Bhagavad Gita 2: Varna based on birth or individual qualities?

April 22, 2015

Rohit Dhankar

It is often claims with forceful assertions that the chatur-varna-vyavastha (CVV) that is mentioned in the Gita is based on the qualities of persons and not on their birth. Arguments (or assertions/explanations) are advanced on both sides. One needs to look closely at the relevant shlokas to make sense of this issue.

A close reading of some shlokas makes a clear argument that the Varna is based on birth, and also that different Varnas have different dispositions and swabhavas. We need to trace these principle in connection with each other.

In 4-13 Krishna says that the chaturvarnya is his creation.

चातुर्वर्ण्यं मया सृष्टं गुणकर्मविभागशः ।

तस्य कर्तारमपि मां विद्ध्यकर्तारमव्ययम् ॥ ४- १३ ॥

“The fourfold order was created by Me according to the divisions of quality and work. Though I am its creator, know Me to be incapable of action or change.” (Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan [SR], George Alien & Unwin (India) Private Ltd. 1971)

On the first reading it seems that the varnas were created according to division of gunas and karmas. But pay attention to the words gunas and karmas, it will be fully explained when we read further down. We should also pay attention to the fact that here the emphasis is on Krishna being unaffected of karma or change, emphasis of the verse is actually Krishna’s nirliptata; and not chatruvarnya character of the world.

Radhakrishnan tried to explain that this is not a declaration of Varna based on birth, but on “guna (aptitude) and karma (function)”. However, he builds his argument on the basis of quotes from various places in the Mahabharata, not from Gita itself. It is common knowledge that Mahabharata has contradictory statements. Radhakrishna’s explanation is not very convincing. Particularly in the light of what the Gita says further down.

Even the argument he produces on the basis of Mahabharata remains open to question. Radhakrishnan writes: “Yudhishthira says that it is difficult to find out the caste of persons on account of the mixture of castes. Men beget offspring in all sorts of women. So conduct is the only determining feature of the caste according to sages”. This comes in Section CLXXIX of Vanaparva in a dialogue between Nahusha as a serpent and Yudhishthira. And looks like a critique of existing social practice rather than offering a description.

The most charitable view one can take at this moment is: let the issue of Varna by birth or guna be an open question and decide on the basis of what is said in this connection in other places in Gita itself. However, we will do well to remember that there are a large number of Hindi translations and commentaries on Gita which make no bones about Varana being determined by birth. For example Shirmad Bhagwad Gita by Swami Ramsukhdas clearly state that due to actions of past lives the ‘gunas’, satva, rajas and tamas, differ for each person and the God makes them Bhrahmin, Kshatriya etc. according to them. (page 306) This is an interesting interpretation of what Rakhakrishnan calls aptitudes and actions. These, according to the Swami are actions of the past life and the aptitudes are determined by these actions.

So, let’s see what turns out to be the case in other shlakas.

The point in this shloka is that the society is divided into four varnas, be they on the basis of actions and aptitudes n this life or as results of the actions in the last life. The issue then is: are these four varna’s equal in merit?

Well, the answer turns out to be NO.

मां हि पार्थ व्यपाश्रित्य येऽपि स्युः पापयोनयः ।

स्त्रियो वैश्यास्तथा शूद्रास्तेऽपि यान्ति परां गतिम् ॥ ९- ३२ ॥

“For those who take refuge in Me. 0 Partha (Arjuna), though they are lowly born, women, Vaisyas, as well as Sudras, they also attain to the highest goal.” (SR)

There seems to be a popular view that this shloka does not call women, vaishyas and shudras belonging to ‘papayoni’ but only says that ‘people born in papayogi and women etc.’ also attain the highest goal through me.

This does not seem to be the sense in Gita. But for the sake of argument even if one accepts it, it turns out to be a small comfort for women etc.

The purpose here is to explain to Arjuna the merits of worshiping and submitting to Krishna. In the shlokas 4:30 and 4:31 it is explained that even “a man of most vile conduct” attains the highest goal if he worships Krishna. Then in 4:32 it says that even the papayoni born and (or like?) women etc. attain the same goal by worshiping Him. Then goes on to 4:33 to say that “How much more then, holy Brahmins and devoted royal saints; having entered this impermanent sorrowful world, do thou worship Me.” This sequence of the argument leaves no doubt that the women etc. are lower than the Brahmins and royal saints.

Neither of the interpretation thinks all varna’s of equal merit. Nor are the women equal in spiritual merit to Brahmans.

