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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Ex-Christian Esther Dhanraj: “How do I handle criticism and abuse? I just don’t. I meditate!”

Esther Dhanraj is a former Christian and lay evangelist, who quit her faith after practicing it for 25 years. She holds a Master’s degree in English Literature from Osmania University, Bharat, and  a research-oriented Master’s in Divinity (Apologetics), a research-oriented degree, from Luther Rice University, Georgia, United States.

Enabled by her Master’s degree as well as her former faith, she has gained expertise on Christian doctrines and practices. She is engaged in debates on local TV channels in addition to actively fighting conversions at grassroot levels in rural Bharat. She also counsels Hindu families whose youngsters  have either become Christian or are contemplating Christianity. Through her recently launched ‘Quit Christianity’ movement, she works with other former Christians in bringing awareness about Christianity.

In the last of a  three-part series of interviews (part 1, part 2) for the Hindu Post, Esther Dhanraj talks about her life after she decided to move away from the Christian Church and its implications.

Q.) When you decided to move away from Christianity, how did your family (birth and marital) react?

There are three phases to this: One, as soon as I realized that Christianity had problems and I shared it with them, one sibling after another. Two, when my scepticism turned into confirmation and I wanted to inform them about the dangers of it. Three, when I went public about it and they came to know when they saw me on social media.

In the first, they were receptive to my idea. The second phase turned out to be a showdown with one prolonged, heated argument. They thought I needed to be prayed for, as I was possessed by Satan. They began fasting and praying for me. We decided that we were siblings first and therefore must never talk about religion or make that a reason for fights between us. We are (still) very close to each other, and hanging out together with our spouses and children happens to be our favourite vacation. The third phase was harsh on all of us. Their objection was to my public disclosure of my stance. My only reply was, “As a Christian, I was taught as well as forced to announce the good news of my conversion from ‘over the hills and everywhere.’ Deconversion out of Christianity is a conversion too. I am just putting to practice what I learnt.”

As for my husband, who is a third-generation Christian, he was never a Bible-believing Christian, to begin with. All I can say is that he is a highly tolerant spouse who neither stopped my fervour as a Christian nor objected to my decision to come out in public. I must say, he is my greatest apologist!

Q.) Can you describe your coming out (of the closet) process in your journey towards becoming an Ex-Christian? How do you handle criticism?

I had never intended to come out in public. I loved my privacy although now it seems like a luxury that is very challenging to hold on to. I took an early retirement after having started a self-sustaining small business in the US that only needed remote monitoring. Actually, two businesses. My retirement plan was to focus on passions—reading, writing (sci-fi fiction), traveling, and watching a ton of movies—that I had put on the back burner, all my life, owing to other more important things.

After winding up my responsibilities in the US, I went to live in Bharat in 2018. I realized that a lot had changed in the ten years that I stayed out of my motherland. And not all changes were for the good. Especially, the conversion scene. For example, back in the day when I became a Christian or I was preaching to small groups, there was no mudslinging of Hindus or no explicit coercion of any kind. I must say, it was there, but in a passive form.

The new lows that evangelism hit were inexcusable. The ugly shape evangelism took in the Telugu states in particular and Bharat in general, needed to be countered. I couldn’t keep quiet. I had to say something. Even at that stage, all I wanted to do was share my story and go back into my privacy. But it was my Dharma calling me and it tasked me with more. More than just sharing my story and getting out! The rest, as they say, is history.

How do I handle criticism? I just don’t. I meditate. Meditation teaches me to be calm, develop compassion for my critics (read: verbal abusers); helps me remember that he or she is a victim just like my family still is and I once was; reminds me that I’m here to fight the system and not the individual; inculcates the spirit in me to forgive those that abuse critics like me; protects me from stooping to the level of my critics, strengthens my resolve to keep doing what my Dharma has called me to – Educate. Inform. Awaken. Teaching myself about how karma works also helps me cope with the criticism.

Having said that, I must add, criticism is my performance meter. Without it, I would have doubted if I was doing my job well.

Q.) Why are many Christians that have left Christianity, reluctant to come out of the closet?

I call them the “returning Hindus.” There are two reasons why they choose to stay closeted even after leaving the religion: Fear of ostracization by fellow Christians and fear of uncertainty of life, post deconversion.

