CIPA 2011 Consultation Address by Dermot Killingley.
Hindus and Christians side by side
Many people have difficulty talking about Hinduism. Being a Hindu is a matter of Hindu experience, far more than explicit instruction in how to be a Hindu; a lot of Hindu experience is in the home rather than in the temple.
Part of the difficulty is that Hinduism isn’t a system, it hasn’t got a founder, a founding event, a defining historical narrative like the Exodus, the exile &c., a foundation document such as a creed or a bible, a central sacred place. Or rather, it has hundreds of them. Hinduism has often been likened to a banyan tree, which has several trunks rooted in different places. This image is used in Julius Lipner’s book Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices; he makes the same point by describing Hinduism as polycentric.
Peace — shanti
The Sanskrit word shanti it means the same as peace or pax, or shalom or salaam. Hindus aren’t always peaceful, just as Christians aren’t. Nevertheless, peace and non-violence are important values for Hindus. The two best-known Indians outside India, the Buddha and Gandhi, upheld non-violence.
Peace is obviously a desirable state between people, and within people. It’s also obvious that it doesn’t always happen. But maybe the fact that it doesn’t always happen in this world is what makes us use it as a way to the divine. In Hindu tradition, shanti is the state that is needed in order to enter on a religious quest. It is also the state that one reaches at the end of that quest.
Scripture — Shastra, Veda
Hindus, like Christians, set great value on texts, using them in worship and in the transmission of beliefs. Differences of doctrine often turn on the interpretation of texts. There are many sacred texts, not just one. In the late nineteenth century there was an attempt to make the Veda, the most ancient collection of texts, the foundation of a reformed Hinduism, and to make it the duty of every Hindu to study it. More effective has been the popularisation of the Bhagavad-Gita, especially in the twentieth century. Gita classes are a common form of Hindu religious instruction.
Both Christians and Hindus has sometimes find that words cannot fully express divine truth, so both also value contradiction, paradox and silence.
In an attempt to represent the divine, both Hindus and Christians use images and consecrated objects, and make pilgrimages to sacred places. Once consecrated, objects have to be treated in a certain way: elements of the Eucharist have to be treated reverently, by different rules in different denominations. Hindu images, known as murtis, have to be worshipped daily once they have been consecrated.
But just as the Quakers deny that anything has special sanctity because the whole world is God’s, some Hindu saints have refused to treat anything or any place as specially sacred.
Sacred food: prasada
As part of Hindu worship, offerings of food are placed in front of murtis. These are then given to the worshippers. Such food is called prasada, which means ‘grace’ or ‘favour’; the deity is showing favour by allowing devotees to eat his or her food. This is similar to the Eucharist, though the underlying belief is different.
Both Hindus and Christians also sometimes reject the sacredness of images and other objects, including food, and the sanctity of places.
RE teachers often pick on festivals as an enjoyable way in. There are also periodic fasts, including abstinence from particular foods at particular times of the lunar month. The Hindu calendar is based partly on the lunar month and partly on the solar year. Like Easter, most Hindu festivals and fasts fall at different times in the solar year because of the phases of the moon, though they always stay in the same season.
Fall and restoration
Hindus, like Christians, see a tension between the perfection of the divine, and the imperfection of the world and ourselves, and see moral striving as a proper response to this tension.
They also see the world as having fallen from a pristine perfection, which will be restored at a future time. This fallen world, full of disease, pain, early death, wickedness and ignorance, will be restored to perfection when God comes to destroy the wicked and rescue the righteous. However, the usual Hindu chronology sees the world as declining in stages, through a series of four ages of decreasing virtue. We are now in the last and worst age, which began in 3,102 bce and will continue for over four thousand centuries. The perfect age will then be restored, but the cycle of four declining ages will continue for ever.
Christians and Hindus are side by side in the value they place on:
1. peace as a manifestation of the divine
2. texts as embodiments of divine truth
3. images, sacred objects, sacred food and sacred places
4. a world which has fallen from its original perfection but will be restored
5. a divine order which that world expresses imperfectly
Challenges from Hinduism to Christian theological thinking
Hindus, especially in the past two centuries, have challenged Christian views in ways that should make us think more deeply about them.
Christian claims that Jesus is the sole incarnation, saviour and revealer of truth are what they find most unacceptable. Such claims are associated with imperial history in a way Christians may be unaware of.
