Hinduism is the third largest religion on earth. It is the faith of the most populous and fastest growing major nation. Hundreds of millions of Hindus need to know the Gospel. Knowing more about the Hindu faith will help Christians minister better to Hindus.
By Mark D. Harris
Out of the mists of the ancient past, without a face or a name, the ideas of reincarnation, caste, the cycle of lives, dharma, karma, and all that we know today as Hinduism emerged in the land between the Indus River and the Ganges plain. These concepts were contained in the sruti (revealed) texts such as the Vedas (Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda), and the Upanishads (Vedanta). Alongside these sacred books arose the smrti (remembered) texts, including the Bhagavad Gita.
The above paragraph would suit many Hindu apologists but requires a bit more explanation. Hinduism is, indeed, a historical accretion of ideas that arose, mixed, and developed through the interactions of the native Dasyu peoples and the Indo-European Aryan immigrants in the second and first millennia BC. Scholars bicker about whether the Aryans invaded or migrated from the northwestern plains, but world historical experience from the Bantus in Africa to the Europeans in the New World 2,500 years later proves that invasion and migration often look the same. Hinduism has no known founder, unlike other world religions.
Hindu scriptures, as well as those in Buddhism and other Eastern religions, lack the doctrinal imperatives of Abrahamic scriptures. As a result, they have less authority and less power to compel than the Bible or the Quran. Hinduism, like Buddhism, is an experiential more than a doctrinal religion. Hindus wish to “see” (Darsan) their god(s) rather than learning about him or her. Hindus attempt to encounter the divine through religious rituals rather than reading commentaries on the Rig Veda.
- Vedas (sruti, c. 1500 BC) – Rigveda (knowledge of hymns), Samveda (chants), Yajurveda (sacrificial formulas), and Atharvaveda (spells and other priestly knowledge). Vedas emphasize Brahman rituals, which are transactional, between people and the gods Agni, Indra).
- Upanishads (sruti, c. 500 BC) – philosophic texts numbering in the hundreds, The ten principle upanishads include Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashan, Mundaka, Mandukya, Tattiriya, Aitareya, Chhandogya and Brihadaranyaka.
- Bhagavat Gita (smrti, c. 100 BC) – Bhakti (personal devotion). The Bhagavat Gita is part of the epic poem, the Mahabharata. Though technically a smrti book, it is the most beloved book in Hinduism. Other smrti books include the epic poem Ramayana, the Manusmrti (Law of Manu), the sutras, and the puranas.
The Hindu religion can be divided into four primary eras based on the ascendency of religious texts.
- Pre-vedic (3000-1500 BC) – not much is known, but animism was likely prevalent.
- Vedic (1500-700 BC) – Polytheism and the caste system developed. This was the high point of ritual Hinduism.
- Upanishadic (700-200 BC) – Concepts of samsara, moksha, dharma, karma, and the like gained currency.
- Post-Upanishadic (200 BC – AD 200) – The Vedas reemerged and the Bhagavat Gita was written and became dominant. Bhakti, the idea of gaining merit by devotion to the god(s) swept through to the subcontinent.
Hindus have a wide variety of belief systems. A faithful Hindu can believe in no god, many gods, or one god. He or she can follow dietary rules or not, can emphasize ritual (Brahminism), philosophy, or devotion (Bhakti) in religion, and can vary in other ways. Hinduism has absorbed important figures in other religions, including the Buddha, Jesus, and Allah, as deities in its pantheon. Hinduism can be pantheistic, believing that everything is god, and panentheistic, believing that everything is in god. Restated, pantheism sees no difference between the divine and the universe, while panentheism maintains that they are co-located but ontologically separated.
