On religion and conversions

I was a graduate student at the Kansas State University in a small town, Manhattan, during 1986-91. On one afternoon, just after lunch I was alone in my apartment and my roommate was not there. The calling bell rang and when I opened the door, I found two elderly ladies smiling at me. One of them asked me: “Young man, are you happy with the way the Government is solving the problems we face?”. I almost knew what they were after and so answered them: “Absolutely, I have voted in every election and helped in choosing the right people. In case they don’t deliver, the next election I vote for some one else”. The ladies did not expect my answer and were taken aback. They still invited me to Christ, the savior of all. If I were disappointed with the Government, they could have had it easier. I, of course, did not have voting rights in the USA. I have voted in many elections in India but not all.

I was born in a Hindu family, perhaps more appropriately, a Shaivite family if one were to mention the religion. Apparently Hindu does not mean religion but a way of life, and believe me there are many ways of life. We followed one Hindu way of life. After my bath every morning, I would put ‘viboothi‘ on my forehead using two fingers. I used to see most using three/four fingers and some using one finger and I was using two fingers. It is just something I chose to do and no one objected or perhaps noted. We would have prayers on most mornings and evenings, when most of us sat down in the prayer room and recited Thevaram, Thiruvasagam and other devotional songs on Shiva and other Gods in Tamil. We did not discriminate Gods. These songs were beautiful, melodious and those who know them simply adore them. And even now I do and know many of the verses by heart.

We used to have oil-bath every saturday, when we put gingley oil all over our body and use Shihakai powder to clean up the oil. We invariably had mutton and bone-marrow soup for lunch on this day. I thought everyone had meat one meal a week and did not realize that it may have been a decision based on economy. I did not know ‘Hindus are vegetarians’ either. We celebrated most Hindu festivals. We had a festival called ‘Mulaipari‘ which is a festival of locals and everyone in our locality participated. This happened once in a few years and every night, men, women, boys and girls would get together and dance independently (men and women groups danced one after the other and not together).  We, of course, had prayers offered to Mariamman goddess every night. On the last day, Mulaipari would be carried by women and we would march towards the river Vaigai  and stop in all temples along the way, including a mosque. Every temple and the mosque would welcome us warmly. We had our own temple where we were the priests. Yes, I am from a priest family. It is in Puliyooran, about 60 km south of Madurai and the deity is Shiva.

Being a native of Madurai from South India, I learned tolerance of all faiths. Madurai is home to one of the largest festivals, known as ‘Chitra Festival’. This is unique in that it is a city festival. Most of the city participates in this festival including many of the big and small temples (both Shaivites and Vaishnavites) spread all over Madurai and beyond. And for a good measure, some mosques too. I learn that Thirumalai Nayakkar integrated the various festivals happening in different parts and times in to one city festival (he literally united space and time) in the 17th century. Madurai had religious harmony during my childhood that I could not find in Delhi or Kanpur where I lived later in my life. I particularly remember one incident around the 1980s.

One of the Hindu groups had put a poster all over Madurai claiming that they would go on top of the Thirupparankunram Temple hill to put some ‘Deepam’ (light). It is one of the big temples participating in the Chitra festival and also one of the six ‘houses’ for the God of Tamil, Murugan, who is also known as ‘Arumugam (six faced). There are six such houses for Arumugam all over Tamil Nadu. Madurai has one more, Pazhamuthir Solai. On top of the Thirupparankunram hill is a small mosque. This Hindu group claimed that Hindus used to light a lamp on top of the hill in the past and it was stopped (following the construction of mosque?). I was not aware of this ‘history’ and people around me did not seem to have known about this practice either. The group had invited everyone to join in the march to the top of the hill to start this practice again. Very few turned up and the plan fizzled out. The mosque and temple have been co-existing for a very long time and it seemed to me that this was a motivated plan to divide the society. Most of the people in Madurai did not buy this at that time.