Many Hindus admire Jesus’ teachings and life, or have images of Jesus and Mary in their home shrines. Even if we are happy to have Hindus worship Jesus, are we happy about the place he has in their belief systems?
There are several Hindu doctrinal traditions and theological schools, and individual beliefs vary. But Hindus generally believe in rebirth: a succession of lives in human or animal form, determined by karma. They find the idea of one life followed by one judgment untenable, particularly if the judgment leads to eternal reward or punishment: the idea that finite actions can yield an infinite result is unjust, and contrary to what we know of causation. The doctrines of rebirth and karma together represent a continuing judgment, which does not depend on a divine judge.
Rebirth provides a satisfactory answer to the problem of theodicy. It was presented as an answer to this problem by the great theologian Shankara, in the seventh century. He argued that suffering, and especially the unequal distribution of suffering, is cause not by God but by each living being’s merit and demerit. This solution depends on infinite time, which is another feature of the typical Hindu world-view.
Hindu theologians and philosophers base their speculations on what we can observe. We observe that nothing happens without a cause: every plant grows from a seed, and every seed grows from a plant. In the same way, we observe that every day is preceded by another day, and every year by another year. The idea of a first day is untenable; so is the idea of a last day. If something is possible, it happens not just once but over and over.
When Shankara discusses suffering he emphases the inequality of suffering, more than suffering itself. He places gods at the top of the scale of happiness, animals at the bottom and people in between. Rebirth embraces all these—usually plants as well, below the animals. These are the broad bands in the great scale of being; within each of them there are grades: different species of plants and animals, castes of people, and classes of gods.
The Christian belief that all people are equally made in the image of God, and all are equally fallen, conflicts with the hierarchical view of humankind typical of Hinduism. Even those who reject the privilege and oppression associated with caste, may believe that people differ in spiritual development. This hierarchical view is in accordance with the idea of karma and rebirth which is fundamental to Hinduism.
Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), a product of the mission schools, took Jesus out of the hands of the missionaries and brought him into his own Hindu teaching. He understood his teachings hierarchically:
To the masses who could not conceive of anything higher than a Personal God, he said, ‘Pray to your Father in heaven.’ To others, who could grasp a higher idea, he said, ‘I am the vine, ye are the branches’, but to his disciples, to whom he revealed himself more fully, he proclaimed the highest truth, ‘I and my Father are one.’
Hindus usually think of Jesus not as a unique divine being but as one of many examples of what a human being can become. Many of them think of devotion to a historical figure as a step on the way to a higher truth.
The Hindu world view makes some of the same challenges to Christianity as the scientific world view: the time-scale of Christianity seems far too short, its cosmology too small, and the special position it gives to humankind unjustified.
Hindus sometimes want to worship in Christian churches, and some churches are happy to welcome them. Welcoming Hindus should not be a greater problem than welcoming unbelievers, which churches do all the time.
But there are difficulties. Hindu worship is more individual than in many Christian churches. Worshippers come and go, doing their own independent acts of worship at one of the many shrines in the temple. So a church that welcomes Hindus has to be prepared for the unexpected.
Tension has sometimes arisen over the sanctity of material objects and places. The Eucharist is in some ways like prasada, so Hindus tend to understand it that way. The various rules that different churches have for admission to the Eucharist may seem discriminatory to them.
By no means all Hindus are vegetarian, but those who are find typical European attitudes to the suffering of animals objectionable.
The following books are useful in that they treat Hinduism with respect, and recognise its polycentricity.
Brockington, John. Hinduism and Christianity. Macmillan 1992.
Coward, Harold (ed.) Hindu-Christian Dialogue: Perspectives and Encounters. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis 1990.
Cush, Denise, Catherine Robinson and Michael York. Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Abingdon: Routledge 2008.
Flood, Gavin. An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge University Press 1996.
Flood, Gavin (ed). The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Oxford: Blackwell 2003.
Fuller, C.J. The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India. 2nd edn. Princeton University Press 2004 (1st edn. 1992).
Jackson, Robert, and Eleanor Nesbitt. Listening to Hindus. Unwin Hyman 1990.
Johnson, W. J. Oxford Dictionary of Hinduism. OUP 2009
Lipner, Julius. Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. 2nd ed. Routledge 2010 (1st edn. 1994).
Mittal, Sushil, and Gene Thursby (ed.). The Hindu World. New York: Routledge 2004.