Comparing Christianity & Hinduism
There are two basic kinds of religions in the world: Eastern and Western.
The main differences between Hinduism and Christianity are typical of the differences between Eastern and Western religions in general. Here are some examples:
- Hinduism is pantheistic, not theistic. The doctrine that God created the world out of nothing rather than emanating it out of His own substance or merely shaping some pre-existing material is an idea that simply never occurred to anyone but the Jews and those who learned it from them. Everyone else either thought of the gods as part of the world (paganism) or the world as part of God (pantheism).
- If God is in everything, God is in both good and evil. But then there is no absolute morality, no divine law, no divine will discriminating good and evil. In Hinduism, morality is practical; its end is to purify the soul from desires so that it can attain mystical consciousness. Again, the Jews are unique in identifying the source of morality with the object of religion. Everyone has two innate senses: the religious sense to worship, and the moral sense of conscience; but only the Jewish God is the focus of both. Only the God of the Bible is absolutely righteous.
- Eastern religions come from private mystical experiences; Western religions come from public revelations recorded in a book and summarized in a creed. In the East, human experience validates the Scriptures; in the West, Scripture judges experience.
- Eastern religions are esoteric, understandable only from within by the few who share the experience. Western religions are esoteric, public, democratic, open to all. In Hinduism there are many levels of truth: polytheism, sacred cows and reincarnation for the masses; monotheism (or monism) for the mystics, who declare the individual soul one with Brahman (God) and beyond reincarnation ("Brahman is the only reincarnator"). Truth is relative to the level of experience.
- Individuality is illusion according to Eastern mysticism. Not that we're not real, but that we are not distinct from God or each other. Christianity tells you to love your neighbors; Hinduism tells you you are your neighbors. The word spoken by God Himself as His own essential name, the word "I," is the ultimate illusion, not the ultimate reality, according to the East. There is no separate ego. All is one.
- Since individuality is illusion, so is free will. If free will is illusion, so is sin. And if sin is illusion, so is hell. Perhaps the strongest attraction of Eastern religions is in their denial of sin, guilt and hell.
- Thus the two essential points of Christianity—sin and salvation—are both missing in the East. If there is no sin, no salvation is needed, only enlightenment. We need not be born again; rather, we must merely wake up to our innate divinity. If I am part of God, I can never really be alienated from God by sin.
- Body, matter, history and time itself are not independently real, according to Hinduism. Mystical experience lifts the spirit out of time and the world. In contrast, Judaism and Christianity are essentially news, events in time: creation, providence, prophets, Messiah, incarnation, death and, resurrection, ascension, second coming. Incarnation and New Birth are eternity dramatically entering time. Eastern religions are not dramatic.
- The ultimate Hindu ideal is not sanctity but mysticism. Sanctity is fundamentally a matter of the will: willing God's will, loving God and neighbor. Mysticism is fundamentally a matter of intellect, intuition, consciousness. This fits the Eastern picture of God as consciousness—not will, not lawgiver.
When C.S. Lewis was converted from atheism, he shopped around in the world's religious supermarket and narrowed his choice down to Hinduism or Christianity. Religions are like soups, he said. Some, like consomme, are thin and clear (Unitarianism, Confucianism, modern Judaism); others, like minestrone, are thick and dark (paganism, "mystery religions"). Only Hinduism and Christianity are both "thin" (philosophical) and "thick" (sacramental and mysterious). But Hinduism is really two religions: "thick" for the masses, "thin" for the sages. Only Christianity is both.
Hinduism claims that all other religions are yogas: ways, deeds, paths. Christianity is a form of bhakti yoga (yoga for emotional types and lovers). There is also jnana yoga (yoga for intellectuals), raja yoga (yoga for experimenters), karma yoga (yoga for workers, practical people) and hatha yoga (the physical preliminary to the other four). For Hindus, religions are human roads up the divine mountain to enlightenment-religion is relative to human need; there is no "one way" or single objective truth.
There is, however, a universal subjective truth about human nature: It has "four wants": pleasure, power, altruism and enlightenment. Hinduism encourages us to try all four paths, confident that only the fourth brings fulfillment. If there is reincarnation and if there is no hell, Hindus can afford to be patient and to learn the long, hard way: by experience rather than by faith and revelation.
