The Question of Conversion in India

[Published in Economic and Political Weekly, 40(28):3048-55]

The Indian debate on religious conversion has been an ongoing one for a few centuries now. However, the mutual understanding between the advocates and the adversaries of conversion 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 make sense of each other’s claims about religion and conversion

Religious conversion has become the subject of passionate debate in contemporary India. From the early 20th century onwards, it has surfaced again and again in the political realm, in the media and in the courts. During the last few decades the dispute has attained a new climax in the plethora of newspapers, journals, and books whose pages have been devoted to the question of conversion. Apparently, a large group of Indians considers this to be an issue of crucial import to the future of their country.

The positions in the dispute are clear. On the one hand, there are those who plead for a ban on conversion, because it disturbs the social peace in plural India. This group consists mainly of Hindus. The aversion towards the proselytising drive of Christianity and Islam is widespread among various Hindu groups – from the radical spokesmen of the Sangh parivar to the moderate Gandhians. On the other hand, there are those who argue that conversion is a fundamental human right, which should be protected in any democracy. Generally, the proponents of the right to conversion are Christians and secularists. In spite of the clarity of these two positions, which have remained unchanged throughout the previous century, the debate has not seen significant progress. The discussions are still governed by feelings of mutual incomprehension, unease, and resentment. The participants in the debate seem to agree on one thing only: the gap between the different views on conversion is unbridgeable.

There is much to be said in favour of this conclusion, since all attempts to settle the conflict have failed. The Indian Constitution addressed the issue of conversion more than half a century ago. In Article 25, it is stated that “all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion”. Soon, it would turn out that this piece of legislation was not able to resolve the problems around conversion in Indian society. In 1954, the Madhya Pradesh state government launched an inquiry into the proselytising activities of foreign missionaries, which resulted in a report that recommended legal restrictions on conversion. In the next decade, the Orissa government endorsed a Freedom of Religion Act that put such recommendations into practice. Other states would follow. Recently, the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Ordinance added more confusion. The ensuing polemics demonstrated that the question of conversion is still as contentious as it was before.

The situation is growing worse today. The encounters between the Hindu traditions and the proselytising religions of Christianity and Islam are more explosive than ever. Little is needed, these days, for hostile feelings to flare up. In recent years, a similar enmity towards the proselytising activities of Christians has surfaced in Sri Lanka. Conversion seems to play a crucial role in these conflicts. Thus, there is an urgent need to understand why so many south Asians are disturbed by the issue of religious conversion. Why has this issue become a bone of contention? As yet, our research does not allow for conclusive answers. However, given the current weight of the issue, we would like to submit some provisional results for consideration.

Religion and Conversion

The current explanations suggest that the cause for the conflict is not to be located in the issue of conversion itself, but in some hidden agenda of the dominant Hindu community. Some say that high caste Hindus fear they will lose their grip on Indian society if more and more members of the lower castes are converted away from Hinduism [e g, Vyas 2002]. Others suggest that the attack on Christian conversion is merely a convenient pretext of the Sangh parivar to support its agenda of Hindu nationalism [e g, Sarkar 1999; Menon 2004]. These explanations are not supported by an analysis of the debate on conversion. They seem to consider the viewpoints in this debate as side issues in the struggle between the aggressive Hindutva movement on the one hand and the religious minorities, the downtrodden castes, and their secular protectors on the other. At the very least, a genuine explanation of the clash over conversion in contemporary India should give us insight into the viewpoints of the different parties. It should tell us why so many Indians have invested so much time, energy, and emotion in discussing this particular issue.

