Saturday, January 12, 2008

Free to believe

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.]

The face of Hindu tolerance


Mac said...

Not sure if your invitation to Hindu readers to comment is an exclusive one (as 'twere: I've been talking about closed communion with a Copt!) -- I'm not in fact Hindu, despite all manner of Maheshes going by "Mac" in this country because Australians can't cope with exotic names.

Do I infer that the widely-noted prejudice against Christians largely has to do with the Dalit issue? Is this why even, for example, Parsis and indigenous Christians are so supercilious about "rice Christians," the implication being that they are relatively recently-converted poor Hindus who embraced Christianity supposedly in mercenary consideration of handouts of food?

What is the attitude among Hindus of -- from what you say -- lower caste towards the longer-standing Christians of (somewhat) Catholic Goa?

This would not explain the account of Syrian Christian friends of yours and mine who claim to be descended from 1st century AD Brahmans and who were obliged to assume Hindu names at school in Bombay to avoid harassment by schoolmates. Of course universal adolescent persecution of anomaly alone would do so entirely satisfactorily.

As to the rather worse plight of Christians in Pakistan (actually, mostly that issue is confined to NWFP, though there have been pograms and bombings of churches in West Punjab), is it not an irony that the Christians of what is now Pakistan voted en masse in favour of Pakistan rather than post-Partition India in 1947, whether at the ballot box or with their feet, depending on which province they were in. At the time, and not only because of the assurances of the Qaid-i-Azam but because of their understanding of both Islam and the attitude of their neighbours, they assumed their position would be stronger in Muslim-majority Pakistan than in Hindu-majority India.

NYS said...

GASWHIN - I was hoping to see a more rational post on your blog but what I see is another sly attempt to portray one angle of alleged Hindu harrasment.

Ask yourself these qns.
1. Are ALL evangelicals 100% over board in what they do in India?
2. Are ALL Hindus intolerant as you allege?
3. Are ALL Indians living in constant fear of each other.

Please present a more balanced view even if you love your belief and religion.

Let me say that as a non resident Indian who has many Hindu and non-Hindu friends I have seen some like you who are bent on distorting reality. God bless you but we need less of this kind of subtle hate mongering.

Peace - NY Sharma

Gashwin said...

Dear NY Sharma,

I never made any statements that even come close to what you suggest. Did I say I that all Hindus were intolerant? Did I even allege that? Did I say that all Indians live in constant fear of each other?

I expressed appreciation for the article (as articles in the US press goes, it was far more balanced about Hinduism than I've ever seen). My point was this: the article presents a view of Hinduism that presents it as a tolerant faith. It is, in many regards. I wanted to point out, especially when it came to the topic of conversions, that the article ignored both the realities of caste (which is hardly confined to Hinduism. Christianity, Islam, even Sikhims, have adopted aspects of the caste system) and of the controversy and violence surrounding conversion. In an article that focuses on conversion, this is a glaring omission.

It would be, for instance, that one were writing, say, of 15th century Spain, and completely omitted any references to the Inquisition or the bloodier aspects of the reconquista.

To accuse me of hate-mongering (could you please clarify in what way I incited people to hate? Hate whom? Hindus?) is extreme. It seems to be rather common these days to automatically accuse those one disagrees with of this.

Gashwin said...

PS: As to evangelicals -- I'm actually not that familiar with ground realities. Violent responses, however, can never be justified. Christian missionaries, of whatever stripe, as far as I know, don't use violent means.

And, when it comes to propaganda, I'm quite critical of some aspects of what I see.