A few days back, when I was going to a mall in Bridgewater (NJ, USA), some young Asian lady who looked like a Chinese, handed over to me two copies of a magazine, Praharidurga, Announces the Jehovah'sKingdom.? The way she asked me whether I knew Hindi, I thought she wanted to ask me to read something in Hindi for her. Later, I tried to read the magazine with some difficulty as my knowledge of Hindi is not adequate. It appears that some 2,70,55,000 copies of this magazine are being printed in 152 languages all over the world. It is a tremendous amount of circulation for a magazine, envy of the leadings newspapers and magazines of the world.
This set me thinking of religion and conversion. My first contact with Christianity was when I joined the Christian High School where I studied for three years. This is immediately after Independence. Apart from the morning prayer and optional moral classes (Bible classes), there was nothing overtly Christian in the school. I learnt quite a bit of Old Testament and the New Testament during these years. Over the years, I have read about the attempt by Christian missionaries to ?spread the word? through schools and hospitals, especially in Vanvasi areas and the resultant conflict between traditional faith and the new faith. The modern schools and modern hospitals, first started by the Christian missionaries, and now by the state and other voluntary organisations, have brought India to the modern era.
Christianity came to India riding the waves?the trade was followed by the flag and the Bible. The Messianic Portuguese converted Hindus by force or by enticement and destroyed temples but the British who followed them had gone through Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment and were more civilised in their encounter with Hinduism. They started schools, colleges and hospitals. There was no organised effort to convert except in North-East India and in some Vanvasi areas.
After Independence, missionary activities multiplied as the Indian Constitution has guaranteed ?Freedom of conscience and free expression, practice and propagation of religion.? Some constitutional experts have said that ?propagation? does not mean or include ?conversion?. Some states have laws which prohibit conversion by force or fraud and some require registration of conversion. All these amendments were made so that the native character of the community is not changed. Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi had opposed conversion. Mahatma Gandhi observed that those who change their religion change their way of life as well. Most of those who are converted deny their ancestry, history, heritage and culture.
Any growth or change in an individual or a community has to be organic so that it does not uproot or disorient the individual or the community. An individual or community has to have an open mind for new ideas for growth and progress. Vedas say, let good thoughts from all sides to come. Mahatma asked us to open the windows to let winds from all over the world to blow in our houses but refused to be blown over.
Hindus accept, not merely tolerate, other faiths, as they believe that all paths lead to the same goal?just as all rivers lead to the ocean. This vision is not shared by many other religions. It is strange that those who believe in an omnipotent and omnipresent God believe that He will abandon his children without a path or a prophet.
If we go through the fundamentals of all religions, we find that they say the same thing in so many different words?Fatherhood of God and Brotherhood of Man; Be a good human being and do good others. While Hinduism says, Ahimsa paramo dharma (non-violence is the most important duty), Jesus Christ says, ?whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also?. While Hindus say, vasudaiva kutumbakam (world is my family), Jesus says, ?Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth? and ?Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God?. Koran says Allah is all-powerful and also merciful. Buddhism has eight-fold path?right thinking, right conduct etc.
While one religion has emphasised one aspect of good human behaviour, other has promoted some other aspect. Each religion has developed a core competency in human culture and civilisation. If ?world is a family? is the theme of Hinduism, non-violence is the key-note of Buddhism, charity and compassion are the core of Christianity and brotherhood is the essence of Islam. Teachings of all religions mostly overlap and hardly contradict. As Swami Vivekananda observed long ago, a Hindu should be a good Hindu, a Muslim should be a good Muslim and a Christian should be a good Christian. One can also learn some thing from other religions. There is no need to convert but there is a need to understand and learn. Science and technology has made the world a village and all countries and religions are just neighbours. And it is imperative for the emerging new world that we know each other better and it is also necessary for the survival of the world civilisation. With so many religions and faiths, the world is a rainbow of many hues and is a many splendoured wonder.
This leads us to the question, why then there is a need to convert others ? I asked this question, years ago, to my employer in Saudi Arabia when he asked me to become a Muslim. That did not impress him at all.
I have an idea but I do not know whether the time has come for it or not. As Victor Hugo, the great French thinker, said long ago nobody can stop an idea for which the time has come. May be we should have a United Religions Organisation (URO) just like the United Nations Organisation (UNO) to discuss various issues that unite and divide religions. There are more things that unite them than divide them. The religions of the world have to exchange notes rather than invade other religions as they say the same thing in different voices, languages, idioms and jargons. The places of worship may have different architecture and different rituals but all pay homage to the same Power which animates the world. All the mystics of the world?Hindu, Muslim and Christian?have seen or realised the same Power. All religions say, humanity is one, world is one and universe is one. We are all one. We just have to recognise it.
(The writer can be contacted at [email protected])