On Religious Conversions


Every religion, no matter what its historical roots, has forged a world view of the Beyond in the context of the Ultimate Mystery. Over the ages the different visions have elaborated meaningful rites and rituals and sacraments which answer to the spiritual needs of its practitioners.
The doctrinal basis of every religion is that its own particular vision of the transcendental is the appropriate one. But, in some instances, it goes on to proclaim that those of other traditions are mistaken, primitive, or worse, and that it is incumbent upon them to bring light to the misguided. This is the instigation of evangelism which, I concede, is paved with good intentions. Unfortunately, from the point of view of the outsiders, such a view is the theological equivalent of racism.
As a result, when the Holy Father goes to India and proclaims on the day of Divali (the festive equivalent of Christmas) that missionaries, while respecting the local faith, should not stop in their efforts to bring true religious light to more than half a billion Hindus, or when another group resolves to convert all those unfortunate Hindus into Baptists rather than Catholics, the worst passions of Hindu fundamentalism are unleashed. The burning of the Pope’s effigy by so-called Hindu patriots is regrettable, but understandable.
As to demanding an apology from the Pope for past misdeeds of the Christian Church in India (which some people did), Hindu leaders should also acknowledge gratefully all the good done by the scores of schools and colleges from which generations of India’s scientists, intellectuals, and leaders have come, and hospitals and asylums for victims of tuberculosis and leprosy which were established by Christian missionaries.
We live in an age wrought with conflicts and confrontations. We have enough problems staring us in the face: problems ranging from political turmoil, economic competitions, resource limitations, racial injustices, gender oppression, and such. There is no urgency to add to this long list with proclamations of religious superiority and demands for apologies.
It is the responsibility of enlightened religious leaders to preach understanding and tolerance among faiths, rather than assert one’s monopoly as to the nature of the Divine or create unpleasantness by taunting the leaders of other religions. We need to form Interfaith Forums to inform and be informed about whatever is best in the various religious traditions of the human family.
There is a verse to which I was initiated many long years ago, and which I am freely rendering from Sanskrit into English as follows:
As waters falling from the clouds,
All return to the self-same sea;
So do prayers to different gods
Go back to the same Divinity.
I cannot think of a more appropriate verse to inspire religious harmony in this world of rich diversity, for it reminds us that every religion is but a partial glimpse of the infinite splendor. The value of a religious vision lies in the inner light that the pious experience, not in the number of converts that it has won among others.
Whether Christians or Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists, or whatever, let us invite ardent practitioners of other faiths to tell us about their meaningful traditions and religious ecstasies in a spirit of sharing, rather than with the presumptuousness of one who declares that his or hers is the only right mode of gaining a vision of the Unfathomable or the sole path to lead us to the glorious Beyond.

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