During a recent visit to a mission field in north India, I was introduced to a group of women participating in a self-help project. They shared with me how they received Christ in their lives. They were all active members of a Christian fellowship, and all except one were baptized. “Her family does not allow her to be baptized, but she is one of us,” the other members explained. It appeared clear that they wished her to be baptized, but they also did not exclude her from being a Christian just because she was not baptized.
Questions surrounding (1) the Church as detached from the Hindu community and (2) baptism as a symbol of belonging have been debated in India for centuries. Led by such well-known missionaries as Robert de Nobili in the early seventeenth century and Alexander Duff in the nineteenth century, missionary efforts have been expended on how to reach upper-caste Hindus. Jesus Christ has been taken seriously by many Hindus from the time of Ram Mohun Roy and Keshub Chandra Sen in the nineteenth century. Further, faith in Christ has been affirmed by a good number of people who have not been baptized. What form of faith affirmation should be expected from caste Hindus if they are to be converted to Christianity?
Basic Characteristics of Hinduism
In any consideration for evangelistic ministry among the Hindus, it is important to recognize the vast difference between Hinduism and Christianity. In the absence of clear corresponding concepts and worldviews, “translating” Christian thoughts and teachings into the Hindu religious (spiritual) system remains a challenging task.
At the risk of oversimplifying the complex Hindu spiritual system, two basic characteristics of Hinduism are relevant for the purpose of finding means to communicate the gospel:
1. What we call “Hinduism” is a system of community life more than a creedal religious system. It has no common dogma or set of beliefs that defines the religion. If there is a common feature to be identified, it is the practical-ethical aspect of life called dharma (often translated as “duties”) that is demanded from all Hindus.
Dharma is often interpreted to be what upholds the order of the world. There are two specific dharmas (varna-dharma and asrama-dharma) and one general dharma (sadharana-dharma) for all Hindus. Every Hindu is born into a specific varna (or caste), and is expected to be faithful to that caste identity and perform the duties of his or her caste. Asrama refers to the four stages (as well as spiritual development) of life. They are: student stage or brahmacarya; householder or grhastha; forest-dweller or vanaprastha; and a final life of renuniciation or sannyasa.
These two dharmas are essential features of every Hindu. In other words, every Hindu has a caste to which he or she has been birthed and is expected to live according to the different duties expected for the caste community (jati) of different ages. Functionally, Hinduism is often referred to as “varnashramadharma” (combining the three words varna, ashrama, and dharma). In other words, Hinduism is governed by living out (dharma) one’s caste identity (varna), and each of the spiritual stages (ashrama) of life.
In addition, cardinal virtues (sadharana-dharma) are a common duty to all castes and stages of life. Life is fundamentally believed to be evil and escape is the final good. Faithful service to the caste duties and living a virtuous life according to what is expected leads one higher and higher to the final escape of life (nirvana).
2. Religiously, Hinduism is relativistic by nature in that it believes in different gods and spiritual ways. As is often said, a father and a son need not worship the same god. Every religious belief can find a place within Hinduism. As Gandhi once said, all morally-governed religions are different paths to the same God. In other words, there is a way to be a Christian within Hinduism. This nature of Hinduism became most conspicuous through modern representatives and spokespersons often referred to as “neo-Hindus” (Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Vivekananda, et al.) who often demand the recognition of all religions as equally valid ways to the one God. They do not have difficulty in believing Jesus as a savior, but typically refuse to affirm him as the Savior.
Evangelistic Efforts among Hindus
Many serious evangelistic workers are now slighting the effort to create new Christian communities detached from the larger Hindu community. In the light of failures to attract caste Hindus to Christianity, many mission thinkers today affirm identification (to different extents) with Hindu community. To what extent such identification should go has been debated,1 and most recently debated by evangelical Christians.2
While some insist on public and visible demonstration of their faith in Jesus Christ, others find being labeled “Christian” unnecessary and unhelpful as it isolates them from their native (Hindu) community. But they all seem to agree in insisting ultimate loyalty and faith in God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Evangelism as a process should connect with the thought-world of the Hindus through their culture and community values, but aim at bringing them to affirm and follow Jesus as the only Lord and Savior.
In a group discussion with missionaries in one of the cities in north India, field missionaries suggested that different approaches should be utilized for different sections of Hindu communities. To connect a caste Hindu community with the message of the gospel that should gradually transform their lives and thoughts, missionaries need to take their community identities (varna and jati-s), their yearning for escape from the evil world, and their insistence on identity-based good works seriously. But if we end there, the evil of endemic casteism (which systematically excludes and horrifyingly oppresses the “outcastes”) and salvation through good deeds will hold them from justification and sanctification by faith in Jesus Christ.
Thus, there are some key issues one needs to bear in mind. Hinduism is more about right practice than right belief. Furthermore, such rightful practices for salvation are not needed not because human beings sin, but because the world itself is evil. Yet, Hinduism is about the right way: the right knowledge, the right worship, and the right living.
The Christian concept of salvation from sin through faith (both as belief and dependency) in God are new to the Hindu. To bridge such difference, gradual infusion of concepts may be needed. Start from where they are to meaningfully communicate the good news of Jesus Christ, and pray and work for their transformation in the power of the Holy Spirit from within.
1. For a useful summary of the debate between Lesslie Newbigin and M. M. Thomas, see George Hunsberger. 1998. Bearing the Witness of the Spirit. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 176ff.
2. See the debate between H. L. Richard and Timothy Tennent (2007) in the International Journal of Frontier Missiology 24(4): 185-197.