Conversion and its Discontents

by J. Jayakiran Sebastian

The Rev. Dr. J. Jayakiran Sebastian is a Presbyter of the Church of South India and Associate Professor in the Department of Theology and Ethics at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India.

This paper was presented in Bangalore, India, at the United Theological College Alumni Refresher Course, 22nd – 24th September, 1999, printed in the Bangalore Theological Forum, Vol. xxxii, No. 1, June 2000, pp. 165-172. Used by permission of the author.


The author looks at the way Christian conversion in non-Western nations tends to bring about cultural dislocation. He raises critical questions from an Indian perspective. Is it possible to be non-interfering and yet be messengers of the gospel? Is it possible to remain Christians without creating fear and anxiety about conversions? Is it possible for religious people to continue to practice their religion without causing disruptions in the cultural contexts around us? Can there be conversion without discontent?


Introduction: Locating Conversion

"Introspection about their own location in society has not been too common among Indian historians. Our historiographical essays tend to become bibliographies, surveys of trends or movements within the academic guild. They turn around debates about assumptions, methods, ideological positions. ..."

Although there are studies focusing on conversion as a dislocation, we have tended to focus more on conversion as an event or as a process. Much additional work needs to be done on locating conversion within the social history of communities and peoples impacted upon by various religio-economic forces both from within and without.

In analysing conversion within the context of the reality of religious pluralism in India today, one would do well to engage in a process of reflective introspection. Do the discontents spawned by conversion arise from memory, or from praxis, or a combination of both? Are the fears generated by any conversion, or by activities labelled as pro-conversion, real or imagined, constructed or actual, or, if one recognises that simple binaries are too simplistic and contrived, are these fears something existential, arising from a sense of (dis)location? What is the relationship between such a sense, if any, of dislocation, and the sites of the location of culture? Such prolematization is necessary in any discourse on conversion, which seeks to take seriously the reality that conversion has functioned as a disruption within the pluralistic context of India, both now and in the past.

Conversion and "Othering":

The ghastly murder of the Catholic priest, Father Arul Doss in the Jamabani village in Mayurbhanj District of Orissa State on September 2nd, 1999, has once again brought to the fore the question regarding minority rights, the question regarding the freedom of religious choice and the question regarding the mechanics of conversion.

Among many "fact-finding" teams sent to the spot was one sent by the Orissa BJP unit, which after visiting the scene issued a statement where the killing was linked to "cultural invasion by the Christians" which led to tension. Other points made include one about the "disparity" between the attitudes and values embodied by Father Arul Doss and those of the local tribals, and another about the "consumption of liquor with young tribal ladies," and the finding of "tinned food containing meat preparations suspected to be beef ... ."

These so-called findings all point to one reality, namely, the continuting othering of Christians and Christianity. This "othering" takes various facets, including the "othering" through difference, difference in terms of local and external culture, difference in terms of acceptable and unacceptable food and drink, and difference in terms of debased sexual attitudes. This othering by the majority-dominant community is not limited to the Christians alone. Such a tendency has also been noticed and analysed in relation to the Muslim community in India not only now but in the historical past. Thus, in commenting on Swami Vivekananda and his writings on the Muslims, one perceptive commentator notes that a persistent constructed discourse on the part of such persons "prepared the ground on which was erected a notion of the Other within Indian society. Engagement with this Other became something integral to one's own 'self-awareness'. This Other was a direct replication of the logic of the colonial Other. The presence of this Other in Indian society was something malignant ... ."

This "othering" has manifested itself in various ways both in the history of Christianity in India and in the present political scenario. At its simplest it manifests itself in terms of questions regarding loyalty and financial dependency; at its most vicious it manifests itself in terms of a discourse where the right of Christians to call themselves Indians is itself called into question. Hence, the majority-dominant community, by appealing to the romanticised myth of an ancient pristine society, provides legitimation and sanction for a discourse which calls into question those that appear to be impositions and accretions on such a society. Therefore

[g]iven the uncritical identification of a community with an entire past, communalism finds it easier to appropriate tradition because it inserts its message into existing, unspoken biases or prejudices, stereotypical images of self and others, and unsubstantiated assumptions of society. It mobilizes itself through a frenzied appeal to the imagination of a society.