Radhakrishana tries to explain it away by saying that “This verse is not to be regarded as supporting the social customs debarring women and Sudras from Vedic study. It refers to the view prevalent at the time of the composition of the Gita. The Gita does not sanction these social rules.” Well, may be. But even if women etc. ate allowed to study vedas what about their position in terms of spiritual attainments according to Gita? It is clearly below the Brahmans and kshatriyas.

Again Swami Ramsukhdas is rather straightforward about the issue and explains that the term “papayonayah” (papa-yoniwaale) is used for those who did bad karmas in their previous life, and so are born low in this life. And women, vaishyas and sudras are included in it.

But be that as it may, what is clear so far is: 1. The society is divided into four varnas. 2. These varnas are not equal in their gunas, karmas and spiritual merit. And 3. Women are more towards sudras than towards Brahmans.

Now let’s see how Krishna himself explains the working of the three gunas of prakriti and their relation to birth.

इति क्षेत्रं तथा ज्ञानं ज्ञेयं चोक्तं समासतः ।

मद्भक्त एतद्विज्ञाय मद्भावायोपपद्यते ॥ १३- १९ ॥

“Know thou that prakrti (nature) and purusha (soul) are both beginningless; and know also that the forms and modes are born of prakrti (nature).” (SR)

प्रकृतिं पुरुषं चैव विद्ध्यनादी उभावपि ।

विकारांश्च गुणांश्चैव विद्धि प्रकृतिसम्भवान् ॥ १३- २० ॥

“Nature is said to be the cause of effect, instrument and agent (ness) and the soul is said to be the cause, in regard to the experience of pleasure and pain.” (SR)

कार्यकारणकर्तृत्वे हेतुः प्रकृतिरुच्यते ।

पुरुषः सुखदुःखानां भोक्तृत्वे हेतुरुच्यते ॥ १३- २१ ॥

“The soul in nature enjoys the modes born of nature. Attachment to the modes is the cause of its births in good and evil wombs.” (SR)

Let’s try to connect all this: HE, the Lord Krishna, caused the four varna system; yes, on the basis of karma and gunas. Women, viashyas and shudras are born in ‘papayoni’ (or are like them in spirituality) because of their karmas. The soul is born into “good or evil womb” according to its karmas of the past lives and gunas (what SR calls “aptitudes”) and karmas are determined by this birth in “good or evil womb”. I do not know how one can doubt the conclusion without a liberal doze of dogma!

Next we need to move to their swabhava (nature) and swadharma (duties) in this life. It is established that: vaishya, shudra and women are born of ‘low’ birth or are in the same category. It is because of their karmas in past lives, their nature (swabhava) is determined by their birth, through the kind of womb they get; and this play happens through the three gunas of prakriti. In simpler words: their past lives determine their birth, and their gunas. And they fit into the chaturvarna. Shlokas 18:40 to 18:47 tell the ‘swabhava’ and ‘swadharma’ of the four varnas. Those who obey their swadharma with devotion to the lord get united with HIM. Moral of the story: do the duties assigned by your varnas; if you want to unite with the Brahmn do not disturb the varna hierarchy.

How it comes from the horse’s mouth is given below.

न तदस्ति पृथिव्यां वा दिवि देवेषु वा पुनः ।

सत्त्वं प्रकृतिजैर्मुक्तं यदेभिः स्यात्त्रिभिर्गुणैः ॥ १८- ४० ॥

“There is no creature either on earth or again among the gods in heaven, which is free from the three modes born of nature.” (SR)

ब्राह्मणक्षत्रियविशां शूद्राणां च परन्तप ।

कर्माणि प्रविभक्तानि स्वभावप्रभवैर्गुणैः ॥ १८- ४१ ॥

“Of Brahmins, of Kshatriyas, and Vaisyas as also of Sudras. o Conqueror of the foe (Arjuna), the activities are distinguished, in accordance with the qualities born of their nature.” (SR)

Remember that “their nature” is determined by the attachment they felt for the pleasures of prakriti in their past life. That attachment determined the womb they are born in. That birth is determined by their nature.

शमो दमस्तपः शौचं क्षान्तिरार्जवमेव च ।

ज्ञानं विज्ञानमास्तिक्यं ब्रह्मकर्म स्वभावजम् ॥ १८- ४२ ॥

“Serenity, self-control, austerity, purity, forbearance and uprightness, wisdom, knowledge and faith in religion, these are the duties of the Brahmin, born of his nature.” (SR)

शौर्यं तेजो धृतिर्दाक्ष्यं युद्धे चाप्यपलायनम् ।

दानमीश्वरभावश्च क्षात्रं कर्म स्वभावजम् ॥ १८- ४३ ॥

“Heroism, vigour, steadiness, resourcefulness, not fleeing even in a battle, generosity and leadership, these are the duties of a Kshatriya born of his nature.” (SR)

