The Ethics of Proselytizing
by Rajiv Malhotra
Presented at the Cornell University Conference on ‘Human Rights and Religion’
November 8th 2000.
Let me start by listing the following phrases that are commonly used by proselytizers in describing their non-Christian target prospects: ‘sinners’, ‘condemned’, ‘damned’, ‘heathen’, pagan, etc. If it were not done in the name of religion, would this have been declared as hate speech? Does such talk, even if disguised or deferred until a later stage of a proselytizing campaign, build communal tension? Is this responsible for negative eruptions in India between Hindus and Christians who co-existed peacefully for centuries before the arrival of the proselytizers? Given that America is a tapestry of pluralistic faiths, and that therefore Hindus are also amongst one’s classmates, neighbors, and colleagues at work, would this language lead to social problems in the future as opposed to the kind of harmonious society we all seek? Does it violate the UN Human Rights provision that guarantees ‘dignity’ to all people as a basic human right?
As one recent example of offensive speech, the Southern Baptist Church distributed pamphlets during Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, in November, 1999 claiming: “900 million Hindus are in spiritual bondage”. A month later, another pamphlet from them declared: “900 million people lost in the hopeless darkness of Hinduism.”
Bishop Spong in ‘Why Christianity Must Change or Die’ writes:
- “The familiar Christian God acknowledged by almost all of our European ancestors not only blessed the imperialistic and colonial expansion of those nations in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries but also declared that this colonialist domination of the underdeveloped peoples of the world was the very will of the Christian deity. So under the banner of Christ, native population in what we today call the third world were subjugated and converted, while the resources of those conquered nations were being extracted from their soil to bring wealth to the Europeans”.
Proselytizing verses Jesus’ Message
The case against proselytizing is not to be confused as an attack against all Christianity, as many Christians do not believe in proselytizing. It is especially not to be interpreted as criticism of Jesus’ message, as Jesus did not ask that a Church be started at all. Institutional Christianity is mainly Paulism. Early Christian leaders were pluralistic and endorsed many pagan practices, some of which were centuries later expunged while others were appropriated into the institution. Both pre-Jesus and post-Jesus Middle East was heavily influenced by Indic thought. Origen taught reincarnation. Deities, occult practices, existence of Buddhist monks, and perhaps the introduction of bells in churches (not found in Jewish synagogues), are some of the examples of influence. There are numerous references in Greek and Roman writings concerning India. The New Testament as existing today is largely a construct of the 4th century under the editorial team sponsored by the Roman military ruler Constantine. Proselytizing ever since his time has been a weapon for imperialism. It has never been friendly to the indigenous, be it in Africa, America, Asia, or even Europe itself.
In this regard, Gandhi wrote:
- “I consider Western Christianity in its practical working a negation of Christ’s Christianity. I cannot conceive Jesus, if he was living in flesh in our midst, approving of modern Christian organizations, public worship, or ministry.” (Young India: September 22, 1921)
- “I regard Jesus as a great teacher of humanity, but I do not regard him as the only begotten son of God. That epithet in its material interpretation is quite unacceptable. Metaphorically we are all sons of God, but for each of us there may be different sons of God in a special sense. Thus for me Chaitanya may be the only begotten son of God … I cannot ascribe exclusive divinity to Jesus.” (Harijan: June 3, 1937)
What are the Motives?
Driven by quantitative rather than qualitative spiritual improvement, many Christian churches analyze their predicament as follows:
- Secularism and pluralism in the West have eroded their flock size.
- Clergy is aging, as young persons are entering religion less frequently than before. In France, often many villages have to share one preacher.
- There is less active church participation per thousand members than before.
- Members are less compliant than before about church policies.
- Increased international travel, information, and education have made the public more introspective and thinking for themselves.
Christian churches are unhappy not only when their members become non-Christians but they get upset when a member of one church leaves to join another Christian church – flock-stealing. The Pope has said that his visit to South America was to protect his flock from the ‘rapacious wolves’ of evangelical Protestantism. The whole thing is a game of power, and maintaining a hold on one’s flock. There is nothing even remotely spiritual in this program.
To replenish these negative trends, the Churches have looked for the export market. However, China is too closed politically for aggressive proselytizing. Muslim countries outright deny such privileges to the church, and it is considered too risky to ‘take on’ Islam.
Hence, India’s billion soul potential market is too big a temptation not to go after. Poverty, gullibility and traditional openness towards strangers in Hinduism makes it vulnerable to predatory tactics. Constitutional pluralism of India allows easy entry. The diversity within Hinduism has been taken advantage of by many proselytizers. Most Americans are naïve about their understanding of the dynamics of India’s religious scene, and would find it hard to believe what goes on in the name of American exported Christianity there.
Religions are often becoming commercial ‘brands’ competing for market share, selling the ‘positive’ product of God’s love and the ‘negative’ product of insurance from hell.
Islam, Christianity and the dogma of Marxism, have had unquenchable thirst for quantitative expansion, simply because they hanker after political power, materialistic objectives, and resort to any means. Missionary activities blossomed in America under the patronage of Spanish Conquistadors, and in India it sanctified the colonialism of the British and the Portuguese. The fundamental objective of conversions is “imperialism”.
