Also See Faith and The Bible...
Whether you are aware of it or not, faith plays a huge part in many, if not most religions of the world, including Hinduism. However, faith can mean two different things. It can mean reasonable trust based on evidence. On the other hand, faith can also mean trust or belief without evidence, or contrary to evidence.
Part One: Background
Part Two: Specific Suggestions
Of the 760-800 million Hindus in the world, approximately one million reside in the United States. In Part Two of this article, we will offer specific pointers on witnessing to Hindus. But first it is important for readers to have some understanding of the historical and philosophical background of Hinduism, and that is what this installment will provide.
The origins of Hinduism can be traced back to the polytheistic and ritualistic religions that began around 1500 B.C. in India’s Indus Valley. At first, the rituals were so simple that fathers could perform them. As the centuries passed, however, they became increasingly complex. This made it necessary to create a class of priests specially trained to perform the intricate rituals correctly, because the consequences for incorrectly performing a ritual were considered costly. During this time, the Hindu scriptures known as the Vedas were written to instruct the priests in how to conduct the rituals.
Also See The Ancient Origins of Hinduism
Because of how exclusive the priests became in appeasing the gods, they gained a power over the people that became unbearable. Around 600 B.C., the people revolted, and the form of Hinduism that emerged was more mystically oriented, focusing on the individual rather than the priest.
Between 800 and 300 B.C. the Upanishads were written. They expound on the idea that behind the many gods stands one Reality, called Brahman — an impersonal, monistic (“all is one”) force. The highest form of Brahman is nirguna (“without attributes or qualities”).
The Hindu concept of God continued to develop even after the Upanishads were written. Nirguna Brahman became saguna Brahman, which is Brahman “with attributes,” and is called Ishvara.
According to Hindu tradition, Ishvara became known to humanity through the Trimurti (“three manifestations”) of Brahman. Those manifestations include Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Preserver), and Shiva (the Destroyer). Ishvara became personified even further through the ten mythical incarnations, or avatars, of Vishnu in the forms of both animals and persons. Beyond the principal deities of the Trimurti, it is estimated that there are 330 million other gods in Hinduism (Halverson, 87-89).
Hinduism is amazing in its diversity and in its ability to absorb such a diversity into one belief system. Such diversity can cause interesting situations, such as when that religion is transported to another country like the United States. For example, it was reported in Hinduism Today, “In Nashville, Hindus building a temple sent out a ballot to decide which would be the central Deity, since there [were] worshipers of Kali, Krishna and Shiva in their area. It was democratically voted to choose Lord Ganesha” (Melwani).
One of the ways in which Hinduism is divided is according to their varied views on how the universe is related to ultimate reality (Brahman). The nondualists (advaita) see Brahman alone as being real and the world as illusory (maya). The qualified nondualists (vishishtadvaita) affirm the reality of both Brahman and the universe in that the universe is extended from the Being of Brahman. And the dualists (dvaita) see Brahman and the universe as being two distinct realities.
While Hinduism is certainly diverse, most Hindus hold to the following beliefs:
The Impersonal Nature of Brahman. Hindus see ultimate reality, Brahman, as being an impersonal oneness that is beyond all distinctions, including personal and moral distinctions.
The Brahman-Atman Unity. Hindus believe they are, in their true selves (atman), extended from, and one with, Brahman. Just as the air inside an open jar is identical to the air surrounding that jar, so our essence is identical to that of the essence of Brahman.
The Problem Is Ignorance. Humanity’s primary problem is that we are ignorant of our divine nature. We have forgotten that we are extended from Brahman, and we have mistakenly attached ourselves to the desires of our separate selves, or egos, and thereby to the consequences of their resultant actions as determined by the law of karma (cause and effect).
Samsara (Reincarnation). Samsara refers to the ever-revolving wheel of life, death, and rebirth. Through the law of karma we are reaping in this lifetime the consequences of the actions we committed in previous lifetimes. A person’s karma determines the kind of body — ranging from human to insect — into which he or she will be reincarnated in the next lifetime.
Moksha (Liberation). The solution to the problem of attachment and karma is moksha — to be liberated from the wheel of life, death, and rebirth. This can only occur when we truly realize that our separate self is actually an illusion and that only the undifferentiated oneness of Brahman is real. We must therefore strive to detach ourselves from the desires and actions of our ego in order to attain true enlightenment.
Dean C. Halverson is world religions specialist for International Students, Inc., and Natun Bhattacharya, a former Hindu, is the director of support and development for international trainers with Mission Training International.
Halverson, Dean, ed. The Compact Guide to World Religions. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1996.
Melwani, Lavina. “Stirring Up the Melting Pot,” Hinduism Today. Kapaa, HI: Himalayan Academy, March 1998.
American Christians who take the Great Commission seriously cannot afford to ignore Hinduism. Not only are one million of its roughly eight million adherents living in the United States, but the beliefs and practices of Hinduism (e.g., pantheism, reincarnation, and yoga) have deeply penetrated Western culture. In Part One we provided necessary background information for understanding Hindus. Now we offer six specific suggestions that will help facilitate meaningful dialogue with them.
1. Ask and Listen. Hinduism is a vastly diverse religion in which adherents share similar beliefs but do not have a common doctrinal creed. As such, it is in some respects a tolerant religion, allowing some latitude for individual Hindus to choose their own set of beliefs.
