Freedom to Choose: Conversion to Hinduism

Freedom to Choose: Conversion to Hinduism March 30, 2015

At a recent HAF Awareness Event, a group of people came to learn about the work of the Foundation, and I was asked a seemingly simple question, with an underlying challenge to prove my point: Do you think that conversion to Hinduism is allowed?  Since I usually am vocal about the challenges caused by conversion away from Hinduism, answering the question was an ideal way to explain the difference between conversion to Hinduism and conversion to Christianity (or also to another faith which seeks converts). Perhaps it will even explain why I seek to promote pluralism with such enthusiasm.

First, most Hindus will tell you that Hinduism is a way of life. It’s what my parents, my gurus, my elders have all repeated to me so often. It is well known that Hindus do not have a violent history of conversion (no Crusades, no Inquisition), nor did Hindu rulers force their subjects to pay exorbitant taxes if they did not practice Hinduism. Many non-Hindus may not know that proselytism is actually not even a pillar of our religious practice. Although there are some sects that seek adherents, most Hindus are born into the religion.

Gandhi, a great opponent of conversion, actually said:

I disbelieve in the conversion of one person by another. My effort should never be to undermine another’s faith but to make him a better follower of his own faith. This implies belief in the truth of all religions and therefore respect for them.

But Gandhi and many others since (myself included), are disparaging of such conversion, particularly because of the predatory nature of the proselytization away from Hinduism.  But it is an exchange between Swami Vivekananda and his interviewer, in the magazine Prabuddha Bharati, that opens the window to how someone not born into Hinduism can become Hindu: through freedom of choice.

“Would you leave these new-comers, Swamiji, to choose their own form of religious belief out of many-visaged Hinduism, or would you chalk out a religion for them?”

“Can you ask that?” he said. “They will choose for themselves. For unless a man chooses for himself, the very spirit of Hinduism is destroyed. The essence of our Faith consists simply in this freedom of the Ishta.”

Fred Stella, an Executive Council member of the Hindu American Foundation,  is often ia Hindu panelist or speaker, hosting visitors in the  Grand Rapids area at his local Hindu temple. One question he ask groups is, ” Why is it that when you  learn that you are to be addressed by a Hindu, you presuppose the person will be of Indian origin. Yet the ethnicity of a Christian or Muslim never surprises you?” With his Christian upbringing and current practice of Hinduism, he is able to contrast the two paths, and provide an answer that is spot-on: ”… ancient Hindus were not military expansionists nor were they under the challenge of a scriptural directive that orders adherents to ‘go forth and make disciples of all nations. (Matthew 28:19).’ ”

As I searched for more about conversion to Hinduism, I was surprised to find a whole wikipedia page dedicated to the topic. But it seemed best to go to two Hindu scholars – decidedly not born into Hinduism – to get a contemporary take: Professor Ramdas Lamb from the University of Hawaii and Professor Jeffery Long of Elizabethtown College.

Prof. Lamb’s words have been ones that I turned to during conversations amongst interfaith friends. The following especially helped during a difficult dialogue about conversion from Judaism to a denomination of Christianity:

Religions contain value systems and a variety of tools that can help guide people on a path to righteous living, provided the tools are used properly and the values are put to practice in one’s life in a positive way. I left Christianity not because I saw the religion as bad and lacking values, but because I did not find the specific tools I needed to help me build the kind of life and being that I was seeking. I became a Hindu not because all Hindus are good and the religion is perfect, but because I found a set of tools and a belief system that works for me. I also found a tradition that does not judge others simply based on their sectarian affiliation, and it that contains practices that I have found helpful in finding and following my path.

I realized on working with Prof. Long the importance of having a path to becoming Hindu, as provided by the Arya Samaj, ISKCON and some other Hindu sampradayas.  Prof. Long  wrote a guest post here, in response to his fellow-scholar Deepak Sarma’s essay disparaging white Hindu converts. Long said [conversion to] “Hinduism quite literally saved my life,” because he was searching “…for a worldview that could make sense of all the suffering I was experiencing…” How can one say “conversion to Hinduism is not allowed,” given such context?

Perhaps the challenge is in the term “conversion” itself: the predatory nature of conversion away from Hinduism along with the rejection of its “both/and” approach have both negative connotations and negative impacts.  The absence of pressure to change one’s current religion, coupled with Hinduism’s philosophical underpinnings of self-discovery and reincarnation, make it easier to acknowledge and accept “conversion” to Hinduism; with it comes an embrace of pluralism and a path to a more peaceful world.

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