The first is self-explanatory. Let me share an instance. There was a young  woman  who lived in the Philippines. She had quit Christianity and wanted to come on my show to share her story. When we began talking over the phone, I figured that she was not yet ready for a public disclosure. I did not want her to get into something she would regret later.

So I suggested she go online and check out the criticism heaped against me, to know what she was getting into. She called me three days later and told me she was not ready. It turned out that her mother was an active member of the church in their home town in North Bharat. She feared the entire church would go against her and her mother would lead the way. I have no doubt she would – that is how organised religion works. I am lucky for the support of my husband and the continued love of the rest of my Christian family on both sides. I am looked up to by my family, to this day, as I was when I was a Christian. Not everybody is that fortunate. Ostracization is real!

The second reason is fear of the unknown. It’s akin to feeling safe with a known devil than with an unknown angel. Then, there are these narratives that are being peddled – that “returning Hindus” are not welcome back into the fold, that they will have no identity to go back to, so on and so forth.

Q.) What is your message for Bharatiya Christians?  How does one counter the hostile anti-Hindu bias narrative in Christianity?

To the Bharatiya Christian, I’d like to point out that things have changed on the Hindu end. The average Hindu is not just an awakened individual now, but is also a vocal Hindu. In addition, he has finally learnt the art of exhibiting intolerance after generations of his tolerance being misunderstood to be his weakness. You may not see him engage in offense unlike his counterpart(s), but he is more charged than ever to prevent that offensive blow from landing on him.

In addition to the awakening, there is also the unity that wasn’t there before. Earlier, Christianity, especially Indian Christians, could get away with demonizing Hindus, Hindu practices and Hindu festivals. No more. So, the Christian would have to get used to not abusing Hindus and Hindus gods and goddesses, in the open.

As for the anti-Hindu bias, it has increased and it will, further. Look at it this way: this is a war; this has always been a war. The difference is, earlier there was only one active player – the offender, or the perpetrator. Now, the defender, or should I call him the victim, has bucked up. He is putting up a brave front and resisting the offender. Now, what will the offender do to secure his position at the top? He reached there by violence and deceit. Violence won’t work anymore, and the defender has gotten too wise to be deceived. So, what can he do? Propagandize and win more to his side. That is what he is doing.

Now, the question is how do we counter it? I’d say that exercise has begun. In my opinion, being able to wear your indigenous identity with pride is the most courageous thing to do in a world generally hostile to indigenous cultures. That is called making a statement that the new Hindu has arrived. Actions speak louder than words. Look around you! You’ll find more and more Hindus wearing their Hinduness on their sleeve; they are boldly and publicly referring to themselves as “idol worshippers” and “pagans”; they flaunt their bindi/bottu with pride, they share images and videos online of their puja rituals.

Each awakened Hindu has turned into an intellectual warrior in his or her own right, standing up for oneself in one’s own corner – on college campuses, workplaces, neighbourhoods and on the World Wide Web. At the macro level, we have whole social media handles dedicated to the task of countering false narratives. We just have to keep at it, collectively, whenever we can, and individually, always. Just keep up the fight!

Q.) What values of Hindu Dharma resonate most with you and why?

Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam is something I strongly resonate with. As the more evolved species, somehow we human have come to think of ourselves as superior to all other species, including other humans that are less privileged than us; that don’t look and think like us. This thinking, in my opinion, has led to all the chaos that we witness in the world today. I like to think of the world as one big family and humans are connected to each other. It helps me make sense of the compassion that we feel for strangers or even animals in pain.

Karma is another philosophy I resonate with. In my daily walk, I am constantly mindful of my karmic account. Being mindful of what I’m putting into my karmic account helps me live in the moment, be responsible toward the vulnerable sections of the society, show compassion to those that are less advantaged than myself. By less advantaged, I mean in all aspects including health and material wellbeing. It keeps my thoughts and actions under check.

Q.) What is your religious identity at present?   

Well, as I already mentioned, I have answered a call to Dharma and am here doing my karma. You are free to decide what that makes me. If you still insist that I put a label to myself, I’d say, truth-seeker.

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Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera. 


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