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Sunday, August 14, 2022

My unfortunate conversion- How Christian evangelists slowly and rather deceptively lured me into joining their faith during my college days

Spring flowers don’t last forever, yet they bring the most beautiful colors. The first step to conversion in spring brought me the most enriching life experience. Yet, there were chameleons hiding, and I couldn’t tell where! I grew up in a Jain family of three in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, Bharat. We are a Hindi-speaking family who hold language and culture in high regard. My mother focused a lot on my Hindi and Sanskrit skills. She herself was a Hindi/Sanskrit teacher in a public school. My father, who was a geologist with the government, always had high regard for the Bharatiya culture and Hindu/Jain dharma. Ours was a middle-class family, and I have seen many such families being custodians of cultural and dharmic values. 

My mother is a staunch Dharmic. She taught me mantras and their meanings, how to recite shlokas, rituals and how to worship Gods daily. My father was into the utility values of Sanatana Dharma, such as yoga, dhyan and reading different books on dharma. They both were trying to raise a good and traditional Sanatani. I see this as a beautiful carving of a child by parents as a sculptor creates an artistic image for a temple.

San Diego members of Cru conduct a prayer session at a homeless shelter

Basking in Bharatiya Culture

I imbibed as much as I could. Hindu culture has many festivals, each to be celebrated with exhilaration and joy. Even though I grew up in a Jain family, I like to acknowledge myself as a Sanatani who is a Hindu first and a Jain later. I never saw the two Dharmic paths as separate from each other. The philosophy might be slightly different, but, as I understand it, they are not far apart. My parents taught Hinduism and Jainism to me as two Dharmic paths under one umbrella. My favorite festival has always been Holi. The colors, food, fun and most importantly the joy of wishing each other well by dissolving any differences was my favorite part. Every festival was a reason to buy clothes, cook delicious food, meet friends and family and spread goodness to more people. 

Just as I grew up, so did I have an amicable experience in school and with my peers. I never went to convent school, it was always one Hindu-oriented school or another. Yoga, pranayama and meditation were an integral part of these schools. My friends were from similar family backgrounds as mine. We were good peers, good kids and good Hindus. 

What was missing from the school syllabus was the glorification of dharma. It mostly glorified Mughals and taught us secularism. I knew very little about the truth of the Mughal invasion and the ideological differences between Dharmic and Abrahamic religions. 

Growing up doesn’t come easy! It brings a lot of confusion, rebellion, and a zeal to try something new. As I entered university in Bharat, I was driving myself away from the core values of being Hindu. Being liberal sounded fun and cool. Although I didn’t approve of everything liberal, my religious views certainly were so. Arts and humanities professors were our source of information about the ongoing events of the world. But, they mostly didn’t respect Sanskrit or Hindi. They themselves were confused about the greatness of Dharma, the rich Bharatiya culture and our history. There was a subliminal tone of Western cultural superiority influencing our minds. 

Alone at College in Texas

I came to the USA in 2011 after completing college in Bharat. With my good Graduate Record Exam scores, I gained admission to the highly ranked University of Texas. The combined culture shock of both America and Texas was definitely something to face, but with the presence of Bharatiya students on campus and as guiding forces, it became easy to settle down. I found a few good friends among these students. A year passed. Little did I know a life-changing wave was coming in my sea of emotions. The friends that I made in that first year couldn’t stay with me through the second year. Some transferred universities, some dropped out and some didn’t find it worth carrying forward the friendship. For an outgoing and extroverted person like myself, it was very difficult to not have friends. I was surrounding myself with loneliness and anxiety. 

Chi Alpha’s annual report highlights their focus on students from other countries

My Christian Phase Begins

In these times of turmoil, two eyes identified the desperation. They were of a new-found “friend” who apparently thought well of me and invited me to an on-campus gathering that happened every Thursday. Little did I know what I was invited to, much less what was coming next, but I joined him that week in this gathering. The first thing I noticed was smiling, young, pretty faces. The second thing I was amused by was the music! It was soothing and somewhat new for me. It was Christian worship music in English, which I found enchanting. Its message was clear: Jesus is the only way, and you need to submit your life to him to find your permanent spot in eternal heaven. 

