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Is conversion to Hinduism a taboo?

11 Feb 15
Written by
Published in Myth Vs Facts

There is a widespread misconception among least educated individuals that getting converted to Hinduism is either an unaccepted practice or an intangible precept.

Given the colossal cannon and mighty history of Sanatana Dharma it would be highly unjust to conclude the subject with a meagre article. Yet we would endeavour to get a glimpse from selective readings and considering the acts of acharyas and leaders that would at least shatter the very foundation of this myth. With measured insights from philosophy and notable cases from history, we would conclude that accepting Hindu scriptures, sacraments and system for ultimate liberation is long accepted practice that persists till date. The nature of the enquiry is neither polemical nor apologetic yet we thrive to crack the myth.

First let us delve into the core philosophy of Hindu traditions. Barring a few exceptions of the hedonist or unorthodox groups like caravaks and few others which are extinct now, most of the extant Hindu traditions believe in two core ontological entities namely atman and brahman and a metaphysical reality identified as moksha. The salvation is defined as unification or refuge of atman unto brahman where different paths are specified by each tradition. Thus, each and every atman, born in any family be it Hindu, Muslim or Christian or any other, has the right for moksha. It is karma that has led to one’s birth in some other family but it doesn’t make him inaccessible to the ultimate reality and the path of liberation.

As the early Hindu canon was composed centuries ahead of the advent of new Semitic religions, we do not find much clarification on the status or process of accepting yavans (a term used to define non-Hindus in sanskrit) or mlechhas (meat-eaters or the one not abiding dharma). Among the sparsely available references there is one from Shrimad Bhagavatam, one of the most veritable and authoritative texts in Hinduism. In SB 2.4.18 singing glory of Lord Vishnu, says sage Sukdevji, yavanas are also corrigible (can be purified) if they take shelter of devotees of God.

Looking at the Upanishads, we find narratives that evidently proclaim unconstrained access to liberation through brahmavidya. The fourth chapter of Chhandogya Upanishad depicts two characters one is a shudra and one whose ancestry is unknown yet both of them are availed different forms of brahmavidya. The first character is the shudra king Janasruti who achieved samvarga vidya from sage Raikva and was legitimized for his pious quest. The second character is Satyakama whose ancestry is not even known but is justified by sage Gautama for act of speaking truth and sterling zeal. Thus the two cases exemplify that any individual from whatsoever ancestry or social background, if is ready to accept the path of liberation can do so.

Among the scriptures we find a few references that can have implicit interpretation - access of supreme knowledge is for only three classes and not for shudras or yavans. Acharyas like Adi Shankara has repudiated such claims from Sruti & Smriti texts that discuss limited eligibility to access of supreme knowledge. In the Bhashya (commentary) on Taittiriya Upanishad (2.2), after a lengthy debate he says sarveśāṃ cādhikāro vidyāyāṃ ca śreyaḥ kevalayā vidyāyā veti siddhaṃ – It has been established that everyone has the right to the knowledge (of Brahman) and that the supreme goal is attained by that knowledge alone. In his commentary on Brahmasutra 1.3.34, citing the Chhandogya Upanishad, he explicitly mentions the right for anyone including shudras for the knowledge of liberation that what ultimately Hinduism is all about. Of course, the eligibility for this knowledge comes with faith and certain practices. It cannot be selective. Thus adhering the entire package can be termed as accepting Hinduism.

From the prima facie philosophical overview, it has been apparent that according to the core credo getting converted to or say accepting Hinduism for the sake of moksha is not taboo. Let us turn to history. There are accounted and unaccounted narratives throughout the history of individuals and masses getting converted to Hinduism. Hinduism has never been aggressive in proselytizing.

There are two major types of cases available - one is where individuals get converted after finding virtues in Hinduism and second people getting reconverted to Hinduism after being diverted for a brief period. The case of Ahoms and Hunas from the Himalayas is the perfect historical case as explored by Prof. Ajay Rawat for masses getting converted to Hinduism without forceful proselytization. From since then till today public figures like Julia Roberts, John McLaughlin, Annie Besant, Alfred Ford, David Frawley, George Harrison to name a few have set examples for conversion to Hinduism after careful study and accepting it based on rational satisfaction.

For the latter also we find examples throughout the history. For the reason whatsoever if someone is converted to other faith, he or she is welcomed back and accepted to Hinduism once again. Let’s observe the facts chronologically.

From the compendium of mythological texts, some of the recent puranas noting the history of medeival India, the Bhavishya Purana has mention of sage Kanav initiating 10,000 natives of Egypt into Hindu Dharma. The Pratisarga Parva of the Bhavishya Purana would be of someone’s interest regarding the paravartan and interaction with mlechhas (muslims).

From the noted history we also find that during the first Muslim invasion lead by Mohammed Bin Kasim in AD 712 many Hindus in the Sindh were converted to Islam through questionable means. Most of them were reconverted to Hinduism on the authority of Deval Smriti written by Deval Rishi. Deval Rishi himself was a strong proponent of re-conversion. His work, popularly known as Deval Smriti, still serves as an authority for re-conversion rituals for missions like Arya Samaj and others.

In the 14th century we find the case of Hukka and Bukka, two brothers from the Vijaynagara Empire. Both of them were reconverted to Hinduism by Vidyaranya Swami after absconding Muslim incarceration during which they were forcibly converted to Islam.

