Vijayesh Lal is general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, the central network and service organization of evangelicals and Pentecostals in India, representing over 6,5000 churches across the nation. He is also a PhD scholar at SHUATS, Prayagraj.

Hinduism, a revered and intricate spiritual tradition deeply rooted in the Indian subcontinent, is largely accepted as one of the world’s oldest religions. The encounter between this faith and Christianity, which arrived in India in the first century, has been marked by cultural exchanges, theological discussions, and the ever-evolving dynamics of religious pluralism. Early interactions were “so cordial and dialogical that Saint Thomas Christians were considered Christian in religion, Hindu in culture, and Oriental in worship,” writes Anantanand Rambachan in Pathways to Hindu-Christian Dialogue.

However, in recent times, right-wing Hindu nationalism has begun promoting a specific interpretation of Hindu identity and values, often resulting in tensions with religious minorities, including Christians. Hinduism and Christianity now meet against a backdrop that includes not only the historical interplay of diverse beliefs but also contemporary issues of religious identity and freedom.

As Hindu communities spread across the world, there is a risk that contemporary political and cultural ideologies associated with Hindutva may accompany the diaspora, potentially shaping global perceptions of Hinduism. Hence, engaging with Hinduism is essential for nurturing genuine understanding and promoting harmonious relations. By exploring authentic teachings, philosophies, and cultural expressions of Hinduism, individuals and entire societies can move beyond stereotypes and gain a nuanced perspective.

Here is a list of five books that I think will help people understand and engage with Hinduism better:

Hinduism: A Short Introduction, by Klaus K. Klostermaier

For someone looking for a relatively short but comprehensive introduction to Hinduism, I recommend Klaus K. Klostermaier’s Hinduism: A Short Introduction. This book is a good resource for both beginners and those seeking a nuanced understanding of this ancient spiritual tradition, masterfully and concisely navigating the mystical and political dimensions of Hinduism.

Klostermaier, a Catholic priest with a PhD in philosophy, served as a missionary and theology teacher in India in the 1960s. He spent ten years in India conducting primary research in many languages, and his expertise in Hinduism led to advisory roles in the papal office on non-Christian religions. He also directed academic affairs at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies for some time.

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The book strikes a balance between accessibility and depth without overwhelmingly scholarly details. It also goes into the different strands of Hinduism, such as Vedic, Shaivism, Vaishnavism, and Shaktiism, enriching the narrative.

Klostermaier’s inclusion of short biographies adds a personal touch, offering clarity on the various movements within Hinduism. A standout feature is his exploration of Hinduism’s contemporary role in Indian society and politics.

For those willing to explore further, I would recommend A Survey of Hinduism by the same author. At 718 pages long, it is quite a longer read than this book but much more far-reaching and scholarly.

An Introduction to Hinduism, by Gavin D. Flood

Written by Gavin D. Flood, a scholar of Hinduism and comparative religions at Oxford, An Introduction to Hinduism gives readers an objective and respectful overview of Hinduism.

Secular in his approach but not condescending, Flood presents Hinduism as a set of traditions naturally evolving through interactions between various spiritual streams in India, with all their internal differences and contradictions.

The book, which can be a difficult read at times, delivers a laudable and broad overview, covering rituals, orthopraxy, common beliefs, philosophies, theologies, and the gradual evolution of Hindu thought since the Vedic period.

Flood also goes beyond the confines of traditional narratives to explore Hinduism in modern politics and its global development, from historical figures like the German idealists to contemporary theosophists. He skillfully navigates the intertwined nature of Brahmanical orthodoxy and local folk traditions, examining distinctions between householder and renouncer Hinduism. He also explains complex concepts and traditions like Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Shaktism.

For anyone seeking a well-rounded, scholarly, and engaging exploration of Hinduism, Flood’s work is a valuable guide, offering a thoughtful journey through the complexities of this enduring spiritual tradition.

Pathways to Hindu-Christian Dialogue, by Anantanand Rambachan

Anantanand Rambachan has a distinguished profile: He’s a professor of religion at St. Olaf College, an eminent scholar, and global interfaith leader. He specializes in Advaita Vedanta (a school of Hindu philosophy) and Hindu ethics, actively contributes to initiatives like the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and is the co-president of Religions for Peace. So when he writes a book about Hindu-Christian dialogue, it becomes a must-read.

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I recently bought Pathways to Hindu-Christian Dialogue and found it to be thought provoking in its exploration of the intricacies of interfaith engagement. Rambachan addresses challenges such as conversion, Hindutva, and the Dalit experience, skillfully suggesting alternative starting points for dialogue while emphasizing unity, humility, and shared concerns—sound advice to readers who seek genuine understanding between Hinduism and Christianity. His insights into theological resources and the impact of Hindu nationalism provide a valuable foundation for those who are interested in the complexities of dialogue.