Divya with two other members of Chi Alpha at a big meeting

Amongst the smiles and melodious music, I wasn’t paying attention to what was being delivered from that stage in that gathering. I was lonely, and finding friends was the most important thing at that point in time. At this place I could easily make new friends, especially Americans, which I could not have made otherwise, and was a big bonus. I continued going to these meetings, which were organized by the Chi Alpha Campus Ministries of the Assembly of God and held at their local church. 

All I was told by the person who took me there was that these are some meetings—and that was the start of deception. Had I been told at the outset that we were meeting at the church, I might not have shown so much interest in going. It reminded me of the pyramid programs of network- or multi-level marketing, in which the customers are not told what they are going to be a part of, but come to understand it only after two or three meetings, during which they get hooked on the scheme. Similarly, I had gone to the church, enjoyed myself and become part of it. 

During the very first church visit, a member approached me about attending something called “small groups.” These churches operate in a hierarchical order, with these small groups being a way a individual can be reached on an interpersonal level and made a permanent member of the church. I loved the idea, and started going to these sessions, which were organized by a young person in the congregation. This was another opportunity for me to know them personally and also to get more friends. 

International headquarters of Cru

Within the first week of my first church visit in my lifetime, I had decided to go to large Thursday meetings on campus and small group meetings every Wednesday. The small group church meetings were very personal. Five to seven girls would meet and discuss the Bible and do some fun activities like hanging out, eating outside, playing games, and more. Every time I went to the church, I would hear things like, “Jesus is the only way, and if you follow any other way you are damned to eternal hell.” It did not make sense to me, but I would ignore it totally because overcoming my loneliness was so important for me. 

In the small groups I asked the question, “My faith, which is Hinduism, does not teach like this. Why does the Bible say so?” The reply was that the Bible was written by God and needs to be believed more than what any other faith says. 

Most of those in the church had no idea about other faiths’ teachings or world religions in general. They were totally focused on what was in the Bible and how to share its teachings. The other problem that I faced in the small groups was the age gap (I was a few years older) and the consequent immaturity in their understanding of Christianity and other world religions. Still, I kept attending both types of events in spite of not getting answers to my questions about the comparison between Hinduism and Christianity. 

“When Will You Be Baptized?”

Eventually, I was asked by my group leader when I was going to get baptized. I did not know at the time that baptism would mean that I have converted to Christianity officially. Neither was I told that baptism is the confession to the world that I have accepted Jesus as the only God for my lifetime and I would not believe any other faith than Christianity. In spite of not knowing this, I rejected baptism because I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t gotten answers to my questions, and those questions were still bothering me now. I was really seeking answers, but didn’t know who to go to, as the church people definitely didn’t have the answers. 

As time passed, I was going deeper into my Christian journey and enjoying my newfound friends. But it seemed like the goal of my conversion was not being met by my new faith teachers—they wanted me to get baptized. They might have some quota to fulfill for conversion, at least that is how it sounded to me. Since I was failing that quota, I was directed to a better teacher and a better classroom. The person who took me to church for the first time introduced me to new small group leaders and a family church which was an associated subsidiary of this on-campus church. The new teachers were mature in age and in their faith of Christianity, more convincing and more tactful. It would have been easier not to convert had I not left the first set of teachers. But now, in a better, bigger, and more convincing classroom, I was fully entrapped. 

Four to five months into this experience, I was attending two churches and two small groups. Three or four days of my week were dedicated to the Bible and learning about the new faith! I was reading the Bible on my own, too. I was listening to podcasts, watching videos of apologists and discussing this new faith with friends without telling anyone about my intentions of joining the church or not.

Jesus as the Only Way to Salvation

The irony is that I was on my way to finding new friends, whereby I was forced to find a “new God” and certainly the “only God” going forward. My family and my then-boyfriend weren’t aware of these changes in my life, except that I was going to church. Neither ever opposed it. I was selective in what I discussed with them about my persuasion of a new God. 

