Conversion, Continuity and Change

The notion of conversion that seems be operative today is a protestant notion beautifully articulated by the hymn amazing grace. It is concerned with life changing disruptive total religious change. What we call conversion today and use it as name to represent religious change especially in the colonial or islamic period in our country is rather slow assimilative process that initiates a religious change. Richard Eaten, a historian who studied Islam and conversion manifests such a slow assimilative process of conversion . As the issue of conversion has become unwaranted hot potato in our days, hence, it maybe important to look at conversion without the hind sight of 19th century protestant notion of conversion. Unfortunately, this notion is un critcally used by the upper caste in our country.

Conversion is a complex issue. It has been oversimplified and politicised. This is why it has become an extremely passionate. There is no dearth of narratives that view conversion as being enforced by the force and power of the sword. This is why conversion is still viewed through what may be called the lens of forced conversion. Ricard Eatan has shown that something that is seemingly unconnected enterprise like rice cultivation is directly linked with the growth of Islam in Bengal.His work shows that at time when the Mughals were interested in bringing more land under them. They promoted agriculture. This required cutting of forest. Most of what we call East Bengal was a forest and was made into cultivable land by tribals who were employed by both Hindu as well as Muslim Lords. When the land was reclaimed depending on the faith of the Lords who got the tribals to clear the forest a temple or a mosque was built on the new land. Eaten shows that it was just that the Muslim Lords were more and hence, East Bengal became more Muslim on the power of rice cultivation. Rice cultivation was viewed as the command of God Allah who had asked human to make earth fruitful so something like rice cultivation led to the growth of Islam.

Are there any such seeming disconnected links to conversions in Goa? The conversion of the upper caste to Viasnavism under the influence of Vijaynagara Empire in the 13th century or the conversion under Portuguese in the 16th -27th centuries are also complex events. Are we to view them as manipulations under the power of the rulers of that time? Could we regard these conversions as simply forced conversion without any role of the agency of the converts? Today scholars look at conversion as creative adaptation of the unfamiliar to the already familiar. This understanding contests the protestant understanding of conversion which tends to look at the process from the stand point of the agent ( missionary) who goes to the converts or the native. Today we are challenged to revisit this reigning anthropology of conversion and recognize the agency of the convert.

The complexity of the issue of conversion lead to Robin Horton’s intellectualist theory of conversion which seeks to explain religious change in terms of changed experience of social relations. This is why may be the fall of Goa in hands of Vijaynagar Kingdom resulted in the conversation of Saivaite brahmins into Vaisnavism. The same is true of the mass conversion of Goans into Catholicism during the reign of the Portuguese. This is why the conversion of some Saviates to Vaisnavism or the Ganvkaria’s to Catholicism has to be seen as creative acts of adaptation. This mode of understanding conversion as a creative transformative reproduction repects the agency of the convert. Hence, we have the imperative to understand conversions under this rubricon. It opens us to view conversion as creative cultural translations. One may introduce a nuance in this understanding to underline the fact that these conversions do not happen on a tabula rasa. This means significant elements of the old tradition do remain while the convert embraces the new faith. Maybe this is why some of the 13th century converts kept Saiva or Parvati as thier kull Devtas. the same is true of Catholic converts who tended to return to thier previous faith resulting in the felt need for installing of the dreaded inquisition.Therefore, conversion cannot be views with all old outdated model of understanding but has to include the agency of the convert.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao