Seeing Ourselves in Hinduism
Out of all the Eastern religions, Hinduism and it’s both/and mantra is possibly one of the more daunting religions for the West to understand. It tends to co-op ideas, beliefs and gods into itself instead of creating boundaries for its beliefs. Prothero writes that out of all the religions, “Hinduism is the least dogmatic and the most diverse. Rather than repelling new influences, Hindus are forever absorbing them” (134).
And yet oddly enough, Hindus have little difficulty grasping the West, as they see little incompatibility between their religion(s) and the logic and scientific approach that is engrained in the West.
Prothero continues that Hindus commonly claim that “Hinduism is a way of life” rather than a religion. Most Hindus are Hindu by birth and not conversion, much like Jews claim that they are Jews by birth. In fact, the very term “Hindu” was in reference to the people group that lived in the Indus River Valley. Hinduism (a European term that the Hindus had to accept while under colonization) is what Hindus think and what Hindus do; and Hindus do and think nearly anything and everything.
Some religions can be explained in a nice easy five point summary, but not Hinduism.
There’s really no doctrine in Hinduism, so there’s no concept for “heresy” or “blasphemy.” In fact, there’s really no such thing as Hinduism … it’s more properly “Hinduisms”, as “it” contains a myriad of gods and a myriad of ways of viewing those gods. Some Hindus believe there is one God, and all the others are his/her/its manifestations; other Hindus believe there are many gods, but one almighty God; while others think all the gods are equal; and still others think that the gods are just figments of our imagination.
FOUR LOOSE DENOMINATIONS OF HINDUISM
1. Vaishnavism: the worship of Vishnu, the sustainer, as the supreme god. We might be familiar with some of Vishnu’s avatars, such as Krishna (the main character in the Gita) or Rama. Vishnu has ten avatars, but only nine have appeared … maybe you’re the 10th!
2. Shaivism: the worship of Shiva (the destroyer god). Although he’s supposedly better at destroying, Shiva is also a benefactor whose nature is ambiguous and paradoxical. Thus, many who follow Shiva are philosophically dualists.
3. Shaktism: is the worship of the Mother Goddess, who is full of energy and creation. She is often seen as complementary to the male counterpart god, Shiva.
4. Smartism: the worshipping of manifold gods.
THE PROBLEMS ADDRESSED AND GOALS IN HINDUISM
Even though the “theologies” of the Hindu people are difficult if not impossible to study, there is some commonality in the problems that the Hindus see and the religious goals they have. The problem, like in Buddhism, is “samsara”, which is the vicious cycle of life, death and rebirth. The ultimate goal is “moksha”, or release from this endless cycle.
The goal of moksha can be accomplished through the “Jnana” (wisdom) path, which is where the ascetic essentially realizes that the “Atman” is “Brahman.” “Atman” is often translated as the soul of man. “Brahman” is the uncreated, deathless and immortal, and when we experientially realize that our Atman is indeed Brahman, we achieve liberation from the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth. In other words – back to my worldview word pictures that I mentioned in my first post – our drop of human soul must become one with the ocean.
Another path to moksha is through “bhakti” or devotion to a god or gods. Today, there are nearly a billion practicing Bhakti. It is an easier and more simply way than the “Jnana” path because it relies on the god’s mercy and not on your own seeking of wisdom through asceticism. Prothro writes, “There is no requirement to renounce job and family and social life (as with the Jnana path) … as wisdom takes a backseat to love, release from the fetters of karma comes as a gift, and it is given to men and women alike, and to people of all social ranks” (153).
A significant part of Hinduism is the caste system, which traditionally includes five ranks. In order of their importance, those ranks are as follows: Priests (brahman), Warriors (Kshatriyas), Merchants (Vaishyas), Servants (Shudras) and the Untouchables (Dhalitis). It is a person’s dharma (duty) to fulfill their role in society. The “Gita” is about dharma. The Prince Arjuna is to go to war with the his cousin, but he doesn’t want to. The Lord Krishna then encourages Arjuna that he must act as his role as prince and fulfill his dharma by engaging in warfare.
WHAT IS THE CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE ON HINDUISM?
That question is really the wrong question. There can’t be “the” Christian perspective because there isn’t one Hinduism. Farthermore, if the Hindus are correct and “Hinduism” is simply anything the Hindus believe, then it becomes even harder to have any Christian perspective. According to that definition of Hinduism, its then possible for Christianity to be Hinduism if a Hindu believes it to be true; but it wouldn’t be possible for a Western Anglo to be a Hindu.
Yet, there are major themes within Hinduism that find little acceptance within the Christian tradition. Traditionally, reincarnation was deemed a heresy by the Second Council of Constantinople in 533. Even if one entertains highly speculative interpretation paradigms, there’s little if any evidence for reincarnation in the biblical testimony.
SEEING MYSELF IN HINDUISM
Lesslie Newbigin was a missionary to India for 30 plus years, and came to realize, as he served in India, how much of his assumptions about the Gospel were culturally conditioned. He began to ask himself how he could analyze his Western culture the same way he had analyzed Hindu culture, thus the birthing of today’s missional paradigm.
Newbigin writes how Hindus willing “accept” and “worship” the Jesus of the foreign missionaries, but
the foreign missionary knows that this is not the conversion of India but the co-option of Jesus, the domestication of the gospel into the Hindu worldview. He only slowly begins to realize that the same thing has happened in the West. Jesus is understood in the light of the assumptions which control our culture. When ‘reason’ is invoked as a parallel or supplementary authority to ‘scripture’ and ‘tradition’, what is happening is that Jesus is being co-opted into the reigning plausibility structure. But the business of the missionary, and the business of the Christian Church in any situation, is to challenge the plausibility structure in the light of God’s revelation …” (Page 96).
Newbigin then asks, “How is this to be done?” If you want to know Newbigin’s answer, check out his book called, “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.”
But his challenge is one we should take personally. It’s easy for us to look at the syncretism of Hinduism and condemn it; yet, as Newbigin came to ask when he was away from Western culture, how much of our understanding of the Gospel is unknowingly syncretic with ideas that are foreign from the biblical paradigm?
And, how easy is it for us to condemn the plethora of gods for the Hindus, and I wonder how many gods I hold? We in West have gods of money, politics, success, etc. that in many cases are not only on par with Jesus, but in certain times in our life, worshiped higher than Christ.
If we look, we can see ourselves in Hinduism.