In many instances, persons who would be nobodies in USA, Germany or Australia, can derive enormous ego gratification as missionaries: Promoted to a frontline post in the war against idolatry, they are praised back home as messiahs to the poor, and revered by some illiterate villagers for teaching them beliefs which would provoke laughter back home. Strangest of all, they are applauded by India’s “secularists” while Western secularists would prefer to end this circus.
The Church is willing to give, but just like the Devil, it wants to harvest your soul in return. Students in Christian schools are encouraged towards alienation from their heritage, and are sometimes used as political pawns to air Christian demands through student demonstrations or strikes – Christian schools become a power tool rather than a service.
Gandhi complained about Christian missionaries’ activities in India on numerous occasions, the following being examples of his statements:
- “Only the other day a missionary descended on a famine area with money in his pocket, distributed it among the famine stricken, converted them to his fold, took charge of their temple and demolished it. This is outrageous.” (Harijan: November 5, 1937)
- “Conversion nowadays has become a matter of business like any other … India (Hindus) is in no need of conversion of the kind … Conversion in the sense of self-purification, self-realization, is the crying need of the times. That, however, is never what is meant by proselytizing.” (Young India: April 23, 1931)
- “As I wander about throughout the length and breath of India, I see many Christian Indians almost ashamed of their birth, certainly of their ancestral religion.” (Young India: August 8, 1925)
Conversions were done by the power of the sword, until about fifty years ago. Now this is being done by coercion, humiliation, deceit and sometimes fraud. The agenda then and now of the missionaries is the same. In many ways, the latest document coming from the Vatican, “Dominus Jesus”, once again establishes the real objective of competitive marketing.
Holy Marketing in India
The food chain of predator-prey relationships in India’s proselytizing market consists of vegetarians (mainly Hindus) at the bottom, with Southern Baptist, Pentecostal and certain other denominations at the top, and Catholics sandwiched in the middle. While Catholics are the first easy targets for the industrial grade marketing campaigns by the top tier, the Catholics in turn replenish their flock by preying upon the Hindus below, especially those who are poor and illiterate.
For example, in North India, the Southern Baptists alone have: 4,700 workers, 15,000 career missionaries, 50,000 volunteers, 1,000 new college graduates per year with an average two year length of service. (Source: Baptist Press 11/22/99). In total, there are estimated to be 100,000 career Christian missionaries in India, a size several times the sales force of the largest Indian corporations. There is a TV advertising campaign with a budget of several hundred million dollars.
Christians have been doing extensive market analysis to learn the practices, vulnerabilities, wants, and internal divisions of Hindus in each region, so as to develop effective marketing campaigns. Sophisticated market segmentation and specialized teams now exist for target marketing to groups such as: girls, adult women, poor illiterate villagers, and there are internal acronyms for each segment.
The material inducement used is illustrated by the following examples:
- Sister Placid, who converts Dang tribes in Gujarat said: “We have certain targets every year,” she confesses. We have to lure and bribe them with goodies to join our faith.” (Sunil K Poolani, “Frenzy over faith”, The Sunday Observer, Jan 3, 1999.)
- “The missionaries come in the guise of English teachers. They give money, computers to universities, and scholarships to children of influential officials. They buy their way in.” (Alexander Berzin, “Disrupting the faith?” interview, Newsweek, Jan 13, 1997.)
- Protestant churches use mass rallies and faith healing among tribes to draw prospects, with promises of education and jobs. Giving a walkman with a tape of the Bible in their own language is a modern equivalent of the trinkets given to African chieftains by Vasco da Gama.
Christian missionaries are investing billions of dollars in India from donation drives whereas gullible Americans think that they are giving towards uplifting “poor and uneducated Indians.” However, the billions of dollars donated to convert Hindus over the last few centuries have been an incredibly inefficient use of resources – only about 2.4% of India’s population is Christian. Meanwhile, this has disrupted India’s communal harmony and created hostilities among the religions.
Examples of fraud, deception and con games include the following:
- Deathbed conversions to be ‘saved’ have sometimes left families without a home when it is learnt that the Church has a signed document by which the deceased transferred all the property to the Church as a final act.
- Staged miracles are used as ‘promotions’ in Kerala, where Churches place ‘miracle boxes’ in which poor villagers are invited to place their wishes. If anyone’s wish comes true, it is declared a miracle and the whole village feels pressured to convert.
- A Hindu deity made of stone is thrown into a pond along with a wooden cross. The cross floats while the deity sinks into the water. The message given is that the Christian God floats while the ‘false Hindu God’ has sunk.
- The school bus stops suddenly. Young kids are told that they must pray ‘Krishna’ to try and restart it, but it fails to do so. Then they try ‘Rama’, then ‘Guru Nanak’, etc. Finally, after exhausting the common names in India for spiritual authority, they are asked to say ‘Jesus’ all together, and at that time the bus suddenly starts. Everyone applauds the demonstration of Jesus’ love and power.
However, to over-awe illiterate people, material inducement and exploitation of gullibility are defended by some church leaders: “Since remaining a Pagan means eternal damnation, while conversion brings eternal salvation, the greater good amply justifies the minor evil of bribes and deception needed to lure people into the true faith.”
Jomo Kenyatta, former President of Kenya, summed up similar sentiments:
- “When the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the missionaries had the Bible. They taught us to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened our eyes, they had the land and we were left with the Bible”.
