Teaching Biblical Concepts in Hindu Contexts

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Teaching Biblical Concepts in Hindu Contexts

The following is a slightly edited excerpt taken from HL Richard’s article entitled “Cultivating Reticence” (available here).

 

This paper is suggestive rather than prescriptive and seeks to introduce a change of perspective in those who seek to convey biblical teaching to Hindus. Four core issues in biblical understanding will be briefly considered. Thinking and speaking about God will be examined first, followed by understanding Jesus Christ and then particularly the exclusivity of Christ. Finally, sin will be discussed. These four topics only illustrate the kind of issues that arise when any biblical concept is taught in Hindu contexts.

 

Understanding God

Growth towards a biblical understanding of God is clearly foundational for all thought and life. But attaining such an understanding is itself a lifelong challenge, and understanding and communicating about God in a Hindu context is not a simple matter. “God” is one of the simplest terms in the English language; among people influenced by a biblical worldview it immediately suggests an almighty creator. But no such connotations are present with any of the many Sanskrit terms that can be (and are) used to translate “God” (theos/elohim).

The history of Bible translation in India shows different choices for the core term for God, and there is no reason why uniformity across many languages (or even within a language group) must be sought.1 Different Christ-centered Hindu movements may well use different terms (not only for God, but for Lord, grace, faith, etc.) according to their background and the predilections of the leadership that develops. An alongsider needs to focus on biblical meanings and not the choice of terminology. But this focus must not ignore worldview differences, particularly that Western Christians like neat definitions (not least when related to God), but Hindus tend toward mystery, recognizing that much is beyond human perception and understanding. Extremes in either direction, towards either definition or mystery, can be disastrous for a biblical understanding of God.

 

Understanding the Deity of Christ

A second complexity relates to the deity of Christ. It is very easy for a Hindu, particularly for a Hindu in Christ, to affirm that “Jesus is God.” Most Hindus have a clear conception of an ultimate being who is one. But that ultimate reality is manifested in many ways and forms, so that in practice there is a strong polytheistic element to Hindu life and thought. What, then, does the designation that “Jesus is God” mean within such a worldview? Clearly Jesus was a figure in history, so an affirmation of Jesus’ divinity in this polytheistic context really means little more than that he is one of many manifestations of the Supreme Being. But, of course, this is not the biblical meaning.

The biblical meaning of the deity of Christ is more nuanced than the simple affirmation that “Jesus is God.” Technically, Jesus was the name of the man who was God incarnate, and, in a Hindu context, it might be better to altogether drop the phrase “Jesus is God.” This has practical implications as well. Since there are so many gods, Hindus at a practical level do not take gods very seriously. Jesus can be affirmed as a god and yet completely ignored, as there are simply too many gods to pay much attention to beyond a few. When this type of (very common) mindset is encountered, it might be better to emphasize “Jesus as guru,” since among Hindus a guru is an authority to heed and obey, compared to the rather minimal acknowledgement often proffered to gods.

The supreme spirit (paramātmā) is generally recognized as the final reality. When speaking English it is advisable to regularly say “the almighty creator God” rather than just “God.” The good news is that this final reality of the universe, the almighty creator God, loves us and sent Jesus to fully reveal himself. When we understand Jesus, we understand God and his love and forgiveness. Of course, Jesus existed prior to his human form, and the Trinitarian mystery will need to be explained as well from passages like John 1:1–4.

