Conversion is violence

No matter how much faith they might have had in their Lord, to behold the fuming volcano in such a foreign world might have filled the Jesuits with just enough doubt to worry as they looked across the valley from the destroyed pagan city of Cholula to see the smoking giant the natives called God. But heathens called everything God; they had hundreds, each with its own name.

The great empire of the Mexicas had fallen and the gods did not help the pious Cholutecos as had been forewarned, which, I imagine, led the Jesuits to believe even more fervently in the supremacy of their Lord and their mission to bring heathens to the Light. It might have been that in all of Mexico, no other place would have been better to begin the mission of conversion than in Cholula. There are conflicting accounts, but the Massacre of Cholula resulted in much more than the slaughter, burning and ransacking of the revered and despised holy city: It was the final omen of the end of the Empire, the end of the world as it had been known. But for the Conquistadores, it was just a beginning, an opportunity to reconstruct a faith, starting with its temples.

Today, Cholula’s connection to the sprawling metropolis of Puebla is now seamless, complete with the shopping malls and other development that insolently and suspiciously encroach upon the UNESCO World Heritage site, where the world’s largest pyramid can be visited – as well as the one of the many fine, spellbinding examples of the colorfully-painted and gold-laden, indigenous Mexican baroque churches of unequal beauty that are to be found in Cholula, some sitting on top of the ancient temples, victorious in their conquest.

If – that is – conquest is victory. I have learned from another tradition how you can conquer the world and yet fail.

Cholula, however, has only recently become a traffic-choked suburb of Puebla. When I was a young, it was a village, a day trip, separated from the city of my family by farmlands. The Church of Our Lady of Remedies still sits majestically on top of the Great Pyramid of Cholula, Tlachihualtepetl, the ‘false mountain’ in the Nahuatl language, started a thousand years before the Spanish arrived. Looking like a hill covered in greenery, it has only been excavated in more recent years to reveal part of the world’s largest pyramid and giving access to some of its narrow internal corridors. I remember the view from the top, blocks of farms in a green and brown patchwork quilt extending in the distance before they disappeared into the directions of the magnificent volcanoes of Orizaba, Iztaccihautl, and the eternally threatening, smoking cone that is Popocatépetl.

But the splendor I really remember was another, much smaller one; and how it got branded into my memory I cannot explain by any other means than coincidence, except that I now know there is no such thing, just as I know that the Conquest of Mexico did not happen by coincidence. It was the result of actions delivered by an order and part of a greater story that has its own logic – although unbeknownst and with results that might be considered undesirable, just like many stories both told and untold in this world.

That memory from Cholula resurged after having spent more than fifteen years without visiting my family in Mexico. They had last seen me as a teenager and I returned an adult, a man who went on to live other stories in the disparate places of Brazil and India, encounters which might have been overlooked as “coincidences”, until I found myself sitting in Brazil on floor in front of my teacher, Gloria Arieira, as she was explaining in the Vedic maxim that “walls do not separate space; they exist in space; therefore, they separate nothing”. It was part of an explanation of the knowledge contained in the Bhagavadgita – a study that sent me hurling into unimagined directions inside myself and to India. The words stunned me, but not just for their beauty: it was not the first time I had heard something similar. My rabidly atheist Mexican father – raised by an indigenous grandmother who forced him to a school and church run by nuns bearing switches in a hamlet lost in the greenery of the northern sierra of Puebla – had told me, “You don’t need to believe any of the crap. You just be good. You respect Mother Nature. There is nothing that lies outside of Nature.”


Unfortunately, the takeaway from that part of his childhood was being force-fed an illogical narrative he had no use for when he would rather have been playing soccer on the flat patch of dirt near the river. But there were many other takeaways from his childhood that were more endearing: despite her religious fervor, there was the wisdom of his curandera grandmother, who treated an entire village of their health issues with her herbal medicines; and how a beautiful language still survived in calling me sweetly Ilhuicamina, a nickname for the eldest son and heir, as in Moctezuma Ilhuicamina, the last great emperor.

I don’t really know what he would think of me bowing in Hindu temples and performing pujas, but somehow, I don’t think he would not mind as long as nuns weren’t involved. Regardless, I am sure he would enjoy the multiplicity, lots of gods, lots of flowers, lots of stories, lots of heroes, lots of examples, lots of narratives. A plethora of opportunities to identify that which is the common in all of them.