Hindus are hard to dialogue with for the opposite reason Moslems are: Moslems are very intolerant, Hindus are very tolerant. Nothing is false; everything is true in a way.
The summit of Hinduism is the mystical experience, called mukti, or moksha: "liberation" from the illusion of finitude, realization that tat tvam asi, "thou art That (Brahman]." At the center of your being is not individual ego but Atman, universal self which is identical with Brahman, the All.
This sounds like the most absurd and blasphemous thing one could say: that I am God. But it is not that I, John Smith, am God the Father Almighty. Atman is not ego and Brahman is not God the Father. Hinduism identifies not the immanent human self with the transcendent divine self but the transcendent human self with the immanent divine self. It is not Christianity. But neither is it idiocy.
Martin Buber, in "I and Thou," suggests that Hindu mysticism is the profound experience of the "original pre-biographical unity" of the self, beneath all forms and contents brought to it by experience, but confused with God. Even Aristotle said that "the soul is, in a way, all things." Hinduism construes this "way" as identity, or inclusion, rather than knowing: being all things substantially rather than mentally. The soul is a mirror for the whole world.
From Fundamentals of the Faith by Ignatius Press.
Course: Essentials of Hinduism
Lecture: Christianity and Hinduism
I want to take time in the concluding moments that we have and talk about Christianity and Hinduism. I think it is actually quite important and significant as Christians to reflect on what all of this means and how we can have a better impact on India.
SEVEN CONTRASTS BETWEEN CHRISTIANITY AND HINDUISM
I want to begin by being very clear about what I believe to be the seven major contrasts between Christianity and Hinduism and then talk about ways in which people have tried to model Christian witness in the Indian context. I want to end these lectures by focusing quite a bit on the Christian response to Hinduism. I will begin with noting the seven major differences between Christianity and Hinduism.
KNOWABILITY OF GOD
The first is the relational nature and knowability of God. The hallmark of the Christian faith is that God is relational and that he is knowable. This is rooted in the doctrine of the Trinity because the Trinity tells us that even before the creation of the world, God was a relational being. God had relationship even among Himself in the Holy Trinity. Not only does God know, but God desires to be known. Therefore, God by nature is a relational God. We believe that He has revealed Himself in Scripture. That means He is knowable. He has revealed truths about Himself. Indeed, He has revealed Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. This is not something that you have dominant in the Hindu context. The Bible says, “Whoever has seen me has seen The Father.” Paul talks about, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” This is not possible in Hinduism, where God is not known and no-one can make positive affirmations about God.
The second big difference that I want to point out between Hinduism and Christianity is the relationship between the Hindu and Christian conceptions of incarnation. We did not discuss this a lot in these summary lectures. But if you know Hinduism and you were attentive in our discussions about Vishnu and Shiva, especially Vishnu, there is great emphasis on how Vishnu has incarnated himself multiple times in multiple places. The Hindu term for this is “avatar.” It means “divine descent.” Many people have used this as a bridge to talk about the incarnation of Jesus Christ. However, I find this to be extremely difficult. I am a big believer in building bridges with Hindus. I do believe we need to do all we can to make the Gospel intelligible to Hindu ears. So, by default I am very sympathetic to fresh, new ideas about trying to communicate the Gospel to Hindus. My own doctoral work is in the area of “How the Gospel is communicated to Hindus.” But I do not believe that this comparison between Hindu avatar and the Christian incarnation can really take us where we want to go. There are so many major differences between avatar and incarnation, that I have found it is best to keep the two terms completely separate. For example, incarnation is once in the history of the world. It is one historic incarnation. In the avatar world, there are many incarnations, both human and non-human. There were many in the past and many more to come in the future. So, that is the problem I have with that.
I also do not like the fact that the incarnation does not allow for any mixing or blending of the divine human. It is two distinct natures united in one person. The natures are never confused; but yet they are united harmoniously in the one nature. Yet in the avatar there is a mixing or blending of the divine and human, so that you don’t really have a true human being. I think there are problems philosophically with it and theologically with it. According to the Bible, Jesus was sent as a free act of God’s grace. According to the doctrine of avatar, it is compelled by the necessity that occurs when a certain amount of accumulative karma builds up. I have difficulty with the doctrine of avatar as an easy comparison to the incarnation.
