Jesus Among Hinduism
As one born and raised in the East, into a family of Hindus, I perceive the differences between Hinduism and Christianity in an especially personal way, particularly as it regards their truth claims. Both these “great world religions” originated in the Orient. Both offer a distinctive view of God, man, incarnation, and the existence of spiritual beings. Yet, despite the comparisons, the Founder of the Christian religion stands apart, unique amidst the bewildering pantheon of Eastern deities. The uniqueness of the Christian religion is due to the uniqueness of its central figure. Many in the West, influenced by Eastern thinking, are predisposed to think of Jesus Christ as one among the great religious leaders of the world — peer of Mohammed, Buddha, Gaia, and so on. They prefer to see Him as merely a god among gods. But the man of Galilee rises inexorably above the definitions of philosophers and pundits, and He will not, by any definition, fit such a simple and convenient mold. Jesus Christ is, without peer, the central figure of Western history. No other person, real or imagined, has made such a profound and enduring impact on civilization for such a period of time.In his book, Hope: The Heart’s Great Quest, British-born author and journalist David Aikman reminds us of the great Christian apologist, C S Lewis, who was convinced that, in the great conflict between world religions, the ultimate contest for the affections of the human race will be between Hinduism and Christianity. Hinduism, Lewis notes, absorbs all other systems within it, while Christianity excludes all but one.Aikman says, “Hinduism claims to embrace within its arm all religious insights of all world religions. There are many truths, it says, and at the same time, they are all on (or One, as is often written to indicate that the “one” here has a divine quality to it). Christianity, by contrast, says quite explicitly that there is only one truth, since Jesus Christ himself embodies all truth.”
The literature of Hinduism, the Vedas, are believed to have been composed over a period of 800 years (from 400 BC to AD 400). Hinduism’s supreme being is the indefinable and impersonal Brahma. In a sense, Brahma is all — the all-embracing ultimate reality. Brahma is the central fact of Hindu cosmology, its Godhead, and an abstract entity that constitutes the irreducible essence of all. For Hindu devout, Brahma, the one mind or life, is the one essential reality. Brahma expresses himself through the world, like a flame taking many shapes, diverse and changeable. Everything we see and experience, Hindu’s believe, is one reality, and life in all its forms is ultimately indistinguishable from Brahma.
Unlike Christianity, where the attributes of the Redeemer, Jesus Christ, are known in considerable historical detail, there are no personal attributes for the god of the Hindu religion. The Christian godhead is identified as the Trinity. The three Persons of the Trinity –Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — act in unity yet independently. As expressed by the Councils of Nicea, they are One God in three Persons, consubstantial and coeternal.
The Bible of Jews and Christians portray God as a personal being — as one who is actively involved with the affairs of mankind. He is the one eternal, self-existent reality. God is Spirit, personal, loving, and morally perfect. God is separated from the natural order, yet all living things derive their existence from him. He is all-powerful, yet He is approachable, compassionate, and intimately involved in the affairs of those who put their trust in Him. This engagement with man is, in particular, the ministry of the Second and Third Persons of the Trinity.
Hinduism, by contrast, teaches monism. It says, in effect, that God, the ultimate reality, is all. It is beyond distinction. The Atman — the soul living in all living things — is also part of Brahma. There are many variations of Hinduism, but all are pantheistic in nature. There are as many as 330 million gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon.
The philosophical definition of God in Hinduism is best expressed in the concept of the nebulous Brahma, which cannot be expressed in language. To know the essence of Brahma, one has to realize it, by becoming it. This is why Hindus are willing to reject logic. For the Hindu, logic and reality are independent of each other. This is not an easy concept for most Westerners. The laws of thought demand distinction; therefore, to know reality is to distinguish one from another. In Hinduism, to know reality is to pass beyond all distinctions. It is to merge with the universal consciousness of Brahma.
James Sire, in his important book, The Universe Next Door, explains that The Upanishads, the other Hindu scriptures, abound in attempts to express the inexpressible, indirectly, in parables. He cites the following example:
“Bring me a fruit from this banyan tree.”
“Here it is, father.”
“It is broken, Sir.”
“What do you see in it?”