As I was growing in this new faith, I was getting a push from everyone to get baptized. I wasn’t ready, and I said so. I think by now they had figured out that I was a hard nut to crack, and they left the decision to me to make when I was comfortable with it. But they never stopped the process of persuasion, coercion and convincing, and they kept pursuing it wholeheartedly. 

In church, the method of worship was consistent: one would go and hear fantastic worship music followed by a sermon by the pastor. There were also other small portions: testimonials of disciples on a big screen, water baptism and missionaries’ information about where they were going next or how successful they were in building a church or gaining converts in other countries. 

The more personal small groups were a very good medium for addressing people’s personal lives. With my “matured in faith” mentor, Bible reading was a must. Attendees would cry profusely during prayers to Jesus. They would confess their inefficiency in submitting to the Lord completely and show their desire to do so once they are with Jesus as Jesus’ brides in eternal heaven. They were dedicated, humble followers who also saw bringing other faith people to Jesus as one of their biggest life goals. They were missionaries and were getting paid by the church to do the missions. 

Joining the Flock Formally

My inquiry and journey of exploring Christianity was going well and it was approaching formalizing when I submitted in May of 2014 and declared to my small group leader that I would be baptized. She cried profusely. I wasn’t sure why—I saw a sense of victory in her eyes, and a sigh of relief. 

I was going to be one of those who cries while praying to Jesus, who speaks in tongues as if a spirit which has infested the body speaks through you. It had all started with the new small group that I had joined with a mature Christian. I think the decision was more of a psychological reaction to what had been fed through me. The psychological effect was stronger than just speaking in tongues; it also reflected in my behavior. When I visited my parents in Bharat in 2014, I was abusing them for being Hindu and doing idol worship. I called them evil people because that is what the Bible says idol worshipers are. 

I was certain and sure that my parents were not going to go to heaven, which is eternal and that can only come if they converted to Christianity and followed Jesus as their only God. The Bible says it over and over, and I had heard these words until my baptism hundreds of times. They were engraved in my brain and my brain had gotten rewired in a way that it could think of Jesus as the only way to eternal happiness, heaven and salvation. 

Clash of Two Faiths

My Christian journey was going pretty well with the Bible reading, listening to videos about Bible studies, and so on until it got a shocker after my wedding in 2016, in which I married my boyfriend with whom I fell in love with in 2010. 

He wasn’t aware of my baptism—I hadn’t told him—but he knew that I had been going to church. Through the past few years we had intense discussions about faith, religion, Hinduism and Christianity. We would compare faiths and discuss Hindu dharma in essence. All through this time, his one good friend accompanied us in our journey and discussions. One thing this friend very rightly said was that Hinduism is a karma-based religion, whereas Christianity is all faith-based. He also said one must be proud and live and die in Hinduism, which is the most advanced and logical faith. My boyfriend and his friend tried every way to convince me to be a proud Hindu, but all of it fell flat. 

Six months after my marriage, I was pregnant. I did not know that Christianity had cultivated so many doubts in my mind. Confusion started seeping in my mind, and I kind of convinced myself that I should have married a Christian guy. This conviction started to slowly grab me and became depression. I was engulfed by prenatal depression and was in the most terrible pregnancy, because of other personal reasons, too. I could have dealt with these trials well enough had I been following Hindu/Jain dharma, as they offer far more clarity in understanding doubts, choices, confusions and suffering. Suffering, though, is a good thing in Christianity. 

I delivered a healthy baby girl. After seeing her, I was confused as to whether to raise her as a Hindu or Christian. My conviction of raising her Christian would increase whenever I visited my small group leader and mentor back in Texas. I saw her raising her own kids as orthodox Christians, who were not allowed to learn or read about other religions! 

