By Swapan Dasgupta
The past fortnight has witnessed a spirited and even unruly debate over religious rights in India. Before probing this lofty question, it is instructive to recognise a banality that underpins all concerns over religion: the undeniable fact that for an overwhelming majority of people, religious identity is a matter of inheritance. Most people belong to a faith because they were born into it. It is only a very small minority that deviate from a formal commitment to identities that were determined by their parents, if not forefathers.
Recognising this simple truth does not in any way undermine the reality that individuals determine how this inheritance is played out in their own lives. This is particularly true of the large body of beliefs that have been artificially described as ‘Hinduism’ but to which the term sanatan dharma is more appropriate. A man or woman may have been born in a family that perceived itself as, say, Shaivite or where the principal commitment was to the rites and rituals associated with a kul devata (ancestral God). In the course of life, they may come into contact with a guru who would have steered them into a very different theological orientation and form of worship. Alternatively, they may choose to become completely irreligious or even experiment with traditions that have no roots in India.
Would they be regarded as converts?
The answer is an emphatic no for a variety of reasons. First, it is more than likely that in their modest engagement with officialdom — such as filling a form or answering the Census enumerator — they would still declare themselves Hindu. By this they are asserting their Hindutva in terms of either faith or culture, or both.
Secondly, the belief structures of the sanatan dharma are numerous, inconsistent and even contradictory. Even atheism can be accommodated under the umbrella of the eternal way.
Finally, and this is important, the absence of codification or even a desire to attempt it has meant that an individual can effortlessly and without qualms possess multiple faiths.
I have cousins who are practitioners of Soka Gakkai, apparently a derivative of Buddhism that originated in Japan. At the same time they are not lacking in their commitment to the Durga Puja that is conducted in the ancestral village. The Western tradition of codification to suit a statistical purpose can’t cope with the complexities of faith in the Indic tradition.
Theologically speaking, this muddle can perhaps be explained by the absence of the notion of a jealous god from Indic traditions. Indians, by and large, have a loose attachment to the sacred that cuts across denominational boundaries. The average puja altar of an Indian, for example, contains a mix of gods, goddesses, portraits of gurus and even deceased members of the family. This mix of symbols of sacredness and veneration would undoubtedly argue against the traditions of the Reformation in Europe where icons and sacred relics were brushed aside for one austere symbol of one god.
The emotional and political upheavals these caused in the 16th and 17th centuries have now largely been forgotten. But recalling history is important insofar as it informs us that there was a time when Europeans too had their own eternal way that was snuffed out over time by force.
The debate over conversions wouldn’t have triggered either emotional outbursts or a political storm had the issue been one of an addition to the pantheon of sacredness and changes in the forms of worship. Unfortunately, conversion has become a volatile issue on account of the intolerance that is often seen to accompany it.
To begin with, there is the inflammatory rhetoric of religious preachers. Preaching the virtues of one tradition and one god is entirely legitimate. However, when it is accompanied by fierce and often tasteless debunking of existing patterns of belief and worship — the condemnation of ‘false gods’ and the accompanying threats of hell fire and eternal damnation — preaching also become riddled with hate. This was quite pronounced between the 18th and early-20th centuries when evangelism seemed to have the backing of state power.
The writings of Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi resonate with distaste over the insensitive and intemperate rhetoric of European missionaries. In today’s India, there is profound anger — particularly in southern India — at the hateful propaganda of preachers who draw their inspiration (and, often, their resources) from evangelists based in the US. Their advocacy of faith is often plain expressions of hate.
Evangelism also has socially disruptive consequences. It is understandable that faiths often seek to create a community of believers. However, when this is accompanied by a conscious determination to stand aloof, rebuff and view with disdain the traditions of the community and their own ancestors, social tensions are inevitable. The warnings against changes of faith being accompanied by a change in nationality weren’t a piece of Savarkar-ite propaganda. No less a person than Mahatma Gandhi, whose deep religiosity was plural and non-exclusive, expressed his concern over the detachment from the wider community that evangelists often promoted.
To the extent that ghar vapsi reconnects people to their history and inheritance, it is a positive step. But it would be retrograde if it became inextricably linked to changes in belief and forms of worship.
The right to preach and propagate one’s faith is among the larger freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. However, just as an individual has a complete right to change his form of worship and even connect with a different God, there should be an equal freedom to retain one’s faith. This is as much a fundamental human right as the right to convert. The rights that accrue to minorities cannot be denied to the majority.
Sunday Pioneer, December 28, 2014