As Sebastian Kim’s recent overview (2003) illustrates, the debates of the last 70 years or so have revolved around the same concerns. One of the early 20th century debates on conversion took place when Mahatma Gandhi was interviewed in 1931 by The Hindu about the role of foreign missionaries in independent India of the future. He said he would ask them to withdraw if they engaged in proselytising by means of medical aid and education. His arguments were clear: “Every nation’s religion is as good as any other. Certainly India’s religions are adequate for her people. We need no converting spiritually” (Collected Works, Vol XLV: 320). Although Gandhi later pointed out that the reporter had twisted his words, the modifications he made did not change the picture much. His true standpoint, he said, was the following: “Every nation considers its own faith to be as good as that of any other. Certainly the great faiths held by the people of India are adequate for her people. India stands in no need of conversions from one faith to another” (Young India, April 23, 1931). An American missionary, E Stanley Jones, replied in an open letter to Gandhi. He asserted that – although he agreed that hospitals and schools should not be used to proselytise – it is “a fundamental human right and a fundamental human duty” to share what one finds precious in the spiritual realm. Opposing Gandhi’s claim that every nation’s religion is as good as any other, he said that religious truth – like scientific truth – is by its very nature universal. Jones reproached Gandhi for denying Christians the right to share the truth of Christ with others [Kim 2003:28].

In the constituent assembly debates (CAD), similar views were expressed during the quarrel regarding the question whether or not Article 25 of the Constitution should grant Indian citizens the right “to propagate their religion”. The Christian participants had very strong feelings about this matter. They repeatedly asserted that “millions of Christians” felt passionately about “this right to propagate their religion” and that it is perhaps “the most fundamental of Christian rights” [F R Anthony in the Constituent Assembly Debates III: 489-90]. The Hindus involved in this quarrel, on the contrary, did not at all agree that belonging to a religion entailed a right to convert others. Purushottamdas Tandon put it this way: “We Congressmen deem it very improper to convert from one to another religion or to take part in such activities and we are not in favour of this” and “it is absolutely futile to be keen on converting others to one’s faith” [CAD III: 492]. Nevertheless, they agreed to retain the formula about the propagation of religion, because they desired to stay on good terms with the Christian minorities in India. Tandon again: “Generally, we, Congressmen, do not think it at all right – I say so frankly – that people should strenuously go about trying to convert peoples of other faiths into their own, but we want to carry our Christian friends with us […]” [CAD III: 493].

The debates of the last few decades have been variations on the same theme. On the one hand, there are Christians and secularists who insist that conversion is a fundamental right, which is part of the universal freedom of conscience: “The right of an individual to convert to another religion must be considered a universal human right and should be vigorously defended by Christians and other religious leaders. No state, church, or institution should stand in the way of an individual’s pursuit of religious truth” [Christianity Today 1999:28]. On the other hand, we have Hindus who say that conversion is an act of violence, which violates religious traditions and disrupts families, communities, and society in general: “Religious conversion destroys centuries-old communities and incites communal violence. It is violence, and it breeds violence” (Swami Dayananda Saraswati 1999). While it is obvious to one party that belonging to a religion implies the need and the right to convert others to that religion, the other party shows nothing but incomprehension towards this professed link between religion and conversion.

These different stances bring about confusion. Consider the following interpretation of the constitutional right to propagate religion. In a 1977 Supreme Court judgment, chief justice A N Ray said Article 25 does not grant the right to convert another person to one’s own religion. In fact, he continued, “there is no fundamental right to convert another person to one’s own religion because if a person purposely undertakes the conversion of another person to his religion … that would impinge on the ‘freedom of conscience’ guaranteed to all the citizens of the country alike” [cited in Kim 2003: 79]. From the very beginning, the Christians had argued that freedom of conscience also implied the freedom to convert: “Freedom to believe without freedom to spread that belief is nothing but bondage” [Christianity Today 1999:28]. Justice Ray, however, thought differently. Religious conversion, to him, is a violation of the freedom of conscience of the Indian citizens. Thus, to one group, freedom of religion means to be free to convert; to the other, it means to be free from conversion.

What is happening in the Indian debate on conversion? The two parties do not seem able to make sense of each other’s claims about religion and conversion. The Christians consider it self-evident that conversion lies at the heart of what religion is all about, while the Hindus cannot see how this could possibly be the case. In the words of a participant in an internet discussion on the topic: “Indeed this whole notion of conversion seems all wrong to me. What are they converting? Why can’t anyone who wants to practise Christian religion do so without converting? I may be asking stupid questions here, but at this moment, the whole premise of conversion strikes me as odd.” In this article, we take the first steps towards an explanation of the difficulties the two parties have in making sense of each other’s claims. Our tentative hypothesis is that Hindus and Christians are not talking about the same object when they discuss ‘religion’ and its relation to conversion. Religion according to the Hindus is something completely different from what the Christians refer to as religion.

