Hinduism (also known as Brahmanism in older writings and as a stage in the development of Hinduism) has ancient roots. It is unquestionably the oldest living major religious tradition not connected to the Bible. However, Hinduism has no known historical founder and has no firm date of its origin. The term Hinduism is derived from the word Sindhu. Sindhu is a Sanskrit word for the great Indus River in northwestern India.1
In Sanskrit, sindhu simply means a large mass of water. It was first applied to the people living on the Indus River who Alexander the Great, an early invader, called Indu, from which the words Hindu and India were derived. Further, the Muslims coming from Arab lands through the northwest side of India used the term Hindu to refer to the people who lived east of the Indus River. Hindus, whose history can be traced back for at least four thousand years, came to be known as Hindus on a wide scale only in the 18th century when the British and other Europeans who colonized India began to call them Hindus.
The actual term Hindu first occurs as a Persian geographical term for the people who lived beyond the Indus River. The term Hindu originated as a geographical term and did not refer to a religion. Later, Hindu was taken by European languages from the Arabic term al-Hind, which referred to the people who lived across the Indus River. This Arabic term was itself taken from the Persian term Hindū, which refers to all Indians. By the 13th century, Hindustan emerged as a popular alternative name for India, meaning the “land of Hindus.” The term Hinduism was introduced into the English language in the 19th century to denote the religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions native to India.
The term Hinduism, which was originally a geographic descriptor, presently stands for a singular religious identity of the Hindu tradition that incorporates multiple cultures and a variety of belief systems practiced by the Hindu people.
A Brief Biblical History of the Indian People
The region of India, beginning with the Indus valley, was populated early after the events at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. As peoples left Babel, some migrated by land to the subcontinent of India—others likely came by boat.
Some of Noah’s descendants who can be traced to India include many of the sons of Joktan through the lineage of Shem. The sons of Joktan were Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, Obal, Abimael, Sheba, Ophir, Havilah, and Jobab. They originally settled in the Arabian Peninsula and then, as Arab records afford, 11 of these 13 sons’ family groups continued to migrate over to India.2
The Coptic name for India is Sofir (think Ophir with an “s”)—Ophir (named for one of Joktan’s sons) was famous for its gold!3 A Jewish historian from about 2,000 years ago writes:
Solomon gave this command: That they should go along with his own stewards to the land that was of old called Ophir, but now the Aurea Chersonesus, which belongs to India, to fetch him gold.4
India is the source of the famed port of the famous gold of Ophir mentioned in the Bible (1 Kings 9:28, 10:11, 22:48; Job 22:24, 28:16; Isaiah 13:12). Considering that each of these sons (and others who settled here) brought an entire language family with them to India, it would make India a “melting pot” of languages. For those who know India, it is, even to this day!
Hinduism has about 900 million adherents worldwide (15% of the world’s population), which is just above atheism at 13%.5 Along with Christianity (31.5%) and Islam (23.2%), Hinduism is one of the three major religions of the world by percentage of population. It is the third largest religion in the world, behind Christianity and Islam. The following are estimated adherents of these religions worldwide.
- Christianity: 2.1 billion
- Islam: 1.3 billion
- Hinduism: 900 million
A great majority of Hindus live on the Indian subcontinent, and India remains the heartland of Hinduism. However, there has been a global diaspora of south Asians that made Hinduism spread to over 150 countries today. About 2.25 million Hindus make North America their home, mostly immigrants.6
It is difficult to define Hinduism in a comprehensive manner that would encompass all the facets of its practice. According to Klostermaier, “Hinduism is a state of mind rather an assembly of facts or chronological sequence of events.”7 Because of its relatively tolerant nature and ancient history, Hinduism has assimilated a variety of polytheistic beliefs, traditions, and practices.
Hinduism ranges from monotheism to polytheism, from monism to materialism and atheism to pantheism; from non-violence to moral system that see blood sacrifices to sustain the world; from supernatural other worldliness which both apotheosizes and marginalizes humans; defend social causes at any cost from critical, and scholastic philosophical discussion to the cultivation of sublime, mystical, and wordless inner experience.8
The most common term used by Hindus is Sanatana Dharma, meaning ancient or eternal religion, which is a descriptive word for Hinduism. As Christians, we would not believe that this is the eternal religion, holding the Creator God of the Bible, who is the Alpha and Omega (beginning and the end), as the ultimate authority on such matters. Based on God’s Word, the Christian views Hinduism as a corruption due to sin since the events at the Tower of Babel as the arbitrary ideas of man are elevated to supersede God’s Word, taking people down the wrong path.
Our hope is to bring the truth to those who have bought into Hinduism, giving them good news of great joy through Jesus Christ, the Creator God who has come to save them from sin.
- Hindus believe in the divinity of their holy books, the Vedas, which are among the world’s most ancient “scripture,” and venerate the Agamas as equally revealed. These primordial hymns are assumed to be God’s word and the bedrock of Sanatana Dharma, the eternal religion, which has neither beginning nor end.9
- Hindus believe in one all-pervasive Supreme Being (Brahman) who is both immanent and transcendent, both Creator and Unmanifest Reality.
- Hindus believe in the cyclical nature of time and that the universe undergoes endless cycles of creation, preservation, and dissolution.
- Hindus believe in karma, the law of cause and effect by which each person creates his own destiny by his thoughts, words, and deeds.
- Hindus believe that the soul reincarnates, evolving through many births until all karmas have been resolved and moksha, spiritual knowledge and liberation from the cycle of rebirth, is attained. Not a single soul will be eternally deprived of this destiny.10
- Hindus believe that divine beings (devas) exist in unseen worlds and that temple worship, rituals, sacraments, and personal prayers create a communion with these devas and gods.
- Hindus believe that a spiritually awakened master, or satguru, is essential to know the Transcendent Absolute, as are personal discipline, good conduct, purification, pilgrimage, self-inquiry, and meditation.
