Gandhi on conversion

S.M. Michael, SVD
News paper reports have been appearing that for its anti-Christian stand, BJP has been taking recourse to Mahatma Gandhi's statement "If I had power and could legislate, the first thing I would ban is conversions". It has been said that this statement was made in 1935 (see Indian Express, Oct.4,8&9). I have been studying the issue of religious conversion for the last several years. With all respect to Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, I have a lot of reservation for the Gandhian attitude to Christian conversions. It is true Gandhi has given his life for this nation. His contribution to the freedom struggle and the independence of this country cannot be belittled. He is a great soul to be admired and celebrated. All the same his views on Christian conversion are very limited by his location in the social structure from where he came. Two Opposing views on Conversion It is noteworthy to remember that in the same year when Gandhi made the statement, "If I had power and could legislate, the first thing I would ban is conversions", Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar also made his historical proclamation on religious conversion at Yeola Conference of 1935, "Though I have been born a Hindu, I shall not die as Hindu". How do we understand the two opposing views on religious conversion? Here lies the crux of the problem with regard to the debate on religious conversion. Any debate on religious conversion especially the views of Gandhi must take into consideration in the total context of conversion debate among the social reformers of India. Raja Rammohun Roy (1772-1833), the father of Modern India, recognized the need to have rational approach to Hindu culture and promoted reform within Hinduism by his Brahmo Samaj movement. On the other hand, Dayanand Saraswati (1824-1883) by founding Arya Samaj in 1875, wanted the regeneration of Aryavartha. Dayananda's attack on Christianity and Islam was vigorous. The Arya Samaj had two items in its manifesto: Shuddhi, the meaning of which is purification, a term for the ceremony by which non-Hindus were converted to Hinduism, and Sangathan which literally means union, that is the promotion of solidarity among Hindus. Later, in 1885 the Indian National Congress was founded by Allan Octavian Hume. Among the Congress leaders there were two factions – the reformists and the revivalists. While the reformists such as Dadabhai Naoroji, Madhava Govinda Ranade and Gopal Krishna Gokhale promoted reforms in Hindu culture, the revivalists like the followers of Arya Samaj and Bal Gangadhar Tilak and his Congress faction opposed any kind of reform. They promoted solidarity among Hindus by organizing a ten day Ganapati festival in 1893. After the death of Tilak in 1920, when Mohandas Gandhi publicly emerged on the Indian political scene as the Mahatma, he received widespread support from the revivalists. But soon the revivalists were disturbed by Gandhi's ascetic non-kshatriya style of leadership. The style of the revivalists was aggressive and tended to reflect a Kshatriya (warrior) world-view. The concern for social reform at the beginning of the Indian nationalist movement was given a back seat with the emergence of militant Hindu nationalism. The (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) was established in 1925 by Dr. Keshab Baliram Hedgewar. The Hindu nationalists identified 'nation' and 'national culture' as basically Hindu, as deriving from Vedic times, and as fundamentally a creation of the Aryan people. And with this they tended to accept as an inherent part of their culture some form of the varnashrama dharma and to relegate other Indian cultural traditions to a secondary and inferior position. Gandhian Approach to Caste and Varna Hindu reformers, including Gandhi were of the opinion that the Untouchables could maintain a Hindu as well as a Vankar or Malliga (untouchables) identity without the stigma of being Untouchables. The Hindu reformers delinked the problem of untouchability from the caste system. Untouchability, according to them, was not an essential part of Hinduism or, for that matter, of the caste system. It resulted from a violation of the basic spirit of Hinduism. 'Varnashram,' Gandhi asserted, 'was for the preservation of harmony and growth of soul'. Gandhi repeatedly harped on the evils of untouchability. He himself adopted a Dalit girl as his daughter. He voluntarily decided to live with the Untouchables to become one with them. He symbolically called Untouchables Harijans, that is, people of God. He started the Harijan Sevak Sangh to launch programmes to remove untouchability and improve the economic conditions of the Untouchables. It is surprising that in spite of his welfare activities on Harijans, Gandhi's attitude to the 'Untouchables' was derogatory. He considered Harijans to be less intelligent than the cows. For the benefit of the readers, I produce the conversation Gandhi had with Pastor Rev. John Mott: "Dr. Mott: I agree that we ought to serve them whether they become Christians or not. Christ offered no inducements. He offered service and sacrifice. Gandhi: If Christians want to associate themselves with this reform movement, they should do so without any idea of conversion. Dr. Mott: Apart from this unseemly competition, should they not preach the Gospel with reference to its acceptance? Gandhi: Would you, Dr. Mott, preach the Gospel to a cow? Well some of the untouchables are worse than cows in understanding. I mean they can no more distinguish between the relative merits of Islam and Hinduism and Christianity than can a cow" (Gandhi, 1941: 240-241). When some missionary friends of Gandhi took exception to this comparison, he was unrepentant and did not relent, but confirmed that he had no remorse about this analogy (see Gandhi, 1941: 98-101). Gandhi felt that the ancient Hindus had already achieved an ideal social system with varnavyavastha. So according to Gandhi, "The law of varna means that everyone will follow as a matter of dharma-duty the hereditary calling