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Hinduism

autumn 2000

From nucleus - autumn 2000 - Hinduism [pp13-21]

What do Hindus believe? How should we respond to Hinduism? In this article Juge Ram answers these questions and explains how to reach Hindus with the gospel.

In terms of the number of adherents, Hinduism is the largest religion in Asia. It is India’s major faith, with 80% of the population being Hindu. In Great Britain the 1991 census revealed that there were 400,000 Hindus resident in this country. The figure today is probably a lot higher. Many of these people were born in Britain and speak English as their first language which presents us with a wonderful opportunity to share the gospel with them. God, in the providential working out of his plans, has brought the mission field right to our doorsteps.

Generally speaking the church has failed in its duty to reach Asians from the Indian continent. This may be because of fear, indifference or simply because we do not know how. However, Jesus Christ is the only means of salvation for our Hindu friends (Jn 14:6) and Jesus has commanded us to go into the world and ‘make disciples of all nations’ (Mt 28:19). Let us then look at Hinduism and consider how its adherents can be reached.

How did Hinduism develop?

Hinduism is the fusion of two belief systems. The Dravidian people were an ancient civilisation in what is now Pakistan who worshipped a host of goddesses. In approximately 2000BC, the Aryans, an Indo-European people, who worshipped male gods, invaded India and massacred much of the indigenous population. The Dravidians fled to the south of India. This is why the cultures of the north and south of India are very different today, and why generally the darker skinned (Dravidian) are in the south and the lighter skinned (Aryan) in the north. Over time these two peoples mingled and the beliefs of Hinduism were formed, with features of both original religions remaining. The word Hindu is a Persian word for ‘India’. There is no founder of Hinduism, no prophet and no clear-cut beginning.

What do Hindus believe?

Hinduism is very complex. There is no single body of doctrine, instead there is great diversity of belief and practice. Hindus cannot derive their belief system from the Hindu religious books in the same way we derive Christian doctrines from the Bible. If we tried to apply this method to Hinduism then we would not come to any clear conclusions. Everything in Hinduism is relative, there is no absolute right or wrong. Hinduism is very tolerant of other religions. Generally speaking, a Hindu may worship as many gods as he likes and can more or less believe anything and still be true to his faith.

In addition, the beliefs and practices of Hinduism may differ greatly from one period of history to another. Everything is continually evolving. However, there are a few main strands of doctrine that run throughout the whole of the religion. These are listed below.

a. Belief in Brahman

Hindus believe that there is one force, one ultimate reality, one God behind all other gods. This is called Brahman. Brahman is impersonal and is the cause and basis of all existence. In Brahman are found pure being (sat), pure intelligence (cit) and pure delight (ananda).

Brahman is absolute and cannot be known by humans. The only way Brahman can be considered is through the personal gods who are manifestations of the ultimate being. There are literally thousands of gods, which means there are thousands of expressions of worship.

b. Three principal gods

Hinduism is polytheistic in its practice. There are three principal gods, each with a female counterpart, who together correspond to the whole rhythm of the world. Brahma (don’t confuse him with Brahman) with his wife Sarasvati, is the Lord of creatures. Vishnu is the preserver who controls human fate and has been reincarnated many times, coming back as Rama, Krishna, Buddha and others. Vishnu has a female counterpart Lakshmi. Finally there is Shiva and his wife Kali who is the source of both good and evil. He is the destroyer and giver of life. He can be violent, has an unpredictable temper and has to be appeased by sacrifices.

Hinduism is full of superstitions. When things go wrong it is thought to be because the gods are displeased. A worshipper will go to the priest who takes money and gives instructions on what has to be done to put things right. People are in bondage to these gods and are kept from experiencing true liberty and worship.

c. The religious books

Hinduism is based on mythology. The sacred scriptures are small fragments of ancient history which are wrapped in a mass of legend. These books in their entirety are called the Vedas but are divided into three groups: the Veda, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavadgita. The contents of the Veda were gathered about 1200 BC, which makes it one of the oldest religious books. It contains about 1,000 hymns and priestly chants which are sung during the making of sacrifices. There are also prayers and a number of spells used in exorcisms. The Upanishads are concerned more with mysticism, individual piety and sacrificial rituals. They are dated later than the Veda. The writers of these books taught that the quest to discover Brahman should be a priority. They looked for this reality not only outside of themselves but also from within. The Upanishads teach that Brahman dwells within every heart and should be sought. Finally there is the Bhagavadgita which is popular with ordinary people because it presents religious truths in an easy story form.