- Many Hindus believe that all life is sacred, to be loved and revered, and therefore practice nonviolence and noninjury (ahimsa) to show universal compassion.
- Hindus believe that all revealed religions are essentially correct, and no particular religion teaches the only way to salvation above all others, but that all genuine religious paths are facets of God’s Pure Love and Light, deserving tolerance and understanding.
These general beliefs are applicable to any Hindu person. However, Hindu beliefs and practices can deviate significantly. But let us pause for a moment and reflect. How can a Hindu know any of this for sure? In other words, how does the Hindu know these nine beliefs are the truth? Were they truly revealed from the Ultimate Reality?
How can an impersonal being reveal things in a personal fashion? It would be illogical. The obvious answer is that these beliefs are arbitrary. But what about the ancient wisdom books like the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, etc.? Are these not like the revelation from God that Christians have? Actually, no. The Bible is the revealed Word of God from a personal God to mankind created in the image of a personal God, which is what makes personal communication between the two possible. At best, these Hindu books like the Vedas are merely the suggested ideas of man about reality, being purely arbitrary compared to the Word of God (the Bible).
- Worship (upasana): Hindus are taught daily worship in the family shrine room from childhood—rituals, disciplines, chants, yogas, and religious study. They learn to be secure through devotion in home and temple, wearing traditional dress, bringing forth love of the Divine, and preparing the mind for serene meditation.
- Holy Days (utsava): Hindus are taught from childhood to participate in Hindu festivals and holy days in the home and temple. They learn to be happy through sweet communion with God at such auspicious celebrations. Utsava includes fasting and attending the temple on Monday or Friday and on other holy days.
- Virtuous Living (dharma): Hindus are taught from childhood to live a life of duty and good conduct. They learn to be selfless by thinking of others first; being respectful of parents, elders, and swamis; following divine law, especially ahimsa, which is mental, emotional, and physical noninjury to all beings. By doing so, they can resolve all karmas.
- Pilgrimage (tirthayatra): Hindus are taught from childhood the value of pilgrimage and are taken at least once a year for gazing at (darsana) holy persons or beings, temples, and places, near or far. They learn to be detached by setting aside worldly affairs and making god, gods, and gurus life’s singular focus during these journeys.
- Rites of Passage (samskara): Hindus are taught from childhood to observe the many sacraments that mark and sanctify their passages through life. They learn to be traditional by celebrating the rites of birth, naming, head-shaving, first feeding, ear-piercing, first learning, coming of age, marriage, and death.
These general practices are applicable to any Hindu, though the expressions will vary to some degree.
- Worldview: The worldview of a Hindu is based on the concept of karma, reincarnation, and caste. In fact, religion permeates every phase of existence.
- Ontology: The concept of three worlds is popular. It includes the world of the living, of the dead, and of the spirits (supernatural). There is no separation between sacred and secular. Hindus believe in the unity of all creation.
- Time: The concept of time is cyclical in nature. Everything is repeated age after age like seasons.
- Cosmology: The cosmological concept includes that nature is filled with spiritual beings and life forces that are all part of the universal force of Brahman (Gita, 4:35).
- Mankind: Man is brought into existence as atman, a spiritual emanation from Brahman. The atman is the essence of the individual, yet is part of the Divine. The self must experience the law of karma and come to realize that it is divine. In this sense, each person is divine and must recognize that the atman and Brahman are one.
- Maya: Reality as we know it is actually a form of illusion because we draw distinctions when there are no distinctions since all is one.
Hinduism accommodates multifaceted concepts of god. The fundamental theological belief for a Hindu is in Brahman, the Impersonal Spirit, the Changeless and the Universal Force that comprises everything that exists. The Brahman is perceived in two different ways (with and without attributes). The Brahman, who is without attributes (nirguna), cannot be known by man. This naturally begs us to ask the question how it is possible for man to know that Brahman, the Impersonal Spirit, even exists!
The Brahman with attributes (saguna) demonstrates traits such as truth (sat), consciousness (cit), and blissfulness (anand ), and can be known by man. The Brahman with these qualities is also known as Isvara, who is the creator of the world. Brahman, veiled with mysterious cosmic creative power known as maya, caused the material creation to come into existence. The whole of creation, which actually includes multiple universes, emanates from Brahman as the web that a spider weaves, and returns back into Brahman. Brahman exists in everything and everything exists in Brahman, making Hinduism a pantheistic worldview. Brahman alone is the Ultimate Reality. Maya and its created world is a created illusion and not eternal. Brahman creates this illusion for the purpose of joy or sport (lila).
In the functional aspect, Hindus believe in a triad of emanations made up of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. So God is accepted as a person with personal attributes (saguna Brahman) such as being the creator, preserver, and destroyer of the universe. The three personal aspects of the Brahman can be referred to as a Hindu triad (Trimurti): Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva (Mahesha) the destroyer. In depictions of the triad, Brahma is shown as a multi-headed figure with Vishnu and Shiva.
There are many different incarnations (avataras) of Vishnu. Avatara is a Sanskrit word that refers to a divine incarnation that literally means “one who descends.” Every Hindu believes in ten incarnations of the god Vishnu, of which nine avataras are already manifested and one more avatara is yet to come. The term avatara refers to a male or female person having divine powers. The term means an incarnation or appearance of a supernatural being or an illusion of that being. According to the Bhagavad Gita, whenever there is a decline of virtue and religious practice, Vishnu himself descends on earth to destroy evil and to uphold or re-establish righteousness. The most popular incarnations are Rama and Krishna. The final incarnation, Kalki, is yet to come into the world. All the avataras can be included in the second line of divinities.
The ten avataras of Vishnu assume a prominent place in the Epics (the Hindu mythologies) and more so in the Puranas (a series of texts that describe specific gods).
The first three have a cosmic character and are foreshadowed in the hymns of the Vedas: Matsya (fish), Kurma (tortoise), and Varaha (boar).