 

Understanding the Only Way

Among modern Hindus there is no more difficult topic than the claim that Jesus is the unique savior. This theological issue gets mixed up with colonial history and Christian triumphalism and is usually viewed as extremely arrogant. I’ve never seen this problem stated better than in Hendrik Kraemer’s study for the 1938 World Missionary Conference:

The Hindu mind, by virtue of its historical background, easily hears in the claim for truth and exclusive revelation in Christ a contempt for other religions and a lack of modesty in the face of the great mystery of Ultimate Truth. Christians and missionaries almost as easily make the mistake of conveying the impression that they possess and dispense Ultimate Truth, which in this Indian atmosphere suggests coarse irreverence and vulgar mediocrity, and often is so. (1938, 368)2

Questions related to the uniqueness of Christ are the tip of an iceberg; below the surface are questions of humility and respect. When such questions arise, it is imperative for the disciple of Christ to make clear both that no disrespect for other faith traditions is intended in speaking of Jesus, and that the disciple of Jesus is very far from having an exhaustive understanding of the being and ways of Almighty God. A Hindu who is drawn to Christ should be not be pressured to profess the uniqueness of Christ, but rather should be pointed to passages like John 1:1–4 that show the glory and all-sufficiency of Christ, leaving no room for a comparison with anyone else.

 

Understanding Sin

Finally, sin is another complicated topic in dealing with Hindus, and this includes Hindus in Christ.3 Many Hindus are genuinely good people, so their sins are comparable to those of the scribes and Pharisees of the New Testament, not to those of the publicans and sinners.4 In English there is a distinction between sin and evil acts, since most sins are not as socially reprehensible as acts we refer to as evil. Every disciple of Jesus confesses to being a sinner, and the more mature in spiritual understanding also acknowledge an evil heart, but few have done truly evil deeds. This distinction in English, however, is not so clear in Indian languages and in Hindu worldviews. Suggesting that a Hindu is a sinner is close to calling him or her a despicable human being, and the charge is often simply ignored as ridiculous.

Apart from this problem of understanding, most Hindus do not come to Christ due to a sense of sin. This is something of a truism among those involved with Hindu-Christian issues. The truism is that while in the West a sense of sin often leads a person to Christ, among Hindus it is more normative that after coming to Christ one develops an understanding of sin. Vengal Chakkarai, a follower of Christ from a high caste Tamil family, stated it this way in his book The Cross and Indian Thought, first published in 1932:

To strike a personal note which our readers may pardon, the writer never felt the awfulness of sin and probably does not feel it now as some of the European Christian bhaktas [devotees]. It was fuller acquaintance with Jesus in the beauty of His holiness and matchless and moving character that has made him realize the Protestant feeling of sin and its enormities. In one word, it is the positive character of Jesus that has brought out the negative character of sin as the very opposite of all that He stood for. (Chakkarai 1981, 298-299)5

It is Christ himself, his person and his approach to people and to life, which draws Hindus. There can be no biblical objection to people turning to Christ simply because Christ is wonderful; sin and its subtlety and spirituality can best be taught to someone who has humbly surrendered to Christ.

 

Conclusion

These are just four examples of biblical truths that need to be taught with particular sensitivity in Hindu contexts. But the alongsider needs to learn as much as teach. People need to disciple Hindus into deep biblical knowledge through inductive Bible study sessions over hours and days and weeks on a regular basis, and if it is truly inductive Bible study, the “teacher” will learn a great deal in this process, both with and from Hindu friends.

 

Endnotes

  1. I discuss this in “Speaking of God in Sanskrit-Derived Vocabularies,” available at  http://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/33_1_PDFs/IJFM_33_1-Richard.pdf.
  2. Chakkarai, Vengal. 1981. Vengal Chakkarai Volume 1. Edited by P. T. Thomas. Library of Indian Christian Thought. Madras: The Christian Literature Society for The Division of Research and Post-Graduate Studies, United Theological College, Bangalore.
  3. Hindu cultures fit better under the designation of shame cultures than guilt cultures, but this important topic is somewhat tangential to this discussion and so will not be addressed in this paper.
  4. There is no space to draw out the implications of this point in this paper. A careful study of Jesus’ ways with the Pharisees is instructive. One reason for attrition among Hindus who profess Christ in traditional Christian evangelism is that Hindus in Christ are taught to profess what they do not feel; they say they are sinners but they do not understand and have not internalized this reality.
  5. Kraemer, Hendrik. 1938. The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World. London: The Edinburgh House Press.