converted, but our inmost prayershould be that a Hindu should be a better Hindu,a Muslima betterMuslim anda Christiana betterChristian [Gandhi 1986:536].

Different Paths to Realisation
All religions are true, Gandhi suggests, and all have some error in them. Again. we can only note how strongly this notion differs from that of the Christians. If no religion is false, there is simply no point in religious conversion. There is no question of turning from falsity to truthby converting from one religion to the other. So, even if Gandhi appropriates the Christian vocabulary of 'religion' and 'truth', the statement 'a religion is true' has a completely different meaning to him. It does not mean that this particularreligion is the unique gift of God that leads humanity to salvation. Rather, it means that this religion is one of various roads humanbeings can take to reach 'the goal'. In his own words: "Religions are different roads converging to the same point. What does it matter that we take different roads so long as we reach the same goal? Wherein is the cause for quarrelling?" [Gandhi 1942: 2] When all religions lead to the same goal, one should not try to have others follow one's own path. One should rather strive to improve one's own practice of religion and stimulate the devotees of other religions to do the same. Gandhi was not the only one to translate the Hindu view that human beings could follow various paths to moksha into the proposition that all religions are true. In the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Ramakrishna is recorded to have made the same point about the variety of paths: "God can be realised through all paths. It is like your coming to Dakshineswar by carriage, by boat, by steameror on foot. You have chosen the way according to your convenience and taste; but the destination is the same. Some of you have arrivedearlier than others, but all have arrived" (cited in Neufeldt 1987:67). And he also presented the claim that all religions are true as the equivalent of this point: "God can be realised through all paths. All religions are true. The important thing is to reach the roof. You can reach it by stone stairs or wooden stairs or by bamboo steps or by a rope. You can also climb up by a bamboo pole" (cited in Neufeldt 1987:68).

What does it mean for these Hindu sages to say that all religions are true? When the Christians attribute truth to their religion, they are referring to a particularset of doctrines - including, for instance, that humanity is tainted by original sin and can be saved only throughChrist's redemptive death - which is god-given truth according to them. Other religions consist of deviant sets of doctrines and therefore they are necessarily false. If the Hindu thinkers were addressing the same issue of doctrinal truth, the claim that all religions are true would render them inconsistent. That is, if this means that all doctrines of all religions are true - even when standing in plain contradiction - then it also implies each and every statement about the world is true. This was not the message the Hindu thinkers intended to convey. As yet, we cannot argue conclusively what 'truth' did mean to them. But it certainly does not concern the truthof doctrines or claims about the world. In their view, this kind of truth predicate does not apply to religion. In Radhakrishnan'swords: "The Hindu attitude to religion is interesting. While fixed intellectual beliefs mark off one religion from another, Hinduism sets itself no such limits. Intellect is subordinated to intuition, dogma to experience, outer expression to inward realisation" [Radhakrishnan 1969:131]. When religion does not revolve around the truthof a particular set of beliefs, it becomes futile to compare different religions in terms of their respective truth or falsity. Or, as Swami Vivekananda put it, only those who do not properly understand religion, insist that religions be compared in order to decide which is the best. Religion, according to him, has nothing to do with the truth of certain views, but everything with "the great universal truth". Instead of being contradictory, religions are supplementary, said Vivekananda, "each religion, as it were, takes up one part of the great universal truth and spends its whole force in embodying and typifying that part of the great truth"[Vivekananda 1963:365]. Different religious traditions are not conceived of as rivals, neither when it comes to the ultimate goal they pursue, nor where it concerns the morality of their followers: We do not say that ours is the only way to salvation. Perfection can be had by everybody, and what is the proof? Because we see the holiest of man in all countries, good men and women everywhere, whether born in our faith or not. Therefore it cannot be held that ours is the only way to salvation. "Like so many rivers flowing from different mountains,all coming and mingling their watersin the sea, all the differentreligions, takingtheirbirthsfrom different standpointsof fact, come unto Thee." This is a part of the child's everydayprayerin India.With such everyday prayers, of course, such ideas as fighting because of differencesof religion are simply impossible [Vivekananda 1964:210]. It is not as though the Hindu spokesmen were ignorant of Christianity's claims to universality. But even after spending many years on "the comparative study of religion", the philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnandid not consent with the Christian notion of true and false religion. In fact, he went so far as to say that the idea of one single religion for the humankind is illogical: The illogical idea of one single religion for all mankind,one set of dogmas, one cult, one system of ceremonies which all individuals must accept on pain of persecution by the people and punishmentby God, is the productof unreasonand intolerance. A religion representsthe soul of the people, its peculiar spirit, thought, and temperament.It is not a mere theory of the supernatural which we can put on or off as we please. It is an expression

