Thursday, January 10, 2008

Dilip asks about why people are so afraid of conversion. I've been wondering for a while too. What is it about conversion that so frightens everybody? And what is my own take on it?

I began writing this as a diary entry, trying to extract sense out of loose ideas, so this is as personal as it is a comment.

It was no point examining conversions into Islam. At least, not for the purposes of the blog-world because I would immediately be confronted with 'but your own community...' and for all I know, there may well be biases I have not yet discovered. So I begin with other religions. For instance, there was this whole business of deras, which threated law and order and communal harmony in Punjab and Haryana.

Watching the Baba, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, in action on the day of a 'jaam-e-insaan' (the cup of humanity) ceremony, I remember thinking that this is as close to conversion as it gets. Without formally asking you to renounce a birth-religion, Dera Sacha Sauda was asking you to drop your given surname and adhere to a set of rules to live by, while preaching at elaborate ceremonies, even putting you through a formal initiation/adoption of faith ritual involving imbibing flavoured milk.

And there had been an outburst of violence even then.

However, for the purposes of this discussion, I chose to dwell on Christianity since I do have some experience with institutional religion there.

I went to a convent where the nuns did subtly hint that they'd like us to conform, though not convert, keeping other religious rituals or symbols low-key. There was a much-anticipated pre-Christmas party, and we had to sing hymns every single at dinner-time, say grace and also 'Our father...' and we didn't mind very much. Just one more set of rules in a long list.

Any spark of talent was encouraged, and attempts were made to guide talent into preferred channels. For instance, if you acted or wrote, they may well ask you to help with the nativity plays. I'd been asked, too, to participate in the plays that were put up as part of the Christmas celebrations and I remember being mortified, briefly. Not because it was a nativity play but because of the preachiness of the scripts.

By way of illustration, I first had a bit role as an aborted (adult-sized) foetus, for which I had to wear a frock and come running to my 'mother' after she dies and goes to heaven. It was an anti-abortion stance that left me deeply uncomfortable. The next year, in recognition of my increased involvement with the dramatic society, I was one of the central characters in the Christmas play. The role was not that of Mother Mary, but the character was called Mary who had heard of The Virgin and the impending birth of Jesus. In this play, I was supposed to be, first, pregnant, then, in danger, then, beaten up, and finally, dying in my husband's arms. Since we were an all-girls' college, my 'husband' was a girl too. All through the rehearsals, as I lay 'dying', we shook with laughter. It was a terribly written script (by a priest himself), and the tragic finale - 'Oh, Joseph, our baby!' and 'No, my darling wife, you cannot leave me! Noooooo! - was an inevitable explosion of mirth in our teenaged mouths.

Finally, I resorted to an old trick: Amrutanjan. I rubbed some of it around my eyes seconds before the scene and proceeded to cry copious tears, shaking with laughter all the time. The author-priest later came up to congratulate me on such a 'heart-felt' performance.

This story doesn't have much to do with conversion. It has more to do with memories, which make me shake my head and smile now. That's what it was like, in the convent. I don't remember anger. I do remember a mild sort of resentment amongst some of the students, that the nuns weren't open to other religions, and that the few concessions they made were made on the assumption that there might be trouble if they didn't allow this much. We did have a pre-Diwali party. There were special meals for Shivratri, so we could break fast at midnight. The nuns probably would have been amused at any show of resentment - they were nuns! And they were already appeasing the students in many ways. Appeasing the majority even though theirs was a minority institution offering us a highly subsidized, considering we did live fairly comfortable lives in the hostel. It was clean and well-maintained, if not luxurious and we got four meals a day. They didn't need to appease another minority, of course. So there were no special provisions during ramzan, and no celebrations for Eid. But my mother told me that it was too much to expect nuns to be wholly secular. They'd given their lives to the cause of the religion, after all.

