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Religious Conversion: A form of violence.

To the Divine and Respected,

Disclaimer: This article does not blame any religion. It simply brings up the issue of Religious conversion and encourages one to look into the issue. Also, when I say conversion I am talking about forced and involuntary conversion as well as proselytizing. A humble request: the point of this article is not  to argue or point fingers at any religion but act upon the issue peacefully through dialogue and similar means. Reminds us all why interfaith dialogue is extremely important in todays world. Thank you.

As I was en route to visit the Bhutanese refugees I tutor one Sunday morning, I received a phone call from one of my Bhutanese brothers telling me that two Bhutanese have committed suicide.

Unable to understand what he was saying, I told him we will discuss the incident upon my arrival at his apartment in West Park, Cleveland. I sat down with him and he told me the story.

Two Bhutanese refugees who have escaped religious persecution and ethnic cleansing in their own country and were finally granted asylum in the United States passed away a few days ago. I asked him what happened and he told me that they were unknowingly converted to Christianity. The Bhutanese refugees came to the United States hoping to find a land that will embrace them, protect them, and allow them to be pursue their dreams. However, trying really hard to “fit in” to the culture of the United States, the Bhutanese found themselves in a tough situation. They wanted to get married but did not know how.

They met a Pastor that guided them to a Church where they could get married, even though the Pastor knew they were Hindu. The Bhutanese thought it was part of the American culture to get married in the Church. The Pastor told the Bhutanese that they need to be Baptized in order to get married, to which again the Bhutanese thought it was part of the American culture. The Bhutanese just wanted to be accepted in the community and get married but did not know that they were being converted to Christianity. Upon realizing this after a conversation with their own Bhutanese community, the Bhutanese felt ashamed and betrayed. The result was suicide.*

Unfortunately, their experience is not uncommon; other refugees have faced similar challenges and horrors. Similar cases have sprung up across the United States within the Bhutanese community where the newcomers have been targets of conversion. During my train ride back to the university campus that Sunday afternoon, I was very disappointed about what happened and felt the need to increase my efforts helping the Bhutanese community assimilate into the Western society. Particularly on the point of making them understand it is okay to be a Hindu and proudly represent themselves as Hindus, after all, the United States is a nation of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and non-believers right?

Having an opportunity to write in State of Formation, I had to write about Religious Conversion. As a Hindu, I have never been brought up with the idea of conversion or was made to think that my religious tradition was the most superior and the only path to salvation.

Hinduism does not see the point of conversion, if it did we would be trying to use the words of Lord Krishna in Bhagavad Gita and try to convert the entire world but we do not, why don’t we? A Christian missionary in Germany once asked, “Why did Hindus never set out of Indian soil to propagate their religion? It is just because they knew it was of no worth.”

To this statement, Max Muller, a German Philologist and Orientalist, immediately replied saying, “For Hindus, Religion is like a mother. She is the most beautiful of all.Bhagavad Gita says, ‘if you try to prove you are worthy by propagating the beauty of your mother, then the outside world will see her as a prostitute. Hence propagate the value of your mother by the deeds you do called Karma. The value of the mother is known by the deeds done by the child. If your Karma is good, then automatically your mother will be the most respected.'”

Hinduism is a form of Universalism, many of the concepts in Hinduism are universal and thus are very accepting. We see the Universe in ourselves and ourselves in the Universe , such is the  cosmic manifestation of the Divine. When there is Divinity within everyone then what is the point of trying to convince someone that their spiritual path is wrong? “Ekam Sat Vipraha Bahuda Vadanti,”: Truth is one and the Sages speak of it in many ways, says the Rig Veda.

In my effort to explain this concept to the world, I came across the below excerpt from an interview of a very Revered Spiritual teacher of the Advaita Vedanta-Shankara tradition who speaks the voice of Hinduism on Religious Conversion. Below Swamiji puts very simply why Religious Conversion is a form of violence. He also talks about the US view of India’s Religious Freedom. He advises us Americans and future ethical leaders of tomorrow to really consider if we ourselves are abusing ‘religious freedom’ to advance our own tradition by forcing others to convert. The question I have for this State of Formation is that as a community that truly believes in freedom of religion, should we push Congress to consider legislation that focuses on restricting religious conversion? Perhaps, these might be the first steps for a nation like America to truly represent the importance that lies behind freedom of religion and interfaith dialogue. In this effort, we can too do our part to live and let live.

The following is an edited excerpt from an interview of Swami Dayananda Saraswati by T. R. Jawahar of Newstoday, Chennai, June 30, 2003 available athttp://www.newstodaynet.com/swami.htm.

