Hinduism is indeed a shoreless sea. It includes within itself everything from the highest and most abstract philosophy down to the crudest superstition. And this does not in any way disturb the average thoughtful Hindu—it is to him evidence of the largeness and splendor of the religious system to which he gives his allegiance.
To all Hindus, the scriptures of highest authority are the four Vedas. These, which are among the most ancient of all literary monuments (older than Homer, and about of the same age as the Song of Deborah in the Old Testament), were the product of that lively and vigorous people, the Aryans, at the time of their first invasion of India. Yet, though they possess such unquestioned authority for the Hindu, they are mainly concerned with gods whom no one any longer worships—Varuna the outspread heaven, Agni the sacred fire, Ushas (Aurora) the dawn—and they contain not a trace of any of the most characteristic doctrines of later Hinduism. Then follow the immensely complicated ritual rules of the Brahmanas, the foundation of much of the ritual that is still practiced in classical Hinduism today. Next come the Upanishads, marking the beginning of critical philosophy, and that understanding of the world that is summed up in the saying Tat tvam asi, “that art thou,” the soul in man is the same as the soul of the universe; separate existence is an illusion from which man needs to be freed. There follows the whole range of the bhakti-forms of Hinduism, in which the worshiper chooses one of the many gods as the object of his special and devoted adoration and finds release through this worship. At one side are the Tantric rites, glorifications of the powers of fertility in nature, which by Western standards are gross and immoral in the extreme. There are the animistic beliefs and practices of the village dwellers, largely taken up with the propitiation of evil spirits. All this is to be included under the comprehensive term “Hinduism.”
Can we then discern any particular doctrine, the following of which will make a man a Hindu, as belief in Jesus Christ will make a man a Christian? The official answer is, No. If a man has been born in a Hindu caste and has not separated himself from it, if on the whole he observes its rules and the minimum practices of worship, no one can deny to him the name of Hindu and any privileges that may go with it.
THE ACCEPTANCE OF KARMA
But, in point of fact, there is one basic belief that runs through almost every form of Hinduism and is so nearly universal that it may be taken almost as the sign-manual of a creed. This is the belief in Karma, retribution, and the endless transmigration of souls from one life to another in this world. All action tends to tie the soul to the wheel of existence. Evil action creates a debt which must be paid; if it cannot be paid off in this life, then it must be worked off in another life; and the soul is tied to separate existence until every debt is paid. Forgiveness is impossible. If it were possible, it would be immoral, since not even God must interfere with the rta, the established moral order of the world on which all depends. To the Hindu this truth is self-evident; it is the explanation for all the suffering and inequality in the world. If it tends to a fatalistic attitude to life—things are what they are as the consequences of an unknown past and are therefore unchangeable—at the same time it gives men a quiet courage and resignation in the face of misfortune that are admirable.
We must first pay tribute to the strength and excellences of the Hindu way of life. Every man has a status in society which is determined for him by his caste. He has duties to perform and a close-knit community on which he can depend for mutual help and service. Religion is linked to his life at every point, by the recurring festivals, by the minute regulation of custom as to what he shall eat and what he shall wear—all related to religious sanctions. The West may object to the crippling of individual effort that results from the caste system and the exclusion of the so-called untouchables from every kind of privilege. (Untouchability has now been abolished by law, though in practice things in the villages remain much as they were.) The Hindu can point to the extraordinary stability of a society which has survived two thousand years of change, invasion, occupation by hostile powers, and yet remains essentially what it was before the Christian faith was born.
ENCOUNTERING THE GOSPEL
When Hinduism first encountered the Gospel, there were two sharply differing reactions. On the one hand, there were those, such as the reformers Ram Mohan Roy and Keshab Chunder Sen, who accorded delighted welcome to almost everything in the teaching of Jesus, believed that the regeneration of India could come about only through the acceptance of Christian ideas, but never felt it necessary to join a church or cease to be Hindus. The other attitude was that of vigorous and definite rejection of everything that came from the West. Both these attitudes can still be observed and are widespread among Hindus. But the syncretistic tendencies of Hinduism and the ease with which it can absorb elements from outside itself have made a certain amount of toleration for Christian ideas natural among educated Indians, and have led many to adopt without discomfort or sense of contradiction Christian views which are hardly compatible with Hindu principles as these have been understood in the past.
