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

The Balagangadhara school maintains that the problem of religion in India arises when we insist on converting our traditions more into religions.

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

Continued from Part 1


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 directly without direct indications in each case. 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.  

Why Is the Christian or Islamic View Problematic?

In their view, religions are competitors because they revolve around doctrines that can be either true or false. They are engaged in a perpetual competition over religious truth. Christianity and Islam claim that because they are the unique revelations of the biblical God to humankind, they are true.

According to each of these religions, their respective doctrine is the true revelation in which the biblical God discloses His will to humanity. The only road to salvation lies in a genuine belief in this doctrine and submission to the divine will. Other traditions are either heresies, deficient worship, or false religions. The different traditions in Indian society are the devil’s work to seduce humanity into his worship. The discourse revolves around the truth and falsity of the doctrines.

From the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain perspectives, on the contrary, the different cultural traditions could never be religious rivals, because truth predicates do not apply to them. These traditions are varied paths and a part of a human search for truth. There is no one true God. There are many different deities, different manifestations of the same Reality (rather than God) and different stories about them.

Richard Zaehner says:

Hindus sometimes pride themselves, with some truth, that their religion is free from dogmatic assumptions, and that, this being so, their record in the matter of religious persecution is relatively clear… For the passion for dogmatic certainty that has racked the religions of Semitic origin from Judaism itself, through Christianity and Islam, to the Marxism of our day, they feel nothing but shocked incomprehension.

Given this incomprehension towards dogmatic truth claims, some claim that the Hindu views all religions as true- the so-called ‘pluralistic conception of religious truth’. However, such claims reduce Hindus as beings without consistent reasoning. If all religions are true, both Christian and Islamic doctrine must be true at the same time. Also, it implies that Hindus fail to see that one religious doctrine which claims that Jesus is God and the Son of God stands in contradiction to another which asserts that God is one and cannot have a son.

Historically, Hindu traditions have generally tried to make sense of the Christian claims about religion and truth from their perspective which cannot assign truth predicates to traditional practices. The often-repeated claim that all religions are true does not reflect a pluralistic notion of religious truth, but an attempt to translate the attitude of one culture into the language of another. The Hindu view does not see the different traditions of humanity as either true or false.

Consequently, the belief that the diversity of traditions reflects a rivalry over religious truth confines to religions like Christianity and Islam. Hence the Christian and Indian views are mutually exclusive:  one looks at the diversity of the Indian society (or of humanity in general) as a rivalry of religions and the other sees it as a co-existence of traditions.

The Contrast of the Abrahamic View and The Indian View

In each of the following suppositions regarding the cultural diversity of humanity, each is a logical negation of the other:

  1. The Hindu traditions and Islam and Christianity are phenomena of the same kind (the Christian view), or they are not (the Indian view).
  2. They are religious rivals (the Christian view), or they are not (Indian view).
  3. As rivals, the traditions compete regarding truth or falsity (Christian view), or they do not (Indian view). They can do so because some religion is false (Christian/Islamic view), but they never could if no religion is false (Indian view).

This coincides with the three assumptions shaping today’s view of religious conversion as a universal problem. The negations fall together with the view of the Hindu, Jain, Sikh, and Buddhist traditions. The conclusion is inevitable: conversion becomes a vital problem of religious diversity, if and only if one looks at the world the way Christianity and Islam do. The problem of religious conversion exists only within the experiential world of these religions.

At the explicit theological level, this is clear. Because of the universal truth claims these religions make, a dynamic of proselytization is intrinsic to Christianity and Islam. When the biblical God reveals His will, it covers the whole of humankind. Those who receive this revelation have a duty to convert the others into accepting the biblical God’s message. Bede Griffiths, as late as in the twentieth century (1966), feels that the most urgent problem facing the Christian everywhere is the problem of the salvation of the unbeliever. Under these conditions, it is immoral not to try and convert others from their false religions into the true one. The cultural traditions of these others become obstacles to conversion to the true God.

