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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Religious conversions

Adi Sankara re-established the Vedic religion on modern footing somewhere during the 7th or 8th century CE. He is credited to have established four Maṭhams (religious centers) , one each at Dwaraka,  Sringeri, Puri and Badri.   Knchi is not one of them. Yet, the center at Kạnchi has played a major part in the maintenance of the Advaitic philosophy. One of the most illustrious leaders of this maṭham is the late Chandrasekarendra Saraswati Sankarạchạrya, who was the leader of this center for most of the 20th century.

He was a saint, scholar and a Guru, all rolled into one.  He was a master in Sanskrit and Tamil.  In his school days, he was an excellent student of English also.  He was knowledgeable in many fields of knowledge and he was able to relate ideas from all of them. To us who grew up during his era and were fortunate enough to have seen and heard him in person, he was known simply as Kạnchi periyavạl.

It is fortunate that his talks in Tamil have been compiled by one of his devoted students. They are available in 7 volumes. (The only other great masters whose talks were preserved by their students during their life time were Buddha, Prophet Mohammed and Ramakrishna. Ananda is said to have had fantastic memory and at the end of each day wrote down the talks by Buddha. For Ramakrishna, it was a student known simply as “M”)

Now, to the actual topic. In Volume 1, pages 112-114, Kạnchi Periyavạl (KP, for short) gives some excellent argument against the practice of religious conversions in general. Of course, it is not an issue for Hinduism or Buddhism. But, followers of Christianity and Islam seem to genuinely believe that the only way for salvation is through their path and therefore, believe in converting others to their religion.  Although the motivation is noble and understandable, historically their methods have been out of touch with the teachings of Jesus and of the Prophet.

KP’s argument against the practice of religious conversions is as follows. All traditions agree that there is ONLY one Supreme Force although each tradition has a preferred name (God) to refer to that Force. You deny this basic premise of ONE SUPREME Force when you convert from one religion to another, because if there is only ONE, where is the need for change? You convert because you believe that the God of that other religion is better than the God you grew up with! How can that be since “they” are the same and there is only ONE?

When you convert, you also seem to believe that the God of the other religion will not favor you unless you converted. Is that not limiting the powers of the other God you are now planning to worship?  Are you not belittling the other God by implying that He cannot move out of the wall you have built around Him? 

KP goes on to say that most common people do not know enough about the basic teachings of the religion they profess. He believes that religions do not grow and spread because they carry greater truths. All religions teach the same basic noble ideals. It is more often the noble qualities of the preachers which attract people and make them followers. What people need is a noble leader with compassion, love, spiritual knowledge and dedication and not another religion to hang on to. In addition, the reality is that if a new tradition has an army or economic clout or political connections to back it up, more people will be forced to follow that tradition.

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