To what extent should a religion welcome converts, and should a religion actively seek converts? There are many schools within Hinduism, and many different answers to this question.
I have previously written about Hinduism’s attitude towards newcomers, and how most typical Hindus don’t actively attempt to proselytise. This was illustrated in our mandir recently. We often have visits from school groups learning about religions practised in the city, and occasionally we have adult groups visiting. One day when I came to the mandir for arti there was a group from a nearby church. When the arti had finished some of the visitors came over and talked to us, and one of them asked if I was a convert. One of the other Hindus present said that he wanted the visitors to be clear that Hindus do not try to convert people. If people come and are interested they will welcome and help them, but they don’t actively seek converts. I have heard it said that Hinduism should be offered like sweets on a plate. If someone wants to take them then they are welcome, but they are equally welcome to decline the offer and move on. This is certainly far more restrained than the practice of religions which actively proselytise, but is it sufficient to ensure that people who convert have really accepted the faith and have positive reasons for joining? To answer this question I will take a side-step and look at the acceptance of converts in Judaism.
Acceptance of Converts into Judaism
Like Hinduism, Judaism does not actively seek converts. Judaism has a long history of accepting converts while at the same time maintaining its integrity. I think that their process of conversion, honed over the centuries, is a useful example to Hindus.
If someone expresses a desire to convert to Judaism the first thing a rabbi will do is reject them! They will do this three times before accepting them as a convert. After this the rabbi will question them closely on why they want to convert. If the rabbi is happy that the potential convert has a valid reason for wanting to convert then they will teach the potential convert about Judaism, or arrange for them to learn about it from some other source. A period of study, usually of a year or more will be needed. The convert must accept the necessary Jewish beliefs and reject beliefs that are contrary to Judaism. Males must be circumcised.
On completion of the study the convert must appear before a bet din court, who will ask them about why they wanted to convert and what they have learned. This is followed by a ceremony of cleansing in the mikveh, or sacred bath. At this point the converts are accepted as Jews, and expected to participate in the Jewish community. Orthodox Jews only recognise conversion by orthodox lineages, so many people converting to Judaism do so with an orthodox rabbi so that they will be universally accepted.
It is obvious from this that Jews do not just take avoidance of pressure as sufficient to ensure an ethical and full conversion. I think that the key points illustrated by Jewish conversion are:
- Absence of pressure to convert, no active proselytisation.
- A genuine desire to convert on the part of the convertee.
- An understanding of the faith.
- A belief in the essential elements.
- A disbelief in ideas that contradict the faith.
- A spiritual process of acceptance.
- Acceptance of converts into the religious faith
I can see the value of all these things. Someone converting should understand the religion that they are converting to, do so out of free will, and take on and believe in the new faith fully.In the next section I will look at how and to what extent conversion into Hindusim incorporates these elements.
Conversion into Hinduism
I have mentioned in previous posts that within Hinduism there are many different attitudes to conversion, ranging from some lineages that do not accept any converts to others that say that all you need to do to become a Hindu is to proclaim that you are one. The only common theme is that they do not actively proselytise. The Nandinatha Sampradaya practice a method of accepting new members that was devised by Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami. This process is described in his book How to Become a (Better) Hindu. This process involves studying the Himalayan Academy Master Course. This gives the potential convertee a grounding in Hinduism in general and the Saivite teachings of the Nandinatha Sampradaya in particular. The first year of study can be undertaken without any expressed desire to join the sampradaya, but to continue into the second year the potential candidate has to fill in a form that includes their reasons for conversion. The application will be considered by the Satguru. If a potential convert is accepted, they begin the real stages of conversion (they will probably have started some already); mixing and worshipping with an established Hindu community, studying the differences between their previous religion (if any) and Hinduism, disengaging from previous beliefs, adopting a Hindu name, a naming ceremony, and finally announcement of the conversion.
Like conversion into Judaism, the above process means that only genuine converts who fully understand and accept the religion are accepted.