When I joined The American College, I learned Chemistry and also different ways of life. I found out that there were some who had meat every day. I found out that Christians are eager to convert others to their religion and preach rigorously. We had roll numbers given to us alphabetically. One of my classmate, B was sitting in between A and C and B became a Christian before our 3 year B.Sc. programme ended. His family was still Hindu and was not very happy with the decision. It was a voluntary decision by B, helped by the persuasion of A and C, I thought. Those days this person, C (I have given an appropriate name) would not talk about anything other than Chemistry or Christ. I remember arguing with him giving him my reasons for not becoming a Christian at that time: I commit two sins all through my life and otherwise have done only good deeds: one is a sin and the second one is not asking for forgiveness for this sin. He would tell me that I have to go to The Hell for this. I would just smile.

I have many close friends from India who are Christians and from what I could make out, some of them are recent converts and some have been Christians for many centuries. Some of the recent converts are eager to bring others in to this faith, as they are convinced that Christ can save them. You cannot convert to Hinduism, from what I have learned (now we have special programmes to bring them back). I have never been a religious person and I believe in one thing about God, should there be one. It is a proverb in Tamil I adore: கண்டவர் விண்டிலர் விண்டவர் கண்டிலர் (Those who have seen have not revealed, and those who reveal, have not seen). In any case, I thought, if I were to believe in a God who could save me, should not I let all my friends know that and ask them to join me? For some reasons, Hindus did not do that.

Hindus not only forbade conversions, they would not even allow persons from other faith entering the ‘sanctum sanctorum’ in their temple. And we have some Hindus who would tell other gullible ones that  prayers in Sanskrit are holier than the prayers in their native languages, even in 2015! Christians in Bangalore conduct services in English, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Hindi and if you speak a different language, they can start one for you. Christ seems to be following all these languages. Tamils had to start a major movement in Tamil Nadu to have prayers in Tamil. I went to Puri a year ago and one of the priest proudly told me: Even Indira Gandhi was not allowed inside the temple, when she was the Prime Minister of India. Ms. Gandhi had married a non-Hindu. You have to pay a price for such silly and false-pride.  You cannot complain and ask for laws to prohibit conversions. The Hindus certainly need to introspect. In closing, let me quote from an article I read in The Hindu today: Why, despite their (17th century mathematicians from Kerala school) brilliance, did this knowledge not trigger the kind of revolution set off by Newtonian calculus? ( http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/comment-for-a-newly-imagined-historical-temper/article6866021.ece?homepage=true)

PS: Some personal opinions on specific issues

0) I like Bhagavad Gita (most part except where it warns about ‘racial mixing’) and Thirukkural. I think Hindu philosophers were far advanced in their thinking and Hinduism as a religion is far advanced than monotheic religions. It recognizes diversity, which the recent over-zealous self-appointed guardians overlook.

1) The New York Times Editorial published today (6/7 Febrary 2015) advising our PM Modi was uncalled for.

2) I liked Obama’s passing mention on the importance of not letting India divide on religious lines while on a visit to India.

3) I very much liked Chomana Dudi, the first Kannada movie I watched. The hero, a poor dalit(?) refuses to convert for money.

4) I do not like exploiting the plights of the poor to convert them. If Christians were to say ‘idol worship is bad’, I would say ‘Hell with you Christians’. Read about Muthuramalinga Thevar in his biography, if you know Tamil ‘Pokkisham’.

5) As long as the caste system continues in the Hindu society, if I were from a suppressed caste, I would say ‘Hell with you Hindus’ and become an atheist/buddhist/christian….

6) I would not like Hindi to become the National language of India and ‘Sanskritization’ of education.

7) Words given in italics can be searched in google if you want to know more.



4 thoughts on “On religion and conversions

  1. Palamudikkilli says:

    Hey, my problem was they knocked my door next to yours so early on Saturday mornings when I treasured my sleep after Friday night of whatever and I didn’t have your diplomatic skills. Years later I learned it was truly part of this particular sect’s belief system and it was I who should have handled it tactfully. I remember before I moved to Wildcat territory and was in the Sooner Nation, my Indian friend Victor introduced me to one of his colleagues. “Nice to meet you Ravi. Victor, does Ravi believe in Jesus?” LOL It was a riot.

    What do you have against your “Rashtra Bhasha”? 🙂 You academics are a dangerous breed. You don’t teach children “Vedic Mathematics” from fake sutras! 😉


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