d. The caste system

This was formed alongside Hinduism by the Aryans to prevent their people intermixing with the Dravidians. The caste system controls the way people marry, socialise and live in villages. Once a Hindu is born into a caste he cannot move up or down. The Aryans taught that there was a world soul in society consisting of the mouth, arms, legs and feet. The mouth was represented by the Aryans (Brahmins) who were able to worship god. The arms of the soul were the rulers (the Rajanya or Kshatryas), the legs were the land owners, merchants and bankers (Vaishyas) and, at the bottom, the feet were the servants and slaves (Shudras). This system has developed over time and these four main castes have divided and increased. It is estimated that there are over 3,000 castes in India today. Although the caste system is now outlawed in India it is still practised there and even affects the thinking of many Indians in this country.

e. Reincarnation and Karma

Hinduism sees life as a cycle of reincarnations from which we need release. A person may go through thousands of reincarnations, from being an ant to a human being. This is called Karma, the law of cause and effect. If a Hindu lives well then he or she will come back as a higher creature or in a higher caste, and the converse is also true.

What is the ultimate purpose or goal of life according to Hinduism?

Hinduism teaches that the material world is an illusion. Accordingly, Hindus believe that humans are in bondage to the cycle of reincarnation and to their bodies and its lusts. The goal of Hinduism is to seek escape from this bondage and to achieve union with the ultimate reality, that is, to become one with Brahman. This escape is called Moksha which means deliverance, emancipation or liberty. Hinduism teaches three basic ways to escape:

1. The way of action (Karma-marga)

This is the way of duty. Hindus live their lives according to their status in society. There are obligations to be met and tasks in life to perform.

2. The way of devotion (Bhakti-marga)

This is commitment to Brahman. This is the way most Hindus come. It is through worship, rituals, ceremonies, hymns and veneration of the gods.

3. The way of knowledge (Jnana-marga)

This is meditation and the suppression of desires. Yoga, discipline and mystical contemplation are used, as are Mantras. Ascetic practices are associated with this. Mantras are repeated until the worshipper is in a semi-hypnotic state and experiences oneness with the ultimate reality.

This, in a nutshell, is Hinduism. It is a man-made religion, based on human philosophy and mysticism. It has immense variety, even internal contradictions. To some Hindus everything living is god, a part of this impersonal being, and therefore they try never even to tread on a beetle. Others would kill and sacrifice animals. Some deny themselves worldly pleasure and will sleep on a bed of nails, while others live a life of comfort.

What danger does Hinduism pose?

The doctrinal flexibility of Hinduism has made it very popular and dangerous in the West. Christianity is seen to be narrow-minded and exclusive and is therefore very unpopular in a pluralistic and politically correct society. Many people in the west have replaced ‘resurrection’ and ‘judgement’ with ‘reincarnation’ and ‘karma’ in their thinking about spiritual issues. The New Age movement teaches ‘monism’; the idea that all is one. Meditation and mantras are offered as ways to relieve stress in today’s world. People are being told that they can be like God, repeating Satan’s deception of Eve in Genesis 3:5. The only solution is to share the gospel with our Hindu friends and to bring them out of darkness and into God’s marvellous light.

Understanding Hindu culture

If we want to share the gospel with Hindus then we must understand how the Hindu mind functions. This is not essential in bringing them to salvation because ultimately it is God who saves through his Word and Spirit, but it can be helpful to know and bear in mind some of the points which follow.

It is also important to realise that some of the British Asians you many encounter in the medical profession may have a different outlook from their parents or from those doctors who are from India. Some may live as Hindus at home in their Indian environment, but outside the home they may have a more Western approach to life. This may cause an identity crisis. In recent years, however, there has been a revival in Asian culture. Bhangra music and the Bollywood film industry are a big hit with young people and many are proud of their culture.

The following points are basic to Hindu culture:

a. The importance of people

In the West everything is controlled by time, in the East everything is controlled by events and people. If there is a funeral or wedding everything stops in India; people don’t go to work and children take leave from school. People and events take priority. This is evident during hospital visiting times. The usual rules about having only two visitors to a bed are frequently broken by Asian communities. If you visit an Asian home, you will find that you are received warmly. Inconvenience or disruption is no problem. Food is always ready to be served. Asian people often find Westerners impersonal and too individualistic.

