Hinduism is the largest religion in Asia – 80% of India’s population is Hindu. The 1991 census in Great Britain revealed that there were 558,342 Hindus resident in this country.
Many of these people were born in Britain and speak English as their first language, representing a wonderful opportunity to share the gospel with them. God has brought the mission field to our doorsteps and Jesus Christ is the only means of salvation for our Hindu friends. Let’s look at Hinduism and consider how its adherents can be reached.
What is Hinduism?
Hinduism is the fusion of two belief systems. It is believed that between 2000 – 1500BC, Indo-European Aryans invaded India, forcing the indigenous Dravidian people south. Over time, the gods of the Ayran people came to be worshipped along with the goddesses of the Dravidian people, forming the Hindu religion (‘Hindu’ is a Persian word for ‘India’). There is no founder of Hinduism, no prophet and no clear-cut beginning. There is no single body of doctrine, but a great diversity of belief and practice. Hinduism is very tolerant of other religions and generally speaking a Hindu may worship as many gods as he likes, believing pretty much anything, yet remaining true to his faith.
Here are a few main strands of doctrine that run throughout the whole of the religion:
Belief in Brahman - One force, one ultimate reality, one god behind all other gods. An impersonal cause and basis of all existence, considered via the thousands of personal gods who are manifestations of the ultimate being.
The religious books - Hinduism is based on mythology. The sacred scriptures are small fragments of ancient history wrapped in a mass of legend. They are divided into four groups:
The Vedas - Hymns, priestly chants, prayers and spells used in exorcisms;
The Upanishads - Mysticism, individual piety and sacrificial rituals, teaching that Brahman dwells within every heart and should be sought;
The Mahabharata - Contains the Bhagavadgita, popular with ordinary people because it presents religious truths in an easy story form; and
The Ramayana - Contains the Diwala story of Rama and Sita
The caste system - Possibly formed by the Aryans to prevent their people mixing with the Dravidians and probably fitted in with the religious thinking at the time – The world was made from the self-sacrifice of a being, his bodily parts representing four castes:
The mouth was represented by the Aryans (Brahmins), able to worship god;
The arms of the soul were the rulers - the Rajanya or Kshatryas;
The legs were the land owners, merchants and bankers - Vaishyas; and
The feet were the servants and slaves (Shudras).
The caste system is now outlawed in India, but is still practised and affects the thinking of many Indians in this country, controlling the way people marry, socialise and live. Once a Hindu is born into a caste he cannot move up or down.
Moksha or emancipation - Hinduism teaches that the material world is an illusion and that humans are in bondage to the cycle of reincarnation, their bodies and its lusts. The goal of Hinduism is to seek to escape this bondage and achieve union with the ultimate reality – to become one with Brahman. This escape is called Moksha. There are three basic ways to escape:
Action (Karma-marga) - The way of duty according to status in society. There are obligations to be met and tasks in life to perform.
Devotion (Bhakti-marga) - Commitment to Brahman, the way most Hindus come. It is through worship, rituals, ceremonies, hymns and veneration of the gods.
Knowledge (Jnana-marga) - Meditation, ascetic practices for the suppression of desires, Yoga and mystical contemplation. Mantras are repeated until a semi-hypnotic state is reached – the experience of oneness with the ultimate reality.
This, in a nutshell, is Hinduism: Man-made religion based on human philosophy and mysticism, immense variety with notable internal contradictions. For some, everything living is god – a part of this impersonal being. Therefore they try never to even tread on a beetle, while others would kill and sacrifice animals. Some deny themselves worldly pleasure and will sleep on a bed of nails, while others live a life of comfort and luxury.
The attraction of Hinduism - Doctrinal flexibility within Hinduism gives it obvious appeal in the pluralistic and politically correct West. This is evidenced by notions of resurrection and judgment being replaced by reincarnation and karma in people’s thinking. The New Age movement teaches ‘monism’ – the idea that all is one. And we see meditation and mantras being offered as ways to relieve stress.
The gospel is needed to bringing people out of darkness into God’s marvellous light.
What should we say to Hindus?
God is pure - Hindu Scriptures portray the gods as fallible beings who can be cruel. The Bible speaks of the purity and holiness of God who is just and loving (1 Peter 1 v 18-21).
