[Chapter 12 of “Initiation and spiritual realization”] by RenÃ© GuÃ©non
The word ‘conversion’ can be taken in two totally different senses. Its original meaning corresponds to the Greek term METANOIA, which properly expresses a change of NOUS, or, as A.K. Coomaraswamy has said, an ‘intellectual metamorphosis’. This interior transformation, indicated moreover by the Latin etymology (CUM-VERTERE), simultaneously implies both a ‘gathering’ or concentration of the powers of the being, and a certain ‘return’ by which the being passes from ‘human thought’ to ‘divine comprehension’. METANOIA or ‘conversion’ is therefore the conscious passage of the ordinary and individual mind, normally turned toward sensible things, to its superior transposition, where it is identified with the HEGEMON of Plato or the ANTARYAMI of the Hindu tradition. It is obvious that this passage is a necessary phase in every process of spiritual development. It must be understood that this development is of a purely interior order, having absolutely nothing in common with any kind of exterior and contingent change, whether arising simply from the ‘moral’ domain, as is too often believed today (METANOIA is even translated as ‘repentance’), or from the religious and more generally exoteric domain. (1)
After the above explanations, and in order to avoid any confusion, we must now take up the common meaning of the word ‘conversion’, the meaning it bears constantly in contemporary language, where it designates only the exterior passage from one traditional form to another, whatever the reasons that determined the change, reasons usually completely contingent, sometimes lacking any real importance, and in any case having nothing to do with pure spirituality. Although without doubt more or less spontaneous conversions can sometimes occur, at least in appearance, they usually result from religious ‘proselytism’, and it goes without saying that all the objections which can be formulated against the value of ‘proselytism’ apply equally to its results. In short, both the ‘convertor’ and the ‘convertee’ show the same incomprehension of the profound meaning of their traditions, and their respective attitudes show only too manifestly that their intellectual horizon is likewise limited to the viewpoint of the most exclusive exoterism. (2) Even aside from this reason of principle, but for others reason too, we have little regard for ‘converts’ in general, not that their sincerity should be doubted A PRIORI (for here we do not consider the all too frequent case of those motivated by some base material or sentimental interest, who really should be called ‘pseudo-converts’), but first because they give proof at the very least of a rather unfortunate lack of mental stability, and then because they almost always have a tendency to the narrowest and most exaggerated ‘sectarianism’, either because of their own temperament, which has driven dome to pass from one extreme to another with disconcerting ease, or simply as a means of deflecting the suspicions they fear in their new milieu. Basically, ‘converts’ are of little interest, at least for those who look at things without any prejudice of exoteric exclusiveness and have no taste for the study of various ‘psychological’ curiosities. For our part, we certainly prefer not to examine them too closely.
Having said this, we must turn to a point that we have been especially wanting to discuss. People often speak of ‘conversions’ very inappropriately and in cases where this word, understood in the sense just given above, could never be applied, that is, the case of those who, for reasons of an esoteric and initiatic order, adopt a traditional form different from that to which they would have seem to be linked by their origin. This could be either because their native tradition furnished them with no possibility of an esoteric order, or simply because their chosen tradition, even in its exoteric form, gives them a foundation that is more appropriate to their nature, and consequently more favorable to their spiritual work. Whoever places himself at the esoteric point of view has this absolute right, against which all the arguments of the exoterists are of no avail, since by very definition this matter lies completely outside their competence. Contrary to what takes place in ‘conversion’, nothing here implies the attribution of the superiority of one traditional form over another. It is merely a question of what one might call reasons of spiritual expediency, which is altogether different from simple individual ‘preference’, and for which exterior considerations are completely insignificant. Moreover, it is of course understood that one who can legitimately act in this way must, since he is truly capable of placing himself at the esoteric point of view, be conscious, at least by virtue of a theoretical if not an effectively realized knowledge, of the essential unity of all traditions. This alone is sufficient to show that when the word ‘conversion’ is applied to such cases, it is meaningless and truly inconceivable. If it is asked why there are such cases, we reply that is due above all to the conditions of the present age in which, on the one hand, certain traditions have become incomplete ‘from above’, that is, from their esoteric side, the existence of which their ‘official’ representatives sometimes even go so far as to more or less formally deny; and on the other hand, it too often happens that someone is born into a milieu not in harmony with his own nature, and because not really suitable for him, does not allow his possibilities, especially of the intellectual and spiritual order, to develop in a normal manner. Certainly it is regrettable in more than one respect that things are this way, but these are the inevitable drawbacks of the present phase of the KALI-YUGA.
Besides the case of those who ‘take up their abode’ in a traditional form because it puts at their disposal the most adequate means for their interior work they have yet to accomplish, there is another that we must also mention. This is the case of men who, having reached a high degree of spiritual development, adopt outwardly one or another traditional form according to circumstances and for reasons of which they are the sole judges, especially since these reasons are generally those which escape the understanding of ordinary men. Because of this spiritual state they have reached, these men are beyond all forms, for whom they are only a matter of outward appearance, unable to affect or modify their inner reality in any way. Not only have they reached that understanding spoken of earlier, but they have fully realized, in its very principle, the fundamental unity of all traditions. To speak of ‘conversion’ in this case would be absurd. Nevertheless, this does not prevent certain people from writing seriously that Sri Ramakrishna, for example, had ‘converted’ to Islam during one period of his life and to Christianity during another. Nothing could be more ridiculous than such assertions, which give a rather sorry idea of the authors’ mentality. For Sri Ramakrishna it was simply only a kind of ‘verification’ by direct experience of the validity of the different ‘ways’ represented by the traditions to which he temporarily assimilated himself. Is there anything in this that could closely or distantly resemble ‘conversion’ in any way?
Generally speaking, anyone who has an understanding of the unity of traditions, whether through a merely theoretical comprehension or through an effective realization, is necessarily for this very reason ‘unconvertible’ to anything whatsoever. Moreover, he is the only person who is truly so, since everyone else is always at the mercy of contingent circumstances to some degree. We cannot denounce too vigorously the equivocation that leads certain people to speak of ‘conversion’ where there is no trace of it, for it is important to put an end to all such nonsense widespread in the profane world, and beneath which it is not difficult to divine intentions that are clearly hostile to everything associated with esoterism.
(1) On this subject, see A.K. Coomaraswamy, ‘On Being in OneÂ´s Right Mind’ in WHAT IS CIVILIZATION? (Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Press, 1989)
(2) In principle, there is only one really legitimate conversion, the one that consists in the connection to a tradition, whatever it may be, on the part of someone who was previously lacking any traditional attachment.