The Story of a Hindu Convert

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Let us acknowledge that the greatest advantage of Hinduism is that it has no conversion/ re-conversion rituals whatsoever — one is free to worship any god/ gods/ or none at all and follow any philosophy or belief one fancies. Religion for a Hindu is a path to the final destination of Moksha/ Mukti i.e. the Liberation of the Soul from the endless birth-rebirth of the soul. This is inherently the karmic philosophy of the religion: you will reap what you sow. In many ways, this concept of karma is a built in feature of almost all religions. You do the right thing and you win a reward and when you do a wrong thing and get punished for it or have to atone for it. It seems so very logical!

Hinduism conceives the whole world as a single family (“vasudev kutumbam”) and therefore it accepts all forms of beliefs and dismisses labels of distinct religions which would imply a division of identity. Hence, Hinduism is devoid of the concepts of apostasy, heresy and blasphemy. Some academics and many practitioners refer to Hinduism using the Sanskrit phrase “Sanatan Dharma”, meaning “the eternal law”, or the “eternal way”.

Who is a Hindu?

But let us first understand who exactly is a Hindu. This term originates from the Old Persian word Hindu which in turn was derived from Indus. The word Hindu stems from the Sanskrit word Sindhu, which was the historical local term for the Indus River. The ancient Greeks referred to the Indians as Indoi, which translates as “the people of the Indus”. “Hindustan” was originally a Persian word that meant “Land of the Hindus” and came into use around 13 century. Around this same period of history the term “Hindu” was used to distinguish ‘Vedic People’ from Yavanas (Greeks) and Mlecchas (barbarians/ non-vedic people – i.e. those outside the caste system). The term Hinduism was introduced into the English language in the 19th century to denote the religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions native to India and Hindu was a person who practiced such tradition which now denotes religion.

The geographical term Bharat, is recognized by the Constitution of India as an official name for the country. Bharat comes from the mythological figure, Bharata, which some Indian scriptures describe as a legendary emperor of ancient India.

In summary:

– Our country is called ‘India’ in English and ‘Bharat’ in native language.
– Our citizens of India are called ‘Indians’ in English and ‘Bharatiya’ in native language though majority still prefer to use the term ‘Hindu’.
– Our religion is called ‘Hinduism’ in both English and native language (some prefer to use the term Sanatan Dharma)

Generally Hindus include followers of Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism, though many of the adherents to such faith may not accept that they are Hindus. Most notable among them was Mr BR Ambedkar who attempted to shed his tag of being an untouchable by embracing Buddhism. What he did not realize then was that post Independence Buddha would be incorporated among the 10 avatars (dasavatar) of Vishnu. When one comes to think of it, neither Guru Nanak (or the subsequent Sikh gurus) nor anyone of the 24 Tirthankara’s from Jainism got that advantage.

Hindu vs British & Islamic Morality

Unfortunately many of my Hindu friends are not very well tuned to their own history and culture and tend to consider the views of Europeans (Max Müller, George Frederick William Thibaut, Sister Nivedita, to name a few) as fundamental truths about Hinduism. The views of white men should not come as a surprise, after all the initial European interaction with the local populace was largely limited to the then ruling class. Hence there should be no doubt that the British understanding of Hindu culture was mainly through their interactions with the Brahmin/ Kshatriya and to an extent Baniya orthodoxy with whom they had politico-economic transactions.

Islamic Rule and subsequently British Rule brought in a new moral compass to the then sexually liberated Hindu. Islam introduced Hindus to the purdah system, segregation of sexes, and child marriage (it is part of Shariah). The British taught Indians the Victorian notion of morality e.g. nudity in any form is unacceptable, marriage after 18 years for a girl and monogamy are now not only accepted but legally established though quite the opposite was the standard norm till a few centuries ago.

Sex was not a taboo topic in the ancient past and the promiscuity of our Hindu gods, goddesses and even venerable sages was never seen as sign of their moral degradation. Recreational sex is concept found largely in Hinduism. Sex for fun/ recreation was forbidden by both Islam and Christianity. Hence Islam & Christianity considered sex to be valid only within marriage and that too for procreation purpose. On the other hand, sex was celebrated and even worshiped – whether in the form of the worship of the Shivalingam or the half man/ half woman avatar of Shiva as Ardhanarishvara, Shiva’s sexual union with “Mohini” (only female avatar of Vishnu) resulting in the birth of “Ayyappan”, etc.