of his forefathers… he will earn his livelihood by following that calling". There were occasions when Gandhi lapsed into conflating caste with varna, as when he praised "the shudra who only serves the higher castes as a matter of religious charity …". Gandhi believed that Hinduism will once again shine forth when "the pristine varna system is resurrected". It is in this context of Gandhian approach to caste and varna we need to locate the national debate on conversion between Gandhi and other social reformers like Jotirao Phule (1826-1890), E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker (1879-1973), popularly known as Periyar, and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956). Jotirao Phule's Views on Conversion Jotirao Phule was the first Indian to proclaim in modern India the dawn of a new age for the common man, the downtrodden, the underdog and for the Indian women. It was his aim to reconstruct the social order on the basis of social equality, justice and reason. As we just mentioned, the 'Aryan theory of race' constituted the most influential common discourse for discussing caste and society in Phule's time. It was the confirmed and sincere view of Phule that the ancient history of India was nothing but the struggle between Brahmins and non-Brahmins. He worked tirelessly to uplift the non-Brahmin castes. To establish a casteless society, Phule founded the Satya Shodhak Samaj on 24th September 1873. There was a controversy during the time of Jotirao Phule over the conversion of Pandita Ramabai to Christianity. Many upper caste Hindus condemned her for her conversion to Christianity. Jotirao Phule along with Rajaramshastri Bhagwat, were the two social reformers who maintained a good opinion of the Pandita even after her conversion. Phule also used this incident of her conversion to bring home the need for reform in Hinduism. "He said that when Ramabai had not studied other religions she made brilliant speeches in Poona in exposition of Hinduism! Poor lady, ignorant of the position to which Hinduism had assigned woman and Shudra, but in England she must have realized the true position of Hinduism". Ambedkar and Conversion Ambedkar was very much inspired and guided by the noble example set by Mahatma Jotiba Phule. At the beginning stages of his public life Ambedkar wanted to reform Hinduism, especially in the context of the untouchables in Hindu society. In 1927 he revolted against the caste rule which prohibited the untouchables from fetching water from the wells of the upper castes. He organised a satyagraha in Mahad and led a large number of untouchables to drink water from the town tank. Though he was unsuccessful in his attempt, that became one of the first "untouchable liberation movements," which ended with the public burning of the Manusmruti. Ambedkar's analysis of the reasons for caste and untouchability revealed that the Hindu scriptures are directly linked to the degrading status of the untouchables in Hindu society. So, in 1929 Ambedkar advised the untouchables to embrace any other religion that would regard them as human beings, give them an opportunity to break off from the oppressive structures and enable them to act, eat, walk, and live like men. In spite of this suggestion, he was still emotionally tuned to Hinduism and was making efforts to reform Hinduism. In 1930 he led a "temple entry" movement in Nasik. Ambedkar asserted: "So long as we consider ourselves to be Hindus and so long as you consider us Hindus we have a right to enter a temple and worship the idol. We do not want separate temples". The Nasik Satyagraha for entry of the untouchables to the Kalaram temple went on for six long years until April 1936 without gaining its specific objective. During this time he realized the limitation of Hinduism and its impossibility to be reformed, and so he declared in 1935: "I born a Hindu but would not die a Hindu". Ambedkar embraced Buddhism on the 14th October, 1956 with his five lakh followers. Ambedkar also critiqued Mahatma Gandhi for his attitude towards Christian Mission and conversion. According to him Mr. Gandhi's arguments against Christian Missions "are just clever. There is nothing profound about them. They are the desperate arguments of a man who is driven to wall". Ambedkar continues, "All these arguments of Mr. Gandhi are brought forth to prevent Christian Missionaries from converting the Untouchables. Ambedkar summarised his understanding of Gandhi on Christian mission: "Whatever anybody may say I have no doubt, all the Untouchables, whether they are converts or not, will agree that Mr. Gandhi has been grossly unjust to Christian Missions". Ambedkar's perception of Christian mission comes out clear in the following statement of his: "Comparatively speaking, the achievements of Christian Missions in the field of social service are very great. Of that no one except a determined opponent of everything Christian can have any doubt" (see Moon, 1989:452). Conclusion In India religious conversion is a complex issue. There are many discourses on conversion. The position that one takes depends on his/her location in the society and caste hierarchy. Gandhi's ideas on conversion have to be seen in the context of his location in the Indian society of his time. His ideas cannot be, therefore be generalized and applied to all sections of Indian population. The views of Pandita Ramabai, Mahatma Jotirao Phule, Periyar and Babasaheb Ambedkar represent alternative discourses on conversion and are at odds with the ideas of Gandhi. The way the votaries of Sangh Parivar are found quoting Gandhi on conversion betrays their selective use of Gandhian views which are in a way partisan in their content. Hence, any national debate on conversion has to take a holistic view on the subject. It is surprising that the same Hindutva forces which eliminated Gandhi, the Father of the nation, and perpetrators of rape, looting and murder now tries to take shelter under Gandhi's shadow without even having a remorse of their guilt.

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