The right to profess one’s faith cannot include a mandate to proselytize others


THE NOBLE INJUNCTION TO “LOVE ONE’S neighbor as oneself” in Christianity has a counterpart in the Hindu Taittiriya Upanishad: “May you be one for whom the guest is a manifestation of God. (Atithidevobhava).” The word atithi actually refers to someone who arrives without an appointment—a drop-in guest who comes unexpectedly. When faced with such a guest, the Vedas enjoin us to cultivate the same attitude of joy and elation that one might have when face to face with God. Conversely, Hindu rituals and worship revolve around invoking God into one’s home and treating Her/Him as a revered guest. Just as the guest should be treated as a manifestation of God, God should be treated as an honored guest.

I have mused over this religious imperative and pondered its possible influence in the repeated colonization of India. The first reaction of ancient Hindu rulers to anyone who came to India, including Alexander the Not-So-Great and Not-So-Great Britain, was to treat them as a revered guest. Travelers or visitors were generally welcomed with food and drink. Many Hindu rulers also made land grants to visitors for construction of homes and places of worship.

History shows that we had two types of guests. There were people who fled persecution and sought refuge in India, notably the Zoroastrians from Iran and the Jewish people. These guests respected the hospitality of the kings and lived in harmony with the people. Then there were “guests” whose intentions were to pillage, conquer and colonize by exploiting the vulnerabilities of their hosts. It is easy to see the face of God in the first type of guest, but greatly challenging to view the face of God in the invaders and colonizers, whose main mission was to subjugate and exploit by inculcating a sense of inferiority among the people they attacked.

British rule, in India and elsewhere, relied on missionary education and Christian evangelism as the two indispensable arms of the colonial enterprise. Lord Macaulay, a great proponent of introducing British education in India, wrote to his father in 1836: “No Hindu who has received an English education ever remains sincerely attached to his religion. Some continue to profess it as matter of policy; but many profess themselves pure Deists, and some embrace Christianity. It is my firm belief that if our plans of education are followed up, there will not be a single idolater among the respectable classes in Bengal, thirty years hence. And this will be effected without any efforts to proselytize; without the smallest interference with religious liberty; merely by the natural operation of knowledge and reflection. I heartily rejoice in the prospect.”

The scars of enduring nearly a thousand years of colonization run deep; and the continued policies of the colonizers for several decades after independence, under the dubious rubric of “secularization,” have ensured a steady erasure of Hindu identity. Therefore, to this day, even after seven decades of independence, the Hindu intelligentsia in India find it difficult to embrace their religious identity without agony or apology. What it means to be a Hindu is often a matter of private torment, not something publicly stated or debated. When an identity is maimed, it cannot be easily reclaimed.

At the national level, this angst takes many forms. In an alarming trend, some Hindu religious groups have attempted to abnegate the epithet and umbrella of Hinduism by petitioning the government for minority status. One such petition from a well-established group claimed that their teachings had nothing to do with Hinduism, as they believed in universal love and compassion. This petition was struck down by the Supreme Court of India a few years ago on the grounds that teachings of love and compassion are very much part of the Hindu ethos. Another petition for minority status, filed recently by a Hindu monastic order in South India, is currently awaiting a court hearing.

Such instances are testaments to a collective anomaly about religious and national identity. They reflect the sad truth that one is accorded better treatment as a religious minority in India than as a member of a majority religious group.

The nascent resurgence of Hindu identity in contemporary India, in all its complexities, must be understood within two contexts: as the yearning to discover oneself by shedding the colonial legacy of self-denial and self-loathing, and as a retaliation against the continued evangelization and “cross-planting” practices by missionaries and evangelicals of various denominations.

The right to profess one’s faith cannot include a mandate to proselytize others, thereby eroding their rights to practice their own faiths freely. I expressed these views at the 2006 Vatican conference on conversion in Lariano, organized by the Pontifical Council of Interreligious Dialogue. It was commendable that for the first time the Pontifical Council sought to examine the effects of proselytization by listening to the spokespeople of the cultures most affected by that practice. The few leaders of indigenous religious traditions in attendance shared powerful testimonies of the effects of proselytization in their countries. The decimation of diverse cultures and the erasure of traditional religious identities in various parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America sadly sounded all too familiar.

Two of the resolutions that emerged from this radical conference read: “We affirm that while everyone has a right to invite others to an understanding of their faith, it should not be exercised by violating others’ rights and religious sensibilities. At the same time, all should heal themselves from the obsession of converting others. Freedom of religion enjoins upon everyone the equally non-negotiable responsibility to respect faiths other than our own, and never to denigrate, vilify or misrepresent them for the purpose of affirming superiority of one’s own beliefs.”

SWAMINI SVATMAVIDYANANDA SARASWATI, initiated by Swami Dayananda Saraswati, is the head of Arsha Vijnana Gurukulam. This piece is from her address at the Hindu Catholic Dialogue on November 11, 2017, at the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Lanham, MD