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Faith, no more

Recent incidents of violence and vandalism against Christians have blackened the fair face of Mother India and ruined the reputation of Hindus being the most religiously tolerant people in the world, writes Khushwant Singh.

india Updated: Oct 03, 2008 21:51 IST

Recent incidents of violence and vandalism against Christians and their churches deserve to be condemned unreservedly. They have blackened the fair face of Mother India and ruined the reputation of Hindus being the most religiously tolerant people in the world. At the same time, we must take a closer look at people who convert from one faith to another.

To start with, let it be understood that these days there are no forced conversions anywhere in the world. India is no exception. Those who assert that the poor, innocent and ignorant of India are being forced to accept Christianity are blatant liars. A few, very few educated and well-to-do men and women convert to another faith when they do not find solace in the faith of their ancestors. Examples are to be found in America and Europe of men and women of substance turning from Judaism and Christianity to Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism.

There are also men and women who convert to the faith of those they wish to marry. We have plenty of cases of Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Sikh inter-marriages. However, the largest number of converts come from communities discriminated against. The outstanding example was that of Dalit leader Bhimrao Ambedkar who led his Mahar community to embrace Buddhism because they were discriminated against by upper caste Hindus. This is also true of over 90 per cent of Indian Muslims whose ancestors being lower caste embraced Islam which gave them equal status. That gives lie to the often-repeated slander that Islam made converts by the sword.

An equally large number of people converted out of gratitude. They were neglected, ignorant and poor. When strangers came to look after them, opened schools and hospitals for them, taught them, healed them and helped them to stand on their own feet to hold their heads high, they felt grateful towards their benefactors. Most of them were Christian missionaries who worked in remote villages and brought hope to the lives of people who were deprived of hope.

To this day, Christian missionaries run the best schools, colleges and hospitals in our country. They are inexpensive and free of corruption. They get converts because of the sense of gratitude they generate. Can this be called forcible conversion? Why don’t the great champions of Hinduism look within their hearts and find out why so many are disenchanted by their pretensions of piety? Let them first set their own houses in order, purge the caste system out of Hindu society and welcome with open arms all those who wish to join them.

No one will then convert from Hinduism to another religion.

The Great Indian Chew

Niccolao Manucci of Venice came to India as a boy of 14 in 1655, and spent the rest of his life in the country. After living in Delhi, Agra and Goa, practising as a self-taught doctor, he returned to Pondicherry where he died in 1717. His Storia di Mogor has a lot of salacious gossip about the goings-on in the harems of Mughal kings.

On his first journey from Surat to Agra and Delhi, Manucci was much intrigued by Indians’ favourite indulgence. He wrote: “Among other things, I was much surprised to see that almost everybody was spitting something red as blood. I imagined it must be due to some complaint of the country, or that their teeth had become broken. I asked an English lady what was the matter, and whether it was the practice in this country for the inhabitants to have their teeth extracted.

When she understood my question, she answered that it was not any disease, but a certain aromatic leaf called in the language of the country — paan, or in Portuguese, betel. She ordered some leaves to be brought, ate some herself and gave me some to eat. Having taken them, my head swam to such an extent that I feared I was dying. It caused me to fall down; I lost my colour, and endured agonies; but she poured into my mouth a little salt, and brought me to my senses. The lady assured me that everyone who ate it for the first time felt the same effects.

Betel, or paan, is a leaf similar to the ivy-leaf, but the betel leaf is longer. It is very medicinal, and eaten by everybody in India. They chew it along with arecas, which physicians call Avelans Indicas, and a little katha, which is the dried juice of a certain plant that grows in India. Smearing the betel leaf with a little of the katha, they chew them together, which makes the lips scarlet and gives a pleasant scent. It happens with the eaters of betel, as to those accustomed to take tobacco, that they are unable to refrain from taking it many times a day. Thus the women of India, whose principal business it is to tell stories and eat betel, are unable to remain many minutes without having it in their mouths.

It is an exceedingly common practice in India to offer betel leaf by way of politeness, chiefly among the great men, who, when anyone pays them a visit, offer betel at the time or leaving as mark of goodwill, and of the estimation in which they hold the person who is visiting them. It would be great piece of rudeness to refuse it.”

(From Beyond the Three Seas,

edited by M.H. Fisher, Random House)

Wrong bus

Returning from a theka, Santa says to Banta, “I can’t walk all the way home.”

“I know,” says Santa, “but we have no money for a cab and we’ve missed the last bus.”

“We could steal a bus from the depot,” Santa suggests.

They arrive at the bus depot and Santa tells Banta to go in and get a bus while he keeps a look-out. After shuffling around for ages, Santa shouts, “Banta, what are you doing? Have you not found a bus yet?”

Banta shouts, “I can’t find a No. 91.”

Santa: “You thick sod, take the No. 14 and we’ll walk from the roundabout.”

(Contributed by Vipin Bucksey, New Delhi)