Editor’s note: This article was written by Swami Dayanand Bharati, a Hindu sannyasi who follows Muktinath [read below] as his guru. This article was written for another publication in 2009, but has been edited and republished here with permission. You can see more of Swamiji’s writings here.
Hindus and the Bible is a major theme of the upcoming Rethinking Forum Conference held this year from June 23-25th. Thus, we wanted to publish this article in preparation for the conference. You can register here.
Though many talk about the importance of experience in Hinduism (anubhav hi praman), scriptures are equally important and even foundational for every sampradaya (denomination/sect). Even though the common Hindu doesn’t have time or interest to read her own sectarian scripture or even any common Hindu scriptures, in her practical life and faith, she can quote and refer to them easily. So, even though Christianity is supposed to be a ‘religion of the Book’, the role of scriptures is in no way less important in a Hindu’s life.
Quoting the Bible
Although our bhakti (devotion/faith) should be based and centered around the Word of God, there is no need to quote verbatim from the Muktiveda [Bible] too often. Many Christians have the habit of saying, “As the Bible says…”. But it’s better to change this to a normal Hindu phrase, “As God says.” The idea is to talk more about what the Muktiveda says rather than the Muktiveda itself.
Like all people, Hindus live with lots of questions and struggles in life. When someone claims to have an answer to some of those questions, but says “the Bible says”, many Hindus will close their minds. However, when these ideas are given in the name of God, it is more inviting and no less true.
One common response from Hindus to a quote from the Muktiveda is “Our scriptures also say the same thing.” Some may see this as a threat to the authority of the Muktiveda, but it is really an opportunity.
For example, when a Hindu meets with some tragedy in life, the immediate question that comes in her mind is about her ‘karma’ for which she is presently paying the cost. Though karma allows people to temporarily come to terms with a tragedy, it also troubles them. During that time, don’t confront her about doctrinal issues. Instead, simply offer the grace of God, which addresses the needs of a person in a time of trouble and distress. Begin with prayer. A Hindu will never refuse a prayer, and appreciate when people pray openly to God.
Scriptures and Life Problems
Despite the fact that every sectarian faith is based on scriptures, no Hindu is going to refer to these scriptures to get answers for their various life issues. Hindus easily keep their doctrinal issues away from practical, mundane issues. They do not compare their scriptural teaching with real-life issues of need, joy and sorrow, and they do not allow their scripture to guide their everyday life.
One main difference between Hindu scriptures and the Muktiveda is our response to sin. When a Hindu has remorse for certain sins, they often take refuge either in ‘karma’ or ‘time’ (i.e. This is my karma, or We are living in a dark age). Whereas, the Muktiveda tells us that we need to confess, repent, and make corrections. When Hindus feel they have done some wrong to others, they can remove their sense of guilt by doing certain rituals and religious rites (e.g. giving dhana (offerings), going to temples). This kind of theme can be communicated clearly.
When confronted by the Muktiveda, Hindus can argue that it gives contradicting and relativistic responses to various issues. This will come especially if we do not present ideas in their proper context. The Muktiveda gives no uniform answers to all the issues of life. For example, there are times for us to be ‘innocent as doves’ and times to be ‘shrewd as snakes.’ Though we have to go the second mile when someone makes demands on us, at the same time we must not allow anyone to just take advantage of us.
The Muktiveda may have one central message, but it does not have one uniform response for every issue. Contradictions are an accepted part of the Hindu worldview. Both ‘yuga dharma’1 and ‘arthavada’2 help to explain any contradiction. But, we must be careful how we discuss these issues.
Hindus have the hardest time with the exclusivist claims about Jesus. Exclusivism is also a part of several sectarian faiths (particularly the Vaishnavism of South India), but Hindus will often reject exclusivism based on their pluralism. When faced with this discussion, it is not wise to use verses from the Muktiveda to support a claim.3
Instead of focusing on who God is, it is better to focus on why and what their need is. Most Hindus will agree, at least in theory, that there exists only one God.4 Rather than addressing theological issues, the concept of ‘guru’ (preceptor) can help refocus the conversation around ‘single-minded devotion’. For example, in yoga, a single-minded focus is insisted on for the success of any spiritual endeavor. Similarly, single-minded devotion to our guru Muktinath (‘God our saviour’/ Jesus) helps us understand God as well as make progress in our spiritual life. The guru who removes darkness shows the way and finally becomes the truth for his disciple, so that we need not (and even cannot) see God beyond that guru. I experienced this in my life and I communicate in this way about the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.
