Exploding the Myths About Conversion
T.K. Oommen
RELIGIOUS CONVERSION IN INDIA: MODES, MOTIVATIONS, AND MEANINGS by Rowena Robinson Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2004, 420 pp., 695.00
February 2004, volume 28, No 2

Conversion is a contentious issue in contemporary India. This book examines the various facets of conversion in India through fourteen contributions made by fifteen authors including the editors. The contributions are organized into four sections, each section dealing with one of the religious traditions. Thus section one through four essays provide an account of the “modes of conversion” to Islam and section four discusses “conversion” to Christianity through another set of four contributions. Section two with four contributions deals with “past and present” conversions to Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. Section three has only two contributions and it discusses “transformations of Caste and Tribe”. There are several myths about conversion vigorously propagated in India. One such myth is that Semitic religions proselytize and Indic religions do not. But Judaism, the first among the Semitic trio to emerge does not and Buddhism, an Indic religion, developed the first missionary religious tradition in the world.

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Buddhism arose in opposition to Vedas and conversion to early Buddhism was an individual phenomenon which oscillated between “volition and determinism” to recall the phrase invoked by Torkel Brekke in the chapter entitled “Conversion to Buddhism?” (pp.181-191). Early Buddhist converts were seekers of truth, who were well off upper caste people and conversion was from one sect to another. There was no radical break from the individual’s past. In contrast, conversion to Buddhism in twentieth century India was a collective social phenomenon and not an individual act; it was motivated by equality in this world and the converts were mainly lower castes(Dalits) as demonstrated by Gary Tartakov in his paper “B R Ambedkar and the Navayana Diksha” (pp.192-215). Collective conversion to Buddhism motivated by social emancipation continues to take place in India even to-day. Thus within Buddhism there are two modes of conversion.

The other Hindu protestant religion which emerged almost simultaneously with Buddhism is Jainism, which also rejected the authority of Vedas and Brahmins but in everyday life the Jaina laity did not differ much from Hindus. As Paul Dundas suggests in his paper “Conversion to Jainism: Historical Perspectives”, (pp. 125-148) the Jains are more interested in promoting values such as non-violence, vegetarianism and compassionate interaction between all beings rather than converting non-Jains. That is, Jainism does not pose any threat to Hinduism which explains the peaceful co-existence of the two religions.

The youngest Indic religion is Sikhism, which is only little over 400 years old. The paper entitled “Conversion and Sikh Tradition” (pp. 149-180) by Louis E.Fenech refers to two types of conversions to Sikhism; one kinship based and the other by non-Indians. And everyday life accommodated both Hindus and Sikhs through roti (commensality) beti (endogamy) interaction. However by late nineteenth century social boundaries between Hindus and Sikhs became rigid to meet the challenges posed by Christian conversion. There was/is a third stream of conversion, emancipatory in intent, by Hindu lower castes who became Mazhabi Skhs, which is not much resented to. But Hindu hostility to Sikhs is substantial in contemporary India because of their demand for a separate sovereign state. Two points clearly emerge from this discussion. One, hostility to conversion may crystallize even when conversion occurs to an Indic religion as exemplified by the case of Buddhism and two, hostility to an Indic religion may develop independent of conversion as in the case of Sikhism.

The second myth prevalent in India about conversion is that Hinduism does not convert. This is strongly contested by the two papers in section three. Two issues are pertinent here. Who are the Hindus? And, what does conversion mean in the case of Hinduism. While the theory of Karma and Rebirth implicitly acknowledges the existence of “untouchables”, they are not even accounted for in the chaturvarna scheme or in the Hindu Doctrine of Creation. Therefore their incorporation into mainstream Hindusim referred to as sanskritization should be regarded as conversion. Saurabh Dube and Ishita Banerjee Dube justifiably suggest that “The singular frame and exclusive grid of conversion neither capture nor contain the distinctive detail and the divergent dynamic of these processes” (pp. 223) because the idea of singular Hinduism itself is faulty. And the frame they suggest goes beyond caste and encapsulates sect as shown in chapter “Spectres of Conversion: Transformations of caste and sect in India” (pp. 222-254). In this rendition conversion is less of a rupture with prior faith but more of making novel beliefs as illustrated by the cases of Satnampanth of Chattisgarh and Mahima Dharma of Orissa.

If the “untouchable” precariously perch on the lowest edge of the Hindu social order, the “Adivasis”, who are latterly christened as “vanvasis”, are certainly outside the pale of Hinduism. And yet they are counted as Hindus since the 1951 Census, if they are not converts into one of the ‘world religions’ — Buddhism, Christianity, Islam. David Hardiman in his paper “Assertion, Conversion, and Indian Nationalism: Govind’s Movement amongst the Bhils” (pp. 255-284) demonstrates the process of Hinduisation (i.e. conversion) to which the Bhil tribals have resorted to, in Gujarat, since early twentieth century. In the beginning the movement initiated by Govind, a Bhil guru, “…combined Shaivite ritual with Vaishuavite practice…” But both Rajputs and Brahmins opposed this Bhil incursions into “the dharmic way of life” although the Vaishyas endorsed the movement. However, the active support from Gandhian nationalists gave a fillip to the movement; it became nationalistic. In turn Hinduism and nationalism came to be linked investing considerable legitimacy on the movement.

