The Sabha, which launched a national signature campaign last week in support of an international drive by the Global Hindu Foundation to ban conversion from Hinduism, believed many converts had become “trapped and ostracised”.
Its president, Ram Maharaj, said at least 500 000 signatures were needed by the Netherlands-based foundation to start legal proceedings at the International Court of Human Rights and the UN to seek reparations for the harm which has been “deliberately inflicted” upon indigenous civilisations in direct contravention of UN resolutions.
He believed South Africa was one such civilisation.
“It is a historical fact that conversion was forced on indigenous people through conquest and colonialism.
“In South Africa, during the oppressive apartheid regime, only Christianity was recognised by the state as an official religion, which gave it a false sense of superiority over other religions,” said Maharaj. “Fortunately, with the advent of democracy, our new Constitution guarantees equal status, respect and treatment for all religions.”
He emphasised that while he respected all religions, he “cannot” and “will not” allow decimation of the Hindu population as well as denigration and destruction of Hinduism with impunity.
Maharaj now wants to turn the tide on conversion with a sense of mission, confirming that he already has the backing of 20 Hindu organisations that have endorsed the cause.
The Sabha has also endorsed the Mauritius Declaration Against Conversion that “conversion is an act of adharma (unrighteousness), of violence and is destructive of family, community and civilisational cohesion”.
It has already started crafting its own Declaration Against Conversion relevant to South Africa and it will be presented for public input and amendments later this month.
On March 17 next year, the Sabha plans to hold a “Stop Conversion Summit” in Chatsworth followed by mass Hindu “homecoming ceremonies”, opening opportunities for converts to freely return to their spiritual roots, “which is their God-given birthright and responsibility”.
Maharaj spoke of a similar campaign held 15 years ago at the Northcroft Hindu Dharma Sabha where 104 families had returned to the Hindu faith.
“There are lots of people who are trapped and ostracised because of their conversions. But we want these people to return to the fold, knowing they would be welcomed with open arms.”
The Sabha now hopes to implement effective steps to “conscientise, mobilise and organise” Hindus to combat conversion.
“We want to embark on a mass Hindu education campaign to help people understand what Hinduism is really about. We also want to ensure that no family goes hungry, because many Hindus convert because of their practical needs. Thirdly, we will intensify social responsibility and upliftment programmes for people dealing with drugs, alcohol and abuse.”
Maharaj added that the Sabha also wanted to phase in progression in Hindu practices.
“There are certain priests who discriminate against widows and then there are women who are not allowed to participate in certain rituals. We want to bridge the gap in gender inequality.”
He further indicated that all relics of the caste system should be “weeded out” as well as ignorance, superstition and fear and that all practices must be based on scriptural authority.
When asked if trying to stop conversion was not infringing on a person’s basic human right of freedom of religion, Maharaj said people should not misunderstand their “fight”.
“This campaign is a proactive approach to conversion. While we are not forcing people by legal implications here in South Africa, we want to stop conversion in its tracks. I believe what we are doing is right and we are following God’s will. People were created Hindus by God and they need to return home.”
Cardinal Wilfrid Napier OFF was taken aback by the Sabha’s stance.
“I am quite surprised by this. From a legal point of view, every person has the freedom of religion. You have the right to choose what religion you want to adhere to,” Napier said. “From our point of view, people have a freedom of conscious. God has chosen to reveal Himself in different ways and the complete way was through Jesus Christ and that is why we preach about Jesus. He instructed us to make disciples and we are merely following his instructions.”
Napier is a member of the recently launched Inter-religious Council of which Ashwin Trikamjee, the president of the South African Hindu Maha Sabha - the organisation is not linked to the SA Hindhu Dharma Sabha - is a part.
“The main aim of the council is to improve the relations with all religions. Mr Trikamjee, or anyone from the Hindu faith, has not mentioned any of these sentiments. I take this as an invitation to intensify our efforts in strengthening ties,” Napier said.
“When we were setting up the council we asked ourselves: What is the role of religion in society? The answer to the question is pretty much our slogan, which loosely is, religion has a role to transform people and society into something better. To make a place better to live.”
Trikamjee has slammed Maharaj’s efforts, calling him a “maverick”.
“Despite efforts over the years to unite Hindus, he has steadfastly rebuffed all such attempts and chosen to go his own maverick ways.
“The South African Hindu Maha Sabha has over the years constantly grappled with the challenge of conversions and has followed the path of consolidating Hinduism as opposed to sensationally combating with other religions.”