History of Christianity in India
Phase One – Early Period:
When the Syrian Christians fled their homeland from persecution in the very early years of Christianity, they established amongst the oldest Christian communities of the world in Kerala (India). The generous Hindus granted hospitality for more than a thousand years. The relationship between Hindus and the persecuted immigrants who came for shelter was one of mutual respect.
The Immigrant Christians lived in harmony, even imbibing some of the local Hindu customs, until the Jesuits came in the 16th century and divided the community be telling them that it was ‘heathen’ to have anything to do with the Hindus.
The Christian world has no record of any such prolonged act of hospitality, and Christianity’s self-portrayal as a religion of compassion, equality and democracy, contradicts its historical alignment with monarchies, colonial armies, fascist states and ruling juntas.
Phase Two – Portuguese Colonialism:
Vasco de Gama landed in India in 1498 and was generously received by the Hindu king of Calicut, who granted him the right to establish commerce. But Hindu hospitality was exploited. In 1510, Alfonso de Albuquerque seized Goa, where he started a reign of terror, burning ‘heretics,’ crucifying Hindus, using false theories to forcibly convert, razing temples to build churches upon them, and encouraging his soldiers to take Indian mistresses. Indeed, the Portuguese perpetrated in India some of the worst atrocities ever committed by Christianity.
The Portuguese Catholics gained a foothold on the Malabar coast, and forced the thousand year old community of Malabar Christians (from Phase One) into the structure of the Catholic Church. It was not good enough that they had already been Christians for a thousand years!
Alan Machado-Prabhu records how the Portuguese conquered Goa and ruled by terror:
- “In its two and a half centuries of existence at Goa, the Inquisition burned at the stake 57 alive and 64 in effigy. Others sentenced to various cruel punishments totaled 4,046. The people who were converted but still continued secretly to perform Hindu rituals were treated even more harshly… The manner in which the Church enriched itself was just scandalous. Half the property of a person found in possession of idols went to the Church…The Church acquired urban and rural properties on an impressive scale. The open performances of Hindu ceremonies were replaced by great public processions on Christian feast days. One of the worst criminals was Francis Xavier, later to be made into a saint.”
The historian Fryer wrote: “In the principal market was raised an engine of great height, at top like a Gibbet, with a pulley …which unhinges a man’s joints, a cruel torture.”
Phase Three – British Colonialism:
British missionaries in India supported colonialism, based on ‘the good Western civilized world being brought to the Pagans.’ Claudius Bucchanan, a chaplain in the East India Company, said: ‘Neither truth, nor honesty, honor, gratitude, nor charity, is to be found in the breast of a Hindoo!’ (What a remark about a civilization that originated the Vedas when Europeans were still entertaining themselves with Gladiators.)
Given this attitude, the British preyed upon the poor and simple tribes of Eastern India, converted them to Christianity, cut them from their tradition, and made them dependent on the West. The Christian missionaries, who came to India on the shoulders of the colonial powers, behaved in the same manner against the Hindus as the Muslim invaders did centuries before them. The vandalism by these missionaries was no less than what the Hindus had to suffer at the hands of the Muslims.
Recently, Christians have made some apologies to the Native Americans and the Africans for their oppression of them. But the Pope has refused to include Hindus in any such apologies.
Misinformation to Discredit Hinduism
To discredit Hinduism’s ability to solve its own problems without conversion to Christianity, it is often portrayed as ‘world negating’ and socially backward as opposed to progressive. It is said to not help the underclass. Karma is interpreted as fatalism and as encouraging accepting one’s plight rather than taking responsibility. India is depicted as having been always poor, the result of its indigenous beliefs. Women issues, including child marriage, sati, dowry, dowry deaths, and inferior role in society are another common focus used for this purpose, and this is especially politicized. Environmental problems in contemporary India are seen as chronic in India’s traditions per se, compared to the West’s ‘rational’ mindset.
Such portrayals fail to delve into the history. Economic and ecological problems are relatively recent in India. Whereas in the West’s case, history has been a ‘development’ from the dark ages to modernity, India was plundered, subjugated and used for drainage of its economic surplus for a thousand years by those very civilizations that now proclaim their superiority over it. Many of India’s social problems have economic roots. Islamic and British records are categorical in their assertion about the material wealth of India, its higher literacy rate than Britain’s up to the 19th century, and its massive manufacturing export base that was later migrated to form the core of Britain’s industrial revolution.
Furthermore, India’s crime today is small compared to the US on a per million population basis in every major category, yet India’s problems are labeled as ‘Hindu’. Scholars would not label the US’s very high incidence of child abuse, rapes, massive prison population, drug and other addictions, high incidence of depression, and numerous other problems as ‘Christian’ problems.
Western scholars emphasize caste as the defining characteristic of Hinduism, to the exclusion of all other qualities. However, had the language used been of ‘class’ rather than ‘caste’ structure, it would also compel students to examine the US’ own racially segregated churches, white supremacy groups, racial profiling, economic stratification, and civil rights issues. In fact, the very foundation of the American system has been historically based on white supremacy and Christian supremacy over blacks and Native Americans.
