An article in the Times-Picayune (New Orleans) [h/t Amy Welborn] on the religion of the family of the new governor of Louisiana [I've blogged on Jindal's conversion story before.].
A young Bobby Jindal broke from the religion of his parents and homeland to embrace Catholicism. That's just fine by most Hindus, whose tolerant, flexible views allow that following any creed 'brings you closer to the values of humanity'Actually, the reaction among my family and the extended clan, is not dissimilar. The article captures well the general openness of Hinduism to pretty much any belief system, and is a pretty decent description of middle-class Hinduism, and I suspect, of diaspora Hinduism in North America as well. [It's the reason why, as B16 puts it, this confluence between post-Christian religious relativism and the relativism of Indian thought is, from a Christian perspective, problematic.]
What the article completely overlooks is the reality of caste and rigid hierarchy that is built into the Hindu worldview, and in Indian society, the violence that is used to maintain caste/purity boundaries, resulting in an amazing exclusion of a vast chunk of Indian society -- the Dalits. The article also ignores the debate on Christian missionary activity that has been present in Indian society at least since the 19th century, and that intensified in a particular way after Independence in 1947. "Conversion," in India, remains a bad word. Furthermore, one gets no sense from reading the article that Christians remain a somewhat persecuted minority in many parts of the country. [I say somewhat, because the situation of Christians is nowhere near precarious as it is in neighboring Pakistan.]
The kind of intellectual conversion an individual upper-caste person (such as Jindal, or, for that matter, myself) might undergo, is one thing. It doesn't really violate caste boundaries. When I'm back in India, I just automatically fit right back into an upper-caste and upper-class niche. When quizzed at security on flights back to the US, there is always some puzzlement ("You are Catholic, sir?"), but it's never an issue. There is a certain freedom that is available to the elite that doesn't always extend to other social strata.
The issue of conversion is incendiary, however. Very incendiary. The news is full of attacks on Christian villagers in Orissa over Christmas [Protests continue. The bishops are demanding that the Union government protect Christians.. There is a low-level but on-going persecution of Christians in various parts of the country. Last month, in Baroda district, in an attack, a priest lost four fingers of his right hand.]. When conversion challenges the sociopolitcal status quo -- so, when Dalits en-masse embrace Christianity, or Christian missionary activity is seen as giving Dalits a sense of human self-worth and therefore, awareness of their political rights as well, well, then things get interesting. Conversion then becomes "spiritual violence" and an imposition of "alien values" and so on (Just have a look at anti-Christian sites like Christian Aggression).
Yes, I'm being critical of Hinduism, or certain (rather prominent) aspects of it. Yes, Hinduism (and Hindus) has a very open mind at one level, when it comes to individual belief (and this dovetail quite well with American values about making up one's own mind, suspicion of religious authority, tolerance and so on). But, when it comes to caste, that tolerance vanishes.
[This is not to deny that many Hindus -- certainly the westernized, English-speaking elite, but many others as well -- are equally critical of these aspects of their religion. All power to them, and to movements to rid Hinduism (and Christianity and Islam!) of all the pernicious evils of the caste system. This is certainly debatable, but I want to argue that the roots of the Hindu reform movement lie in the exposure to the egalitarianism of Islam, and then, especially in the 19th century, Christianity. Comments from Hindu readers are most welcome.]