Because what my father hated most was a narrative that could accommodate no other. A narrative that could not be questioned, immediately rendering it dependent upon the inexistence of a different story, upon the eradication of any other narrative in order for it to become the truth – as if the truth could be established by popular vote in a rigged election with its subsequent danger of a single story. Therefore, I suspect that for most atheists, like my father, whether they are aware of it or not, it is the need of conversion that is most distasteful, repugnant and it is vehemently rejected.

So as the son of such a fervent atheist, it was strange that what had been branded in memory was a church, and how I wished to return to it after so many years without knowing why.

Now I know why.

But first I had to get back there, and it took a search inside my mind and that of my aunt who had taken me there many years ago. I tried shaking her memory: tía, there were orange trees filled with fruit in the square in front, the façade looked like a mosaic, colorful, inside was filled with gold.

She is too sweet a woman to have called my description useless. It could have roughly described any one of the 365 churches of Cholula. She just scratched her chin as I gave her more details and she tried to remember that day long ago when my uncle was still alive and they took us for the Sunday outing to the villages near Puebla.

“It was not in the center of Cholula, tía.”

Pondering more, she looked out through thick glasses to her patio with its bougainvillea, a cascade of brilliant pink I have seen nowhere but in the volcanic soil of México, she continued to scratch her chin as I gave her all the details I could remember from a child’s mind, until she finally stumbled upon a word that struck me.

“Tonanzintla? Santa María de Tonanzintla, mijo?”

It was a long-ago Sunday excursion to the villages outside of Puebla that we recalled, when my uncle was still alive and behind the wheel of his dusty red pickup, taking us out to meet distant cousins in houses between farms of chilis and flowers, taking the long route past mountain-top lakes and horizons the clouds reached by rolling upwards from below. It was indeed the church I remembered as I entered once again to see its splendor, the entire heavens unravelling in the small chapel that expands to contain the entire universe in brilliantly colored native fruits and chilis, flowers, masks, birds, and children, all stucco laden with gold in between the native gods and Christian saints. It was the place I wanted to return without knowing why, until I heard the resonate voice among the small group at the end of the nave, explaining all the symbols he pointed out among the infinity. I immediately latched on the tour of the very indigenous looking guide with the voice of a great teacher.

Upon reaching the transept, the guide was explaining to tourists from the capital who also helped a few foreigners understand who was Tonantzin, the Mother of this World, how Tonantzintla means “Land of our Mother”. The church was built upon the location of what apparently was the temple of the Goddess, represented by the symbols of corn that is all the sustenance provided by this Universe for her children…

Lakshmi, I thought, my ears wide open.

“The fierce protector of Her children…”

Durga! I almost blurted out, incredulous.

“She who teaches Her children the most important knowledge in life, how to sow the seeds of corn from generation to generation…”

Saraswati! My palms came together in reverence.

The joy of such serendipity was overwhelming. No further explanation was needed for me to know exactly where I was and why I had come back. I should have known by all the symbols the Cholutecos had left behind, the flowers and the fruits on the walls, common symbols for that which is sewn and the result of action. Funny, it was, to discover once again how we go out into the world in search of knowledge when we needn’t have looked any further than a place we had already visited. I am very devout to the Devi, and discovered them through a crazily sinuous route in my life to understand the mythology of India. The revelation that my own ancestors had obviously had the same understanding and reverence as the Hindus for the Goddess(es) — who represent(s) all the resources one needs to complete one’s mission in life — was enough to drop me into a pew, astounded. I imagined the Mexica’s same need to revere the three resources that life has provided us – the food, energy and knowledge that are there for us inexplicably – and how it was associated with a feminine force, because, as everyone knows:

Women do everything. They make everything happen.

Holding back my joy was difficult, but aided by the itching sense of impurity from my feet. I had an ardent desire to run back out of the church to remove my shoes and re-enter as I would a temple, according to a tradition long-since adopted on my own.

“Then there is Tlaloc,” the guide continued, pointing out the mid-heaven above the Virgin Mary, “God of Rain and Storms who fertilizes and destroys”.

Rudra-Shiva! I brought my palms together in reverence, once again, to the symbol of destruction of all things, including ignorance.