Another strategic move has been for Christians to control the scholarship about Hinduism, whereas Hindus have seldom if ever been concerned about scholarly dissections of Christianity. Under this control, which began during colonial times, Hinduism was given the image of being polytheistic, which in turn is seen as neo-pagan and primitive. It is shown as full of meaningless superstitious rituals, when in fact there is not even a word in Sanskrit that means ‘superstition’. Kali and other scary images are deployed to indicate a negative and violent religion. Animal symbolism is interpreted to indicate animal worship. The whole enterprise has been to depict an unscientific tradition lacking rational contributions or tendencies, compared to European superiority. All this makes the missionary and the economic hegemony easier to morally justify and to execute.
Plagiarism from Indic Traditions
Certain Christian denominations have a long history of co-opting others’ beliefs. They honor a belief or practice provided it is placed under their supremacy. For example, the church subordinated the old pagan Greek philosophies of Aristotle and Plato, which it made the basis of Christian theology. While they stereotype Hinduism on the one hand, Hinduism is also the source of much appropriation into Christianity on the other. Hindus may confuse such co-opting of their religion with a genuine regard for it. Given that Hindus honor many paths and views, such appropriations have also served to cause confusion among them, and often one hears Hindus say that ‘all religions are the same’ without understanding the deeper consequences. While a Hindu participating in any Christian activities, practices, or beliefs would not be violating Hinduism and remains a good Hindu, the reverse is not true. Therefore, by joining Christianity under the false expectation that it would not affect his Hindu faith, he gradually begins to get discouraged by the newly adopted Christian faith from keeping his Hindu identity or practices. Eventually this leads to social and cultural alienation from his roots. Hence, the idea of dual religious affiliation, while fine for a Hindu, is a one-way street, and has often become a political ploy for Christians to convert those who wish to retain many Hindu practices.
For example, in South India, Catholic priests dress up like Hindu swamis in orange, and call their organizations ashrams, and call the preachers ‘gurus’. But they are actively engaged in surreptitious conversion. Their Hindu dress is not necessarily to honor Hindu traditions but to make Christianity more acceptable to the local population. They start with the Hindu ’tilak’ on the forehead and this is gradually modified into a cross. Bharat Natayam, the famous religious dance of Hinduism, is being taught by Christian run schools in South India, in which Hindu symbols are replaced by Christian deities and symbols. Such appropriations are designed to ease the cultural transition. In many cases, the gullible audience are unaware that the preacher is not in fact a Hindu, because he comes across like a Hindu as much as he can. This Trojan Horse strategy is becoming more popular.
Benedictine monk, Father Bede Griffiths, lived for 30 years in India writing with great reverence about Hinduism and how it enhanced his understanding of Christianity. But his successor Brother Keating renamed these meditation practices as ‘Christian Centering Prayer’, and gradually diminished the Indian links, presumably to secure his grip on the flock more fully.
Some Hindu or Buddhist practices get renamed to appear more Christian friendly: Vipassana Meditation has become ‘mindfulness meditation’, trademarked by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga has been appropriated by Ken Wilber and renamed as Integral Psychology. Teilhard de Chardin’s extensive study and commentary on Vedanta during his trip to India, especially Ramanuja’s works, are suppressed by his modern followers, even though Teilhard used these ideas to develop what is now ‘liberal Christianity’. Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science quoted Indic thought in the early editions of her books, but these references later got removed as Theosophy and she became competitors – one deploying Indic ideas openly in a perennial way and the other within strictly branded Christianity.
In an age when the Western nations demand intellectual property rights at WTO and other forums, would it be ethical and fair to acknowledge the West’s appropriations from other civilizations?
Christian Hegemony Promoted as American Patriotism
Many immigrants and religious minorities are made to feel less American if they are non-Christian. Unlike racism, which is not open at least in the mainstream, religious prejudice is blatant on national TV every Sunday, in political elections, and other aspects of social and public life. But the fact is that the US was not founded as a Christian nation:
- Virtually all the founders of this nation were Freemasons and deists. Many actively spoke out against Christianity.
- Thomas Jefferson said: “I have examined all the known superstitions of the world, and I do not find in our particular superstition of Christianity one redeeming feature.”
- John Adams said: “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.”
- During Adams’ administration, the Senate ratified the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which states in Article XI that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”
- The last correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson expressed their alarm that the Jesuits were to be allowed into the United States.
- James Madison, fourth president and father of the Constitution, noted: “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.”
- All the symbols on the $1 bill are Freemason symbols. There is not one Christian symbol to be found.
- Thomas Paine, when asked his religion, said he subscribed only to the religion of humanity.
Scholars’ View of the Bible’s Psychology
That the language of proselytizing is explicitly one of hatred and implicitly one of racism, with the tone of a superior talking down at the inferior people, is also echoed by Bishop Spong: “All evangelical and missionary activities designed to convert the heathen are base born. They are the expressions of our sense of superiority and our hostility toward those who are different”.
Elaine Pagels writes in ‘The Origin of Satan’: “Christians have taught – and acted upon-the belief that their enemies are evil and beyond redemption.”
Karen Armstrong writes in ‘A History of God’: “Conversions became a central preoccupation, a violent, tortured drama in which the “sinner” and his spiritual director “wrestled” for his soul. …..The heavy emphasis on hell and damnation combined with an excessive self-scrutiny led many into clinical depression: suicide seems to have been prevalent. Puritans attributed this to Satan, who seems as powerful ….as God..…. The Puritans God inspired anxiety and a harsh intolerance of those who were not among the elect”.