Despite such variance, Hindus have generally agreed on core beliefs over the centuries. Over the eons, men and animals have lived innumerable lives, each including birth, death, and rebirth, called samsara. Those who lived morally good lives were reborn as higher life forms, such as moving from a farmer in Life 12 to a priest in Life 13. Those who behaved badly were reborn as a lower life form, such as moving from a thief in Life 12 to a dog in Life 13. Hindus believed that only a few exceptionally bad people went to hell, but by improving their morality could become a human or even a god in subsequent lives. A tiny minority achieved moksha, release from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara). These few merged their spirits (atman) with the universal spirit (Brahman) and so entered the Hindu version of heaven. Hinduism suggests that given enough time, anyone and everyone will achieve moksha.
The second core belief in Hinduism is the caste system. In the Rig Veda (10:90), the community of gods sacrifices the god Purusha, cutting him into pieces to create mankind. The Brahmin (priests, scholars) came from his mouth, the Kshatriya (warriors, administrators) from his arms, the Vaisha (farmers, merchants) from his thighs, and the Sudra (slaves, manual labor) from his feet. The only people lower than the Sudra were the Dalits, those born outside the caste system entirely. In India, one’s caste specified one’s occupation, wealth, scope of potential marriage partners, and place of abode. No one could change his life position, as he deserves in this life whatever he got through his conduct in prior lives. All anyone can do in their current life is practice virtue and hope to be reborn in a higher caste in the next life. Again, only the most reverent priests could achieve moksha.
Hindus commonly believe that the universe is an emanation from Brahman, the universal spirit. The male aspect of creation is Sri Bhagavte and the female aspect is Sri Bhagavti. To a Hindu, wrongdoing includes avidya, which is ignorance about reality, and maya, which is the illusion that persons exist. Essentially, “sin” is misunderstanding the cosmos. Evil actions prevent the doer from understanding reality and move them farther from moksha.
Spiritual paths that a person can use to help achieve moksha are the jnana marga (path of the knowledge) and the bhakti marga (path of devotion). In the former, a Hindu might devote himself to a life of study, meditation, and good works. In the later, a Hindu might praise his god, love his god, give money to his god, care for the idol of his god, and do anything else he could, to show devotion to his god. These paths are not exclusive, as one can gain knowledge and show devotion to increase one’s chances of moksha.
Key concepts in Hinduism
As related in the Bhagavat Gita, each person has a duty based on caste and circumstances. The Sanskrit word Dharma reflects the knowledge of the truth and the commitment to do one’s duty based on that truth. For example, Prince Arjuna despaired of fighting and killing so many friends and relatives in the Kurukshetra War. His chariot driver, an avatar of the Hindu god Krishna, taught him that earthly life is short but one’s duty and conduct with respect to that duty lasts forever. Though fighting and killing seemed evil, for the Kshatriya Arjuna to fail to fight would be a bigger evil. Arjuna went on to win a great victory, though the cost was high.
When someone does good, particularly in accordance with their caste, their good works are a source of merit. When they do evil, that person’s lifetime merit declines. The sum of merit earned over a person’s life (karma) determines the state of rebirth, higher, lower, or the same, for that person. In Hinduism, each person ultimately gets what they deserve, no more and no less. In fact, to help a person avoid the consequences of his or her actions is to perform an evil act and diminish one’s own merit. Taken to an extreme, for a judge to impose a light sentence on a drunk driver who killed someone in an accident, however repentant, would be a wicked act.
Distinctive practices in Hinduism
- Third eye – Hindu women sometimes wear a colored dot on their forehead signifying piety. The color of the dot can indicate marital status (black for unmarried, red for married) or simply match the woman’s clothing.
- Three debts – Debt to God, Debt to saints and gurus, and debt to ancestors. People spend their lives paying off these debts.
- Four ends of Hindu Life – Dharma, Artha (wealth), Kama (pleasure), and Moksha.
- Yoga – physical activities such as breath control, body motion, blocking out external influences, and entering an altered mental state (samadhi).
Stages of Hindu life
- Brahmacharya Ashrama (c. age 0-20) – the student
- Grhastha Ashrama (c. age 21-40) – the householder
- Vanaprastha Ashrama (c. age 41-60) – the period of study and recollection
- Sannyasa Ashrama (c. age 61-80+) – complete withdrawal from social relationships
- Akrodha – controlling anger.
