2016-06-30
ALLAHABAD, India, Jan. 25 (AP) -- The Dalai Lama joined the leaders of India's Hindu nationalist movement Thursday in condemning religious conversion, propelling him into one of the hottest religious controversies in South Asia.

"Whether Hindu or Muslim or Christian, whoever tries to convert, it's wrong, not good," the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader said after a lunch meeting with top Hindu priests and members of an influential group that wants India to be a Hindu country.

Leaders of the World Hindu Council, which is linked with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's party, invited the Dalai Lama to discussions on conversion in the midst of the Kumbh Mela, a 43-day Hindu festival taking place on the banks of the Ganges River here.

He met with them before joining senior Hindu priests in a ceremony of prayers to the river, where tens of millions of Hindus have gathered for the festival, seeking to wash away their sins in the waters they believe are the most sacred in the world.

After the meeting, the Dalai Lama and others signed a joint statement saying: "We oppose conversions by any religious tradition using various methods of enticement."

Members of the Hindu Council have repeatedly criticized Muslims, India's largest minority, and Christians, calling on the government to oust missionaries and demanding Muslims and Christians revere Hindu gods. The Hindu Council believes that all Indians as a matter of national identity should be Hindu.

Christians constitute 2.3 percent of India's 1 billion population, or 23 million people. The nation has the world's second-largest population of Muslims, 140 million, after Indonesia.

The Hindu Council's general secretary, Ashok Singhal, told reporters, "Buddhism, Hinduism and other non-aggressive religions have to unite to douse Islam...an aggressive religion."

"I always believe it's safer and better and reasonable to keep one's own tradition or belief," the Dalai Lama told reporters during a break in the meetings. "To change it is not proper, it's much safer to follow one's own religion."

"We Buddhists consider Hindus and Buddhists like twin brothers and sisters," the Dalai Lama added.

According to Indian Supreme Court Justice K.T. Thomas, a Protestant, India's constitutional guarantee of freedom to propagate one's religion, as well as profess and practice it, was meant for Christians. The framers of the constitution, 80 percent of them Hindus, realized that propagation is a tenet of the Christian faith, he said.

"The wave of conversion should end. There should be an understanding reached on that," said B.K. Modi, president of the foreign wing of the World Hindu Council, during the break in the meeting with the Dalai Lama. "Conversion is an issue disturbing both Hindus and Buddhists."

He said the meeting focused on how to "tackle" conversion to Islam and Christianity.

Shri Sumedha Vidhikhu, the main priest of the Mungandh Kuti Vihar, a Buddhist monastery in Varanasi, said, "We are meeting Hindu religious leaders...to form a joint front of Hindus and Buddhists to fight Islamic aggression."

Vidhikhu is not from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition but has worked with the Dalai Lama.

Asked to comment on the Dalai Lama's remarks, the Rev. Dominic Emmanuel, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese in New Delhi, said conversion was "a matter between oneself and God."

"If somebody finds another view or faith and wants to change, that is basic human freedom and nobody can take away that freedom," he said.

The Dalai Lama tossed marigold petals at children who greeted him with garlands when he arrived at the Kumbh Mela festival, the world's largest religious gathering.

"I'm very happy to be here. My first pilgrimage to the Kumbh was in 1966," the Dalai Lama told journalists. Asked if he would join the devotees bathing in the icy river in a ceremony the Hindus believe will wash away their sins and avoid reincarnation, the Dalai Lama said, "I don't think so. It's too cold."

Hindus thronged the site to dip themselves in the waters because they believe bathing at a sacred place during an auspicious period will cleanse them of sin, halting the cycle of death and rebirth. According to Hindu astrologers, the planets and stars are in a special alignment that occurs once every 144 years, making the festival, held every 12 years, especially auspicious this year. The festival drew an estimated 30 million people Wednesday.

The Dalai Lama greeted the children and journalists in an enclosed barrack-style building, protected by black-clad Indian commandoes and his own bodyguards, in the center of the 1,400-hectare (3,460 acre) festival site.

Later, at dusk, the Dalai Lama joined the Shankaracharya of Kanchi, one of India's four top Hindu religious leaders, in a special prayer on the banks of the Ganges.

The two religious leaders stood on an elevated wooden platform covered with white sheets and worshipped the Ganges with 108 lighted lamps in a tradition that goes back centuries. An estimated 20,000 people watched the ceremony from behind wooden barricades, while hymns were sung in the background.

The Dalai Lama then reached down to the river and sprinkled some of the water on his head in a mark of respect to the sacred river. Allahabad, 600 kilometers (380 miles) east of New Delhi, is the site of the confluence of the dark blue waters of the Yamuna River, the gray sandy currents of the Ganges and the mythical Saraswati River.

"This confluence has become a very important venue for Hindu and Buddhist religious congregations. Now this function should come up as an important venue for a change of character and thought of people to make them work for peace," the Dalai Lama said in a speech.

The Dalai Lama planned to stay through Friday, to meet and bless Buddhists and give a public speech on world peace at the festival grounds.

Worshippers who were pressed against each other on pontoon bridges, waiting hours for their turn to bathe in the river, watched and waved as his convoy of white cars drove through the center of the festival site.

The grounds were crowded with devotees of different religions, naked Hindu holy men, nuns with shaved heads, palm readers, anti-abortion activists and performers.

A snake charmer wrapped a baby python around his 3-year-old son and collected money from onlookers. Another man had less luck dancing with an earthen pot on his head. However, by far the largest number of people were ordinary Indian Hindus from all walks of life.

Organizers say visits by celebrities often cause logistical problems at the festival, where each road, bridge, culvert and clearing is crammed with frenzied devotees, even at night.

Sonia Gandhi, head of India's leading opposition party, dipped her feet in the water on Monday. Police blocked thousands of boats and pilgrims from entering the river until she was gone.

"On peak days we are advising celebrities not to come. It is a problem," Jeevesh Nandan, the chief administrator of the festival, told The Associated Press.

Organizers said more than 70 million people will have visited by the time the festival ends Feb. 21.

more from beliefnet and our partners