My third point of contrast between Hinduism and Christianity is in the doctrine of karma. According to the classic definition of karma, I think the bhakti movement shows why they find this to be so difficult to accept. In classic Hinduism, karma cannot be paid by another. There is no way that anyone can do something for you redemptively. There is no vicarious suffering. Every Hindu is responsible for working off his own karmic debt. Whereas, in the Bible Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world, Jesus paid the debt which we could never pay. That is the good news of the Gospel. Karma does not allow for that. There is a great gulf between the karma of Hinduism and the redemption found through our Lord Jesus Christ.
UNIQUENESS OF THE GOSPEL
The fourth major difference between Christianity and Hinduism is of course found in the uniqueness of the Gospel and the multiple paths of Hinduism. As we have seen in these lectures, Hinduism accepts many paths to God. It rejects the exclusivity. It does not ever reject the deity of Christ or any of the kind of classic doctrines of Christianity such as incarnation or the resurrection. Hindus have no problem with all of that. What they have difficulty with is Christ’s unique claim, which is found in John 10:1 and 7, John 14:6 or Acts 4:12 where Peter says, “There is salvation in no one else. There is no other name under all of heaven by which we must be saved.” Hinduism wants to reduce Christianity to a subjective experience. Christianity proclaims historic objective facts. Christ died on the cross for your sins. That is a fact to which we must respond. There are not multiple ways of salvation. Christ is the unique answer to the human dilemma. This is a major difference between Christianity and Hinduism.
The fifth big difference is that creation in Hinduism is not good. It lacks design, has no real purpose. In the Bible, we find that creation is the result of God’s great design. God called the heavens and the earth into being through his own spoken word. Each level, each part of creation has dignity. A bird has dignity because it is doing exactly what God created it to do. Not so in Hinduism. All of creation lives in this kind of iffy state of, “We’re not certain whether it is good or not and we’re not certain whether or not it is to be trusted.” Transmigration of souls, the atman, puts the entire creation – if you want to use the word “creation,” actually emanation, but the entire visible world – on a ranking ladder of increasing evil, from a man, all the way down to a woman. According to Hinduism, a woman is more evil than a tiger; a tiger more evil than a man; a Dalit is more evil than a Sudra; a Sudra more evil than a Brahmin, etc. A female more evil than a male, etc.
This is a terrible travesty because in the Bible, creation is not based on a ranking ladder. A worm has just as much dignity as a tiger, because a worm is doing exactly what God created it to do in God’s good order, as is the tiger, as is the man, etc. The idea of taking away God’s creative design, taking away God’s active principle of creating every facet of creation with dignity, is wrought by the Hindu worldview. Therefore, I find it incompatible.
The sixth of our seven contrasting points between Hinduism and Christianity is that transmigration, or reincarnation as it is sometimes called in the West, does not actually solve the problem of evil. According to the Hindus, transmigration is the great way that the problem of evil is solved. Let me explain. If we see a young child suffering, that is a problem for us because we see that the poor child, like a baby born with leukemia or with AIDS, didn’t do anything to deserve that; it represents an innocent sufferer. I realize that the child in Christian theology may be born in sin, etc. But in terms of this child’s volitional acts, the child in that sense cannot be blamed for his or her AIDS or whatever. Crack babies, you see all the time in the news.
This is not a problem in Hindu theology because according to Hinduism, anyone who is suffering is simply paying for the karma of a previous lifetime. Therefore, if you see even this child suffering, it is because they deserve it, from a previous lifetime. In that sense, they say transmigration solves the problem of evil. But I find that indeed, it does not.
