Hinduism that originated in India is one of the oldest religious cultures in human history. Every religion to be a part of Hinduism should support the caste system, respect the Vedas (Sanskrit scriptural texts), and honor particular spirits and deities (Corduan, 2012). The main Hindu deities, the caste system, and other practices significantly influence the way of a believer life. Hindu beliefs and practices will be further analyzed through the prism of Christian doctrine to make a comparison.
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Hinduism is both monotheistic and polytheistic at the same time. Its followers worship one God but have a choice from the myriad of deities to focus their devotion on one of them. The most important Hindu divinities are Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva who respectively create, protect, and destroy the universe. These Hindu gods also called the Trimurti, the concept that correlates with the Christian idea of Trinity. Vishnu is a piece-loving diety, a sustainer of life that encourages truth, order, and righteousness (Danielou, 2017). Brahma is the main deity of Hinduism who created the universe. In the Vedas, he plays an insignificant role, whereas the Mahabharata reveals that he is invincible and powerful as a thousand suns. On the contrary, Shiva dismantles worlds that further would be recreated by Brahma again and stands for dissolutions and death. This concept arose only during the creation of Puranas what is a relatively late period of Hinduism. The Vedic association of the three gods Agni, Vayu, and Surya who together represented one sunny deity became the forerunner of the triumvirate concept.
The separation into classes called castes occurred many thousands of years ago and has survived to this day. The caste system comes from Aryans who lived in the territory of modern India about one and a half thousand years BC and already had a society divided into estates. The Manusmriti, which is the ancient legal text, presented four main varnas and established the order of ideal society. Then the caste system was developed and transformed by various ruling powers such as the Mughal Empire and the British Raj. This rigid system today is criticized by liberal individuals because it fosters social inequalities.
The Brahmanical model tells that the earlier mentioned god of creation, Brahma, formed four different types of people from his body parts. It established a ground for a specific social hierarchy that includes twice-born Kshatriyas (rulers, warriors), Brahmins (priests), Vaishyas (merchants), and not twice-born Shudras (workers). Moreover, the Dalits group consists of untouchables who are outside of the system (Corduan, 2012). Hindu religious texts describe Dalits as polluted people justifying their adverse social status.
The caste system influences the life of every Hindu individual as his/her membership is defined by birth and determines their rights and obligations for the entire life. The upward mobility and current position are non-negotiable because the caste’s purity is essential in Hinduism. The current position cannot be affected by the deeds in this life, while they would determine the next birth’s position. However, the members of the middle and upper categories have a channel of social mobility through sanskritization process, which is the adoption of a Brahmanical way of life (Bapuji & Chrispal, 2020). On the contrary, Dalits and other lower castes did not have access even to this potential mobility. Even Dalits who converted to Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity could not avoid the Hindu social order and its persecutions.
Furthermore, the caste system guides social interactions between upper and lower social classes, especially regarding marriage. Every individual was restricted to marrying someone outside their caste and encouraged to practice endogamy. The Brahmanical dogmas provide a penalty to those who do not preserve the purity of the caste in the form of out-casting and shunning that sometimes included killings (Bapuji & Chrispal, 2020). The social intercourse between representatives of different castes is minimized and controlled. Scriptures and their norms also give insights on how upper castes should interact with Dalits that in general are abusive practices. For instance, Dalits receive food or tea in separate containers that are never put together with those used by representatives of upper castes (Bapuji & Chrispal, 2020). Today the caste system becomes milder and social mobility more accessible. Nevertheless, the untouchability and social separation rules are still followed by the majority of Indian society.
The northern-Indian state Nagaland is the home for the Ao Naga ethnic group that has undergone conversion to Christianity, namely to American baptism. Before 1872, when Edwin W. Clark started to preach it in the region, Ao Nagas had their own set of gods with special jurisdictions (Chongpongmeren, 2020). However, they also believed in one God who was depicted in many different ways according to the context. The notion of God (Tsungram) included Lichaba (creator of the earth), Aningsungba (deity of the sky), Tiaba (a god who controls destiny), Mayusung (a lord over the dead), and other minor divinities controlled by them. The major transition occurred in 1876 when traditional believes were discouraged by missionaries. As a result, Ao Nagas turned to Baptism and new socio-religious institutions were established.
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However, Ao Church incorporated and preserved a part of customary law regarding sex relationships and marriage. Their system of marriage is inter-clan one or exogamous; thus, clan separation is not practiced. Christianity was accepted by the majority of households, while secular and religious life became inseparable. Although social institutions conform with the Baptist gospel and tribes are more pacified, cultural traditions such as living under the collective authority of elders are still relevant among them. The animist festivals and rituals that were restricted are still occasionally performed.
This Christian community shares a similar Hindu idea of pervasive divinity. Nagas have believed in one diety that had many appellations and today they have faith in one God. In terms of karma, members of the tribe believed in taboos and sacrifices that allegedly influence the current life and not the future one (Chongpongmeren, 2020). The Hindu idea of reincarnation was abandoned and instead, the concept of resurrection of those who followed Jesus in his ways emerged. The word of God found in the Bible replaced the notion of dharma, which is God’s divine law.
Taking into consideration the differences between Hinduism and Christian doctrine it seems that it is difficult to engage a follower of Hinduism with the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, the idea of Trimurti can be correlated with the concept of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Even though Hinduism worships a myriad of deities, it also believes that they come from the eternal self. The main difference is that the latter does not have a founder like Jesus Christ and its followers believe that all the roads (Path of Devotion, Knowledge, or Good Deeds) lead to salvation (Barua, 2015). On the contrary, Christianity accepts salvation through Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection what is following the Bible. The concepts of karma and reincarnation encourage avoiding the commitment of sins to have a better next life, while Christians avert it to have a chance for eternal life following a final Judgment day. Despite the early mentioned differences, Hinduism is a very tolerant religion that has some intersections with Christian doctrine which can be utilized during the conversation.
Bapuji, H., & Chrispal, S. (2020). Understanding economic inequality through the lens of caste. Journal of Business Ethics, 162(3), 533-551.
Barua, A. (2015). Debating ‘conversion’ in Hinduism and Christianity. New York, NY: Routledge.
Chongpongmeren, J. (2020). Christianity in Northeast India: A cultural history of Nagaland from 1947. London, UK: Routledge.
Corduan, W. (2012) Neighboring faiths: A Christian introduction to world religions. (2d ed.). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
Danielou, A. (2017) The myths and gods of India: The classic work on Hindu polytheism. India, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.