“Very small seeds, Sir.”
“Break one of them, my son.”
“It is broken, Sir.”
“What do you see in it?”
“Nothing at all, Sir.”
Then the father says: “My son, from the very essence in the seed which you cannot see comes, in truth, this vast banyan tree. Believe me, my son, an invisible and subtle essence is the spirit of the whole universe.That is Reality. That is Atman. Thou art that.” In effect, the father, as the master, teaches his son, the student, that each person, great or small, is the ultimate reality.
The Svetasvatara Upanishad teaches that, “God is, in truth, the whole universe: what was, what is, and what beyond shall ever be.”
The Chandogya Upanishad says, “There is a Spirit which is pure and which is beyond old age and death and beyond hunger and thirst and sorrow. This is Atman, the Spirit in man. All the desires of this Spirit are Truth. It is this Spirit that we must find and know: man must find his own Soul. He who has found and knows his Soul has found all the worlds, has achieved all his desires.”
The cosmic proportions of such teachings inevitably raise some important questions. If God is in everything, as Hindus believe, then he is both good and evil, and if this is the case, there can be no reliable standard of absolute morality, no divine law. Morality, for Hindus, is practical. Its end is to purify the soul, to attain a higher mystical consciousness, wherein death and pain, good and evil, life and death merge into one synonymous and indistinguishable whole.
For Christian and Jewish doctrine, this view is unthinkable. The Bible makes it clear that there is, indeed, an objective reality. Scripture identifies morality with the moral Lawgiver: for God, Himself, is Truth. He alone is absolutely righteous; yet, through the counsel of divine revelation — by both the special revelation of Scripture and the general revelation of the dynamic Spirit of God — mankind may participate in the righteousness of God. Jesus says, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me” (Matt. 11:29). He invites us to experience and practice dailly his own righteousness, vicariously.
Clearly, the Christian understanding of the relationship between man and God is far from the abstract teachings of Hinduism. The Christian Bible teaches that man is a created being, distinct from God; yet man is created in the image and likeness of God. The problem with the Hindu model is, precisely, its inability to transcend the divide between the temporal and the divine. On one hand, God is everything. On the other, God is merely illusion and enigma. This most basic view violates the law of non-contradiction, which raises an important question. Can a religion that does not stand up to the test of rational certainty be true?
Hindus believe in Maya, or illusion. It is the doctrine that everything is unreal. Even our individuality is an illusion. We speak, yet we say nothing, because the speaker is unreal. How can nothing say something? This is perhaps the greatest difference between these two great religions. If all is illusion, then we must presume that sin, too, is merely an illusion. In which case, there is no acountability. To the contrary, the Bible says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). In the first man, sin entered the world, separating man from God. But in Jesus Christ — God’s propitiation for man’s sin — makind was restored to communion with God.
In The Dust of Death, Os Guinness describes the epistemological chaos created by this Hindu’s tolerance for this doctrine of Maya. He writes:
“Monism does not see man’s dilemma as moral, in terms of what he has done, but as metaphysical, in terms of who he is. Monism thus leads to the notion that a man cannot be helped as an individual because his individuality is the essential problem. He must be helped from his individuality. He must merge with the absolute. Myer Baba says, ‘A real merging of the limited in the ocean of universal life involves complete surrender of separate existence in all its forms.’ Now this cannot but lead to a radical negation of any positive aspiration toward individuality in this life.”
What we, in fact, experience is our own individuality. As humans, we are each painfully aware of our predicament as solitary and quite unique individuals in the world. Yet, as Guinness points out, Hinduism would have us believe that this is not the case and that we are somehow submerged in a sea of illusion, indistinguishable sameness, and chaos. This is a concept that defies not only logic but the reality we naturally perceive.
Hinduism also teaches that there are many avatars (or incarnations), and many descents in life. Traditionally, ten avatars are mentioned. God is said to have appeared in the form of swan, tortoise, fish, boar, man-lion, and dwarf, and in the persons of Bhargava Rama, Dasaratha Rama, Krishna, and Kalki, according to the Mahabharatha. One of these avatars, Lord Krishna, is described as a “violent and erotic figure.” In the Bhagvad Gita, Krishna is said to have had amorous adventures with milkmaids. This is, to say the least, a difficult and embarrassing matter for the Hindu scholars to explain. How can a god worthy of devotion be involved in immoral activities?