Examining the psychological implications of such hate speech on the conduct of the civilizations afflicted by it, Bishop Spong writes in ‘Why Christianity Must Change or Die: “Anger ….. is why so many Christian leaders historically have justified such things as the stifling of debate with ex cathedra pronouncements, the persecution of dissenters, the excommunication of nonconformists, the execution of heretics, and the engagement in religious wars… Anger is always just beneath the surface of organized religion in almost every one of its Western manifestations.”
Karen Armstrong describes this negative archetype in her book, ‘In the Beginning – Interpretation of Genesis’: “Noah was himself a victim of the divine violence, and his story shows us that a new start based on violence and the destruction of a people cannot usher in a healthy world order. Readers of Genesis are forced to consider the unwelcome fact that they are all descended from a drunkard and an abusive father, who exposed himself to his children and neurotically disowned many of his descendants”.
Indrani Rampersad, a woman activist in Trinidad writes: “Christians see it as their duty to save the soul of the non-believer, who is seen as inferior. Such religions are inherently predatory and destructive of the cultural systems that they encounter in their role as the aggressor.”
Among the strongest language used by scholars against such hatred-based religion comes from Gore Vidal, the eminent American historian, in his Lowell Lecture at Harvard University given April 20, 1996:
- “From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament, three antihuman religions have evolved –Judaism, Christianity, Islam. These are sky-god religions. They are, literally, patriarchal –God is the omnipotent father– hence the loathing of women for 2,000 years. The sky-god is a jealous god, of course. Those who would reject him must be converted or killed for their own good. Ultimately, totalitarianism is the only sort of politics that can truly serve the sky-god’s purpose. Any movement of a liberal nature endangers his authority and that of his delegates on earth. One God, one King, one Pope, one master in the factory, one father-leader in the family home. Although the Jews were sky-god folk, they followed Book One, not Book Two, so they have no mission to convert others.”
- “Evangelical Christian groups have traditionally drawn strength from the suppressed. African slaves were allowed to organize heavenly sky-god churches, as a surrogate for earthly freedom. White churches were organized in order to make certain that the rights of property were respected and that the numerous religious taboos in the New and Old Testaments would be enforced, if necessary, by civil law.”
- “When the white race broke out of Europe 500 years ago,… inspired by a raging sky-god, the whites were able to pretend that their conquests were in order to bring the One God to everyone, particularly those with older and subtler religions. ……… what prosperity we have ever enjoyed in the past was usually based on slave or near slave labor.”
To bring about world peace, to bring about cooperation among nations on global issues, and for the sake of the spiritual evolution of humanity desired by all religions, it is imperative that there be harmony among the religions of the world. However, this is unachievable as long as some of them see others as competitors, even in the holy game of soul saving. Mere tolerance is not enough, as it is simply external and fails to address internalized prejudice. What is needed is respect as well. The new age as melting pot of religions has served to facilitate better understanding, sympathy and even adoption of other religions’ ideas, but the hold of ‘brand’ religions is still too strong. Meanwhile, superficial interfaith dialogs have often turned into media rallies to promote politically correct images externally, whereas the main work has to be internally done within the institutions.
One practical but courageous recommendation is from Regina Schwartz in ‘The Curse of Cain – The Violent Legacy of Monotheism’, namely to amend the Bible: “My revision would produce an alternative Bible that subverts the dominant vision of violence….It would be a Bible embracing multiplicity instead of monotheism….that new versions, decrying the violence of monotheism, will proliferate. The old “monotheistic” Book must be closed so that the new books may be fruitful and multiply.”
I am so glad to hear a speaker at this conference tell us that the Bible is going to be retranslated over the next ten years with the goal of removing all the hate speech against women, Jews, blacks, and Gays/Lesbians. I strongly recommend that they also add to their list to remove the Bible’s hate speech against other religions, especially since this hatred has caused most of the wars and continues to prevent genuine cooperation among the peoples of the world.
The Archetype of Hatred and its Social Impact
Christian plurality is sometimes merely a statement of tolerance, and nothing more: ‘Love thy neighbor’ but do not forget that this neighbor will be going to hell, unless you can save him from his backwardness.
Since the Judeo-Christian religious language is built on the premise that they are sinners, the resulting language of conversion theology is based on polarizing humanity into those favored or saved by God verses those not. This vocabulary of condemnation, heathen, sinner, pagan is very strong and violent. Traditions rooted in such language devalue and degenerate the individual, and are manifestations of genocidal and holocaust archetypes.
A key question is: Are we inherently condemned as per Christian dogma or inherently divine as per Hinduism? The answer defines one’s lens for viewing history, humanity and the definition of progress. The exclusivist faiths do not share the Hindu idea of divinity as an inner quality with different symbolic representations.
Religious conversions have always generated tremendous social tensions. The reason for this is that such conversions become successful only when the people are rooted out of their ancient traditions and are made to think that their ancestors were evil people. The converts are made to say awful things to the non-converts. Converts are also asked to ignore the local traditions and to act contrary to them. For example, in Orissa (India) it is considered to be inauspicious to plough the land on a particular day. The missionaries insist that the converts disregard this ancient tradition. The Church of England has asked its members to stay away from meditation practices and yoga since they come from traditions that the Church of England says are inferior to Christianity.
When Christianity or Islam has entered a given culture, in many instances people are no longer encouraged to be free to think independently. The Bible or Koran then becomes the supreme authority that no one dares challenge. Despite a freedom-loving outer lifestyle, Western civilization largely fails to pursue spirituality with freedom.