In talking about "the imagination of a society," one must not forget how the Western imperialist-expansionist enterprise of colonization, with its attendant construction of "Orientalism," provided the majority-dominant community with a double-edged weapon - on the one hand to use the tools provided by such an enterprise to create a superstructure which suited its own legitimation of superiority; and, on the other, to claim to be the authentic dispossessed, struggling to reclaim its rights. The contemporary playing-out of this legacy is brought out in an article by King, who notes that

[t]hrough the colonially established apparatus of the political, economic and educational institutions of India, contemporary Indian self-awareness remains deeply influenced by Western presuppositions about the nature of Indian culture. The prime example of this being the development since the nineteenth century of an indigenous sense of Indian national identity and the construction of a single 'world' religion called 'Hinduism.'

This in turn has led to a situation, where Alam correctly notes: "The Other cannot be constitutive of your self; rather the self has to be protected from the contaminating effects of the Other's presence."

If this is so then it is hardly surprising that significant sections of the majority-dominant community treats any symptoms of what they consider the disease of conversion as a foreign body, whose nauseating effects are not to be merely treated, but surgically excised.

Conversion and the Reality of Hybridity:

Whether one looks at a Church of South India congregation in the "Harijan Wadi" of a village in Chittoor District of Andhra Pradesh, or at a New Life Pentecostal congregation in the suburbs of Mumbai, whether one looks at a Syrian Orthodox community in Chungom, Kottayam, or at a Mizo Presbyterian Church in Mission Veng in Aizwal, whether one looks at the worshipers at the Indian mass celebrated at the National Biblical Catechetical and Liturgical Centre in Bangalore, or at a newly set up Baptist congregation among former estate workers in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, one thing that would strike even the most impartial observer is the reality of hybridity, hybridity which manifests itself not only in things external, but very often in terms of attitudes, thought-processes and historical self-understanding within the overall identity discourse.

Recognising the reality of hybridity in relation to conversion means that what is needed is a deeper and more sensitive analysis of why a "change in alliance" has taken place. What does such a change mean in terms of alliances previously held? What happens to alliances which occupied the centre? Should we use a circle imagery uncritically or is the imagery of an ellipse, with two foci, heuristically more helpful?

It is clear that hybridity calls into question any talk about some kind of pristine, "original" identity. In the article analysing the issue of identity, I wrote:

Any talk about identity has also to take into account the reality that the identity issue is not something which is value neutral. On the one hand there is the talk about a larger cross-cultural transnational identity. On the other there is the attempt to define a micro identity. One ought to note that the term "Christian" conceals more than it reveals. At the same time, one must recognise that the term "Indian" is a political construct. This understanding serves as an admonition against any form of an easy romanticised quest for the "original" which underlies the present form of existence.

Hybridity, not only of those seeking conversion, but also of other people, also includes another element, which must be taken note of, especially in a pluralistic context where one is discussing conversion. This is the aspect of how hybridity is also a construct from within in response to a situation without. From an analysis of attitudes towards Christians in the ancient Roman world comes the significant comment that "[w]hat others thought about Christianity was a factor in shaping how Christians would think about themselves and how they would present themselves to the larger world."

Reading and Resignifying the Past -

A Story from the Past and Some Questions for the Present:

One of the ways in which we can learn about the meaning and implications of conversion in the present is by revisiting the past, and dialoguing with it. In order to facilitate this I will quote an extended report of a conversion recorded in one of the reports of the Basel Mission.

In Mangalore the 17th November 1871, two Christians came to me and asked me to go at once with them to a house in the town where a woman wished to become a Christian and asked for a Missionary. They told me to be quick as another party had sent for a Roman Catholic priest. Our Catechist was there waiting for us. When we reached the home, he told us: "It is too late, she is baptized," and related that the priest asked the woman: "Do you wish to become a Christian?" She said: "I wish to join those who serve the true God." Priest: "I will tell you something about the true God. He is the Creator and Lord and has given us life. But there are two more Gods, Christ and the Holy Spirit. Christ came and died for our sins and he left us a prayer in the Latin language which must be used frequently. There is also a Creed, but you can learn it afterwards. Will you now be baptized according to this doctrine?" She said: "Yes," whereupon he produced a phial with oil, annointed and baptized her.

