Thinking about religion it is easy to be impressed (if that’s the right word) by the wide diversity of religious traditions and beliefs. The most general categories we use for talking about religions are ‘western’ and ‘eastern’, and our most historically significant examples of each of these are provided by Christianity and Hinduism. It may be surprising then, just how similar the two monolithic systems of the supposedly divergent traditions are.
Parenthetically, here are four prefatory remarks: 1) I am talking about Hinduism’s similarity to Christianity and not the other way around because I assume most of my readers will be much more familiar with Christianity. 2) ‘The religion of Hinduism’ is not a politically correct name for the practice which it denotes because it is a western concept imposed upon indigenous Indians by colonial powers, really we should call it Sanatana Dharma, the ‘Eternal Way’. 3) In talking about Hinduism I am giving priority to Vedanta, which is regarded as the most philosophically sophisticated and popular tradition of Hindu thought, although it is only one of many. 4) Since originally writing this piece I have read a lot more about Hindu philosophy and its relation to Christianity in particular, so I aim to follow this post up with more sophisticated treatment.
1. They both hold that there is one God (Brahman), and in contrast to Judaism and especially Islam, this is a God in whom distinctions between personalities are to be made. Importantly, Brahman can also be expressed as Isvara, the Lord who it is proper for Hindus to worship.
2. Surprisingly, in the most popular forms of Hinduism that are theistic (Bhakti ), an operative concept is God’s infusing people with his grace (anugraha). Many philosophers, such as Ramanjura, have taught that the salvation of liberation (moksha) is ultimately dependent on this grace.
5. The doctrine that humankind has forever been born in a state of ignorance (Avidya) takes the place of Original Sin. This is similar in saying that people start off intrinsically lacking spiritual direction in their lives, and that this lack is the major cause of evil.
6. Hinduism has two sets of principle authoritative scriptures, the Vedas and the Upanishads (which can include the Bhagavad Gita), whose relationship is akin to that between the Old and New Testaments in Christianity.
7. Baptism: while it is common for religions to have initiation ceremonies that involve washing, the one Hindu ceremony for initiation into the regular practice of rituals (upanayana) confers on the subject the status of dvija, which can be translated as ‘twice-born’ or ‘born again‘.
8. An important part of rituals is fasting and other forms of sacrifice.
9. Although celibacy is encouraged, the family unit is viewed as the most important and standard form of human life.
10. The progressive movement in Hinduism associated Vivekananda and Gandhi emphasised the preferential option for the poor, the doctrine that service to God is exemplified most clearly in service to the poor. In view of this, Gandhi campaigned to end the ostracism of the poor through a method of non-violent resistance which he explicitly stated was inspired by Jesus (although of course there were pacifistic ideas in Indic religion long before the time of Jesus).
Further similarities that apply specifically to Catholic Christianity:
11. They are the world’s two most intellectual traditions of religious thought.
12. In contrast to Protestantism and Islam, they both allow much latitude for non-literal interpretations of scripture.
13. Strong traditions of monasticism and mystical practice.
14. Both monks and ministers are (meant to be) celibate.
15. They both pray through images and statues –
16. And to other venerable figures (i.e. saints and demi-‘gods’).
17. Buddhism can be seen as somewhat akin to the Reformation movements in Christianity.
18. They both have major rituals where food is blessed and turned into God and then received in the form of eating (the Eucharist and solemn prasada).
19. For Ramanuja, one of the most important of Vedanta philosophers, while one attains merit (karma) through good works, one can only reach the direct vision of God (Darśana), through grace. This sounds incredibly like the views of justification and the Particular Judgement that come from Thomistic philosophy.
20. Salvation consists in being purified so as to enter into the life of the divine (the mystical body of Christ or Brahman).
21. The process of salvation is usually incomplete upon death and requires further individual life for spiritual development and purification (purgatory and reincarnation).
In the light of the above it might not be too much of a stretch of the imagination to hold that Hinduism has more in common with Catholicism that Protestantism does!
A thought to finish on: perhaps that most distinctively western of religions, Christianity, has really been an eastern religion all along. After all, it did begin in Palestine, the nation we refer to when we talk about the key conflict in the Middle-East.