Economicand PoliticalWeekly July 9, 2005


of the spiritual experience of the race, a record of its social evolution, an integralelement of the society in which it is found [Radhakrishnan1969:81-82]. The religion of a people is a record of its social evolution and an expression of its spiritual experience. To understand what Radhakrishnanmeans, we can turn back to the Hindus who told Ziegenbalg that they had venerable antiquity on their side, since they were "a very Ancient Nation whose Religion is as Old as the World itself'. Religion, both to these 17th century Indians and to a 20th century Indian philosopher, is the tradition of a people or a community. It consists of the practices, customs, and stories that have been passed on by the ancestors of this community from ancient times.3 Therefore, the older it is, the more respectable. When they are accused of being followers of false religion, the Hindus reply that their religion is tradition, so how can it be false? As tradition, religion represents the past experience of a people, and hence the idea of one single religion for humankind becomes illogical or even inconceivable. The foregoing permits us to sum up some of the properties which Hindus attribute to the phenomenon they have called 'religion' since colonial times. On the one hand, religion consists of a variety of paths an individual can take to attain moksha. On the other, religion is the ancestral tradition of a people, viz, the system of practices, customs, and stories a particular community has passed on over time. In both aspects, different religions are not rivals with respect to gaining converts nor competi.tors with respect to truth. Religion does not revolve around the belief in a system of doctrines, which is either true or false. Therefore, truthpredicates do not apply to the object that religion is. All religions may be true in the sense that they all lead to the same goal of moksha, but no religion can possibly be false. Finally, the various religions are not rivals when it comes to the morality of their followers. All religious traditions produce good men and women. These traits of religion, as the Hindus view it, allow us to take a first step in understanding the antagonist position in the conversion dispute. For instance, in December 1946, a conference of the heads of various Hindu institutions issued a memorandum to the constituent assembly, in which they concluded that"[s]ocial peace and political stability can best be secured by allowing cultural and religious groups to live their own life, unhampered by external interference and aggression," letting the people "continue in the faith in which they were born," free from "proselytising interference" [cited in Kim 2003:42]. Or, as the Constitution of the Hindu nation of Nepal puts it: "Every citizen, subject to the current traditions, shall practice and profess his own religion as handed down from ancient times. Provided that no person shall be entitled to convert another person to his religion." When religion is the tradition of a community and one of various valid paths, this advocacy of non-interference makes perfect sense. The proselytising drive of the Christian religion, then, indeed becomes "one-sided violence", as Swami Dayananda Saraswati (of the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu) wrote in his Open Letter to His Holiness The Pope John Paul II. This document - composed on the occasion of the pope's visit to India in 1999 - voices the hurt conversion causes to those who conceive of religion as tradition: Any protest against religious conversion is always brandedas persecution,because it is maintainedthat people are not allowed to practicetheir religion, that their religious freedom is curbed.

also different. other The is Thetruth entirely person hasthefreedom That to practice or her religionwithoutinterference. is his/ his freedom does notextent(sic) to having herbirthright. Religious Sucha programme to be a planned of is programme conversion. of freedom others. construed aggression as againstthe religious conversionis violence andit breedsviolence",the "Religious Swamiconcludes.Thus,whenreligionis thetradition makes that a people into a people, conversionbecomes a disrupting interference in the life of a community.

IV and Misunderstanding Religion Conversion
To concludethis interimresearchreport,we will formulate a hypothesisto accountfor the lack of mutualunderstanding in the Indiandebateon conversion.In the foregoing,it has become clearthat Christians theHindus the and attribute exclusive mutually to properties religion.The formerclaim thatsome religionsare false,thatdifferent religionsarerivals,andthatone religionleads to heavenand all othersto hell. The lattersay that no religion is false, that religions cannot be rivals, and that all religions lead to the same goal. These are contradictory predicatesthat cannotbe ascribedto one and the same object.4 Therefore, we are compelledto conclude that the Hindusand the Christians are talkingabouttwo differentthings when they discuss 'relifor needfurther gion'.Theimplications thedisputeon conversion However,one implicationis clear. If it turnsout investigation. to be true that the advocatesand the opponentshave different objects in mind when discussing 'religion' (and its relationto conversion),they should continueto have greatdifficultiesin makingsense of each other's statementsand arguments. This raises severalproblems.How come the two partiesinvolved in the debatehave not seen that the term 'religion' as they use it does not refer to the same object?This cannotbe answeredhastily.The conversiondebatehas gone on for a few centuriesandthe participants have been as gifted as they come. Thus, the lack of understanding show towardseach other they becomes all the more difficultto explain.Likewise, why have to theycontinued engagein thisdebatewithsuchvigour,in spite of the mutual incomprehension? Our future researchon the questionof conversionin India will focus on these and other questions.i31 sarah.claerhout@

[The authors would like to thank Balu and the members of the Research Centre VergelijkendeCultuurwetenschap their constructivecriticisms.] for 1 We have triedto elaboratethis point in our ongoing work on conversion, truth, and violence. 2 For an analysis of the impact which the Christianview of Hinduismas an immoralandfalse religion has hadon the contemporary understanding of the Indian caste system, see Raf Gelders and Willem Derde (2003). 3 For a scientific account of the dynamic of religion and its implications for the relationbetween religion and tradition,see S N Balagangadhara (1994). 4 For a furtheranalysis of this aspect of the Indian debate on conversion and its implications for the neutralityof the secular state in India, see S N Balagangadhara JakobDe Roover:'SecularStateas the Harbinger and of Religious Violence' (forthcoming).


