Many Hindus pride themselves on account of their secular ideal of non-proselytism. They believe that Hinduism has never indulged in converting people of other religions to its own, and some go further to demonstrate the unwillingness of many of today's saints to accept followers of other religions into their fold.
Amongst adherents of the non-proselytising history of Hinduism, there exist, on the one hand, those who wish it to remain so owing to the secularist principle of the ideal. On the other hand, there are also those who sincerely believe that Hinduism should transform into at least a passively proselytising religion to survive the onslaught of the, not only actively, but aggressively, proselytising Abrahamic religions.
On reading many accounts in Indian history of conversions from Hinduism to other religions and re-conversions as well as original conversions from other religions to Hinduism, I find it hard to believe that Hinduism has been a non-proselytising religion. While I agree with the self-evident fact that Hinduism is not militant in its evangelistic zeal as contrasted with the forced and threatened conversions by Islam or the deceitful and bribed conversions by Christianity, Hinduism, on many instances in the past, has indulged in active proselytising mainly by means of dialectics.
A very famous evidence would be the debate between Adi Sankara and Mandana Mishra. Though it is true that both Mandana and Sankara were both under the gigantic umbrella of Hinduism, that the condition of the debate was the conversion of the losing party to the philosophy of the winning side is in itself an act of proselytise. In South India too, during the first millennium CE, there were numerous battles amongst Hindu, Jain and Buddhist rulers. It was a common practice under Jain and Buddhist rule to convert the Hindu scholars and masses by force and to seize Hindu temples to be transposed to Jain temples.
Shiva Bhaktas used to be tortured if they did not comply to voluntary conversion, thereby leading to an exodus of Bhaktas to lands where their religious practice was tolerated. As a result of the unceremonious appropriation of Hindu temples and peoples by Jains and Buddhists, when Hindu rulers won back their lost kingdoms, there used to be a restoration of the converted places of worship to their original stature. While Jains and Buddhists mainly targeted the scholars amongst Hindus for conversion, when they did target the common man, he usually succumbed to escape the wrath of the king. These common men reconverted when Hindu rule was restored.
Further, under the prosperous rule of the Chola dynasty, Hinduism spread all over South-East Asia actively gaining new peoples to its fold. The Bali Hindus are living evidence of this venture. This anecdote from History also debunks a partisan view that only Indians, or people born of Hindus can be a Hindu. Why, the biggest Hindu temple (Angkor Wat in Cambodia) majestically stands outside India giving testimony to the fact that non-Indians have been and can be Hindus.
History reveals that Hinduism has had its share of proselytising, whereby dialectic exercises between philosophies often resulted in the conversion of the failed ones to the victorious one. It further establishes that Hinduism has followed proselytise based on voluntary acceptance by realization of the inferiority of one's own system of thought. (Is that not the reason for any instance of conversion at all?)
Caution is advised here so as not to interpret this as the unequivocal superiority of Hinduism over any other system, because most of the conversions in the history of India were intra-Hindu. Further caution is to be observed so as not to interpret this as in-fighting, because only such exchanges of energy and confluence of arguments has led to the blossoming of philosophy in India and the development of multiple schools of thought as against the dominance of any single school. It would be prudent to observe here that debates between Hinduism and more recent religions such as Christianity, Islam or Judaism rarely occurred, if at all, because mature dialectics is born only of two individuals or schools that respect each other by the humility in their acceptance of the victory of the other school on failing to defend their own.
So, if Hinduism has historically favoured voluntary conversions, what were the causes for it to lose its proselytising efforts, though they were healthy? There are those who believe that any proselytism is misguided. However, even they might agree with me in terming conversion through dialectics as a healthy means, for now, when you genuinely believe that the victorious school is superior to the vanquished one, you ought to have the opportunity to become a follower of that school. This is no longer the age of taking birth into a particular religion and being stuck with it for life.
At this point, a digression to Judaism would be very helpful. During a small introductory seminar on Judaism, I had the opportunity to ask a group of Cambridge Jewish scholars the reason for the lack of proselytism in Judaism. While a few of them were bewildered by my question and wondered why, none of them accepted my proposition (which I repeatedly put forth) that it could be due to respect for other religions and acceptance of more than one path to the Truth. On the contrary, I learnt that evangelistic Jews did exist in history. However, due to the bloody history of Judaism itself, whereby even the display of one's Jewry or the practice of the faith could throw one into a concentration camp, none dared attempt to preach. When Judaism itself was dealt a shattering blow, its proselytism died altogether. Also, I was told of a story in their history/mythology of a mother refusing her daughter-in-law into the Jewish fold three times before finally accepting her. This story, had at some point in their history (which I suspect could very well have been during the Christian terrorism/Nazism) been accepted as the norm for gaining any adherents to the faith. Therefore, I further learnt, to convert to Judaism today, one may have to study the religion and flaunt the knowledge so gained before a board comprising rabbis; additionally, a male may have to undergo circumcision!
A sympathetic parallel can be drawn to Hinduism. India, especially during the Mughal rule which extended for many centuries, faced continuous onslaughts by an extremely violent people that was intolerant of idol worship and polytheism and aggressively sought to convert Hindus by force and plunder, torture and rape. This was immediately followed by over two centuries of Christian rule, who brought in an army of missionaries that militantly converted Hindus by denigrating Hinduism, offering allurements and deceiving the ignorant. Under the strong attack of both muscle-power and money-power, Hinduism, akin to Judaism, withdrew into a shell. The religion became highly introverted and strove to at least regain its practice at the cost of losing its proselytism. After such a turbulent history, it is a miracle in itself that a majority of Indians still subscribe to Hinduism. This can especially be appreciated in the light of annihilation of all the other pagan and native religions under relatively lesser aggression, i.e., either muscle-power, a.k.a. Islam, or money-power, a.k.a. Christianity, alone.
Apart from inviolability in the past, the intolerance and fundamentalism rampant in today's religious atmosphere make it further difficult for Hinduism to regain its healthy dialectical means of proselytism. Not only is there lack of institutional support for holding debates amongst various schools of thought within Hinduism, but there is fear, hostility and a profound lack of respect for Hinduism propagated by the Abrahamic religions. Hinduism should not be deterred from proselytising by the uneven socio-economic field or the unduly prejudiced atmosphere. On the contrary, the same causes for prejudice and disrespect leading to intolerance and fundamentalism widen the scope for a religion such as Hinduism and provide all the more reason why it should enter the field more actively.
This is not to be mistaken as encouragement to follow either the universally despised evangelism as practiced by the young churches of America and Europe, or the harvest-hungry conversion efforts of the more traditional churches such as the late Pope John Paul's harvesting Asia for the third millennium project. On the contrary, its success lies in being a more subtle, less violent, educational revivalism by spreading awareness, repairing the ever-so-rampant misinformation, and uprooting the colonially planted yet still so prevalent prejudices against Hinduism; a program that imparts information so that the increasing number of westerners that drop out of church are given the opportunity to explore other vistas before shedding religion altogether. Unfortunately, not only has the Hindu Diaspora of over ten million for centuries been ominously passive in propagating Hinduism, but it has also avidly believed and cultivated in its younger generations a baseless false notion, that Hinduism is averse to converting. While the argument that this is a stupendous fallacy might not go down well with ardent followers of the myth, it is hoped that it will break ground for thoughts and discussions which will finally reveal the self-destructive nature of their false notion.
Note: The views expressed here are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Expressindia's.