03/24/2013 05:38 pm ET Updated May 24, 2013

Obituaries and Proselytization

We recently lost a beloved family elder. He lived out his life within the structures of meaning and ritual provided by the Hindu tradition. These guided his commitment to work, his devotion to family, and his sense of justice. The beginning and the end of his life were marked by traditional Hindu ceremonies. He was a paragon of fidelity and a repository of rich life experiences that he shared passionately in stories with receptive grandchildren.

In spite of changes and differences in geographical practice, the Hindu tradition is still domestic centered. For most of us, the home is the focus of religious life and worship and the location for the performance of those profound rituals that mark the life-stages: birth, marriage, and death. Since funeral ceremonies are performed at home, it is customary, in Hindu obituaries, to mention the address, identify the funeral ritual as Hindu and specify the place of cremation.

We received many cards, notes and letters of sympathy in the days following the funeral ceremony. There were several, however, from persons whose names and addresses we did not recognize. Each one was structured in a similar way. The writer opened with words of sympathy, making mention of many personal details from the obituary. This was followed by Biblical texts about the way to eternal life and reunion with loved ones. The letters spoke of punishment for unbelievers but also of the promise of salvation from effects of sin "through the ransom sacrifice of ...Jesus Christ." The letters included published Christian literature. We quickly realized that these Christian letter-writers searched newspaper obituaries with the aim of identifying families belonging to other religious traditions with the aim of proselytization. We learned also that this was not unusual and that Hindus experiencing death in their families regularly received such invitations to convert. Hindus that I spoke with shrugged it off, brushing it aside as something that one should expect from Christians. While unhappy, they seemed resigned, treating it as one of those unwelcome features of life in a religiously diverse society that one learns to accept and tolerate. "This is what Christians do," said several of them.

The response of my fellow Hindus troubled me, just as much as the letters that we received. Although it is true that this is what some Christians do, it is important that we see how unusual this is from the perspective of other religions. Most of the practitioners of the world's religions do not read daily obituaries to identify potential converts! As a Hindu, I am familiar with the religious motive of sharing one's tradition and I welcome opportunities to learn about and from other traditions. At the same time, there are appropriate and inappropriate ways, times, and contexts for sharing. Sharing in the Hindu tradition occurred, and still does, in response to a request for religious teaching made by a student to a teacher. It was felt that religious teaching was best shared in a dialogical relationship of mutual listening, questioning and receptivity. Some Christians, like these letter writers, assume a religious need in the other for Christianity and make no effort to understand the religious life of the other. They conclude wrongly that traditions other than Christianity have no good resources and insights for helping their practitioners understand and cope with the loss of a loved one and they appeal to fear of punishment as a basis for religious commitment. They are driven by their need to convert the other and not by the need of the other for conversion. Christians will understand better our discomfort by taking our places and imagining themselves as recipients of invitations, from Hindus, to convert in the midst of grief for a loved one.

What troubled me also about this effort to proselytize is the undisguised attempt to exploit what they saw as an occasion of emotional vulnerability resulting from our grief. Such exploitation is not dissimilar to proselytization in circumstances of poverty or in situations of natural disaster that we witnessed, for example, on the occasion of the Asian tsunami. Grief-evangelism, as I choose to describe what we experienced, is similar to aid-evangelism and both need to be vigorously repudiated by people of all religions. It conveys the impression that a tradition cannot make a case for its validity without allurements, the exploitation of material or emotional vulnerability and theological threats. Hindus find it difficult to comprehend this compulsion to utilize occasions of human need for the purpose of evangelization. The Hindu tradition values service, but idealizes that service which is rendered without expectation of receiving anything in return. This includes the expectation that the recipient may convert to the religion of the donor. Such service is referred to, in Sanskrit, as nishkama karma (action without expectation of reward). There is a lot of Christian humanitarian work, both past and present, which is not linked to conversion, but this commendable expression of Christian values is made suspect by those who use works of charity as incentives to win converts. Such methods are, in fact, denounced, in a series of recommendations on Christian witness issued by the World Council of Churches, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the World Evangelical Alliance (Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct). Meaningful faith is not awakened and nurtured by exploiting others in times of vulnerability and need.

I am certain that many proselytizers will defend their actions by an appeal to human rights and freedom of religion. Religious freedom is certainly a fundamental human right and this includes the freedom to practice and to freely change one's faith. Freedom, however, is never an unqualified right and, if we argue for the freedom to propagate our faiths, it is important that we articulate also the content and limits of that freedom, especially in religiously diverse societies. The language of rights, in the context of proselytization, objectifies the one who is the intended recipient of conversion efforts and transforms him or her into a passive entity. It is not the language of mutuality and obligations. The fact that the other is also a person of religious commitment with a tradition of profound religious insights is ignored or does not seem to matter.

There are many good reasons for reading obituaries. Trolling for opportunities to proselytize is not among the good ones.