On the one hand, we will look at how Christians have attributed certain traits to religion throughout the history of their encounter with the Hindu traditions. These traits explain why, according to the Christian view, belonging to a religion entails the duty and the right to convert others to that religion. On the other hand, we show that Hindus have attributed a different set of properties to religion in their encounter with the Christians. From this perspective, the incomprehension they express towards the 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.

Triumph of the Cross over Idolatry

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 orders that neither public nor private ‘idols’ be tolerated on the island of Goa and that severe punishment must be meted out to those who persist in keeping them. The houses of people suspected of keeping hidden idols are to be searched. Heathen festivals are not to be tolerated and every brahman is to be banished from Goa, Bassein and Diu. Public offices are to be entrusted to neophytes and not to heathens; Christians are to be freed from heavy labour at the port of Goa, such tasks in the 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 Christianity under the Portuguese and to Islam under Muslim ownership. Revenues previously used for the support of 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 Protestant who 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 according to Rom 1: 21-32. (ii) How a-jnana spread in 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 perverted and punished. (v) How God is helping those in a-jnana to be saved. – Jesus Christ took upon himself the burden of 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: Scripture reading, realisation and confession of sin, faith in Jesus Christ, asking for baptism with renunciation of a-jnana and acceptance of the triune God, living in the communion of the Word of God and the Lord’s Supper, living a life of witness and suffering and a life of love and justice. (vii) The trials and tribulations which 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 Christian faith 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:

Contrary to 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 method to obtain that important end. They chuse (sic) rather to 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:

It is, as we have already observed, a principle peculiar to the Hindoo religion, not to admit of proselytes. But instead of being solicitous about gaining converts, they always make a mystery of their faith. Heaven, say they, is like a palace with many doors, and every one may enter in his own way [ibid:115].

Many would later join 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 true of 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 truth and 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, concerning which 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 Truth, to contend with its dreadful power [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 strongest terms of denunciation could not do. In the words of William Campbell:

In what terms shall I describe the Hindu mythology? There was never, in any age, nor in any country, a superstition so 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 represent all his own attributes upon the earth, render its votaries as much like his angels as possible, and make Hindosthan 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 worship of the true God must replace the 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 hundred millions of our fellow-subjects are living and dying in a state of awful estrangement from God, and without the means of having that estrangement removed – the victims of error, superstition, pollution and horrid cruelty – while we possess every facility of access to them, involves a responsibility the most tremendous that can 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, instead of affording an objection against preaching the gospel to them, ought to furnish an argument for it. Can we as men, or as Christians, hear that a great part of our fellow creatures, whose souls are as immortal as ours, and who are as capable as ourselves, of adorning the gospel, contributing by their preaching, writings, or practices to the glory of our Redeemer’s name, and the good of this church, are inveloped (sic) in ignorance and barbarism? Can we hear that they are without the gospel, without government, without laws, and without arts, and sciences; and not exert ourselves to introduce amongst 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 the 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 Christian authors, 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:

Truth is universal – true, and therefore good, 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-social conduct) a man has a right to give due expression to so fundamental a conviction 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 truth of 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 fundamental right, since it allows individuals to be guided from falsity to truth and from depravity to the good.

Countless Rivers Flowing 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. 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 brahmin gave the following retort; “Our Religion 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:

Uninterrupted succession, and great throngs of proselytes are no characteristicks of the truth of any religion; else it would follow, that the devil is very orthodox: For he is as famous for 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 Fundamental Articles thereof, agreeing or disagreeing with the revealed word of the true God; but you Malabarians having no Knowledge of God’s Word, can take no Cognisance of what is true Worship, believing with an implicit Faith, the Fables and Reveries of Tradition-mongers, your Poets and Doctors …[ibid:5].

