The tragic death of Lavanya in Tamil Nadu has foregrounded the issue of conversion. In this article, I will try to locate the issue of conversion, within the matrix of Indic civilisation in general. As we do so, we will discover how alien a concept it is for people of dharma, and realise how its application to Indic culture requires qualification at almost every step. Movement, or even migration, from one religious orientation to another, is not unknown to Indic civilisation, but conversion, in the Western sense, is another kettle of fish.
Conversion is essentially a phenomenon associated with the Abrahamic religious traditions, particularly with Christianity and Islam. The prevalence of conversion within the Indic religious tradition is not immediately apparent, but if we interpret the term liberally, then it can be contextualised within the Indic religious tradition, though in a somewhat laboured way. In order to do so, however, some key distinctions need to be introduced.
The first such distinction is between conscious and unconscious conversion. This distinction is so-called because of the way Hinduism spread over India and beyond. Hinduism, as we understand it today, arose in the part of India much of which is now covered by Pakistan. If it arose there, and then spread to the rest of India, as seems fairly obvious, then the question arises: How did this happen? This seems to have happened as part of an organic process; the tradition was hardly self-conscious as it was spreading.
This is reflected within the texts of the tradition in an interesting way. The land where the Aryan way of life prevailed gets constantly extended. It enlarges periodically, from around the area now roughly covered by Haryana, to cover the area to the east of it. Finally, it comes to cover the whole of north India. Then the Hindu tradition travels beyond the Vindhyas, and ultimately embraces the whole of India. It then spreads beyond India, both to its east and to its west. Its spread to the east is fairly obvious but it also spread to the west, although the evidence of this is no longer as visible. If we look upon these areas as, in some sense, progressively ‘converting’ to Hinduism, then obviously such ‘conversion’ happened unconsciously, from the point of view of both the parties.
The second distinction is between the kind of conversion which involves addition, and the kind which involves subtraction. The terms are obviously drawn from arithmetic; what could they mean in the present context? When one converts to another tradition, then this conversion can take two forms. In one case, a person may retain one’s connection with one’s previous religion, however attenuated, after conversion to another religion. This is nearly impossible in the case of the Abrahamic religions. In the second case, conversion involves replacing one’s previous religious identity or affiliation, with a new one. The new eliminates the old.
It is, however, possible to maintain a connection with one’s parent tradition in the case of ‘conversion’ within the Indic tradition. The Buddha actually accepted a leader of the Jaina community, General Siha, as a lay devotee, only after he promised to continue patronising the Jainas. Conversion in the Abrahamic context is substitutive — one gives up one’s religion on conversion to another. This need not be the case with the Indic religious tradition. It need not be a case of either this or that. In the arithmetic of conversion, it results in addition in the case of the Indic tradition — one adds religion to one’s spiritual toolkit. In the case of the Abrahamic tradition, you lose your previous religion — it gets subtracted.
A third distinction needs to be drawn between conversion and ‘reversion’. Hindus are acutely aware that many of their co-religionists converted to Islam and Christianity, especially during the periods of Islamic and Christian rule over India. And they want to welcome the descendants of these people back into the parent tradition. But this process is not being referred to as either conversion or even reconversion, but as ‘Ghar Vapasi’ or homecoming. If we insist on using the idiom of conversion in this context, then this process may have to be called ‘reversion’.
There is, finally, the distinction between horizontal and vertical conversion. In horizontal conversion, one converts from one religion to another; in vertical conversion, one moves from a lower level of spiritual and moral awareness to a higher one. If one visualises the spiritual journey as consisting of climbing up a mist-covered mountain, then horizontal conversion involves just going around the mountain, while vertical conversion means climbing further up. This is what Mahatma Gandhi meant when he said that what you need to change is not your religion but your life. Perhaps the one case in which he might have entertained the Western idea of conversion is the one in which one needed to change one’s religion in order to change one’s spiritual life.
The fact that one has to qualify the use of the term so heavily in the case of Indic religions testifies to the non-Indic nature to the concept. If we recognise this fact, Lavanya may not have died in vain, though it is too high a price to pay for it.
The author, formerly of the IAS, is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal Canada, where he has taught for over thirty years. He has also taught in Australia and the United States and at Nalanda University in India. He has published extensively in the fields of Indian religions and world religions. Views expressed are personal.
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