कृषिगौरक्ष्यवाणिज्यं वैश्यकर्म स्वभावजम् ।

परिचर्यात्मकं कर्म शूद्रस्यापि स्वभावजम् ॥ १८- ४४ ॥

“Agriculture, tending cattle and trade are the duties of a Vaisya born of his nature; work of the character of service is the duty of a Sudra born of his nature.” (SR)

And then comes the moral of the story:

स्वे स्वे कर्मण्यभिरतः संसिद्धिं लभते नरः ।

स्वकर्मनिरतः सिद्धिं यथा विन्दति तच्छृणु ॥ १८- ४५ ॥

“Devoted each to his own duty man attains perfection. How one, devoted to one’s own duty, attains perfection, that do thou hear.” (SR)

यतः प्रवृत्तिर्भूतानां येन सर्वमिदं ततम् ।

स्वकर्मणा तमभ्यर्च्य सिद्धिं विन्दति मानवः ॥ १८- ४६ ॥

“He from whom all beings arise and by whom all this is pervaded-by worshipping Him through the performance of his own duty does man attain perfection.” (SR)

श्रेयान्स्वधर्मो विगुणः परधर्मात्स्वनुष्ठितात् ।

स्वभावनियतं कर्म कुर्वन्नाप्नोति किल्बिषम् ॥ १८- ४७ ॥

“Better is one’s own law though imperfectly carried out than the law of another carried out perfectly. One does not incur sin when one does the duty ordained by one’s own nature.” (SR)

It seems to be clear to me that the Gita: 1. Recognises varana-vyavastha. 2. Varna’s are determined by birth, through a complex mechanism of karma-theory and workings of the prakriti and purushs (the soul). 3. Varna’s are not equal in spiritual merit, social standing, swabhava and swadharma. 4. However, all can redeem themselves by devotion to HIM and through following their duty; the path to salvation is closed to none. 5. But to achieve this they have to accept their station in the society and their duties to Him and other people in the society. I do not know how one can escape these conclusions.

But is this about ‘varna’ or ‘caste’? Well, we all know how each caste even today wants to place itself in one of the four varnas. This is no difficult task to fit the castes into varnas.

However, that does not make Gita a ‘bad book’. It is simply expressing the thinking of its times. Some of those social norms we do not like today. Still there is plenty in Gita which is extremely valuable for human life. What I was arguing in my article “Indoctrination …” is that unless the student is capable of making her own judgment and is able to shift chaff from the grain, Gita should not be imposed as a moral code. One can learn from it, but has to recognise that all is not acceptable in this book. It could be used for making arguments which go against the principles of equality and justice; and to explains away (even worst: to justify) the inequality in society on the basis of karma theory.

And, of course, it is a religious book which depends on faith for acceptance of its basic assumptions.


Bhagavad Gita: response to some issues raised through emails and comments

April 12, 2015

Rohit Dhankar

My article “Indoctrination in the guise of education” in The Hindu on 30th March 2015 attracted some appreciation and lots of angry rejoinders.

While browsing through the comments and reading the emails and letters I saw a pattern in the criticism that was leveled of the view I took in the article on teaching shlokas from Gita in schools. The pattern in the responses is so clear and has such overwhelming majority that it gives an indication of some very wide spread ideas regarding Gita, schooling in the country and ways of thinking about religion. It seems the people who support shlokas from Gita in schools and comment on the online newspaper articles have some general ideas some of which look like misconceptions to me.

In this chain of article I will try to understand and respond to some of these rejoinders. Actually, many people on The Hindu website tried to clear some of these misconceptions but it seems they were largely ignored, as the same ideas were repeated again and again in the comments.

The general refrain of the comments and the emails boils down to a few issues. They can be articulated as follows:

  1. Why no one objects to teaching of Bible in Christian schools and that of Quran in the Madrasas?
  2. The values propounded in Gita are universal and non-sectarian, therefore, including shlokas from Gita to teach those values is no violation of the principle of secularism.
  3. The moral values that the Gita teaches are independent of the basic assumptions it makes regarding the God, atman, karma theory etc.
  4. The varna-system mentioned in the Gita is based on qualities of people and not on birth.
  5. The moral values are the same in every culture and religion.
  6. Gita is not at all a religious book, it is universal and for all humanity.
  7. There is a long established tradition of including religious material in school curriculum in the form of poetry of Kabir, Meera, etc. and life stories of Buddha, Mahaveer, Christ and Muhammad. So why object to Gita?

Many of these contentions may have some substance, I will try to see their relevance in the context of the issues my article discusses. I will try to respond to each one of them below.

