Hinduism claims over 900 million followers worldwide, making it the third largest world religion after Christianity and Islam. The vast majority, over 827 million, live in India.1 This is a hugely diverse group, but it is imperative for the bearers of the gospel (‘Good News’) of Christ to engage with individuals, groups, and communities within it. According to Boyd,2 ‘The task of presenting the gospel in India is then of quite exceptional importance’.
Delivering the gospel
It is the choice of every person to accept or reject the Good News presented to them. Nonetheless, it is our responsibility as the bearers of the gospel to present it to our Hindu friends in such a way that it does not get lost, stolen, or damaged before they have had a chance to honestly inspect it and decide.
Tradition says the gospel’s encounter with the Hindu world began with Apostle Thomas bringing it to the southern shores of India. Since then, the Good News has brought hope and comfort to many Hindus, but it has not authentically reached most of them. How are we doing in delivering the Good News to this generation?
Delivery over the ages
Protestant Christian mission in India broadly comprised three waves:3
- The foreign cross-cultural era during the colonial period (1706-1946) saw the setting up of many mission compounds, educational and health institutions, and churches. They brought Western education and emancipation to women and children and development and dignity to the ‘outcasts’ of the caste system. After independence, many of these agencies were handed over to Indian leaders and the foreign presence drastically reduced.
- Indian cross-cultural mission movements (1947-1990) started from the late 1960s in south India and elsewhere with the specific focus of taking the gospel to the unreached in north and central India. The Adivasis and Dalits and other marginalised communities were reached by these missionaries with the gospel, which they embraced as a source of empowerment and freedom. As these movements established small worshipping communities, another shift occurred.
- Local, indigenous movements and personnel have been developing since the 1990s. This third wave is due to factors like globalisation, the rise of Hindutva, and also the growth of local churches around the country.
Stolen, lost, or damaged packages
The gospel has contributed to the welfare and holistic development of marginalised communities, spread of education and health, and growth of Christ-worshipping communities among Hindus. In many places, however, the bearers of the Good News have failed to incarnate the gospel in such a way that the community had the opportunity to investigate the Good News authentically and that it could thus take root and bear fruit within that particular cultural context.
Today when we offer the Good News to communities within the Hindu world we are unable to separate it from Western cultural wrappings. Hence what we offer is rejected because the Good News is either lost or damaged under the wrappings of an alien culture, or stolen so that all that we actually deliver is the wrapping.
Unfortunately we are more comfortable with Western symbols and rituals. We hold on to them as biblical commandments and have less tolerance for Hindu cultural expressions of faith. For example:
- Our wedding rituals, clothes, festivals, and worship are often neither biblical nor indigenous, but just transported from other cultures. As a result we prevent our Hindu friends from being able to even taste and touch the Good News.
- Asking Hindu women to give up wearing ‘Bindis’,4 which are cultural symbols of being married, or encouraging vegetarians to eat meat once they join the worshipping community can cause great divisions.
Family versus faith
Hindu communities are based on very close-knit families and communities. A young person may show interest in the gospel and even accept it, but s/he does not cease to be a member of his/her family and community. Often the young person is told that family and community practices are evil and to be shunned, and s/he has to choose between family and faith. Their lives are torn on issues of culture not Christ.
A young person was told he should not bow down to anyone other than Christ; therefore he had to give up the cultural expectation of bowing down to elders in his family and community as a mark of respect (equivalent to shaking hands or addressing someone as ‘sir’). He was ostracised as they saw him as disrespectful and rebellious as a result of his Christian encounter. However, the worst tragedy is that the whole community now sees the Good News as bad news and rejects it as something that makes their young people disrespectful—and this cultural practice is in line with the biblical principle to honour our father and mother!
The fear of being uprooted from family is one of the hindrances to people from Hindu backgrounds following Jesus. The emphasis on cultural conversion rather than true, inner spiritual transformation has damaged the gospel. This is not to deny the genuine struggle of followers of Christ forced to choose between family and faith and facing persecution for the sake of their faith. However, our fear of syncretism and of compromising biblical standards can make us cowards. So instead of boldly offering the gospel and allowing it to engage and transform the culture, we have offered ‘pre-cooked’ churches where we stay within our comfortable boundaries.
Living it out
While clear teaching is important, it is more important that we apply and live out those amazing doctrines and Scripture on a daily basis. When our lives are far from our preaching, it alienates our audience.
We Christians have sometimes ghettoised, directly contradicting the command of Jesus to be salt and light in the world. Christians have become another caste, whether through self-marginalisation with a self-righteous attitude, or marginalisation by caste Hindus who may treat Christians as outcasts.
We have transported the gospel with all its cultural wrapping and expected an ancient civilisation, with a deep God consciousness and philosophical and theological grounding, to throw out its identity, culture, and values, and take our package in. We need to make ourselves vulnerable by daring to unpack it and offer it to communities to inspect, alter, accept, or reject. As we extend this grace to them prayerfully, we can be assured that the gospel too will inspect and transform them, their culture, and communities in a unique way that we may not expect.
Delivering the packages safely
At a funeral service for an old Christian lady, I met one of many Hindu women that she had befriended. She had so deeply impacted their lives that several of them had committed to follow Jesus, and more, like the one I met, are on their journey. We can learn much from this lady that affects our missiology and theology.
While critically learning from the past, we need to take responsibility for our actions and seek the Lord. We need to unlearn our prejudices and relearn what the Holy Spirit is teaching us. Let us confess our failure to follow Jesus. If we Indian Christians live our lives without pretence and with sincere love, our community will see, know, and explore Jesus. Deep relationships characterised by unconditional acceptance, genuine concern, and non-judgemental attitudes will draw people to take a closer look at the Good News.