Personally I think it is a good thing for Hindu lineages to have formal processes of acceptance that covers the points mentioned above. I am sure that with Hindu communities being established worldwide this will be more of an issue in future, and such processes will become more common.
Hindus are justifiably proud that they do not actively try to make people change their religion. This in itself is not sufficient to ensure an ethical conversion that preserves the integrity of Hindu lineages. Those converting should have a genuine desire to do so. Converts should understand the faith they are joining and hold the necessary beliefs, and just as importantly not hold beliefs that are contrary to the faith. Conversion is a spiritual matter, so a spiritual ceremony is necessary. After this they should be accepted fully as members of that faith. Some Hindu lineages, including the Nandinatha Sampradaya do have processes of acceptance that are in accordance with these requirements. I suspect that this will become more common among Hindu groups in future.
If I have to convert to Hindu, should I seek someone who will convert me? What if I don’t find anyone?. How do I know if the person converting me, is an authorized representative of the religion? . If I have no money to take the “master course”, can’t I become a hindu? It’s like having someone to proclaim/validate that I’m ‘free’.
History teaches that if we appoint someone as the representative of a religion then his personal failures will be seen as the failure of the religion. It has been tried in Christianity with Pope and that led to a division – Roman catholic and protestants and no one wants that.
New comers to the religion often mistake the priest to be the authority, it’s wrong. Priests try to create such an impression, but don’t be misled. In early days before Edison invented the light bulb, the sanctum in a temple was poorly lit and having a person for arthi solved the problem. And part of the priest’s job is to clean and decorate the God’s statue.
To convert to hinduism (or any religion) the only requirement is we got to learn the religion and practice it.
I think the absence of a mechanism for conversion led Hinduism to accept other religions into it’s fold. There’s nothing that stops a muslim from saying that he’s a hindu. But a hindu can’t claim he’s a muslim. Hinduism is democratic at it’s core. As a Hindu, I will hate if there’s scheme or method for conversion to make someone holy enough to be part of the religion. It’s practical, if each one understand that they don’t know much of the religion and believe that the same is true for everyone.
I do accept that texts about the religion should be freely available and the newbies should be guided to those texts through some means. I like the free distribution of Bible and hinduism needs something like that.
You make some very good points.
Firstly, I should make it clear that anyone who is born and raised in a Hindu lineage is a Hindu without question. I am not proposing that there should be any ceremony or process for them. If you do not know about Hinduism then you would need to learn from somewhere, and find either a person or a source of information. A natural step from this is for the person or source to say “OK, you now know enough about Hinduism to say that you are a Hindu if you believe these things and carry out these practices….”. Hinduism is a group of sampradayas rather than a single entity. I see each sampradaya saying who is authorised to accept converts.
At the same time, I would almost never say that anyone who declared themselves to be a Hindu wasn’t. The only time I might point this out to them is if they obviously believed practically nothing of Hinduism but believed in another faith. I have come across some people online who declare themselves Hindus though knowing very little about it, never going to a Hindu temple, and sometimes also claiming to belong to other faiths also. My attitude is that this is a good starting point, you are a Hindu and here are some places you can find out more. In truth what really counts is not whether you call yourself a Hindu or not but your spiritual practice. The reason that I would like to see formal acceptance processes is that I think it is useful for the convertee to know where they are, and as a sign to others that this is not just someone who turns up at the mandir but who understands basically what a particular branch of Hinduism is and accepts the beliefs.
Well, this is the route of just one sampradaya, who also make the course available free online. It is true that to take the course formally you need to purchase the books, but I feel sure that if someone genuinely could not afford this then either this would be waived or someone would buy the books for them. I am more concerned about a formal process being available than being the only process, and as I said if you practice Hinduism and declare yourself a Hindu then I think this should be accepted.