But her husband Subaya said: "I will not join the Roman Catholics, but your church." And two days afterwards, he came to my house, and declared that he now desired to become a Christian. Seeing that he was very ill-at-ease, I asked him what he wanted to receive by it? He said: "Peace. I want to be free from the fear of demons, and you must help me to it." In the evening I went to his house with two Catechists. We explained to him that only Jesus can give rest to his soul. He said: "I will join you and believe in Christ." We prayed with him. Afterwards I asked: "Are there any Bhutas in your house?" Subaya: "Yes." Catechist: "Are they your property? and what shall be done with them?" Subaya: "They are mine, and I will put them away." I then asked him to show them. He brought some articles and bid us follow him. In the courtyard he took a pickaxe and, without saying a word, began with all his strength to break down the Thulasikatte (place with the sacred plant Thulasi). In a moment a crowd of 200 men had gathered, and one ran towards him, seized his arm and said: "What are you destroying here?" Subaya: "I have the right to pull down what I have built."

Then I interfered and said to the man: "If Subaya does wrong, go call the Police, but you must not hurt him in my presence." His elder sister also lamented and accused me as the author of such a misfortune, saying how it was that I, teacher of good things, could have caused her brother to act in such a manner. Subaya did not listen to her but proceeded to the house-temple. Finding it locked, he broke the door, threw out the objects of worship, and knocked them about to become rid of this terror also. Then he told his sister: "You are my sister; if you are in want I will give you rice; but I will no longer suffer any offerings in this place."

The next day I heard that Subaya's sister intended to bring a suit against me, as she was the owner and Subaya only the manager of the house by the rules of Aliyasantana (in which the property descends in the female line). On the 4th December the Catechist and myself had to appear before the Magistrate, Mr. Webster, who after careful investigation decided that Subaya, as the manager of property, was entitled to destroy it, so that we had not committed any unlawful act. He told us however that it would be advisable for Missionaries not to be present when objects of demon-worship were being destroyed under such circumstances.

Although this man gave such good promises in the beginning, we have since had reason to doubt whether he will fulfil them. May the Lord make him quite sincere!

This story has several of the ingredients of the issues that need further explication in any discussion of conversion in the Indian context. The questions listed below are just some examples to proceed in this matter. They are not meant to be questions to which a direct, straightforward answer is sought, but rather questions which are aimed at problematizing the issue. The questions include:

- Why do people desire conversion? What are the motives, desires and needs which are explicit or implicit?

Samartha has noted that "Conversion, instead of being a vertical movement toward God, a genuine renewal of life, has become a horizontal movement of groups of people from one community to another, very often backed by economic affluence, organizational strength and technological power. It also seriously disrupts the political life of the country by influencing the voting patterns of people. Why then should Christians be surprised when the very words mission and conversion provoke so much anxiety, suspicion, and fear?" If this is so, then how much of this suspicion and fear is justified? How does one situate an individual who desires conversion?

- How has the role of different Christian agencies in the conversion procedures been understood? What about the element of competition? How has the theological position of another agency been portrayed?

The General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, in his address to the 1998 Harare Assembly uses the word "conversion" in relation to the churches themselves and asks: "The ecumenical jubilee is ... a call to conversion, to repentance and critical self-assessment, acknowledging the accumulated guilt and coresponsibility in dividing the body of Christ. Turn to God in Christ - this is the invitation to all churches to leave their defensiveness and self-righteousness and to turn to the source and centre of their unity: Christ, the crucified and risen one." When such a call has been given how does one understand and justify the presence of a myriad of evangelical agencies in India, with different understandings of mission and the necessity of conversion, which so often flourish by demonizing other Christians of other theological or ecclesiological perspectives, who may have different understandings of the place and role of religions within a pluralistic country and different understandings of the inter-relationships between them?

