The Story Behind My 'Conversion'

by David Ananda Hart

from Signs of the Times, No. 23 - Oct 2006

In his generous Foreword to my book Marcus Braybrooke speaks of my moving to Kerala as 'a journey both physical and spiritual'. Here he has put his finger on a key factor in what has happened to me this year, which has incorrectly been portrayed in some of the media coverage (both in the UK and in India) as some kind of publicity stunt which at the same time is designed to snub my Christian roots.

On the contrary, it was precisely because I had an Anglican upbringing that I wanted to discover some cultural equivalent in my new community here in India of attending Evensong in the village church, and that is what made me stumble upon Naga and his worship in my small but welcoming Hindu village. When I enquired there of my fellow worshippers why it was I was welcomed into Naga's temple but not into Vishnu's in the main part of the city, I was told that, for that, since it was under the direct governance of the Travancore royal family, I needed proper certification of the authenticity of my desire to pray. This had to be established by recognised Hindu authority, and, since I was a foreigner, the most appropriate discerning body was the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. After appropriate discussions there verified the degree of my spiritual commitment, I was given a Hindu name, Ananda Krishna Das, and attended the royal palace for a signature of authorisation, before then being granted admittance to the famous temple. At none of these stages was it even suggested that I needed to revise my Christian priesthood, of which I had made no secret, either in its theory or practice.

In a letter to The Church Times (15th September), my training priest in Southwark Diocese, Canon Rodney Bomford, made the telling point that since Hinduism is a collection of religious/cultural practices, it remains questionable that one CAN even 'convert' to it from another religion. But I have used the term in the common-sense meaning that I have adopted that form of worship and respected its deities and festivals. I do not regard this as idolatry, since the oft-quoted Hebrew scriptures have no knowledge of Hinduism or its deities, and whatever statements they made concerning Baal and the like are not really applicable to India since the religious history is so different.

Quite a number of Anglican priests have held some type of 'dual membership' which entailed their recognising the authority of more than one religious tradition, The Montefiores and other Jewish Christian examples are there, as well as the respected Canon Paul Oestreicher who bridged the Anglican-Quaker boundary. Another Anglican priest is currently pastor to a Unitarian congregation, and not only have these been encouraged in their dual identities by their bishops, but in the case of Hugh, actually was elevated to the episcopacy himself !

The world famous guru Sri Sri Ravishankar from Bangalore, who has many Catholic cardinals among his followers, told me in a discussion earlier this year that he believed today 'people do not need to renounce anything. They can continue to lead a full life but the quality of it can be improved and lead to a world without boundaries.'

Removing the boundaries I actually see to be part of the priestly task in today's world, riven as it is with religious conflict. It may surprise some currently calling for my resignation to learn that I take much strength in my current pilgrimage from the biblical image in Acts 17 of St Paul encountering the myriads of gods and the temples on the Areopagus. I still with him proclaim Jesus and the Unknown God, and in that sense see my recent actions as an extension of the Christian mission he founded, but in the terms of our own times rather than his.

With this background and for these reasons it would seem entirely inappropriate for me now to offer the resignation of my Anglican Orders, even if that would aid the tidy-minded to categorise me according to their own image of acceptability. And as the Church Times opinion poll revealed, this is an issue where Anglican opinion is fairly evenly divided, and a resignation would be seen as an unnecessary capitulation to one single and I believe outdated viewpoint.

David Hart's book Trading Faith: Global Religion in an Age of Rapid Change is published by O Books.