  1. Bible in Christian schools and Quran in Madrasas

My article deals with the public education (government school system) which is run by the state, with public funding. Following the principle of state secularism is mandatory for these schools.

Our constitution also gives freedom to minority run schools to preserve and propagate their culture, languages and religion. They are not part of the government education system. Some of them are partly funded by the government, but that is also allowed. However, there is a debate regarding this later point, as some object to state funding of schools that include teaching of religion in the school curriculum.

In any case there is absolutely no case of Bible or Quran being compulsorily taught in the public schools.

  1. What is wrong in using shlokas from Gita in teaching moral values which are non-sectarian

This is somewhat complex issue and the position I am taking in my said article may not be widely shared. Therefore, I would like to share in in relatively greater detail. The point in teaching values like “modesty, sincerity, non-violence, patience, honesty, integrity, firmness, self-control” is not to memories the list of these values. Rather it is to live according to them. But life necessarily involve value contradiction. For example a boy or girl in Indian society who is ‘firm’ on his/her choices may be considered ‘immodest’ and ‘disobedient’ by elders. Or to take another example: non-violence may often come into conflict with self-protection or protection of someone else against violent injustice.

Moral development means being able to make a reasoned judgment in such cases of value conflicts. If we want our children to develop into independent decision makers they need to resolve such conflicts on their own in adult life. Therefore, further unpacking of this very important capability of reasoned moral judgment it will require. It seems to me one who can make a reasoned moral judgment should:

  1. Understanding the meaning of the values which are sought to be taught. For example, to be ‘honest’ one needs to know what it means to be honest in various tricky situations.
  2.  Have a commitment to that value at intellectual and emotional level. That is, being intellectually clear in mind that one wants to be honest and feels emotionally inclined to the same.
  3.  Intellectual commitment demands understanding the justification(s) of that value. That is, one should know why s/he values honesty. This justification cannot be that my teacher, father or guru (or the Gita) said so; one should understand and accept the reasons behind it. And,
  4. Should be able to judge relative importance of values when they come into conflict. For example, if there is a conflict in being honest and kindness to someone, one should be able to choose one of them on rational grounds. This is impossible if one does not understand justification for each value clearly.

The values which are found common in many religions are basically humanitarian values emerging out of overall experience of human race. However, all the values and their importance in various religions are not the same. Actually, there is much variance and also contradiction between various religions regarding moral values. But that is not the subject of this artcile.

Religions, in a way, misappropriate these humanitarian values. Often they become ‘religious’ because of the kind of justification provided in the religious belief systems, and not by themselves. To understand this point let’s take a very old moral principle articulated in many cultures.

Mahabharata in 13.114.8 says:

न तत्परस्य संदद्यात्प्रतिकूलम यदात्मनः। एष संक्षेप्तो धर्मः कामादन्यः प्रवर्तते।।

Which means “One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of Righteousness.” (KM Ganguli, Mahabharata Anushasan Parva, chapter 113. Different editions of Mahabharata have discrepancy regarding number of chapters and shlokas that’s why the discrepancy in the chapter and number of the shloka here.)

The Mahabharata seems to justify this on more than one kinds of grounds. Let’s look at two such justifications and try to understand the difference between ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ justifications. It seems in many shlokas Mahabharata justifies the above mentioned principle by claiming that ‘one who follows this will attain happiness in the next world (life)’. This is a religious explanation as the punarjanma is an idea which is part of a religious explanation of the world and cannot be proved or disproved by ordinary means of knowledge. However, in the same chapter Mahabharata also says “When One injures another, the injured turns round and injures the injurer. Similarly, when one cherishes another, that other cherishes the cherisher.” If this is provided as the justification for the same principle it would be ‘non-religious’; as it refers to the nature of creatures and not to any faith based belief, or unjustifiable teleology of human life. One can observe the nature of creatures and can prove or disprove this claim.

One should note that the principle remains the same; what makes it religious or non-religious is the nature of justification provided.

Now, we can come to Gita. That are the kinds of justifications Gita provides for the values I have quoted in my article? These recommended qualities of person come in chapter 13, verse 7. Chapter thirteen is about “The Body called the Field, the Soul called the Knower of the Field and Discrimination between them”. (S. Radhakrishnan) Verses 7 to 11 declare what is true knowledge and what is not. Verse 12 declares that one can gain eternal life by knowing the Brahmn. The whole chapter is about body, soul, Brahmn and the knowledge which gives life eternal. The justification of the values listed is unmistakably grounded in this conceptual scheme which is unmistakably religious in nature. Many of these claims—like the existence and nature of the soul and brahmn—can be questioned and can neither be proved nor disproved by ordinary means of knowledge.