If we consider the reactions of today’s current right wing Hindu groups to certain painters, films and western festivals one would think Hindus thought otherwise. Despite this, our Hindu sensibility is embedded to deeply and therefore we are more forgiving of sexual transgressions of our leaders and artists than would be possible among the West. Consider the easy acceptance of a p**n star (Sunny Leone) as a main stream Bollywood artist in India or some of the polygamous relationship of famous Hindu actors/ actresses something that is not only scandalous but unthinkable in the Christian West.

Hindu & Caste are inextricable linked

One thing that today’s Hindu do not readily or openly acknowledge is that that we Indians are a deeply divided society… not just superficially by language or religion but also by caste (varana) and sub-castes (jati). Testimony to this is the lack of ‘social anger’ on reports on Khap Panchayats and a very low acceptance of inter-caste marriages.

We must remember that anyone outside of the four varnas (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras) was termed as an untouchable (or the currently acceptable term for Dalit is SC/ ST ). This definition includes all foreigners (i.e. anyone who not a Bharatiya) since they did not and could not belong to any caste as prescribed in Manusmriti (Laws of Manu). In the good old days (say not as far back as 500 years ago) no respectable (euphemism for high caste) Hindu would travel overseas since he/she would most likely be treated as untouchable (a-varana or Panchama or achoot or the new pejorative Dalit) on return. This was because there was no way of ascertaining that the such person was able to ensure continued purity of his/ her caste tenets in matters of food, clothing, sex and other such day to day matters. Purity of caste often demanded that not even the shadow of an untouchable should fall on the high-caste.

Even today in rural India, Dalits are sometimes barred from using wells used by non-Dalits, forbidden from going to the barber shop and entering temples. In schools, there are instances of Dalit children being asked to clean toilets and to eat separately, although with greater awareness, stricter laws and recruitment of larger number of Dalits the government comes down strongly in these cases and punishes the offenders, as soon as these are highlighted.

Conversion within Hinduism – Past

Hindus often feel smug satisfaction in the erroneous belief that Hinduism was never propagated by violent means like Islam or by material allure as done by Christian missionaries. Why do I say erroneous? Here is a short history where Hindus did convert one another whether by influence or by force.

Conversion of Jains to Shaivism

Around the 8th century CE, Hindu philosophers Kumarila Bhatta and Adi Shankara tried to restore the orthodox Vedic religion, and Shaivite singers introduced Jains to Shaivism. Under these influences, Jain kings became Shaivite. Sundara, a Pandaya ruler, is known to have persecuted about eight thousand Jain monks who refused to convert along with him (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madurai_massacre). During the 11th century Brahmana Basava, a minister to the Jain king Bijjala, succeeded in converting numerous Jains to the Lingayata, a Shaivite sect hostile to Jains. They destroyed various temples belonging to Jains and adapted them to their use.

Conversion of Jains to Vishnuism

Vishnuism appeared around the same time as Shaivism; the Hoysala king Vishnuvardhana, also known as Bittideva, became a follower of Vishnu under the influence of Ramanuja. It is said that he ordered the Jains to be thrown in an oil mill and crushed if they did not convert. Events such as these resulted in the growth of Hinduism to the detriment of Jainism. Jains compromised by following Hindu rituals and customs and invoking Hindu deities in Jain literature

Conversion of Buddhists to Hinduism

Historian S. R. Goyal opines that the decline of Buddhism in India is largely the result of the hostility of Brahmans. Hindu Saivite King, Mihirakula (who ruled from 515 CE), suppressed Buddhism as well. He did this by destroying monasteries as far away as modern-day Allahabad. The Hindu Saivite ruler Shashanka of Gauda (590–626) destroyed the Buddhist images and Bo Tree, under which Siddhartha Gautama is said to have achieved enlightenment. Pusyamitra Sunga (185 BC to 151 BC) was hostile to Buddhism, he burned Sutras, Buddhists shrines and massacred monks. At least two Pallava rulers, Simhavarma and Trilochana, are known to have destroyed Buddhist stupas and have had Hindu temples built over them.

These examples of conversion within Hinduism were largely restricted to the period when Buddhism and Jainism flourish between 100 BCE and 500 CE and died out once Jainism was restricted to few belts and Buddhism was largely banished overseas.

Conversion in Hinduism – Present

Hindu revival and interest in protecting its own, more or less coincided with the introduction of the present modern egalitarian form of Indian education system which is largely a gift of the British. Prior to this formal education was restricted only to the upper castes.

Thought 1 – Understanding Vasudev Kutumbam & Sarva Dharma Sambhava:

Now consider two concepts within Hinduism that are considered key to the faith:
• “Vasudev Kutumbam” meaning the whole world is one single family.
• “Sarva Dharma Sambhava”, which literally means that all dharma (truths) are equal to or harmonious with each other. This statement is also taken as meaning “all religions are the same” – that all religions are merely different paths to God or the same spiritual goal of moksha.