One more notable example comes from during the time of Shivaji. Out of his Eight Chief Councils, one was known as the Council of Repentents headed by Pandit Rao. The Nawab of Bijapur had converted one Maratha chief Nimbalkar to Islam and had married one of his daughters to him. When he expressed his desire to return to Hinduism to Pandit Rao, he was reconverted to Hindu Dharma under the protection of Shivaji’s mother Jijabai. Shivaji got Nimbalkar’s son married to one of the girls of his family. In modern times, we have the famous case of Harilal Gandhi, who got converted to Islam and identified himself as Abdullah Gandhi, but eventually regretted and reverted.

As mentioned by Raj Eshwar (from Hindu Nationalism: a Reader, Princeton University Press) during eight years from 1923 to 1931, some two lac Muslims were brought back to Hindu fold. During this period the efforts of followers of Arya Samaj (of Swami Dayanand Saraswati) are notable. Swami Shradhhanand, then leader of Arya Samaj, sacrificed his life for the same. Swami Dayanand Saraswati converted masses to Hindu fold. He even enunciated it as a duty for a Hindu sadhu (an ascetic monk) to convert people from other religions to Hinduism (Satyarth Prakash Chapter 11 pp. 485).

During the same period there was a notable awakening for re-conversion and warmly accepting apostatized individuals to the social order. In the western part of India we find social leadership taking steps to normalize the relationship of re-converted individuals. Under princely states, with recognition of the rulers, different societies like Kshatriya Upkairni Sabha played vital role for this. Different resolutions were passed among the Rajput sects to accept deflected individuals who wish to come back giving them a social comfort. As noted by Gene Thursby in his book Hindu-Muslim Relations in British India there was one more society known as Rajput Shudhhi Sabha. This society tried to established commensal and marriage relationship between Hindu Rajputs and re-converted Malkanas (converted Muslim Rajputs). Between 1907 and 1910 they were able to successfully reconvert thousands of apostatized Malkanas and as noted over a thousand marriages with Hindu Rajputs were realized by their efforts.

Dharam Bhaskar Vinayak Maharaj of Ramdasi Ashram at Mysore reverted 20,000 Christians to fold of Hinduism in then Portugese state of Goa in the third decade of Nineteenth Century.

On 23 February 1928, many Catholic Gaudes (aboriginal people on the coastal line) in Goa were re-converted to Hinduism notwithstanding the opposition of the Church and the Portuguese government. This was carried out by a Hindu religious institution from Mumbai known as Masurashram. The converts were given Hindu names, but the Portuguese government put impediments in their way to get legal sanction for their new Hindu names. The total number of the converts to Hinduism was 7815. (Sanskrutik Vartapatra Dec. 2010, pp.112)

Apart from the given two odd forms, individuals and masses have got converted to Hinduism by the evangelical efforts of famous Hindu acharyas. From 8th century onwards, the revival of Hinduism is notable by the efforts of Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and few others. Shankaracharya fought debates with Buddhist and Jain monks and the ultimate loser has to be the follower. He won the debates with the compendium of scholars in the Kingdom of King Sudhanva. Later the king facilitated him with royal patronage for his decade long tour where he continued to debate with scholars. Ever victorious acharya converted many Buddhist monks and thus converting them to Hinduism (or say Brahminism) along with their followers from renunciates and laity. We see such practice continued with latter acharyas also.

As far as accepting Hindus once converted to Islam is concerned, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu – acharya from 16th century – sets an example unordinary from then social custom. In the court of Alauddin Husain Shah, two brahmins were accommodated to services namely Rupa Goswami (birth name Santosha) and Amara Goswami (birth name Sanatana). They both were excommunicated from the Hindu society by brahmins of Gauda for violating Hindu practices and serving Islamic ruler. But Chaitanya Mahaprabhu accepted them back to Hindu fold and initiated them as mendicants (Chaitanya Charitramrita Madhya Lila, Chapter 18).

In the end of 18th century, Swami Sahajanand (aka Bhagwan Swaminarayan) continued this legacy of previous acharyas by accepting people from all faiths into Hindu fold. Sahajanand Swami was also having a substantial following from untouchables and followers of other religions especially Islam. Details of his muslim devotees from Ahmedabad, Surat and Kathiawar are available in his hagiographical account named ‘Bhaktachintamani’ by his ascetic scholar Nishkulanand Swami. This fact was even noted by Bishop Reginald Heber in his memoirs during the trips to India who met him personally to know his views on religion.

Many reformists were rabid and unequivocal regarding their views on reconversion defined as shuddhi or parvartan. In 1937, revolutionary Hardayal expressed re-conversion as one of the four important task to protect and sustain Hinduism. While undergoing rigorous imprisonment in the notorious Andaman jail, Veer Savarkar once said, ‘if the Hindus are to be saved, the paravartan work has to be done with greater speed’. Savarkar also established the Ratnagiri Hindu Sabha with one of the mission to re-convert the Hindus. Savarkar re-converted eight members of a Brahmin family named Dhakras, who had converted to Christianity, at a public function.

In recent times, following the footsteps of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Srila Prabhupada is an atypical example of converting individuals to Hinduism. His first line of succession - the eleven gurus or rtviks - was none of Hindu origin by birth. Time and again he had proclaimed what he had told in a lecture on 1st July, 1972 at San Diego, ‘Don’t think Krishna is a Hindu God…. Krishna is for everyone’. Today the ISKCON movement has 550 centers across 80 countries peacefully spreading the message of bhakti – an important endeavour in Hindu philosophy.

Most of the organized forms of Hinduism today accept conversion as axiomatically virtuous and practice it in varying quantum.

Thus, individuals considering conversion to Hinduism as an impalpable idea or a sin are ill-informed, factually incorrect or are deflected. Hinduism does not believe embracing anyone as taboo.Ultimately, it is for moksha. Anyone can accept the path and attain their destiny.

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