Changing Gods: Rethinking Conversion in India

By Engineer, Asghar Ali | International Journal on Humanistic Ideology, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

Changing Gods: Rethinking Conversion in India


Engineer, Asghar Ali, International Journal on Humanistic Ideology


Rudolf C. Heredia, Changing Gods: Rethinking Conversion in India, Penguin Books India, 2007, 400 pp, ISBN 0-14-310190-0.

Conversion is a highly sensitive act in today's communally charged atmosphere. Conversion is being declared a sort of offense now in many states if one converts to any other than Indie religions like Hinduism, Buddhism or Jainism. In a free and democratic India theoretically one should be free to convert to any religion, Indie or otherwise as religious belief is a matter of conscience and Indian Constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and also freedom of religion.

According to Article 25 of the Constitution everyone who lives in India is free to profess, practice and propagate any religion or no religion. Thus it is a citizen's right to convert to any religion of his choice, Indie or not Indie. Unfortunately the communal forces in this country (an even Congress in certain cases under fear of public opinion) are destroying his constitutional spirit by enacting laws banning conversion to non-Indie religions without district magistrate's permission.

It is alleged that the Christian missionaries are converting poor dalits and tribals by fraud and inducement and that large number of them are converting increasing Christian population and reducing Hindu population. This myth is being systematically spread as earlier another myth of conversion to Islam in medieval ages being spread at the point of sword, was spread.

It has now become highly emotional issue and it is so difficult to debate it objectively and dispassionately. But Fr. Rudolf Heredia has achieved precisely this in his book on conversion Changing Gods - Rethinking Conversion in India (published by (Penguin Books, India). Fr. Heredia discusses various aspects of conversion in a scholarly way. In the first chapter "Many Voices", he points out "... conversion can destabilize the life of a people, unsettle painfully balanced boundaries, scramble carefully constructed identities." He further points out, "If the affected people have imagined an exclusive nationhood for themselves, then nationalists will readily see conversions as subversive."

Majority communities are, particularly in democracy, are very sensitive to increasing or decreasing numbers. And this is much more so, if numbers cross certain Lakshman Rekha. And even more so if relations between communities is hostile. Thus Heredia points out, "In situations of sharp and hostile religious boundaries between communities, conversion represents the ultimate betrayal. Yet, even when inter-group or intercommunity relationships are not in conflict, conversion movements have the potential to challenge accepted wisdom and renegotiate the status quo. No wonder, proselytizing is illegal in some countries such as Israel, Nepal, and most Muslim countries."

One can argue these countries listed here which ban conversion are or have not been so far democratic countries. Israel, though it has internal democracy, so far Jews are concerned, is, after all, a Zionist state and any way conversions are not permitted among Jews. It is considered as ethnic religion. Islamic jurists, though not Qur'an, do not allow conversion from Islam to any other religion but allow conversion to Islam in the name of Da'wah (divine mission). But in India a Muslim can also, like others, convert to any other religion. Conversion from Islam to other religion is highly debatable issue among jurists. Many jurists argue, religion being matter of conscience, one cannot be forced to remain Muslim by coercion.

Conversion, it must be borne in mind, is not mere change of religion in most of the cases. It is very complex process and often involves much more than mere change of religion. It is also social, political and cultural as well as personal matter. Also conversion could be based on personal conviction or on some interests or may be a result of following a leader. There are very few who convert by change of conviction. …

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