- Asteya – avoiding selfishness and theft.
- Dama – contentment and self-control.
- Dhee – correct understanding of Hindu scriptural teachings
- Dhruti – courage
- Indriya Nigraha – controlling the senses, including sensual urges.
- Kshama – forgiveness.
- Satya – social justice.
- Saucham – purity and truth.
- Vidya – knowing the divine
The Aryan migration occurred in the centuries from 2000 to 1600 BC. Starting in the steppe culture of central Asia, Aryans passed through the Thar, Cholistan, and Thall deserts or towering mountains of Hindu Kush to arrive in modern Rahasthan, Punjab, and Gujarat. They encountered developed but declining cities such as Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. Displacing the current residents, the Aryans pushed south and east, finding vast lightly peopled lands and scattered tribes. Over the centuries, Aryan and Dasyu blood and culture mixed. Brahmanism and later Hinduism developed.
The greatest emperor of the Mauryan Empire (322-185 BC) was Ashoka (304-232 BC). He had a reputation for cruelty and launched a devastating invasion of a neighbor…Kalinga. Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians lie dead on the battlefield and in the ransacked capital. The carnage was breathtaking, and according to legend, even Ashoka was troubled. As a result, he became a Buddhist. Ashoka promoted and proclaimed non-violence, earning plaudits from modern commentators. However, he didn’t reduce the size of his army and did expand his secret police. To summarize, Ashoka conquered what he wanted, sent Buddhist missionaries to preach nonviolence to his empire and its neighbors, trying to minimize unrest, and kept a powerful security apparatus to enforce his will.
Smaller empires came and went over the centuries until the Gupta empire (AD 319-550). Gupta rulers were faithfully Hindu and strongly promoted the faith. The weakness of the short-lived Harsha empire (590-647) invited foreign wars. As the Indian subcontinent is a large piece of land, princes and potentates established kingdoms from Karachi Colombo to Dhaka.
Trouble with the Muslim Arabs began in the mid seventh century AD when seaborne raiders attacked Thane, Debal, and Bharuch on the west coast of India. Arab raiding continued, but the Mongol invasions (1221-1327) devastated India. Many Mongols became Muslim and established the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526). The Mughal and Maratha Empires followed, until the British East India Company (mid-1700s) and finally the British Empire, after the Sepoy Rebellion, took over in the mid-1800s. India gained its independence in 1947. Hinduism spread to the West and became quite popular after the carnage of World War II.
While the story of India is not the same as the story of Hinduism, over 80% of the world’s Hindus live in India. Hinduism has spread worldwide but remains a small minority in every country except India, Nepal, and some small island states. After independence, India led the “non-aligned” movement, trying to triangulate between the US and the USSR. In practice, India leaned heavily toward the Soviet camp. With the fall of the Soviet Union, India has been forced to move towards the West.
India is now the most populous nation on earth, the largest democracy, and the fastest growing large nation. It has nuclear weapons and the fourth most powerful military on earth. India is also one of the top ten national persecutors of Christians. Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) is a growing force in India, seeking to make India the dominant power in the world. Democracy seems to be receding into a sea of Hindutva.
Meanwhile, the Christian response does not change. Believers in Christ speak truth to anyone who will listen, including those in power. We heal the sick, feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, and protect widows and orphans. We enact just laws, live sacrificially, and walk with joy no matter our circumstances. We share the love of Jesus Christ with all men, including Hindus, and trust Him to call people into His kingdom. The Bhakti movement can be a bridge from Hinduism to Christianity, so long as we remember that we cannot earn Jesus’ love, He simply gives it. Instead, we love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). No works, whether of knowledge or devotion, will ever put us in right relationship with the Triune God. His love, His grace, His sacrifice, and His power are enough. All we need to do is accept what God has done for us…to take the gift that Jesus has so freely given. For that we can rejoice.
 Index of persecution of Christians in countries worldwide 2022, https://www.statista.com/statistics/271002/persecution-of-christians-worldwide/.