A notable exponent of this tolerant and in part welcoming attitude is Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, at the time of writing vice-president of the Indian Republic, and formerly professor of Eastern religions at Oxford. He has a wide acquaintance with philosophical thought in all its forms, and is well acquainted both with the Bible and with the writings of well-known Christian theologians of the West.
His starting point is that the ultimate reality is beyond the reach of man’s knowledge. No religious system can therefore claim to be unique, final, and complete; but value is not to be denied to any of the religious systems in which man has sought to find peace and harmony with the universe. All religions should engage in a common search for truth, in the spirit of fellowship and without mutual condemnation. To say that all religions have value is not to say that all are of equal value. We may, in fact, tentatively draw up a kind of hierarchical order. At the top will come those forms of faith which recognize that the supreme reality is ultimately impersonal and unknowable. Here the finest example yet known to us is that of classical Hindu philosophy. Next come those systems which hold to the unity of God, but find it congenial to accept the idea of God as personal (and rightly, since God who is impersonal in the mysterious depths of his own being may by condescension have also a personal side which he shows to us). In this class we find Judaism and Islam. On the third level are the religions of incarnation, where human weakness demands a personal and human object of veneration. Christianity obviously falls into this third class, together with the bhakti-forms of Hindu religion. On the fourth level are the idolatrous forms of worship, where a visible object of worship is demanded. And finally we encounter those forms of superstition in which it is hard to find a gleam of true religion.
Again to say that all religions have value does not debar us either from attempting ourselves to find the highest form available to us, or to teach others in the attempt to help them rise from a lower to a higher level of understanding of the truth. But all such attempts must be made in the true spirit of tolerance and mutual respect. No undue influence must be exercised, and every gleam of truth that is found in any system must be respected and maintained.
CHRIST AND THE WHOLE OF LIFE
This is a charming picture, and probably would be accepted by many Hindus as the expression of their own point of view. It makes possible a deep regard for Jesus as Teacher (some would even go so far as to say Saviour, in the sense that Jesus is one of the Saviours of the world), in combination with complete loyalty to the traditions and demands of the Hindu order. Yet there are signs that some Hindus are finding the maintenance of this balance more difficult than they had expected. Faith in Christ, like the Hindu order, covers the whole of life, and is totalitarian in its claims. Membership in the Church is not an optional addition to faith in Christ. As Christians have been learning increasingly in recent years, the Church is part of the Gospel, and membership in it is part of faith. It may be that the friendly Hindu has been accepting the Gospel as he would like it to be and not as it really is. If he begins to submit to Jesus as the New Testament presents him, he may find the consequences gravely disturbing.
For one thing, he will find that Hinduism is splendidly tolerant towards other faiths and their adherents but is not at all tolerant towards those who would leave their Hindu faith and adopt another in its entirety, as a Hindu does when he accepts baptism into the Christian Church.
It is for this reason that the preaching of the New Testament Gospel is and must always be a scandal to the Hindu. In order to tell the truth, the Christian preacher must challenge Hindu ideas at seven crucial points:
1. He must set forth the idea of creation—that this visible world though marred by sin is essentially good, and is the scene of the working out of one divine purpose through the ages.
2. He must steadfastly affirm that God is personal, that our relation to him is that of persons to Person, and that to attempt to rise above such a relationship means inevitable to fall below it.
3. This being so, sin cannot primarily be interpreted in terms of debt, and in relation only to the one who has done the wrong; it is always an affront to the majesty of God and an injury to his love.
4. Redemption, then, is not deliverance from the burden of rebirth, but a new relationship with God, which can find expression only in those categories of forgiveness that Hinduism has rejected.
5. History is not meaningless, since it is within history that the great act of redemption has taken place in a historic person, Jesus Christ.
6. The work of Jesus is to be continued in a beloved community, which is to be drawn from all races and peoples, and membership within which depends only on faith in him outwardly expressed in baptism. This community is open to all, but does not automatically include all.
7. The final goal of Christian faith is not absorption into the Deity, but an endless reality of personal existence in perfected fellowship with a loving Father.
Each of these points is, from the Hindu point of view, scandalous. The loving and convincing presentation of them to the Hindu is a task of endless difficulty.