By explaining the mythology of the Mexicas, the guide unlocked much of the imagery of the church for me, but such was not necessarily the case for the tourists, whose questions sprouted to decipher the alien cosmology. It was only natural, I thought, for people from traditions that have only ever been exposed to a single story not to comprehend such multiplicity. It was far from alien for me. There was no confusion in my mind once the guide had pointed out just a few details with his finger, it was if he had cast a line I crossed effortlessly, like a monkey, already equipped with the knowledge to appreciate the syncretism around me in the tapestry of stucco heavens surrounding us. I wandered away from the group to lose myself in the all the gold and to gather enough silence to appreciate what was a great discovery for me, until one of their questions reverberated with the acoustics of the church to jolt my attention.

At first, I thought they were just having some glitches in translation, then I realized they were not confirming English and Spanish. Although they might have found the mythology fascinating and they had understood all the explanations regarding the Mexica gods and some of the remarkable parallels with Christianity, they were curious to know who the indigenous God was. They insisted the guide explain who was the Creator, the Supreme Lord.

I jumped back into the huddle not only because I was curious as to how the guide would answer the question, but also ready to help explain that there are traditions in which worshipping one god or many gods is the same thing. Their names and number, including the number one, are irrelevant. The object of worship is a tool (limited in nature just like the mind) and used to help focus the mind (our greatest instrument as well as our greatest obstacle) on that which is beyond all limitations, which includes the limitation inherent in the number one. That there are traditions in which all that there is is God, which means there is no separation between creature and creator. They are indivisible. Whereby to love one is to love all things. That there is a vision in which walls do not separate space; they exist in space; they separate nothing.

But by telling a story, the guide did a much better job than I ever could have: “When asked where their Creator was, what was his name, what was his form, the natives almost laughed at their interrogators, the Jesuit priests with the mission to build a temple in what had been the holy city of Cholula until the Conquest. The natives responded, ‘No, no, no!’” The guide laughed, imitating his ancestor’s amusement at what must have been considered a silly question before he continued, “‘That has no name. There is no place That can be found, yet there is no place that That is not. That has no form. That is Everything. That has no name.’”

That’s the One, I thought, as I am also quite certain the Jesuits must have thought, just as astounded as I was when they heard that explanation centuries ago upon that very same ground. Despite their disparate cultures and traditions, it must have been such a revelation that allowed the mutual trust and understanding needed to create the syncretic temple. And it was also a revelation that seemed immediately absorbed by the tourists around me in the church. Nodding in agreement, the revelation generated no further questions and I saw no quivers of reluctance as I checked each of their faces. In fact, the tourists seemed quite pleased with their visit as they slowly worked their way back down the nave to the portico and out to the patio of the orange trees I had remembered so vividly from my youth.

One cannot see if words hit their target, but my intuition told me that the guide successfully transmitted a little new knowledge, or at least helped to discard a similar measure of prejudice, as we disbanded in the patio. Unfortunately, such successful acceptance of another tradition, however, has not always been the case.

Conversion is violence

Can you imagine what would happen if your beautiful home were invaded by another family? A very large and powerful family that took over your property and locked your family in the worst room with the least light, say, the garage? They would only ever let you come out to work cleaning their newly confiscated home that was once yours, although you can no longer recognize it. You are to stay in the garage as much as possible, and getting antsy will only bring you trouble. They throw in some knitting needles and yarn so that you stay in the closet and you can supplement your meagre housekeeping income in order to buy some of their packaged food since you can no longer produce your own food outside in the garden. Thinking that they are doing you a favor so that you do not get too bored – and that you stay in the garage – they throw in an electronic something so that you are entertained looking through a false window on a false outside world where everyone is happy, young, and beautiful.

There is nothing else to do. There is nowhere to go.

What is more: the garage is located exactly on an axis of the house that the new owners then need in order to construct a staircase so that they can create a much bigger and more lucrative property, now called an asset, which apparently incurs more costs for doing nothing with it than for renovating it. Therefore, there is a huge pressure for you to leave, but you know the moment you abandon that meagre and negotiable right – gently ceded right – to the garage, you will never see your land again, the land of your ancestors, the only place you have ever known. Besides: where will you go?

Under such desperation, the one thing that might turn to for solace is to that place inside yourself, which would be greatly helped if you could see the sunrise and pray according to your tradition on the site of your ancestors, out back past the garden. But it has been torn up and constructed upon, desecrated. And any attempt to follow such traditions gets ridiculed as stupidity, since it produces absolutely nothing, no result whatsoever.