Don’t assume, therefore, that you know what your Hindu friend believes. Ask questions about his or her beliefs concerning God, man, sin, and salvation, and listen carefully to the answers. Listen closely to the way your Hindu friend describes the way to enlightenment. He or she might use words such as “achieve,” “attain,” “overcome,” and “strive.” Such expressions are significant because they reveal how enlightenment — the Hindu equivalent of salvation — is based on human effort, and not on God’s grace. After your friend has used such words, you might discuss passages such as Romans 3:19-24 and Ephesians 2:8-9, which speak of the futility of attempting to earn one’s salvation and of how salvation is a gift from God to be received by faith.
2. Be Aware of Differing Definitions. Be aware of biblical terminology or concepts Hindus might misunderstand. For example, Hindus understand being “born again” as referring to reincarnation, a bondage from which they are striving to be liberated. In Christian terminology, however, being “born again” means to be made new or to be regenerated by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. It is something to be desired.
3. Offer Jesus’ Forgiveness. Bakht Singh, a convert from Hinduism and an Indian evangelist, once said, “I have never yet failed to get a hearing if I talk to [Hindus] about forgiveness of sins and peace and rest in your heart” (Hesselgrave, 169). Forgiveness is certainly a need for Hindus because it is not available in their karma-based belief system. The law of karma is like a law of nature — every cause has its effect and there is no place for mercy. The fact that forgiveness is not available in Hinduism troubles many Hindus, for they are aware that the actions that bind them to this illusory realm keep accumulating, and the prospect of escape is hopelessly remote.
One biblical passage that is good to use is Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” The people that Jesus had in mind when He spoke these words were those who felt burdened by the impossibility of attaining salvation through their own efforts.
4. Keep God’s Personal Nature in Mind. When discussing your beliefs and those of your Hindu friend, always keep God’s personal nature in mind. Here are three examples that show how this is relevant.
First, the image of a personal God will help you find ways to communicate the Christian perspective on spiritual issues. Consider, for instance, illustrating the various aspects of sin through the image of a personal God:
What is the meaning of sin? Sin is the breaking of a moral law: ultimately it is rejecting and rebelling against a personal God. Why? Because only persons — not impersonal forces such as Brahman — are able to make moral distinctions. Only a God who is by nature personal is sufficient to sustain the foundation necessary for moral law to have validity.
What are the consequences of sin? Even on the human level, we are aware that sin breaks relationships.
How can sin be resolved? Through confession and forgiveness. Forgiveness is possible only in the context of God being personal, for only persons are capable of forgiving. Brahman, an impersonal oneness, is incapable of forgiving.
Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, where the son turned his back on his father and severed their relationship (Luke 15:11-32), is an excellent illustration of the personal nature of God. Furthermore, this parable is certainly useful in explaining the meaning of sin and forgiveness to Hindus.
Second, the fact that God is personal has implications for the destiny of the individual after death. To “know” the impersonal Brahman of Hinduism is to merge into the oneness of Brahman and to lose one’s identity as a distinct and separate individual. There is a drive within each of us, however, that makes us want to cling to our existence as personal beings with all our might. Is your Hindu friend really willing to stand by his or her belief that such a drive is nothing more than the ignorance of our separatistic egos? Moreover, is it not true that we are most fulfilled as persons when we are in a friendship or love relationship? Since that is where we are most fulfilled, think of how much greater our fulfillment is when we are in fellowship with a personal, holy, and loving God! Such a fulfilling relationship is precisely what the God of the Bible offers, and it’s a relationship that will last for eternity (see John 14:2-3; 17:3; Rev. 21:3).
In the parable of the prodigal son, the father longed to be reunited with his son in the same way that God longs to be in a relationship with us. Ask your Hindu friend, “How does it make you feel when you know that someone – a father, a mother, a spouse – longs to be in a relationship with you?” Then ask, “Is your concept of God able to sustain such a love?”
Third, probably the most common Hindu objection to Christianity concerns the Christian belief that there is only one way to God. Hindus believe that each person can choose whatever way is best suited for him or her. Why is that? Because most Hindus see Ultimate Reality – Brahman – as being an undifferentiated oneness. If such a view of God were true, then it would follow that there are many ways to God, because God would be an underlying force, then sin is nothing more than a matter of ignorance; it carries no real consequences with respect to our relationship with God, for it would not be possible for us to sever our connection to such a source.
By way of a response, if God is by nature personal, then the issues of knowing God are different from those of “knowing” an impersonal, indifferentiated force. With a personal God, the issues are similar to those of relating to a friend, a parent, or a spouse. Such relationships involve issues of morality and trust. If the morality and trust that underlie any relationship are broken, then that relationship will be broken. Sexual infidelity, for example, will break a marriage relationship. The implication of such a truth is that sin carries real consequences. It breaks our relationship with God.
If our primary problem is that we have broken our relationship with the Person of God, we can understand why there is only one way to God. Consider this question: How many ways are there to restore a relationship that you are responsible for having broken?
There is only one way, and it involves confessing your guilt and receiving forgiveness. Salvation is a matter of reconciliation, and this reconciliation was historically mad: possible through the death of Christ on the cross (2 Cor. 5:18-19; Eph 2: l2-l6). It is the restoration of a previously broken relationship.
5. The Objection That “Jesus Christ Is Not Unique.” The Hindus see their gods and avatars (incarnations) as manifestations of the impersonal Brahman. These manifestations come through Vishnu, the preserver deity. Hindus view Jesus as merely one of a number of avatars. Your Hindu friend might be wiling to incorporate Jesus into his or her pantheon, but would not be willing to accept Jesus as the exclusive incarnation of God.
Is the incarnation of Jesus really the same as Vishnu’s incarnations? Consider the differences.