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Exploding the Myths About Conversion

T.K. Oommen

Edited by Rowena Robinson and Sathianathan Clarke
Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2003, pp. xv 420, Rs. 695.00


Conversion is a contentious issue in contemporary India. This book examines the various facets of conversion in India through fourteen contributions made by fifteen authors including the editors. The contributions are organized into four sections, each section dealing with one of the religious traditions. Thus section one through four essays provide an account of the “modes of conversion” to Islam and section four discusses “conversion” to Christianity through another set of four contributions. Section two with four contributions deals with “past and present” conversions to Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. Section three has only two contributions and it discusses “transformations of Caste and Tribe”.  There are several myths about conversion vigorously propagated in India. One such myth is that Semitic religions proselytize and Indic religions do not. But Judaism, the first among the Semitic trio to emerge does not and Buddhism, an Indic religion, developed the first missionary religious tradition in the world. Buddhism arose in opposition to Vedas and conversion to early Buddhism was an individual phenomenon which oscillated between “volition and determinism” to recall the phrase invoked by Torkel Brekke in the chapter entitled “Conversion to Buddhism?” (pp.181-191). Early Buddhist converts were seekers of truth, who were well off upper caste people and conversion was from one sect to another. There was no radical break from the individual’s past. In contrast, conversion to Buddhism in twentieth century India was a collective social phenomenon and not an individual act; it was motivated by equality in this world and the converts were mainly lower castes(Dalits) as demonstrated by Gary Tartakov in his paper “B R Ambedkar and the Navayana Diksha” (pp.192-215). Collective conversion to Buddhism motivated by social emancipation continues to take place in India even to-day. Thus within Buddhism there are two modes of conversion.  The other Hindu protestant religion which emerged almost simultaneously with Buddhism is Jainism, which also rejected the authority of Vedas and Brahmins but in everyday life the Jaina laity did not differ much from Hindus. As Paul Dundas suggests in his paper “Conversion to Jainism: Historical Perspectives”, (pp. 125-148) the Jains are more interested in promoting values such as non-violence, vegetarianism and compassionate interaction between all beings rather than converting non-Jains. That is, Jainism does not pose any threat to Hinduism which explains the peaceful co-existence of the two religions.  The youngest Indic religion is Sikhism, which is only little over 400 ...

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