Or so they think.

All actions produce results. It is the law of an Order we do not control, as Newton contemplated when observing an apple fall. Even a prayer shall always produce a result, whether it is nothing more than a momentary calm when an individual dilutes the ego enough to rest fear. There is nothing indicating that phenomena occur outside of that Order, and there is everything that indicates that even when a result of an action is unbeknownst or undesired, there is nothing indicating the possibility of an action producing nothing.

And there is another law: as human beings, we have the free will to choose our actions, but under no circumstances may we choose the results of our actions. The results are delivered according to that same infallible Order one does not control.

Therefore, much like the Conquistadores’ conclusion that their Lord was superior because Quetzalcoatl did not come out of the Great Pyramid to vindicate the Cholutecos, your captors’ narrative that their religion gives them more power to decide the results of actions is as preposterous as is it insolent before the Universe. What your captors do not comprehend is that although the laws of the Order have been the object of scientific observation and utilized since the beginning of humanity, the Cause has consistently eluded detection by the only five senses available to us – including theirs – which is why one narrative about that which is evident yet unverifiable can never have more merit than another.

After searching for answers outside to no avail, every human tradition has developed a story after looking inward by a means of detection we feel but cannot quite explain, observing an elusive inner self and how it relates to all others and the world around it, developing a story and ritual to express it. These traditions are divided into two categories: non-aggressive, tolerant religions and aggressive, predatory and proselytizing religions that do not tolerate another narrative. The latter are competitive and must use conversion to divide and incite intolerance. The former are cooperative. They covet no one’s interior landscape, because they have a commitment to tolerance and they have such a dedication to non-violence that some even refuse to destroy animals.

Meanwhile, back in the garage, you might notice that, although the tactics of competitive religions may vary, some such practitioners may truly feel sorry for you – or not – and actually come into the garage after you had been ridiculed, offering sweet words of consolation while keeping a dagger in their heart as they gently try to teach you the error of your beliefs. Some of your family in the garage have agreed with the invaders: The old ways do nothing; They don’t work; It was your fault all along. The defectors have been allowed to leave the garage to go and live in a miniscule apartment of their own in the village on the condition that they forfeit all their heritage, all the beliefs of old, and join them in believing something better.

Successfully gaslighted or unable to withstand the lure to leave, many you love have since deserted, tearing your family apart. You wake up hopeless every day. You are young, but as you start getting older you realize you will never have the means of satisfying your desires. Or you are old, and you realize it is pointless to encourage the young to hope for a future.

Under the circumstances at hand, you would probably try one of three solutions: escape into a bottle of booze or injecting something to take away your pain; grab a gun and point it at your oppressors, but that would have perilous consequences, not only for you, but for everyone else still living in the garage; so out of a desolation I cannot even imagine, you might just point that gun at yourself or tie a noose around your neck, because the suffocation cannot be any worse than the insidious garage.

Any one of those three solutions leads to your absence and is all that your oppressors want from you.

What is even more irritating than your presence in the garage, however, is the presence of your story, everything that has happened to you and your people, and the values you believe in, because, ironically, they are the same ones your oppressors believe in. And they know they have done wrong. And they know that you know they have done wrong, making you the valuable witness of their own hypocrisy. That is because a value, in order for it to be a value – in order to have value – it must be absolute. It must withstand the test of reciprocity, which means that if you do not wish to be told lies, you must not say things that are untrue. If you do not wish to suffer harm or violence, you must not even wish it upon others. That is why it is a universal value to not do unto others what you do not wish done unto you, and it is a maxim to be found, in one narrative or another, in all the world’s traditions – including that of your oppressors, which makes your story of the garage extremely inconvenient. It is left as a footprint of hypocrisy, a crack in the glass that will keep extending upon their surface, revealing only half a value underneath, a value that applies for some but not others, which means one is left with a worthless value.

Going against values really hurts down inside. It leaves a deep scar when you compromise values in order to acquire things, to appropriate things, or to shirk responsibilities.

And the salt in the wound is the fact that you and the people of the garage will always know that your oppressors know that they have done wrong, regardless of any exquisitely executed moral mathematics in which two wrongs make a right in another narrative of what had transpired: how ignorant you had been by selling your own people as slaves, eating their flesh, or worshipping ‘idols’ – unless, of course, God forbid, your oppressors had simply doubled down to expedite your absence and erasing your story from a blackboard.

