Over the last week, there was no escaping the controversy surrounding the Agra conversions. In case you have been hiding under your bed to avoid all the high-decibel, bad-tempered debates on primetime TV shows (and who can blame you!), an organisation called the Dharma Jagran Samanvay Vibhag (an offshoot of the RSS and Bajrang Dal) recently converted a community of Muslim ragpickers to Hinduism in what is called a ‘shuddhikaran’ (purification) ceremony and what the Sangh Parivar has dubbed ‘ghar vapasi’ (returning home).
But even as the two houses of Parliament went into meltdown, and the voices of the commentariat became shriller than ever, all I could think about was an incident that happened in my own childhood.
Like most kids of my background in those days, I studied in a school that was run by Christian missionaries. So, we would start the day with a Christian prayer in the morning assembly; we would say Grace before heading for our lunch break, and a small prayer would be said before we broke up for the day.
There was a lovely chapel on the premises, and come exam time, we would all file in of our own volition, bend down on our knees and cross ourselves nervously as we prayed fervently for good marks.
No matter what our religion – and we had a smattering of Muslims, Sikhs and Buddhists along with Hindus and Christians – we all went through this routine year in and year out. And yet, none of us felt that our own faiths – the religions we practised at home – were compromised by a few ‘Hail Marys’ or ‘Our Father, who art in heaven…’
The only exception (that I knew of, anyway) was my second cousin, who lived in Agra. At age 12, she became fascinated by Christianity, read the Bible and other religious tracts, and decided that she wanted to become a Christian. So, she took her request to the great patriarch of our family, her grandfather, a Sanskrit scholar of some distinction himself.
Instead of exploding angrily at her request, as a lesser man may have done, he listened to her patiently, and asked her why she wanted to convert. She told him what she admired and loved about the Christian faith.
Yes, he said to her, all of that is true. But do you really understand what you would be losing by giving up on Hinduism? No, she did not, she conceded reluctantly.
No problem, said Bauji (as he was universally known). He would give her a few books on Hinduism that she could read over the month. They would meet and discuss what she had read every day.
And if at the end of the month she still felt that Hinduism was not for her and she would rather be a Christian, then he would personally organise her baptism in the faith.
Well, to cut a long story short, in the end my cousin decided to stay in the faith she was born in. But to this day, I am struck by the strength and sagacity of Bauji. He didn’t yell at my cousin that she was being stupid to even think of such a thing. He didn’t patronise her by saying that she was too young to make such a decision.
And nor did he lay down the law: you are born a Hindu; and a Hindu you shall remain till the day you die. Instead, he appreciated why the tenets of Christianity had appealed to her. But rather than say that one religion was inferior/superior to another, he encouraged her to study both, and then make up her own mind. And whatever decision she made, he promised to support her.
To me, Bauji epitomises the essential tolerance and fair-mindedness that is the hallmark of Hinduism; the acceptance that there are many paths that lead to God, and no one path is better than the other. It is that tolerance and fair-mindedness that makes me proud to be a Hindu.
And it is that essential truth of Hinduism that Hindutva seeks to destroy, with its insistence on conversions that are brought about with inducements and blandishments rather than a reliance on a genuine change of heart.
For me – as I suspect it is for most Indians – my faith is an intensely private matter. It is an integral part of my being, but it is not what defines me. I would still be the same person if I were a practising Muslim or Christian instead of a practising Hindu.
At the end of the day, which God I worship comes entirely down to an accident of birth. Speaking for myself, I am happy that I was born in this faith. But an essential part of that faith is being tolerant of those who were born into others; and to respect the choice of those who wish to convert to another.
Hinduism was not weakened when Muslim invaders came and converted thousands of Hindus to Islam over the centuries or when the missionaries came proselytising. And it will not be strengthened if various affiliates of the RSS go around ‘re-converting’ thousands of Muslims and Christians in the 21st century.
At the end of the day, Hinduism derives its strength from the philosophy of life it espouses. It is a great religion because it teaches us that the entire world is one family (
). And it will stay strong because of people like my Bauji, who teach their children and grandchildren that it doesn’t matter what the road is called, just so long as it reaches God.
From HT Brunch, December 21
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch