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16 Jun, 2002

Hindu Leader Criticises Conversions: Save Us From the Saviours

Originally Published: 16 June 2002

IT did not take long for the fault-lines to emerge at the meeting of global religious leaders at Buddhamonthon last Wednesday. Within minutes of the opening bell of the World Council of Religious Leaders conference, the mainstream religions had placed their political and philosophical baggage out in full display.

Amidst the calls for peace, harmony, love and the search for a better world for our children and our children’s children, there were plenty of references to the factors that divide religions themselves. There were the well-worn references to Sept 11 and terrorism as well as the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Hindu-Muslim issues.

But in the midst of this old hat, other comments strongly indicated the presence of more deep-rooted feelings that get less publicity but also need to be addressed.

It was the Hindu leader Jagadguru Sankaracharya Swami Divyananda who said it was important for the religious leaders to recognise there is a problem because it was this “glossing over” of problems that was itself a cause of the problem. His premise: The conversion philosophy of some of the monotheistic religions.

Said the Swami: “This Council is meant for promoting harmony, not committed to change the theologies of people, of religions, but to see that we live in harmony. The problem with the religious clergy is (that) a given religion has a commitment to its theology. The clergy is supposed to promote the theology. If it promotes this theology among its own followers, a Christian will be a better Christian, a Muslim will be a better Muslim, a Buddhist will be a better Buddhist, a Hindu will be a better Hindu.

“The problem is that the clergy committed to a given theology gives a call, a fervent religious call, that the people outside the flock ought to be brought into the flock because they are not blessed, they (the religions) are not salvation. Even their documents (are) saying that other religions are not salvation, they cannot grant salvation.

“But when I talk to other religions they say, ‘We don’t want salvation at all. We are happy being what we are’. This is exactly what is the thrust of the problem. I don’t want to be saved by anybody. In fact, my prayer every day is, ‘O Lord, save us from saviours’.

“Your way is entirely different. It does not matter. I would like to grant you the freedom wholeheartedly to pursue your religion, your beliefs. Go by your beliefs, live by your beliefs. Let the Lord take care of you. At the same time I plead to you to (allow me to) pursue my tradition, my religion. I am convinced about it totally. I don’t need to be totally convinced about it by anybody. This is all what we require.

“Your freedom to practise your religion does not extend beyond your congregation (or) the people who subscribe to your religion. And therefore you cannot plead the freedom of religion as a human right. It is not correct. And this religious council should safeguard the freedom of religion to practise but not to convert.”

The Swami added, “We want to preserve all the religious traditions. We want to enjoy the mosaic of different cultures, different hues, and we want to respect every one of you.” He sought this commitment from the religious leaders and called on them to make it a reality.

This issue was reflected by Phra Thepsophon, Rector of Maha Chulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya University, who said in his prepared-text remarks that were distributed at the conference: “The time has ended for looking at other religions as competitors, for conflict over which religion shall be the greatest.”

Instead, he said, “I believe that the opponents of a religion are not other religions. Rather the important opponents are materialism and consumerism, which lead the people far from faith and, in the end, lead them to forsake religion in the pursuit of wealth and power. Searching for wealth and power without the moral controls of religion, is the root of conflict in the world today.

“If the religious leaders fight among themselves, forgetting who the real opponents are, we will wake up one day to find that our religions have no followers. This will be because the people see no value in religion and choose to Iive like people without it. In this situation, religious leaders are not so different from chickens waiting for the slaughter. Those chickens continue fighting for superiority, not knowing that in the end they will be slaughtered for dinner.

“The World Council, then, will not only help the world to have peace, but also will help religion to remain a force because the United Nations and the people of the world will see the value in religion. Our fervent wish is that you, the religious leaders, will be able to work together in the World Council for permanent world peace and to demonstrate the worth of religion for the people of the world.”

A similar theme was taken up by the Venerable Master Sheng-yen, Founder of the Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Association, Taiwan, who referred to what the UN and many international funding organisations are calling their over-arching goal: Poverty alleviation. But Master Sheng-Yen indirectly asked which kind of poverty was being referred to.

“There are two kinds of poverty: material and spiritual. Material poverty makes life difficult, but spiritual poverty can create disasters of great destructiveness. Materially impoverished peoples deserve great sympathy; spiritually impoverished peoples can be extremely dangerous.

“Today, besides those who are the victims of droughts, floods, and earthquakes, the recipients of international humanitarian aid are primarily war refugees. Inadequate productivity and the destruction brought by war result in material poverty. Yet spiritual poverty is the source of wars and conflicts between peoples.

“For this reason, if we wish to alleviate material poverty, the best way then is for religious leaders to encourage everyone to make a vow — to transform the selfish heart that plunders and takes into a compassionate heart that gives and contributes. While the materially affluent should of course give and contribute, the materially impoverished should also partake in the joy of giving according to their ability.

“If such giving and contributing can be promoted widely, not only can it alleviate material poverty, it can also resolve the problem of spiritual poverty. Only in this way is there hope for a lasting peace on earth,” Master Sheng-Yen said.