When all religions are rivals, conversion indeed becomes the predicament at their encounter. Thus, the rivalry over doctrinal truth lies at the heart of the diversity of the Indian society and the world at large. If this theology remains the background that sustains and constrains the understanding of cultural diversity, one is bound to see religious conversion as a universal predicament and religious liberty as its solution. The further the theology shifts into the background, the vaguer is the understanding of the problem of conversion.

Conversion, Religious Freedom, and Cultural Alienation

The conflict between these two views of religious diversity gives rise to a clash over the principle of religious freedom. When religion is a matter of doctrinal truth and different religions are rivals, the freedom to convert becomes of the greatest importance to humanity. Since false religion always implies immoral and unjust practices according to the Christian and Islamic viewpoints, conversion entails the escape from immorality and injustice. The secularization of Christian theology translates into the importance of the absolute right to profess, propagate, and change one’s religion. Thus, the dominant principle of religious freedom reproduces theological assumptions about the nature of religion.

Where religion means the ancestral tradition of a community, like in India and other pagan traditions of the past and contemporary times, the significance shifts to the freedom to continue one’s tradition without aggressive interference from the outside. The integrity of the ritual and narrative traditions of a community becomes central here. Criticism of the traditions is always welcome as reason always comes as a break to excess. Dr SN Balagangadhara says that this is one of the most amazing properties of traditions: it has clear boundaries and yet they are flexible and dynamic. The conservative followers of the tradition in question may react negatively to suggestions of change, while the more progressive ones might listen to the voice of reason. However, both feel violated by the onslaught of Christianity or Islam on their traditions.

The charges of falsity and idolatry (sharper in the colonial-missionary times) and the attempts to proselytize today are clearly violations of the integrity of a community. Any denunciation of the common inheritance holding a community together becomes an attempt to destroy the social fabric. Thus, religious conversions disintegrate communities and families by drawing individuals away from ancestral traditions. Most crucially, a stance of non-interference is central to these traditions.

These two viewpoints generate different interpretations of the freedom of religion. For Christians, Muslims and secularists in India, the principle revolves around the freedom to convert and proselytize. For Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains, it revolves around freedom from the intrusion of proselytization. There is no neutral position between these two interpretations of religious freedom. Either one accepts that some religions are false or one believes that no religion is false.

In the same way, there is no neutral ground between the claim that religion revolves around doctrinal truth or that it does not. Since the interpretations of religious freedom derive from these contradictory propositions, they are also mutually exclusive. Therefore, with regards to the problem of proselytization, it seems logically impossible to interpret the principle of religious freedom in a way that is neutral between religions (like Islam and Christianity) and the traditions (Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains).

Which Side Does the Dominant Principle of Religious Freedom Favour?

The dominant principle of religious freedom, then, must necessarily favour one of the two sides of the Indian equation. The liberal principle of religious freedom, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the Indian Constitution, privileges Christianity and Islam, because it involves the freedom to propagate or manifest one’s religion and to proselytize. It implicitly endorses the assumption that religion revolves around doctrines and truth claims.

Therefore, each citizen ought always to be free to decide about the truth or falsity of religion and one should also be free to persuade followers of other religions of the unique truth of one’s own. This is not a scientific or neutral claim about the nature of religion, but a proposition arising from the theologies of Christianity and Islam.

African scholar Makau Mutua says:

the right to freedom of religion includes the right to stay protected against cultural invasion. The rights corpus not only forcibly imposes on African religions the obligation to compete- a task for which as nonproselytizing, noncompetitive creeds they are not historically fashioned- but also protects evangelizing religions in their march towards universalization.

Thus, privileging the right to convert over the right against cultural invasion amounts to condoning the dismantling of African religions. The same is true for India. The dominance of the framework that construes religions as rival belief systems has produced a skewed contest which privileges proselytization rather than protection of the indigenous traditions.

Intellectual Stalemate

Secularization of Christian theology refers to a dynamic, intrinsic to the Christian religion, in which this religion de-Christianizes itself. The theological ideas spread in society by casting off some of their explicitly theological features. Individuals begin to adopt and reproduce Christian viewpoints, without explicit conversion or awareness of the theological background. Thus, Christianity gradually universalizes itself, not only through proselytization but also through its own secularization.