Hinduism by its nature seeks to bring together rather than divide. There are already “people of authority”, gurus and leaders; take the Swaminarayan, Chinmayan Mission, Sathya Sai Baba, and many more. Some of these do have controversies and personal failures, but being generally inclusive Hinduism tends to deal with it well. I have my own opinions on these leaders, but unlike people in other faiths I don’t say “so and so is not a real Hindu”. This is already the situation, so this would not be a change.
Of course the cleaning and decorating the statue is itself puja, and needs to be done with reverence. I understand what you are saying, a priest does not necessarily have authority within a Hindu organisation, but we do recognise a spiritual authority when we accept prashad, etc. Any authority above this is separate and needs to be earned, many priests are also leaders of the communities, but this is from the work they do rather than just by being a priest.
I agree with this totally, but I think it is easier and smoother where there is a defined process.
I am not sure that I understand you here. If a muslim says that he believes in hell, that images of God are sinful, that non-mulsims should pay the jizra tax and not be allowed to build temples, and also says that he is a Hindu, this is one of the extreme cases where I would say no, your beliefs are not Hindu. Of course if a Muslim were to abandon these beliefs and practice Hinduism then he could call himself a Hindu.
Having thought about what you said, I agree that it should not be the only way, allowing Hinduism by practice should always be allowed. I do think that having a process for formal entry into Hindu sampradayas is useful. The very diversity of Hinduism makes it difficult for an outsider to learn and understand without some mentoring.
That’s so interesting.
Chris, though I understand your idea, I think Hinduism should not be a religion but truly a dharma, as such a guidance for life, not a conversion process, not an acceptance into a sect, not a initiation through rituals.
Vedanta is spiritual and metaphysical. To want to codify all this, as a religion like we understand judeo-christianity, is for me to fall into the same very mistakes that humans have for putting everything into a frame and claim ownership of what is right or wrong.
That it’s not clear how to become a hindu, that you can go from just saying as to officially convert shows its flexibility, yet.
As a newcomer to Hinduism, I’m sure most of them will be bewildered by the vastness and absence of well defined routes in Hinduism. I agree the need for a formal process, that a newcomer can follow to become a Hindu. The temples with their vast wealth should have initiated the process, that would have benefited not only newcomers but also Hindus themselves. I think this is probably one of the weakest spot in the religion, as the founders of the religion didn’t think of processes to assimilate people from other religion into it.
The himalayan academy has to be appreciated for their initiative. When I type – “converting to hinduism” in google their website appears at the top and that shows their success and usefulness. Arya Samaj and a few other institutions have a process called “Shuddhi Karma” – a purification ceremony that involves conducting a “homam” (a typical Hindu ritual done in front of fire) involving chanting of certain Hymns from the Vedas by the applicant, as guided by a priest. It may take about one to one-and-a-half hours to complete the ceremony. After the purification ceremony, a Certificate of Conversion to Hinduism is issued to the applicant.
The fact that several of these hindu institutions and God men being so popular outside India in other countries, proves the necessity for such a formal process.
I found your post amusing, and your naivete endearing. In saying this I am referring to your mentioning the Certificate of Conversion.
Whether there is money involved or not is a separate matter, but even if there isn’t the very notion of a “Certificate of Conversion to Hinduism” is laughable.
Please don’t get taken in by such (forgive my language) bullshit.
Vedanta not only expects an adherent to follow a particular path, usually with the help of a guide (Guru), but it also expects us to test the guide before we accept her or him.
Please do not allow such shallow notions of Hindu practices of belief to influence you. In fact one does not need to even try to become a Hindu. Follow the faith you were raised in and study the Vedanta and approach it from the perspective you already possess. I think this will make you a more substantive “Hindu” than any superfluous “certificate of Hinduism”. I can’t stop laughing. In fact I can only hope you do not take such trash as a “Certificate of Hinduism” seriously. It is not very different from sending in $ 100 or whatever the going rate is to get a PhD in any field one pleases.
I found ur site solely based on some random search on Google.
And frankly, apart from the ISKON society I have never come across a westerner interested in Hinduism.
Nevertheless, as a Hindu myself…let me clear out some things.