The fourth incarnation belongs to a later age when the worship of Vishnu had become established: Narsimha (man-lion).
The fifth incarnation, Vamana (dwarf ), whose three strides deprived the asuras of the domination of heaven and earth, follows the fourth avatara, and the three strides are attributed to Vishnu in the Vedic text as Urukrama.
The next three incarnations, Parasurama, Ramchandra, and Krishna, are mortal heroes whose exploits are celebrated in poems so fervently as to raise the heroes to the rank of gods.
The ninth avatara is the deification of any great teacher, known as Buddha. This is not a specific name, but a title. Most know this as the title taken by Siddhartha Gautama who achieved enlightenment and was known as Gautama Buddha. He is now a revered figure in Buddhism and various forms of Hinduism. According to the theory of the avataras, the Buddha himself was adopted as an avatara. In this way, Hinduism as the Vedic religion was able to enfold Buddhism under its large umbrella. Jainism also became, in essence, a doctrinal modification and adaptation of the Vedic religion.11
The final avatara is Kalki, who is yet to come and whose arrival will signal the end of the present age before the universe is annihilated and reborn. The idea resembles the manifestation of Jesus referred to in the Book of Revelation in the Bible. Jesus rides a white horse with a flaming sword (see Revelation 19:11–12) at the end of the world to usher in the new heavens and earth. It is possible that this is merely a corruption of early Christian teachings that have made their way into Hinduism since the Apostle Thomas and others (e.g., Luke 24:46–47; Acts 2:5; Romans 16:26) first brought the gospel into India nearly 2,000 years ago. What we supposedly know about Kalki is written primarily in the Puranas, which were written after the New Testament.
Many people have heard that there are millions of Hindu gods who are worshiped in various ways. This is due to the fact that there are so many popular deities and gurus who are worshiped and that individuals, families, and clans can create a deity to help with specific aspects of their lives.
Every Hindu family is supposed to have a family god or a personal deity to whom they show strong allegiance and worship by observing correct rituals, prayers, and festivals. The deities can be worshiped in public temples or shrines installed in homes. Certain sacred persons, living or dead, can be accepted as divine due to the miracles attributed to them before or after death. Popular Hindu deities include children of the major deities such as Ganapati (the elephant-headed god also known as Ganesha), who is a son of Shiva and Parvati. Ganapati is considered the god of knowledge and the obstacle remover. Hanuman or Maruti (the monkey-headed god), an associate of Rama, is believed to give health and strength.
Without the concept of female divinity, Hinduism would not be complete. A person, family, or a clan often worships female deities with great allegiance. Most female deities are mothers or consorts of major deities believed to have power (shakti) to protect a faithful devotee from evil powers. Kali Mata (Black Mother) of Calcutta is the most well-known female deity in India and is believed to have power to destroy evil and to protect and bless. She is believed to have seven sisters who are worshiped in different parts of India with different names such as Durga Mata or Bhavani.
Fertility cults are popular in rural India, and Shiva and Parvati, his consort, are associated with the male and female generative powers (similar to Priapus, the Roman god of generative power, who is worshiped in priapic or phallic symbolism). In addition to the above, there are 330 million gods traditionally accepted in Hinduism.
Ancestral spirits are historical persons who are cultural, mythical, or religious heroes whom individuals may have experienced in dreams, visions, and miracles for benevolent results. These also include saints, gurus, and family heads. Recently deceased persons are remembered and honored through family rituals and family events. These are generally believed to be able to benefit the family.
A man killed in an accident or an unexpected mysterious death of a youth is often believed to exist as a bad spirit. Similarly, female malevolent spirits are created from unexpected deaths. However, ancestors can be both good and bad spirits and are ritually appeased by family members.
Demons and ghosts are believed to be living in abandoned houses, cemetery objects, trees, mountains, rivers, or strange places. Protection from these forces is sought from family gods, diviners, gurus, rituals, and magic.
Nature worship includes totem spirits of sacred trees, animals, birds, and imagined creatures. The cow is often considered the most sacred animal in the Hindu mythology. The Western expression “holy cow” comes from this bovine veneration. Since there is no meaningful distinction made between creator and the creation (or natural and supernatural), the whole cosmos is a sacred entity generally deserving reverence and worship.
Gurus (spiritual teachers or masters) have an important place in the Hindu tradition. A family or a person may have a guru according to their experience, sect, or background. A guru is also like a medium, a medicine man, an arbitrator, and a diviner who is believed to have power over human desires with supernatural abilities.
Saints or monks who live an ascetic life reside in the mountains, temples, or monasteries. Some are itinerant saints who travel from place to place and live on alms. This group of leaders generally stays away from social activities.
Magicians, though not very popular, are believed to have the ability to handle witchcraft, demons, and diseases in rural expressions of Hinduism.
Bhagats (self-taught priests) and priests born in a priestly family are the conductors of rituals, sacraments, and socio-religious events in temples or at homes. Magicians and Bhagats are very much a part of social life and participate in all community activities.
Concept of Karma
Karma simply means good or bad deeds considered as one of the paths to earn salvation. Whatever man receives or loses in life (including caste, spouse, children, family, and material things) and after life is believed to be the result of karma. It broadly describes the universal law of cause and effect. It is on a principle: “as you sow, so shall you reap.” This means that what a man is now, is the result of what he has done in his past lives, and what he is doing now will determine what he shall be in the future life.
One of the arbitrary aspects of karma relates to determining what is good and what is bad. Since the individual experiences the world in an illusory form (maya), there is no ultimate standard of what is right or wrong. Additionally, there must be some form of accounting for good and bad deeds by a supreme being, but Brahman is supposed to be an impersonal force. This leaves the Hindu in a place of seeking to be judged by an impersonal force to determine his or her fate in a future incarnation—a logical inconsistency.