With the goal of promoting human dignity and decreasing inequality, Rambachan urges readers to move beyond political and theological differences, mutually learn from one another, and embrace diversity. His book is an invitation to readers to engage in meaningful conversations that transcend politics and foster compassion, understanding, and active service in the spirit of genuine interfaith dialogue.

For those looking for a compilation of exceptional scholarly work on Hindu-Christian relations, I would recommend The Routledge Handbook of Hindu-Christian Relations edited by Chad M. Bauman and Michelle Voss Roberts.

The Christ of the Indian Road, by E. Stanley Jones

Eli Stanley Jones (1884–1973) has been called “the greatest Christian missionary since St. Paul,” and I may be a bit of a fanboy putting his book here, but not without reason. Written nearly 100 years ago, Jones’s The Christ of the Indian Road is still relevant and prophetic.

A seasoned American Methodist missionary to India, Jones advocated for a newer approach than one adopted by many missionaries of the time and cautioned against imposing one’s culture on a community. Instead, he urged Christians to learn from other cultures, respecting their truths and allowing Christ to intertwine naturally with existing cultures.

Jones’s presentation of the core of the Christian faith as the person of Jesus—rather than the religion of Christianity, which was viewed as a Western import—shattered barriers and produced revivals even among those who were seemingly uninterested. Delivering more than 60,000 sermons in his lifetime, he preached Jesus in every major Indian city, portraying Christ as the one “who walks down the Indian road, sits around the village campfire, and rescues the oppressed in India.”

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Amid India’s struggle for independence, Jones’s message offered a unifying force. His compelling writing style, coupled with a genuine love for the Indian people, makes this book an insightful read for any Christian with a heart for missions.

Between Hindu and Christian: Khrist Bhaktas, Catholics, and the Negotiation of Devotion in Banaras, by Kerry P. C. San Chirico

I am currently reading this book, which was released in April 2023, as India is witnessing a phenomenon of several Christward movements, especially in the northern and central parts of the country.

Christward movements are people turning to the person of Jesus Christ rather than organized Christianity and is something that happens indigenously at a fast pace. The people who choose to follow Christ do so while staying within their cultural and social milieu without adopting so-called established Christian practices in the country. Most of them are simply known as vishwasi (believers). Some of them may be called Hindu followers of Christ, while others are called Yeshu Satsangis (companions of Jesus), Yeshu Darbaris (members of the royal courthouse of Jesus), or, in this case, Khrist Bhaktas (devotees of Christ).

Between Hindu and Christian explores the community of Khrist Bhaktas, comprised predominantly of Dalits and other lower castes, with a striking 85 percent being women. Primarily situated in the villages of the Banaras (Varanasi) region, the Hindu holy heartland, the movement finds its geographical locus in the Matridham Ashram, a community established in the 1970s and led by Fr. Anil Dev. This ashram has evolved into a significant center for the indigenization of Indian Catholicism, playing a pivotal role in shaping the charismatic Catholic movement in northern India.

Contrary to traditional Christian practices, many Khrist Bhaktas refrain from receiving baptism, a choice they make strategically to avoid social and family conflicts. Despite this departure from customary rituals, their commitment to Christ remains fervent, which is expressed as they participate in various services. This distinctive approach to religious practice reflects the intricate negotiations these devotees engage in to reconcile their spiritual convictions with the societal and familial challenges they face.

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The author concludes that Khrist Bhaktas can be called both Christian and Hindu. He argues that “all religious categories emerge relationally and discursively.” So “in relation to their chosen deity, the Khrist Bhaktas are Christians, but in relation to the concept of a chosen deity, they are Hindu. In relation to the baptized Catholic, they are Hindu, but when a Saiva Brahmin joins them, the relationship of each to each other changes.”

The unique practices and demographics of the Khrist Bhaktas, as outlined in San Chirico’s study, offer a compelling glimpse into the complex nature of religious identity and expression in the Banaras region. The Matridham Ashram stands not only as a physical location but as a symbolic node, representing the evolving landscape of religious movements in the northern part of the country.

Honorable mentions:

I am putting these books here since I could only choose five for the list. But these books are important as they provide a perspective on various angles associated with Hinduism, caste, Hindutva, and Hindu-Christian relationships.

Why I Am a Hindu, by Shashi Tharoor
Tharoor argues for a pluralistic and inclusive Hinduism, rejecting the narrow and divisive interpretations used by Hindu nationalists. He explores the religion’s rich history and diverse philosophies, emphasizing its tolerance and adaptability.

Annihilation of Caste, by B. R. Ambedkar
Ambedkar argues that the caste system is not merely a social issue but is deeply rooted in Hindu scriptures and practices. He proposes that the complete eradication of caste is necessary for true social and economic equality in India.

Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism, by Jyotirmaya Sharma
This book deep-dives into the intellectual roots of political Hindutva, examining the contributions of Dayananda Saraswati, Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, and Vinayak Damodar Sawarkar while also advocating for revisiting Hindu traditions that embrace inclusivity and self-criticism.