We are all undergoing some form of conversion all the time. Life is never static. From the minute we are born we constantly undergo changes in our physical and mental make-up — some good, some not so good. If this is not enough — the world around is also ever-changing. And all this is happening rapidly in this post post-modern era. In simple terms, conversion simply signifies the ‘process of change’.
Rapid change is accepted and is even used as an opportunity now. Innovators, manufacturers, inventers, marketers, influencers, sellers, advertisers, strategists and most importantly politicians of the world work with the hope that they can convert consumers from their previously used product or service to a new one. Successful advertisements showcase users who are much happier after changing over from product/service to another. Change for the better is believed and proven to be an intelligent and progressive aspect of being a human. In this way I affirm that the ability to change, to convert — from one understanding to another; from one belief held to another — and alter behavior in accordance to the change is intrinsically human.
In the corporate world ‘conversion’ is an important word. The progress from the sales pitch to a successful sale is often termed as the ‘conversion rate’. The best sales team within many organizations is usually the one whose conversion rate is the highest. Success in the world of business depends on your ability to change or convert people. It is encouraged and supported vehemently by managements and head honchos. Money is poured in every year to train and equip individuals and teams to be good at convincing people to convert !
Our everyday life is filled with conversion. A neighbor suggests a better grocer; a friend advices on a new restaurant and cuisine; social media offers advice on a ‘cheap and best’ retailer… the list is endless. Humans depend on this camaraderie to evolve, to enjoy and to live life. In Tamilnadu, there is an oft repeated line from an ancient poem written by Thirumoolar which roughly translates as follows — ‘let the world receive the joy that I have received’ (yām peṛṛa inpam peruke ivvaiyakam). Even as school children, when a student refuses to share notes, this line would be repeated and the child coaxed to share notes. The poet however had written about the joy emanating from a ‘supernatural consciousness of life’ and how it can transcend from within to the entire world. If the human race was not willing to learn from the experiences of each other and change — it would have perished. This is and has been the norm since time immemorial.
But, when we talk about conversion from one religion to the other — in contemporary India — it is somehow portrayed as a betrayal of sorts, connivance, an evil plot, an infringement of personal space and what not. What we forget is that we are all converts — can anyone say that the gods we worship, methods and rituals, understanding and expression have remained the same since life began? Searching for and experiencing God is unique to each person. Outward religious practices, rituals cannot limit the minds and hearts of humans. Individuals may be part of communities and groups that confess a particular religious affinity but need not necessarily follow or believe completely. This is why some are termed devout followers and some are looked down upon by members of the same religious belief. How can children in a religious group have the same conviction or understanding of their religious beliefs like adults? Do we then tell them off as offenders of the religion. Conversions are happening within us all the time. I may go from being a follower of Christ to a namesake one and vice-e-versa. Sometimes I may have a lull period in my belief. And this can happen in any religion. One can briefly lose faith and get it back again. In that brief period who is that person — Hindu? Muslim? Agnostic? Atheist? Christian?
The claim that an external agency can force a conversion of belief (religion) in my opinion is ridiculous. One may be forced to change external rituals but conversion from one belief to another happens in the mind. How can anyone control that! Humans are born to aspire and to evolve. Conversion from one idea to another, from one method to another, from one belief to another and back again if necessary has always been happening. It will have to continue to happen for us to remain humans and not become robots who think alike, walk alike and talk alike.
Faith and belief are extremely personal experiences that are unfortunately given meanings and codes of conduct by frameworks of religious institutions. Religious leaders have access to powers of influence, assets etc that they are seen as powerful allies politically. Religious heads in turn have to maintain and show that they have large numbers of followers to retain power. This is a vicious circle in which ‘conversions’ are seen as threats.
Conversion is not an easy process though — for individuals and groups. A certain amount of risk is involved. It can cause a disrupt in the social order of things. For this reason, conversions face internal and external challenges. Complex factors of anthropology, sociology, psychology all come into play. To carry on with conversion needs constant support and willingness to embrace the change it causes to oneself and others. It is an ongoing process and cannot happen in a day — the change can either be strengthened or diminished over time.
St. Paul the apostle in Bibilical times travels across the Roman Empire to spread Christianity. The Bible records a speech of Paul at the Aeropagus or Mars Hill in Athens in which he shares the gospel of Jesus. He introduces Jesus as the unknown God for whom the Athenians were searching. Among many temples to many Gods, the people of Athens had also constructed one which had inscription ‘an altar to the unknown God’. This constant striving to know more or to accept that what we know may not be enough is the hallmark of wisdom as succinctly put in the Tamil axiom — kaṛṛatu kai man alavu kallātatu ulakavu. (what we know or have studied is simply a handful, what we do not know is the size of the world).
Humility is necessary to understand that conversion (religious or non-religious) is an inevitable process. What is more important is protecting the human rights of every human.
(Ms. Rhoda Alex is a communication artist engaged in freelance book design work. Also a Sunday School teacher exploring and learning along with the youngsters — lessons on faith and life. Enjoys working on anthropological projects that study the expressions of Christianity in the Tamil landscape, interaction between people groups, parallel cultures and artistic expressions. Loves observation, language and literature, photography and adventure.)