- How has the link between conversion and baptism been understood?

In an earlier article I noted that in India, any discussion about baptism and conversion takes on "added significance because of the understanding that after baptism the 'converted' person has not only changed his or her religion but also social milieu, habits, customs, and manners, in addition to forfeiting several legal rights, especially with regard to the inheritance of property. This led to the formation of 'mission compounds' and social ghettos where Christians could take their place as one more subcaste or subsect among the thousands of such subcastes and subsects in India." If this is so, then what does one understand in speaking of baptism and community? If baptism results in the formation of a new community (something that has been questioned in view of the Dalit experience) then what is the relationship between the old and the new communities?

- How has the role of the family been addressed?

One has to take seriously the words of J. R. Chandran, who wrote: "The traditional image of separation which has created the impression of the 'baptised' being a loss to his original Hindu or Muslim family or community needs radical re-thinking. Separation can only be from sin and not necessarily from one's community. Baptism seeks to bring unity and not disunity." Is baptism to be regarded as a radical break from the ties of the past, where that which once seemed central is now to be understood as accursed, where the family itself may seem to be the carriers of those things which tie one down, preventing one from the seeking and embracing of the new, the new which offers a whole new world of meanings, relationships, symbols, and attitudes?

- What is the relationship between conversion and the law of the land?

If, as M. M. Thomas pointed out: " ... the right to propagation is not the right to convert. The former is the right of persuasion only. The right to convert is that of the hearer. And it is necessary that no kind of inducement or coercion is present to violate the moral and spiritual integrity of the person or group propagating or deciding to convert. But any law in this matter is difficult to implement and is likely to be misused. ..." then how does one understand the right to propagate one's religion as mandated in the Constitution of India in relation to the call to baptize as indicated in Matthew?

- What can one say about the disposition of those engaged in the conversion process toward the objects of veneration in the religion currently professed by those who now seek conversion? Some disturbing words need to be looked at here. S. N. Balagangadhara, Professor at the University of Ghent in Belgium, writes:

Tolerance is a civic virtue in a secularized religious culture like the West. In India too, like in most places, different peoples and practices coexist. However, they are premissed not on tolerance but on indifference. (The contrast notion here is that of interference.) Neither religious intolerance nor civic tolerance makes sense in Indian culture. Examples of intermittent persecutions of groups belonging to different traditions -- there must be many such -- do not illustrate religious intolerance in India. If one insists they do, these examples merely illustrate one's own ignorance regarding whether and why religions are intolerant of each other.

Obviously, Balagangadhara is not using the terms 'tolerance' , 'secularized' and 'indifference' as we normally use them in our conversations. The above comments are part of a critique of a liberal idea of secularism which is basically allied to the other western modern ideas such as nation and liberty. The issue of non-interference is of the utmost importance here. Is it possible to be non-interfering and yet be messengers of the gospel? Is it possible to remain Christians without creating fear and anxiety about conversions? Is it possible for religious people to continue to practice their religion without causing disruptions in the cultural contexts around us? Can there be conversion without discontent?


The Rev. Dr. J. Jayakiran Sebastian is a Presbyter of the Church of South India, and Associate Professor in the Department of Theology and Ethics, at the United Theological College, Bangalore.

2 Sumit Sarkar, Writing Social History (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 1.

3 See for example the case studies analysed by G. Rajamani and C. Lawrence, "Baptism and Conversion with Special Reference to Socio-Cultural Dimensions," in Godwin R. Singh, ed., A Call to Discipleship: Baptism and Conversion (Delhi: ISPCK, 1985), pp. 112 - 136.

4 See the outstanding work by Gauri Viswanathan, Conversion, Modernity and Belief (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998).

5 See the essay by Sumit Sarkar, "Hindutva and the Question of Conversions," in K. N. Panikkar, ed. The Concerned Indian's Guide to Communalism (New Delhi: Viking, 1999), pp. 73 - 106.

6"BJP says Father Doss had angered tribals," report in The Asian Age, Vol. 6, No. 199 (6 September 1999), pp. 1 - 2.

