Hinduism must become missionary again – Utpal Kumar

India Flag and Bhagwa Dhwaj

Utpal KumarHinduism must become a missionary religion. … India also needs tougher laws to stop unlawful conversions—something Indian authorities have largely avoided thanks to their skewed sense of secularism and minority rights. – Utpal Kumar

Veteran journalist and editor R. Jagannathan has just come out with a book, Dharmic Nation: Freeing Bharat, Remaking India, a compilation of 17 chapters largely aimed at helping Hindus “rediscover the essential dharmic heritage of Bharat and close ranks to defend them”. One chapter, “Why Hinduism Must Become a Missionary Religion”, is especially pertinent given the challenges the Sanatana Dharma is facing in the land of its birth.

While stating that the “universe is always expanding or contracting somewhere” and “life is about birthing more cells in the body than killing them”, Jagannathan makes a convincing argument that Hinduism needs to regain its missionary nature if it wants to survive the challenges confronting it. “Religions are essentially ideas with physical, emotional and psychic dimensions. If they do not seek to expand, they will shrivel, even if this trend is not clearly visible in one’s own lifetime. But when it comes to a tipping point, religions may die all of a sudden. If Hinduism wants to escape this dismal fate at some future date, it has to act now to start growing,” he writes.

He then calls upon Hindus to not rely on “bans on religious conversions” as the answer to Hinduism’s steady demographic decline in India. “There are already religious conversion bans in several states, but none of them has managed to stem the decline of people professing Hindu faiths,” Jagannathan says as he brings up the case of China where Christianity has made a giant stride forward despite being looked at with derision by the Communist regime there.

One must first look at Hinduism’s missionary claim. Howsoever improbable it may seem today, the fact is Hinduism has always been missionary in nature, though its missionary nature is starkly different from that of Abrahamic religions. One can gauge the idea of Sanatana Dharma’s missionary approach from the way Buddhism propagated itself. Prof. Arvind Sharma, who teaches comparative religion at McGill University, mentions in his 2014 book, Hinduism as a Missionary Religion, two points are worth attention in the case of Buddhism: “One, that adopting Buddhism does not necessarily mean abandoning the social rituals of one’s earlier lifestyle, although they may be considerably modified; and two, one is free to leave the monastic order and to re-enter it.”

Prof. Sharma makes another interesting distinction between the missionary Hinduism and the Abrahamic religions. “Perhaps a distinction needs to be drawn here between religions seeking converts and religions accepting converts. It is the seeking of converts to its own fold that makes a proselytising one,” he writes, explaining how Abrahamic religions seek converts and Hinduism doesn’t! (Buddhism, in this case, can be a proselytising religion but unlike Abrahamic religions, it doesn’t require neo-converts to shun their past allegiances and associations.) Hinduism, thus, illustrates how a religion could be missionary and yet tolerant. For, it’s a religion’s endeavour to proactively look for converts that bring in an innate sense of superiority among its followers. After all, if you are not superior, then why would you seek to convert others?

Hinduism, at its civilisational and cultural apogee, was a missionary religion par excellence—but with its own Indic characteristics. This explains why in ancient times Sanskrit culture flourished not just within India’s traditional frontiers but outside too—from Central and West Asia to East and Southeast Asia. Lokesh Chandra, a prominent Indologist, believes that the famous Silk Route, which connected China with the Mediterranean Sea, was hardly used to carry silk. For him, it was actually a “Sutra Route”. “The Chinese used silk only as part of political diplomacy; to get horses, they supplied bales of silk,” he would say, adding how monks and pilgrims journeyed on it carrying Sanskrit manuscripts and disseminating Hindu-Buddhist knowledge.

Centuries before the Christian Era, Central and West Asia were largely Sanskrit cultures. And it continued to flourish for thousands of centuries. So much so that Kumarajiva studied Buddhism in Kashmir, but for Vedas, he preferred to go to Kashgar! This also explains why most of the Central Asian invaders like Shakas, Kushanas and Hunas were already Hindus/Buddhists even before they reached India. Manu called them degraded Kshatriyas. A degraded Kshatriya was eligible for reconversion to the Hindu fold. These are clear signs of a missionary religion, bereft of associated fundamentalism of Abrahamic religions. The most notable example of Hinduism’s missionary nature was showcased during Adi Shankara’s time—a saga which is all too well known to be repeated again.

