EVEN though the Indian apex court modified – in the Graham Staines murder case judgment – its initial and specific observations on the divisive and vivisecting role of the instrument of conversion in India, the following truth as stated by it at first, that ‘It is undisputed that there is no justification for interfering in someone’s belief by way of use of force, provocation, conversion, incitement or upon a flawed premise that one religion is better than the other’, has been established for all times. Interestingly such a truth was also repeatedly stated and emphasised upon by some of our most epochal thought-leaders, leaders who have today been subtly appropriated and ‘secularised’ by those very group that have allowed, through their political-silence, the undermining of India to advance space.
Thus, this reality, as reflected through history, as observed, debated and assessed by some of our most advanced minds can never really be expunged or modified. It is this reality, the reality of conversion being used as an instrument – by Christian conglomerates with extra-territorial allegiances and linkages – for subverting Indian unity, her plurality and diversities of expressions of living and belief, that deeply exercised and pre-occupied some of our best minds over the last one hundred odd years. The observations they made then, on the issue, the debate they generated then, were hard hitting, perceptive and unequivocal in their condemnation of a practise that they saw as essentially stemming from a unitary and freedom-throttling perception of life, living and belief.
The central problem – as our thinkers saw it – with the adherents and blinkered proselytists of the Christian faith, was succinctly stated by one of the giant minds of our age, Swami Ranganathananda (1908-2005). The central problem, observed Swami Ranganathananda, is the (Church enforced European, read Western) attitude – ‘inter-racial’, ‘inter-cultural’, ‘inter-religious’ – of ‘either I or you, in the place of I and you.’ (Swami Ranganathananda, A Pilgrim Looks at the World, vol.II, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 2nd ed, Bombay, 1990, pp 315-316). It is this core attitude that has unceasingly given rise to much discord, strife and clashes over the ages. Speaking in the context of the near decimation of indigenous groups in the West by adherents of Christianity, the Swami argued that the ‘fruit of the first (either I or you) is a struggle to achieve external uniformity, which alas, involves, and has always involved, hatred, suppression, and extermination by the strong of the weak. The destruction of native cultures and people by the European races wherever they have gone and the use by them of the great religion of Jesus to mete out a similar treatment to the native religions, are nothing but the products of a wrong philosophy of man and of inter-human relationships, which has done much to blacken human history.’ (Ibid, p 316)
The vigorous and perfidious attempts in India by Christian missionary groups thus, to achieve this ‘external uniformity’ mainly through the method of conversion, have given rise to much disharmony and imbalance in a society that is essentially inspired by a philosophy that follows an ‘active attitude and policy of I and you, of live and let live.’ (Ibid) Referring to this attitude of the Church much earlier, Swami Abhedananda (1866-1939), Swami Vivekananda’s spiritual comrade and co-seeker and now a nearly forgotten figure made a forceful point in one of his largely ignored opuscule ‘Why a Hindu Accepts Christ and Rejects Churchianity’. ‘From the beginning of the history of the Churches, down to the present day,’ wrote Abhedananda, ‘freedom of thought and freedom of speech, which are the most essential characteristics of true religion, have been suppressed; and fanaticism, bigotry, curses, anathema, religious persecution, tortures of inquisition and diabolical crimes have been committed in the name of religion. Hatred, cruelty and fighting have reigned in the place of love, mercy, kindness, peace and good-will.’ He saw the ‘creed of the Church’ sustaining itself only through the drawing of swords and the shedding of ‘innocent blood’ in the name of religion. Had this not happened, he argued, it ‘would have vanished away from the world’. (Swami Abhedananda, Why a Hindu Accepts Christ and Rejects Churchianity, Ramakrishna Vedanta Math, 12th ed 1976, p 3)
In order to place in perspective the intellectual and spiritual offensive that our thought-leaders – steeped in the Hindu way of life – relentlessly launched against the method of conversion, I propose to revisit some of their thoughts, observations and arguments on the subject and to show their continued contemporaneity in the present and ongoing discourse on the issue. I do not claim any originality in interpretation, the effort shall instead be only an attempt at re-stating the positions of those who have either been marginalised or appropriated by groups who themselves question and assault the very idea of India albeit subtly and couched in academical-dialectical-postmodernist jargons! The aim is to argue, as I have stated earlier, that expunging and modification of remarks on the ill-effects of proselytisation and conversion in India shall not alter the reality of their history as negative and anti-evolutionary forces. I shall also attempt to look at the issues of proselytism in India as narrated and debated by the missionaries themselves often through more honest confessions than of those made by their co-religionists today. It shall essentially be an exercise in intellectual-history. Tracing and tracking efforts that systematically and resolutely work towards dissolving the reality – physical and spiritual – of India is often a disturbing experience. But it has to be nevertheless undertaken relentlessly with a resoluteness matching those who are out to ‘Break India’.
It would be in order then to begin with the 1893 Parliament of Religion and the first great spiritual assault that it symbolised against this practice. The central figure of that event, Swami Vivekananda, was one of the first from the East to launch this determined assault in the West. At the beginning of his ‘India and Her People’ Swami Abhedananda made a poignant remark setting the perspective of that seminal event in Chicago. ‘Many people have an idea’, he wrote, ‘that India is inhabited by idolatrous heathens, who have neither philosophy, ethics, science, nor religion, and that whatever they possess they have acquired from Christian missionaries; but, since the Parliament of Religions…in Chicago in 1893, the educated men and women of this country have cast aside all such erroneous notions. They have learnt on the contrary, that India has always been the fountain-head of every system of philosophy, and the home of all religious thought of the world.’ (Swami Abhedananda, India and Her People, Vedanta Society, 3rd ed, New York, 1906, pp 10-11)
Those who have taken it upon themselves to ‘officially’ observe the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda starting from this year, may do well to remember the above point and to also internalise Swamiji’s complete address to the congregation. While upholding the plurality and harmony of religions he had also made a strong point against those who worked against that plurality. In his September 20, 1893 address at the session at Chicago, Swamiji directly took on the Christian missionaries, ‘You Christians, who are so fond of sending out missionaries to save the soul of the heathen – why do you not try to save their bodies from starvation? In India, during the terrible famines, thousands died from hunger, yet you Christians did nothing. You erect churches all through India, but the crying evil in the East is not religion – they have religion enough – but it is bread that the suffering millions of burning India cry out for…It is an insult to a starving people to offer them religion; it is an insult to a starving man to teach him metaphysics.’(Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works, vol 1, Advaita Ashrama, 27th imp, Kolkata, p 20.)
This perhaps is the first substantial point against the Christian missionary attitude and may well be the starting point for reviving the suggestion of a national debate on the practice of conversion in India. The point may be clichéd but such an initiative could be part of the 150th celebrations and shall go a long way in infusing dynamism, in what otherwise promises to be a damp affair of merely announcing schemes, patronising officially favourite groups and reducing the vision and breadth of Swamiji life and message.