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Religious Conversion in India: Modes, Motivations, and Meanings Edited by Rowena Robinson and Sathinathan Clarke, Oxford, Rs 695

Conversion has become a very controversial issue in India today. But conversion is not simply a matter of god or faith, it is a complex web of issues like human relationships, material gain, power, politics and so on. The essays in this volume deal with the socio-political and historical aspects of conversion.

Dominique-Sila Khan turns the spotlight on the Nizari Ismaili model of conversion in south Asia in 883 AD, a tradition which did not separate the neo-converts from their familiar social and cultural practices, but attempted a slow assimilation into the new faith.

Stephen F. Dale argues that the sizeable Muslim population in Kerala smacks not so much of coercive conversion as of an early association through trade and inter-marriage. Richard Eaton analyzes the spread of Islam in Bengal between the 16th and 18th centuries, at a time the Mughals were establishing their sway over the region. Yoginder Sikand focusses on the Tabligh movement which tried to propagate Islam as well as reform the neo-Muslims. Section two of the book deals with conversion to Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism. Conversions to Jainism in north and south India, Paul Dundas implies, means rejecting the authority of the Vedas and the Brahmins. L.E. Fenech shows how in early Sikh history, boundaries between Sikhs and non-Sikhs were more fluid. This changed in the late 19th century with the Sangh Sabha-initiated reform movement. T. Brekke looks at conversions to Buddhism in ancient times, while G. Tartakov argues that modern conversions to Buddhism, under B.R. Ambedkar, were less theological or metaphysical decisions and more a political and social statement.

The third section focusses on tribal and caste conversions. S. Dube and I. Banerjee explore two popular religious movements in Orissa and Chhattisgarh which were initiated by and for “low caste” tribal groups in the 19th century, and strove to find a religious identity that was distinct from the dominant categories of caste. David Hardiman looks at how the Bhils of western India are initiated into and sustain a movement of religious conversion.

In the fourth section, Rowena Robinson reveals that conversions to Christianity in 16th century Goa did not lead to a dismantling of the caste system and the Brahmins continued to enjoy their caste privileges. Focussing on the conversion of Dalits to Christianity in Tamil Nadu, S. Clarke argues that it implied a deliberate rejection of traditional Hindu religion. F.S. Down’s essay shows how the tribals of northeastern India chose Christianity as a potent world view to resist the unified nation-state.

This book is an important contribution to the sociology of religion and theology and will be of importance to researchers and general readers.

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