If we consider these values secular and non-sectarian then we do not need Gita to teach them. There are plenty of other ways of teaching as well as to justify them. If we are using Gita, then either we think that Gita gives a good justification; or we want to use and establish authority of a religious text. Both are problematic. That is why I suggest that use of Gita in teaching these values in schools run by a secular state is difficult to justify. Unless, one is ready to critically examine all aspects of the argument, and does not take anything on faith. And is also ready to give curricular space to other religious texts like Quran, Bible, etc. Then it could become an ethical discourse which is philosophical in nature. But that is not what the Haryana government is planning. Nor is it possible at the elementary school level.

I am aware that one of the objection to my article was that Gita is not a religious book. And I have again claimed above that it is. This issue will be dealt with in the subsequent posts.

(to be continued)


Till the kingdom comes: The Church on conversion

April 6, 2015

Rohit Dhankar



(explanations and justifications for the claims made in the summary are in the main artcile.)

The vandalization of Churches and conversions: even if the church is converting people attacks on the churches are totally unjustified, anti-constitutional, vandals should be punished and condemned in the strongest terms.

Conversions and the Catholic Church: in attempts to understand this issue we should make a distinction between an ordinary Christian’s intentions, activities and the church’s intentions and activities. The church may be into conversion while an ordinary Christian may not like it.

The official position of the church on conversion: as per the published documents of the Catholic Church it is established to converting the world to Christianity and will continue to do so till the kingdom comes.

The Christ is the only saviour: according to the church the salvation is possible only through Christ.

The Asian problem: church has devised pedagogy and strategies specially suited to Asian cultures. And would like to convert the Asia to Christianity in the 3rd millennium.

Is the Church talking of conversion of heart in all this? There is an explanation that the church only wants to proclaim Christianity and when talks of conversion, it’s is conversion of heart. This explanation is nothing more than a falsehood.

The Church only serves the people: the church renders very laudable service to the poor is a fact. The motive, as far as the official documents are concerned, is always conversion. In practice it may not be so, it is an issue of empirical research.

Does the church use allurements in its evangelical work? Officially NO. In reality it is an issue of empirical research.

Those who leave Hinduism do so on their own accord: seems to have some truth in it. But there is a difference between “leaving on one’s own accord”, and ‘fishing in the troubled waters’. Missionaries seem to be doing the later.

Impact on Hindu organisations: they are resisting, learning fast from the missionaries and gearing up for a battle for ‘soul’. Some of them are doing it badly and indulging in violence, it seems.

How should a common Indian citizen respond to this scenario?

A constitutional right: Preaching including conversion is a constitutional right of the church in India. No one need to feel guilty or hide it. All Indians have to accept this.

From the moral point of view: conversion cannot be defended in today’s world.

Social cohesion: Conversion will produce social tension, the state and liberal Indian citizens should try to contain this tension.

It seems we all have to learn how to live in peace and harmony, in the given complex reality till we change it. Neither denials nor violent reactions are justified. We have to raise our own consciousness, understand human failings and have to respect each human beings in spite of these failings. Indian democracy is passing through trying times. Its future depends on our collective wisdom, confidence in human intelligence and deep concern for wellbeing of all Indians; actually of all humanity. We all have to refrain from imposing our own dogmas on others—be they religious, political, or atheist. And in spite of non-imposition we have to keep the care for others intact and rational dialogue open with all our opponents. The much derided secularists I am sure can do this; but can the Church and the RSS/parivar do it too?


Whenever there is any incident involving the Christian community or any church a small debate begins. Some elements of this debate are very essential for a healthy democracy. For example there is always a very strong condemnation of the miscreants and reiteration of safe guarding the secular character of the country. This forces the government to create a reassuring environment and also sends a signal to the perpetrators of such acts that the society in general condemns such activities.

Almost always there are also assertions from the right wing that these incidents are a result of conversion related activities of the Church. The response to such assertions is mainly composed of counter assertions that there are no conversion activities on part of the Church. And if there are any conversions taking place from Hinduism to Christianity that is a result of deplorable position of the Dalits and adivasis in that society. These three contentions and counter contentions need a closer examination.

The vandalization of Churches and conversions

Saying that the vandalization happens because of conversions is a totally unacceptable defense of the vandals. Even if the church is active in conversion, vandalization and attacks are still heinous acts from the moral point of view and punishable crime from the legal point of view. It disregards the secular constitution of the country which provides guarantee of freedom to profess and preach one’s religion to every citizen. By advancing such and argument the right wing people are only exposing their own anti-constitutional position and anti-Christian biases. This argument in the debate, therefore, should be exposed and countered strongly.

