Proselytizing as Cultural Imperialism
Like many hundreds of millions of other Hindus, I also made sense of our world as we visited temples and pilgrimage centers, and through the rituals and rites performed and observed in our homes – from the “annaprastha” ceremony (the feeding of the first solid food) for a child to the “Brahmopadesham” ceremony (supreme teaching) for a young boy, and the “vivaaha” ceremony (marriage) for a young man and woman, to the “shraaddha” ceremony (ritual that one performs to pay homage to one’s ancestors, and especially to one’s dead parents). As a young boy my connectedness to the world, and my sense of place and belonging were shaped by the rhythms of devotional songs heard early in the morning as my grandfathers perambulated in front of the Gods, lit lamps, and sang beseeching God’s grace and protection.
That is how I learned about my religion and accepted my religious identity, and in some similar manner that is how the rest of the world does too. This identity shaping contributes to one’s self-esteem, and a healthy self-esteem is essential for us to prosper and live our lives productively. It is reported that loss of faith can lead to anger, resentment, emptiness, despair, sadness, and isolation, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) identifies loss of faith as a religious problem. And there are studies that show that immigrants, in a new country, and unmoored from their religious and cultural context, suffer from anxiety, stress, and depression.
Enter left, the proselytizer, thumping a book, decrying “false” Gods, promising heaven if you accepted the “one, true, Lord and savior”. Over the past two thousand years, proselytizers have roamed the world, converting people by hook or by crook, making unverifiable claims, robbing people of their cultures and their Gods, sowing conflict and dissent in once cohesive tribes and communities, and most damagingly, inflicting a heavy loss on the self-esteem of souls harvested for the “Lord”. As professor Regina Schwartz has argued, the “… Bible has left us a legacy of intolerant thinking about other peoples, and it has authorized such intolerance as the will of God. That is how it has had effects on religious, racial, and ethnic conflicts around the globe.” The world’s two most “powerful” religions – Christianity and Islam – are monotheistic creeds that seek of their followers allegiance to one God, and seek to convert others to believing in the one, true God – theirs. As Schwartz notes, “the injunction ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me’ turns into intolerance for other people who may have other gods, or principles, or beliefs.”
And while we now live in a different world where the old bloody sword and scimitar cannot be used to “persuade” people to change their religious identity, we now get the Bible thumpers and the Qur’an dispensers who, in the guise of “freedom of religion,” spread intolerance, sow dissent, and rob the identities of the mostly poor, illiterate, and innocent masses through a variety of wiles, not excluding bribes, false promises, “love jihads,” and so on. The poor in India and Sri Lanka reeling from the loss of loved ones and their livelihoods after the 2004 tsunami, and the millions of Haitians struggling after the earthquake in January, saw a flood of young men and women with Bible in one hand and a loaf of bread in the other, promising liberation, heaven, and the good life, if they accepted the Bible along with the bread. Hundreds of millions of dollars are pumped into India by evangelical groups that have found in the new converts in that country willing abettors to “identity theft”.
One day, shopping at a Best Buy in Richmond, I was accosted by an Indian who wanted some advice on buying video cameras. While the sales people had tried to help, he found in me someone whom he could trust, because my skin color matched his. I was glad to help, told him about the cameras, and pointed out that some of the models were more expensive but they came with certain features not available in the less expensive ones. “Money is not a problem,” he grinned, and that is when I noticed that he was trailed by three or four rather sheepish White companions. “I am from Andhra Pradesh, and I have come to meet with some of my church supporters here,” he told me. The south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, rife with caste conflicts, and home to many tribal groups, is one of the largest recipients of foreign money donated by church organizations. I saw firsthand the result of the quid pro quo between evangelical groups and their abettors and fellow conspirators in India.
Much has been written about proselytism, and its rewards, wages, and sins. What is not carefully studied are the effects of conversion on individuals, families, tribes and communities. Some of my good and very dear friends here who say they are against forced or coerced conversion speak of the importance of “bearing witness” and how exchanging one’s beliefs is important for understanding each other, and how such exchanges would enlighten us all. But I tell them that they are not playing on a level field. What if they were poor and Hindus came to them with rice in one hand and the Bhagavad Gita in the other?
I have no problems if an old couple come knocking on my door on a Sunday morning and hand me a booklet with the most hideous descriptions of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. I smile and send them their merry, uninformed way. I can pick 20 holes in each of Pat Robertson’s assertions. And I laugh myself silly watching the sweaty perorations of bejeweled “reverends” on television channels. I am not poor or needy, nor am I ignorant about the history of the world. However, there are hundreds of millions in the country of my birth and elsewhere who are indeed materially poor and who are indeed ignorant of the bloody history of religious proselytism, and the effects of religious conversion. The only wealth they have is their cultural and religious identities. To rob them of that is indeed a crime, I tell my friends.
Since everyone invokes Mahatma Gandhi these days, let me do so too. What did he think of missionaries? He wrote, “If I had the power and could legislate, I would stop all proselytizing. In Hindu households the advent of a missionary has meant the disruption of the family coming in the wake of change of dress, manners, language, food and drink,” (Collected Works, Vol 61, page 46-47). He had a lot more to say about this conversion business, but I will end with this one: “I hold that proselytization under the cloak of humanitarian work is unhealthy to say the least. It is most resented by people here. Religion after all is a deeply personal thing. It touches the heart…. Why should I change my religion because the doctor who professes Christianity as his religion has cured me of some disease, or why should the doctor expect me to change whilst I am under his influence?” (Young India: April 23, 1931)
Originally published in The Washington Post, online, https://www.onfaith.co/onfaith/2010/03/05/proselytizing-as-cultural-imperialism/4383