The Hindu scriptures can be categorized into two sections. The first category is shruti (“what is heard”) and the second is smruti (“what is remembered”). Veda means “knowledge.” The Vedas were oral traditions eventually written in ancient Sanskrit language and viewed as the most authoritative sacred texts. They are believed to have been developed from 1200 B.C. on.
The Vedas are considered shruti (heard) and have four parts: Rig Veda, Sam Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda. All other scriptures are considered smruti (remembered).
The Upanishadas (dated from 600 B.C.), also called Vedanta (“final knowledge”), are philosophical discussions. These are written by gurus, and each of the vedas includes a section of Upanishadas at the end.
The most well-known epics are Ramayana and Mahabharata (fourth century B.C. to second century B.C.). The Bhagavad-Gita (200 B.C.) is a section from Mahabharata that has the story of Krishna and is considered the most popular book for Hindus to study and follow.
Many Christians reading this may immediately assume that the Hindu scriptures are like the Christian Scripture (the Bible). However, these are not in the same category. The Bible was inspired by God, who created man in His own image. God used chosen men to write His Word by the power of the Holy Spirit.
So when reading the Bible, we are reading what God has revealed to man. Thus, the Bible comes with the authority of God. The Hindu scriptures are not like this. They are merely the ancient writings of ancestors. Some are poems, prayers, and hymns; some contain history that reflects practices and beliefs; some have brilliant literary pieces, but not inspired or inerrant words by their god, Brahman.
So what is the source of authority of these Hindu scriptures? They are not authoritative like the Bible, but merely arbitrary writings of man (brimming with contradictions, no less). The Hindu may protest, “But this is the wisdom of the ancients,” to which we might respond, “By what standard?” There is no greater standard than the true God.
The opinions of ancient people about various gods, Brahman, reality, and nature have no weight in an argument when compared to the Word of the personal Creator God in the Bible, who is the absolute authority on all issues. This is actually good news! The many peoples of India and elsewhere who have bought into Hinduism through the opinions of ancient peoples can be set free by the truth that only comes from the true Creator God.
Temples and Worship
India is famous for old Hindu temple architecture and its elaborate worship rituals. Temples, unlike churches or mosques, are not really meeting places but are the places of gods. The temple is built according to a sacred diagram that is described in the ancient sacred books. Much of a temple building is selected according to a divine sign and not according to human will.
A temple may be dedicated to a deity, and an icon of the presiding deity is placed in the sanctum. However, it is not surprising to see icons (many times formless objects) of many other gods and goddesses placed in different parts of a temple. Generally, a priest who presides over rituals may sit in the sanctum area. Icons in Hinduism are believed to have life or power of the divine. Devotees visit the temple for darsana (sacred gazing), to offer food or other items to the god, or to view and feel a sense of holiness.
A personal prayer or ritual in a temple may include facing a deity with folded hands; ringing a temple bell; offering water, fruits (especially coconut), food, or flowers; burning incense sticks; applying ash or red powder on the forehead; and circumambulation (pradakshina; walking around a shrine or temple). Congregational prayers could include group singing, dance, rituals, food in the temple hall, and preaching by learned gurus or monks during sacred days.
Pilgrimage in Hinduism is not mandatory, but the benefits are elaborately outlined in the Hindu texts: benefits such as healing, good karma, and personal purification. Kashi, also known as Banaras or Varanasi, is the most important center of pilgrimage for Hindus. It is believed that every religious act done in Kashi is multiplied good karma, impacting several lifetimes compared to the same act done elsewhere.
The largest human gathering on earth, called the Kumbha Mela (“pot festival”), happens every 12 years at Prayag (“the place of sacrifice”) near modern Allahabad at the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna, and the invisible Saraswati rivers. It also occurs at three other sites on a rotating basis. It is believed that immortal nectar (amrita) drips from a pot carried by Vishnu at each of these locations. About 30 million Hindu pilgrims gather to bathe ritually during Kumbha Mela time. This act of bathing in the river is believed to wash away the person’s sins. There is also a procession of saints and blessings by various gurus and saints offered to the pilgrims. Here we can see a shadow of what the Bible teaches about baptism, but twisted in a way that denies the need for Christ’s sacrifice to wash away sins.
While life for a Hindu is certainly colored by the particular culture they live in, there are certain aspects of Hindu life that cross borders of states and nations. Just as various Christian sects have different worship practices formed by their culture and the Bible, so Hindus vary in their personal expressions of worship.
According to the scriptures, four divisions or castes (varna) regulate Hindu social life. Both Krishna (in the Bhagavad Gita) and a supernatural person’s sacrifice in a creation myth in Rig Veda are considered the origin of the caste system.12 A Brahmin caste has priestly duties, and Kshatriya is the warrior caste. Vaysha is the business caste, and Shudra is the lowest or servant caste. Those in the low castes are to serve the high caste and have been treated in the past as “untouchables.” The detailed duties of the castes are mentioned in a controversial Hindu book called the Laws of Manu.13 For centuries, the low caste community lived outside the Hindu socio-cultural circles. However, people are not allowed to observe the caste divisions in India today according to the constitution.
Hindus believe in rebirth or innumerable births according to one’s deeds. Every person is subject to the law of karma (cosmic law), and everything happens according to the law of karma. Salvation (moksha) is to liberate oneself.
While Hindus believe in a supreme force, most have individual or family gods and depend on them for daily needs. Observing strict rituals and customs related to deity is the mark of allegiance. Generally, a family consecrates a separate place for a deity that serves as a shrine in the house. An image of the presiding deity is placed in the center with multiple images of deities surrounding the centerpiece. The shrine orientation depends on the god of the household or family. Ritual or prayer times are common during daytime, sacred days, and special family or personal events.
