Monday, October 16, 2006

Religious Conversion

The BBC reports an intriguing story from rural India: Low-caste Hindus adopt new faith.

The first part of the story indicates some of the complex motives for religious conversion. It seems that part of the motive for conversion is that it allows low-caste Hindus to escape (or at least protest) the Indian caste system.
"By converting, Dalits - once known as Untouchables - can escape the prejudice and discrimination they normally face."

In the second part of the story we learn something about the effects of these conversions, the reactions provoked in other people.
"Gujarat has reclassified Buddhism and Jainism as branches of the Hindu religion, in an attempt to prevent conversions away from Hinduism eroding the BJP's bedrock support."

I don't quite see how this is supposed to work. These people have converted away from Hinduism to escape the injustices of the caste system. They are now told that their new religions have been redefined as branches of Hinduism. So they are expected to continue to vote for the party that stands for traditional Hindu beliefs - such as the caste system. But this reframing doesn't make sense.

How is it possible to have a religion whose identity can be reconstructed for the convenience of a political party? Is the purpose of the BJP to protect Hindus and Hinduism? Or is the purpose of Hinduism to protect the BJP?

Of course, Hinduism isn't the only religion that has experienced political interference of this kind. At one time, Europe was torn apart by Kings and Queens trying to define their political position in religous terms. But I still find it odd to encounter such things in a modern democracy.

1 comment:

Armchair Guy said...

Richard:

The article inaccurately says Gujarat has reclassified Buddhism and Jainism. In India, Buddhists and Jains have always been considered Hindus for legal purposes. (India has different civil laws for people of different religions.)

Also, the article speculates that this is an attempt by the BJP to prevent its vote bank from eroding. This is impossible since the classification existed before the BJP political party was formed.

What is possible, though, is that the BJP has introduced the ant-conversion law (or more accurately, the freedom of religion law) to protect its vote bank.

However, religious conversion in India is a complex issue. The process of conversion often has a lot to do with grand promises and marketing and very little to do with belief in Jesus or Allah. Governments are concerned that well-funded religious organizations are performing large-scale social engineering on uninformed people and enact laws to temper this process. The religious organizations then find it convenient to accuse the government of stifling religious freedom.

Changing faith often does not lead to any change in the living conditions of the people. In India, many Christians and Muslims also have castes (derived from their original Hindu caste).