The term ‘bhakta’ means ‘devotee.’ I use the term ‘Jesu Bhakta’ to refer to a devotee of Jesus who follows Jesus on a path in accordance with traditional Hindu beliefs and practices. There are many statistical and sociological research studies of this phenomenon.1 Some estimates say there are around ten million nationally. Jesu Bhaktas primarily come from ‘forward’ or ‘upper castes’, but can come from different strata of society.2
Here are 23 characteristics of Jesu Bhaktas that I have observed over my years of interactions. These will not be true of every bhakta, but can serve as a general introduction to what many of their lives and worldviews are.
- They see themselves as part of the classic Hindu bhakti tradition. Hindus can be devotees of any god they choose (“ishta deva” = personal god).
- They worship and pray to the Triune God, revealed in Christ, though they respect the right of other Hindus to choose something/someone else as their chosen deity.
- They consider themselves to be culturally Hindu, and identify themselves as such. They are proud of the culture of India and seek to preserve it.
- They see Hinduism as “sanatan dharma” (eternal way of life). It is a way of life with defined social obligations, and people of many different religious beliefs – or no belief – participate in it. As long as one participates faithfully in this way of life (dharma), one is considered a good Hindu.
- They see themselves as a member of the caste group into which they were born.
- They participate in the social obligations of their caste community and generally marry within their caste.
- They are public about their devotion to Christ and are generally accepted as such within their family and general community.
- They participate in the social aspects of Hindu festivals but remain aloof from the religious aspects. Since they have remained part of the community, their desire to refrain from worship of a different deity is respected.
- Many come to faith through the experience of visions, miracles, and answered prayers. They then accept Jesus as their lord.
- They emphasize the personal experience of God through Christ in their private and public devotions.
- They use the Bible as their scriptural authority, but they also happily learn from Hindu scriptures.
- As with the Hindu tradition, there is no central authority or organization among them. They follow gurus or swamis who also are devotees of Jesus as their spiritual guides.
- Gatherings with other Jesu Bhaktas are generally held in the home and occasionally on retreats with a guru.
- In these home gatherings, they sing in a traditional style using bhajans, often with a call and response pattern, and use handbells to keep rhythm.
- They have adapted a formal worship rite called “maha prasad,” which is described in a separate MARG article.
- They sit on the floor, and the leader might be seated on a slightly higher platform.
- They have started ashrams (retreat centers) centered around a respected guru.
- They may participate in public yathras (pilgrimages) organized by churches.
- Pilgrimage places have spontaneously developed where prayers to Jesus have been found to be particularly powerful.
- There are now sannyasis (wandering holy men) who are bhaktas of Christ. These men take the traditional Hindu sannyasi vow of poverty and celibacy and disavowal of any caste identity. They travel around the country in their saffron robe meeting with their disciples. The general Hindu community also respects and honors them as legitimate sannyasis.
- Pastors report that some Jesu Bhaktas come to participate in Communion particularly during the Watchnight (New Year’s Eve) service.
- Many will welcome a pious Christian pastor or Bible teacher into their homes for special prayers and instruction.
- They see themselves as part of the mystical Body of Christ, not through the organized church but through faith.
Worldwide, Christians recognize that the vast majority of the people in India will never join the church. Christians are viewed – both popularly and legally – as a separate caste group, the vast majority of whom are from Scheduled Caste backgrounds. The Jesu Bhaktas provide a culturally rooted form of the faith in which the vast majority of Hindus can feel comfortable and accepted.
- Churchless Christianity, Herbert Hoefer, 1991, USA edition; Followers of Christ outside the Church in Chennai India, Jeyaraj Dasan, 2010; Ecclesial identities in a multi-faith context: Jesus Truth-gatherings (Yeshu satsangs) among Hindus and Sikhs in Northwest India, Darren Duerksen, 2015; Jesus as Guru: The Image of Christ among Hindus and Christians in India, Jan Schouten, 2008.
- We distinguish here from the many Dalits and other Scheduled Caste members who identify with Christianity and even participate in church life, but do not become members. They worship only Jesus, but their hesitancy to officially join the church is generally related to the loss of government privileges assigned to their community. If they are baptized, they are legally categorized as part of the Christian community, they will be eliminated from many government programs aimed at uplifting the historically downtrodden communities. Government census tabulation puts the Christians at 2.6%, though the figure would be much more if these other people were included.