Whether the desecrated temples of the Incas, Mexicas, Hindus or Buddhists, to the decimated indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas, history has no lack of examples of those for whom the existence of a different or contrary story can incite. While the violence of bloodshed or a temple in ruins is obvious, what is not so apparent is the violence that occurs when the innermost temple of a human individual is considered threatening or intolerable, when there is an attack upon the personal story of how an individual or a people connect to all that there is and how their story is expressed in ritual. That attack is called conversion, a colonization of an invisible territory, an onslaught to alter an individual’s narrative and rituals to that of another. It is a profound violence.

Perhaps the most profound violence.

Because, in the words of Swami Dayananda Saraswati, “It is not ordinary violence. It is violence to the deepest person, the core person in the human being. The religious person is the deepest. And if that person is hurt, I say, it is violence. It is pure violence. And what does it do? It wipes out cultures.”

It is a project of dividing and destroying cultures, dividing communities, individual by individual, by pitting one unverifiable belief against another – unverifiable beliefs that are so intimately connected to the core of an individual and a society that they have the power to create martyrs. It is the work of lumberjacks, cutting down a culture, tree by tree, until it is gone, and with it, any trace of the knowledge of how man relates to the universe around him, never to be recuperated.

In fact, the image of the forest is quite poignant. It is of no coincidence that one of the best ways of combating deforestation is by protecting indigenous rights. Protecting the environment includes the people and culture of those who live in such places, whether it be reservations threatened by pipelines in North Dakota or protecting indigenous peoples who live in tropical forests threatened by chainsaws. If the colonization of and encroachment upon their territories were not already insult to injury, religious conversion is decimating indigenous cultures, especially since these cultures, like many around the world, cannot be separated from their respective spirituality – a spirituality that is often intimately connected with their environs.

Writing for The Globe and Mail, Stephanie Nolan beautifully crafted a fascinating account of the horrific suicide crises among the Kaiowá-Guaraní people of Brazil, which is suspiciously similar to the plight of the indigenous peoples of Canada. Nolan investigates not only how the toxic mix of politics and poverty; lust for sneakers and cellphones; and drugs and alcohol has killed an alarming number of indigenous youth from families that have already been devastated by chronic diseases, violence and landlessnes, she shows how efforts to reconnect with their traditional rituals has restored psychological health to many youths. Understanding that “the mokoi and gwyra, the birds of protection that can be startled away” can be brought back to rest in balance at their rightful position upon the human shoulders by doing daily rituals was the key. “That explanation, in the end, made as much sense as any of the others,” wrote Nolan, after interviewing a shaman in one of Brazil’s most devastated communities. The shaman explained how “the healers began to do the rituals of protection, all of them together, at once, every day – in the schools and all the places where young people gather. We did it for three months. And then the dying [suicides] stopped.”

How is it that rituals are so powerful despite their basis on just a myth, what my father might have called “a stupid lie”? Well, a myth will only ever be measured by how it can promote comprehension of oneself and others – not its veracity – which is why one unverifiable belief will never fare better than any other when explaining the inexplicable, and it is also why fiction plays such great importance in our lives. Ritual, however, is another step: it is a way of turning that narrative of oneself and others into actions through repetition, through discipline. By reinforcing their myth of protection daily, the shaman exacted a ritual, as prescribed by their tradition and handed down through generations from a time immemorial.

And it worked. The right words fell upon the right ears at the right time in part of the magic of this universe that every human tradition reveres and has tried to explain in one way or another. Actions were taken with great focus and intent to save young people who were in grave danger after having been beaten by drunken fathers angry at the world, and having found their elder siblings hanging by their necks from trees in the morning. And as anyone who has ever had the blessed discipline of practicing focus knows, the universe can conspire to deliver great success when a message is practiced and repeated unfailingly – including the return of mokoi and gwyra to protect children who were the next candidates for absence.

It seems to me that their myth, their rituals, their religion is quite fine, thank you. So why covert them to another religion? Why the need to discredit and slander the myth of mokoi and gwyra and an ancient ritual that has significance for them?

It would be hard to ask the Kaiowá-Guaraní people. They live in a place so absurdly disconnected from the rest of the country that New York is somehow closer not only in distance but in culture to the major, coastal and populous mega-cities of South America. Yet these people have not had the benefit of being isolated enough to live in peace and according to their traditions. Moreover, were you to try to go there, you are to be very careful: you might be unwelcomed by the very powerful interests that locked them in the garage.