Yet, Krishna, the hero of the Bhagavad Gita, remains the most celebratd figure in the most revered text of Hinduism. Christianity, on the other hand, proclaims the unique incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. It was a historical event. Jesus, the God-man, was born 2,000 years ago, in a particular place in Israel. He willingly left His divine glory, taking on human flesh, and descending into the world by the virgin Mary.
The Bible, in John 3:16, says: “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.” The unique and divine Son of God lived a holy life, and none could raise accusations against him. He came to seek and save the lost, and not to kill and destroy, as some would have no doubt preferred. The apostle Peter, an eye-witness to the life of Christ, reports that, “He Himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.” Because mankind is by nature impure and unredeemed, God’s Son bore our pain and punishment, requiring only that we believe and commit our heart to Him to reap the reward of eternal life.
The doctrine of karma in Hinduism offers no such hope for man. The word karma, which has entered the Western vocabulary, means that we must relive our lives and endure punishment and sorrow as the price of our sins, presumably forever. Simply put, karma is the belief that what happens to a person in this life is the result of something that happened in a previous existence. It’s the Eastern version of “You reap what you sow.” Of this teaching, author James Sire writes:
“Karma is the notion that one’s present fate, one’s pleasure or pain, one’s being a king or slave or a gnat, is the result of past action, especially in a former existence. It is then tied to the notion of reincarnation which follows from the general principle that nothing that is real (that is, no soul) ever passes out of existence. It may take centuries upon centuries to find its way back to the One, but no soul will ever not be. All soul is eternal, for all soul is essentially Soul and thus forever the One. One it way back to the One, however, it goes through whatever form of illusory forms its past action requires. If you have sinned there is no God to cancel the debt and forgive. Confession is to no avail. The sin must be worked out and will be worked out.”
Karma is averse to any idea of hope. But the grand truth of Christianity is totally different. Jesus Christ was and is our hope. His resurrection, a historical event in space and time, offers the ultimate hope for mankind. For He has paid for our sin.
The birth of Jesus Christ is recorded by history. His coming into the world was prophesied by prophets of old, down to the minutest details, including His lineage, nature, place and manner of birth, His career, His purpose, His cruel death, His victory over the grave, and His glorious Resurrection. His life is unparalleled in beauty, character, and holiness. The Jews of Palestine were amazed: No one ever spoke like Him or did the things He did. Jesus made claims no Hindu gods ever made. He claimed to be the very Son of God. Further, He said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9) He was God Himself. He said, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Krishna never made such a claim.
By contrast, however, Jesus lived a humble and sacrificial life, as an anonymous composition, titled “One Solitary Life,” recounts:
He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village, where He worked in a carpenter shop until He was thirty. Then for three years He was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a home. He didn’t go to college. He never visited a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He did none of the things that usually accompany greatness.
He had no credentials but Himself. He was only thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against Him. His friends ran away. One of them denied Him. He was turned over to His enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to the cross between two thieves.
While He was dying, His executioners gambled for His garments, the only property he had on earth. When He was dead, He was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend. Nineteen centuries have come and gone, and today He is the central figure of the human race.
All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned put together, have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as one solitary life.
In the slight volume called Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis, an athiest who became a Christian, put the claims of Christ into appropriate context, in a most memorable way. He says:
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shout Him for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
As we consider the very real implications for our lives, both now and for eternity, the truth claims of the world’s great religions are vitally important. By nature, we recognize the eternal dimension of our existence. Many ideas, isms, ideologies, and belief systems make daily claim upon our lives, hopes, and aspirations, and in the end, we each must choose how we shall decide.
Having grown up in the East, exposed continually to the claims of Hinduism, and only later having encountered the truth claims of Jesus Christ, the options for me are now clear. With Joshua, the great conqueror and leader of the Jews, I must declare that, “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). For, ultimately, only the truth claims of Christ can survive both rigorous standards of judgment and the evidence of history.
Among other gods, only Jesus Christ is Lord.