Open Letter to Pope John Paul II
H.H. Sri Swami Dayananda Saraswati
On behalf of many Hindus
whom I know personally, I welcome your visit to India. This is a country with an
ancient civilization and unique religious culture, which accommodates many
religious traditions that have come to it throughout the centuries.
Being the head of the
Vatican State and also the Catholic Church with a great following all over the
world, you enjoy a highly venerable position and can play a significant role in
defusing religious conflicts and preserving the world’s rich cultures.
You have in your Apostolic
Letter Tertio millennio adveniente, 38 (November 10, 1994)
voiced your intention to convoke a Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for
Asia. After seeing the report of the Pre-Council of the General Secretariat of
the Synod of Bishops Special Assembly for Asia appointed by you, I want to bring
to your kind notice the concerns of many Hindus in this country about religious
conversion. In the Second Vatican Council, the status accorded to the world
religions was that of a means of preparing them for Christ. We all understand
that the Catholic religion does not accommodate other religions, except in this
context. But I am appealing to you here to accept that every person has the
freedom to pursue his or her own religion.
In the recent past, you mentioned that reason should be respected. On the basis of reason, no non-verifiable belief is going to fare any better than any other non-verifiable belief. Therefore, according to reason, there is no basis for conversion in the matters of faith.
Apart from reason, there is another important issue, which I request you to consider. Among the world’s religious traditions, there are those that convert and those that do not. The non-converting religious traditions, like the Hindu, Jewish and Zoroastrian, give others the freedom to practice their religion, whether they agree with the others’ tenets or not. They do not wish to convert. I would characterize them as non-aggressive. Religions that are committed by their theologies to convert, on the other hand, are necessarily aggressive, since conversion implies a conscious intrusion into the religious life of a person, in fact, into the religious person.
This is a very deep intrusion, as the religious person is the deepest, the most basic in any individual. When that person is disturbed, a hurt is sustained which is very deep. The religious person is violated. The depth of this hurt is attested by the fact that when a religious sentiment is violated, it can produce a martyr. People connected to a converted person are deeply hurt. Even the converted person will suffer some hurt underneath. He must necessarily wonder if he has done the right thing and, further, he or she has to face an inner alienation from his or her community, a community to which he or she has belonged for generations, and thus an alienation from his or her ancestors. I don’t think that this hurt can ever be fully healed. Religious conversion destroys centuries-old communities and incites communal violence. It is violence and it breeds violence.
Thus, for any humane person, every religious sentiment has to be respected, whether it is a Muslim sentiment or a Christian sentiment, a Hindu sentiment or a Jewish sentiment.
Further, in many religious traditions, including the Hindu tradition, religion is woven into the fabric of culture. So, destruction of a religion amounts to the destruction of a religious culture. Today, for instance, the ancient Greek culture is no longer living; there are only empty monuments. The Mayan, Roman and many other rich cultures are all lost forever and humanity is impoverished for it. Let us at least allow humanity to enjoy the riches of its remaining mosaic of cultures. Each one has some beauty, something to contribute to the enrichment of humanity.
In any tradition, it is
wrong to strike someone who is unarmed. In the Hindu tradition, this is
considered a heinous act, for which the punishment is severe. A Buddhist, a
Hindu, a Jew, are all unarmed, in that they do not convert. You cannot ask them
to change the genius of their traditions and begin to convert in order to combat
conversion. Because it is a tradition of these religions and cultures not to
convert, attempts to convert them is one-sided aggression. It is striking the
unarmed. I respect the freedom of a Christian or a Muslim or Jew to practice his
or her faith. I do not accept many of their beliefs, but I want them to have the
freedom to follow their religion.
You cannot ask me to respond
to conversion by converting others to my religion because it is not part of my
tradition. We don’t believe in conversion. Thus, conversion is not merely
violence against people; it is violence against people who are committed to
I am hurt by religious conversion and many others like me are hurt. Millions are hurt. There are many issues to be discussed regarding conversion, but I want to draw your attention to only the central issue here which is this one-sided violence. Religious conversion is violence and it breeds violence. In converting, you are also converting the non-violent to violence.
Any protest against
religious conversion is always branded as persecution, because it is maintained
that people are not allowed to practice their religion, that their religious
freedom is curbed. The truth is entirely different. The other person also has
the freedom to practice his or her religion without interference. That is
his/her birthright. Religious freedom does not extend to having a planned
program of conversion. Such a program is to be construed as aggression against
the religious freedom of others.
During the years of your
papal office, you have brought about certain changes in the attitude and outlook
of the church. On behalf of the non-aggressive religions of the world, the
Hindu, the Parsi, the Jewish and other native religions of different countries,
I request you to put a freeze on conversion and create a condition in which all
religious cultures can live and let live.