As Hindu, we accept all names of God whether they originated in India or those who came from outside, like Allah and Jesus Christ as true to their followers. There is no objection to Jesus Christ or Allah, but exclusivism is not acceptable like saying, 'Only my God is true, but your Gods are false or Satan'.
In 1981, when a village named Meenakshipuram was converted overnight, it became all India news and the subject of concern. Many philanthropists came forward to support Vivekananda Kendra if it was ready to take up the service activities with cultural thrust. Vivekananda Kendra decided to take up the work. Whosoever is born in this great culture should not be deprived of its knowledge. It is their birthright to know their culture and feel proud of it. It is also said that some Christians and Muslims born in this great culture reject its great principle of respecting other's Gods and Goddesses and instead engage in conversion. Vivekananda Kendra Rural Development project was started to render the service to the needy and make them confident about themselves and their cultural traditions.
When we started the Vivekananda Kendra Rural Development project in four southern districts of Tamilnadu, we used to conduct many residential camps separately for young men and women. We used to stay in some temples, bathe in the river or the canal nearby, and the girls used to cook the food or, if possible, we used to engage a cook. I still remember some incidents when we camped in Sri Vaikuntham, Alwar Tirunagari, famous for Sri Vishnu temples. In the vicinity of the two districts, there are big nine temples of Vishnu called Nava Tirupati.
Our camp was near one of these Nava Tirupati temples. The river Tamraparni was flowing with full of fresh water nearby. All the participant girls, being from various villages were experts in swimming as that is how they bathe in river or canal whenever water would be flowing. I used to bathe on the banks as I did not know swimming. But seeing them enjoying the flowing water, I was tempted and asked them to teach me swimming. They readily agreed, and 2-3 girls together made me swim. Before I could learn to swim, I had a fever in two days, and my dream of learning to swim remained unfulfilled. More than me, those simple girls felt very bad.
It was nice being with the village girls. I enjoyed their intriguing things. But gradually I learnt the reasons behind it. I enjoyed their simplicity and natural affection for all, staying in any place with no complaints or expectations. I had experienced this in Odisha too when we camped in the Anandalaya Acharyas. Some told us the place we were staying near the temple was the stable for the horses in the olden days.
We used to conduct some 3-4 hours of Shramadan of cleaning the temples, making proper pathways, drainages for the village, or whatever was the village's need. In some villages, the villagers used to make arrangements to cook for us, or participants used to cook in the camps or we used to arrange a cook. After morning Shramanubhav–a solid physical work, we would bathe in the river or canal, and we used to have sessions later. The sessions were on Ramayana, Mahabharat, and general practices of Hindus and the principles behind them. The Ramayana and Mahabharat for college students, written by Swami Chidbhavananda, are very good. We used to read those books, which are brief, but the epics' crux is covered very well. I used to take these reading sessions, as I could manage these sessions in Tamil very well with the help of the book. Some elders used to come and take the other sessions. The participants enjoyed games, Bhajan, the development of soft skills, patriotic songs, etc. In short, the girls used to enjoy the sessions. We got some girls to work as Balwadi teachers or social workers in Vivekananda Kendra's Rural Development Project programs and activities from these camps.
The camp would be concluded with some village elders giving a valedictory address. Some girls used to share their experiences in the concluding sessions. We would select 2-3 girls and ask them to share their experiences.
I do not remember the name of one girl; maybe it was Shenbagam. She came and told me that she wanted to share her experiences. I said, 'Alright'. She told in the concluding session in front of all, 'When I was coming for the camp, my mother told me to bow down to God and then leave the house. I made fun of her. I told her you are uneducated and therefore you believe in all these Mannangkatti gods. (Mannagkatti literally means lumps formed of earth, mud or soil. It also means useless, worthless or stupid blockheads.) I told her how can there be a god in stone and wood. I laughed at her. I have done this before as well. She would be pained. But I did not want my mother to live in superstition, so I deliberately used to attack her. Today I know how wrong I was. My mother is right. God is everywhere. After attending the camp, I am proud that I am born Hindu. In my college and school, when teachers used to make fun of Hindu practices, I was so ashamed of being Hindu. After going from here first, I will pray to God in pooja room then ask forgiveness from my mother. I know when I would do that, how happy my mother would be.'
She started crying, and we all were quiet. Some more girls who could relate to her pain became emotional. After a few minutes, she gained control and looked at me and asked, 'Sister, I want to sing one Bhajan in front of all, like repentance. Can I?' I nodded. She sang Bhajan. She would pause while singing in between whenever her throat was choked with emotions and was wiping her tears in between. Not that she was a very good singer, but I think that was one of the best bhajans I have heard in life with unshed tears in my eyes.
Later, I thought about what this education is doing to our youth. If she had not come for the camp, she would have continued this shame and contempt for Hindu Dharma, which was inculcated in her by her very teachers, who are supposed to make her strong in her faith. Her children might get converted in the future if they received the same education.
As Hindu, we accept all names of God, whether they originated in India or those who came from outside like Allah and Jesus Christ as true to their followers. There is no objection to Jesus Christ or Allah, but exclusivism is not acceptable like saying, 'Only my God is true, but your Gods are false or Satan'. How can God's name or form be called Satan when he is everywhere? A really spiritual person would not do that. He would see God everywhere and thus be inclusive of God's names of other communities. Telling children that 'your God is Satan' is attacking their innermost identity. That is why Swami Dayananda Saraswati of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam said, 'Conversion is violence.'
The writer is Vice President of Vivekananda Kendra