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.