The tricky issue of religious conversion and proselytization in India(Part I)

The universal declaration of a right to religious freedom is part of the problem in India rather than a solution.

The tricky issue of religious conversion and proselytization in India(Part I)


This summary piece by Dr Pingali Gopal is with permission from Jakob De Roover. The ideas and the themes solely belong to Sarah Claerhout and Jakob De Roover. Many of the passages in the article are from their paper without direct indication to the same. Dr Pingali Gopal claims no expertise or primary scholarship in the subject matter. The purpose of the article is to bring the ideas of Dr SN Balagangadhara’s group to a wider audience and stimulate the readers to explore further.  


Proselytization and conversions are contentious issues the world over and, especially so, in India. At a fundamental level, the clash is on the meaning of freedom of religion. For the proselytizing religions, it means the freedom to convert people into their faith; for the non-proselytizing ones, it implies a freedom from interference by outside religions. The Ghent group in Belgium, under Dr SN Balagangadhara, look at religions, secularism, and conversions in India in a different manner and promise a better understanding and solutions as well. This is an advance over the present deadlock situation generating strife and even violence. The successive governments desperately look for constitutional and judicial solutions but end up in hopeless loops when trying to implement secularism or tackle conversion.

The root of the problem lies quite simply in understanding Indian traditions as religions and then applying the solution of secularism to the consequent problems. Secularism was a solution for the Christian world at a specific time in its history with its multiple denominations fighting each other. Universalizing it as a solution to all cultures and across all times has become a huge recipe for disaster, as is evident in India. The influx of Islam into Europe has stressed the secularism model in Europe too, says Jakob De Roover in his book Europe, India, and The Limits of Secularism.

Sarah Claerhout and Jakob De Roover, in their brilliant article (Claerhout, Sarah, and Jakob De Roover. 2008. “Conversion of the World: Proselytization in India and the Universalisation of Christianity.” In Proselytization Revisited: Rights Talk, Free Markets and Culture Wars, 53–76. Equinox Publishing), discuss the tricky issue of conversion and proselytization in India and trace the roots of why it leads to such heartburn and strife. What follows is a summary and highlighting of the important points in the paper. This is crucial reading for all Indian citizens who are intuitively troubled by the conversion issue and idea of secularism but cannot place an exact finger on the nature of the problem. It would be appropriate to say that Indian brand of secularism seems to be good at producing problems rather than solutions.

The Consensus Regarding Religious Conversion

By consensus, religious conversion and proselytization are general problems of plural societies. Its structure is competition regarding the gain and loss of adherents generating inter-religious tension, conflict, and violence.  The common solution offered is that all societies should respect the principle of freedom of religion. Each citizen has the right to choose freely between religions and a liberal neutral state ought to safeguard this freedom.

This could be a mistaken consensus as, firstly, it is impossible to speak of religious conversion as though all religions and societies share this process. There are also no theoretical criteria today to distinguish religious conversion from other processes of change.  Secondly, consensus assumes that cultural diversity implies religious rivalry and religions are belief systems to which truth predicates apply. Thirdly, in the Indian case, religious conversion is a predicament that exists predominantly in Christianity and Islam. In the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist traditions, the basic structure of the predicament disappears, because such traditions do not conceive of religions as rival doctrines.

Finally, the principle of religious freedom is not as neutral and universal as it claims. By presupposing a specific understanding of religion, the current principle of religious freedom privileges Christianity and Islam. Thus, the universal declaration of a right to religious freedom is part of the problem in India rather than a solution.

The Problem of Religious Conversion

The standard view looks at religious proselytization as common to all societies where two or more religions coexist and there is inter-religious competition. A few examples of such troubled societies: Israel and several Muslim nations have put legal restrictions on conversion; Buddhist bhikkhus, Hindu leaders, and laypeople in Sri Lanka and India show hostility towards Christian missionary activities; U.S. based evangelicals cause problems to the dominant churches in Russia and Latin America. Conversion, and its variants, seems to be the core problem of all plural societies across the world.

