Understanding Hinduism: A practical guide for Christians
So, you are a Christian. Why would you embrace a religion from the West, a product of Western culture, when we, here in India, have the finest of philosophy and religious thought?”
The question is neither strange nor new. One of the principal charges made against Christian missiology states that the West attempts to impose its culture and ethos on the simple and weary population of the East. Yet those who level such charges forget that Christ came from the East. He was born in Palestine, lived all His life in an Eastern culture, taught His gospel amid the background of that culture, and died in that land. Just before He ascended to heaven, He reiterated to His disciples that neither He nor His message should be limited to any one geographical region. He is the Lord of the universe with a message for the entire world. With that, He commissioned His disciples and every successive generation to " 'go therefore and make disciples of all the nations . . . teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age' " (Matt. 28:19, 20).1
Long before Christianity reached the West as we know it today, it was in the East. Indian history and tradition trace the origin of Christianity to the first century through the ministry of the apostle Thomas in the southwestern coastal tip of the subcontinent. Since then, Christians in that part of the world have had a continuous ecclesiastic link to the Syrian Orthodox Church, and many of them call themselves Thomas Christians. Fifteen centuries later, the first missionaries from modern Europe landed in India, but the early Christians still retained their first-century liturgy and tradition. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister and one of the founders of modern India, often in his public speeches and historical narratives corrected the misconception of his countrymen that Christianity is a Western religion. He had a conviction that Christianity was as much a religion of their country as any other.
Mahatma Gandhi, the father of modern India, often found solace in the New Testament. His philosophy of nonviolence had its roots in the Sermon on the Mount. Among his favorite hymns were such Christian classics as “Abide With Me,” “Lead, Kindly Light,” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Once Gandhi wrote, “There have been many times when I did not know which way to turn. But I have gone to the Bible, and particularly the New Testament, and have drawn strength from its message.”2 To say all this does not erase the fact that Christian existence, missiology, and practice continue to face philosophic and sociological hurdles. The systematic, coherent, and vibrant nature of Hindu philosophy and sociology poses the greatest challenge to the proclamation of the Christian gospel. Therefore, every Christian, particularly pastors and ministers, should have at least a generic understanding of what Hinduism is all about. Once that understanding develops, dialogue, communication, and witness become possible within a context of mutual respect, friendship, and sharing. Sidney J. Harris noted that Thomas Aquinas once said, “ ‘When you want to convert someone to your view, you go over to where he is standing.’ ”3
Well said. This article shall discuss three areas that are fundamental to a Hindu-Christian dialogue: the nature of the human, the doctrinal differences between Christianity and Hinduism, and a common ground for dialogue.
In the vast universe of the imponderable, Hindu philosophy holds that human beings are simply microcosmic creatures. How they came into being is not as important as what they are and where they are going. Hinduism’s central understanding of human nature and destiny is conditioned by the fundamental of the law of karma. Karma is the moral law in which the cycle of birth–death–rebirth—known as the eternal process of reincarnation— takes place, giving endless opportunities to escape from the limitations of life and ultimately from death itself. Hinduism does not recognize the reality of sin; it views good or evil from the active principle of karma, and religion’s principal duty is to provide an escape from karma by concentrating on what one can do. One philosopher places the responsibility to escape on individuals themselves: “A believer in the law of karma is a free agent and is responsible for all the good and bad results of his own actions that attend to his life. He knows that he create[s] his own destiny, and moulds his character by his thought and deeds.”4
|God: Although Hindus believe in one all-pervasive, impersonal supreme being, they hold that this being exists in multiple forms, both male and female, thus making the Hindu religion polytheistic. Because the divine cannot be limited, he exists everywhere and in everything, hence Hinduism is pantheistic as well. At the head of the innumerous forms are Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva—the supreme triad.||God: The Christian faith is rooted in monotheism—that is, God is One. He is the Creator, the Redeemer, and the eternal Judge. Although the Christian doctrine of the Trinity speaks of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the Three are One in thought, action, and purpose. Neither polytheism nor pantheism exists in the Christian doctrine of God.|