Yes, there is no such thing as conversion in Hinduism because frankly Hinduism cannot be considered as a religion in the first place.
There are vast differences between Hindu faith and the modern religions we know of as on today.
Hinduism is a way of life. There are no hard and fast rules, no dictum, no strict doctrines as such.
It has no restrictions, neither in the mode of worship nor in the approach.
The thing is no one clearly knows what Hinduism is all about. Its not necessarily polytheistic, or ritualistic.
Even as a Hindu, I find it hard to explain what it truly is and what it truly means.
But one core principle is undivided and unquestioning faith in the absolute.
If you are interested in Hinduism, I trust you are being guided in the right direction.
The thing is many foreigners end up thinking of it as a kind of a Hippie faith, involving idols, weird deities and unfortunately the Kamasutra.
Hinduism is an incorporation of numerous schools of thought involving Shivaism (Non dualistic thought), Vaishnavaism (Dualistic thought) and Shaktism (Personification of the Goddess as the absolute). The individual schools of thought can be nevertheless be considered as separate religions if I do say so myself. But then again considerations vary.
I could go on and on about what I think and know…but as I am restricted by time and do not want to end up flooding ur comment page, I leave you with this thought.
I hope you find the answers to what ever you are looking for. For the main thing about Hinduism, is the eternal quest for truth. May you find it in good time!!
The fallacy lies in thinking there is something to convert to. In Hinduism there is nothing to convert to. Take it or leave it. The very concept of conversion bears no relevance in Hinduism. Hinduism is quite simply IS.
Does the moon or sun or sky seek to convert anyone to believe in it? No. Neither does Hinduism.
In fact the word Hinduism does not do either the Vedanta or Santana Dharma justice. Because to the western mind an “Ism” is an intellectual construct. One can perhaps more accurately say the Vedanta or the belief practices of the Hindus do not travel, but rather the person or persons travel to it. Vedanta or the belief practices of Hindus are a journey that begins after one has arrived.
Just out of sheer curiosity, why would any person want to convert?
From what I’ve read and what I’ve heard, all religions basically teach & follow the same thing .. peace and love .. that basically GOD is one & the 10 commandments codified in different ways, but essentially the same. But, then maybe, I am wrong.
As for me, I am glad that I was born and am a Hindu 🙂
All religions are not the same, except at the deepest level. Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami says:
For many people the path they follow will be that they are born on. A few are called to a different path. Not all religions give the spiritual richness and God-centredness of Hinduism. Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami said:
Please accept my humble obeisances. I seriously believe that you must have been on devotional path in your past life that in this life you are led by God to finish and go back to Godhead. I myself am a seeker on the devotional path and a born Indian Hindu. Your story moves and inspires me. Often when I see people outside my tradition getting attracted to Devotional Hinduism it fills my heart with deep reverence. I, though, born to pious Hindu parents never realized how should I seek God until about 2-3 years ago when I started chanting Lord’s names and serious Deity worship. My only hope in this life is to atone for my sins before dying. By Lord’s grace, may your path in devotion be steadfast and may you attain unalloyed devotional service.
I am very interested in conversion to Hinduism and own several books by Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami. His “Dancing with Siva” was my introductory text and I was excited at the prospect of completing the Master Course with an eye towards formal conversion. But I am disappointed to find that, according to your link, it will cost me somewhere around $2,000.00 (at least) in payments to the priest, his helpers, and the temple to convert. First, that’s money my family doesn’t have, and second, I don’t feel good about any organization that would charge me that much money to convert me to the true worship of God. I think that I will instead just learn from the books and seek God in my heart.
As Bono of U2 said, “The God I believe in isn’t short of cash, mister!”