Historically, conversion and religious freedom illustrate this internal religious dynamic of secularization. Originally, freedom of religion in Christianity referred to the freedom to choose between God and the Devil, between true and false religion. Augustine and other church fathers conceived of freedom as the ability to resist the seduction of sin, which God’s grace in Christ gives to the true believers. Christian freedom was closely related to the original understanding of conversion as a lifelong process in which one turns to God and gradually submits one’s own will to the divine will.

During the Protestant Reformation, Luther and Calvin began to argue that the soul ought to be free from human authority while converting towards God and subjecting the human will to His divine will. In other words, Christian freedom always implied that each individual ought to be free to choose between true and false religion, between conversion or damnation, between obedience to God or Satan’s seduction.

This notion of Christian freedom secularized in the subsequent centuries. In the European Enlightenment, this took the shape of the contemporary principle of religious freedom: the universal and individual right to accept any religious belief as true and to profess or propagate religion. Even in its minimal legal form, this principle reproduces the background theology by its inclusion of the freedom of conversion. The link between conversion and freedom of religion, then, is a theological legacy from the Christian West.

What happens when intellectuals from a non-western culture begin to adopt secularized theology? There is a need for more research on this but we can note some of the consequences. The secular intelligentsia of the subcontinent defends a theological perspective as though it were a neutral scientific truth. They advocate the link between conversion and religious freedom as an inviolable human right unaware of its theological nature. Therefore, these secularists are unable to fulfil their intellectual duty to society. They cannot develop creative solutions for a problem like that of proselytization in India.

What Does Hindutva Do?

Unfortunately, the Hindutva movement is part of the same development of the narrative. It transforms certain attitudes and practices of these traditions into proper doctrines. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Hindus reacted with incomprehension to the missionary claim that their religion was false doctrine while Christianity was the truth. They pointed out that all religions may be good for their followers and that it all depends on one’s inclinations and circumstances.

During the nineteenth century, however, the reactions changed radically. Adopting the Christian and Islamic view that religion revolved around the truth of doctrines, certain Hindu groups began to defend the supposed doctrines they found in “the sacred books of the East.” They claimed the Vedas and certain dharmashastras contained religious truth, rather than the Bible or the Koran. This tendency emerged in the Arya Samaj and similar organizations but soon engulfed many Hindu movements, including most precursors of the present-day Hindutva.

The best illustration lies in the stance of non-interference. This original attitude transformed into a doctrine of Hindu tolerance or the equality of all religions in the nineteenth century. Later, the Hindutva movement invoked this doctrine to show the superiority of Hinduism over Islam and Christianity. Hinduism was tolerant and respectful while Islam and Christianity were not, the claim went. This exacerbated the conflict over issues like conversion.

When the stance of non-interference takes the form of a doctrine of equality of religions, it gives rise to a radical clash between the so-called Hindu doctrines and those of Islam and Christianity. For the latter religions, to say that all religions are equal is equivalent to religious suicide.

In the last decade, the Hindutva movement has begun to insist that Muslims and Christians in India should adapt themselves to the Hindu ethos of tolerance and its doctrine of equality of religions. They have demanded the rewriting of the Koran and the Indianization of the Christian churches. The same doctrine allegedly inspires the anti-conversion laws that are popping up in ever more Indian states. These steps have aggravated the conflict over religious conversion in contemporary India, rather than resolving it. The deadlock is that secularists, Christians, and Muslims insist that religious freedom entails freedom of conversion; the advocates of Hindutva maintain that it grants the freedom from conversion.

Is There A Way Out?

Neither anti-conversion laws nor the principle of religious freedom will do the job, since both privilege one of the two sides of the controversy. A facile majoritarianism would lead one to the suggestion that the Hindu position should be privileged. However, the anti-conversion laws are both reactionary and illiberal: they take away a freedom that is essential to Muslims and Christians. What is the alternative?