I have chosen to deal with conversions within and between Indic religions first because they are not viewed as “problem cases”. Clearly this is not a correct perception as is evident from the studies referred to. Section one consisting of four essays discuss four “modes of conversion to Islam” which explodes a third myth. It is widely believe that Islam came to the Indian subcontinent as a product of conquest and conversion always occurred (a) under the direct sponsorship of the state and (b) with the explicit use of violence. Dominique-Sila Khan provides a graphic picture of the Nizari Ismaili model of conversion in the subcontinent (pp 29-53), which demonstrates how the property of the situation influences the mode of conversion. The minority Ismailis, a sect of Shia Muslims, living in fear in a polity dominated by Sunnis could not afford to practice their faith openly and hence were obliged to slowly acculturate, rather than suddenly convert. This model of conversion is precariously proximate to that of the Hindu mode of absorption! Further, the Nizari Ismaili conversion was an intra-Islamic phenomenon and hence could not have produced any Hindu hostility.

The presence of Muslims in Kerala in large numbers is a clear vindication of Islam in India independent of conquest. It was trade and marriage and not war which brought to and expanded Islam in Kerala. Stephen F. Dale convincingly argues that the Mappilas of Kerala are neither a product of political coercion nor sufi spiritualism but an offshoot of mundane commercial transactions and everyday interpersonal interactions (pp. 54-74). It was peaceful transition rather than violent outbursts like the Mapilla rebellion (1921-22) which accounts for most of the Kerala Muslims.

The pre-Mughal Muslim regimes in Bengal did not succeed in large scale conversion of Hindus and the Mughals were largely indifferent to promote conversion in Bengal. And yet, East Bengal had one of the two biggest congregations of Muslims in the subcontinent. Agricultural colonization was an important source of Muslim expansion suggests Richard Eaton in his essay dealing with conversion and Islamization in Bengal (pp. 75-97). The state provided incentives to bring under cultivation the vast tracts of land. The pioneers were mostly groups of Muslim cultivators who created an Islamic ambience in the new settlements by constructing Mosques among other things. This largely explains the increase in the density of Muslim population in East Bengal between sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.

The fourth essay in section one relates to twentieth century tabligh movement. The movement had twin objectives; to spread Islam as well as to bring the convert’s beliefs and practices in conformity with normative and scriptural understandings. This led to rigid boundary maintenance and insistence on purity of faith which continued through much of the twentieth century argues Yoginder Sikand who posits tabligh as a reaction to the Shuddhi movement initiated by Arya Samaj (see pp. 98-118). The unanticipated consequence was an assault on composite culture “…the race for number set in motion by Arya Shuddhi campaign further exacerbated by the tabligh efforts of various Muslim groups, led to a direct assault on popular traditions that had served to bring people of various faiths together” (p.117).

The four essays included in section four are studies on conversion to Christianity. One of the persistent myths about Christianity in India is that it is a product of western colonialism. The fact that Christianity came and survived in Kerala much before colonialism makes it less contentious and this might have persuaded the editors not to have a separate chapter on it. But Roweena Robinson (pp. 291-322) places sixteenth century conversion to Christianity in Goa and pre-colonial Syrian Christianity in Kerala in a comparative mode. Notwithstanding the utterly different styles of conversion there is one thing in common namely upper caste elements embracing Christianity in Goa and Kerala. This provided a high locus standi to the new religion in both places, which unfolds a new aspect of conversion; who converts is equally important as to which religion the conversion occurs. The Portuguese invoked several strategies to attract converts: “…taking over the care of orphans and using a system of privileges to attract adherents to the faith” (p.303). Enacting laws against the dominant socio-economic categories of Hindus (p. 305) was another strategy. Understandably a lot of ‘pragmatic conversions’ of the upper castes did occur in Goa.

If perpetuation of traditional privilege was an important factor which motivated conversion in Goa, much of the conversion in Tamil Nadu was emancipatory in intent because the converts were mainly untouchables. As Sathianathan Clarke observes: “Protestant missionaries committed themselves  to join Dalits in a concerted assault against the caste system” (p.340) which necessarily pitted the missionaries against the powerful castes. However, Clarke is candid enough to admit that the Dalits hardly marched into “…a real world of equality, freedom and dignity, which was promised by missionary proclaimed Christianity” (p.344).

The situation in the Punjab analyzed by John C.B.Webster (pp. 351-380) is not very different from that in Tamil Nadu as the converts were Chuhras, a local untouchable caste. Webster’s study related to the colonial situation and he identifies three “disruptive” factors which stood in the way of establishing and expanding village congregations. These were migration by the converts in search of better economic pastures; competition from the Catholics and revival which emphasized the improvement in quality of Christian life rather than mere numerical expansion. That is, contrary to popular stereotypes it was not true that the Protestant missions were protected by the colonial state and their conversion project had a smooth run. The world in which the convert lived was much more complex and it affected the conversion process. However gradually there came about a separation between Christian Chuhras  and Hindu Chuhras and the former acquired self-confidence and dignity although not much material prosperity. Webster concludes that the Punjabi Dalit Christians did acquire an ‘emancipatory identity’ although they continue to be poor, landless labourers (p. 373).

In spite of the colonial exit Christian conversion continues and an important site of it is North East India. Frederick S. Downs analyses Christian conversion in the second half of twentieth century in North East (see, pp.381-400). Although it is common to differentiate between conversion movements during the colonial and post-colonial periods Downs see an essential continuity. Starting slowly in the nineteenth century the conversion movements gained momentum in the first half of the twentieth. By the second half of the twentieth century the process of indigenization of the Church was initiated and that is the source of success of Christianity in North East according to him.

I have started by noting that conversion is a contentious issues in India today. The source of much of the controversy can be traced to the several myths which are in circulation. This book successfully contests several of these myths and places them in their historical and sociological contexts. Knowledge should serve the cause of not only “science” but also “society”. This book admirably serves both.

T.K.Oommen, formerly at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.