Dr. Sandhya Ruban
Born into an Orthodox Kannada Madhwa Brahmin Family, I was accustomed to waking up to the melody of the Suprabhatam, sung by none other than the Doyenne M.S. Subbulakshmi herself. The words and the melody offered much succor to a wounded soul. I was also greatly used to the comfort of freshly prepared vegetarian food and filter coffee, served with generous portions of tender loving care, the privileges that accompany the joy of being an only child. I also clearly heard the word “Shudra” mentioned derogatorily on many occasions when voices were raised in my presence. My young mind did not perceive what this was, it was later I realized that this was a class of people that didn’t quite fit the prototype cast by a lovable God.
Life leads us through many winding paths, and mine meandered in various parts of India, where my father was relocated to. At myriad stages of life and on one of these journeys, I received my first copy of the Good News, and my first ever New Testament, a pocket-sized Red Book from my class teacher, who to me was fascinatingly from the far islands of Andaman and Nicobar. I wondered what the Good News was, and I read to discover that it was the birth, death and resurrection of a certain Jesus. I wondered how death could be good at all, even if it was for a brief fleeting moment.
As I entered middle school and high school, my parents, who were very intently focused on my upbringing put me in the finest schools, interestingly and paradoxically run by very fine Christian men and women, who slowly began impacting my life through their walk with God. A tryst with destiny as most would call it, I had an encounter with Jesus through a song, the lyrics of which had Isaiah 43:1 quoted in it, “Fear Not, I have redeemed you, I have called you by Name and you are mine.” The cassette tape belonged to someone who also had a large portion of my heart (For the sake of not wanting you to read in between the lines, we are happily married for 25 years now).
Then began my real quest for the living God. I had traveled to every pilgrimage site in the country with my god-fearing parents, I had just about learned every piece of scripture, I trained in Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam while specializing in dental surgery, only to know that there were gaping voids in my otherwise successful life. I began seeking this God who said he knows my name. As the Good book says, I sought and I found and slowly accepted Jesus as my friend, then my savior over the period of my marriage and the first decade thereof. A paradigm shift in ideology and lifestyle happened in the presence of the giver of life and most compassionate God. He has sustained us over years of ministry, teaching, and exploring our gifts and watching others discover their innate potential.
After the initial jubilation of finding the newness of life, reality bites. Conversion in many ways brings out a plethora of reactions in our immediate communities, one rejoices over the proverbial lost sheep, au contraire one condones the passing over. Women are never empowered enough to decide spiritual preferences, simply because they are not physical preferences. When the conversion happens, all bedlam breaks loose, because primarily the woman has decided to do something off the beaten track. As a woman, conversion influenced my communities too and I want to be able to highlight a few of these challenges in this piece.
These challenges are particularly significant in today’s politically polarized milieu, bifurcating our otherwise peaceful nation, citing religion as the bone of contention.
I stand as a mute spectator, because true conversion from one faith system to another is a conscious decision made by the free individual. No amount of extraneous influence helps. There could have been mass exoduses of people from one faith to another; people gave it many names; colonialism, rice bag conversions, and hurled accusations on Christian that they infringed into the traditional societal fabric of Indian society. These instances are probably true to an extent, but the question remains as to how many of these converts remained in the acceptance of living a Christian life.
Conversion presents many cultural challenges to the new convert, but more to women. There have been many scholarly articles written on faith reconciliation, but this article seeks to examine the practical challenges a new covert faces when he/she leaves home and hearth to follow the creator the Heavens.
Letting go of things held dear seems to be the norm once conversion happens, especially in right wing Pentecostal communities where missionary influence is heavy. The quintessential sacred dot or pottu/bindi being the first to be wiped away. Her newfound faith does not let her identify with her femininity as they see it as a potential threat to their intrinsic culture. Some extreme right wing Christian groups demand the removal of jewelry, wedding symbols, flowers and everything else held dear by the woman, even to the extent of enforcing an all-white dress code, which is akin to embracing widowhood in many Indian traditions. Many consent, albeit reticently, but remain champions of their faith.
Dietary changes accompany conversion, with special status conferred to certain kinds of meat and to those from the elitist classes of priesthood who have embraced the warmth of Christ, this is often a stumbling block and becomes the Mark of Cain often accompanied by derogatory remarks and no acceptance within the church circles. I still face ire from a lot of groups for not consuming certain things.
Compatibility within marriages and finding prospective partners are harrowing for the new Christian woman convert. The family most often has its way and in this rather scale-tilting process, compromise is heavier on the woman, who even loses her faith.
Ostracizing by families at gatherings and occasions is probably one of the biggest fears of a new covert. This is carried even into the real estate sector as most houses do not want to rent out to religious minorities on the allegation that they don’t want to “blend in.”
Inheritance is probably the least of issues in the life of new women converts. The property disputes have always been patriarchal in Indian society, so passivity seems to be a norm in such settings. However, in the life of a new convert, she is often disinherited from family fortunes.
In remote tribal areas of our nation, gender and religion forces women to be marginalized and at threat largely of sexual and physical abuse. These minority voices are heard at informal courts where the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of the frail woman.
Looming threat of a caste system, a very much omnipresent dowry system, and living below the poverty lines with nonexistent basic facilities is absent in rural areas. Religion is not even a point of discussion here. If conversion offers a window of respite in terms of basic needs, then so be it.
Article 25 and 26 gives every person the right to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion subject to public order, morality and health, and also the right to manage their own affairs in matters of religion.
If only society and the church get a hold of the intensity of the faith of these women who fill the pews of their church not by force, but by choice, they would be able to see God in action in all their ways- as women we love fiercely, give generously, pray tirelessly, and wait patiently. Let us hope and pray that the Spirit brings an awakening in the lives of these women who have chosen indeed the better part.
(India’s first and only certified Master Biblical Storyteller from the Academy For Biblical Storytelling, Indiana, USA, mentored by Dean Dr. Tracy Radosevic with a Master Level Certification from Network of Biblical Storytellers, Dayton, Ohio. International Editor, Network of Biblical Storytellers E-News.
Director FNABC bible college. Completed Biblical Hebrew Level 200 and the Basic Diploma, Hindustan Bible College and Biblical Hebrew. Pursuing DMin from HBI)