Changing one’s religion or even repudiating all kinds of religious affiliations is not something unique to Nepal. Nor is it an existential threat to the country and culture as many people portray it to be. In Europe, for example, the number of people who identify themselves as Christians—the largest religious group in the region—has been on steady decline and so has been the number of church attendees. Similarly, in the United States—a devout Christian country by any measure—the number of people who identify themselves as atheists or agnostics has increased quite drastically over the past few decades. As more and more people realize that spirituality does not necessarily have to be anchored to any religion, more and more of them leave the religion they were born into and seek spiritual fulfillment in other kinds of secular activities like mediation, yoga, philosophy, humanitarian activities etc. It is very common in the US to see people, both young and old alike, carrying their yoga mats, as religiously as a Hindu saint carries his kamandalu, at all times of the day. It is also not uncommon to see white people dressed up in monk garbs roaming around with bohemian abandon or singing Hare Ram/Krishna in train stations and city downtowns around the country.
So, why do people engage in religious conversion or relinquish one? To understand the answer, it is important to understand the history of various religions and the contingent nature of how religions are established, and often disintegrated, overtime.
The indigenes in the southwestern Pacific region of Melanesia follow a rudimentary form of religion called the “Cargo Cult,” which was established during World War II after the American forces started airdropping “cargo” in the form of canned food, clothing, electronics, and other goods for the first time. The indigenous people, who were seeing these goods for the first time in their lives, regarded the people dropping the cargo as Gods and started worshipping the white man by performing elaborate rituals and sacrifices, even going so far as to create a fictitious new deity named John Frum, who they believed would supply them with more goods if they performed the rituals to please him.
The Cargo Cult, which still exists today, has been studied by anthropologists to understand the roots of religions and to make sense of how human psychology interacts with and deifies entities for both spiritual and material fulfillment, often creating religions and ritualistic practices out of thin air.
Christianity too started as a small unorganized cultish group before it was made the official religion of the Roman world in 380 CE by the Roman emperor Theodosius. Before the Romans switched to monotheism, the Romans and the Europeans worshipped various pagan Gods, and polytheism was the norm in the region. And although there is no exact date as to when Hinduism took over the region in the southeast Asia, there is no doubt that it must have started when a confluence of factors formed a suitable precondition to attract more followers. In other words, a religion’s establishment, survival, and its spread depend on factors that not only makes the religion attractive to its followers but also delivers the required spiritual, psychological, and often material desires sought by the devotees. It is also a historical fact that religious conversions have occurred throughout history, and the phenomenon is not unique to our time or place.
Hence, before we accuse “others” of “eroding” our religion and religious practices, an honest introspection might be helpful. We Hindus are rightly famous for our devotion to our deities, but we are also notoriously infamous for the ways we treat our own people, notably the “untouchables,” who are still persecuted for such humanly behaviors like falling in love, entering a place of devotion, or even engaging in certain occupations. We still, in this twenty-first century, treat a person according to—and decide her life’s chances by—the sheer chance of her birth in a certain “caste,” a wholly arbitrary custom that is still imposed in many places around the country. We engage in so many exclusionary practices in our daily lives, many of which implicitly or explicitly, humiliates other human beings who are no different than us in any sense. Our ethno-centrism knows no bounds: we claim that we know everything under the sun thereby shielding ourselves from any opportunity to learn and grow as one community. We engage in so many hypocritical activities in the name of religion which, by design, precludes the poor and the marginalized from forming a lasting commitment to the religion. It is no wonder, then, that it is the poor, the marginalized, and the ostracized—those who have been neglected by our bigotry and prejudices—who are leaving the religion in droves.
Today’s world is not a hermetically sealed world of the past. People see and listen to the events, news, politics, and practices from all over the world, and none of our concerns are going to work unless we take stock of our own prejudices and seek to address the grievances that are making people leave the religion. We cannot stop the bleeding unless we make our religion suitable in a way that encompasses the concerns of everyone, including the historically marginalized. Religion, in that way, is like politics: people will seek affiliation only to the extent that it delivers. Otherwise, a new cult, or some “foreign” religion will take over. It’s only natural. Understanding this basic concept of religion has eluded many of our Nepali intellectuals who constantly mourn over the loss of its membership, but hardly try to get to the bottom of it. I consider myself a proud Hindu and view my religion as an exclusively private affair that connects me with the powers of the larger universe. I do not claim that Hinduism should be protected at all costs, not at least until we get rid of our religious biases, bigotry, homophobia, and racial supremacism that stems from it. We surely can reverse the process, but first, we should look at ourselves.