Without the risk of romanticizing the past, looking into the history of the subcontinent, it is striking that, in several regions, the Hindu traditions and Indian Islam and Christianity succeeded at living together in a relatively stable manner. India has a far better record of pluralism and multiculturalism in mostly peace than Europe and the western world anytime in their histories. There must exist some mechanisms in Indian traditions responsible for this. For one, many scholars have pointed out that local Islamic and Christian traditions lost their aggressive proselytizing drive in India. Hindu attempts to impose anti-conversion legislation aggressively also seemed to be absent.

The answer, then, consists of a set of research questions: How have the Indian traditions succeeded at alleviating the problem of religious conversion in the past? Which mechanisms and dynamics were at play here? To what extent do these live on today? How could they be rediscovered and revived so that we can work towards a vibrant pluralism in India?

Understanding Indian Culture Through Indigenous Lenses

The universalization of Christianity has been far more successful than we are currently aware of. It operates not only through proselytization but also through secularization. Consequently, the dominant epistemic, moral, and legal frameworks, through which the international community addresses the problem of proselytization, reproduce theological assumptions in a secular guise. These assumptions make one see religious conversion in all plural societies, without giving any clarity as to the distinct nature of the process.

They also skew moral stands and legal solutions to the problem of proselytization in favour of religions like Christianity and Islam. The same theologically inflected frameworks prevent the international community from appreciating the concerns of non-proselytizing ancestral traditions. Not only does Christian proselytization threaten to violate the integrity of these traditions, Christian secularization then robs them of their voice in the international debate. As a result, the traditional stance of non-interference is giving way for a shrill and increasingly aggressive voice: that of Hindu nationalism, which seeks to impose its own principles on all others.

We need to re-examine the nature of Indian culture and its traditions, including Indian Islam and Indian Christianity. We require alternative frameworks that will reflect upon India’s experiences of the last five centuries. These will try to move beyond the current deadlock. Most importantly, they should be humane towards all religions, all traditions, and all human beings, so that the violence finally ends. This ends the summary of the paper by Jakob De Roover and Sarah Claerhout.

Concluding Remarks

Dr SN Balagangadhara and his group have been at the forefront of presenting an alternate view of religions and traditions. Dr Balu’s classic book, The Heathen in His Blindness, discusses in great detail the flawed understanding of Indian traditions as religions. A large body of traditions came under the umbrella of ‘Hinduism’; it was an experiential unity for the colonials who were trying to make sense of Indian culture. The religious culture from which they came also generated the strong idea that religion is a cultural universal. They could not imagine that cultures might exist where religions are absent.

Colonial consciousness, a permanently altered intellectual state not bothering to question the colonial narratives, in the post-independent period, continued this idea of religions in India without explaining the contradictions. We are simply continuing the colonial narrative of trying to understand religions in India and come up with some silly conclusions as the latest Pew Research Study on Indian religions demonstrates. Similarly, Jakob De Roover’s book Europe, India and The Limits of Secularism shows clearly the flaws in the Indian brand of secularism primarily due to a faulty understanding of Indian traditions as religions. At a grosser political level, secularism has come to mean only appeasement of minorities in India- a very Indian application of the idea.

At a fundamental level, Indian intellectuals and academia continued to apply western lenses to study ourselves. Resultantly, their conclusions about Indian society, its ‘religions’, or ‘caste-system’ (an obnoxious social evil which must arise from a stagnant religion) are no different from what the colonials and the missionaries said about us in the 19th century. The problems and solutions related to religions in the west have had a wholesale transport to Indian soil where they end up making no sense. Yet we persist with the ideas despite all the contradictions they throw up.

The Balagangadhara school maintains that the problem of religion in India arises when we insist on converting our traditions more into religions. As a corollary, the solution lies in making religions more into traditions. Religions can maximally tolerate and accept the other but traditions transcend these with their characteristic indifference to differences. This was the solution of a multicultural and plural India historically and we must apply more study to rediscover these inherent mechanisms in the Indian society. The present understanding promises only strife in the future. Religions say, ‘I am true and you are false’; traditions say, ‘I am true but you are not false’. And therein lies the difference.

Further Readings

  1. The Heathen in His Blindness: Asia, the West, and the Dynamic of Religion by S. N. Balagangadhara
  2. Europe, India, and the Limits of Secularism (Religion and Democracy) by Jakob De Roover


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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