Bad Practices in Discussing the Bible With Hindus
There are certain abuses which need to be addressed in the way some have presented the Muktiveda to Hindus. Presenting Jesus as the Prajapati of the Vedas, or as the sacrifice quoting various mantras and slokas out of context, is not going to convince anyone. This might entertain Hindus for a while and keep some evangelicals very busy doing research, but it does not offer any real help.
Another thing some do is rather than presenting the Muktiveda, they present biblical doctrines on sin, salvation, atonement, the second coming, and even judgment. This kind of manipulation should not be the starting point. Hindu bhakti is based on a personal relationship rather than on an understanding of doctrines. Doctrine can be taught after one makes a personal commitment and receives deeksha (initiation), but not before that.
Hindus are more interested in a personal relationship with a deity than understanding the ‘why,’ ‘how’ and ‘when’ of the scriptures. The word bhakti is derived from the root word bhaj, which means ‘standing in personal relationship’. Thankfully, the Muktiveda also talks most about the living presence of God who encounters people in their need with relationship (bhakti) with Him rather than presenting systematic theology or doctrinal issues. That’s why stories are more attractive to Hindus than philosophical discourses.
Muktiveda as a Story
The gospel of Muktinath is not doctrine, theology, history, or even a dialogue (with people and scripture), but it is the story of a person. Faith starts as a relationship with a person and not with a clear understanding of doctrine or theology. You can communicate his presence through simple prayers and singing bhajans (devotional songs) and telling short stories. Arranging for satsang (spiritual fellowship), kirtans (continuous bhajans), and pujas (worship with local symbols) will help Hindus feel the presence of the living Lord more than all our preaching.
These things help people develop a personal relationship with Muktinath and a direct approach to Him without any mediator. Though a Hindu has a personal relationship with God and can directly relate with her deity, for important events and worship in the temple they need a priest to mediate between them and God. But the Muktiveda presents a direct relationship between God and us without any mediation. God accepts us as we are with all of our limitations. We can approach God through our Lord whenever and wherever we want without blaming karma or time or worrying about ritual formalities.
Following a Guru
A disciple approaches her guru to get answers for her struggle in life. And a guru is expected to give solutions to the felt needs of the disciple. Once the disciple realizes that her guru can address her needs, if not solve all of them immediately, then the bond between them further develops with deep understanding and personal commitment (on both sides). To develop such a relationship, the Muktiveda must be studied for its practical use in our life rather than for doctrine and systematic theology.
For example, one time when two of my shishyas were upset with the joint family over a property dispute, they asked me what their approach should be. Instead of giving a direct answer to them, I asked them to read Romans 12 and I went for a long walk. When I returned, they said that they got the answer for the tension and stress that troubled them over the issue. Of course, Romans 12 says nothing about property disputes, but they realized that as bhaktas of the living Lord, their attitude and approach to others must be based on relationships rather than rules and regulations.
The Muktiveda is not a book of philosophy and theology but a very practical book to help us understand how we relate to God and each other. The gospel message is the forgiveness of sin and assurance of salvation, but thankfully, the Muktiveda doesn’t end with that, but gives guidance for us to enact that salvation and enjoy a relationship with God and fellow human beings in everyday life.
In a Hindu life, salvation is one of the four aims of life (purusharthas), but is usually reserved for study at the end of life. Before that they are concerned with dharma (duty), artha (productivity), kama (pleasure), with moksha (salvation) left for later. The Mutkiveda tells us that while salvation is central, it transforms our daily life as well. Salvation is not just for another world, but is a living relationship with Him here and now.
- There are four yugas; Krita, Treta, Dwapara and Kali. Krita (which means perfect) dharma stands on four legs; in Treta virtue is decreased by a quarter; in Dwapara virtue is decreased by half and in Kali only one quarter of virtue remains. See M.N. Dutt, The Mahabharata, Delhi, Parimal Publications, 1998, vol. II, Vana Parva, ch. CXLIX, pp. 217-18.
- When an inconsistent incident is narrated which is not relevant in the context, it is generally explained as ‘laudatory’ (arthavada).
- See John A.T. Robinson, Truth is Two Eyed , SCM Press Ltd., pp. 105-07, further discussed in Living Dialogues (not yet published) in the chapter ‘Why Only Jesus’ by Dayanand Bharati.
- Theoretically this is not true as no Hindu scripture promotes such a view as far as my knowledge goes. Polytheism is the central feature of Hinduism as a whole, though sectarian faiths will place their respective deity above other gods.