But, how does one identify religious conversion in any society?  The great difficulty in deciding what makes some process into a religious conversion creates confusion throughout the contemporary debate. It is however very clear to everyone that a change in food habits, a movement between two organizations, or a scientist’s rejection of one hypothesis and accepting another cannot be surely an instance of religious conversion.

As one author says, ‘Cross-cultural analyses of conversion inevitably encounter difficulties when they try to define their subject. Academic models of conversion tend to draw heavily on Christian imagery, particularly on such dramatic scenes as Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus.’ Conversion is a radical, sudden change of belief, where one discards old associations because of a new theological outlook. How can such models encompass non-Christian religions and cultures where the concepts of belief, practice and membership are profoundly different?

What Exactly Is Conversion?

There are three possible implications of the present understanding of the process of conversion.

  1. Conversion is a process internal to Christianity and Islam only and the model cannot extend to other cultures.
  2. Conversion is a general phenomenon but the Western model might be one specific example of this process. If so, one needs to identify the characteristic broader properties of this phenomenon.
  3. In the absence of theoretical models, conversion simply presupposes and assumes that a series of events are instances of religious conversion.

The literature on conversion often takes the third route of presupposition only. Thus, if the basic structure of the phenomenon is unclear, how is one sure that in other non-Western cultures, one is studying religious conversion only and not some other processes of change. A shift from Buddhism to Hinduism or from Shaivism to Vaishnavism may imply something different than a religious conversion. In this case, one may be simply yoking together ‘a series of incompatibles.’

The vagueness of the idea of conversion surfaces in literature repeatedly. Dube and Dube, critical of the concept of conversion, in their study of the ‘transformations of caste and sect’ in India, stress “the importance of understanding conversion less as unremitting rupture and more as the fashioning of novel practices, beliefs, identities, visions, and boundaries of discrete religiosities—often vernacular, distinctly Indian.” However, what makes these various ‘transformations’ and ‘fashionings’ resemble Islamic and Christian conversion? Extending the definition of the “conversion” to include these processes does not increase our understanding of the phenomenon of conversion. The nature of cultural processes of change remains mysterious even as the term religious conversion becomes more obscure.

Authors Robinson and Clarke in ‘the many meanings of religious conversion’ on the Indian subcontinent say that our understanding of the processes of conversion should be broad enough to capture variations across time and complexities across denomination and region. They do not think that there is a good enough reason to abandon the term conversion, since there are few others to replace it. They think it ‘more exciting and relevant’ to speak of a range of situations and meanings in the field of conversion. Thus, the ‘conversion’ requiring a proper initiation, exclusive adherence to a set of dogmas and abandonment of all other beliefs is only one possibility and lying at one extreme. The formulation is as striking as it is confusing.

Firstly, it is not clear whether the authors desire to capture a general process of conversion across time, region, and denomination or different kinds of processes they call ‘conversion’. One must extend one’s theorizing until it encompasses all cases of what one presupposes to be religious conversions. Secondly, the authors confuse the use of a term (conversion) with the understanding of a process (conversion). The problem is not what word we use, but whether we are studying the same human phenomenon in different situations and societies.

Thirdly, talking about a field of conversion containing ‘a range of situations and meanings’ becomes vague unless it is clear which situations exemplifies religious conversion. If one pole of this conversion consists of an exclusive adherence to a specific set of dogmas, what is the other pole and what lies in between? Thus, conversion is an assumed problem for all plural societies and common to most religious traditions, but there is no clarity on distinguishing religious conversion from other processes of change.  

Conversion and Religious Rivalry

There is a mysterious certainty that religious conversion is a general problem of the modern world, despite the inability to identify its characteristic structure. Today, scholars conceive of many shifts between communities and traditions in India (like from Shaivism to Vaishnavism) as conversions. This includes the Buddhist, Jain, and Sikh traditions as also the shifts amongst tribals of India. Scholars remain unclear whether such movements are indeed conversions.

One scholar Hardiman says that even though there “was no talk of any ‘conversion’ to ‘Hinduism’, systems of belief and practice that were carried on within India frequently competed with each other to attract followers”. Trying to attract followers is true for different scientific theories, research traditions, and the philosophical schools of Ancient Greece and Rome. Yet, no one thinks of studying those cases of competition as religious conversion. However, it seems self-evident that shifts among Indian traditions must be religious conversion. However, this also presupposes that the traditions or groups involved are religions indeed.