I remember being angered by the rumour that one of the Christian girls was being pressurized into becoming a nun. She had apparently told her close friends that she was being asked to go into the convent by her family, and the college nuns weren't exactly discouraging them. It shocked us, though it only came to us as a rumour. We also heard that many of the students from Kerela had become nuns at sixteen because they didn't have any money to do anything else. That angered me. I remember thinking - why couldn't the nuns just have given them shelter and money for education, without taking away their right to colour and sensual pleasures?

Now it strikes me that, perhaps, this is how others view conversions. Why can't the preachers and priests help poor tribals or dalits or whoever they're helping, just like that? Help them for the sake of helping them, without bringing in Christ or conversion? And why cannot Muslims and Sikhs do so too? And why must Muslims who marry outside the religion insist on a kalma and a nikah, or a renouncing of the other's faith? Why can't we just accept, as is?

For the same reason, I suppose, that it matters that one wants to be accepted, as is. Reasons of identity and self.

Community is an extension of the self. That's why all communities have something in common. Religion. Nationality. Language. Race. Ethnicity. Continent. Surname. Dialect. Demograph. Something!

Some point of contact, which allows the 'I' to become 'we'. Living in a building makes you part of the residents' association. Living in a city makes you urbane; at least, it gives you a domicile certificate, a ration card, an identity, things you use to define yourself. Like music lessons. Like a guitar gang. Like history or gender studies.

Each choice you make, whilst surviving in a community, is a choice that defines you and what you have at stake in that community.

Conversion is problematic for many, I think, because it represents an opt-out. A de-choice. A negative option that says, 'I don't like this group that has, so far, counted on me for definition and which I have used to define myself. I'm going to another one.'

Like a politician leaving a party after a lifetime of commitment, for a new one. Or a divorce. Or a youngster running away from home. Or somebody giving up citizenship of a nation. Or somebody asking to create a new nation/state. Those are people we call extremists or separatists.

Separatists are problematic too. They too seem to be opting out of the thing which is defined by them and has thus far defined them.

I also remember our 'gangs' in college. We were teenagers with not a clue about how things really worked in the real world. Ours was a small world with high walls, many rules and few visitors. A world of college magazines, dance contests, drama contests. And we participated and fought as groups which we liked to call 'gangs'. There was the Ratna-Tanu group, which had as its members a bunch of girls from Kota, from the same school, a few others who got along well with them. There was a bunch of day-scholars we called the 'Laal-garara' gang, ever since they put up a dance item to the tune of the pop song 'laal garara', all dressed in - what else? - laal gararas.

Loyalties were strong. Rivalries too. We talked with all but it would be intolerable if one of 'us' started hanging out too often with members of the other gang. Friendships were tested sorely. It was noticed, if you didn't share a table with your own group members. To desert your gang was a form of betrayal that, in snide, small ways, was punished... A taunt. Being barred from a gossip session. Not being asked to join a dance.

So, the self, finally.

Those who are afraid of conversions are, perhaps, afraid of losing a little bit of themselves. Afraid of losing that point of contact, which makes it simpler to relate, to be part of, to claim somebody as a part of you.

Society is constructed around ritual, around community of one kind or another - maybe just common interests - around a set of practices and events that give us our daily life, our motivations, our sense of normalcy and joy.

This could mean an evening satsang for some people. A Sunday morning mass for some. A literature festival. A gambling den. The Friday namaaz. Decorating a Christmas tree, lighting clay lamps on Diwali, attending college, participating in a television reality show, going to a club, trekking in the hills, meeting friends at a cafe, joining a gym.

Not all of these are the same in the demands they make of others. The Friday namaaz is very much a prayer-meeting, but it is also an individual act of faith for each person who shows up at a mosque. Another person could be sitting alone in a cafe, asking nothing more than to be served on time, and that the waiters don't spit into the coffee. Yet another person could join a gym for a purely individual reason - losing weight, getting a six-pack. Even so, in all these cases, we are forming and conforming to norms laid down by a group.

When I say I need to lose weight, I am allowing society to speak through my tongue. I am saying that I need to be accepted, liked, wanted, by others with whom I form a group. Those who do not form part of any group are the people we feel most threatened by. For instance, nomads have always been treated with mistrust and often humiliated by those who are 'settled'. Maybe because the nomads appear to reject something we believe is essential, a social essence, at the core of us.

