Is Mahatma Gandhi in heaven or hell? Where will the Dalai Lama sojourn in the afterlife? Will two thirds of the world’s seven billion people who are non-Christians go on to overpopulate hell for never accepting Jesus Christ as their savior? We hear hell is hot now...how much worse could it get with billions more denizens!
Such questions animate some Christians in various ways. For some, it creates an sense of urgency for evangelization and proselytizing. Spread the Gospel as far and as rapidly as possible out of compassion to save those heathen lost souls, they exhort their adherents. And while there will be earnest and eager wide-eyed wannabe saviors knocking on doors, goading and encouraging others to follow their ways, there are too many predatory proselytizers looking to harvest souls by coercion or by predicating medical care, education, or jobs to religious conversion.
But the Gandhian existential dilemma was solved in another “act of compassion” reportedly by a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons have long engaged in these proxy-baptisms of departed Jews, Hindus, and others to offer them the chance to “choose” since they were not reached--or convinced--while they lived. Indeed, according to media reports, Gandhi joined Anne Frank and many others in the ranks of the posthumously baptized.(The Mormon church condemned Frank’s unsanctioned baptism and officially abandoned the practice of baptizing Holocaust victims and survivors in a 1995 agreement.)
I do believe that the path laid out in Hindu scripture is uniquely attuned to accomplishing life’s spiritual goals, but the Dharma traditions allow for plurality. I have no imperative to convince others to follow my path, since Hindus believe that any life lived in self-realization, performing good karma without attachments to the fruits of one’s actions, will necessarily escape the cycles of reincarnation and attain Moksha or Nirvana.
And that is why the posthumous baptism of Gandhi, or any other person, demonstrates insularity, condescension, and is, yes, insulting. What astounding gall to assume the need to “save” a person who lived a life of selfless dedication, service and love! In an era when Hindus are standing with Mormons to decry the false sanctimony of politicians that would presume to flog Gov. Romney for his religion, such snippets of news only reinforce American culture’s ludicrous alienation of Dharma traditions.
Perhaps the greatest irony is that it was the Mahatma himself who spoke so eloquently against aggressive proselytizing of the living--an exploitation of the poor, he maintained. One may infer very well what he would say to the do-gooder who presumed to offer him options in his afterlife :
“I believe that there is no such thing as conversion from one faith to another in the accepted sense of the word. It is a highly personal matter for the individual and his God. I may not have any design upon my neighbor as to his faith which I must honor even as I honor my own. Having reverently studied the scriptures of the world I could no more think of asking a Christian or a Musalman, or a Parsi or a Jew to change his faith than I would think of changing my own.” (source: Mahatma Gandhi, Harijan: September 9, 1935).
Aseem Shukla is co-founder and board member of the Hindu America Foundation.
Read more on Mormon baptisms for the dead:
“This entire labor of love, as Mormons view it, rests on the premise that those who have passed on have the choice to accept or reject the gesture,” writes Michael Otterson.