Why do you say conversion is a form of violence?

When you physically hurt me, it is violence. If you hurt me emotionally, it is violence. And if you hurt me spiritually, that is the worst violence, rank violence. When you convert somebody, you have to criticize the person’s religion, his worship, his culture. All these hurt. When he converts, there is more hurt. He has to disown his parents, their wisdom and their culture, his ancestors and entire community. You isolate, uproot and emotionally unsettle him.

How can we deal with this problem?

The theologians have to change, but they will not, because of their indoctrination. But we should keep talking about it with them. They are waiting for a time when there is more freedom for them to do their conversion work. So let that conducive time for them to seek converts be kept away. Our people have to be made aware and proud of our religion. They should be able to say to the missionaries, “Enough is enough.”

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 extend to having a planned program of conversion. Such a program is to be construed as aggression against the religious freedom of others.

But the naive fall for the lure of money and incentives.

It is not really the money that buys the conversion. The missionaries give small things, and tempt with larger. That makes a thumb space, a small opening, to enter the heart. Then the missionary says the fellow’s daily puja is wrong, his altar of prayer is not right, and he has to change it. That is the unkindest cut you can get. It is a stab in the heart, his religious core, where this fellow has innocently allowed the missionary to enter. Missionaries do seemingly good things in order to commit this violence. After the conversion, he is told that his brethren and forefathers are devil worshipers!

Will the Hindu clergy allow them to reconvert?

Here in India all are Hindus until they call themselves something different. When I allow every form of worship, then where is the problem? We deem you another Hindu, only you are saying, “I am this or that.” There is no reconversion. There is a prodigality and they come back like a prodigal son. We do not even need to baptize. We have to ask him to give up beef, that is all.

What is the US view of India’s religious freedom?

The US government had appointed a Commission on International Religious Freedom. This Commission is an authentic body and funded by the government. The Commission gets information from all countries and then submits a periodical report to the government. Based on its report, the government of US may apply pressure on those countries where, according to the Commission, there is lack of religious freedom. You’ll be surprised the Commission recommended India to be designated a Country of Particular Concern [a designation given to Iran, North Korea, Burma and several other totalitarian states the US State Department rejected their recommendation to so designate India].

They cited the anti-conversion bills of Tamil Nadu and Gujarat and some Gujarat incidents as the basis of their action. They say there is no religious freedom in India. This is according to their own matrix of norms on the basis of which they decide “religious freedom.” I question this matrix.

The Commission’s criterion appears to be that if evangelization for conversions is allowed, then there is religious freedom. That means if missionaries are free enough to aggressively destroy my indigenous religious tradition, and if I don’t question it, then there is religious freedom. If I stand up to that aggression, then it is considered an infringement upon human rights and religious freedom. Therefore, I am appealing to the government of India to appoint our own Commission on Religious Freedom, and let them report on where there is religious freedom and where there is not.

But what about the good charity work of the missionaries?

Missionaries are using charity with the aim of conversion. They should do humanitarian work the same way Hindus do. We have charities all over the world. Look at Salem or Coimbatore. How many hospitals are there? Almost all of them are run by Hindu charities. And what do they do? They don’t convert, they just run the charities. There is no priest or nun there because there is no conversion program. The charities remain charities.

But to run charities for another purpose is the most uncharitable thing to do. Let me make a comparison. Have you seen how those who supply cows to slaughterhouses treat those cows a week before the slaughter? They feed the cows a lot and don’t allow them to move around in a bid to increase their weight. It is called “pounding.” You could say, “Ah, love and feeding! How humanitarian these people are, so human, etc.” But those fellows have an eye on another goal. This is how I see all the missionaries’ work it is like the love of the slaughterhouse people. Missionaries slaughter religions, slaughter traditions, slaughter cultures. Yes, they do humanitarian work, but slaughterhouse love it is.

If you really love people, just give charitably and forget about it. Don’t talk about your religion. Keep your sacred religion in your heart. I find it is not a happy thing to talk about, the vulgarity of it. Even to talk about it is rather staining my tongue and leaves a distaste.

Swami Dayananda, a sannyasi of the Adi Shankara and Veda Vyasa tradition, founder of Arsha Vidya centers in India, USA, Canada and Australia, has taught worldwide for over 45 years.

Featured image, TIbet: Pure Devotion, is courtesy of fotopedia by Sylvain Labeste.

*The story I present is nothing but an account and a conversation I had with the Bhutanese two years ago. While I couldn’t trace the origins of it, there is a database in which all the suicides have been recorded and are being tracked that are a result of forced conversion. This information is available upon request.

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