If these two statements are accepted as truisms within Hinduism, then it implies that everyone in this world is Hindu (as we all belong to one single family) and the various paths that we follow all lead us to the same spiritual goal of salvation/ moksha. This clearly negates the need to convert anyone from one to another religion.

Thought 2 – Understanding Sanatan Dharma:

Many Hindu practitioners refer to Hinduism using the Sanskrit phrase “Sanatan Dharma”, meaning “the eternal law”, or the “eternal way”. This definition makes Hinduism to be inclusive of a wide spectrum of laws and prescriptions of “morality” based on “karma”, “dharma”, and “societal norms” unlike Christianity or Islam. Hence once again we need to ask ourselves, if the way or law is eternal and inclusive, why does it matter to a Hindu, which path another fellow Hindu follows – believing in a god, in many gods, in no gods, in a god of this world, in a god in some other world, or even in a god not of Indian origin – ultimately the goal is salvation/ mukti/ moksha.

Thought 3 – Overcoming Caste:

The necessity to maintain caste purity could be one of the reasons why for many centuries Shankaracharyas never went beyond the socio-cultural-political boundaries of India to propagate and they would be seen as defiled. The other could be that they preferred to travel by foot rather than travel by any ‘vahan’ (carriage) which was considered inappropriate. Could a Brahmin (in the olden days) imagine himself travelling in the company of low-caste people whether with a caravan, or in a bus/ train/ plane or even a ship? It was only sometime in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that people like Swami Vivekananda and Shankaracharya of Govardhan Math, Swami Bharati travelled overseas to spread the message of Hinduism.

When converting a non-Hindu to Hinduism, we have also to decide which caste he/ she should be convert into? No one can be a Hindu and be without a caste denomination! After all being caste-less is equivalent to being an untouchable – a Dalit – an Achoot. Just imagine, you are recently converted to Hinduism and then discover the awful reality that you are now at social order that is lower than that of a Shudra? You now have the unenviable task of climbing up the Hindu social ladder which can only gained by series of births-rebirths. Does it then make sense to convert to Hinduism? The answer is self evident.

One interesting question that any true blooded Hindu must ask – why almost all neo-Hindu groups try to propagate Hinduism only in white-man’s country?

Hindu Renaissance

Interestingly much of the converts to Islam and Christianity from Hinduism came from the lower castes/ sub-caste largely as a response to rejection of their lowly status among Hindus and perceived benefits and treatment as social co-equals among the followers of these religions.

Post Independence winds of change can be seen blowing across the caste dominated Indian landscape. Affirmative action for the benefit of lower castes along the lines of American laws for the benefit of ‘non-whites’ were getting passed. Laws transferring land ownership to the landless (read Dalit farmers) and reservation of government jobs to members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have now been grudgingly accepted. Much of the response has been from the upper castes and political aware with the passing of Mandal Commission’s report which confirmed practice of affirmative action under Indian law which recommended increasing job quota from 27% to 49.5%.

The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 was enacted by the Parliament of India, to prevent atrocities against scheduled castes and scheduled tribes has definitely contributed to reduction of overt atrocities against Dalits.

Greater job opportunities in metros and large cities have attracted people of all castes to congregate. Economic necessity has forced people to live in multi-story buildings. People are now no longer finding it taboo to stay with a neighbour who till 50 years ago would have avoided.

Greater access to education, spiritual and political philosophy via internet; easier anonymity available in a city as compared to a village; and low cost communication via mobile telephony have all contributed to greater mingling of sexes and lowering of caste distinctions.

With growth in the political fortunes of the Dalits, many right wing liberal Hindus have realised the need to integrate the Scheduled Castes / Scheduled Tribes and now even the Other Backward Castes (OBCs) into the mainstream. However the response sometimes take on a violent character as can be seen in the attack on Dr. Graham Stuart Staines or the rape and murder of nuns or the demolition of Babri Masjid and at other times seeks to reconvert those already converted. However such efforts to reconversion have been restricted to Christians. Attempting to reconvert Muslims back to Hinduism will have a swift and violent response – both on the apostates and those sponsoring apostasy.

It may of course take another 3-6 generations before Hindu society becomes more egalitarian which alone would be the one true way to ensure that its adherents don’t lose faith in the religion to which they were born.

Written by JP Sundharam >>

J P Sundharam is traditional but a non-conformist (may be even viewed as an iconoclast) who strongly believes the power history, religion and culture play in our lives.
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Indian Exponent: The Story of a Hindu Convert
The Story of a Hindu Convert
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Indian Exponent
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