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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 26 New Delhi June 16, 2018

Difference between Religious Propagation and Conversion

Monday 18 June 2018

by Kunal Ghosh

The Indian Constitution guarantees freedom of practicing one’s faith and propagating it, provided it is done without coercion or inducement. The Archbishop of Delhi (of the Catholic Church), Reverend Anil Couto, has spoken about the threat to the democratic principles and the “secular fabric” enshrined in our Constitution and distributed a circular to all the churches in his diocese in May 2018. The message is that the Christians should be careful in exercising their franchise. He has not named the source of the threat. But the indications are obvious. A national icon and very distinguished IPS officer of yesteryears, Shri Julio Ribeiro, Padmashree, has also spoken and the nation has taken note of it. (‘A Prayer for Secularism’, The Times of India, Monday, May 28, 2018) I consider Shri Ribeiro a role model of all police officers of India for his exemplary handling of terrorism in Punjab under very trying circumstances. There have been many brave officers in our armed forces, who have laid down their lives for securing the country, whose religion happens to be Christianity, and I am prepared to cross swords with anyone who casts doubt on their patriotism. Shri Ribeiro writes that he is prepared to be a second class citizen but he would not accept any slur on his patriotism. These are words of anguish emanating from a brave man who has risked his life for safeguarding our nation. Therefore we must pay attention to his views.

Shri Ribeiro writes: “Charitable work (of the Church) for the poor continues and at times the recipients of such love and care may be tempted to convert. The Government has come down heavily on foreign donations to curb such activity dubbed as ‘missionary’.”

This is all very true. However, the process of conversion is not as sweet and soothing as Shri Ribeiro mistakenly thinks. In the very idea of ‘conversion’, a seed of conflict lies latent. Also there is a difference between conversion and propagation. This is best explained by recalling the highest ideals of ancient India, and I like to quote from ‘The Edicts of King Ashoka’, rendered into English by an Australian bhikkhu (meaning Buddhist monk), S. Dhammika, who is the Spiritual Director of The Buddha Dhamma Manadala Society of Singapore. Incidentally Singapore is a secular state where the vast majority of the citizens are Buddhists of Chinese origin.

The edicts of King Priyadarshi Ashoka are inscribed in stone on the numerous Ashoka pillars scattered over a vast territory covering present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and North India. The language is Prakrit in which many of the familiar Sanskrit words get slightly distorted. For the convenience of the reader, the word Priyadarshi (meaning pleasant-looking and indicating Ashoka himself) becomes ‘Piyadasi’ and, Dharma becomes Dhamma, etc. Also Dharma does not mean religion; Dharma means virtues such as justice, purity, truthfulness etc. rolled into one; whereas religion means a certain doctrine that, when practised properly, leads to Dharma. Ashoka was an enthusiastic Buddhist and he spread Buddhism in Central Asia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and China. The inscriptions are statements made by King Ashoka himself, sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third person of Piyadasi. They are sometimes repetitive although wide variations exist. Here are a selected few:

1. “In the past there were no Dhamma Mahamatras but such officers were appointed by me thirteen years after my coronation. Now they work among all religions for the establishment of Dhamma, for the promotion of Dhamma and welfare and happiness of all who are established in Dhamma. They work among the Greeks, the Kambojas, the Gandharas and others on western borders.”

(The author’s comment: It should be recalled that Alexander the Great, when he invaded India, had set up Greek settlements and kingdoms in the regions which are present-day Afghanistan and Central Asia.Gandhara is a region covering present-day north-western Pakistan and part of Afghanistan.)

2. Everywhere within King Piyadasi’s domain, and among the people beyond the borders, the Cholas, the Pandyas, the Satiyaputras, the Keralaputras, and where the Greek King Antiochos rules, and among the kings who are neighbours of Antiochos, everywhere King Piyadasi has made provisions for two types of medical treatments—for humans and for animals. Wherever medical herbs, roots and fruits are not available, I have arranged to import and grow.

3. King Piyadasi desires that all religions reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart.

4. King Piyadasi honours ascetics and house-holders of all religions. He desires that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. Growth can be done in different ways, but all of them at the root have restraint of speech, that is not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religion of others. It is better to honour other religions. Whoever praises his own religion, due to excessive devotion, and condemns other religions, only harms his own religion. Therefore, contact between religions is good. One should respect and listen to the doctrines professed by others. King Piyadasi desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions.

It was not only the religious officers appointed by King Ashoka but also the Buddhist monks, who spread Buddhism almost all over Asia, who followed the aforementioned principles. These are the much older Upanishadic principles, which were engraved in stone by King Ashoka for all citizens to see. He, of course, added the idea of welfare, especially medical welfare, of humans and animals. Buddhist monks accorded full respect to the Pagan religion of the Greeks, and Confucianism and Taoism of the Chinese. Buddhism’s stature in China did not diminish because of this. A present-day Chinese Buddhist, whether in China or Singapore or Taiwan, is also a Confucianist and a Taoist.

In contrast, A Christian Missionary starts by decrying the ancestral culture and religion of the would-be convert, and this leads to conflict. Conversion means two things, one positive and one negative; first, to accept the message of Jesus Christ as a living principle, and second, to purge all vestige of ancestral culture and religion from one’s life. It is the second one that Indian sages and King Ashoka prohibit. Famous historian-cum-science fiction writer H. G. Wells has proclaimed King Ashoka as the greatest king on earth.

The conducts of Buddhist monks and Christian missionaries exemplify the difference between Propagation and Conversion. In my opinion, the Indian Constitution allows propagation but not conversion. I myself have been the target of conversion by Christian missionaries both in the UK and India. The opening remark usually is: “Do you believe in re-birth or re-incarnation?” If the answer is ‘Yes’, pat comes the next question: “Do you not mind being born as a cow or an insect?“ Another one is: “Do you think a stone or an idol is God?” Both spring from an extremely shallow knowledge and understanding of Hindu-Buddhist philosophy, because a missionary does not have the time or inclination to study another religion’s principles in depth.

To Shri Ribeiro I ask: can the ‘recipient of love and care’ of the charity of the Church not accept the message of Jesus, and still retain his own ancestral culture, instead of converting? Can he not add Jesus to the other role models he has, such as Rama, Krishna or Buddha? Can he not worship in a Church and continue to pay obeisance in a temple of Rama, Krishna or Buddha? I implore all patriots, if his or her religion happens to be Christianity, to look deep into the meaning and significance of the act of conversion; the convert learns to look down upon his parents’ religion and culture; the significance of conversion is divisive for the family of the convert and the society at large. Sister Nivedita (formerly Miss Margaret Noble), Mr Goodwin, Mr and Mrs Sevier, Mrs Sarah Bull, Miss Josephine Macleod and many other British and American disciples of Swami Vivekananda accepted Hinduism but did not give up Jesus and Christianity.

King Ashoka propagated Buddhism without resorting to conversion—that is the central point of this article, and our Constitution allows propagation but not conversion.

Dr Kunal Ghosh is a Retired Professor, Aerospace Engineering, IIT-Kanpur.

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