Probably we cannot deny the fact that our religion has a great impact on whatever we do. Believers and non-believers alike derive their way of living from the faith they follow. It is applicable even to the nastika, for they too have their own sets of beliefs and practices that make them nastika.
Quite naturally, the neo-Vaisnavism introduced by the 15th century Guru Srimanta Sankardeva has impacted the life and culture of the Assamese. Being the meeting grounds of the people to practice Guru’s teachings on multifarious fronts, satra (Vaisnavism monastery) and naamghar (prayer hall) are nourishing the lofty ideal of the Vaisnavite saint.
Thus satra and satra lands in Majuli and Barpeta, also home to nearly 500 years old satras, have a great importance in Assamese life. Probably this is the reason why the folks of this land got appalled when the incidents of proselytization in Majuli came in the news a few years ago.
On hearing the news, I visited satras and churches of Majuli, and had a talk with the followers of both the traditions. Then, like many others, I thought it is just flu that would heal in time. But the recent news of proselytization (or attempt to proselytization) at Barpeta has made us think probably we were wrong. It sent us a jolt of fear that the flu has turned epidemic. The germ has nestled in the heartlands of Vaisnavite culture!
The persons, who are reported to be converted, said that they were inclined to Christianity to get rid of their impaired vision. They were assured that a regular prayer to the Jesus would surely heal their blindness. Undoubtedly, it is a case of superstition on the part of the converts. But it is not the whole anecdote. The hidden part of the story leaves us with some serious questions: What drives one to conversion? Do the proselytes and proselytizers have the same motive behind proselytization? Why would proselytization be the only way to augment one’s condition?
Researches on Majuli’s case revealed that poverty and the lack of basic infrastructures of life are the chief causes of the proselytization in Majuli. Christian missionaries often come as a help to the economically wobbled families and they persuade the latter to convert to Christianity so that they need not worry for food and other basic needs anymore.
Here stomach seems more important to the converts than the faith. Probably this is the primeval reason why the underprivileged go for the conversion. It is beautifully depicted in Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s movie Uttara where a dialogue goes like this: Mamar betatake bolechi padri babar thine ese Christian hoye jaa. Dubela khate to pabi. Aage pet, tar bade dhamma-kamma (I said to my cousin, “Go to the Pastor and become Christian. At least you’ll have food to survive; first stomach, then dharma”).
Thus the proselytes have an excuse. But the proselytizers have yet to answer why charity should be conditioned by conversion when the Lord Jesus asked people to help the weak unconditionally. And in such a case, it is debatable how they could be true to their Lord’s teaching ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive’.
Having a deep respect in a faith and then to convert deliberately is not always evil. Nor is it unscrupulous to preach the good sermons of any religion to the willing mass. The great emperor of the Maurya Dynasty, Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism was deliberate.
After the destructive war of Kalinga which witnessed hundreds of thousands of deaths, Ashoka the Great thought to retire from his bloodthirsty life of wars and killings to the life of spiritualism. At that juncture of his life, the teachings of the Buddha inspired him and he embraced Buddhism.
He loved this path of non-violence so much so that he wanted others to have the same experience. This led him to spread Buddhism to the adjoining kingdoms and beyond in which his son Mahindra and daughter Sanghamitra also joined. Now it is doubtful if the same good intention works in Dalit conversions by the Buddhist that frequently comes to news. As the sources reveal, this conversion is to let the Dalit free from the woes of the Indian caste system. Helping out the distressed is very Buddhist as the Buddha advised humans to lend hand to the sufferers. But does it necessitate conversion?
In Assam, culture is more important than religion. ‘I am an Assamese’ is more substantial than ‘I belong to this or that faith’. Here people give more importance to the cultural festivals than the religious ones. Probably this outlook of the Assamese helps them live harmoniously in a religious pluralist state like Assam which, though frequently witnesses conflict on the issue of insiders and outsiders, seldom sees sectarian violence.
In cultivating this outlook the satras have played a vital role by creating an environment for the people to get enlightened through the teachings of Srimanta Sankardeva. The absence of idolatry in the prayer hall (naamghar) indicates this tradition’s belief in the formless self where we all merge.
Again this symbolism binds the followers together in the ideal of Eka sarana nama dharma (devotion to one single path or God) that wraps up the teaching of the Guru. It is the lesson that the satradhikar (abbot of the Vaisnava monastery) is expected to teach to the devotees. This obviously requires the satradhikars to be more mindful of their teaching so they could realize what the satras are meant for.
Every faith has its own peculiarities, good or bad. Thus embracing the faith means embracing them all. Even if the process of conversion is supported on the ground of betterment of one’s condition, it is still doubtful if the new faith can augment the convert’s condition truly. Within the narrow horizon of the marginalized class with the label ‘convert’, I am afraid lest they would be unable to come out of the enclosures of challenges that they install around themselves.