Smt Esther Dhanraj is an ex-Christian, who quit her faith after practicing it for 25 years. She holds a Master’s degree in English Literature from Osmania University, India and a Master’s in Divinity (Apologetics) from Luther Rice University, Georgia, United States. An expert in Christian doctrines and practices, she has been engaged in debates on TV channels as well as actively fighting conversions at grassroot levels in rural India. She also counsels Hindu families whose youngsters’ youth have either become Christian or are contemplating Christianity. The experience of Smt Esther Dhanraj assumes significance in this context. Excerpts from an exclusive on-line interview she had with Organiser representative, Pradeep Krishnan:
You were born in a Telugu Brahmin family and converted to Christianity when you were 17 when your parents switched faiths? What prompted your parents to convert to Christianity?
I was about 12-13 years when I first heard someone utter the name Jesus. This person was a Christian from Tamil Nadu and was our neigbhour when my family was residing in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. He was from Tamil Nadu and lived away from his family, for his work at Telco. My parents being very friendly people opened their home to this person, and would sometimes send him food. Those were very rough times for my family, with my mother’s ill-health, and my father’s professional upheavals. This neighbour who saw our family closely observed our difficult situation started talking to my parents about Christianity and Jesus. He told them that Jesus will solve all our problems and we needed Jesus in our lives. My mother needed a minor surgery. She and my father needed to travel to Hyderabad to her sister’s home who arranged for the surgery. While they were gone, my maternal grandmother looked after my four siblings and me. In the absence of my parents, the neighbour continued to preach and read the Bible to us, and invited us every night before bedtime, to pray with him. In Hyderabad, my aunt’s family friend who was a Christian introduced my parents to a pastor of a nearby church. Being in a very vulnerable state, my mother succumbed to the sweet-talk the pastor engaged in. A few months after her surgery we moved to Hyderabad. After the move, we started going to the church as a family. Eventually, my parents got baptised in the faith. Later, my siblings and I got baptised one after another. My baptism was in the year 1992.
How did your parents encounter the conflict in their minds between the ancestral faith and the newly introduced faith?
I don’t think there was any conflict. Usually, the way conversions are designed, there is no scope for the converting family or individual, for looking back in regret. The pastor is closely monitoring the transition of the family. He is with the family every week, giving them the hope, (which I now know is false one) he partakes in their happy times and sad occasions. He used all his training in propagandising his religion to the family that he is proselytising. I cannot exactly tell what went on in my parent’s minds, but outside there was no regret, and no qualms about exhibiting their new religious stance to their friends and relatives. In hindsight, I can say that in some sense they were proud of their decision because now they were saved and all their problems have been taken over by Jesus to solve them. I must note here, my maternal grandmother who lived us, was a staunch Hindu, who followed her daily religious rituals very strictly. She was very particular about doing puja every day. She practiced Ayurveda and was well read in Bhagwad Gita and Bhagavatam. For as long as she lived, two religions were practiced in our house. She and my parents mutually respected each other’s religious practices. For her sake my mother held on to wearing the bottu even after she converted to Christianity. There were weekly prayers at my house conducted by the pastor and a few other church elders. My grandmother never objected to it and in fact interacted with the pastors, sometimes engaging with them in friendly debates. She was a pillar of strength to our parents.
If a family like yours, who were upper middle class, well educated and having good status in the society was converted to Christianity, what according to you would be the plight of the poor and downtrodden Hindus?
My thesis is: the day world hunger ends, Christian proselytisers will be out of job. Conversions happen to not just poor and the downtrodden. It happens in any class of people. The only factor fueling conversions is human need and human expectation for a magical solution to that need. But you are right, my father who was a well-read person, and who held some very important job positions in his career, in a variety of sectors, couldn’t survive the onslaught of Christian propaganda. No amount of education, experience and exposure can come to the rescue when the proselytizer has cast his net at you. But I have to tell you, times have changed. We have stepped into the age of information. Consider this the second age of Enlightenment and this time it is India that is walking toward light. Here is a thing: at the higher end of the chain of proselytising sits the educated and the upper class. Precisely the youth from educated and upper classes. There are two reasons why youth get into proselytising – one, employment. Two, conviction that Christianity is true. The first category needs to be shown some other source of employment and the other group needs to be shown the real face of Christianity. This is where I feel we come in.
Why did you leave Christianity?
I went to the United States on an immigrant visa by virtue of marriage. I am someone who likes to keep on studying, taking exams and getting degrees. All that changed now. But back then, the first thing that came to my mind when I knew that I was going to be spending the next few years of my life in the United States, was to go for another master’s degree from a US university. I had two options – a Master’s degree in Education Management (I was running a prep school and was a freelance education consultant, before I left for the States) and Master of Divinity (the highest non-doctoral research degree in Christian studies). On the one hand, was my opportunity to fulfil my life long desire of conducting a deeper study of the bible, and study Christian history as an academic in order to know the place of my own ethnicity in the bible and on the other hand was my chance to make my dream career in the US school system in a senior management position. I was in two minds. The devoted Christian that I was, I prayed. And “god directed” me to take up Christian studies. I imagined God calling me to serve him in India, because God was “disheartened” to see India reeling in idol worship, and needed gifted preachers like me. I thought I had the divine duty to “save India from darkness”. I had no doubt, I could change the demography of India once I became a trained evangelist. Aided with such confidence, I enrolled in the degree in last quarter of 2010. I have to tell you here that there are two kinds of master degrees offered in the US. One takes a shorter duration to complete and the other, longer, with more hours of study and more courses to complete. M. Div is the longer master’s degree. It is a non-Ph D degree but is a research-oriented degree. M Div usually offers two tracks of study – Apologetics and Ministry. Ministry has got to do with pastoring a church and apologetics is the defense of the Christian faith against criticism. I opted for apologetics. The first course that I took was a course called the Introduction to Old Testament. The text that was prescribed for this course is titled Survey of the Old Testament Introduction. It is a book that justifies the Old Testament, defends its theology, and rebuts criticism of it. It took me just that very first course of the very first semester of my 5-year degree, for my 25-year faith to come crashing down. It might surprise you that a text book that was supposed to reinforce my faith and affirm my decision to become a Christian propelled me in exactly the opposite direction. The text book spoke of things that I was hearing for the very first time in 25 years. For example, I have never heard either from a critic or from an apologist that “the Bible had discrepancies.” And here was America’s acclaimed apologist (the author of the text book I mentioned) who was saying that exact thing. Of course, that statement of his was followed by a “but” and dozens of chapters to explain the discrepancies away. But that acceptance by him was enough for me to know that the Bible indeed had errors. Imagine the shock of knowing that the book around which I had built my entire adulthood, on the basis of which I had taken life changing decisions, had errors in it. Errors to me meant that it was not a divine work. From there, my faith went south.