The brahmin’s conclusion that his religion must be ‘true’, because it had existed for so many ages, was “altogether illogical and an unjust Way of arguing,” according to Ziegenbalg [ibid:6]. Nevertheless, the Hindus consistently defended their tradition in terms of its antiquity, rather than in terms of truth. In another conference, while Ziegenbalg was heaping ridicule on the Hindu deities, “a Venerable Old Man” stood up and said: “… that we have no True, but false Gods in our Country, this you are still to demonstrate: For tho’ the Christians call us Heathens, we are not so in Reality; but we are a very Ancient Nation, whose Religion is as Old as the World itself…” [ibid:103].

To a Christian missionary, these claims to antiquity provided no proof for the value of a religion. The European heathens had also worshipped the devil for thousands of years before they were enlightened by Christianity. Besides, Ziegenbalg asserted, God had from the beginning of time given to human kind the promise of sending his son as the redeemer: “And thus you see, that the Christian Religion has been professed from the Beginning of the World, and is certainly the most Ancient of all Religions; and your Religion is nothing else but the Corruption of ours” [Ibid: 11]. But when Ziegenbalg explained the promise of God’s grace in Christ, his brahmin opponent was equally unimpressed:

I believe all you say of God’s Dealings with you White Europeans, to be true; but his Appearances and Revelations among us Black Malabarians, have been quite otherwise: And the Revelations he made of himself in this Land are as firmly believ’d here to be true, as you believe those made in your Country: For as Christ in Europe was made Man; so here our God Wischtnu was born among us Malabarians; And as you hope for Salvation through Christ; so we hope for Salvation through Wischtnu; and to save you one way, and us another, is one of the Pastimes and Diversions of Almighty God [Ibid:14].

The Christian religion might be fine for the Europeans, the brahmin suggested, but the Hindu traditions were as good for the Indians. In other words, the Hindus simply refused to see Christianity as a rival to their own traditions. No matter how much the missionaries stressed the falsity of the Hindu religion, their 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 ridiculous their Gods were, one of the “Malabarian” Hindus stood 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 Malabarians do neither condemn nor despise the Christians upon the Account of their Religion” [ibid:107].

Over the next few centuries, the Christian colonials 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 rejoinders to this tract, they opposed the idea that one 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 there and they tell him, ‘You must go west,’ whereas an 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 all means contradictory, yields one result on account of being located in different places. By the same token, one way (to salvation) would not be rewarding to (all) men, whose aptitudes are different, on account of the unarguable maturation of their good and bad deeds. Reflecting in these terms, Bhagavan, an ocean of compassion, made various kinds of margas by which everyone may attain salvation. For instance, among all the scriptures, the Sankhya, Vaisesika and others, likewise the devotional margas of Vaishnavas, etc, in which their faults are completely done away with by means of much examination and meditation, some people esteem the Vaisesika, some the Sankhya or others, some the Vaisnava marga, and others the Saiva, etc. This indicates that people have different aptitudes … Yet only one among the margas yields a direct result, it alone is followed by people whose aptitude is pure [excerpted in Young 1981:123].

As there are various kinds of people with different capacities and skills, so there are several paths they can take to arrive at moksha. This is not to say that all paths are equal. As another critic of Muir’s, Somanatha, wrote:

Men who travel on other roads are not said to be competent for the Vedic marga. It is for this reason that Hari would be displeased when someone spurns his own religion. … When men who dwell in various quarters are going to a certain city, in no way whatsoever would they reach it by [travelling] only on one path. Likewise, those men, whom the all-creator made to possess different qualifications (adhikara) and (put into) different situations, would be unable to attain God by means of any single path. …For each person his own religion is best; the same religion would be perilous for another person. Now, therefore, praise be to those who worship Hari according to their religion without reviling other [paths] [excerpted in Young 1981:145].