Many perform daily puja (worship), especially the elderly. With folded hands, one stands or sits in front of a small family shrine. The shrine may contain the main family deity along with other preferred images, generally made of clay, wood, brass, copper, silver, or gold. The most popular deities in the central part of India are Krishna, Rama, Ganapati, Durga, and Maruti.
Other aspects of worship are the various yogas (“yoking”) or margas (“paths”) that an individual may perform. Various schools of thought will dictate an individual’s practices, including acts of service, devotion, meditation, and seeking wisdom.
Festivals are religious, cultural, and social events. Most are based on mythological stories of gods and goddesses such as Ramanavami that celebrates the birthday of the god Rama. The birth of the god Krishna is celebrated during Gokulasthami, and Ganeshchuthrthi celebrates the birth of the popular deity Ganesha.
The most popular Hindu festival is Diwali or the Festival of Lights. It is one of the most colorful and is a week-long community event. Families light earthen lamps throughout their homes, keeping them burning day and night. They put on new clothes and visit their extended families sharing sweets and gifts. Families pray to family deities at home or in temples and especially worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, in hope of a prosperous year to come.
Families usually live together under the authority of the family elders such as parents or grandparents. Marriages are typically arranged, though some of the cultural practices are changing in urban sections of India. Daily life is immersed with prayers, fasts, offerings, and rituals. Every Hindu—especially a person from the high caste group—needs to go through more than 70 sanskaras (sacraments).
Individual devotional elements and meditation are common in the Hindu community. A person who spends time in prayer, meditation, singing, and scripture chanting may be called the devotee of a deity. Devotional practices may include acts such as regular fasts, festivals, and observance of dietary laws and pilgrimages. Committed Hindus may practice meditation at home or in temples. These devotional and meditational aspects are perhaps the unique contribution made by India to the world religions, especially Buddhism and New Age.
Salvation as Liberation
Hindus believe in the concept of reincarnation (punarjanma), the idea that the soul is reborn in another body after death, and the quality of the future existence or next birth depends on one’s current life lived or doing good deeds (karma).
When a Hindu dies, there is only one place he can go to, that is, back into Brahman. But since man and Brahman are so vastly separated, one must work his way up to Brahman through a Samsara (cycle of death and rebirth).
Striving to liberate (moksha/mukti) oneself from the Samsara cycle of death and rebirth called karmabhadhan (bound by the principle of karma) is the aim of a Hindu person. According to Bhagavad Gita, various paths to liberate oneself are: karma marga — the path of selfless action; bhakti marga — the path of devotion (personal worship); astanga/raja marga — the path of physical discipline and meditation; and jnana marga — the path of wisdom. As mentioned above, these paths to enlightenment are also called yogas. As a group, these can be seen as the religious salvific practices of Hindus, the ultimate goal being to escape all of the connection to the material world, achieving enlightenment and being united to Brahman, the universal reality.
Bahkti marga, total devotion to a god or avatara, is a popular path in India and depends on studying the religious texts and gurus. Many would agree that it is impossible to do only good deeds or live a perfect life, and thus assurance of liberation is impossible due to bad karma. Jnana marg (the path of wisdom) releases a person from the bondage of ignorance (ajnana) through inner enlightenment and finally unites the soul with Brahman forever. Various physical exercises, cleansings, and meditation allow one to realize the divinity of the soul revealed in the wisdom of the gurus by overcoming the distinctions produced through maya. Once the inner self realizes its divinity, laying aside all connections to the material world, the soul can escape the samsaras and be united with Brahman. As such, there is no notion of a heaven in Hinduism, but a form of annihilation of the soul as a distinct entity.
The Hindu caste system makes salvation harder for some. According to the Laws of Manu, a low caste person should attain high caste birth by serving the high caste community, and then the person may get the high caste birth and finally may get liberated if they are eventually able to live a good life and reach enlightenment.
Hinduism finds many different expressions and sects, but the development of specific systems is seen in Jainism, aspects of Buddhism, and Hare Krishna. You may know Hare Krishna practitioners as the saffron-robed men peddling flowers at an airport, but their religious views are Hindu at root. Officially known as the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), this group was formed in 1965 in America by a Hindu guru out of a devotion to Krishna, an avatar as the supreme god. This makes them a monotheistic expression of Hinduism (though they still hold pantheistic views). Hare Krishna followers see the stories of the warrior Arjuna’s encounters with Vishnu in the Bhagavad Gita as the key texts to follow. Using Bhakti yoga practices of selfless devotion, meditation, physical postures, and song and dance, they believe they can achieve salvation through Krishna-consciousness, realizing their own divinity. Krishna followers may lead normal lives as part of a society or be dedicated to living an ascetic lifestyle in a temple where they would abstain from various foods, alcohol, gambling, and illicit sexual activity. Vegetarianism is esteemed as the sanctified form of eating, and meat, fish, and eggs are avoided as to treat animals with reverence. The popularity of Hare Krishna increased when Beatles member George Harrison adopted the religion.
The main distinction of Hare Krishna comes from the mantra they believe to voice the supreme names of Krishna, Hare, and Rama. This chanting is believed to promote purification and connection with the true self, promoting peace and well-being. Using a string of 108 beads (japa; similar to a rosary), the chant is repeated 16 times each day for a total of 1,728 recitations. It is done in quiet meditation, aloud, or in groups with dancing. The chant states: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
The prayer or mantra that ISKCON devotees repeat is called the Maha Mantra, or the “great mantra for deliverance.” It is made up of three words Hare, Krishna and Rama. Hare refers to God’s energy. Krishna and Rama refer to God as the all-attractive and all-powerful one who is the source of all pleasure. Repetition of this mantra awakens the soul and brings strength, peace and happiness. It ultimately connects us with Lord Krishna and reveals our original spiritual life of eternal bliss and knowledge.14
In this we see the same goal of salvation through good deeds and realizing the divinity that lies within. While we can commend the Krishna followers for their care for creation and their desire to promote peace among all people, they are ultimately pursuing salvation through vain means—denying Jesus as the Savior and only source of salvation for fallen men.
