I recall one Hindu who was considering to join a church lamenting, “But I don’t want to lose all the festivals.” Indeed, post-Reformation Protestantism has been denuded of culture and fun. Major festivities take place primarily inside the church building, where activities must be more somber and organized. Participation, then, is primarily by church members. There is little awareness and participation–and welcome–by the general public. Certainly we see in the West that young people see Christianity as drab and boring.
A major concern of potential Jesu Bhaktas is how/if they can participate in the many family and social activities of Hinduism. We must not go the route of Protestant missionaries and subsequent church leaders who taught converts the separation of religion from culture and fun. Understandably, they thought participation would entice members to pollute their faith, as worship of deities is usually integral to the festivities.
When I did the research for Churchless Christianity, I found this issue of faith and culture one that deeply troubled them. In Hindu festivities, often the home is the center of the event, and typically the mother is responsible for preparing everything. What should a Jesu Bhakta do, particularly the women? I recall one woman saying that she prepares everything and then sits in a corner while the rest of her family does the pujas.
Hindu following Jesus must consider these questions:
- If one participates in just the social activities, will the general Hindu public simply conclude that you are part of their faith, or compromising your faith?
- Will there be temptations to revert to beloved and familiar Hindu religious practices?
- Does withdrawal from their religious events communicate withdrawal from friendships and society in general, perhaps communicating a despising of the community?
- How can one carry out the commission to be a light and salt and an ambassador if one is not seen and respected as part of the community?
- In general, one wants to be true to one’s faith but also be a responsible and enjoyable member of the community.
These are complex issues, and not to be decided by Westerners. However, it is incumbent on us as Alongsiders to encourage and affirm our partners as they seek to responsibly sort things out as best they can. The Spirit of wisdom is their gift as much as it is ours, and they understand the full dimensions of the issue in their society and in their families.
My view? I wouldn’t encourage Jesu Bhaktas to follow the denuded and boring religious practices of my heritage. They have a great heritage of social connections and fun through communal festivities, to be valued and enjoyed. With sincere prayer and mutual consultation among the brethren, figure it out as best you can. And then, as the prophet Elijah told Naaman in his faith/culture quandaries: “Go in peace.”
In response to this article, Swami Dayanand Bharati added these thoughts:
Thanks for sharing this paper. You precisely presented what we are believing and doing as Hindu bhaktas of the Lord. We’ve never celebrated any ‘Christian festival’ in our life. Instead we celebrate all our Indian (Hindu) festivals keeping the Lord in our worship. Diwali is our Muktinath Jayanti [celebrating the birth of Jesus]. We celebrate Pongal [a harvest festival specific to Tamil Nadu, though there are harvest festivals throughout India] in the traditional way. In the past, we organized community pongal in our ashram where we invited the local people. One time even few Muslims participated.
One time a bhakta in West Bengal asked me how to celebrate Durga Puja as it is a major religious and social festival. He said that as a bhakta of the Lord he cannot do puja to Durga. At the same time, as all his neighbours are celebrating in a grand way, he must do something at his home or his children and other Hindu relatives will miss it. I suggested to do a three day puja on the 8th, 9th and 10th day. In general, these are the main days when Sarasvati, Lakshmi, and Durga are celebrated. Then I asked him to celebrate each day focusing on the Trinity—Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. I asked him to select the relevant verses to read in the evening puja and gather his children and other family members and celebrate using all the traditional methods.
Similarly we celebrate Raki (Rakshabandan) and Holi. Holi comes close to Easter. Holi is the festival of reconciliation and I asked the North Indian bhaktas to celebrate keeping the same theme as God reconciled human with him. But I tell the Hindu bhaktas never to celebrate any Christian festival, particularly Christmas, as it will send the wrong message to other family members and relatives.
Finally I want to insist one point. By celebrating all our Hindu festival we are not ‘redeeming’ them for the Lord, and they are not so-called ‘Functional Substitute’ (a famous term used in missiology). We need not ‘redeem’ anything in our culture for the Lord, as it already belongs to us.