On mercy and conversion

7 11 2019


One theme that has been persistent in my years of writing is how much I hate the modern idea of conversion. Especially in the digital age, everyone thinks their conversion to or from one thing to the other is some Earth-shaking event pregnant with metaphysical meaning. It’s as if their change of heart redefines the cosmos. I for one think that very few people’s conversions are as meaningful or edifying as what was documented in St. Augustine’s Confessions, or even of the caliber what was documented in John Henry Newman’s (not calling him “Saint” sorry) Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Most people who loudly proclaim their conversion have a long way to go in my opinion, and it shows. I don’t have anyone particular in mind; it’s more a general observation.

I have been investigating Hare Krishna thought quite in depth recently, and that has meant confronting the personal stories of people converting to and leaving Krsna consciousness or Hinduism in general. As might be expected, a lot of this is done via YouTube videos.

The first video is from some years ago, and is about a Quebecois man who became a Hare Krishna late last century to the point of joining the New Vrindavan community in West Virginia. He even became a pujari (a priest) who lived full-time in the temple in spite of having a family also living on the compound. His exodus from the Hare Krishna movement seems to have begun because of the efforts of  New Vrindavan leader Kirtanananda to create an ecumenical religious complex on the grounds of the community (though this is not explicitly mentioned in the video, knowing the history this is what I surmised). A friend of the man’s fell in with some charismatic Catholics making a religious house as part of this complex, and the rest is a rather banal and somewhat implausible story of how he was convinced by their arguments.

The one point I will focus on in the interest of time is the man’s contrast between Jesus and Krsna. The speaker says that Krsna is all about opulence in the Hindu scriptures and not like the meek and kind Jesus. I don’t really know how he could have been initiated or reached the point of being a pujari without imbibing Krsna’s lila as a cowherd boy in Vrindavan, or, more appropriately, the pastimes of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement in early modern India and an incarnation of Krsna. Indeed, he would have had to offer incense to Lord Chaitanya’s murti multiple times a day. Lord Chaitanya was a brahmin who became a sannyasi at the age of 24, traveled India spreading the chanting of the Divine Names of Krsna, and embraced leprous  and lower caste people in the process. The whole premise of the Hare Krishna movement is that anyone can chant the names of the Lord and be delivered: it doesn’t matter who you are, what you did, and where you came from. First generation leaders of the movement, namely the Six Goswamis of Vrindavan, lived under trees and were so humble they chose to concede to those who wanted to debate them lest they demonstrate any pride. In other words, they were very Christ-like. On the other hand, the Jesus of the Book of Revelation, while not necessarily a king living with 16,108 brides in separate palaces, is no stranger to opulence either, and neither is the Ancient of Days seated in glory, etc.

Like many converts, he is reading into the story things he wants to believe but that aren’t necessarily true. The other problem is Kirtananada himself. New Vrindavan under his reign was plagued by scandals and severe changes in its approach to Krsna consciousness due to its leader’s eclecticism. And this is not to speak of all of the severe legal troubles they had, which I will only allude to in passing here. In other words, the man in the video could not have been in a normal situation and may have been looking for an out. Perhaps it is not appropriate for me to question his good faith, but his glaring blind spots in describing his former religion and the exceptional events he no doubt lived through make me think that there is more here than meets the eye.

The second video of Melissa Kapoor seems more straightforward but there was one part that really bothered me. Kapoor states (around the sixteen minute mark in the video) that in Hinduism, there are no deathbed conversions. As she tells it, in Christianity you can be awful all your life but at the last minute you can repent and be saved. Kapoor finds this rather unfair, and is glad that the Hindu belief in karma doesn’t let you off the hook so easily. This is of course true, it doesn’t let you off the hook, except when it does. I have already mentioned the story of Ajamila at the beginning of the Sixth Canto of the Srimad Bhagavatam, who accidentally calls out for Narayana’s mercy when he was really calling out for his son of the same name. The Bhagavatam further cements this idea towards the end of the purana, when it states:

If when falling, slipping, feeling pain or sneezing one involuntarily cries out in a loud voice, “Obeisances to Lord Hari!” one will be automatically freed from all his sinful reactions.

As in Roman Catholicism with the Brown Scapular and other sacramentals and prayers, there are lots of ways to slip out of the penalties for karmic reaction. Give water to a tulasi plant, circumambulate a temple on this particular day,  bathe in the Ganges, worship this murti, etc. and poof! All of your karma is gone. Well sure, there’s fine print to it all, and things may not work if you are still overly attached to this material world, but the death bed conversion is still there under the right circumstances.

Haridasa Thakura, himself a convert from a Muslim family (and therefore of “low birth”) and beloved associate of Lord Chaitanya, states the following concerning chanting the Holy Name in the Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta:

“My dear Ṭhākura Haridāsa, in this Age of Kali most people are bereft of Vedic culture, and therefore they are called yavanas. They are concerned only with killing cows and brahminical culture. In this way they all engage in sinful acts.

 “How will these yavanas be delivered? To My great unhappiness, I do not see any way.”

Haridāsa Ṭhākura replied, “My dear Lord, do not be in anxiety. Do not be unhappy to see the condition of the yavanas in material existence.

 “Because the yavanas are accustomed to saying ‘hā rāma, hā rāma’ [‘O Lord Rāmacandra’], they will very easily be delivered by this nāmābhāsa.

 “A devotee in advanced ecstatic love exclaims, ‘O my Lord Rāmacandra! O my Lord Rāmacandra!’ But the yavanas also chant, ‘hā rāma, hā rāma!’ Just see their good fortune!”

By the “yavanas” here, he is of course talking about the Muslims saying haram. So even for the followers of Lord Chaitanya, their supposed enemies were being delivered through their inadvertent chanting of the Holy Name of Krsna.


Lord Chaitanya with the body of Haridasa Thakura

I found both conversion stories interesting in their odd approach toward mercy. The former Hare Krishna thinks that Krsna wasn’t merciful or meek enough. The new Hindu convert finds the Christian god too merciful, and mentions how the rigorous justice of karma makes more sense to her. The former is omitting things (culpably in my opinion) and the latter doesn’t seem to know enough about the range of Vedic religion to comment on it properly. But I would say that it’s all there if you choose to see it. In my own life, I have chosen to believe that everyone I encounter who I disagree with may be wrong but for the right reasons. That’s not going to get me on anyone’s featured speakers list, but I have never been one to covet such an honor.





6 responses

8 11 2019

According to Luther, the whole of one’s life is one single conversion.

7 11 2019

Fixed, thanks!

7 11 2019
7 11 2019

Hah. Arturo. I think Vishnu is screwing with me here? Or is someone else?

7 11 2019

Wrong link there, obviously (ironically?) though that interview is really very good (and perhaps somehow relevant) stuff, too.

This is the link I meant to paste:

7 11 2019

Arturo, you should give Jean Francois’s full testimony, perhaps watch it yourself if you haven’t yet.

His story is, as you say, implausible, but so implausible that it makes some sort of sense.

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