Monotheism, which India discovered long before the Semitic religions did, has now become confused with mono-lithic and mono-poly. The monotheism vs. polytheism debate needs to be re-phrased as: fear-based dogma vs. freedom of discovery and experimentation of processes, methodologies and direct experience.
The first universities of the world were built in India, and students from around the world flocked there for higher education. When Islam destroyed the great civilization of India, including its centers of learning in Takshashila, Vikramashila, Nalanda and other places, it also destroyed the free-spirited genius that was the basis for India’s science. Not a single educational center came up for several centuries following the Islamic invasions.
In Europe, Christianity destroyed the great free-spirited Greek Civilization.
The natural progression in the West has been from canonical absolutism to fanaticism. The result in the 20th century was Communism, Fascism, and Nazism. Is Proselytizing the return of the fanatic?
Hindus’ Views of Other Religions
The Hindus welcomed not only Christians, but also fleeing Jewish and Zoroastrian communities since ancient times. In this hospitable atmosphere, the migrants were able to build up economic success, as is exhibited by the affluent Zoroastrians in India today.
Hinduism treats many paths of salvation as valid, believing that each person may create a personal spiritual path. This is the essence of the Hindu tolerance that gave shelter to the religiously persecuted people of the world. There are many God-Truths, but these are merely representations by different people of a single God-Truth. This has given rise to hundreds of sects and sub-sects within Hinduism, which have learned to co-exist. There is no central authority to control people’s personal belief on religious matters. In no case has Hinduism caused alienation of people against their own heritage.
Hindus never went to any land with the power of the sword. Its spread outside the land of its birth has always been through peaceful means. There have been no attempts to convert people of other faiths. There is no particular zeal and enthusiasm for one’s beliefs to the point of wanting to ‘educate’ others on one’s own religious beliefs. Those from outside the Hindu traditions who have been attracted to it have done so of their own initiative due to its openness and freedom. Hindus never target anyone for conversion, so the motive for hatred is not there. Rather, Hindus are challenging Christian prejudices against Hindus that cause mistrust and hatred of Hindus by Christians. You will find a picture of Christ in many Hindu homes. It is the general Muslim view that Hindus are idolators, polytheists and kafirs and doomed in the eyes of Allah. Hindus have no such doctrines about Islam. Hindu dislike of Christianity and Islam is largely a backlash against the centuries long efforts to convert them which are still going on.
In Hinduism, there is no concept similar to Christian martyrdom or Islamic jihad. The most popular, important, and revered historical figures of Hinduism were not martyrs. Spirituality is not about fighting someone of another religion. There is no discussion of other religions in Hinduism, no campaigns against ‘false gods’. Comparative religion is not of much interest to Hindus, as they do not see religion through competitive or predatory eyes. Christians, on the other hand, go out of their way to control positions in academics to research and to teach about Hinduism, as a sort of competitor intelligence gathering and hegemony.
There has never been any Science verses Religion conflict in Hinduism.
Recommendation to stop proselytizing
The Dalai Lama has written: “There are many areas of common ground on which we can have harmony – helping, respecting, and understanding each other – in a common effort to serve humankind. The aim of human society must be the compassionate betterment of human beings…….I am interested not in converting other people to Buddhism but in how we Buddhists can contribute to human society, according to our own ideas. I believe that other religious faiths also think in a similar way, seeking to contribute to the common aim.” He recommends a moratorium on proselytizing, at least for a certain period of time, in order to given cooperative pluralism a chance.
Unfortunately, things have not improved since Gandhi said:
- “If I had the power and could legislate, I would stop all proselytizing … In Hindu households the advent of a missionary has meant the disruption of the family coming in the wake of change of dress, manners, language, food and drink …” (Harijan: November 5, 1935).
- “Our innermost prayer should be that a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Christian a better Christian.” (Young India: January 19, 1928)
- “I hold that proselytizing under the cloak of humanitarian work is unhealthy to say the least. It is most resented by people here. Religion after all is a deeply personal thing. It touches the heart. Why should I change my religion because a doctor who professes Christianity as his religion has cured me of some disease, or why should the doctor expect such a change whilst I am under his influence?” (Young India: April 23, 1931).
We should challenge the missionaries to take one small country, say El Salvador (the name has significance since it comes from ‘salvation’), and help to remove all the poverty and social ills of that Christian country. Only then could the missionaries say that their objective is social uplifting and empowerment. Only then might they have any credibility claiming that they could solve problems in a larger and more complex nation such as India by conversion.
The doctrine of racial superiority that the Europeans used to justify their colonial rule is gone, but the attitude of Christian religious superiority continues. Such religious exclusivism is backward and prejudicial, just like racism. If one believes, as the Church teaches, that his/her non-Christian neighbors will go to hell, it doesn’t do much for communal harmony. Conversion belongs to the times of colonialism. We have entered the era of Unity, of coming together, of tolerance and accepting each other.
No society has advanced, spiritually or materially, by converting from one faith to another. It can be easily proved that the economic progress in Europe happened only when the hold of the Vatican was reduced. When Christianity accepts the right of other people to follow their own beliefs and creeds, then only will Jesus Christ’s spirit truly radiate in the world.
