As with most things when Christians walk alongside Hindus, the use of scripture is as complex as it is vital. It is complex because Hindus interpret what they read in the Bible without any Christian assumptions. But it is vital because their experience of Jesus needs to be clarified by the truth of the gospel which is revealed in the Bible.
I have been blessed to lead many individual Hindu people and groups of disciples through Bible study intended to explain the gospel. These experiences have given me a front-row seat watching Hindu people respond to the Bible.
Many Hindus believe that culture is the supreme value and final arbiter of what is best. Traditional Hindu culture largely informs how they interpret scripture. When the Bible speaks to their culture and brings relevant answers to lifestyle issues, Hindus receive it well.
For example, while leading a small group of disciples of Christ from Hindu backgrounds, an issue that repeatedly came up was that husbands were unwilling to side with their wives when the women were in conflict with the man’s family. We looked at 1 Peter 3:1-7 where Peter gives advice to wives and husbands on how to get along well with each other.
Verse 7 says, “Husbands, in the same way, treat your wives with consideration as the weaker partners and show them honor as fellow heirs of the grace of life.” When the group read this in both Gujarati and English, a flash of conviction, understanding, and clarity came to everyone. They all interpreted “weaker partner” as weaker in status, in relational position. They discovered that a husband must ensure that his wife receives status in his family where she now lives with him. In this case, the Hindu culture helped these people to brilliantly interpret and apply this scripture.
However, when the Bible speaks to their culture in ways that may threaten them, Hindus will not attempt to interpret it until they have an experience (anubhav) that speaks to them about that particular scripture. I noticed that when one person was struggling to understand a passage, more mature believers would say, “Tamne anubhav nathi” or, “You have not experienced this yet”. This was a cue to let people continue to process scripture internally and move on.
At other times, Hindus will interpret scripture based on their worldview. As Alongsiders, we must resist efforts to “fix” or “correct” a Hindu’s worldview to look more like ours. Hindus can understand the Bible, though it might look different than an American Evangelical interpretation.
Once, I was trying to explain the gospel in Gujarati to a man who knew very little English. We were reading Hebrews chapter 1 and 2 in Gujarati. It was going well until he began to ask me about ‘incarnation’ in ways and with vocabulary that was beyond me. This man’s trouble was that he did not know what to think about the Gujarati word doot (messenger) used for the English word angel. This did not work for him as an explanation of a spiritual being. His teenage son graciously tried to help and used the word Bhagwan to translate angels.
As the Bible study ended, I left feeling discouraged and defeated. That night as I prayed through yet another failure to help someone understand the gospel, God inspired me to just go with it. When I accepted their polytheistic world view and assumed that angel meant incarnation, a clear road to dealing with polytheism emerged before me. I discovered (or rather, God showed me) that scripture clearly teaches us not to worship angels (Revelation 22:8-9.) So, I developed a several part Bible study which put angels in two categories – those who received worship and want to deceive us about God, and those who deflected it to God and his Son Jesus. It spoke into a polytheistic world view, so we never mentioned polytheism and the exclusivity of Christ. The Hindus made those connections.
Bible study in a Hindu context is not the same as a seminary class. It is not the same as leading a study with a small group of Christians. It is not even the same as explaining the gospel to a group of open-minded, unregenerate ‘Christians.’ It is challenging and even threatening, but it can also be fun and intellectually stimulating.
I think the best way to function in Bible study with Hindus is as a coach; coach the Hindus to interpret scripture themselves. Encourage and inspire them. Ask good questions to draw them out. Refuse to solve problems for them. Allow the appeal to lack of experience to prevent conflict. Take your time because they are becoming disciples and need time to process what they encounter in the Bible.