Converting lions to elephants

As the most hideous kinds of violence are unleashed on Christians in Orissa and Karnataka by proud Hindu terrorists, one issue that the liberal Hindu mind-set stumbles over is that of conversions. Of course, violence is bad, it bleats, nothing justifies killings, but mass conversions, you know…

Conversions. Images of Muslim hordes waving their fierce banners, sweeping across the North Indian plains; images of sly Christian missionaries swindling innocent tribals and dalits with food and education and social status, into accepting an alien god. The liberal Hindu, who would never dream of converting anybody to Hinduism, shrinks at these images.

Aditya has drawn our attention to Ambedkar’s clear-eyed insight into why Hinduism is not a proselytizing religion. Can you convert a non-Hindu into a Brahmin? Nope.

These reflections were prompted by a priceless news item carried by today’s edition of South Asia Citizens Wire, compiled and sent out for over a decade now by the indefatigable Harsh Kapoor. In The Telegraph (Kolkata), Tapas Chakraborty reports that “A Durga on an elephant, the Bahujan Samaj Party symbol, rather than a lion has shocked devotees in Jaunpur town and triggered a court case.” The Phool Wali Gali Puja’s chief organizer, it turns out, is BSP leader, Dinesh Tandon. Nothing short of blasphemy, fumed a Congress worker, and a lawyer has moved a petition in a magistrate’s court alleging the Puja organisers had hurt Hindu sentiments. The court, finding itself with time on its hands and running short of more serious cases to pursue, has acted with commendable swiftness and directed the police to  register a case and probe the incident.

The chief patron of the puja, Mahendra Sonkar, justified the choice of vahan on the grounds that according to the Hindu almanac, the goddess is supposed to arrive this year on an elephant, symbolizing good rain and prosperity. From his name, I assume he is a Dalit, which would explain why the reporter sought a second opinion from a  Sanskrit scholar of Varanasi no less, bearing the equally revealing name of Satish Pandey.

Pandeyji emphatically rejected this  argument. “The basic deity of Durga is not to be interfered with,” he said. “She should be on a lion in keeping with mythology, since this image is embedded in the minds of devotees. It is outrageous to see Durga  on an elephant.”

What is it that is outrageous exactly? The image of the goddess riding an elephant, or the fact that the elephant is the symbol of the BSP, a party led by a Dalit woman, and which explicitly speaks for Dalits?

I thought I would check out Mahendra Sonkar’s claim myself, and found a site called Amma’, which has “An answer for everything”. In the religion section, someone had indeed asked the question “How is Goddess Durga coming and going this sharadh navrathri i.e. on elephant or boat or other vahan”. Clearly, practising Hindus know that Durga travels on different kinds of vahanas in different years. Among the replies, there are three that are interesting.

One corroborates Mahendra Sonkar’s understanding, that this year she comes on an elephant symbolizing plenty, and leaves on a palki, symbolizing destruction. Another response directs the reader to a site, which says “Durga’s mode of journey to the earth is detailed in scriptures. The modes, an elephant, a horse, palanquin, boat all signify luck or omen which influence the life on earth. The elephant signifies prosperity and good harvest while journey on a horse back indicates drought, a palanquin spells wide spread epidemic and the boat suggests flood and misery. ” Again, all these modes are perfectly in keeping with Hindu scriptures, and there is an appropriate one for each year. Moreover, clearly, the vehicle she travels on has deep significance for what the year will bring.

The third response comes from a different kind of Hinduism altogether – “Whose doubt is this? And what exactly in the mind of questioner? Where from she is coming and where she is expected to go? Is it to the same place from where she came? unless such queries are answered, no point in discussing such baseless questions. Please try to understand and come out of such illusions. She is all pervading and ever existing.”

Neither of the sites I link to above are run by soulless atheists and agnostics such as may be presumed to run kafila.  They are believing Hindus, with different kinds of responses arising from their beliefs. And one thing is absolutely clear – the goddess on an elephant is perfectly in keeping with “Hindu beliefs”.

But now there is a court-directed police case against the organizers looking into whether “Hindu” sentiments have been hurt…What are they really afraid of?

Before we answer that question, let us return to our liberal Hindu, and her impeccably modernist assertion that conversion as a spiritual act is justifiable, but not if it is by fraud and coercion.

What constitutes fraud and coercion? Nobody seems to claim that Christian missionaries actually use physical force to convert (that is the prerogative of the goons of Bajrang Dal). And if conversion “by the sword” had ever been a widespread practice in India, Muslims would not be a mere 12 per cent of the population, and Christians less than 3 percent, after centuries of rule.