The important question is how shifts among the different Hindu traditions could be instances of the same process as a conversion experience within the Christian denominations or shifts of believers among Christianity and Islam. Such important questions remain ignored because of the primary assumption that the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions are also religions.

Explanations for The Indian Clash on Conversion

This background assumption becomes even more significant when we consider a typical explanation of the Indian clash over conversion. It is not so much a religious issue, but one related to political dynamics, the contest for power, and the struggle for social equality. One group argues that Hindus resist conversions (Hindus to Buddhism, Islam, or Christianity) as it would decrease the political power of the dominant Hindu community. Another group of scholars claim that upper castes fear losing their grip on Indian society when the lower castes convert. Some see an assault on conversion as a pretext of the Hindutva movement to promote its goal of a Hindu nation.

People talk of the ‘politics of conversion’, but how is the problem different from the contest between political parties in any democracy, trying to gain voters or to prevent losing them? It often concerns parties with some religious affiliation, which try to win votes. It is simply perhaps a contest for political power.

Ambedkar’s rejection of the Hindu caste system took the form of an initiation into Buddhism. This gave rise to a new Buddhist movement in India- the Navayana Diksha. Navayana Buddhism focused on the achievement of social equality in modern society rather than transcendence and moksha. It was a conversion from India’s ruling ‘communal ideology’ of Hinduism. It continues to be primarily a rational, political choice with psychological and spiritual consequences, says one scholar, Tartakov. Dalit conversions “represent a social stirring, and are not a political or, paradoxically, even a religious problem…”, says another scholar. The main issue in these shifts is the rejection of an inegalitarian ideology in favour of a message of social equality. How do we know this is an issue of religious conversion?

It appears to stand closer to the decision of a European labourer to join the socialist party because he prefers its program of social equality, than to John Henry Newman’s conversion to Catholicism. If these shifts in India represent a social stirring or a political choice, why not study them as such? If they exemplify the struggle for political power or similar processes in the Indian society, why theorize them in terms of religious conversion?

Certain background assumptions make this self-evident: the Hindu caste system apparently represents a religious ideology of inequality; while Buddhism is its egalitarian counterpart. These two entities are religious rivals with conflicting messages. These claims would help if only it were clear what renders the entities in question religious and what makes a shift between them into a conversion.

Hence, clearly, understanding of various processes and historical situations does not grow by attaching labels. When one invokes suitable terms, even the French Revolution could be an expression of religious conversion. One could describe the shift of an individual from the ancient ideology to egalitarian Enlightenment philosophy as a conversion, if only one proposed that these two represent distinct religious systems.

Assumptions on the Idea of Religious Conversion

In the entire debate and understanding of conversion three basic assumptions play a most important role:

  1. One understands the variety of Indian cultural traditions as religions.
  2. These religions are rivals and each wants to increase the number of its adherents and decrease the conversions of its believers to other religions. It is a competition between the teachings, doctrines, or belief systems of the religions in question.
  3. Different religions are rivals, because truth predicates apply to them. That is, competition exists because they make rival truth claims. For example, the Dalits reject the Hindu doctrine of the caste system allegedly in favour of Buddhism’s or Christianity’s message of human equality. These are thus competing religious doctrines about the nature of humanity; hence the possibility to convert from one to the other.

These assumptions, though appearing as common-sense facts, are problematic. These ‘facts’ are a set of theological claims of Christianity shaping today’s received view of the cultural diversity of humanity. In Indian society, two groups of cultural traditions coexist that seem to be of a very different nature: the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and Jain traditions on the one hand, and Christianity and Islam on the other.

Conversion has become a tricky issue between these two groups. Christians, Muslims, and secularists claim the right to propagate and change one’s religion is part of the freedom of religion. Democracy ought to protect this basic human right. In contrast, a strong aversion towards Christian and Islamic proselytization prevails among most Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain groups. They claim conversion violates the Indian social fabric at its heart. Some plead for a constitutional ban like the controversial attempts in the states of Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, and Arunachal Pradesh.