Conversions and the Catholic Church

This is an often made claim, by the liberal Indians from all religions, that the church in India does not attempt to convert. Church usually keeps silence on this issue, neither confirms that it is into conversions nor denies it. Simply emphasizes its development and welfare activities. When there is a pointed mention of someone like Mother Teresa church functionaries express “sock” and anguish; as if it is unthinkable.

This claim, that the Catholic Church in India does not work to convert people to Christianity, seems to be totally false. But before we can get a hang on this issue we need to make a few distinctions. The common person belonging to Christianity may not have the same attitude to conversion as the church. India is a secular democracy because the common Indians are very tolerant and open minded regarding the religions; be they Christians or from any other religion. If they were in agreement with their priesthood and religious organizations our secularism and democracy would have been almost impossible. Therefore, the attitude of the church on the issue of conversion may not be the same as a common Christian.

The second distinction we need to make is between the official position and strategy of the Church on one hand, and actual efforts (actions) of the church on the other. There is a theoretical possibility that the official position of the church might be to exert all effort for converting non-Christian Indians to Christianity but all churches in India may not take that equally seriously in their actual functioning. The third point that we should remember is that every effort may not succeed. Therefore, the fact that percentage of Christians in India is as low as 2% does not prove that the Church has spared any efforts to convert people. This could be simply a failure in spite of all efforts.

The official position of the church on conversion

There is no room for doubt on the official position of the Church on conversions. The church was established to proclaim the Gospel to all creatures of the world. According to “Dogmatic Constitution of The Church”[i] (DCC), a document issues by the Second Vatican Council (V-II) the church was set “on its course by” the Christ himself, and this course was “preaching the Good News” of “the coming of the Kingdom of God”. This was the mission. The church and the missions are ne and the same thing. The “Ecclesia In Asia”[ii] (EA), an exhortation given by the Pope John Paul II after long deliberations of the Special Assembly of Bishops of Asia, declares that “the time for missionary activity extends between the first coming of the Lord and the second, in which latter the Church will be gathered from the four winds like a harvest into the kingdom of God. For the Gospel must be preached to all nations before the Lord shall come.”

The Christ is the only saviour

Other religions in the church documents are accepted to have some spiritual value. But the salvation comes only through the Christ. “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he who does not believe, shall be condemned”. (The Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church[iii], (DMAC) V-II.) The EA declares “On the eve of the Third Millennium, the voice of the Risen Christ echoes anew in the heart of every Christian: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.”

The Asian problem

The Asian Bishops in their special assembly noted that it is difficult to proclaim the Christ as the only saviour in that continent. As the Asians have their own rich cultures and religions; in that tradition they do not have much problem in accepting Jesus as one of the saviours or divine being among many (his is not true of all Asia, but only of Indian origin religions); but acceptance of him as the only savour does not go well with their cultural traditions. But the assembly, far from being discouraged by this, proclaimed that “the heart of the Church in Asia will be restless until the whole of Asia finds its rest in the peace of Christ, the Risen Lord”.

Is the Church talking of conversion of heart in all this?

The EA that Pope John Paul II issued in India in 1999 declares that “just as in the first millennium the Cross was planted on the soil of Europe, …, we can pray that in the Third Christian Millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital continent”. This raised a hue and cry in India at that time. Rev. Dominic Emmannuel, the spokesman for the Indian Bishops’ Conference, tried to explain it away by saying that the Indians “see it only as a change of religion. The church is talking about a conversion of heart.” This plea was obviously a falsehood if one read EA, but is still invoked today by many.

But even a cursory reading of the EA makes it amply clear that the issue is baptising into Christianity. Since Asians are reluctant to accept the Christ as the only saviour a special “pedagogy” suited to the Asian cultures needs to be devised. This involves presenting the Christ in Asian idiom, starting with narratives of spiritual fulfilment, making him look like ‘wise teacher’ etc. but the dogma should always be faithful to the scriptures; and the liturgy, though may accept some Asian symbols, should remain strictly as per the Christian tradition.

This zeal for conversion should be manifest in everything the church does. Education, particularly of the deprived sections, is poor in Asia, so the church should address this need through educational institutions, and the “Catholic schools should continue to be places where the faith can be freely proposed and received.” (AE)

The assertions that the Catholic Church in India is not interested in converting people to Christianity, therefore, is totally false.