People are valued in the Bible and hospitality is encouraged. This is something all Christians need to learn, especially when witnessing to Hindus. The problem with such an emphasis on community comes when a Hindu turns to Christ. Then, it is not just one person who may turn against him, it could be a whole community.

b. The importance of family

Family life is very important to all Asians. There are close links with the extended family. A marriage is not only the coming together of two individuals but of two families. Parents have considerable control over children, even married ones. Family ties can have advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes when one person becomes a Christian, they become a living witness to the family and the gospel spreads like fire. Other times it can cause problems. For the converted Hindu there may well be a clash between Christ and the family. This is particularly a problem with girls. The family may tolerate her faith as long as it does not bring shame on the family. If it does then the pressure piles up.

c. The importance of izzat or honour

This is very important for Asians. The family and community see izzat, honour as essential to their well being. Anything that goes against honour is to be feared. Any deviation from the norm, including converting to Christianity, brings disgrace and shame on the family and their honour is destroyed.

Of course honour is good and healthy, but there is often more emphasis on external appearances than on inward integrity. Even if a Hindu’s life is a mess, he must maintain izzat by keeping his problems hidden from the public arena. That is why sometimes when a child runs away or marries outside their caste or race, a father may feel too ashamed to mix with friends and family; his izzat has been taken.

It is important to teach converts to Christianity to be a witness in their home through practical demonstration of their new beliefs. A Christian cannot take part in any Hindu practices but should be more hardworking, more caring and more honest in order to win their family to Christ. They should not normally be encouraged to leave the home unless their life is in danger or they are thrown out.

d. The importance of work and social status

Most Asian parents are concerned that their children progress to higher education. Hindus like to be seen to be climbing up the social ladder and making progress in life. Whilst work is good and there is nothing wrong with progress, the love of money is the root of all evil and this can be a great problem.

The pursuit of success often becomes the ultimate purpose of an Asian’s life, work becomes a god and meaning is derived from works. This can make it difficult for Asian people to accept God’s grace as a free gift and to understand that our worth is based not on what we do but rather, on God’s love for us.

How do we witness to Hindus?

a. Make friends and visit neighbours

Look for opportunities for making friends. Doctors from India may feel isolated or have difficulties knowing how things operate. If whole families come to this country from India, then the wife is often at home all day alone with the children and may need friendship and assistance adjusting to a new culture. Help where you can and try to get into homes. It may be a long and slow process, but this is one of the most successful ways of bringing Hindus to the Lord. Women should visit women and men should visit men. We need to win their trust and demonstrate practical Christianity to them.

Invite your Hindu friends to special occasions such as children’s birthdays or anniversaries and use these opportunities to share the gospel. For example, before lighting the candles at a birthday, share something from the Bible, remembering to keep it brief. They will only come if they know you well.

b. Present the gospel in their language

Our local churches need to demonstrate a concern for the Hindus in their communities. If there is a large Asian community and they cannot speak English they need to hear the gospel in their own language. This can be done by having Christian literature in appropriate languages. Scripture Gift Mission produce tracts in and Kitab Oriental and Asian Booksellers produce many Christian books in several Asian languages (see resources section below). The church may consider including books in Asian languages in Christian bookshops or bookstalls at local events. If you have special services and there is a large group of Asians in your area you may wish to produce invitations in their language.

From time to time churches can have a bilingual service or an Asian evening. If necessary a weekly bi-lingual service can be commenced on a Sunday afternoon. This may mean that the church will have to employ an Asian worker. This work should be kept under the control of the church so that in the future integration will be easier. In addition, cassettes can be a useful resource. A bilingual sermon or a recording of the Bible in their own language can be a powerful tool if you cannot communicate with your Hindu neighbour.

c. Be aware of cultural differences

When speaking to Indians remember to be careful in approaching people of the opposite sex. Normally in temples or in the home, men and women visitors sit separately. Men must not shake hands with women or women with men, unless you have known them over a period of time and know they feel comfortable doing this. This may not be such a problem amongst younger people, but the older generation is very reserved.