One finds a similar missionary tendency in medieval and modern times when Hinduism faced an unprecedented Islamic and European (covertly Christian) challenge. Whether it was the Chaitanya movement or the reconversion of Harihara and Bukka by Guru Vidyaranya that led to the foundation of the mighty Vijayanagara Empire, they remind of the missionary nature of Hinduism. In fact, there is evidence of missionary activities of Hinduism during the reign of Akbar, when ex-Hindus were permitted to reconvert to their old faith. In the reign of Jahangir, when he discovered in his 15th year that the “Hindus at Rajauri converted and married Muslim girls of the locality, he had ordered that this practice be put a stop to and the guilty be punished. Likewise, during Shah Jahan’s time, when he returned to Kashmir in the 6th year of his reign, he “discovered that Hindus of Bhadauri and Bhimsar were forcibly marrying Muslim girls and converting them to the Hindu faith. … Four thousand such conversions are said to have been discovered. Many cases were also found in Gujarat and in parts of Punjab.” Shah Jahan established a special department to deal with conversions.

In this backdrop, the statement of Pakistani historian S.M. Ikram (1908-73) is pertinent. He writes in Muslim Civilisation in India (1965): “Hinduism is not generally thought of as a missionary religion, and it is often assumed that during Muslim rule conversions were only from Hinduism to Islam. This is, however, not true. Hinduism by now was very much on the offensive and was absorbing a number of Muslims.”

This phenomenon could be seen in modern times too, especially in the case of Dayananda Saraswati’s Arya Samaj and Swami Vivekananda’s Ramakrishna Mission. No wonder philosopher-president S. Radhakrishnan believed that at one time Hinduism was a missionary religion, though its sense of mission was different from that of some other religions.

As for Jagannathan’s suggestion—to not rely on “bans on religious conversions” as the answer to Hinduism’s steady demographic decline in India—it, at a cursory glance, seems to be a reasonable idea. For, such bans have delivered pretty little in India and abroad (he has given China’s example). But then there’s a problem: One, Indian laws don’t stop conversion; it prohibits wrongful conversion. Now, whether it’s successful or not, unlawful and forced conversions cannot be allowed in a country, more so in a democracy. It’s primarily the failure of the state machinery and the apathy of Hindu populace at large. But then to get rid of the law just because it has failed would be similar to throwing away a chopping machine after it accidentally cut your fingers! If anything, India needs tougher laws to stop unlawful conversions—something Indian authorities have largely avoided thanks to their skewed sense of secularism and minority rights.

Also, the time is ripe to have a relook at Article 30(1) of the Constitution, which is discriminatory in nature, giving preferential treatment to minorities in an otherwise secular country. The article states: “All minorities, whether based on religion or language, shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice”.

One would also have expected Jagannathan to explore the reasons behind Hinduism losing its elan, post-Independence. How did the religion which refused to give up to the incessant Islamic and European assaults, fail to gather its steam after Independence? Ideally, it would have been civilisational India’s moment in the sun, after centuries of struggle and hardships. But things took a turn for the worse for Hinduism, as India adopted a Western credo called secularism and mixed it with heady Nehruism to unleash havoc on the inherently plural, democratic ecosystem. Hinduism, which even the British, especially in the initial era, saw as a progressive religion, soon found itself associated with everything dark and dangerous—communalism, feudalism, patriarchy, hyper-nationalism, et al.

While the minority institutions received special treatment under Art 30(1), the secular state in independent India decided to run Hindu temples and other religious institutions. To add insult to injury, as Supreme Court lawyer and author J. Sai Deepak writes in his book, India That Is Bharat: Coloniality, Civilisation, Constitution, the Indian state has enacted “at least 15 Hindu-specific legislations” that enable state control and facilitate state entrenchment in Hindu institutions. This state occupation of Hindu institutions, including temples, which continues till date, has made the latter bankrupt and their liberation holds the key to Hinduism regaining its missionary nature.

If one wants to understand the threats posing Hinduism, and India by extension, one needs to look at the fringe of both the nation-state as well as the religion. Today, India’s bordering states are under extreme stress and duress, with the Hindu population depleting fast every year. The phenomenon is not just confined to India-Pakistan or India-Bangladesh borders, but also in otherwise serene coastal frontiers of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. More and more non-Hindu pockets are being created in these regions. And as history suggests, the weakening of the Hindu hold over these areas would sooner than later bolster anti-India forces.

This can stop only if there is a national will to understand the nature of this silent demographic warfare. And for turning the tide in favour of Bharat, Hinduism needs to regain its missionary traits—but with inherent Indic characteristics. A missionary Hinduism cannot be a photocopy of Abrahamic religions. That, in itself, would be a tragedy of unprecedented proportions.

Utpal Kumar is Opinion Editor, Firstpost and News18.

ISKCON at Union Square, in New York City.