Each time an individual whom we believe was 'ours', 'on our side', or a part of us, sends out the message that he is, in fact, not a part of us, we feel diminished. Perhaps, we are diminished. If everybody leaves a music group, it is disbanded; it ceases to exist. If everybody leaves a certain denominational church, it becomes forlorn and poor and less powerful in the region. If people stop queuing up outside a college to gain admission, it loses prestige value. If people stop coming to a satsang, the satsang is no longer a throng, a throbbing place of vitality and reassurance.

With every instance of diminished allegiance, every threat to their existence, all those who have something invested in the identity of the group, that is, their own identities and maybe even their livelihoods, are upset.

This is especially tricky when livelihoods are bound up with identity. Who is always at the forefront of the crusade for 'cultural nationalism' or 'religious revival' or 'spiritual renaissance'? Those who gain the most power/prestige/money/related benefits from a people's allegiance to a given idea or ideology.

It is not a mere coincidence that political-religious right-wing groups in India are always invoking the ghost of conversions. It is not for nothing that god-men go preaching lies about how that 'other' has been 'stealing' their women - who are not just members of this group, but also banks (in their eyes, at least) for the future.

Priests (of all religions) stand the most to lose if they lose their group. They lose their jobs. Religion is the touchiest part of the conversion spectrum because religion is, and always has been, so closely bound with politics and money. Many a church is rich. Sadhus, 'sants' and mahants are often rich, if not directly then through their ashrams. Maulanas are often rich. Those that are not rich - those are the ones who care least about what group you belong to, where you came from, what you call yourself and whether you can spare anything at all besides your heart. These are sometimes nomadic fakirs, and in secular terms, fakirs of temperament... And who has ever sought a fakir's views on conversions?

In Hindi, there is this brilliant phrase: 'peyt pe laat', which refers to a snatching away of livelihood. (Translating it as 'a kick in the stomach' is not quite the same thing). Religious leaders do not have the humility to admit that conversions are a loss of business, a kick in their collective stomachs. And so they raise questions about motive, about god, about cultural and spiritual pollution, about appeasement, about 'them' and 'us'.

[Atheists are too few in number to matter. It is easier to tackle those who seem to want to believe in some kind of god(s), and either win them back or bring more into the fold, than those who don't want anything to do with you and will certainly not pay you for the privilege.]

As for the 'us' reacting to 'them'... each time a group is confronted with loss, it reacts with fear and bitterness: loss does that to you. If they've taken one of us today, will they take more tomorrow? Will they take over? Will 'we' as we know ourselves no longer exist? 'I', as a set of functional organ parts may survive. But is that all I am? What am I? An Indian and a Hindu? Well, then, is India not an ancient land, the only country - barring Nepal - where Hindus are in a majority? Are we going to let them change that? Are we going to be ruled by someone who is not one of 'us'? Are we going to be diminished, bit by bit? Are we... are we.... are they...?


is a terrible thing. An awful thing that sucks out your mind's balance and leaves you teetering on the edge of an imagined void where the only escape seems to be to hit out at the force that you suspect may have led you here.

Collective fear is a thing beyond awful. It has the power of a mob, with none of the rationale of an individual mind.

A collective fear is near-impossible to assuage, for it is rooted outside the human frame. It is rooted in an intangible, amorphous, shifting thing called 'community'. You can go upto each member and gently brush away the shards of fear from their minds, but by the time you are done with one, the others have acted to undo it all. The collective exists in its commonalities. Therefore, common fears. When nothing else binds you, fear will.

And it does.

Update: One commenter seems to either have not read, or not understood this post at all. So, to spell it out clearly, I am not against conversions. Just because I understand (I think) why people oppose them, does not mean that I am against them too. People have the right to change religions like they change clubs, like they walk out of bad relationships, like they shut down a business or end their own lives. And just like you cannot stop someone from advertising their products or soliciting customers for sundry services of mind or body, you cannot stop a priest from converting someone.


dipali said...

