• 22 Apr, 2024

The Idea of Conversion

The Idea of Conversion

A reflection on the meaninglessness of religious conversions


At the root of most religious conflicts in the world today is the idea of conversion—convert to my religion or be damned. Or, worse, killed. This is sad, but understandable. And it has nothing to do with religion but everything to do with human nature as it is. We must not confuse between the two. By and large, human nature is not ready for religion. Our gods and our religions are as petty as our hearts.

Reflect first on the glaring contradiction in the logic of conversion: if you can convert from one faith to another, then faith cannot be an absolute—it can only be a construct, psychological or cultural, an accident of birth or circumstances. You may be born of Hindu parents but raised by Muslim parents as a Muslim and you will believe yourself to be Muslim. Or vice versa. Your religion is obviously determined by circumstances of your birth or upbringing. There is no spiritual absoluteness in religion, nor a biological basis. No one is born with a religion inscribed on their foreheads. Anyone from any religion can be converted to any other religion, all factors being equal. So what’s the big deal?

And there is a deeper fact hidden here. One can only convert from what one is not to what one is not. Read that again. I cannot convert from human to simian because I am human. Period. But I can convert from Leftist to Rightist, from Communist to Capitalist, from believer to atheist, or from anti-this-party to pro-that-party. Because, essentially or naturally, I am none of these—neither Leftist nor Rightist, neither Communist nor Capitalist, neither believer nor atheist. These are all ideologies, belief systems, prejudices, which are either imposed on me or assumed by me as I grow up. And no ideology or belief system is fundamental to my being: they are all external—cultural, social, political. If I were living alone on an island, none of these would have any relevance for me.

Religion is a such a belief system, imposed on me from the outside, by others. And whatever is imposed on me when I am too young to question its personal validity and significance is necessarily a conditioning over which I have no control, and about which I have no choice. Religion, to have any existential significance and personal validity, must arise organically out of one’s quest for meaning, one's need for truth—a quest and a need that no second-hand, inherited belief or knowledge system can satisfy.

The real religion, your own and unique spiritual expression, is not something you practice but something you live in the marrow of your bones, or something that lives in you as heat lives in fire. It is fundamental and essential, to your being. And whatever is fundamental and essential to your being cannot be converted—what can be converted cannot be real to your being anyway.

But in real life, it doesn’t work like that. Religious conversions are used as political tools and weapons. There is nothing fundamental or spiritual in conversions or religious conflicts caused by conversions. By definition, there can be no religious conflict. All conflicts are political.

The only ‘conversion’ that works, in any religion, is psychological and spiritual—a conversion of consciousness from the outer to the inner, from the lower to the higher, from the gross to the subtle, from the selfish and petty to the universal. This kind of conversion is an opening to the true religion, the religion that liberates, widens, unifies, harmonizes. Such a religion will dawn upon earth when the human species truly grows up.

Till then, there is little we can do but wait.


Image: Sanjive Sharma

Acharya Nirankar

A practitioner and teacher of Vedanta who prefers to write and speak anonymously. A teacher, in the dharmic tradition, is known as 'Acharya'.

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