Swami Agnivesh

The anti-conversion ordinance promulgated by the Tamil Nadu government has activated the suspended debate on conversion. My immediate concern here is not the rights and wrongs of conversion, but the false sense of security that some Hindu religious leaders derive from this political ploy. I find it difficult to see in their responses any spiritual commitment to the Vedic faith. My fear is that measures like these might delay the spiritual regeneration of Hinduism and enable the retailers of Hinduism to continue to dodge the humanistic and transformative mandate of the Vedas.

From time immemorial we have prided ourselves on the assimilative, rather than antagonistic, genius of the Vedic spirit. It has had the robustness to welcome a thousand streams of thought into the ocean of its creativity. The invention of caste, however, corrupted the spirit of this assimilation. Assimilation can be of two models. First, there is an imperialistic model of assimilation. In this model, the goal of assimilation is to eliminate what is different or to deny it the space for growth and authentic self-expression. Such an outlook sees differences and diversities as enemies. It was this model of assimilation that animated the European cultural and colonial project. This model is unapologetically materialistic and oppressive. It is this outlook that makes the US believe that subjugating and terrorizing the rest of the world is the best way to cement American security.

In contrast to the imperialistic model, is the integrative model of religious assimilation. This model is positive, rather than negative, to what is good and noble in all other traditions. Its prime concern is not to choke, paralyze or terrorize others; for it is not rendered insecure by the vitality, growth or progress of others. The integrative model of assimilation is holistic in its responses to the totality of the given context. Spirituality is necessarily holistic. Spiritual holism, as applied to religions, has three major components. First, every religious tradition is incomplete in itself and all religions, hence, need to be in a state of inter-dependence. Second, the fulfillment of the destiny of a religion is organically entwined with the fulfillment of the whole -the shared destiny of humankind- which is the authentic spiritual goal. Third, the growth and fulfillment of all others is beneficial and necessary for one's own development. One stimulates and facilitates the other. In a spiritual or holistic model, all parts that comprise the whole must facilitate and empower each other.

It is self-evident, in this light, that the Vedic spirit of assimilation is holistic and integrative, rather than imperialistic. To know this to be so, it is enough to recognize that the Vedas advocate the cause not of Hindus but of human beings (cf. "manur-bhav"). While religions tend to promote the exclusive advantages of their adherents -Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and so on- humankind is the core concern of Vedic spirituality. In the blindness that communalism breeds, what we lose sight of first are human beings. That the so-called leaders of religions can condone, even encourage, this fundamental aberration is an alarming pointer to the degradation that has overtaken all religions.

This is also the argument against caste. Caste contradicts the spirit of the Vedas. It embodies the imperialistic assimilation of the lower castes on terms set arbitrarily by the upper castes. It denies the humanity of its victims and is hostile to their liberation and empowerment. The supreme irony in contemporary India is that the spirit that drives the caste system is also the spirit that animates the seemingly anti-caste conversion project. Conversion, as it is often practiced, is not untainted by the desire to thrive at the expense of other religions. If conversion were understood and practiced in a spiritual and integrative sense the converts would not have been segregated and disowned as they are after conversion.

Be that as it may, my concern here is to engage the challenge of conversion in a spiritually sound and legitimate way, rather than in a communally aggressive or politically partisan fashion. In respect of conversion, Hindus have two options. Either they can terrorize and overwhelm all converting religions or listen to the cry for religious reform and social justice in the eagerness of the lower castes to escape from caste oppression. The choice is between fighting the faiths of others on the one hand, and regenerating one's own faith spiritually, on the other.

It is necessary that we understand the dynamics of spiritual or integrative assimilation aright. It is not a religious community that we are to assimilate, but what is good and positive in their spiritual culture and sense of mission. But the disservice that communalism does is that it outlaws the willingness to see and imbibe what is good in others. I cannot but appreciate the preferential option for the poor that Jesus had and the enormous relief this has meant to the victims of exploitation and oppression in various parts of the world. This could, in several instances, have led in many instances to his followers taking advantage of the desperation of the people. But that cannot be a greater offence than keeping them desperate and depressed for centuries, which is the challenge that the Hindu community has to address on a war-footing today.

But the strength to assimilate what is good must not be taken for granted. It needs to be cultivated, first, by assimilating what is great and glorious -the spiritual core- in one's own religion. This, and not spewing venom on others- is the essence of true religious revival. In comparison, the willingness to attack people of other faiths or to circumscribe their religious freedom are cheaper options. Assimilation is the opposite of annihilation! The authenticity of one's own self and that of others is basic to assimilation; whereas it is unwelcome to the model of annihilation. Only the authentic self can assimilate holistically and only what is authentic can be, or should be, assimilated. Alternate forms of assimilation are overt or covert strategies of materialistic nihilism or religious triumphalism. This is as great a danger to one's own religion as it is to the intended victims of communal aggression.

One of the most tragic mistakes in history is the popularization of hostile rather than hospitable relationships between religions. The prejudice that religions are sworn enemies to each other, rather than fellow wayfarers in the pursuit of human welfare, has its roots here. But for this poison that indwells the inter-religious space, communalism would not have taken the huge toll it has. Nor would the religious outlook have got as distorted as it has by now. Communalism enables the hangers-on of religion to dodge the spiritual mandate that clamours for attention. What they welcome in measures like the Tamil Nadu ordinance is the opportunity to postpone indefinitely the long-frozen agenda of social justice within the Hindu community. This will only plunge ourselves deeper and deeper into self-delusion. The winds of history are sure to separate the chaff of appearances from the grain of reality; and that reality today fulminates against the perpetuation of the scandal of caste and the socio-economic oppression that goes with it. Caste and conversion are the two sides of the same coin. The sight of custodians of caste parading their religiosity in public as mere opposition to conversion is a quaint and curious spectacle.