I too don’t have that money at the moment. If you read again you will see that these are suggested offerings to a priest conducting the ceremony, helpers, and use of the building. They are not payments to the Nandinatha Sampradaya or the Himalayan academy, except in the unusual circumstances of someone travelling to Hawaii to have the ceremony take place there. For most people it will be their local Hindu temple or nearest Saivite Hindu temple. Of course these are only suggested amounts, not “fees”. I am certain that if you wanted to negotiate costs for a quick ceremony, particularly if you explained that you could not afford it, you could do it for much less, maybe around a hundred dollars. Also, on occasions several people might have the ceremony at the same time, reducing the cost.
You should bear in mind that the namakarana samskara is a once in a lifetime ceremony, like a wedding ceremony. It is not something you should rush into (I have still not had the namakarana samskara yet and am not planning it imminently). It may well be worth waiting until you can afford a bigger ceremony. I would not let the cost of this put you off the master course, I think it is valuable even if you choose not to convert or choose a different sampradaya to follow. I am sure that if you reached the stage of wanting a namakarana samskara ceremony but genuinely had limited funds then other devotees would help you arrange something within your means. You are absolutely right that God is not short on cash, the use of it is part of our dharma.
Thank you for your kind words. When I wrote my post last night I was feeling a little angry and disappointed. I should have waited before posting. Thank you for responding with kindness.
I still plan to do the Master Course. I know that I am not rushing into this because the Course itself takes at least a year for Part 1, if I am understanding correctly.
I felt that I was encountering within Hinduism something which really turns me off in Evangelical Christianity: a lust for money or the idea of paying one’s way into “Heaven.”
It is of course also true that priests and temples have bills to pay and if we want them to be around to help us, temporal responsibilities must be taken care of.
I will continue to learn, as I feel blessed to have been exposed to these teachings. And I appreciate resources such as this blog and the wonderful books by Subramuniyaswami.
I’m glad that my words were helpful. The stage 1 master course does take a year. If you do it officially with the “self assessment” pack then you have access to an online group with other students, which I find very helpful.
I initially with your first post suspected you impostering but your second comment perhaps clarifies your frustration. Let me tell you one thing. I am born in a Hindu devout family but never actively practiced or knew much about it. Does it make me a Hindu? I have no answer. Now I pose another question: Does it exclude me from Hinduism? I don’t know?
Hence let us not get involved in these fictitious points of irrelevance. Let me take you all to a period about five millennia ago only. Because we have no idea but just imagine and postulate.
What was the population of this earth in those days? There was hardly any trace of people beyond the central Europe. Entire Europe was in stone age and the Americas and Australia/NZ were populated by tribes which are completely wiped out by the European colonisers. I am going to talk of that period when the only people living, thriving vibrantly were the people in this part of the land. Hindu in a misnomer invented by the perhaps Greeks or Persians. They still call us ‘Hindi’, not ‘Hindu’. Who knows the exact sequence? We merely hypothesize by conjectures.
The ancient Sages in this land of Bharata used to go on austere penances and used to hear the voice of the “Supreme”, we call it ‘Srti’. They then used to pass it down to their disciples by lectures who used to memorise to pass it down further we call them “Smriti”. There were no means to write in those days, hence this tradition of ‘Sruti’ and ‘Smriti’.
The texts codified earliest by Manu are the vedas which were in hundreds but most of them have perished, leaving us with four available texts. Now with this preliminary talk, I come to current Hinduism and its conversion. Hindus were the earliest concept based practice. Please mark my words carefully. Neither a religion nor a faith. Just a practice. This very concept still continues. I may not be aware of some theists or Guruji or preists evolving some different sects.
I being born a Hindu and still do not know most of the things being discussed here. I just read and enlighten myself with curiosity. I have repeatedly observed that history is a dead live subject. Dead because we discuss the events that happened long ago and we just read what an individual is telling us making it look alive. Next time we have another person telling us totally different version. How do we judge its correctness? Hence we are left to the mercy of our narrator.
However certain practices make Hinduism unique. Since there is no conversion, hence all you need is to know certain beliefs in Hinduism and follow it en mass. You are a just as good or a bad Hindu as I am. I have yet to undergo any such purificatory ritual to make me a “Hindu”. If I am a “Hindu”, then why can’t you be “Hindu” without any ritual, Matthew, I have to satisfy myself also before I can give you an authentic answer. I am sure, it will only be those naifs to deny me the correctness of my statement. I often have such discussions.
