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Exploring Conversion And Its Discontents

J. Jayakiran Sebastian

By Sebastian C.H. Kim
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003, Rs. 525.00


The vital importance of this timely and extremely well-written book cannot be stressed enough. In the surcharged atmosphere characterizing the contemporary discourse on conversion in India, where emotions run high, and where perceptions and prejudices clash with the deafening sound of incomprehensibility, where well-disposed and sensitive-minded people are often overwhelmed by the unfortunate directions which the debate on conversion often takes, Sebastian Kim offers us a sober, carefully researched and painstakingly documented book on the emergence of the conversion issue during the last one hundred and fifty years in pre- and post-independent India.   The book does not shy away from difficult questions—running through it is the reality of the encounter between living and dynamic faiths, with all the prospects and promises that such encounters hold, and with the attendant prejudices, misconceptions and deliberate perversions that such encounters generate. In addition, the question of power—colonial and nationalist—is also addressed. This work is also important for the careful examination of how the issue of conversion was addressed from a variety of perspectives, defensive and polemical, and for interacting with and interrogating a wide range of the writings and analysis of sociologists, historians, theologians and journalists. Kim notes that the issue has increasingly come into focus in the last couple of years and that the topic is no longer something that can be ignored, since at the very basis of the debate lies the question regarding identity. The “hyphenated” existence of the convert in India is a reality and not an assumption. The increasing “pressure on the hyphen” – pressure from without and within – is an important area to be researched and acknowledged,1 and this book admirably demonstrates how this is to be done.   The book is carefully organized and arranged. Kim begins with an overview of the debates on conversion during the period of the British Raj. This includes a recapitulation of the debates between the Baptist missionaries in Serampore and Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the encounter of the Christian missionaries with Hindu pundits, which took the form of a disputation on religious and theological propositions, and of the evolution of the thinking of M. K. Gandhi on conversion, exemplified by his exchanges with both national (V. S. Azariah) and expatriate (E. Stanley Jones) church leaders. Many of the issues raised at that time continue to be with us today in the same or similar form, and one has the ...

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