God is judge - Hindus believe in reincarnation. Christians can explain that we only live once and after that face judgment. Those that trust Christ will be with the Lord. Those who do not are condemned to Hell. There is no second chance (Hebrews 9 v 27).
God saves - Hindus believe they must struggle in life to bring themselves into union with Brahman, doing good deeds to get nearer that state. We can tell them that nothing we do can please God. Jesus died on the cross to save us from the consequences of our sin and to give eternal life to those who trust Christ and repent (Romans 3 v 23, 12 v 1; Ephesians 2 v 8-9).
Christ is unique - Hindus believe all ways lead to God. They even admire Jesus as a great teacher and treat him like another god. We must be clear in telling Hindus that to come to Christ is to forsake all other gods. At some point we will have to tell them that the only way to God is though Christ. There is no other way (John 14 v 6).
Knowing God - Hindus teach that God is everywhere and exists in all things. Christians can explain that we are separate from God, but can know him through one mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2 v 5).
Listening to God - There are a number of Hindu Scriptures, but none has any final authority. Hindus depend on priests to interpret their religious books. Christians can explain that it is God’s word, inspired by the Holy Spirit, which addresses people’s spiritual needs (2 Timothy 3 v 16).
How should we witness to Hindus?
Whilst ultimately it is God who saves through his Word and Spirit, we will witness more effectively if we bear the following points in mind:
Making friends - wives are often at home all day alone with the children and may need friendship and assistance adjusting to a new culture. Help where possible and try to get into homes – a long and slow process, but one of the most successful ways of bringing Hindus to the Lord.
Being respectful - Hinduism is a false religion, but if you attack what people have valued all their lives they will not listen to you. It is better to ask questions about their religion and for them to see the folly of it themselves. Remember that most Asians are religious, so your starting point may not be the existence of God but rather who is this God? How can I get right with him?
Helping linguistically - If there is a large Asian community near your church and they cannot speak English, Scripture Gift Mission produce tracts and Kitab Oriental and Asian Booksellers produce many Christian books in several Asian languages.
Cultural awareness - Be careful in approaching people of the opposite sex. This may not be such a problem amongst younger people, but the older generation is very reserved.
Family - Family life is very important to all Asians. Parents have considerable control over children, even married ones. When a Hindu person becomes a Christian, they become a living witness to the family and the gospel can spread rapidly. Female converts can have a particularly difficult time, as faith can be considered as bringing shame on the family, then Izzat (honour) is at stake. The Christian cannot take part in any Hindu practices but should be more hardworking, more caring and more honest in order to win their family to Christ. They should be encouraged to stay at home unless their life is in danger or they are thrown out.
Hospitality - Asian homes are very welcoming – food is always ready to be served. We can learn much from this, as the Bible encourages hospitality!
Appropriate dress - Most Indians are shocked at Britain’s permissive society. They assume British people are Christians which may lead to a low view of Christianity. They need to hear and see the real gospel lived out. Mini-skirts or other revealing clothing will hamper our witness.
Apparent interest - Hindus are very polite and may give you the impression that they are listening and interested. They will not condemn your belief because they believe there are many ways to God. Many will say they believe in Christ and even speak of repentance, but you may discover that they will continue to worship other gods. It must be made clear to them that a clean break needs to be made from Hinduism.
Using the Bible - Read it and point out its relevance to our lives. Treat the Bible with respect, never put it on the floor. Words such as ‘sin’ and ‘salvation’ may have different meanings in their religion. Be sure to explain these terms through a simple biblical framework, not a Hindu one! For example to explain sin, use the parable of the Prodigal Son, showing that sin is rebellion towards God who is like the father in the story.
Patrick Sookhdeo ed. Sharing Good News - The Gospel and Your Asian Neighbours (London, Scripture Union,1991).
Vijay Menon, Only One God, (Chichester, New Wine Press, 1982)
R.C. Zaehner, Hinduism (Oxford, Oxford University Press,1975) - a non-Christian book, more academic.
J.R. Hinnells, E.J. Sharpe, eds. Hinduism (Newcastle upon Tyne, Oriel Press, 1972) - a non-Christian book, more academic.
R. Gidoomal, M. Wardell, Chapattis for Tea - Reaching Your Hindu Neighbour, A practical guide, (Surrey, Highland Books,1994) This is from a Christian perspective. I don’t agree with his heavy contextualised approach, but it has helpful information.