The only way to overcome the decline in the number of Hindus is by developing a commitment to grow through conversion.
A religion that does not define what it offers to potential converts will shrink and ultimately fail.
If you are a Hindu looking for a New Year resolution for 2020, here’s one. Ditch bad ideas that hold Hinduism back. One bad idea to give up is to keep demanding a ban on religious conversions in the hope that it will stop the Hindu demographic decline in India. It won’t. If you are willing to give up this bad idea, you must necessarily adopt a corollary as your guiding principle: exhort non-Hindus to become Hindus. Hinduism must become a missionary religion once again to regain its vitality.
Before we come to the hows and whys of these two related propositions, let us understand the general idea underlying it all: nature abhors a steady state. The universe is always expanding or contracting somewhere. Life is about birthing more cells in the body than killing them. A business that intends to survive has to grow customers or write its own epitaph in slow motion. Political parties must either grow or fall apart. A political party that is satisfied with the status quo will ultimately destroy its future. This was the reality that forced the Shiv Sena to break with the Bharatiya Janata Party in Maharashtra.
Ideas are the same. If they are not developed, nurtured and grown continuously, they will shrink and die. Religions are essentially ideas with physical, emotional and psychic dimensions. If they do not seek to expand, they will shrivel, even if this trend is not clearly visible in one’s own lifetime. But when it comes to a tipping point, religions may die all of a sudden. If Hinduism wants to escape this dismal fate at some future date, it has to act now to start growing.
Let’s also understand why bans on religious conversions are not the answer to Hinduism’s steady demographic decline in India. There arealready religious conversion bans in several states, but none of them has managed to stem the decline of people professing Hindu faiths.
China frowns on many official religions, including Christianity. But underground Christians are ballooning, and, , China could well overtake the US as the world’s largest Christian nation by 2030. The US is the world’s largest Christian nation currently with (as of the middle of this decade).
Christianity is in decline in the US (not to speak of Europe), as more and more people have stopped practising it. A . This decline of Christianity in the West is what is driving a huge push for conversions in blue ocean countries like India.
It is also the reason why the Pope does not meet the Dalai Lama, because , a new growth area for the faith. Christians understand that if they do not grow their numbers, the faith will collapse into irrelevance. They are willing to deal with the devil (ie, communist China) to grow.
Take another ban that hasn’t worked: cow slaughter. Some 20 states ban cow slaughter, but cow smuggling and slaughter continue undeterred, often causing violence — even deaths — between cow smugglers and gau rakshaks. With a national cattle population of over 192 million, most of them female (source: ), it is almost impossible to police cattle movements or prevent slaughter.
If this is the case with an animal which needs humans to move them around for slaughter, how successful can we be in monitoring religious conversions, when a person may convert without changing his name or even within the confines of his home? The only way to deter religious conversions is through intrusive policing, which no free society can allow. Even in a highly policed society (China, etc) the state cannot stop you from believing what you want to believe quietly.
So, while there may be a case for banning foreign contributions that aid religious conversions, banning conversions as such will be counter-productive for Hindus.
This leaves developing a missionary mindset as the best possible way to regenerate Hinduism.
Hindus who claim that Hinduism is not a converting faith are probably wrong, for Hinduism could not have grown to dominate the whole of the Indian sub-continent without enough missionaries seeing it as a worthwhile idea, fit enough to practice, profess and propagate.
Consider Adi Shankaracharya. Pavan Varma, in his book on Adi Shankara, calls him ‘Hinduism’s foremost thinker’, but the first Shankaracharya was not just a thinker, but a doer and missionary. Why else would he go around the country to debate rival ideas and set up four mutts in his short, 32-year lifetime to propagate Advaita?
If Hinduism had no missionaries, the ideas embedded in it would not have spread to south-east Asia at all, where even an Muslim-majority country like Indonesia celebrates its version of the Ramayana.
But the real reason why Hinduism must become a missionary religion again is that expansion and conversion strategies force you to think through your ideas, dogmas, institutions, resources and strategies afresh. If Hindus do not build institutions, if they do not fund them and make their institutions larger than individuals, if they do not break down their faith into byte-sized ideas that the masses can easily consume, and if those ideas do not have an economic dimension which provides an incentive to convert, it cannot really survive except in niche areas confined to some parts of the world.
Currently, many Hindus make a virtue of laziness and foolishness by making the following statements about themselves. I have given the counter-arguments and question the hollowness of these arguments.
(1) We have survived the last 1,000 years, so we will survive the next 1,000 too. Buddhism too was a major religion — if not the dominant one — in India for centuries. How did it suddenly disappear and allow Hinduism to become the dominant faith if Hinduism did not strengthen itself and spread its ideas again?
In the 1940s, South Korea was just two per cent Christian. In 2014, it was more than 30 per cent Christian — a 15-fold growth over three generations. But suddenly, , as the young have stopped attending church. Religions can grow or shrink all of a sudden when they meet, or stop meeting, the expectations of the people. When religions stop being “cool” or inspirational or digmatic, they fade.
Hinduism, too, could decline fast if it does not study demographic trends and fails to understand what keeps people loyal or disloyal to it. Christianity is growing in India because it has invested time and effort to understand what people want from faith.
