Christian Reflections on Hinduism

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Our Experience of Hinduism

Experiencing Hinduism through the eyes of our friends Nicky and Amar has been a truly unique and wonderful phenomenon.

The American Christians I know who have come to India see Hinduism through the windows of Indian churches and tour busses. They typically describe the religion as “dark” and the spiritual climate of the country as “oppressive.”

On the other hand, spiritual seekers come from the West to learn the deepest insights of Hindu practice and philosophy. They seek out gurus, sadhus, and holy men whose charisma and acesis are widely acclaimed. They return bearing all sorts of interesting ideas and practices, and, of course, very positive remarks about the spiritual capacity of Hinduism.

Neither of these extreme viewpoints very well prepared us to encounter the real religion of India. Hinduism, as we have seen it practiced by our friends, is neither excessively dark nor incredibly mature. It has beautiful elements and shadowy elements. In all respects, it is a different way of seeing the world and being in the world, with all sorts of advantages and disadvantages over our Western thought patterns.

We have gathered fragments of Hinduism from our friends because it is a part of their lives and they want to share it, not because we have a pre-existing commitment to debunk the religion or a desire to convert to it. We do not claim to be unbiased observers of these religious passions: we are committedly Christian, after all, and find the ultimate source of our hope and spiritual life in Jesus Christ, whatever fascinating stories and practices we find in the far corners of the world.

Hanuman Mandir

One morning, Amar took me to the Hanuman Mandir (the Temple of the Monkey God in Delhi). Hanuman Mandir is situated in a fairly odd place: it rests on a narrow strip of land along a major thoroughfare, and is not 200 feet from an overpass.

It was easy for me to recognize the temple at Rama Krishna Ashram as sacred space, but Hanuman Mandir seemed more like a fun house to me. The style of architecture can only be described as monkey: the building is gigantic monkey statue, probably about a hundred feet high. The temple complex beneath consists of a few small rooms joined by narrow and often low tunnels.

It seems the key purpose of the temple is to provide full sensory engagement in the divine stories of Hinduism, much in the same way that, say, a Disney fun house might aim to provide a full sensory engagement with the story of Mickey Mouse. The inside of the temple was filled with a tremendous variety of textures and colors. Paintings and statues of the gods adorned hallways. Water dripped from the walls and ceilings, incense filled the air. Give the priest a penny, and he offers a handful of sweets and a touch of grey ash or red tikka to the forehead.

Amar made small gestures of respect to the gods and the priests as we passed. Other worshipers bowed, knelt, or prostrated. I made the Sign of the Cross, not in angry defiance to these deities, but in recognition that Jesus Christ, God of the Universe, is present even in the most unlikely places.

As we left the temple, we stepped through the mouth of a giant monkey head: vomited forth from one world I didn’t understand into another.

“You like?” Amar asked me.

“Sure,” I said, with enthusiasm. Though I cannot claim to have understood what I experienced, I can be and remain a delighted observer.

The Parade

“Today is lucky day,” Nicky told us one evening, “Today another festival. Twenty, thirty minutes, they close the street and many, many people walk by. Just down there, by your hotel. One, two minute walk.”

“Like a parade?” I asked.

“How you say in English?” Nicky confirmed, “Parade?”

Nicky’s explanation of what was being celebrated was a little hard to grasp. Apparently it was some combination of religious and national procession. We’ve become wary of these urban “festivals” after our fair experience, but hearing a ruckus without seeing too thick a crowd enticed me to investigate. We dropped Sarah off at the room, and Nicky, Amar, and I walked to the street corner.

A temporary stage had been erected on the corner, which was packed full of men in white robes. One man shouted melodic injunctions of praise, while a group of men in played eardrum-shattering music on an odd assortment of drums, whistles, and kazoos. Occasionally someone ascended the stage to receive a gift.

The smell of diesel fuel filled the air, making it almost impossible to breathe. Tractors drove by, pulling platforms loaded with huge plastic statues of Hindu gods and goddesses, or living dioramas depicting heavenly drama. Bicycle rickshaws carrying huge, noisy generators followed close in tow. Disorganized marching bands came at odd intervals, sometimes two or three at a time, all heavy on the drums, and all playing different tunes.

Occasionally, a line of men carrying chandeliers would occupy the space between two of the floats. In the lighted area, young men danced fanatically. As men from the stage through flower petals down on them, they stepped up the fervor of their devotional dance. Many of them looked like they were being electrocuted.

All of the participants in the parade were barefoot, signifying the sacredness of the procession. The spectators were mostly Indian, and mostly downtrodden. One demographic was easy to pick out: tallish, white people, many of them wearing dreadlocks, darted in an out of the parade, snapping pictures like photojournalists.

“Tourism,” I thought, “is kind of like its own religion, with its own rules, rituals, and sacraments. I wonder if there are any missionary outreaches in tourist colonies like Paharganj.”

A Few Observations on Hinduism

Hinduism is an utterly chaotic faith. If there is one thing I have learned in my encounters with these organized expressions, that is it.

Part of it, I am sure, is its foreignness. A language is nothing but high-paced babbling to those who do not speak it: similarly the living symbols of a religion are simply overwhelming for those who have not been gradually invited into its imagery.

Part of it, however, is intrinsic to the nature of faith. A vital religion must reach people at all levels. It must entice the uninitiated with powerful experiences, and offer a library of symbols and stories through which the committed can understand and interpret their life and the world. Hinduism has no restrictions on using any artistic medium, and eagerly laps up any new stories and images that are perceived to have power.

Some estimates as to the size of the Hindu pantheon stretch into the tens of thousands. The wheel of Hindu imagery, therefore, must spin with dizzying speed to give appropriate homage to all possible deities. It must move so rapidly that God can be both one being and a million in the same instant and the worshipers never have a chance question the contradiction.

Some people claim that India is Hindu the way that America is Christian. As I have reflected on it, I don’t think that this is the most suitable analogy. Hinduism is more than just the most popular and most visible religious philosophy in the land. Hinduism describes the social-cultural reality of the Indian landscape. It permeates all aspects of life, from the lyrical pleas of the beggars to the icon-laden dashboards of auto-rickshaws to the colorful crush of the Dussera mela.

A closer comparison might be that India is Hindu in the same way that America is capitalist. Hinduism is the reality that undergirds everyday life. People participate in it in varying ways, to varying degrees, simply by living in India. Consequently, Hinduism is evolving as India is evolving, and quite quickly as well.

Jesus Christ is present here also, though sometimes invisibly. The Church is present here and working, participating in emerging shape of this evolving spiritual atmosphere, and also being shaped by this unique place, and the unique attitudes that inhabit it. And this is what we have come to see. Pray for us, and pray for India.

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