The Church only serves the people

It is often claimed that whatever may be the official position the church only serves the people and does not try to convert them. At a speculative level this does not seem to be true. The Asian problem mentioned above makes it very clear that there are ways of working for conversion, and all the service so often mentioned could be a preparation for the ground for conversion when suitable time comes. The Ecclesia in Asia itself gives very clear indication of this: The “evangelization today is a reality that is both rich and dynamic. It has various aspects and elements: witness, dialogue, proclamation, catechesis, conversion, baptism, insertion into the ecclesial community, the implantation of the Church, inculturation and integral human promotion. Some of these elements proceed together, while some others are successive steps or phases of the entire process of evangelization”. That explains that even when there is no direct conversion, all evangelical work is a preparation for that one and the only purpose.

But the real question remains empirical: are the catholic churches in India directly encouraging people to convert? Many studies suggest they are, however, each such study is vehemently rejected by the spokes persons of the church. This is a matter that needs to be investigated further, before coming to a clear conclusion.

Does the church use allurements in its evangelical work?

Again it is an empirical question and needs serious investigation. The official answer that emerges from the documents mentioned above is clear enough at least in principle. DMAC states “[t]he Church strictly forbids forcing anyone to embrace the Faith, or alluring or enticing people by worrisome wiles. By the same token, she also strongly insists on this right, that no one be frightened away from the Faith by unjust vexations on the part of others.”

However, there is plenty of room to adhere to the letter of this declaration and still use allurements and enticements. The very next paragraph starts making room for such a practice: “the convert’s motives should be looked into, and if necessary, purified”. The promise of good schools, health care and other forms of charity can easily be the motive. But this is impossible to nail.

Those who leave Hinduism do so on their own accord

One reason for the conversion of Dalits and Adivasis to Christianity is rightly claimed to be the low social and economic status of them in the society. Desire to escape indignity and oppression forced on them for thousands of years is good enough reason for any human beings to despise the Hindu structure of society. The people who are spearheading the Hindutva movements, including ghar-vapasi, are mostly from the upper caste. They clearly have deep rooted biases against the so-called lower castes and tribal people. They would like them to remain Hindu but at a lower position of power and social status. Often their proclamations of upliftment of lower castes are extremely patronising and lack sincerity.

All this motivates people to leave he Hindu fold as it is. However, we have to make a moral distinction between someone leaving Hinduism on one’s own accord and others fishing in the troubled waters. Missionaries clearly are fishing in the troubled waters.

If the motives of both the Hindu organisations working in tribal areas and the missionaries are pure service, one wonders why they don’t cooperate. The missionaries have experience and knowledge accumulated over hundreds of years in providing good education and health care. They can offer to train the workers of Hindu organisations in these areas. The Hindu organisations rather than competing with the missionaries can learn from them. Each can come to the agreement for not making any further attempts to conversion and reconversion. But we all know that the motives of both are not as simple, and this mutual good will and cooperation in serving the deprived is not likely to come in foreseeable future.

So let’s realise that the zeal of Christian missionaries is not going to be lessened in the near future. Their methods however will be modified according to the social and political situation on the ground. Overall, the methods are much more humane now than they historically have been. The highly respected St. Francis Xavier describes his own method of preaching Christianity: “Whenever I hear of any act of idolatrous worship, I go to the place with a large band of these children, who very soon load the devil with a greater amount of insult and abuse than he has lately received of honour and worship from their parents, relations, and acquaintance. The children run at the idols, upset them, dash them down, break them to pieces, spit on them, trample on them, kick them about, and in short heap on them every possible outrage.” (The life and letters of St Francis Xavier, pages 152-53)

This man is considered a saint, even by the civilizational standards of his times he seems to be more of an apostle of hate. It seems he has nothing common with what Indians consider saints, for example Kabir, Raidas, Meera, Nanak. But the Catholic Church has realised the mistake in this method of spreading their faith and abandoned this, one hopes.

Impact on Hindu organisations

Recently there are is a lot of writing in the press regarding “attack on Christian community” and by implication ‘Hindu community’. Surprisingly no secular intellectual is asking whether the attacks are on the Christian community of on the churches? Whether the attacks are by Hindu community of by some miscreants in the lunatic fringe? We should understand that if attack on a church is seen as attack on the entire Christian community then the actions of the church also have to be attributed to the entire Christian community. This is a logical point to accurately describe the situation; and not a defence on attacks on the churches. On that I have already expressed my opinion and will have something more to say below.