7 Javeed Alam, India: Living With Modernity (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 112.

8 Alam, India: Living with Modernity, Ibid., p. 184.

9 See Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1994 [1978]). The important insights and methodological warnings of David C. Scott on pre-colonial orientalism, especially in a context where the missionary does not initially create, but enters into, structures of authority, perceived or otherwise, must not be lost sight of. See his article, "Precolonial Orientalism in South Asia," in David C. Scott and Israel Selvanayagam, eds., Re-Visioning India's Religious Traditions: Essays in Honour of Eric Lott (Delhi: ISPCK, 1996), pp. 3 - 21.

10 Richard King, "Orientalism and the Modern Myth of 'Hinduism'," in Numen, Vol. XLVI, No. 2 (1999), pp. 184 - 185. Material from this article now appear in Chapters 4 and 5 of Richard King, Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and the 'Mystic East' (New Delhi: Oxford, 1999).

11 Alam, India: Living with Modernity, op. cit., p. 117.

12 I have analysed aspects of this in my article, J. Jayakiran Sebastian, "Pressure on the Hyphen: Aspects of the Search for Identity Today in Indian-Christian Theology," in Religion and Society, Vol. 44, No. 4 (December 1997), pp. 27 - 41.

13 For a counter example where Indian "natives" use "the powers of hybridity to resist baptism and to put the project of conversion in an impossible position" see the chapter "Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of ambivalence and authority under a tree outside Delhi, May 1817," (pp. 102 - 122) in the book by Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994). The quotation is on p. 118.

14 These comments and questions come from my presentation at the Gurukul Summer Institute, Kodaikanal, 25th April - 7th May, 1999, on the theme: "New Horizons of Christian Mission: A Theological Exploration," entitled: "A Fresh Look at the Issues of Conversion and Baptism in Relation to Mission." (to be published)

15 Sebastian, "Pressure on the Hyphen," p. 36.

16Robert L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), p. 47.

17 The idea of resignification comes from the phrase "reinscribe the past, reactivate it, relocate it, resignify it," in Homi K. Bhabha, "Culture's In-Between," in Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay, eds., Questions of Cultural Identity (London: Sage Publications, 1996), p. 59.

18 The report from the "Thirty-Second Report of the Basel German Evangelical Mission in South-Western India," is by Mr. Daimelhuber, a missionary, printed in the Report of the Basel German Evangelical Missionary Society for 1871 (Mangalore: Stolz & Reuther, Basel Mission Press, 1872), pp. 11 - 12. The missionary is identified as H. Daimelhuber, of Germany, whose station of service was Mangalore, and who began active service in 1870, on p. 4.

19 S. J. Samartha, One Christ - Many Religions: Toward a Revised Christology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), pp. 148 – 149.

20 Konrad Raiser, "Report of the General Secretary," in Diane Kessler, ed., Together on the Way: Official Report of the Eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1999), p. 87.

21 J. Jayakiran Sebastian, "Baptism and the Unity of the Church in India Today," in Michael Root and Risto Saarinen, eds., Baptism and the Unity of the Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.; Geneva: WCC Publications, 1998), p. 199.

22 An important book adressing this is James Massey, Dalits in India: Religion as a Source of Bondage or Liberation with Special Reference to Christians (Delhi: ISPCK, 1995).

23 J. R. Chandran, "Baptism -- A Scandal or a Challenge?" in Religion and Society, Vol. XIX, No. 1, March 1972, p. 58. Chandran's article has been reprinted in his collection of essays, The Church in Mission (Madras: Christian Literature Society, 1991), pp. 9 - 17.

24 M. M. Thomas, The Church's Mission and Post-Modern Humanism: Collection of Essays and Talks 1992 - 1996 (Tiruvalla: CSS and Delhi: ISPCK, 1996), p. 113.

25 S. N. Balagangadhara, "The Future of the Present: Thinking through Orientalism," in Cultural Dynamics, Vol. 10, No. 2 (July 1998), p. 112. This issue of Cultural Dynamics has the theme "India: Theorizing the Present." Balagangadhara is the author of 'The Heathen in His Blindness ...': Asia, the West and the Dynamic of Religion (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994).