Proposed Declaration of Religious Responsibilities
Until such time as proselytizing is stopped, organized religion must be accepted as a field of competing worldviews, with economic and political interests. Rules of fair competition must be developed as in other competitive businesses. Globalization makes it imperative to have an open and free religious environment, in which individuals can choose, experiment with alternatives, and change their religious path as often as they want.
There must exist certain ethics of evangelizing or ‘marketing’ religion. A level playing field in terms of such responsibility would raise standards of religious promotion and reduce social tensions, which often arise from uncontrolled or unethical competition. Every marketing company, despite its firm belief that it has the ‘best’ or even only ‘true’ product, must comply with norms of fair competition. I propose that religious organizations must be required to comply with appropriate rules of fair competition.
A good starting point is the US Federal Trade Commission’s standards for telemarketing and mail order selling, especially rules pertaining to poor and other disadvantaged persons. While marketers argue in favor of their freedom to sell and advertise, and for the public’s right to choose freely (even unwisely), the FTC has enacted laws balancing this freedom with protection from exploitation of the poor and uninformed. The rewards of political and economic power eschewed by zealots of religious conversion are often greater than the financial rewards of marketing scams. Why should religions be exempt from norms of honesty and fairness?
I propose a ‘Camp David’ to disarm the religions of the world of all hatred. Following are discussion ideas for a Declaration of Religious Responsibilities, from such an event:
Freedom verses Hate Speech: Should denigration of a community as ‘condemned’, ‘sinners’, ‘pagans’, or ‘heathen’, be deemed as ‘hate speech’, which is unlawful in many places? Which freedom is more important – freedom ‘from’ hatred, or freedom ‘to’ hate? Should the quid pro quo for having religious freedom be respect for others’ religions?
Fair Competition: The FTC considers it unlawful to trash one’s competitor unreasonably or falsely. Should false portrayals of another’s religion be disallowed, even if done in the name of God’s work? (For example, statements that are true only for a small percentage of followers of a religion, or only one denomination of it, are often used to denounce the entire religion.)
Proselytizing verses Consumer Protection: It is unlawful for commercial marketers to ‘promise’ results that are untested or unproven. Likewise, should evangelists have disclosure requirements on the basis for their claims? Should consumers have the right to litigate when there is fraud, duress or false representation? What is the definition of ‘voluntary’ conversion as opposed to intimidation or financially based entrapment? In the sales pitch of many evangelists, if one replaces ‘God’s love’ with a commercial product, such a sales pitch often compares with those that are considered fraud and prosecuted by the FTC. Transparency of process should not get compromised in the drive for market share by an aggressive religion.
Holy Wars: Should any government, religion, organization or person that endorses, supports even in principle, promotes, preaches, or facilitates any violence of any kind in the name of religion against anyone whatsoever, be deemed guilty of human rights violation?
Separation between Religion and State: This principle of the United States should be reflected in its policy, by denouncing ‘official’ or ‘state’ religions, or any preferential treatment to the majority religion of a country. This would include interest rates, job or commercial opportunities, public laws, holidays, education and other rights. Are we ready to condemn all countries where institutionalized preferences exist for certain religions?
Issues Within American Higher Education
Since the social problems discussed are ultimately about mental attitudes, educators in USA and India should also be taken to task for their role in shaping young minds. The study, or lack thereof, about India spreads across many diverse departments in American Universities- South Asian Studies, Religious Studies, Indology, Anthropology, History, Sociology, Political Science, Psychology, and Philosophy. In general, few Indians have gone into higher studies for the humanities, preferring sciences and other lucrative fields instead. Most Indians who have entered the humanities as a serious career have had an ideological agenda, and over the past 50 years, this was almost exclusively Marxist and/or Christian. In fact, it amazing to see such a large number of Indian Christians in the academic field of studying Hinduism, whereas Hindus seldom enter the field of academic study of Hinduism and virtually never bother to study Christianity. Here are some observations about specific departments:
South Asian Studies, Anthropology, Social Studies, and History:
There are somewhere between 3 and 5 faculty positions for East Asia (China, Japan, etc) studies, for every position for South Asia. This is because Japan understood the leverage of endowing chairs for Japan studies at major universities, and today these chairs proliferate. They also endowed many influential institutions such as the Asia Society, and hence `controlled’ or at least influenced the selection process. (Note that while there is a Tibet House in New York, and similar entities for so many countries’ cultural promotion, there is not even an India House in New York.) Funds for South Asia studies are very low compared to China/Japan even in places such as Brookings Institute and other think tanks.
Also, the Pakistan government is very active in such educational interventions, whereas India has not yet learnt the value. As one example, the government of Pakistan announced in May, 2000 that it is endowing the Quaid-I-Azam Chair in Pakistan Studies at Berkeley in the South Asian Studies department. A similar chair is also being done at Columbia.
Much of the coverage of India in these departments is about social problems facing women, caste, religious conflicts, nuclear bombs, pollution, …They are hardly the place where a student would get a balanced appreciation about the gifts of India’s civilization to the world. The mentality and agenda seem to be one of social re-engineering rather than social studies. These departments are seeping with leftist and/or social anthropological portrayals – as a land of problems and every kind of strange and backward phenomenon. Academic Indians have not fought against this and sometimes facilitated it. It has become especially fashionable for Indian women to trash India’s heritage as being responsible for all sorts of women’s problems, and for Indian Christians to trash Hinduism – and this has been encouraged by the West. Perhaps, they should study whether it was the destruction of the indigenous civilization by Islam and Christianity that caused and/or exacerbated many of the problems.