The logistics would not be so hard, however, to ask a few friends and neighbors of mine in urban Brazil as to why their Afro-Brazilian religions have been violently attacked recently, with armed gangs terrorizing traditional terreiros, and why such onslaught has been growing at the hands of “ill-intentioned religious leaders who aim to increase their influence in poverty-stricken neighborhoods” by coercion.

I would make that sprawling poverty-stricken neighborhoods. They have the same face of improvisation all over the world: there is no basic sanitation or infrastructure; construction is rudimentary when it is not ramshackle; makeshift water tubing always drips; entangled spider webs of electric lines are strung along streets without sidewalks. Then there are the less visible things: what its residents are eating and drinking, as well as what they are not eating and drinking; if they have a job, how far they must travel and how they pay for illegal transport; what they do when they are sick. Then there is the invisible: the government, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t leadership in such places.

Poverty. Don’t ever forget that word. You’ll often find it with the word religion, and I think I am only beginning to understand what happens when people with great needs cry out to the universe for a better place, either on land or in the heavens.

Follow the money

You’ll try to remember your first economics class; if not, you’ll try to imagine that little graph showing the point called price, exactly at the intersection where the line of demand and the line of supply converge. For as long as human acquisitiveness has been infinite, attempting to curb demand by restricting supply has only ever been shown to be futile: any forbidden fruit will remain with a price, no matter how high, and it shall be delivered. Peru has tried to prohibit the import of mercury to help stop the devastation of their Amazon, where it is constantly used to separate gold from the mud and water of clear-cut forests, thereby poisoning fish and people as far away as the other side of the continent. The ban hasn’t work. India has tried stopping the malicious sand mafias that displace and enslave people to illegally dredge river beds for the precious sand needed to mix with cement to build the New India. It hasn’t worked. Nuclear non-proliferation, whereby I can have a gun and you cannot, doesn’t seem to make acquiring one less attractive. As if there were those really interested in winning it, a fool can see that the War on Drugs is farcical. The illicit is far to lucrative, driving that point — that intersection of price — to float beautifully higher and higher, a red dot in the bluest of sky.

Together with the mind-boggling perversion that is the distribution of wealth in this world, there are horrendous pressures distorting demands, whereby just a handful of people in this world have the resources to float on up to grab the balloon out of the sky, appropriating what is so attractive, while the rest of us are either to feel privileged only to be able to watch it float in the sky, or unpriveleged because they can’t even see it from the garage.

A place, like many reservations, where the situation is growing ever more desperate.

There are too many in there and there is too little food and water. They work and work but are getting nowhere. Even worse, they don’t work and don’t work and get nowhere faster. They are getting sick and seeing no hope in achieving a better life, something they clearly see others having as they walk around the house and peer through bright windows. It is boiling in the garage like a pressure cooker, only intermittently releasing only what is necessary in order not to explode.

But explode it does, after corruption and negligence have been left simmering together for so long they become inedible and there is nothing left to eat in the surrounding fields of indifference, littered with broken pieces of half-values. It leaves a void to be filled by the likes of Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria or any of the ruthless mafia of this world that prey on poverty, paying attention to those that have never received any. It pays high yields when hundreds, then thousands start paying tribute – or paying tributes – to those promising salvation, protection, or an end to corruption and negligence that has led them to cry out to the universe for help.

Two forms of help

“Money,” responded my father, when I had asked him what the people at the door carrying the books had wanted. His answer confused me, a child hiding behind the door to listen in on his curt exchange with the strangers who had rung our doorbell. My father lied to me: there was no mention of money; I heard them talking about God, a subject that started my father’s low, sinister growl. But my father never lied to me, so I insisted on an explanation, after he had politely but sternly dispatched the missionaries to go talk to someone who needed a faith.

“Every time someone opens their mouth or makes a move,” my father explained, “it is because they want something,” he explained. I was too young to understand, much less discuss philosophy, but I recall scratching my head to help me think about what my father said. Almost forty years later and with a different vision, I do understand how it is not a human possibility to do anything without expecting a result. We make a move or utter a word with an expectation of a desired result. The opposite — not getting what one wants — will be disdained and often answered with resentment.