First of all, transmigration is not a form of just punishment because no one remembers their past lives. So, is it right to punish people for deeds about which they have no knowledge? It is totally unjust to punish a child without first explaining to the child what they did wrong. It is the same with any court of law, that you are not sent to prison because of a crime that you are pronounced guilty of, and that is articulated clearly to the defendant. Transmigration assumes, as we saw earlier with the view of creation itself, that the entire world is here in a chain of evil. A worm is suffering a greater karmic death than a bird. Again, this is against Scripture because the Scripture does not accept the world as a chain of increasing evil or increasing good. Transmigration does not solve the problem of evil because it is based on the impersonal law of karma. It shuts the door on divine grace. Yet our lives are constantly enriched by acts of mercy, forgiveness and grace which we bestow on one another. Where would the world be without those things? There are just many problems with the doctrine of transmigration.
Finally, my seventh big difference is that salvation in Hinduism is not final. The schools of Hinduism reject any personal consciousness identified with the atman, so your personal knowledge is lost. That consciousness is again re-admitted in the next creation. Schools of Hinduism believe that the atman will eventually be manifested into the world system again, making the accumulation of karmic debt possible, and thus the need to be released from the wheel of samsara all over again. This makes salvation not definitive in Hinduism; whereas in Christianity we are told that we will dwell and reign with Him forever and ever (Revelation 22:5).
WITNESSING TO A HINDU
There are big differences between Christianity and Hinduism; and we need to recognize the importance of sharing this Gospel to the ends of the earth. In the full lectures, I also give a summary of five different models of how Christians witness in modern-day contemporary India. I will briefly summarize them here; but if you want the whole exposition of each of these, then you should definitely key into the full lectures of “Introduction to Hinduism.”
It is true to say that Christians have a witness to Jesus Christ in a wide variety of ways. One model I think is out there very prominently is what I call the “Pentecostal power encounter model.” This essentially pits the Gospel; it is like recreating the Mount Carmel analogy of the paradigm where you focus on Jesus’ healing and deliverance ministry. This is done very widely throughout India to promote the power of Christ over false idols.
Others present Christ as the perfect embodiment of “dharma.” Dharma is the word for teaching and so you have an emphasis on the life of Christ and his ethical teachings, because Indians are often very favorable to the teachings of Christ. Then of course at some point you have to make that transition to preach the Gospel of repentance and faith in the complete work of Christ on the cross.
Another well-known example is what I call “Jesus Christ, the liberator from oppressive structures.” There is a big movement to demonstrate how Christianity will help to liberate those that are disenfranchised by Hinduism. Even though Hinduism supposedly is 86 percent of India, if you think that only 8 percent are Brahmin, then most Hindus have actually been disenfranchised by the very religion they belong to. This model tends to emphasize how the Gospel truly liberates from oppressive structures. For example, in our community we have done a number of schools throughout India and these schools are helping to liberate people from ignorance, which Hinduism never would teach these people. Therefore, Jesus Christ is the liberator from oppressive structures.
Fourth, you find Jesus Christ the western savior. This is what I often jokingly refer to as “Jesus Christ in a three-piece suit.” You find a number of people who preach the Gospel in India using western forms, western cultural kind of presuppositions. The discourse is largely in English. As western church “techniques” are perceived in India, one has to ask, “Will this kind of foreign Jesus be effective in really communicating the Gospel to Hindus?”
Fifth and finally, Jesus Christ the unique logos made “sannyasin.” Sannyasin is a word for those who renounce the world. You often will find Jesus presented as a great Brahmin priest who has renounced the world, renounced everything and comes down as the bearer of the true philosophy. Of course, that may be very amenable to a Brahmin who wants to believe in Jesus, understand his tradition; but might be very, very difficult to be successful in communicating this to the average Indian.
These are some examples. I think it is all out there. India is the recipient of a lot of Krishna activity; therefore, we need to keep that in mind when we go into India. India has been exposed to a wide range of views regarding Christianity; and how we respond to them is largely tied to many, many great centuries of tradition that perhaps precede us and inform them in ways that we cannot imagine.
It is important to always be prayerful as we think and pray about India. It is one of the most diverse countries in the world with one of the greatest needs imaginable to bring the Christian Gospel to the people of India. I challenge you to prayerfully keep India before you in prayer and ask God to bless you and to help you to make a difference in bringing the glorious Gospel of Christ to the people of India.
Thank you very much.