Dress is important. Most Indians are shocked at Britain’s permissive society. They think all British people are Christians which may lead to a low view of Christianity. They need to hear and see the real gospel lived out. A woman who wants to be a witness to her Asian friends should not wear mini-skirts or other revealing clothing.

d. Do not degrade the Hindu religion

Hinduism is a false religion, but if you attack what they have valued all their lives they will not listen to you. It is better to ask questions about their religion and for them to see the folly of it themselves. Remember that most Asians are religious, so your starting point may not be the existence of God but rather who is this God? How can I get right with him?

e. Don’t be fooled simply because they show some interest

Hindus are very polite and may give you the impression that they are listening and interested. They will not condemn your belief because they believe there are many ways to God. You must not be fooled by this and think that because they agree they are genuinely interested. Many will say they believe in Christ, they may even speak of repentance, but you may discover that they will continue to worship other gods. It must be made clear to them that a clean break needs to be made from Hinduism.

f. Teach from the Bible

Use the Bible when witnessing. Read it with them and point out how relevant it is to our lives. Treat the Bible with respect, never put it on the floor. Give Hindu people a copy of the New Testament in their own language if they cannot read English.

Realise that many of the words you use such as ‘sin’ and ‘salvation’ may have different meanings in their religion. Do not try to explain these terms through Hindu concepts but rather through a simple biblical framework. Over-contexualising the message can be very dangerous because you may reduce the gospel to a Hindu framework, rather than a biblical one.

Biblical and other illustrations can be helpful to convey our message, as long as they stay within the biblical framework. For example, to explain sin, take them through the parable of the Prodigal Son and tell them that sin is rebellion towards God who is like the father in the story.

What should we say to Hindus?

a. Man has a separate identity from God

Hindus teach that God is everywhere and exists in all things. Christians can explain that we are separate from God, but can know him through one mediator the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Tim 2:5).

b. The Bible is God’s Word

There are a number of Hindu Scriptures, but none have any final authority. Hindus do not refer to books for guidance, they depend on priests to interpret them. Christians can explain that there is unity in the Bible. It has final authority. It is God’s word, inspired by the Holy Spirit, which addresses the spiritual needs of men (2 Tim 3:16).

c. God is pure

The Hindu Scriptures portray the gods as fallible beings. They sometimes are cruel and have to be appeased by sacrifices. Christians can speak of the purity and holiness of our God who is just and loving (1 Pet 1:18-21).

d. God reaches out to man

Hindus believe they must struggle in life to bring themselves into union with God. They believe that good deeds lead them nearer to that state. Christians can tell them that nothing we do can please God. Jesus died on the cross to save us from the consequences of our sin and to give eternal life to those who trust Christ and repent (Rom 3:23 ; Eph 2:8-9 ; Rom 12:1).

e. We have one life on earth

Hindus believe in reincarnation. Christians can explain that we only have one life and after that we face judgment. Those that trust Christ will be with the Lord. Those who do not are condemned to Hell. There is no second chance (Heb 9:27).

f. Christ is unique

Hindus believe all ways lead to God. They even admire Jesus as a great teacher and treat him like another god. We must be clear in telling Hindus that to come to Christ is to forsake all other gods. When we speak to Hindus, at some point we will have to tell them that the only way to God is though Christ. There is no other way (Jn 14:6).

Being confident in reaching Hindus

Finally, let us be encouraged to have great confidence in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God promised Abraham that all the nations would be blessed through him (Gn 12:3). The Lord Jesus Christ instructed his followers to go and ‘make disciples of all nations’(Mt 28:19). God will bring people into his Kingdom from every tribe, tongue and nation. We have the privilege of being involved in God’s great work.

Let us be confident and zealous because we have a treasure to share, a ‘pearl of great price’(Mt 13:46). Hindus are lost and spiritually blind. They are without hope in this world and in the next. Only Christ can release them. Let us share the gospel with them with great humility but also with great confidence, knowing that the gospel is the ‘power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes’(Rom 1:16).

Further reading

  1. Sookhdeo P (ed). Sharing Good News. London: Scripture Union, 1991
  2. Menon V. Only One Way. Chichester: New Wine Press, 1982
  3. Various authors. The World’s Religions. Herts: Lions Publishing plc, 1982
  4. Zaehner R. Hinduism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975
  5. Hinnells R, Sharpe E (eds). Hinduism. Newcastle upon Tyne: Oriel Press, 1972
  6. Ram J. Growing in Grace and Knowledge. Birmingham: Kirpa Books, 1999

Resources

Article written by Juge Ram

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  • Career Choices
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  • Know Your Bible 34
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