SOME NEW PERSPECTIVES
Three things in recent years have opened new perspectives for the preaching of the Gospel in India.
The first is the example of Mr. Gandhi. His well-known devotion to the Gospels and to the person of Jesus Christ must have led countless Hindus to throw away inherited prejudice, and to prepare themselves for an encounter with Jesus Christ. But Mr. Gandhi was at the same time the greatest foe of Christian missions. He steadily advised all his friends that they could find all that they needed for their spiritual life without ceasing to be Hindus, and discouraged baptism as treachery to the will of God which has caused this man and that to be born a Hindu.
Secondly, political independence has given the Indian a new sense of history. He feels that there are great tasks to be accomplished, and a destiny to be fulfilled. He feels that his country is called to service and leadership among the nations. This world is not to be thought of as mere vanity; it is a field which offers to man at least within limits the possibility of creative action.
At the same time, independence has subjected the nation to great moral strains. It has called for a type of character, marked by great integrity and uprightness, such as is not to be found frequently in any nation, but of which India stands in special need just because of the immense task of national reconstruction that has been taken in hand.
Some Hindus are uncertain whether their inherited religion can give them either the philosophical basis for their new understanding of life and its responsibilities or the ethical vigor that service in such a world as this requires.
The Christian evangelist is convinced that the faith he proclaims has the perfect answer to the questioner in both these fields—of spiritual enlightenment and of moral power. Could any Christian wish for a more exciting task than that of making these truths live for the intelligent and sensitive heirs of the age-long traditions of Hinduism? Some observers feel that the evangelization of India, so far from having been accomplished, is now about to begin. The ablest Indian Christians are willing to accept the help of their brethren from the West, provided that they come in the spirit of humility and service. That, after all, is the spirit of the Christ.
Stephen Neill served as missionary in India from 1924–44, as Bishop of Tinnevelly from 1939–44, and is the Associate General Secretary of the World Council of Churches. He holds the M.A. from Cambridge, and the honorary D.D. from Toronto, and the Th.D. from Hamburg. He is author of several books, the most recent being A Genuinely Human Existence.
CONQUEST OF OUTER SPACE: “Doubtless the first reaction of man to this conquest of outer space is that we are on the escalator of scientific progress leading to utter destruction. The Christian man is smart enough to sense the necessity of adjusting these new scientifically demonstrated ideas as satellites around the Son of God. Then the dark room of outer space will become familiar to Christian faith. The general public, after a first reaction of fear, and then a swing to the opposite end of the pendulum and dependence upon scientific achievement, will ultimately turn to the revelation of God to help them understand and handle both the ideas and the problems of this ‘new’ universe.”—Dr. DUKE K. MCCALL, President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, excerpts from a baccalaureate message to the first graduating class USAF Air Academy.
CHANGING DOCTRINE—“It is curious to note that so far as consistency is concerned, the simple-minded fundamentalists occupy much the stronger position. So much is this the case that the sophisticated modernist often resorts to dangerously obscuranist, anti-intellectualist arguments. In thinking of the church, not as a body committed to a certain belief, but rather as a body of friends that can share their beliefs at will, modernists fail to indicate how we can have any common program demanding our supreme loyalty, if there is no common body of belief as a basis of action or aspiration. Doubtless people may change their religious beliefs, and they are within their rights to form churches of their own. But they cannot, without loss of intellectual integrity, abandon the historic doctrines of their church and at the same time claim that their beliefs do not differ from those of the traditional founders.… An orthodox Christian might well pray for deliverance from friends who show so little respect for the dogmas which distinguish his from other religions.”
—MORRIS R. COHEN, American Thought: A Critical Sketch (pp. 191 f.).
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingDied: Pat Robertson, Broadcast Pioneer Who Brought Christian TV to the MainstreamWith CBN, “The 700 Club,” Regent, the Christian Coalition, and a run for president, he changed evangelicals’ place in public life.FrançaisIndonesianрусскийУкраїнська
- From the MagazineI Find Comfort in the Divine WarriorA surprising psalm changed my view on God’s presence during seasons of trial.
- Editor's PickPCA’s 50th Anniversary Comes During a Season of GriefPresbyterians expect less fight and more fatigue as they gather following the Covenant shooting and the deaths of Harry Reeder and Tim Keller.