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Kim, Sebastian (2003): In Search of Identity: Debates on Religious Conversions in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi. Kitzan,Lawrence(1970): 'The LondonMissionarySociety and the Problem S Balagangadhara, N (1994): 'The Heathen in His Blindness...': Asia, The of Conversion in India and China, 1804-1834' in Canadian Journal West and the Dynamic of Religion, E J Brill, Leiden. of History, 5(2), pp 13-41. Buyers, ReverendWilliam (1840): Letterson India: WithSpecial Reference Lach, Donald F (1965): Asia in the Making of Europe, Vol I: The Century to the Spread of Christianity,John Snow, London. of Discovery, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. Carey, William (1792): An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians, to Menon, Nivedita (2004): 'All Ye Faithless: Why Is Religious Conversion Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, Leicester. any Different From Other Conversions?' in The Telegraph, May 6. ChristianityToday(1999): 'Protectingthe Right to Convert' in Christianity Neufeldt,R W (1987): 'TheResponseof the Ramakrishna Mission' in Harold Today, 43(3), p 28. G Coward(ed) (1987), ModernIndianResponsesto Religious Pluralism, CAD (1946-1950): Constituent AssemblyDebates: OfficialReport,Manager State University of New York Press, Albany, pp 65-84. of Publications, Delhi. Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli (1969): RadhakrishnanReader: An Anthology, Dow, Alexander(1768): 'A DissertationConcerningthe Customs, Manners, P NagarajaRao, K Gopalaswamiand S Ramakrishnan (eds), Bharatiya Language,Religion and Philosophy of the Hindoos' in P J Marshall(ed) Vidya Bhavan, Bombay. (,970), The British Discovery of Hinduism in the Eighteenth Century, Sarkar, Sumit (1999): 'Hindutva and the Question of Conversions' in K N Panikkar(ed), The Concerned Indian's Guide to Communalism, Cambridge University Press,Cambridge,pp 107-39. Gandhi,MohandasK (1942): Tothe Hindusand Muslims,AnandT Hingorani Viking, New Delhi, pp 73-106. (ed), Hingorani, Karachi. Swami DayanandaSaraswati(1999): Open Letterto His Holiness The Pope - (1960-1993): The Collected Worksof Mahatma Gandhi, Governmentof John Paul II, at URL: India, Publications Division, New Delhi. to_pope_from_swami_dayananada_sa.htm - (1986): The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol I, Swami Vivekananda(1963): The Complete Worksof Swami Vivekananda, Volume II, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata. Raghavan Iyer (ed), Clarendon Press, Oxford. Gelders, Raf and Willem Derde (2003): 'Mantras of Anti-Brahmanism: - (1964): TheCompleteWorks Volume VIII,Advaita ofSwami Vivekananda, Colonial Experienceof Indian Intellectuals' in Economic and Political Ashrama, Kolkata. Weekly, 38(43), pp 4611-17. Vyas, Neena (2002): 'WhenTheirGods Failed Them' in TheHindu,Sunday Grafe,Hugald(1972): 'HinduApologetics at the Beginning of the Protestant October 20. Mission Era in India' in the Indian ChurchHistory Review, 6(1), 43-69. Young, RichardFox (1981): ResistantHinduism:SanskritSources on AntiChristianApologetics in Early Nineteenth-Century Jordens,J F T (1987): 'Gandhiand Religious Pluralism'in HaroldG Coward India, Publications of the De Nobili Research Library, Vienna. (ed) (1987), Modern Indian Responses to Religious Pluralism, State University of New York Press, Albany, pp 3-18. Ziegenbalg, Bartholomeus (1719): Thirty Four Conferences between the Danish Missionaries and the MalabarianBramans ... in the East Indies, Kaul, H K (ed) (1979): Travellers'India: An Anthology, Oxford University the Press, Delhi. Religion,Transby Philipps,London. Concerning Truth the Christian of



December 18, 2004 National Election Study 2004: An Introduction The Elusive Mandate of 2004 Constraintson Electoral Mobilisation Democracy, Economic Reforms and Election Results in India Norm:How Broad-based Is It? Participatory ElectoralCoalitions in 2004 General Elections: Theory and Evidence MiddleGround? Majoritarian in How Gendered Was Women's Participation Election 2004? Assessing the ElectoralSystem: A Positive Verdict Analyses of States Appendix For copies writeto: Circulation Manager, Economic and Political Weekly, Hitkari 400 House, 284, ShahidBhagatsingh Road, Mumbai 001. email: -Lokniti Team -Yogendra Yadav -Pratap Bhanu Mehta -K C Suri -Suhas Palshikar, Sanjay Kumar -E Sridharan -Suhas Palshikar -Rajeshwari Deshpande -Ritu Rao

Economic and Political Weekly

July 9, 2005