Close your eyes and picture oil lamps flickering, rising smoke releasing the strong smell of incense, basins for ritual washing, loud prayers being chanted and sung, and bright colored flowers and fruits on display. Where are we? We may be in a typical Hindu temple, but we may also be in the first century Jerusalem Temple.
Previously we observed how Jesus’ life and culture were much closer to that of Indian Hindus than to white, evangelical Christianity. In this article, we’ll look at how Jesus likely practiced his own spirituality in a first century Jewish world and compare that to both white evangelical cultures and current Hindu practices.
*To clarify the title of this article, I’m playing on an unfortunate pattern where the term “Christian” is tightly coupled with the white, evangelical version practiced in North America, rather than recognizing the vast diversity of Christian cultures.
I don’t believe this coupling is true or helpful, but I’m using it to help Christians from this group recognize how far we have contextualized our own form of Christianity away from the first century, and recognize that we can learn a lot from other cultures who remain more ancient. In addition, I should acknowledge that there are many types of Christianity that still look very similar to first century Judaism.
Deuteronomy 6 Shema
Deuteronomy 6:4-9, commonly known as the Shema, is a famous Jewish prayer and exhortation. It’s a call to love God, talk about God, and display God in all aspects of our lives. The Law, which Jesus summarized as loving God wholeheartedly and loving others as ourselves, was supposed to be passed on to children. It was supposed to be spoken about throughout the day in conversation. And it was supposed to be evident on the outward appearance of our bodies and homes that we love God and others well.
Many Hindus practices look more like the Shema than ours do. Spirituality is more interwoven into their lives, conversations, and outward identity. The Shema talks about wearing symbols on your body and decorating the outside of your home to show you are a person of God and who you worship. In India, you can look at what people are wearing, at markings on their heads, necks, and wrists, and at the outside decoration of their homes to determine which religious community they belong to.
On the other hand, in much of white Christian America, we stay away from symbols, signs, and mantras that identify us as Christians. We prefer a much more neutral ground where religion is not at all part of the public sphere. It’s not polite to talk about spiritual things with other people. We don’t want to offend anyone by talking about God, or we may be nervous to wear something that would label us as a “Christian”. As followers of Jesus, our lives, our words, our actions, and our home should display our devotion to Lord Jesus. Just as the Jews took this very seriously, so do many Hindus in their own cultural spiritual devotion to their gods.
Clean and Unclean Ritual Purity
Jewish people were constantly thinking about purity. Everything they did was filtered through if it was going to make them clean or unclean. Chapters 11-15 in Leviticus are devoted to community and ritual purity rules. Ritual purity is a major concern in John 18:28 and John 19:31 when Jewish leaders who refuse to go into Pilate’s court for fear of becoming unclean. In Acts 10, Peter even gets in an argument with God about ritual purity. Being unclean meant you were further from God’s Tabernacle presence and outside the community fellowship which is very important for Eastern Honor-Shame cultures.
This is very similar for Hindus and Asian culture. Both the head and right hand are considered clean and honorable, while the left hand and feet are considered unclean and disgraceful. Hindus have profusely apologized when they accidentally bumped me with their foot. Eating, greeting, and worship are done with the right hand, while the left hand is used in the bathroom. You will see similar references to the face, right hand, and feet all throughout the Bible. Jews and Hindus both have very high standards of cleanliness and purity in order to be in community with one another and in order to be able to worship God, especially in the temples. For example, Hindus who haven’t bathed or women who are menstruating won’t visit temples or participate in worship.
While these things are talked about all throughout the Bible, we miss the weight of their meaning because this idea of purity is not as common in our culture. We’ve embraced freedom in Christ in place of ritual purity. Therefore it can be culturally OK in some churches to go on a Sunday morning without having showered while wearing clothes from the day before. We don’t have these kind of detailed expectations for relationships and worship times in our culture. While Jesus redeemed and gave new interpretations of the purity laws confirmed in Acts 10 with Cornelius and Peter with the sheet from heaven, we should be culturally sensitive to ritual purity with our Hindu friends just as Jesus was with other Jews.
Cultural Spiritual Leadership
The Jewish tribe of Levi was set apart in the Old Testament to act as ministers and priests for the people of Israel. The Levites had a unique role, higher standards, and closer connection to God’s presence acting as priests. They were in charge of ritual sacrifices and offering incense in the Holy of Holies. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, is a Levite seen doing this in Luke chapter 1.
The Brahmans in India serve a similar function to the Levites as the high priestly caste mediating for Hindu people between God and man. They are a special people set apart in the caste system for religious duties. Brahmans are the ones performing worship and rituals in temples and at ceremonial sanskars.
Along with a priestly class, in the New Testament, we see Jewish Rabbis as spiritual authorities and teachers. Jesus, was considered a great rabbi, and even Paul studied under one of the best rabbis, Gamaliel. Most Jewish men didn’t qualify, but being the disciple of a rabbi was considered one of the highest honors in Jewish society.
Similarly in India, there exists the guru whose followers are called shishyas. The purpose of a guru is to guide their shishyas along a path to salvation. The ancient guru-shishya relationship in India functions very similarly as rabbi-disciple relationship. We can easily say that Jesus is our guru and we are his shishyas.
Both of these ideas are not central in most of white Christian America. Spiritual leadership tends to be based more on education qualification rather than community affiliation. Rather than being born into a Brahmin or Levite family, what matters more is the seminary you graduated from. Similarly, we have a very undeveloped idea of discipling and mentoring as compared with both of these cultures.
Worship and Temple
In the Old Testament, God was worshipped by the Israelites with food and animal sacrifices, oil lamps, incense, and decorations of flowers and fruit in the Tabernacle and Jerusalem Temple. Many of these elements would have continued to be used by early Jewish believers.
Not only did Jesus worship at the temple, but he taught a lot about the temple. He referred to himself as the cornerstone, his followers joining together to grow into a holy temple, and even our own bodies as temples where his Spirit dwells. Prayer, fasting, and observing festivals were also important parts of his worship practices.
Biblical period Jewish worship looked very much like how Hindus worship in their homes and temples today in India. At Hindu temples, people come to offer prayers, money, flowers, coconuts, and other types of offerings in the hopes of blessings. People may just come and sit in silence to meditate and pray, or others may walk around in circles or chant loudly. In Hindu temples visitors will come all throughout the day. They regularly pray, fast, and their entire calendar is built around festivals.
Our churches and worship are much different. All offerings and sacrifices are monetary and we rarely use anything sensual such as flowers, fruit, or incense in worship or as gifts to God. The church building is important, but it is not often beautiful or decorated, and is only open at very few times during the week. Church services are more about order, liturgy, efficiency, and quality production. Today the main elements used in Western churches seem to be technology and media, comfortable chairs, coffee, high quality musical performance, and programs for children. While these can be attractive to Western Americans, it can be viewed as sterile and less devotional in regards to other cultural worship experiences.
May we as white evangelicals realize that we are the minority, and that we are the different ones in terms of world culture. We can conclude that Middle Eastern Jewish Jesus and South Asian Hindus have much more in common culturally than with us. May we be open to the idea that Hindus don’t have to change their cultural worship forms and styles as they explore devotion to Jesus as their Lord, and in fact we can learn practices from them to enhance our own worship experience. May God get more glory through people worshipping Him from every nation, tribe, people, and language, and by worshipping him in a diversity of cultural ways.