Influence on the West
Hinduism’s influence on the West can be seen in two major areas. The first is in the prominence of transcendental meditation. This practice was introduced to the West during the period of British imperialism. It gained traction among those who were looking for alternatives to traditional Western religious understanding of human consciousness. The modern view was popularized by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the mid-20th century. Meditation is prominent in Eastern religions, but the broad acceptance of this practice in various forms spread to the West as it was popularized by his disciples, especially the Beatles, Beach Boys, and many prominent entertainers. During the 1960s and ’70s, many traveled to India to study under various gurus, yogis, and swamis, bringing those ideas back to the West, influencing cultural practices and beliefs. The New Age movement adopted many of these practices, seeking to empty the mind and connect with the inner divinity that was connected to the cosmos.15
Eastern meditation practices stand in stark contrast to biblical meditation. Biblical meditation focuses the mind on truths revealed by God with the goal of being conformed to His character. It is focusing on a truth that is outside of the self and revealed by a personal God. Eastern meditation attempts to clear the mind, using breathing techniques, repeated mantras or sounds, and looking within the self to recognize the inner divinity that is connected to Brahman.
The second major influence has been through what most Westerners would call yoga. Yoga means “to yoke” and is understood to be one of the paths to connect to the divine reality. The typical practice of yoga in the West involves various forms of Hatha or Ashtanga yoga—the physical exercises and meditative practices intended to be forms of Hindu worship and enlightenment. While there are many different schools of yoga, the postures and practices can be traced back thousands of years and are included in the Vedas and other writings.
Beginning in the mid 1800s, as Hindu philosophy was being introduced to the West, the practices of yoga were brought by Swami Vivekananda. He toured Europe and the United States, teaching yoga philosophy. Many other swamis and gurus have promoted their own versions since then. Rather than merely the postures and meditation, yoga encompasses an entire philosophy tied to the pantheistic view of Hinduism. Believing that each person is part of the Divine, having a divine spark within them, the popular schools of Hatha and Astanga yoga employ an eight-fold path to liberating the soul—the enlightenment of moksha that is the equivalent of salvation in Hinduism. These aspects of yoga include everything from purification, to controlling the body’s vital force and senses, to meditation and absorption with the Divine force.
The various poses used in yoga, called asanas, are postures that are intended to bring relaxation. Many are based on various Hindu gods and aspects of nature, imitating them in a pose of worship. To strike the poses and meditate on them is to acknowledge the individual’s connection with all of the cosmos and to remove thinking that makes distinctions. One common yoga progression is the sun salutation, a series intended to connect the inner self to the sun in an act of worship and meditation on how the sun expresses divinity. Additionally, these poses are intended to be practiced in concert with the other aspects. The breathing focus is intended to influence the vital force (praana) that flows through the body in channels called nadi. The use of focusing on objects, breath control, chanting mantras or sounds, and emptying the mind are all part of the practice. The postures facilitate this balancing of inner energy as well as moving inner focus through the various chakras in the body where the inner self can achieve enlightenment. This focus on the chakras progresses from the base of the spine up to the mind where the self recognizes its divinity. Many people report ecstatic experiences and spiritual connections during yoga.
Some refer to this as opening the third eye, by which the self is able to see past the illusions of the cosmos and approach moksha. The Tantric and Shaktic schools connect this flow of the force through the ascending chakras as the snake goddess, Kundalini, is awakened within and brings enlightenment. The Christian cannot miss the echoes of the promise of the serpent in the garden, promising Eve she could become like God. Several of these schools use various sexual expressions to achieve enlightenment, again showing a perversion of God’s good gift and provision for new life through children.
The popularization of yoga practice in illustrated books and the philosophies that accompany it accelerated in the 1970s and continues today.
One modern proponent of yoga as a path to self-healing and self-realization writes:
First and foremost, yoga is a systematic process of spiritual unfoldment. Yoga is a 5,000-year-old system of self-knowledge and God-realization, the aim of which is to unleash our full human potential—including our physical, ethical, emotional, mental, intellectual, and spiritual dimensions.
The eight limbs are
- Yama—Rules of Social Conduct
- Niyama—Rules of Personal Behaviour
- Aasana—Physical Postures
- Praanaayaama—Control of Vital Force
- Pratyaahaara—Control of the Senses
- Dhaarana—Right Attention or Concentration
The first five limbs (from Yama to Pratyaahaara) make up the outer aspect of Yoga and the last three (Dhaarana, Dhyaana, Samaadhi) are called Samyama or Integration. Yama and Niyama refer to the right attitudes, values, and lifestyle practices necessary for Yoga, its ethical foundation. Aasana, Praanaayaama, and Pratyaahaara are the means to control the outer aspects of our nature as body, breath, and senses. Attention or concentration naturally leads to Meditation, which in time results in Absorption or the Unification of the Perceiver, the Perceived and the process of Perception. We get the knowledge of our true Self.16
Both meditation and yoga practices have been embraced by the popular culture, integrated into government school systems, and used by individuals and corporations to promote inner peace and general well-being. While often cloaked in scientific and health-related terminology, these are both part of the Hindu paths to salvation and should not be practiced by Christians, despite their promotion by some churches. Doing so opens one to the influences of false teachings and even demonic activity and influence. Rather than looking inside the self (a self with a nature that is irreparably corrupted by sin) through yoga practices to find union with the Divine, looking to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith is the only way God has made available to be united with Him for eternity.
While it is difficult to describe the attitudes of such a large and diverse group of people, the Hindu religious beliefs color the thoughts and actions of the followers, just as any worldview does.
All paths lead to the same goal (Gita).17 Hinduism is viewed as sufficient enough for salvation, and all people are free to take a suitable path, investing differently toward the afterlife.18 Hindus generally claim that no one religion has the monopoly on the truth.19
Conversion to another religion is considered similar to denying one’s own mother, and denial of one’s religious heritage is denial of a great treasure. Conversion is a great form of violence against Hinduism. (This would seem to contradict the idea that “all are free to take a suitable path.”)
