In the recent past, we have been witness to catchy rhetoric with regards to religious conversion. Strident calls to banning conversion, Ghar Wapsi, Love Jihad et al. I would like to stick my neck out and say almost everyone, right (‘bhakts’), left (‘liberals’), centre (government), has missed out on the most balanced perspective.
A person has a right to choose a city and country different from his parents, he or she can also change his or her name given by the parents, what is wrong with the person choosing a religion different from he or she was born with.
Religion is an experiential product. Products thrive when they are responsive to customer feedback. We go to five-star hotel to get pampered, if we are unhappy with the service we may not return. If the hotel has a problem with service quality, then over a period of time it will lose substantial business; then either it will buckle up based on customer feedback or will go out of business. That is exactly relevant for a religion too. It makes implicit promises to the people who practice it. The promise could be different for different people. It should be open for all forms of feedback from people who practice it, including being prepared to lose people to other religions.
Over the past two thousand years at different points in time, there has been mass exodus from Hinduism to Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. Hinduism has always had a defined hierarchy. People at the bottom of the pyramid did not get the dignity they deserved and did not expect anything better for their children and hence switched religions for a better life. It was also expensive to practice Hinduism (because of the costs associated with birth, marriage, death, dowry and other social mores). Hinduism has not introspected and changed from this feedback. The religion does not provide an institutionalized framework of social mobility. Fortunately, democracy has helped the ‘lower classes’ to gain political, social and economic power and force their way up. Else, Hinduism would have probably had another exodus in the 21st century. In fact, the popularity of ‘fake’ babas is because such establishments give an anchor to the people at the bottom of the pyramid. It is sad to see that a religion that has so much intrinsic wisdom to offer to mankind as a whole, can also have such duplicities and cancerous growth. We need to figure out a mechanism for continuous reform and not just sporadic ones driven by larger than life figures. To note, there has been no fundamental reform within Hinduism in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Hinduism’s inherent exclusivist tendencies and rigidities are manifested by it discouraging conversions from other religions. This has resulted in Love Jihad controversy. Love Jihad is not just perfectly normal but also inevitable. In a city or group if boys and girls of different castes, education background, economic strata religions, mingle it is perfectly natural that people of diverse backgrounds will appeal of each other and many of them will end of wanting to marry each other. There is nothing diabolical about it. The very fact that such instances are not the norm, mocks the ‘secular’ fabric of the nation.
It is worth adding, that in the past (14-15th century) one whole South East Asian country embraced Islam over a period of time, because its Hindu king embraced Islam as he wanted to marry a Muslim girl. If Hindus feel jilted by this, the correct response is to open the flood-gates to Muslims and Muslim girls to its fold; instead of trying to forcibly stop the natural course of inter-religious marriage. Going by simple probability theory, in India if we were to have a truly secular, liberal and open door set-up, far lesser proportions of Hindus will be marrying outside their religion compared to the proportion of non-Hindus who will end of marrying Hindus. So arithmetically, the threat to Hinduism is non-existent because of encouraging inter-religion marriage.
If Love Jihad is to be accepted, then Ghar Wapsi is an absolute Yes, with a capital ‘Y’. It is totally legal and sane if it is carried out in a transparent and cordial atmosphere. In fact that is the rational response, neither should Hindu bhakts nor the government be defensive about it. Also, it should be perfectly fine to have missionaries convert people to its fold. If promotional offers, like free education, health, vacation or any other are thrown to sweeten the deal, then even better.
Which product manager or which product category is not allowed to lure customers to its fold. This is competition. Why should religious leaders not be allowed to poach? Competition creates internal pressures for efficiency and excellence and must be encouraged.
As with Love Jihad, the Hindua bhakt call to ban conversions is also quite dumb. Hinduism cannot expect to survive long through artificial protection by banning religious conversions. We know very well that organizations and countries which are not exposed to competition, over a period of time, ossify and die. Up until the 12thcentury, Hinduism & Buddhism spread all across Asia through trade and the impact it created on the quality of life. It is the only religion that expanded beyond the shores of its origin without the help of conquests or marriage. The only way to ensure the impact and acceptance of a religion in modern world is by continuously re-inventing itself and making it relevant. Not by artificial (trade) protection.
As long as conversions are not done through subterfuge and force they should not just be accepted without resentment, perhaps maybe even encouraged. This will be the one of major forces that will eradicate social ills and uplift the have-nots and the marginalized sections for any religion. In the short term, the most under privileged sections of every religions will be wooed by everyone in a bid to increase market share. In such a case, being under-privileged will become a god-sent boon. In the long run, however, appeasement and freebie strategy will not be sustainable. Hence, religious institutions will proactively embrace reforms and modern tools to improve their service. They will also make efforts to attract better talent to run their institutions, and focus on creating value for the believers – both socially and economically.
For proud Hindus who are convinced that this great religion still has a lot to offer to the citizens of the world, the take-away from this article are one, embrace religious competition willingly and accept people from all religions openly instead of demanding banning of conversions, the call should be for open entry and exit. Two, dismantle hierarchies and mind-sets to make it exciting for people at the bottom of the pyramid to want to remain in its fold. Three, reform and reinvent quickly. That should be the major push. Review the purpose of Hindu religion and the impact it has on real life. Hinduism was meant to be a way of life, not just a set of mechanical rituals. We need to review every ritual, re-establish the value Hinduism is creating for individual lives in the modern context and re-articulate them in simple terms using modern tools. Four, shift the centre of gravity of Hindu thought leadership and discourse to organizations which focus on spiritual research and dissemination. There are many such organizations that are transparent and efficiently governed; and have deeply ingrained scientific temper and secular values.