Mahatma Gandhi had strong views on religious conversion. He believed all religions were equal and therefore the need to switch from one to other religion was seldom justified, especially in the then prevailing Indian scenario, where he believed the Christian missionaries were indulging in proselytizing in the name of humanitarian aid.
Gandhi held the belief that “religion was not like house or cloak which can be changed at will”.
He used to say that he was not against conversion when it was in its purest form, driven by heart’s urge for higher purposes like peace and spirituality. His eldest son Harilal had converted to Islam in May 1936. Gandhiji condemned it saying Harilal’s decision was based on greed and sensual pleasures and he could never be a true follower of Islam.
“I just read in the paper about Harilal’s exploit. There could be no harm in his being converted to Islam with understanding and selfless motives. But he suffers from greed for wealth and sensual pleasures. I shall be spared all mental pain if I find my impression wrong and he turns a new leaf,” he wrote in a letter to his other son Ramlal. And indeed Harilal was driven by lesser motives as proved by his reconversion to the Hinduism fold just five months later.
He would say time and again that how happy he would be had the Christian missionaries be content with the humanitarian aspect of their work only and not in increasing the count of Christians. Following are views expressed by Mahatma Gandhi from time to time on religious conversion being performed by the Christian missionaries as available on http://www.mkgandhi.org.
WHEN GANDHIJI WAS ASKED BY CHRISTIAN MISSIONARIES, WHETHER HE WOULD ALLOW CHRISTIANS TO CONTINUE WITH THEIR CONVERSION ACTIVITY WITHOUT ANY HINDRANCE, GANDHIJI REPLIED (YOUNG INDIA 27-10-20.)
“(And) if a change of religion could be justified for worldly betterment, I would advise it without hesitation. But religion is matter of heart. No physical inconvenience can warrant abandonment of one’s own religion.”
GANDHIJI’S VIEWS FROM BIHAR NOTES (8-10-1925) INDICATE THAT:
“Christian missionaries have been doing valuable service for generations, but in my humble opinion, their work suffers because at the end of it they expect conversion of these simple people to Christianity …How very nice it would be if the missionaries rendered humanitarian service without the ulterior aim of conversion.”
SPEAKING ABOUT THE BHILS, THE TRIBE FROM CENTRAL INDIA, GANDHIJI SAID (NAVJIVAN 18-4-1926):
“These so-called uncivilized communities are bound to attract the attention of missionaries, for it is the latter’s duty to get recruits for the Christian army. I do not regard such proselytization as real service to dharma. But how can we blame the missionaries if the Hindus take no interest in the Bhils? For them anyone who is brought into the Christian fold, no matter how he has become a Christian, has entered a new life and become civilized. If, as a result of such conversion, converts rise spiritually or morally, I personally would have nothing to say against their conversion. But I do not think that this is what happens.”
GANDHIJI SENT A TELEGRAM TO THE EDITOR OF DAILY HERALD, LONDON, (AFTER 23-4-1931) STATING, THAT THE REPORT ABOUT THE FOREIGN MISSIONARIES WAS DISTORTION OF HIS VIEWS.
“Am certainly against the use of hospitals, schools and the like for purposes conversion. It is hardly healthy method and certainly gives rise to bitter resentment, conversion matter of heart and must depend upon silent influence of pure character and conduct of missionaries. True conversion comes imperceptibly like aroma of rose. Thus, am not against conversion as but am certainly against present methods. Conversion must not be reduced to business depending for increase upon pounds, shillings, pence. I also hold that all great religions are of equal merit to respective nations or individuals professing them. India is in no need of conversion of type described. Whilst under swaraj all would be free to exercise their own faiths. Personally, I would wish present methods adopted by missionaries were abandoned even now and that under conviction not compulsion.”
SPEAKING AT THE CONFERENCE OF THE MISSIONARY SOCIETY, WHICH WAS HELD AT CHURCH MISSIONARY HOUSE, LONDON, ON 8-10-1931. GANDHIJI SAID:
“The idea of converting people to one’s faith by speech and writings, by appeal to reason and emotion and by suggesting that the faith of his forefathers is a bad faith, in my opinion, limits the possibilities of serving humanity. I believe that the great religions of the world are all more or less true and they have descended to us from God.
…Religion is like a rose. It throws out the scent which attracts like magnet and we are drawn to it like involuntarily. The scent of religious contact has greater pungency than the scent of the rose, that is why I hold my view with reference to conversion.”
GANDHIJI FELT THAT HIS CAMPAIGN AGAINST UNTOUCHABILITY SHOULD NOT BE A REASON FOR THE MISSIONARIES TO GET DISTURBED. (HARIJAN, 25-1-1935.) HE SAID:
“But my trouble is that the missionary friends do not bring to their work a purely humanitarian spirit. Their object is to add numbers to their fold, and that is why they are disturbed. The complaint which I have been making all these years is more than justified by what you say. Some of the friends of a Mission were the other day in high glee over the conversion to Christianity of a learned pandit. They have been dear friends, and so I told them that it was hardly proper to go into ecstasies over a man forsaking his religion. Today it is the case of learned Hindu, tomorrow it may be that of an ignorant villager not knowing the principles of his religion… Here is Miraben. I would have her find all the spiritual comfort she needs from Christianity, and I should not dream of converting her to Hinduism, even if she wanted to do so …Take the case of Khan Saheb’s daughter entrusted to my care by her father. I should jealously educate her in her own faith and should strive my utmost against her being lured away from it if ever she was so inclined. I have had privilege of having children and grown-up persons of other faith with me. I was thankful to find them better Christians, Mussalmans, Parsis or Jews by their contact with me.”
WHEN A. A. PAUL FROM FEDERATION OF INTERNATIONAL FELLOWSHIP HAD ASKED GANDHI TO DEFINE CONVERSION, (HARIJAN, 28-9-1935.) GANDHIJI STATED:
“My own detached view may now be stated in few words. I believe that there is no such thing as conversion from one faith to another in the accepted sense of the term. It is highly personal matter for the individual and his God. I may not have any design upon my neighbour as to his faith which I must honour even as I honour my own. For I regard all the great religions of the world as true at any rate for the people professing them as mine is true for me. Having reverently studied the scriptures of the world, I have no difficulty in perceiving the beauties in them. I could no more think of asking a Christian or a Mussalman or a Parsi or a Jew to change his faith than I would think of changing my own.. .It is a conviction daily growing upon me that the great and rich Christian missions will render true service to India, if they can persuade themselves to confine their activities to humanitarian service without the ulterior motive of converting India or at least her unsophisticated villagers to Christianity, and destroying their social superstructure, which notwithstanding its many defects has stood now from time immemorial the onslaughts upon it from within and from without. Whether they—the missionaries—and we wish it or not, what is true in the Hindu faith will abide, what is untrue will fall to pieces. Every living faith must have within itself the power of rejuvenation if it is to live.”
GANDHIJI WAS HAVING DISCUSSIONS WITH HARIJAN WORKERS IN BARDOLI ON 8-1-1942. QUESTION WAS PUT TO GANDHIJI THAT, HOW ONE DEALS WITH THE TEMPTATIONS GIVEN BY THE MISSIONARIES IN FORMS OF BOOKS, SCHOOL FEES ETC., TO WHICH HE REPLIED —
“The missionaries have of course the right to preach the Gospel of Christ and to invite non-Christians to embrace Christianity. But every attempt to press material benefits or attractions in the aid of conversion should be freely exposed, and the Harijans should be educated to resist these temptations.”