If Hindus want to stop their demographic contraction, they have to study the weaknesses and strengths of Christianity and Islam, and create winning strategies by adopting new strengths and attacking their opponents’ weaknesses. A commitment to conversion strategies automatically forces you to think along these lines. A ban on conversion means allows you to relax and go to sleep — thus enabling our enemies to gain as we slumber.
(2) We give all people the freedom to follow their own ideas on faith, which means we are open and liberal. It is one thing to be open, another to be lazy and dismissive of the challenges facing the Hindu identity. Huge Muslim populations are growing in Western UP, West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, and coastal Karnataka around Mangalore, and Christianity is spreading its wings all over southern and tribal India, including the North-East. Hinduism is already in retreat in these areas.
The only way to overcome this decline is by developing a commitment to grow through conversions. A religion that does not define what it offers to potential converts will not find new adherents. Existing ones may not leave due to inertia, but the young will flee.
Ask yourself: if anyone can claim to be a Hindu on his own terms without defining his relationship with dharma, why bother becoming a Hindu at all?
But there is another point to make as well. While it is good that Hinduism can be relatively free of dogma, it does not follow that you must not have your own set of fundamental values and propositions to offer. If Hinduism is about “anything goes” there is no need for anyong to adopt it. It carries no clearly defined value proposition for anybody.
If Hinduism remains a do-it-yourself religion, even a Shashi Tharoor can suddenly write a book on “The Hindu Way” and no Hindu will be able to say “bollocks”. He can define Hinduism in a way which can be self-defeating. It is good that Hinduism allows for a fair amount of customisation of beliefs and practices, but if it does not develop a core, it will become an empty shell. It will be eviscerated from within.
(3) All religions are the same so what’s the problem if a few Hindus convert to other religions? This is the kind of nonsense that we must stop peddling. All religions are not the same, and never will be, even if some points are common to them. If all religions are the same, why do even Hindus convert to Christianity or Islam or even Buddhism? Why did Babasaheb Ambedkar make a huge point by converting to Buddhism? If Hinduism cannot make itself relevant to those who want to leave it, it will disappear in due course.
India’s 2021 census will indicate a further decline in HIndu populations across almost the whole of India, and a rise in Muslim demography. Christian growth may be concealed as many do not openly declare their new faith for fear of losing job reservation benefits. The Hindu decline is happening because lazy Hindus want to avoid commitment by claiming “all religions are the same”, thus providing the intellectual justification for inaction and defeat. A belief in ‘Dilli door ast’ is never a winning strategy.
(4) Hinduism will not remain Hinduism if it becomes Hindutva. I define Hindutva as either political Hinduism, or an attempt to build a layer of unity among all Hindu sects and denominations. While it is true that any attempt to build unifying ideas into Hinduism will reduce some diversities, our real problem is not diversity, but the glorification of disunity. Any religion that wants to survive has to build layers of unity where the diverse units can fight for their common interests, even while celebrating their differences.
Consider the case of Sikhism. The first nine Gurus were spreading the faith through reform and commitment. The ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur, even offered his head for dharma, and the Mughal state happily took it. But offering one’s head to one’s enemies does not enable you to win the war for dharma. Guru Tegh Bahadur’s sacrifice - one of the greatest ever - was clearly not enough to tackle the challenge of Islam in the north-west of India. It was the 10th Guru, Govind Singh, who gave Sikhism its final form and fundamentals — drawing from both Hinduism and Islam — from where the faith could not only withstand the onslaught of Islam, but take the fight to it.
Did Sikhism change due to this? Yes. Could Sikhism have survived without this change? We can’t say. But one thing is clear: if you choose to stand up and fight, you change. If you don’t change, you lose. You are then forced to change on terms set by the victors. What should one choose: changing ourselves to control our destinies, or be forced to change by those who could not care less about your faith or your heritage?
(5) Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (The world is one family). This is a load of bull. The world has never been one family, and even a world run by only one religion will never be one family. The Kauravas and Pandavas were essentially one family but they went to war for their share of the patrimony. Dharma luckily won, but it would not have if Arjuna’s weakness (he too believed in Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam) had not been overcome by Sri Krishna’s advice to fight for dharma, as enunciated in the Gita.
Hinduism’s rivals in India, Christianity and Islam, also believe in their own brand of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam — the only difference being that it has to be under the banner of Jesus or Allah. But neither Christianity nor Islam has ended wars between kingdoms and societies professing the same faith, nor has Hinduism done so. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam is a slogan of goodwill, not strategy. It is okay to practice family feelings when the person concerned behaves like family, not when he is planning to rob you and leave you by the wayside after sticking a knife into you.
The only way to make the world one family is for each unit of this family to be strong enough to deter the other, so that peace reigns among religions and peoples. When all religions realise that they cannot rule the world on their own terms, they will learn to work towards peace and Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. The only guarantee of peace is effective armed deterrence.
To achieve Vasudhaiva Kutumbakan, Hinduism has to arm itself by becoming a missionary religion once again. As long as it stays disarmed by refusing to convert, the two desert cults that became world religions by adopting conversion (Evangelism and Dawa) as their guiding themes, will destroy it.
PS: The movement to free temples from government control makes sense only if you plan to use temple resources for proselytisation and expansion of the faith. If you only want to pray to the deity, why do you want to run the temple anyway? Maybe the government can run it just as well?