Those who turn away from Hinduism can expect being disowned by the convert’s family, friends, and society. Ridicule, persecution, and even death can be expected, especially by those who turn to Christianity. Though Hindus claim to be nonviolent, religious fervor often expresses itself in violence against those who leave Hinduism or seek to convert others from Hinduism.
|Concept||Hindu Belief||Christian Belief|
|Brahman||Nirguna Brahman is impersonal, unknowable, relationless, and without personal attributes.||God is triune, personal, knowable, holy, loving, and man can enter into a personal relationship with Him.|
|Isvara||Saguna Brahman is personal, knowable, with attributes, though he never revealed himself in a written form.||God has revealed Himself as a personal being with personal attributes: the Father speaking to man as recorded through prophets; the Son coming in flesh, dwelling among us, and revealing words recorded in the Bible; the Holy Spirit inspiring the writings of the prophets and dwelling in believers.|
|Avatar||There are ten incarnations of Vishnu in various human and animal forms. The final incarnation will destroy the wicked and annihilate the universe.||There has been one incarnation of God, Jesus the Son, taking on flesh to bring redemption to the wicked and restore the universe to perfection.|
|Trimurti||Triad: Brahma as creator; Vishnu as preserver; Shiva as destroyer.||Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — three persons but one God.|
|Maya||Maya veils Brahman from mankind, giving the illusion of distinction in the cosmos that is actually all united.||God creates a real, perfect world that is corrupted through man’s sin.|
|History of the Creation||Cyclic: Everything is repeated in cycles of life and death, from individual lives to different universes.||Linear: Time moves forward from the point of creation, through corruption, and forward to a final consummation and restoration.|
|Atman||Man’s spirit emanated from Brahman and is eternal.||God created man in His own image with an eternal spirit.|
|Ajnana||“Sin” is defined as ignorance and making false distinctions, but there is no revelation that describes this concept.||Sin is disobedience or unfaithfulness to God’s revealed law.|
|Karma||An impersonal reckoning of “good” and “bad” deeds determines one’s future state of reincarnation; dependent on one’s own works; no possibility of forgiveness.||After death, individuals are judged based on their obedience to God’s law; forgiveness is available through Christ’s substitutionary atonement.|
|Samsara||Cyclical: Birth, death, and rebirth dictated by karma and the individual’s deeds.||Linear: Born with a sin nature and born again by God’s grace through faith in Christ’s atonement apart from individual deeds.|
|Moksha||Release from samsara through enlightenment, recognizing self as deity, and eventually being absorbed into Brahman.||Redemption from sin as a gift of God through repentance and faith in Christ’s atonement.|
Arbitrariness and Inconsistency
The Hindu doctrine of maya presents a powerful point of discussion. The Ultimate Reality is supposed to be hidden behind the illusion of the physical reality while all is really united and emanates from Brahman. But do Hindus really live in a way that is consistent with the teaching of maya?
If they are honest with themselves, they do not. A Hindu can only live in the real world by acknowledging the distinctions between light and dark, love and hate, waking and sleeping. If the Hindu were truly consistent with the belief system, he would not be bothered if you took the money from his wallet—there is no difference between rich and poor, after all.
If clothes are not real but illusion, then why wear them? If there is no distinction and all is one, then why is there a caste system? If there is no distinction in Hinduism, then why should a Hindu follow Hinduism rather than follow Christ? If the Hindu were to respond and say, “But that is a different religion,” then ask, “Why do you draw the distinction if all is one?”
If, as Hinduism teaches, our problem is that we continue to draw distinctions when we shouldn’t, then we are all already in a state of moksha! To say otherwise is to draw distinction between the current state and the future potential state.
Notice the violations of logic inherent within the Hindu worldview. Some might argue that that is the point of Hinduism—to move beyond logic to the “transcendent”—so logic is not helpful when dealing with Hinduism. What can the defender of Hinduism say? Would they use a logical appeal to say that it was illogical to contradict their claim that logic isn’t applicable? If so, they have used logic to argue that logic isn’t useful in the Hindu worldview—this creates a self-refuting argument.
The point of this is to show that, when honestly and carefully considered, Hinduism is internally inconsistent. It is illogical. We’ve shown it to be arbitrary, being built on the opinions and writings of men rather than direct revelation from God. So having both internal inconsistency and arbitrariness logically reduces Hinduism to a false belief. Our hope though is to point Hindus to the truth of Jesus Christ.
Doctrinal Bridges to Reach Hindus
Common concepts shared between Christianity and Hinduism are the ideas of God, incarnation, sin, salvation, good deeds, and life beyond this present state. Hindus normally conclude by saying that Hinduism has the same basic teaching as Christianity or that things sound very similar. This should not close the doors but form bridges for sharing the gospel. We can reach out to the Hindu by asking them to carefully compare the differences between the doctrines—especially the person and work of Jesus Christ.
- Brahman: As we have seen, Brahman, the ultimate reality, is the one behind many gods of Hinduism. This supreme Brahman is in the nature of spirit and remains unchanged. Likewise, in Christianity, God is One. He is Spirit and never changes.
- Isvara: Isvara, the creator is similar to the Christian concept of Creator God. We can point to the Bible and explain how all three members of the Trinity were involved in creation (Genesis 1; Colossians 1; John 1).
- Avatara: Since the Hindu accepts avatars, there is no problem accepting the fact of God taking on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. In fact, some Hindus already accept Jesus as an avatar of Krishna or a yogi. It is always helpful to stay focused on the life and teaching of Christ when presenting the gospel to Hindus.