'Constantine made use of the beliefs of a small messianic cult for unifying the various warring religious factions of his kingdom. He manufactured a new narrative in a dying and rising savior god. It was a political conspiracy'
Why do you say that Christianity is a political conspiracy?
Two thousand years after the alleged life of Jesus on earth, the debate is still about whether Jesus is a historical person. The fact that the defenders of Jesus’ historicity, called historicists, could not prove with substantial evidence that he existed in the 1st century CE, indicates that Christianity probably did not need a central figure for it to take birth. If it does not have a founder, how did it start? This question opens a gamut of probabilities of how Christianity came into existence. The suggested probabilities suggested from its origin of an ancient Mediterranean myth of a dying and rising savior god to its creation out of vacuum, by the Roman elite. Whatever way it was started, it could not have developed and spread without state approval. If Christianity didn’t have Constantine’s support, we would have been reading it as a sentence or a page or a chapter or at the most a volume in history books. Like the coming and vanishing of hundreds of cults in those times. Constantine made use of the beliefs of a small messianic cult for unifying the various warring religious factions of his kingdom. For that, he manufactured a new narrative out of the existing beliefs in a dying and rising savior god. Knowing there is no truth in something we do but still do it for a gain is called conspiracy. Constantine knew the new religion he was creating had no truth in it, because he remained a Sun-worshipper till the end of his life. But he made it the official religion for his political success. That makes it a political conspiracy.
You were telling that the Christian priests approach persons who are vulnerable with a human touch and Hindu priests on the other hand teach scriptures? Could you please elaborate on this point?
What I mean is that, the pastors approach human need with the attractive solution. Sometimes they offer money on the spot. A lot of times they pay from their pockets. Of course, they do so with an agenda, knowing that if they are able to win this needy person, which they do, they will get so much more in the form of weekly donation and monthly tithes. But the person that overcome by his need cannot rationalize why a stranger goes out of the way and falls into the trap. Moreover, the pastor makes it seem as if it is a divine plan. But when a needy human being goes with his problems to a temple, the priest there offers him solutions that cost more money to the already burdened person. I agree with you that the priest has limited resources and does not belong to an ecosystem. That is my whole point. Why can’t we empower our priests, educate them about the need to be sensitive to? Why can’t we build an ecosystem where Hindus feel belonged and do not have to seek out solution out from jackals in sheep’s clothing? I am not finding fault with the priest. I understand the priest, unlike the pastor, neither has the wherewithal or the training to handle such situations. I am finding fault with the system itself or the lack, thereof.
'Many gullible believers who were desperate for a miraculous healing have come to their senses through these pandemic times, otherwise cancer and AIDS expelling pastors went into hiding'
What are the major differences between American Christians and Indian Christians?
Christians are the same all over, when it comes to believing blindly. They are sheep regardless of what country they come from. The only difference is in the way they defend their faith and justify their bible. Indians are more defensive and we know offense is best form of defense. Here is a thing: American Christianity does not have a rival worldview to fight against. India does. In India, Christianity is faced with a giant. Also, because Christians in India have to give up something very dear to them – their identity – to become Christians. The loss of their identity, in addition to the guilt of abandoning their heritage, and the doubt whether they made the right decision or not, bears heavily on their subconscious minds. So, the moment they do that, they turn on their defensive mode. We see that Christians of recent decades are unable to get rid of their caste and sect identities, more than in any other earlier decades. American Christians do not have to deal with this situation.
What are your views on religious conversions?
I always wonder, why would the god of the universe want an ordinary, (sometimes illiterate) pastor to propagandize him? Isn’t god himself capable of showing his might to people that he wants to follow him? If he was able to reveal himself to a desert tribe once, why can’t he do it again? Especially, if it can prevent nasty and sometimes bloody fights? And if he so mighty and wonder-working being, why can’t isn’t the whole world Christian, even after 2000 years of Christianity’s invention? Why is converting ¼ of a small planet taking so long when he was able to create millions of such planets, much larger in size, in just seven days? The very fact that one human being has to convince another that a certain religion is true or a certain god is the true god, itself indicates that something is not right about that god or his religion.
Do you now consider yourself a Hindu?
In my view every person that subscribes to the idea of Dharma, Karma and Punarjanma is a Hindu. This is something I learnt from my conversations with experts in the field. By that definition, every civilised human being of the world is “almost Hindu.” Excuse my usage of “almost”. What I mean is with the exception of Punarjanma concept, every person living a socially conscious life adheres to the principles of dharma and karma, knowingly or unknowingly. As for believing in the concept of Punarjanma, I am 7 studying about it.