Hindu Conversion: A New Idea
By | Devdutt Pattanaik | Indian Author
Once, Hinduism was inclusive, and memorising hymns didn’t turn you into an ‘instant Brahmin’
Christianity and Islam spread through conversion. A Christian missionary comes to the village and speaks of the virtues of monotheism, and the shortcomings of polytheism. An Islamic teacher turns people away from jahiliyyah, the barbaric or false way, towards the correct path of one true god. Here their way is considered better than the older way. There is exclusion, not inclusion.
European scholars assumed that Brahmins were Hindu missionaries. And Buddhist monks were Buddhist missionaries. But these religions did not spread by rejecting old tribal gods. Hinduism transforms tribal gods, into avatars of Vishnu or forms of Shiva. Bon mythology remains part of Tibetan Buddhism. There is inclusion, not exclusion.
Unfortunately, in the 19th century, framing Hinduism along Christian lines became fashionable and the idea of Hindu conversions became popular. They served two purposes: create new converts through the ritual of shuddhi karan, or purification, and re-convert Christians and Muslims back to Hinduism. The former was popularised by gurus who wanted to recruit European and American followers, and the latter by politicians to fulfil what would eventually become the Hindutva agenda.
Before Europeans came to India, nobody had to become a Hindu. Everyone who lived in India, and was a member of a jati (vocation-based community), was a Hindu. No one ‘converted’ to Brahminism, or Buddhism or Jainism, as historians have now realised. Conversion was at best ‘diksha’ or initiation to monastic orders (shraman, bhikku) or ‘sects’ and ‘cults’ with gurus (Lingayat, Nath, Aghori, Sikh, Kabir-panthis). The general public had their gods, village gods, clan gods, forest gods, and they also venerated holy men such as monks of the Buddhist, Jain, Siddha, Nath, Sikh or Sufi faiths. They had no ‘religion’, as defined by Islam or Christianity, which involved rejection of other gods.
This new idea of rejecting other gods entered elite ecosystems 700 years ago with Islam, and everywhere 200 years ago with Christianity.
Hindu gods like Shakti, Vishnu and Shiva were not worshipped everywhere in India 3,000 years ago. In fact, they were worshipped nowhere. So how did their worship start and spread? To understand how what we call Hindu dharma spread, we must understand how kings were made. In Vedic times, a Brahmin helped an Aryan king establish himself by conducting an ashwamedha yagna: all the lands the royal horse travelled without being challenged were considered his. With the rise of Buddhism and Jainism, things changed. An ambitious warlord from non-Aryan communities who wanted to become the king had two choices. He could support a Buddhist establishment, ie Sangha, respected by locals. By being a protector of a monastic establishment, he gained legitimacy as king. The second approach was to invite Brahmins who legitimised them by connecting them with kings of Ramayana and Mahabharata. They would also make the king’s personal god a local representation of Shiva or Vishnu. The local tribal goddess would become a manifestation of Shakti. Both Buddhist monks and Brahmins, as the case would be, would then use their knowledge to establish villages and tax them on behalf of the king, thus ensuring they maintained their positions of privilege.
Every community continued with their own rituals and practices but Brahmins, not Buddhists, put this within the Vedic framework of the Chatur Varna system. Old economic and political hierarchies remained. But Brahminism did do something rather sinister, something that cannot be denied. They introduced the ‘concept of purity’ — taking an old monastic belief beyond the monastery into society. Those closest to the king, hence to the temple and monastery, were deemed the purest, and those involved in activities that were perceived as ‘unclean’ became ‘untouchables’ and were told to stay outside the village.
Today, Hinduism is identified only by this dehumanizing untouchability-based hierarchical system, so much so that you cannot be Hindu without a caste, which is why conversion to Hinduism, or shuddhi karan, is tough as non-Indians have no caste and no neo-Christian or neo-Buddhist or neo-Muslim wants to return to the indignities associated with his old caste.
So how is Hinduism spreading around the world in current times? Mostly by the Christian/Islamic model of ‘missions’, led by entrepreneurial gurus who make yoga and Vedanta attractive to people around the world disillusioned with religion as well as secularism, seeking something spiritual. These disciples eventually become fans, followers, members, even ‘sadhus’ and ‘sadhvis’ of gurudoms, or neo-sampradayas. It is like creating a church or parish, where the guru becomes like god, the centre of all attention.
Eventually it becomes less about Hinduism and more about the guru. It has special appeal for white people, who can become instant Brahmins by wearing saffron, shaving their head and memorising a few Sanskrit hymns. As white people become administrators of these organisations, slowly their policies stop resembling Hinduism and seem much like Protestant institutions, with rather rigid Abrahamic world views and an obsession with ascetic ideals, defeating the entire purpose.
Republished with permission and originally published at devdutt.com