Categorized | Print Stories

Approaches to Conversion in the East and West

By Colleen McKown, Indian Beat Reporter–When I was a high school freshman in rural North Carolina, a few of my friends brought a Bible to the lunch table. Because I had said I didn’t believe in hell, they crowded around and proceeded to read me each passage that alluded to hell. While I went to church myself, my church did not interpret scripture as literally as theirs did. They wanted to make sure I was the right kind of Christian–that my soul was safe.

Many Americans have had similar experiences. For some, these are moments of revelation and faith; but for others, they are a turnoff. I fall into the latter category. The proselytizing of my high school friends, and later, of others, helped drive me away from Christianity. Far more appealing, I found, were religions that began in India — Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism— faiths that do not teach conversion. These faiths offered an openness and tolerance that I craved. In time I learned that the issue of religious openness in India was far more complex than I thought. Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims have a long history of strife; because of this, India has enacted anti-conversion laws. This partly accounts for what I perceived as the “openness” of Indian religions. However, through speaking with Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists in both India and America who say that conversion is absent in their fundamental teachings, I believe that today, these religions truly are less divisive and polarizing than some forms of Christianity.

Growing up in the Bible Belt, I was not drawn into debates about whether God existed. Faith was assumed. Instead, we discussed whether a small child who died in Africa would go to hell or not for having never heard of Jesus. “Well, yes,” my more evangelical friends would say. “That’s why some of us are called to be missionaries.” This answer always left me unsatisfied. When I learned about Eastern religions, I was intrigued to learn that these faiths accepted all religions as equal.

As a 24-year old backpacking around India, I realized that contrary to the vague image I had in high school, India was far more than monks meditating atop rocks, yogis contorting their bodies by the sea and medicine women giving herbal remedies in huts. If any of India fits this image, it is primarily the India that exists to market to Western tourists. Those meditating, practicing yoga, reiki, ayruvedic medicine, and chakra-opening techniques in India are usually either Westerners are those making money off of them. Just as Americans idealize India, Indians idealize America –instead of their own ancient wisdom and spiritual wealth, many admire the technological advances and material wealth of the Western world. Each country’s image and fascination with the other is no doubt completely overblown.

While India is not a spiritual utopia, many Indians do have a more evolved spiritual outlook than many Americans when it comes to conversion. While the Indian government certainly plays a part in cutting down on religious strife by forbidding conversion, I have met several Indians who genuinely do not believe in conversion—they do not see it as a part of their faiths. For many Indians I’ve met, both in India and America, faith is primarily a matter of tradition, community and connecting to a higher power—not bringing others into the fold.

Dr. Uma Mysorekar, the president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America, is active in engaging her temple, the Ganesha Temple in Flushing, in interfaith activities throughout New York City. Mysorekar has strong feelings against conversion and intolerance.

“I always wonder why we fight, why we abuse each other,” she said. “It is always a problem whenever anyone feels their religion is best.”

Mysorekar is currently working on a project for a video that will educate Westerners on how Hinduism’s teachings on tolerance for all faiths can benefit everyone. “Hinduism is about the whole world family,” she said. Mysorekar herself strongly believes in the importance of peace and religious dialogue, and wants the video to spread the positive message of respect that she sees as an integral part of Hinduism.

Ram Mohan, a trustee at the Ganesha Temple, is also heavily involved in interfaith initiatives, including a current project to bring teenagers together in interfaith discussion groups. He related an experience he had upon coming to America as a student.

On his first day in America, someone asked him if he was “lost.” He was trying to find a class, so he replied, “yes.” The man proceeded to try to tell him about Jesus. The only things he was worried about finding, Mohan told him, were “my way, American girls, and vegetarian food,” he said with a laugh.

His mother-in-law didn’t take a similar advance as lightheartedly, Mohan said. When a close friend here in America tried to convert her to Christianity, she became very upset and told the friend not to come see her anymore.

“Conversion hurts people and creates resentment,” Mohan said.

It’s sad that unsuspecting individuals can be targeted in this way in our country, told that they need to change their fundamental belief system in order to be okay.

While Indian culture is more conservative than Western culture in many ways–dress, gender roles, marriage customs, obedience to family–in terms of tolerance toward different faiths, Indians have a more progressive attitude than many American Christians. I lived in a south Indian town far off the tourist path two years ago, one that was very conservative by Western standards. People wore traditional clothing and women covered most of their bodies. Women didn’t go out alone after 6 o’clock in the evening. Girls often had arranged marriages by 18 or 19. But those of different faiths lived side by side in relative peace. While they certainly had some differences and frustrations with members of other faiths, they were not trying to change each other’s minds. They accepted each other for who they were and what they believed.

As Gandhi put it, “I believe that there is no such thing as conversion from one faith to another in the accepted sense of the word. It is a highly personal matter for the individual and his God. I may not have any design upon my neighbour as to his faith, which I must honour even as I honour my own. Having reverently studied the scriptures of the world I could no more think of asking a Christian or a Musalman, or a Parsi or a Jew to change his faith than I would think of changing my own.” (Harijan: September 9, 1935).

In my experience in India, the culture of trying to change someone else’s religion simply did not exist–one’s religion was whatever religion one’s family practiced. A different sensibility surrounds religion among Indians than that among Americans. Indians see religion as a matter of family tradition and culture; Americans see religion as a matter of individual conviction. The concept of conversion breeds resentment, division, and an “I’m right, you’re wrong” attitude–all of which are the opposite of the love and unity that religion strives to promote. In America, why do many feel such a need to change others–to change something as fundamental as their belief system? Our society could stand to have a more evolved outlook on religion.

Torch on Twitter