Matthew, I declare you here and right now a better “Hindu” than me. You don’t have to even thank me for it, save paying any money. Take it as my certification from now on. Live and be a good Hindu. If anyone asks you, tell them the name of my school you attended. But learn what Hinduism stands for, so that you can do justice to yourself. I hope you won’t shame me for lack of knowledge on Hinduism.
May God bless!
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I come back here to our interesting discussion from last night on “revert” word. I am glad to enlighten myself with this Islamic claim as ‘reverts’. I slept with this idea of Muslims. I have no idea, but I shall like to know more about it from you.
As regards my point about Hinduism, as I have specifically deliberated on Matthew about the long tradition of so called Hinduism, when there was no other vibrant population on the globe. Islam is just born in front of us, only 1400 years ago. Some people in the elitists in American Universities and other scholars are still conjecturing, if Jesus or Mohammad ever existed? They call them a myth. I am not going in that controversy. Even if Islam is accepted, its birth could only be about 1400 years, this makes it an infant. What reversion are they talking about?
That is what amased me and I asked you the reason. My claim for reversion is justified to Hinduism, because this is the original system that evolved, call it a faith, religion or belief; whatever you like to call it. This was my reason for addressing as “revert”. Hope I have made myself clear to you.
I’m also a westerner that has chosen the path of Sanatana Dharma. I’m seeing a lot of comments stating that Hinduism is not a religion, but more of a way of life, a shift in understanding and action. That, essentially, is what religion in itself aims to do. It just seems to me that Hinduism in its’ validity aims mainly toward the importance of equal and kind treatment to fellow souls and the Earth that many other practices may fail to do on a large scale. I am in no way doubting the faith of others, and in fact I encourage them to practice exactly what they preach and gain social knowledge from their beliefs. But just the idea of a “conversion certificate” or sending a $100 check to someone in order to justify a change in personal goals and attitude is something quite ironic.
I do, however agree in the broadness of the term “Hinduism”, and it cannot be described in a few sentences or rites the way some Abrahamic religions can. For example, I was speaking with my Muslim friend just yesterday who was asking me about Hinduism. She told me that since she is Muslim, she believes that there is only one God, Allah, and that Mohammed is his chosen messenger. But I found that I could not explain my beliefs in one phrase… I started off with “God created us all, God is everything and in everyone, essentially we are all of God…” and I trailed off. I realized that I could have talked for hours about what Hinduism was and how I practiced it as a devotee to Lord Shiva and Maa Durga. Its’ complexity is another respect that I take from my temple as I leave to go home. Its’ tolerance for others and values of omnipresence is another aspect that keeps me faithful and reassures me why I have chosen this path to God.
Though it is impossible to have a simple statement of fail that covers all of Hinduism, I think it is useful to have a quick answer. I use my sampradaya’s affirmation “God Siva is Immanent Love and Transcendent Reality“. I think your answer “God created us all, God is everything and in everyone, essentially we are all of God” would do fine, with a definite end rather than at railing off.
You may think that this does not say much about your belief, but neither does the Muslim’s affirmation “Only one God, Allah, and that Mohammed is his chosen messenger“. Replace the name “Muhammad” with “Joseph Smith”, “Guru Nanak”, “Bahaullah”, or “Sun Myung Moon” and the statement would be equally valid for the very different beliefs of Mormonism, Sikhism, Baha’i, or the Moonies.
oh yes, you have a one word god counterpart in hinduism as well, long before any other faiths ever appeared on th e golden planet of ours: Brahman. Please read about brahman to understand The God of hindus. Your appreciation of your chosen path willrapidly accelerate (likely to counfuse with Brahma , the one of the Brahma vishnu maheswara trinity) Whereas Braman has no form or gender. Namaste. Best wishes.