Beautiful written and so well thought out. But.... where do we go from here?

Anonymous said...

You have put to words exactly what i feel..especially in the last 3 paras.
Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Very well thought (and well paced too)!

I have one question: Isn't there some fundamental difference between turning to some other mainstream religion compared to becoming an atheist? In the sense that the meaning of an atheist is much more well defined compared to being say a hindu or muslim or any other religion, so it is easy to make up (or not) your mind regarding such a conversion. Also just my guess that there are very few conversions out of atheists back to some religion (i.e. it is more or less one way).

Also you mentioned that atheists are too few to matter. I thought atleast in US, atheists outnumber many minority religions like Hindu/Muslim or in any case are of the same order of magnitude in numbers. In India too I am sure numbers are huge. My 'secret surveys' during school days indicated a number like 5-10 % (though sample size wasn't terribly big in comparison to our Giga population).

ps: Hope if you don't mind asking this--how much time did it take for you to write this post up and was this written in one straight shot?. I am asking because I am a sucker at writing and always wonder how people (like you) are able to write long coherent posts. Your answer won't probably improve my writing/thinking skills but just curious!

Goli said...

Beautifully written, and frankly the way I see it is that Conversion should be a punishable crime, because it slowly destroys your culture. And many times when I see this convers'ed people I find that they are culturally confused. Because they have bought up with different thoughts and later they are replaced by something else.

Very brave topic to pick up I must say.

Good writing.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Annie. I have felt troubled by mass conversion efforts and not been able to really spell out what makes me uncomfortable. Found much of what I struggled to express here.

but, am very very ambivalent on this. Even mass conversion has its benefits for

"... this group that has, so far, counted on me for definition and which I have used to define myself. ..."

is probably not true for such cases, the most backward/ Dalits that are converting- the group "Hindu" hasnt counted on them for defn, by and large have oppressed, or at best ignored them to the point that many of them are probably not willing, participative Hindus, and not recognized as equals by other Hindus.

Conversion efforts from other communities would lead to efforts at re-converting them and generally should lead to a better deal for them all round.

For this reason alone, I am OK even with mass conversion drives that have nothing to do with actual religious conviction.

I regret and condemn the violence and use of force to prevent such conversions even though I recognize the insecurity that drives it.


Annie Zaidi said...

dipali: thanks. and it is not for me to go anywhere from here. i was seeking to understand and maybe I do. those who read this may understand too and make up their own minds about what they want to do.
ru: thanks
jai: I agree, in political terms. but if you notice, I've updated the post to say that I don't have a problem with conversions because it wasn't apparent in the post earlier. I don't much like organised religion, but it must exist, I prefer having more of them to just one, with the option of moving between them.
goli: you don't get it at all. and I was not being brave at all. It was for your benefit that I added the update note. Please note.

xanadu: the atheists are rarely willing to go on record as atheists - while filling up forms etc. and many of them still need a religious community in terms of support at times of crisis. a church, a burial ground, things like that. very few people publicly, eternally, renounce all faith. that's why they don't matter.

separately, on the writing of this - it took two sittings. a couple of hours each. and I made minor changes before putting it up in public, and as I re-read now, I realize that I clearly did not proof it well enough so had to edit again today.

1conoclast said...

Yeah, I've always believed that all aggression stems from fear which stems from insecurity.
And your last line really sums up my stance on this at least. Goli read it all wrong.

Anonymous said...

Hey Annie,

Well Said... I like to differentiate between forced conversions and free conversions. Forced conversions being conversions for some kind of situation where people feel obliged to join a religion without being convinced that it is a better religion.

Forced conversions are bad.

Free conversions, where people learn about other religions, and then make an informed choice, is ok.

But the whole problem is that we find it difficult to distinguish which conversion is forced and which is free. We need to guard against and even ban forced conversions, not free conversions.

R.Sajan said...

Good banter. Banter on....!

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