Looking More Deeply at Dharma

My confusion led me to explore more about Hinduism and Jainism. I started to compare more and, deep down, realize that Christianity is a closed faith. I became more sure when my mentor would say things like, “Culture is human created and God is not interested in cultures,” or tell me that I have to leave the utility aspects of Hinduism such as yoga, meditation, kundalini yoga and dance, because they revere Hindu Gods, and so on. 

My love and fascination for Bharatiya classical dance and music forms led me to rethink my decision to follow Christianity. I couldn’t trade my love for yoga, meditation, Bharatiya dance and music forms for Jesus. I couldn’t understand how a God could be so jealous and closed in His approach. For example, in Exodus, it is written: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

I wasn’t ready for a jealous God. I was craving to go back to Hinduism, a religion and dharma that allows pluralism, teaches us to love all beings and every single entity on this Earth. Hinduism is the most ancient, logical and rational dharma.

I was craving to watch my favorite dances, classical Bharatiya dance forms, such as Bharata Natyam, Kathak, Odissi and Manipuri. All of them have originated around devotion to Hindu Gods and Goddesses like Bhagwan Krishna, Siva and Ma Durga. I was restricting myself from watching them because I was a Christian, whose “jealous” God wouldn’t like it if I showed devotion to other Gods and Goddesses. I would have been damned to an eternal hell for the same. 

Chi Alpha’s magazine on befriending first-year students to bring them into the faith

Back to the Quagmire

Gosh! I was scared about it. And more than scared, in all honesty, I had started hating Hindu rituals, culture, teaching and my Hindu/Jain identity. Such is the way a brain can get wired if hate is inculcated against anything. It had been a gradual process and took two years for me to be in that position where I was hard-wired to hate other faiths than Christianity. My baptism had changed me. I wasn’t the same person. After baptism, I was abusing everything Hindu from its teaching to rituals, practices, culture, mandir and murti puja. It took a huge toll on my mental health, reasoning and logical implications. 

When I was away from my Christian mentor—if I wasn’t talking to her over the phone, or taking suggestions on personal issues—I would feel I was coming out of the quagmire of the Christian thought process. But, as soon as I spoke with her or met her in person, I would again feel Christianity is the only way out of my life problems. It would give me a false sense of relief, and I would take ten steps back in my journey of coming back to Sanatana Dharma. 

Transition back to Dharma

The final straw came when my mentor tried to justify the attack on Hindu sadhus killed in the 2020 Palghar lynching, allegedly by a mob of converted Christians. According to her, it was OK because Christians are still being persecuted by Hindus in Bharat—the narrative fed her by the Western media. That final experience confirmed the closed views about other religions that I saw repeatedly during my Christian journey. I decided it was all reason enough to escape that deception and move forward on my journey within the Sanatana Dharma.

River rafting is one of the recommended group activities for evangelism

My inquisition became unstoppable. Even if I would take ten steps back, I would feel a sense of urgency as I had to decide how to teach my firstborn daughter the moral principles of life. It was very important for me to work from an authoritative reference rather than quoting it for myself. Due to the difficult pregnancy, I was determined to give my daughter the best once she was out of the womb. I wanted to teach her religion, but the question was, which one? 

In the process of studying and thinking through what to teach her, I was learning how much I did not know of the basic tenets of Sanatana Dharma. I did not understand how beautiful its teachings are. My confusions were slowly getting cleared. Even when I would go back to confusions, there were resources out there to bring me back onto the path of learning. One needs to be inquisitive to keep open that door of knowledge to be gained so that ignorance may be removed.

Today, blessed with a second daughter, I am of stable mindset, no longer confused, and on a beautiful journey of spirituality via meditation, nitya puja, chanting, temple darshan and festival celebration. I simply enjoy every moment of life, whether in sickness or in health, equipped to face life’s difficult problems. I love teaching both my girls about dharma, culture, heritage and the oldest and the greatest civilization on Earth—the Hindu civilization. My husband appreciates my journey home to Sanatana Dharma and how it reflects in the raising of our kids.

(This article was published on hinduismtoday.com and has been reproduced here with a minor edits to conform to HinduPost style-guide.)

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