Looking at Indian Diversity- The Christian or Islamic View

There are two opposite ways of looking at the diversity of the Indian society. The diversity is either phenomenon of the same type (the Abrahamic view) or of a different type (the Indian view).  From the viewpoint of Christianity and Islam, the cultural traditions in Indian society are phenomena of the same kind, viz. religion.

The universality of religion has always been an unquestionable truth to the religions of the Book. They share an account of the history of humanity, which incorporates all other human traditions and makes them into false religions. There was once a religion, the true and universal one, which was the divine gift to all humankind. The true religion degenerated everywhere until it was back to its pristine purity in Christianity or in Islam, so these two tell us respectively. Even when the traditions they encountered were of a different nature, it was obvious to them that (false) religion would be present everywhere.

Prof Balagangadhara shows how this belief in the cultural universality of religion still precedes all theory formation and empirical research on religion. This could happen, because Christian theology has remained the underlying framework of the contemporary study of culture and religion. Its theological truths have become the ‘facts’ of western common sense and the scholarly consensus. Theology (and not scientific theorizing) provides the only conceptual ground for the belief that the native traditions of India and the three Semitic religions are variants of the same phenomenon—religion.

Their view also makes all cultural traditions in the Indian society necessarily into each other’s rival religions. Islam and Christianity are each other’s rivals in the restoration of divine truth. Similarly, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and Jain traditions confront each other as rival religions in India. Scholars, in fact, posit Christianity as confronting at the same time Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism- the three strongest non-Christian religions in India.

Theological assumptions spoke about traditions as false religions in India; the secularised versions drop the word ‘false’ but place traditions as religious rivals even as the theology fades in the background. However, accepting them as religious rivals is an implicit acceptance of the claim of truth or falsity of religions even though one may not realise it or even deny it when pointed out.

The Indian View of its Diversity

The Indian view would be that they are phenomena of different types. Hinduism lacks all the characteristics that allow us to recognize and differentiates Christianity, Islam, and Judaism as religions: a fixed body of doctrine, an ecclesiastical organization or central authority, a holy book, etc. The contemporary literature offers reasonable grounds to suspect that the Hindu, Jain, Sikh, and Buddhist traditions and the religions of Christianity and Islam are phenomena of different kinds.

The diversity in India from the perspective of Hindu, Jain, Sikh, and Buddhist traditions shows that the assumption of rivalry is alien to them. These traditions do not see cultural diversity as a rivalry of religions. Historically, when they encountered Christianity and Islam, the intellectuals and Brahmins expressed incomprehension towards the presumed rivalry. These Brahmins maintained that “every one may be saved by his own Religion, if he does what is Good, and shuns Evil” (Ziegenbalg). Today, the Hindu view still maintains that different human traditions co-exist without competing as rivals.

Even those most critical of Christianity agree on this:

We have three thousand rishis in Hinduism and we feel that Jesus would merit being added to that revered galaxy. We do not hate Christ or Christians. We leave them alone. We respect Jesus as the founder of a great religion. We wish all religions well.” (Srinivasan).

Continued in Part 2

About Author: Jakob De Roover

About Author: Sarah Claerhout

About Author: Pingali Gopal

Dr Pingali Gopal is a Neonatal and Paediatric Surgeon practising in Warangal for the last twenty years. He graduated from medical school and later post-graduated in surgery from Ahmedabad. He further specialised in Paediatric Surgery from Mumbai. After his studies, he spent a couple of years at Birmingham Children's Hospital, UK and returned to India after obtaining his FRCS. He started his practice in Warangal where he hopes to stay for the rest of his life. He loves books and his subjects of passion are Indian culture, Physics, Vedanta, Evolution, and Paediatric Surgery- in descending order. After years of ignorance in a flawed education system, he has rediscovered his roots, paths, and goals and is extremely proud of Sanatana Dharma, which he believes belongs to all Indians irrespective of religion, region, and language. Dr. Gopal is a huge admirer of all the present and past stalwarts of India and abroad correcting past discourses and putting India back on the pedestal which it so truly deserves.

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