Even acts of apparent selflessness to help others will always have a very delicate residue of selfishness, because as long as there is an ego behind every human action, there can be no absolute altruism. At its most subtle, the residue is almost invisible, because it may be nothing more than the desire to feel better by bringing a moment of calm to the internal agitation produced by witnessing suffering. Extending a hand in empathy is a necessary beginning, but it can manifest into something very beautiful when the real human rises above the narrow vision of oneself and all its limitations to discover compassion, a moment of greatness when an individual discovers that nothing is missing in life. Such individuals are free to help because they are complete and ask for nothing in return, having discovered that they only have things to give and share. This discovery of compassion may be when the ego is at its most negligible, so small it just might have been relinquished. Unfortunately, help is not always offered with this greatness. There is another form of help.

Often a hand will be extended in the hope of an unsubtle return. Worse, a hand may only be extended if there is a real material return. One look at the recent photograph of an evangelical pastor proudly conducting baptism of indigenous people is enough to envisage what he had asked for in collateral and how conversion viciously continues today, selling spiritual solutions after having created so many difficulties. Although the pastor might have had the best of intentions, he did much more than request a down payment for his help: he asked for nothing less than everything.

Everything! Their entire story. Who they are. Where they came from. Where they are going. Why they are here. Who their family is. Who their friends are. What is their truth. Everything. Except one thing – which is quite the opposite of help.

Recently, on the other side of Brazil, very unreligious people undoubtedly paid – or kind of paid – very misfortunate people to remove a supposedly uncontacted tribe that had been inhibiting access to the valuable metals of the subsoil, deep in the Amazonian forest. This indigenous people had great wealth hidden under their feet in the rich soil that could grow many things once the precious trees are cut down to sell illegally so that we may have our beautiful wooden homes and furniture. When the desperados found them, they took that one last thing: their very lives. Members of the uncontacted tribe were executed and then dismembered, sliced up so that their bodies wouldn’t float in the river.

Does it sound like a gruesome colonial conquest from 500 years ago, something like the Massacre of Cholula? It should, but it is somehow even gorier when I think it was just this past month, September 2017, and baffling when it is nothing new in recent history. A genocide is occurring at the hands of men who are victims of poverty, the loggers and garimpeiros (the illegal gold prospectors) wreaking havoc in indigenous territories that are supposed to be protected by their respective governments. Indigenous peoples have no defenses against their invader’s weapons – uncontacted ones also have no natural defenses against their diseases—and they certainly have no defenses against aggressive religions. That is because there is nothing to be gained by acquiring adherents to beliefs that do not compete with any other.

Most curious to note is that the orixás of African beliefs, the gods of Hinduism and the other dharmic traditions of Asia do not even compete with science, as I am certain the narratives of indigenous peoples all over the world do not. There is no conflict between the quest of science and the many paths of self-knowledge that are meant to speak to the individual, on an individual mission, who can find meaning in the stories available as examples as how to envisage the mind as an object – and not the subject – in order to conduct oneself according to values when interacting with others and the world around us, despite the complexity of emotions and disquiet inside that often defy logic. They are designed to help the individual to accept that which cannot be changed, the turning inward after identifying the real battle. In the words of Kabir, “Once, I set out to find the crooked of heart and returned disappointed. Then I looked into my heart: I found the king of crooks hiding there.”

That is why there should be solidarity among all of us crooks, and our religious traditions should cooperate and not compete.

Despite the history of conversion, some traditions have survived and have been there for us when we need them. I discovered one that turned my routine into ritual with just a shift of vision, applying attention and questioning to all my actions. It slowly disciplined the mind and the body to create enough quiet with which to sit down and listen to other stories, the stories of warriors whose every conquest brought them no closer to the victory of personal fulfillment – much like me. They could conquer the world and have nothing. It wasn’t until they realized they were the problem and that they were also the solution that they took up the real battle, struggling – according to one narrative very dear to me – for nine nights until it was clear the warrior realized he would unconditionally accept the result as given by the Universe. After appreciating the Resources that had always been with him, it was only then that She came to grant him Victory, which, according to what is probably the world’s oldest tradition, is celebrated on this day, Vijayadashami, which I once again return to on the day of my birth with a message:

You are not to put up walls to separate traditions; traditions exist in space; therefore, they separate nothing.

Jai Tonantzin ki jai!


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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

3 thoughts on “Conversion is violence

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