In his work, Changing Gods the Jesuit sociologist Rudolf Heredia very eruditely unpacks the rather prickly subject of religious conversion- no mean job. Fr. Heredia looks at the subject from several angles and poses some probing question. At the outset, he defines some terms – Atmaparivartan – a conversion within one’s religious tradition – for instance sanatan dharmi Hindu choosing to become a follower of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar or a Christian becoming born again. Then there is Dharm Parivartan a conversion across religious traditions – A Hindu becoming a Christian or a Christian becoming a Muslim. The author maintains that while atmaparivartan is accepted and tolerated in society, Dharam Parivartan has become increasingly politicized and frowned upon.
Of course, the two terms are not neat packages. If a Hindu Dalit chooses to become a Buddhist or a Sikh, is he doing Dharmantaran or Atma Parivartan? According to VD Savarkar, the father of Hindutva, anyone who whose pitra bhu (fatherland) and punya bhu (holy land) is any where in undivided India is a part of the Indic civilization and therefore a Hindu; the others – basically Muslims and Christians are foreigners. However Neo Buddhists coming in from a Dalit background or Sikhs particular about preserving their particular identity may not agree. Heredia pursues Savarkar’s thesis further by asking if in countries like Sri Lanka or Thailand, Buddhism should be considered a foreign faith or Hinduism in Bali should be considered one as Buddhism or Hinduism are not indigenous to these countries.
The author presents some interesting case studies: The journeys of Dr. Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi, Sister Nivedita and Pandita Ramabai. The stories of the two ladies, both contemporaries are particularly interesting. Sister Nivedita, begins life as Margaret Noble, gets disillusioned with Christianity and is attracted to the teaching of Swami Vivekananda. She becomes his disciple but her vision for India is more radical than what he or his Ramakrishna Mission can digest. Shortly after Swamiji’s death, she is cold shouldered by the apolitical Mission and ends up bonding with Hindu Revolutionaries like Aurobindo Ghosh who she helped in his exile to Pondicherry and Vivekananda’s brother for whom she stood bail when he was arrested on charges of sedition.
Ramabai begins as a Hindu Brahmin; Sanskrit Scholar titled by Hindu scholars as Pandita, is widowed at a young age and begins questioning Hindu patriarchy. She comes in contact with the Anglican Church. Converts to the Christian faith and is scorned by Hindus. However Anglican Christian is not he niche and as she continues her relentless questioning, she falls out with the Anglicans and remains a Christian but without quite belonging in any sect or denomination. Was the journey of Nivedita and Ramabai a Dharamantaran or an atma parivartan or bits of both? In a spiritual journey, the markers get some what blurred.
The author questions the isolationism of the minority religions and says that ghettoism does not facilitate dialogue but rather the furtherance of silence which he says is a fit bed fellow for suspicion and the propagation of stereotypes. Dialogue he says would facilitate greater understanding between different faiths and reduce tensions. Some of the other questions and issues the book examines is the conversion tradition in various religions including supposedly non proselytizing faiths like Hinduism. The book also looks at the many Freedom of Religion Acts in different states including those from pre independence days in the princely states.
An interesting speculation is when Dr Ambedkar led his followers out of the Hindu fold into his Navayana school of Buddhism, promising them freedom from the exploitation that they faced in Hindu society , what would have happened if the Freedom of Religion Acts were in place. Would his offer to his followers have been interpreted as an inducement? Interesting question that!