Conversion by the sword in any case was not solely practised by “other communities”. Writes Madhu Chandra, “…my forefathers were forcibly converted to Hinduism in 19th century, which is known as PUYA MEITHABA (burning of Meitei Script) by Hindu missionary. Ever since then, every Manipuri (Meitei) has Singh at the end of every name, although many youngsters are abandoning it by returning to indigenous Meitei religion. The casteism and untouchability emerged after migration of Hinduism to the Manipur society where caste or creed never existed earlier.”

No, fraud and coercion refer, not to actual physical force, but, in the words of BJP’s last election manifesto, to “promises of social or economic benefits”, an interpretation you dont have to be BJP to endorse, alas. Dalits or tribals who convert to Christianity, Buddhism or Islam in the hope of, and lured by, economic benefits – jobs, schools, health facilities – and social benefits – dignity, self-respect – denied to them by the religion of their birth, are instances of fraudulent conversion.

The unquestioned foundation of the entire discussion is the assumption that converting from one religion to another is essentially wrong, an act requiring justification. Only “genuine” religious conversion is acceptable, understood to involve the spiritual transformation of an individual, on the basis of “knowledge”, both of the person’s “own” religion as well as of the one to which she converts. Such high standards of “informed choice” to apply, when one’s original religion is hardly the best illustration of “choice”- you’re born into it, right?

For the democratically-minded who buy the argument against “fraudulent” conversions from what I consider to be mistaken premises, here’s another thought. It is fundamentally anti-democratic to force people to retain any identity against their will, and especially one assumed by the very act of being born. Nationality, caste, religion or even sex. The possibility of change is central to democracy. We have no option but to respect a decision to change any identity for a perceived better future – whatever our opinion may be about whether that change will bring about the desired result. That’s the problem with democracy.

Of course, the real reason for the Hindu Right’s obsession with religious conversion has nothing to do with protecting the sanctity of religion. The creation of a birth-based political majority is crucial for the project of Hindutva and for its definition of Indian-ness. If “others” turn into the majority, the easy coinciding of Hindutva and the Nation falls apart. When Ambedkar decided to leave the Hindu fold along with large numbers of Dalits, who felt the most threatened? Not the orthodox Hindus, who thought it was good riddance. It was Savarkar and the modernist Hindutvavadis who reacted most sharply, understanding fully the importance of numbers for a modern politics of Hindutva. Hence their ever-increasing horror stories about galloping Muslim and Christian populations, for instance, the ICSSR-sponsored study on the decline in population of “Indian religionists”.

Recognizing this, it worries me that most democratic and secular arguments contesting this picture have restricted themselves to factual corrections and reinterpretation of data. Essentially they have been trapped into offering reassurances that there is no way Muslims and Christians will outnumber Hindus, ever. Surely we need to ask another, more aggressive question of our own instead – so what if Hindus become a minority one hundred years from now, or a decade from now, or a year from now? Surely the point is to ensure democratic institutions such that it will make no difference how large your community of birth is?

So what is the real fear?

Perhaps that the elephant is on the rampage, and might reach the Red Fort next Independence Day. And who knows, Ma Durga herself might be riding it…

4 thoughts on “Converting lions to elephants”

  1. its telling that the elephant threatens the religious ‘minds of devotees’ whereas puja pandals based on themes like kargil war complete with gun totting indian and pakistani soldiers do not. this year the favourite theme it seems is the nano car project!
    another argument advanced by the hindu modernist against conversion is about the status of the converts in their new religion. the existence of caste discrimination and the demands of dalit christians, dalit muslims and dalit sikhs are used to validate the futility of conversion. it is never used to reflect on the casteism in hinduism itself, because hey we the liberals dont believe in all this caste business and in fact therefore there should be no reservations.


  2. Madhu Chandra has drawn our attention to a news item in The Sangai Express , a daily newspaper published from Imphal, reporting on a seminar about the possible date on which Manipuri Puyas were burnt by a Hindu missionary.
    Click here for the report.
    Just by the way, Sangai is a rare species of deer native to Manipur, and not a version of Shanghai. Clarification made so that our Hindutvavaadi friends may not send in embarrassing comments about anti-Indian and Sinophile Manipuris!


  3. RSS,VHP,Bajrang Dal and BJP are not worry about their religion but they are worry about hindu numbers.for dalits it does not matter whether Maa Durga come on elephent or lion or crow ,what matter dalits most in India is education ,health,job and safe drinking water. Hindu parivar is creating riots in India and using dalits as foot soldiers against their own blood brothers.This is responsiblities of hindu intellectuals to expose the Sangh parivar outfits in front of world medias and world communities and blocked their funding to India.


  4. Dear Janki, Please give dalits a seprate electorate and seprate settlement first .175 millions Pakistani have a nuclear wepons but 175 millions dalits donot have even a petrol boms to defend from hindu aggression in India.dalits will welcome if your hindu led governmet stopped resevation because it will give some soul searching for dalits towards to seprate electorate and seprate settlement.


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