|The world: Hindus see the world as an extension of the Brahma, the supreme principle. However, the extension did not involve any active participation on the part of Brahma. Instead, the world evolved through successive stages of matter, consciousness, and spirituality. Being the extension of the Brahma, nature and God are contiguous, giving way to a pantheistic faith.||The world: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). So begins the Bible in its pronouncement that this world resulted from God’s creative activity. In so creating the world, God stands as the Lord of creation, standing over and apart from it. Thus, the Christian faith exalts Him as the Lord of the universe and refuses to identify the Creator with the creature (pantheism).|
|Humans: To the Hindu, the Christian concept of God creating human beings is an illusion. The human being, like all other animate and inanimate things, is an emanation—an extension—of the Brahma, the supreme being. While existence proceeds from him, that production is neither independent nor free but subject to the supreme law of karma, which in its cyclical process of birth–death–rebirth keeps humans ever in search of the eternal.||Humans: Humans did not proceed from God; nor did they evolve from preexistent forms of life. Instead, God chose to create the human being in His image (Gen. 1:16, 17). Having created humanity as His handiwork, God gave humans freedom of choice, responsibility for procreation, and gave them stewardship of the earth. A human being is thus a responsible being, with a beginning, duty, and destiny.|
|Sin and salvation: Hinduism does not recognize sin as a willful personal rebellion against God nor as a revolt against His moral law such as Christianity teaches. The human being is not a sinner in that sense. However, human beings do commit acts of wrongdoing against nature and their fellow beings because of their karma—the predetermined principle that controls the movements of their lives. Salvation comes by one of three ways: knowledge, devotion to deity, and good works.||Sin and salvation: Sin is real; it is human rebellion against a personal God. Sin has created a vast gulf between humanity and God, which cannot be mended by any good deeds humans do. Salvation is freedom from sin, effected by God’s love and grace through Jesus Christ, who paid the penalty of sin through His own death. No human works can bring about salvation, only by faith in and acceptance of Christ as one’s Savior (John 3:16; Eph. 2:8, 9; Titus 3:5).|
|Ethics and conduct: Although there is no ultimate code of morality like the Ten Commandments, Hinduism finds its moral basis in the law of karma: what one does or fails to do affects their destiny and the eventual process of reincarnation. So moral living is an essential part of life. Two significant forces of this moral living are respect for life, both human and nonhuman; and ahimsa, the principle of nonviolence.||Ethics and conduct: Human life is to be lived in relationship with God and fellow man, governed by the law of love—unselfish, sacrificial, and all-encompassing— for God is love. This love is expressed in practical terms through the Ten Commandments—the moral law of human life and conduct (see 1 John 4:16–18; 5:3; Luke 10:25–28; Exod. 20:1–17).|
|Ultimate destiny: History is cyclical. Humanity is caught in an endless cyclical process of birth–death– rebirth, with each stage of the process controlled by the law of karma. The ultimate end, after unknown stages of reincarnation, is merging with the universal principle of Brahman.||Ultimate destiny: History is linear. Under God’s direction, it moves toward its ultimate climax when God will destroy sin, sinners, and Satan, the original cause of evil in the universe. With this cleansing process, God will create a new earth and new heaven that will be the home of those who have accepted His salvation (Rev. 21:1–6; John 14:1–3).|
Thus one’s destiny lies in one’s own hands, one’s own works. A human being must strive to do good to eradicate the past record of evil not only in this life but in previous lives as well. Says the Bhagavad Gita (“Song of the Lord”), the most widely read Hindu Scripture: “Do thou therefore the work to be done: for the man whose work is pure attains indeed the Supreme.”5
Thus Hinduism finds in one’s good works the ultimate goal of moksha, or salvation that brings complete liberation from the cycle of endless births and deaths. One can do it in one’s own strength without outside help from any deity. The Gita prescribes three possible ways of moksha: (1) karma-marga, the path of duties that include ritual and social obligations; (2) jnana-marga, the path of knowledge, the use of meditation, intellectual discipline, and contemplation; and (3) bhaktimarga, the path of devotion, a life of worship and service given to a chosen god. A person may choose one or a combination of these ways to achieve release from karma’s perpetual hold on the cycle of life.
