Aside

Hindu Temple at Khajurahao

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 a more sophisticated treatment.

Similarities:

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.

3. They both identify an important expression of God’s nature as the Logos (God the Son and the Om mantra), an eternal Word of Wisdom.

4. God became incarnate in our universe as a personal revelation of his wisdom (as the respective lords Christ and Krishna/Ram).

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.

Hinduism & Christianity

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15 responses »

  1. Pingback: Buddhism & Christianity « Vibrant Bliss

    • Thanks Tāṇḍava, I am aware of that, I should have added that qualification in addition to my focus on Vedanta.

      It is interesting to add that the Vedanta of the 13th century philosopher Madhva was almost identical to traditional Christianity, save for the focus on the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

  2. There are two major differences between Hinduism and Christianity. 1) Cow is sacred in hinduism while Christians eat it. 2) Christians bury the dead while Hindus burn them.

    • Certainly there is a special respect for the bovine species (the precise term ‘sacred’ only really occurs within Chrisitianity) that isn’t present within Christianity, but Christians don’t *have* to eat beef and many Christians today are turning towards vegetarianism for moral and environmental reasons, see: https://vibrantbliss.wordpress.com/2011/10/03/got-no-beef-with-me/

      As for cremation, this seems to be just a cultural difference between the East and West, but again it is not an absolute one. While the Christian doesn’t have to cremate, it is not discouraged. I have been to a few Christian cremations and I know several Christians who plan to be cremated. Indeed I expect that it is the norm for Christians today because graveyard space is so limited (and thereby expensive).

      • I’m interested in why you say sacred only applies to Christianity. Though it is not a native term to Hinduism I think the meaning is essentially the same as Pavitra.

  3. Your ignorance of protestantism is mind blowing. There are as many forms of Protestant denominations and beliefs as there are leaves in a forest. Some are literalists(fundamentalists), some believe that the Bible is inspired by the God, and ultra liberals believe that the Bible is a history of man’s relationship with God through man’s eyes and not sacred in of it itself.

    Hinduism was totally polytheistic until the expansion and imperialism of Islam into India. It’s polytheistic religion was more comparable to Greek or roman mythology(but more transcendental) than to Islam or Christianity or Judaism. It was not until the influence of Islam and later Christianity that branches of Hinduism tried to refocus into a monotheistic variant. The reason that that Vedanta is comparable to Christianity or Judaism or Islam is that it is a repackaged Hinduism with a monotheistic face.

    I do appreciate your blog regarding the comparison between the two religions, but only disagree with you.

    • Well by Protestantism I didn’t mean ‘non-Catholic’ but specifically orthodox variants of Reformed Christianity such as Calvinism.

      While I wouldn’t agree that Santana Dharma (Hinduism) was ever much comparable Greeco-Roman (or North European) Paganism other than having many deities, your point that it is only Vedanta that is particularly similar to Christianity is no argument against what I am saying, since that is exactly what I am focusing on: Vedanta. Early Hindusim was incredibly sophisticated in its scriptures and spiritual practice, indeed it was the most sophisticated ancient culture we are aware of.

    • Hinduism was totally polytheistic until the expansion and imperialism of Islam into India.

      I think not. Adi Shankara (788 CE – 820 CE) taught monism (a variant of monotheism) before Islam came to India. It has been argued that this was a response to Buddhism, though not to Islam.

      The roots of monotheism in Hinduism date back to the Rig Veda, which states:

      They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuṇa, Agni, and he is heavenly nobly-winged Garuda.
      To what is One, sages give many a title they call it Agni, Yama, Mātariśvan.

      .

      Hinduism has always had monotheistic schools, as well as polytheistic, henotheistic, and historically atheistic schools.

  4. I actually really enjoyed this article. I was coming to it thinking that it was going to be another “Jesus=Krishna” argument and I’d feel like my eyes were going to fall out of their sockets from rolling them so much. But instead, I found that someone else found what I found when I researched Hinduism. Philosophically (and even theologically) there isn’t much difference between Christianity and Hinduism. Although I am a devout Christian, I found that there was much in the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita with which I agree.

    Thank you for this, it puts to words much of what I already thought.

  5. Very interesting article. one difference I suppose is the concept of the cycle of re-births in hiduism. However an interesting parallel I see is the similarity between the Vedic times and the old testatement and the new testament and the bhati marg outlook in the Bhagavad Geeta. The Geeta recognises that the way of Dharma (law) which is similar to the 10 commandments would always entrap man in Sin (Maya). The best way out is the bhakti marg – recourse in Krishna (for Hindus) or Christ (for the christians). Any thoughts on this?

    • Yes, that is true. I am not sure what ‘marg’ means, but bhakti yoga or devotion (and salvation through grace) is seen by many of the Hindus who revere the Bhagavad Gita especially to be a superior path. The question that the comment from CeCe alluded to above, whether Christ and Krishna (or people’s experiences of them) are ultimately the same entity/phenomenon, is another issue entirely and of dubious scholarly value.

  6. Pingback: Parables as a Guide to Jesus the Philosopher, Part 8: More Possessiveness | The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast | A Philosophy Podcast and Blog

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