- Trimurti: The triad of Hinduism paves the path to explain the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
- Cyclical History: In Hinduism, history is cyclical. Everything is presented age after age. History in Christianity is linear. The present world order is to be destroyed and a new one created which will continue forever. It is difficult for a Hindu to grasp the Christian affirmation that God is a God of history and entered into history as Jesus Christ. The centrality of historical facts of the Incarnation, the Cross, and the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus must be emphasized.
- Atman: Both Hindus and Christians believe that the Atman (spirit) is eternal and comes under the bondage of sin. The Lord Jesus came to deliver people from the bondage of sin.
- Karma: This doctrine of karma is similar to the biblical concept of “as you sow, so shall you reap.” This can serve as a bridge to point Hindus to God’s judgment of our sins. The Hindu has to be told how the Lord Jesus took upon Himself the sins of the world on the Cross of Calvary as a substitute. The law of karma is the immutable law that a person pays for the evil he has done. There is no concept of forgiveness of sins for a Hindu. The Cross shows that God is not only a God of law (judging sin), but also a God of love. In the Cross of Christ, justice and love met and together granted forgiveness of sins. No amount of good works gives assurance of salvation. God alone has the power to save a person by grace through faith in Christ Jesus who paid the price for sins (Ephesians 2:8–9).
- Samsara: The Hindu seeks to be free from the cycles of samsara. This keeps recurring until one finds liberation from samsara. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ can deliver one from the clutches that bind one to the false wheel of samsara.
- Moksha: Salvation is release from the wheel of karmasamsara. The Hindu longs for release from the cycle of births and deaths and from karma itself. When he is liberated, he wants to be united with Brahman. The Lord Jesus presents in Scripture how He can break the power of sin and satisfy the longing of those who search for liberation. Rather than being united to Brahman, we can be united to Christ and receive all of the benefits of being true children of God in this life and in eternity (Galatians 2:10–21).
As a gospel messenger, look for open doors and connecting bridges, prayerfully presenting the hope in Christ in a relevant and loving manner (Colossians 4:2–6). At the right time, communicate the difference between the two faiths and allow the Holy Spirit to work, trusting in the power of the gospel.
Practical Points for Communicating the Gospel to Hindus
Be the salt and the light that will help to earn the trust of Hindu friends and neighbors. As a follower of Christ, it is a lifelong commitment through word and action before, during, and after sharing Christ. Pray for specific families and rely on the Holy Spirit at every stage. Let your life and conduct reflect the change that Christ has worked in your life. As you speak, do so with grace and truth, not avoiding hard truths, but speaking in a winsome way.
Hindu friends and neighbors are open to hear the gospel when facing critical situations such as sickness, failure, or death of loved ones. Most of the time they are open for prayer for healing because of fear, which can be a good opening to share Christ. Friendship allows them to see how Christians deal with trials and difficult situations.
Invite friends and neighbors for family events such as birthdays, anniversaries, or even Christian festivities like an Easter dinner. Try to avoid culturally offensive practices, foods, or expressions accordingly to make them feel at home. Some may be vegetarians or avoid certain foods. Don’t be afraid to ask what things you should avoid serving in order to eliminate unnecessary offenses. This will show respect and keep the door open for future communication of the gospel.
Most common objections against Christians in India are that church-going people discard Indian practices or become Westernized. This refers to dietary habits, dress, music, and language. Such hindering practices could be easily addressed by the believers for the sake of the gospel. In the West, Hindus may be more open to adopting various customs.
Christians can be sensitive to neighbors’ lifestyles in order to keep the door open for the communication of the gospel. Some committed believers have sacrificed consumption of certain foods for the Kingdom cause. Most of all, neighbors will listen to the message through a Christ-like life lived by the believers and the message that accompanies it.
Jesus Christ is the true answer to the fervent prayer of Hindus as expressed in the Vedas:
From untruth, lead me to the truth;
From darkness, lead me to light;
From death, lead me to immortality.
Finally, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the noble aspirations of Hinduism. He says to the Hindus (John 14:6):
I am the Way—The Karma Marg
I am the Truth—The Jnana Marg
I am the Life—The Bhakti Marg
God loves the whole world, including Hindus, irrespective of any national, language, or cultural background: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16 NKJV). Innumerable Hindus have come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ over the centuries; their lives were beautifully transformed by the power of the gospel and were used by God as mighty witnesses for Him in India and around the world. Even today the same continues to happen. Glory to God as the gospel message brings sinners to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ—even Hindus!
|Doctrine||Teachings on Hinduism|
|God||Deny the existence of the biblical God. See Brahman as the supreme expression of the divine impersonal force that is in all of creation. There are many expressions of lesser gods known as avatars. The trimurti represents a triad of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Millions of popular and personal gods are worshiped for various protections and benefits. Some may view Jesus as a guru, but not as God.|
|Authority/Revelation||The Bible is rejected. The Vedas, Upanishadas (Vedanta), and the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, are seen as scriptures. The Bhagavad-Gita is often studied as a key text.|
|Man||All men are part of Brahman, individually as atman, which is bound to the laws of karma and samsara. The atman experiences the physical reality as false distinctions, maya, which must be overcome to realize that the atman is divine. Each person is divine, though flawed. The atman is reincarnated in various forms based on the law of karma and dharma. Bad karma results in reincarnation as lesser life forms or in a lower social caste.|
|Sin||Sin is vaguely identified as bad deeds. The law of karma relates good and bad deeds done during an individual’s lifetime. There is no ultimate standard, though lists appear in the various scriptures as dharma.|
|Salvation||Escaping the cycles of samsara is the goal, achieving moksha as a state of oneness with Brahman. Moksha is achieved through yoga practices and creating good karma by doing good deeds and living a virtuous life.|
|Creation||There are many universes, each bound in a cycle, that emanate from Brahman. All of creation is an expression of Brahman (pantheism). There are many variations of creation myths in Hinduism, some of which would embrace evolutionary ideas as part of the process of the universal cycles.|