Hinduism and Christianity: Doctrinal differences
A Christian’s dialogue and communication with a Hindu demands an understanding and comparison of the basic tenets of these two major faiths of the world. Without going into details, the chart on page 7 compares and contrasts the positions of the two faiths and some of their major teachings.6
Adventist dialogue with Hindus
From what we have seen thus far, we can note that the Hindu belief system is complex, with a philosophy and logic of its own, and varies with the doctrinal position of most Christian theology. In that context, to approach a Hindu with the gospel becomes difficult. However, the Hindu system is not a closed system but open, tolerant, and ready for dialogue. Because of this, we can approach a Hindu without intellectual arrogance, thinking we have a monopoly on truth or are superior. What we need is humility, understanding, and respect for each other. Even though Christian theology and Hinduism may differ in basic positions of the nature of God, man, sin, salvation, and the future, there is some common ground from which Christians can proceed to dialogue with their Hindu friends.
1. Both Christians and Hindus have a tremendous respect for life— arising from the image of God for Christians, and the oneness with Brahma for the Hindu. This provides a talking point for the doctrines of Creation, sin, and the incarnation of Christ for the restitution of the image of God, and the final restoration in the new heaven and new earth. The Christian concept of stewardship over creation, flowing from our understanding of Genesis, can lead us to speak of the Lord of creation and redemption.
2. The preferred Adventist lifestyle, based on vegetarianism and healthful living, provides more common ground for dialogue with Hindus who, for the most part, are vegetarians. Often the Christian practice of adopting Western culture and its habits of eating and drinking sets up a negative barrier to communication. A witness, faithful to the biblical values, will be readily heard among Hindus.
3. The Hindu doctrine of nonviolence gives a perfect background to teach Jesus’ way of being selfless and loving one’s neighbor—so uniquely given in the Sermon on the Mount.
4. Every human being suffers from guilt and inner unhappiness. What better opportunity to speak of Jesus, who offers eternal happiness and rest from guilt?
The uniqueness of Jesus should be emphasized and preached, not as a philosophical battle to be won but rather as a way open to all people. He is the Lord of all men and women everywhere. He is the Light that lightens the entire universe. His promise has no limitation, and His gift is free. His invitation is universal: “ ‘Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light’ ” (Matt. 11:28–30).
The invitation of Jesus is open to all without respect to nationality, language, color, caste, or tribe. The Christian has the privilege of extending that invitation to all so that the gentle and loving Jesus may indeed provide freedom from sin and assurance of eternal life.
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1. All scripture passages in this article, unless otherwise
noted, are from the New King James Version.
2. Mahatma K. Gandhi, quoted in William W. Emilsen, ed.,
Gandhi’s Bible (Delhi: ISPCK, 2001), v.
3. Sidney J. Harris, quoted in John C. Maxwell, Be a People
Person, 2nd ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2007),
4. Swami Abhedananda, Doctrine of Karma (Calcutta:
Ramakrishna Vedanta Math, 1989), 14, 15.
5. The Bhagavad Gita, tr. Juan Mascaró (Middlesex, England:
Penguin Books, 1962), 3:19.
6. Chart information from the following sources: Thomas Berry,
Religions of India (New York: Bruce Publishing, 1971); Josh
McDowell and Don Stewart, Handbook of Today’s Religions
(Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983);
S. Radhakrishnan, East and West: The End of Their
Separation (New York: Allen & Unwin, 1954); Thomas
Samuel, Bible Speaks to Hindus (Bangalore: Quiet Corner
Ministries, 1988); and Ed Viswanathan, Am I a Hindu?
(Noida, India: Rupa & Co., 2005).