The religion one should follow depends on one’s specific situation. Therefore, persons belonging to different religions should neither dismiss their own religion nor that of others. In fact, the deities would be displeased to see this happen. If this is basic to religion, this ‘religion’ is different from the phenomenon the Christians were describing. In one case, the diversity of religions is said to consist of one path through which God 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 International Federation, which was published in Young India in 1928, Gandhi explained his position on this issue:

I came to the conclusion long ago, after a prayerful search 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 distinction between them. So we can only pray, if we are Hindus, not that a Christian should become a Hindu, or if we are Musselmans, not that a Hindu or a Christian should become a Musselman, nor should we ever secretly pray that anyone should be converted, but our inmost prayer should be that a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim and a Christian a better Christian [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 truth by 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 particular religion is the unique gift of God that leads humanity to salvation. Rather, it means that this religion is one of various roads human beings 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 steamer or on foot. You have chosen the way according to your convenience and taste; but the destination is the same. Some of you have arrived earlier 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 particular set of doctrines – including, for instance, that humanity is tainted by original sin and can be saved only through Christ’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 truth of doctrines or claims about the world. In their view, this kind of truth predicate does not apply to religion. In Radhakrishnan’s words: “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 truth of 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 waters in the sea, all the different religions, taking their births from different standpoints of fact, come unto Thee.” This is a part of the child’s everyday prayer in India. With such everyday prayers, of course, such ideas as fighting because of differences of 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 Radhakrishnan did 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 punishment by God, is the product of unreason and intolerance. A religion represents the 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 of the spiritual experience of the race, a record of its social evolution, an integral element of the society in which it is found [Radhakrishnan 1969:81-82].

The religion of a people is a record of its social evolution and an expression of its spiritual experience. To understand what Radhakrishnan means, 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 competitors with respect to truth. Religion does not revolve around the belief in a system of doctrines, which is either true or false. Therefore, truth predicates 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 branded as persecution, because it is maintained that people are not allowed to practice their religion, that their religious freedom is curbed. The truth is entirely different. The other person also has the freedom to practice his or her religion without interference. That is his/her birthright. Religious freedom does not extent (sic) to having a planned programme of conversion. Such a programme is to be construed as aggression against the religious freedom of others.

“Religious conversion is violence and it breeds violence”, the Swami concludes. Thus, when religion is the tradition that makes a people into a people, conversion becomes a disrupting interference in the life of a community.

Misunderstanding Religion and Conversion

To conclude this interim research report, we will formulate a hypothesis to account for the lack of mutual understanding in the Indian debate on conversion. In the foregoing, it has become clear that the Christians and the Hindus attribute mutually exclusive properties to religion. The former claim that some religions are false, that different religions are rivals, and that one religion leads to heaven and all others to hell. The latter say that no religion is false, that religions cannot be rivals, and that all religions lead to the same goal. These are contradictory predicates that cannot be ascribed to one and the same object.4  Therefore, we are compelled to conclude that the Hindus and the Christians are talking about two different things when they discuss ‘religion’. The implications for the dispute on conversion need further investigation. However, one implication is clear. If it turns out to be true that the advocates and the opponents have different objects in mind when discussing ‘religion’ (and its relation to conversion), they should continue to have great difficulties in making sense of each other’s statements and arguments.

This raises several problems. How come the two parties involved in the debate have not seen that the term ‘religion’ as they use it does not refer to the same object? This cannot be answered hastily. The conversion debate has gone on for a few centuries and the participants have been as gifted as they come. Thus, the lack of understanding they show towards each other becomes all the more difficult to explain. Likewise, why have they continued to engage in this debate with such vigour, in spite of the mutual incomprehension? Our future research on the question of conversion in India will focus on these and other questions.


1 We have tried to elaborate this point in our ongoing work on conversion, truth, and violence.
2 For an analysis of the impact which the Christian view of Hinduism as an immoral and false religion has had on 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 relation between religion and tradition, see S N Balagangadhara (1994).

4 For a further analysis of this aspect of the Indian debate on conversion and its implications for the neutrality of the secular state in India, see S N Balagangadhara and Jakob De Roover: ‘Secular State as the Harbinger of Religious Violence’ (forthcoming).


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