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Controversial conversions

Laksiri Warnakula

“You yourself should reprove yourself, should examine yourself. As a self-guarded monk with guarded self, mindful, you dwell at ease”-Dhammapada

Many have already written about it. Sadly, the majority have done so while, they were sitting in the shadows, of their own faiths and beliefs. And, the harsh and scorching light of reality beyond was often ignored. We often see what we want to see. Therefore, the reality is missed or bypassed, in our hurry to embrace and protect the illusory that we mistakenly take for reality. And in the end, we all suffer.

I have tried here to address the issue, standing in a “no-man’s land”. I did my best to avoid all those shadows, of affiliations and bonds. And, I have highlighted the reality with all its harshness and bitterness.

To begin with, the Christian churches say that their missionaries are fulfilling one of their clerical obligations towards their faith, spreading the word of God. And, they, supposedly, help them while, they preach. Yes, for one thing, you cannot preach religion (even the Dhamma) to empty stomachs, to people with starving children and, the shelterless. Give them these things first and then start preaching and, you will have as many listeners as you want.

On the other, the concept of God is not at all alien to many of us. It lives even within many Buddhists, who otherwise would not be taking all the trouble going to other non-Buddhist places of worship, a fact that makes the whole process of these conversions much easier for the Christian missions.

And we, in particular, the Buddhists, should not forget that today, the majority of our people and therefore Buddhists too, are living in misery, poverty and discontentment. Whoever, be it religious or other, takes the trouble to go to them and helps them, wins them over. The mere numbers of temples and monks are not enough to keep the Christian churches away from our Buddhists.

So, they come, with one palm full of shillings, stretching in the direction of our poverty-stricken people and the other holding the Bible. And, whoever reaches for shillings, will reach for the other palm too, eventually.

And, our Buddhist clergy may have to adapt to these changing circumstances too. For instance, they can think of changing their traditional methods of preaching and also of spending more time among people. They can even think of giving material help to the needy, at least the Buddhists. This is not something beyond their means, if one considers the kind of assets and other forms of wealth that many of our temples have in their possession!

I am sure it won’t be against the teachings of Lord Buddha, to change harmlessly to be in harmony with the ephemerality of all that is around us, inclusive of ways of preaching the Dhamma.

In addition to being an effective answer to these conversions, it would also be a much more dignified action, in keeping with the philosophy of Buddhism and, is quite befitting the monkhood too, than the banal act of going after the politicians to save the numbers, which, after all seems to be the crux of the matter.

And, to our leaders contemplating on bans, more Bills and Drafts; when we are taking legislative action to stop these conversions, aren’t we also creating a misleading precedence prompting people to challenge other similar situations, one example being our political affiliations?

What if in future, some, particularly in power, start demanding from their opponents to stop political conversions? This, despite being stupid as we all know, is still a case that has a lot in common with these proposed bans on religious conversions. This shows, at least to a degree, the absurdity of reasoning and the comic audacity of the people who are making all these Drafts and Bills.

And, as far as the notion of compulsion is concerned, it has been there all along in one form or another from times immemorial. The reason that we are of any faith today is due to a particular form of compulsion too, coming from our parents and to them from theirs and so on.

For many of us, the compelling circumstances of being converted to a particular faith came first, at the time we were born, and the convictions in our present beliefs, later. Therefore, the conversion under compulsion is not something new to us and we should be able to sort it out peacefully and in a democratic manner.

It is “conversion under compulsion”, only when the participation in religious sermons and conversion itself, becomes compulsory to be eligible for material help. As long as aid is not accompanied with such constrains and is available to anybody seeking it, preaching and material aid can go together and in general should not be considered as an action compelling mature people to behave against their conscious wishes.

I think our Christian missions (if they are really concerned about spreading the religion of Jesus and nothing else) can learn something from how they go about their evangelical activities in the developed world. They have Christian charities belonging to many denominations, where aid is available to “everybody in need and they do not bother about ones’ faith”.

The religious talks are conducted separately and all interested in listening to them are welcome. And, some listeners after sometime do change their beliefs too, and in these circumstances, no one can complain about unethical conversions or conversions under compulsion and so on.

In my opinion, a better course of action would be to be aware of all possibilities surrounding the issue and if anyone is found encroaching on the conscious will of people by force or unethical means, to treat that case on an individual basis.

An all-out ban on the freedom to preach what you believe, to people with other faiths, provided that it is not done in a patronizing manner and not critical of and disrespectful to their own beliefs, is a gross infringement on several basic human rights, right of people to help others, know, talk and decide on their own.

And my humble and sincere appeal to the religious leaders of both faiths; please be more concerned about the material wellbeing (if you can) and the spiritual wellbeing (which you must) of our people and less about just how many are there!

And to our politicians; the answer to the issue lies not in bans, Drafts and Bills, but in eradicating our colossal poverty and unjust social disparities. Get rid of these and there won’t be anybody to be converted, at least in this dispute-ridden fashion.

“No power of government ought to be employed in the endeavour to establish any system or article of belief on the subject of religion”- J.Bentban



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