Dialogue of love with Hindus
Incarnating the Good News into cultures is an area of much debate. The fear of syncretism and the need for contextualisation have constantly challenged Christian mission. The way forward is the way of dialogue, where we are primarily willing to listen, learn, humble ourselves, and be available, and from that place to put forth our lives and words to be contemplated by our Hindu friends:
- Dialogue5 does not undermine proclamation or the necessity of an invitation to Christian transformation.
- It is the modality in which the process of becoming a local church takes place6 rather than a separate activity.
- It is not a substitute for proclamation or evangelisation, but the most effective way of proclamation.7
Our involvement in dialogue and mission is an adventure, anticipating surprises as the Spirit guides us into fuller understanding. Dialogue involves choosing humility—a bold humility or a humble boldness.8 There is great potential in this dialogue9 as people embrace Christ while continuing to affirm their cultural heritage.
It does not compromise the uniqueness and lordship of Christ. If we go in with the attitude of humble boldness, we can expect the Spirit’s work in this dialogical process to produce transformation, which is God’s work. As Paul says, in 1 Cor 3:5-7, the Lord has assigned to each his task, but only God makes things grow.
It is not a ploy to catch people in the Christian net.10 Rather it is an openness to listen and learn in a non-threatening manner, while allowing others to see who our God is and what he has done and is doing, without being judgmental, insensitive, or patronising.
Implications and response
Christian faith never exists except as translated into a culture. The early church was born in a cross-cultural milieu and the emphasis was on local church rather than the universal church. All this changed with Constantine, and mission became a movement from a ‘superior’ culture to ‘inferior’ culture. Christian mission thereafter pre-supposed the disintegration of the cultures which it penetrated.11
To understand the Good News, people have to hear it in their own language (Acts 2:8), and the divine message is conveyed through human channels (2 Cor 4:7).12 It is not sufficient to indigenise clerical dress, church architecture, or music, but the very heart of the culture needs to be embraced and transformed by the gospel.13
One example is that of Thomas Thangaraj of India, who uses the Hindu concept of Guru as a Christological model.14 Such inculturation models are useful. Nevertheless, they do not suit all Hindus nor are they right in all situations.
The beauty of the gospel is that it comes in fresh ways to each situation, as we allow the Holy Spirit to lead us. The Holy Spirit is the prime agent of the proclamation of the Good News in Asia. This emphasis on the Holy Spirit gives freedom to carry out inculturation, and the Spirit’s presence ensures that dialogue unfolds in truth, honesty, humility, and respect.15 The challenge is for us to be sensitive to the Spirit and be aware that the ‘gospel dignifies every culture as a valid vehicle for God’s revelation and no culture is more sacred or exclusive for God’s use’.16
The amazing character of the Hindu world is that most people deeply believe in God and are trying to connect with him, know him, please him, and receive his help. God is committed to reach out to Hindus in spite of the mistakes we as his followers have made in our missionary endeavours. Like a master weaver, he is able to weave great designs if we are willing to give the control back to him, make ourselves vulnerable, get out of our comfort zones, and let him correct us, teach us, and keep us humble.
1 http://censusindia.gov.in/Census_And_You/religion.aspx. In the census of 2001, out of a 1.03 billion population, a little over 827 million (80.5%) declared themselves followers of Hinduism.
2 R H S Boyd, Khristadvaita: A Theology for India (Madras: Christian Literature Society, 1977).
3 P Vedhamanickam, ‘Living Water in Indian Cups: A Call for Cultural Relevance in Contemporary Indian Missions’, The Asbury Journal 66, no 2 (2011). Retrieved from http://place.asburyseminary.edu/asburyjournal/vol66/iss2/5.
4 A vermillion or sticker mark in the centre of the forehead, usually round in shape, worn by a Hindu woman as evidence of her being married or being under the authority of her father. Today it is a cultural symbol with cosmetic value also.
5 S B Bevans and R P Schroder, Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (New York: Orbis Books, 2004), 348.
6 P C Phan, In Our Own Tongues: Perspectives from Asia on Mission and Inculturation (New York: Orbis Books, 2003), 17.
8 J D Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Missions (New York: Orbis Books, 1991), 488-489.
9 E N Thomas, ‘Radical Mission in a Post-9/11 World: Creative Dissonances’, International Bulletin of Missionary Research 29, no 1 (2005): 4. He cites the example of a large number of Hindus who are devout followers of Christ but remain culturally Hindu.
10 S B Bevans and S P Schroeder, ‘Missiology After Bosch: Reverencing a Classic by Moving Beyond’, International Bulletin of Missionary Research 29, no 2 (2005): 69-72.
11 Bosch, Transforming Mission, 448.
12 A J Kirk, What is Mission? Theological Explorations (London: Darton Longman and Todd Ltd, 1999), 75.
13 Thomas, ‘Radical Mission’, 3.
15 Phan, In Our Own Tongues, 28.
16 Samuel Escobar, The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everyone to Everywhere (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 10.
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Saayman, W and Kritzinger, K, eds. Mission in Bold Humility: Davis Bosch’s Work Considered. New York: Orbis Books, 1996.
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Thomas, E N. ‘Radical Mission in a Post-9/11 World: Creative Dissonances’. International Bulletin of Missionary Research 29, no 1 (2005): 2-7.
Vedhamanickam, P. ‘Living Water in Indian Cups: A Call for Cultural Relevance in Contemporary Indian Missions’. The Asbury Journal 66, no 2 (2011). Retrieved from http://place.asburyseminary.edu/asburyjournal/vol66/iss2/5.