When the Hindu groups (who are a small minority in Hindus) express concern on the issue of conversions the Indian intellectual “laughs” in unison with Ashish Nandi, who said in a recent interview “the majority community, which is 82% of the country’s population but some of them still feel and behave like a minority. [Laughs]”

I am not sure whether they genuinely fail to get the point of this concern of they have acquired a non-thinking attitude to the problem. The way right wing Hindus articulate the issue (and they might be wrong) is that Hinduism is not a evangelizing religion; for centuries missionaries have been slowly chipping away at it, and have been heaping calumny on it; so they feel like resisting it. Those who think that the missionaries do not heap calumny on Hinduism should read missionary literature of colonial period; and Francis Zavier’s letters; jut to get a test. The Catholic Church, the largest church in India, has stopped hate mongering now; but that is not true of all churches which are active in conversion. Those who find this statement baseless should watch this short video . Pastor Ranjit Abraham is telling lies, heaping insult on India, on Indians and on Hindus. He claims to have hundreds of thousands of followers, more than 3500 churches, and 16 Bible colleges. This worry is a response to a long history of this kind of activity.

This is producing more than just a reaction among the Hindu organisations. An early warning of what might be coming can be heard on Mohan Bhagwat’s speech delivered in Delhi on 5th April 15. It is clear they are learning from missionaries and are learning fast. They aspire for wider scope, better organised work and ‘service’ without distinction of religions etc. and also without expecting something in return. In near future they will learn all the tricks of evangelism, will try to turn Hinduism in a evangelising religions. We are in for a battle over souls in India for some time to come. Let me add that this is the worst thing that can happen to Hinduism, it will lose its roots and character.

How should a common Indian citizen respond to this scenario?


A constitutional right

Nothing in these intensions of the church is against the constitution. Therefore, it would be much more truthful to say openly that: yes, the church wants to convert. But that is it’s constitutionally guaranteed right. The church neither needs to feel guilty of violating the law of the land nor need to apologise for it, as they are within their constitutional right of propagating their religion. They should simply adhere to their own principle of not using force, allurements or enticements.

The Hindus in general and the fundamentalists among them in particular have to learn that all citizens of India have the right to preach their religion and convert others on the grounds of change of faith. If they think of themselves as good citizens of India they should not attack churches or Christians for this, nor should they malign either the Church of the Christians for this. They have to learn to live with the reality.

The governments—at the centre as well as at the states—are duty bound to protect the liberty of Christens and the Church; and enforce the law and order strictly by punishing the miscreants who indulge in violence against the Church.

From the moral point of view


The church’s position of striving to convert everyone can hardly be defended morally in today’s liberal democratic societies. It is a dogmatic position which cannot be defended rationally. All religions try to capture the consciousness of the gullible. Considering the gospel the word of God itself is a huge fraud on humanity; like any other book that claims to be revealed by the God. The known history of Bible and how it was constructed much after the death of Christ makes it a dogma crafted for political purposes. Therefore, conversion can never be an act of ‘rational persuasion’.

From the humanist point of view those who have acquired the power of sophisticated language and thinking should not use these capabilities to indoctrinate the gullible; they should rather take the responsibility of enhancing the level of consciousness and rational thinking of those who happen to be less prepared due to the unjust distribution of opportunities. The church—and all religions—thrive on the use of others unpreparedness and gullibility to enhance their own power. Therefore, the church has to take the responsibility and moral blame of its acts of unjustly influencing others. In spite of being constitutionally within their rights they are moral transgressors in the eyes of rational humanists.

Social cohesion

The church itself is aware that “the convert often experiences an abrupt breaking off of human ties”, but wants to hide behind the fiction of testing “the joy which God gives without measure”. Everyone is aware that all religions have very strong social, cultural, political and economic implications. All religious communities are now aware of these implications. Therefore, each one feels threatened if their members leave and convert to other religious communities. In a democracy an individual has the freedom to choose one’s own belief system. And still a disruption in the social and cultural life cannot be avoided if conversions take place. Violent retaliation to such a disruption is wrong and unconstitutional; but the actions of the church (if it is involved in conversions) cannot be considered as unrelated to such disruption.

When RSS has developed its own machine of conversion in the guise of Rashtirya Seva Bharati the missionaries and RSS/RSB will be standing eye-ball-to-eye-ball with each other. That will create tension.

It seems we all have to learn how to live in peace and harmony, in the given complex reality till we change it. Neither denials nor violent reactions are justified. We have to raise our own consciousness, understand human failings and have to respect each human beings in spite of these failings. Indian democracy is passing through trying times. Its future depends on our collective wisdom, confidence in human intelligence and deep concern for wellbeing of all Indians; actually of all humanity. We all have to refrain from imposing our own dogmas on others—be they religious, political, or atheist. And in spite of non-imposition we have to keep the care for others intact and rational dialogue open with all our opponents. The much derided secularists I am sure can do this; but can the Church and the RSS/parivar do it too?