These departments are enjoying popularity and growth, as religion becomes more popular among students. Unfortunately, despite Hinduism’s pre-eminence as the fountainhead of Buddhism and much of Asian civilization, and its intellectual position in the realm of religion in general, it is amazing that THERE IS NOT ONE SINGLE HINDUISM STUDIES CHAIR in USA and the only one in North America is in Concordia (Canada). There are chairs on Sikhism, many on Buddhism, and of course literally dozens on the Judeo, Christian, and Islamic religions. There are now even chairs for such obscure religions as `Shintoism’, but still Hinduism has none. Most teachers of Hinduism in these departments are non Hindu – the only major world religion with little representation from within. Recently, Indians in Indiana raised money to endow a Rabindranath Tagore Chair for India Studies. Its occupant is a well-known scholar of Indian philosophy and Hinduism, who is also a Christian preacher. Lately, his support for young scholars writing Orientalism (e.g. Richard King’s new book) has disappointed many who were surprised to see his U-Turn away from being India friendly.
In the American Academy of Religion, out of 9,000 members, those who are members in the special group for Religions in South Asian (RISA) are around 400 or so. There are numerous special groups each for the study of one specific religion such as Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, but there has been little interest in having such a group specifically for Hinduism. At the AAR’s annual 2000 event, it is interesting to note that even a panel to review the media portrayal of Hinduism and Buddhism has only non-Hindus.
This holds the greatest promise for scientific and authentic portrayal of Indic thought, as many psychologists have begun to appreciate yoga, meditation, various philosophies of India, Kundalini, tantra, charkas, and even appreciate bhakti in this context. The problem is plagiarism, as nobody wants to be associated with a tradition having such a bad social reputation. But the evidence of appropriation is still fresh in this field, and the scholars can be caught red-handed and made to acknowledge. It would be a very important task to introduce Indian thought into psychology books explicitly as Indian thought. This also avoids the Judeo-Christian language and the social/anthropology stereotyping. It would position it as a science of consciousness rather than `religion’ in the Judeo-Christian sense. But disappointingly, at every conference on consciousness that I have attended over the past 3 or 4 years, the Indian representation is minimal – Deepak Chopra is a big name, but he is alone and not a psychologist, whereas now there are dozens of Christians and secular psychologists in the fray.
Except for U of Hawaii and Austin, major universities’ philosophy departments do not offer a PhD in Indian Philosophy and many do not acknowledge its existence. The American Philosophical Association has many special interest groups within it, but not one on Indian Philosophy.
With its origins in colonialism, this field is shrinking in size, the more sophisticated Orientalism now being done by other humanities departments noted above.
Issues Within India’s Higher Education
For 50 years after its independence, India pursued socialist secularism as its national policy, in which indigenous heritage was devalued for the sake of ‘progressive’ (read ‘Marxist’) ideology. While it has been fashionable to learn European languages, Sanskrit was barely taught. Macaluayite Indians pride themselves in knowing the Greek classics, but few students are taught India’s own classics of Ramayana and Mahabharata for fear of violating secularism. There are NO DEPARTMENTS FOR RELIGIOUS STUDIES, except one in Patiala University (which is a minor second tier university). Rather than pluralism, the system adopted secularism, in the very land that the rest of the world regards as the birthplace of so much spiritual richness and diversity.
India’s educators have engaged in socially engineered portrayal of history, philosophy, social studies, and other fields. Often the leftists and Christians have collaborated with Western scholars to enhance and legitimize such portrayals, and positioned themselves in high leverage academic jobs.
As one case in point, take the history of Islamic invasions of India. Will Durant in ‘Our Oriental Heritage’, page 459 writes:
- “The Mohammedan Conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history. It is a discouraging tale, for its evident moral is that civilization is a precarious thing, whose delicate complex of order and liberty, culture and peace may at any time be overthrown by barbarians invading from without or multiplying within. The Hindus ……had failed to organize their forces for the protection of their frontiers and their capitals, their wealth and their freedom, from the hordes of Scythians, Huns, Afghans and Turks hovering about India’s boundaries and waiting for national weakness to let them in. For four hundred years (600-1000 A.D.) India invited conquest; and at last it came….. The bitter lesson that may be drawn from this tragedy is that eternal vigilance is the price of civilization. A nation must love peace, but keep its powder dry.”
However, there continues to be a complete educational blackout of this period of holocaust and genocide lasting a few centuries, for the sake of political correctness and social harmony. Now compare this policy to the situation in America’s education. The US textbooks have chapters on slavery taught to every American kid today. With kids of all races present in the same classroom, there is very open, unemotional, factual discussion; kids write essays and do research on this history. Likewise, in the academic teaching of Christianity, all the atrocities, wars, inquisitions, are part of the historical portrayal without embarrassment or concern. Jews insist on the teaching of the Jewish holocaust, and women are actively involved in proper portrayal of their history and issues. Kids are taught to face the realities of the world, and hopefully become more responsible than their ancestors were, yet without anyone today being held liable for the past. The American strategy is that openness would improve the relations in the long run, rather than suppressing the horrors of the past.
Is it time for India’s educational system to excavate the past that it has attempted to bury – ignored but not forgotten.