Monday, January 14, 2008

Converting Bobby Jindal

The Times-Picayune had a lengthy profile last week of Louisiana's new Gov. Bobby Jindal that focused on the India native's conversion to Catholicism and the role that has played in his political ascent.
When Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal converted to Catholicism during high school and college, he took a momentous step away from his inherited faith of Hinduism, the prevalent religion of his parents' generation and Indian homeland.

But among Jindal's relatives and among Hindus in India generally, his decision to adopt the Christian way is strongly supported.

Jindal's personal path to Christianity, which had politically significant ramifications for Louisiana, was aided by an open-minded attitude among his relatives about theology. Also, he visited India infrequently as a child, giving him little chance to acquire the deeply ingrained appreciation for Hindu culture that comes from exposure to daily life in that country.

His relatives' perspective reflects a tolerant side of a religion that for thousands of years has survived philosophical transformations, rebellious counter-religions and numerous sects, only to claim them all in time as part of the infinitely flexible cosmos of Hindu faith.

"If you find and see that you get more peace of mind, more solace, in that religion, then why not change religion?" said Jindal's uncle Subhash Gupta, a practicing Hindu. "In India, many people change to the Christian religion. And I can understand that some people maybe find Christian religion more satisfying to their needs."


Although the relatives' opinions might seem magnanimous, their views are typically Hindu. India's large-circulation national newspapers viewed Jindal's election as front-page news, and for the most part his conversion to Catholicism was not commented upon negatively. Indian criticism of Jindal instead has centered on his infrequent visits and seeming lack of interest in his parents' home country.

The Indian national figure Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu so famous his image appears on most Indian currency, espoused religious tolerance because he believed there were many paths to God, so long as an individual was sincere in the pursuit of the divine way.

When asked about Jindal, Pandit Deoki Nandan Shastri, a Hindu holy man in Varanasi, made a similar point.

"Hindu is not a religion," he said. "Hinduism is a way of life."

"You pray to Christ, I pray to Rama, he prays to Mohammad," he said. "We are going the same way. God is one. His name is called a thousand names."
Sadly, such a liberal perspective is not universal in India, where Hindu fundamentalists poignantly remind the world that "religious extremist" is not just a code word for Islamic terrorist. Remember the Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom five years ago that left 2,000 people dead, including a woman who's fetus was proudly ripped from her womb by this guy.

The fervency of Hindu nationalism is no secret; it gave birth to Pakistan and later Bangladesh. And India has had quite the history of violence against Christians, which sprang up again on Christmas Eve.

On Christmas Eve, violence broke out against Christians in the Kandhamal district of the eastern Indian state of Orissa, which has become well known for poor governance and class tensions. Hindu fundamentalist groups led by the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP, the World Hindu Council) have attacked Christians and their institutions at will in rural areas. Over 90 churches and Christian institutions have been burned and vandalized, over 700 Christian homes destroyed, and the number of pastors and Christians killed is yet to be known, according to a report by my colleagues in the All India Christian Council. A pastor in Chennai told me that 11 pastors have been killed and thousands of Dalit (formerly known as untouchable) Christians displaced. Compass Direct reports that the death count is at 9. Many people are missing, and others have vanished in the nearby forests.

Human Rights Watch and others have decried the present carnage in Orissa and have recognized that freedom of religious choice — especially in a democracy like India's — must be respected. The Prime Minister promised immediate action to restore peace in the state. But the affected areas are still reporting sporadic violence over two weeks since the attacks against Dalit Christians began.

Despite reports that Christians retaliated in some places, so far Dalit Freedom Network investigations and statements by the Orissa government indicate that Maoist rebels — called Naxalites — were behind the revenge attacks that left dozens of Hindu families homeless. Most Naxalites are armed Dalits, and their involvement gives evidence of the root problem: ancient caste divisions.

The author of this piece was Joseph D'Souza, whom I interviewed a few months ago for an article about the plight of the Dalits -- who dwell beneath the bottom of India's cast system -- that will appear in the February Christianity Today.

One of the biggest forms of discrimination meted out by the government is that Dalits who convert to Christianity or Islam lose their welfare eligibility. The same is not true if they converted to Buddhism or Sikhism. This often causes a dual identity.

"They will have their Hindu or pre-Christian indentity, sometimes keeping their Hindu name, because there is affirmative action and if they want to have the benefits of that, they cannot use their Christian name," Robert Eric Frykenberg, professor emeritus of history and South Asian studies at the University of Wisconsin, told me.

For more info about discrimination in India, I'll link to the article when it runs.

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