Conversion, Colonizer and Us

Conversion has come back to haunt us. How are we to understand the complex reality of conversion? Are we to simplify it by reducing it to spiritual conquests? Conversion viewed as a spiritual conquest is tainted by its political overtones. Our understanding of conversion today is political. Conversion today has come under interrogation simply because conversion itself has become an interrogation of the faith tradition that one leaves in order to embrace another tradition. This is why to us conversion raises emotions, and tempers and has become a taboo. Conversion is not merely an exchange of Gods. It has come to align with spiritual conquest and therefore one feels duty-bound to protect one’s turf from every threat of its trail of conquest. We may have to agree that the very notion of conversion ignites spiritual warfare in our society. There is no denying that the trope of war seems to have become the main descriptor of our understanding of conversion.

The phenomenon of conversion is not free from the memory of the conquistadores. This suggests that the reigning notion of conversion in our post-colonial days is tainted by the disruption of colonialism. This is why maybe the work of historians like Richard M Eaten might be of great help to understand the complex phenomena of conversion from the context when it really happened rather than from the context where we are now. Where we are now is certainly colouring our understanding of conversion and it is difficult to bracket it and study conversions dispassionately. Such bracketing can demystify several of the myths that provide legitimacy to our military understanding of conversion as a spiritual conquest. This distantion of our present context to view the phenomena of conversions of the medieval as well as modern eras may be a great contribution to both sociology and anthropology of conversion.

Seeing conversion from the position where we are actually distorting the dynamic and complex phenomena of conversion. Its conquistador model actually treats the past context of conversions as frozen flat ground and denies agency to the converts. Perhaps we may have to take inspiration from the work of anthropologist Robin Horton who studies conversion in Africa and looks at the complex phenomena of conversion in newly critical and constructive ways. This exercise may also enable us to set ourselves free from the guerrilla reading of conversions that is dominating our discourse today. Unfortunately, tainted by the military view of conversion, we are modelling conversions as sudden secretive attacks on our community. We may grudgingly agree that we are doing a guerrilla reading of conversions today both in Goa and in our Country. Hence, a Hortonesque influence on our analysis of conversion may illumine our minds at several levels.

Horton inscribes rationality, reflexivity and resilience as the salient features of the dynamics of conversion. This suggests that the converts are not tabula rasa (blank slates) and passive but are actively, consciously and rationally adapting themselves to changes occurring around them. It brings about a cognitive reorganization. The degree and rate of adaptability will differ from person to person. Therefore, it would be erroneous to think that people who converted were empty bottles and lacked rational ability. On the contrary, they exhibit hybridization as taught by post-colonial thinkers like Homi Bhaba. This also indicates that the converts exhibit reflexivity and hence, the agent of conversion becomes at best a stimulator or an influencer. Thus, the convert with his/her different degree of adaptation to the new world view stays resilient to the new faith that one has come to identify with oneself. This is why conversion is actually an identification.

The Hortonesque analysis of conversion may bring us to understand mass conversions in Goa whether they are the conversion of the upper caste to Vaishnava faith under the Vijaynagar Empire in the 13th century Goa or the mass conversion of Ganvkarias to Christianity under Portuguese colonial rule. Both events of conversions cannot be brushed aside as some kind of forced conversions. They exhibit cognitive reorganization, reflexivity and resilience. This is why maybe we have to ask the all-important question: when did we come to a cognitive reorganization of our understanding of conversion as spiritual conquest?

This paradigm that views convert as passive objects seems to belong to the colonizers. Eaten teaches us that the British popularized this view to justify their rule as just while the Muslim rule of India as tyrannical. We may also place that guilt at the door of the protestant scholars who saw Catholicism as impure and hence a conversion to it as forced. Eaten also accepts this view. Conversion as a creative adaptation does require us to treat the persons who convert as active rational subjects as well as conditions under which these conversions took place as diverse dynamic inter-oven and not static tabula rasa. This is why seeing a conversion from where we are today misunderstands conversions as well as identifies them with a military and political lens.

We may have to agree that the identification of the original context of conversion as a single and static condition that we can call Hindu only in hindsight is a product of viewing conversion from where we are today. The flattening of the plural and diverse conditions of conversions somehow renders legitimacy to the denationalization of conversion as well as leads to it being viewed as being affected by force and deception. It is this paradigm that leads to the guerrilla reading of conversions in Goa these days. The guerrilla reading of conversions is used to generate the need to enact a new law of anti-conversion. This is why the paradigm that sees conversion as creative adaptation can open a new window on issues of conversions of the past that have come to haunt our society today. The military understanding of conversion has colonial roots. Hence, we have the challenge to decolonize our minds.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao