Text and Context in Dialogue

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Believers and Bhaktas

by H. L. Richard

In seeking to win our Hindu friends for Christ, we face no greater problem than our own identity. The challenge to follow Christ is never isolated from cultural realities, and the evangelist is always saying, at least implicitly, "follow Christ with me."

Do we want Hindus to become Christians? Before answering that questions, let us ask ourselves what our Hindu friend understands by that question. We can innocently and sincerely tell our Hindu friend that we would like him to become a Christian. Unless there has been deep and clear communication previously, however, he will hear us saying that we would like him to change his religious community, rejecting the 4,000 year cultural development of that community, to come and join our religious community which is radically divided by Roman Catholic and Protestant distinctions and hundreds of sub-sects, and which shows no superior love or spirituality above any other religious community.

Seen in this light, we could say we do not want Hindus to become Christians. We have spiritual, not communal, goals. We approve and desire to preserve most of the features of traditional Hindu culture, and ask no one for wholesale rejection of their heritage. Are our Hindu friends understanding this, however? How can we more truly and clearly communicate our true objectives to them?

One step in the right direction can be taken by initially dropping from our vocabulary the term "Christian" (Khrischan or isai) and using instead the idea of "bhakta of Christ" (Khrist-bhakta). That Christianity can be understood in terms of bhakti (devotion) is of course no new idea. But have any evangelicals yet used this terminology as a step toward a contextualised witness to our Hindu friends?

By identifying ourselves as bhaktas of Christ, and telling our friends we would like to see them also become bhaktas of Christ, we are keeping (or placing) ourselves clearly in the Hindu cultural tradition and eliminating any thought of de-nationalising or destroying a cultural heritage. We are also side-stepping the many complex communal issues, and the problems of differentiation between Christians and "true" Christians.

What is bhakti? A traditional definition can be found in the Encyclopedia of Religion article by John B. Carmen. He writes:

"The bhaktimarga is a path leading to liberation (moksha) from material embodiment in our present imperfect world and the attainment of a state of abiding communion with a personally conceived ultimate reality. The word devotion, however, may not convey the sense of participation and even of mutual indwelling between the devotees and God so central in Bhakti ?. Bhakti is the divine-human relationship as experienced from the human side." [1]

If we accept the above definition we would have much material for fruitful discussion on the value and dangers of calling ourselves bhaktas of Christ. Recent scholarship, however is moving away from the traditional definition just cited. Krishna Sharma speaks against both the idea that God is personally conceived in bhaktimarga, and against an emphasis on intense emotional states as vital to bhaktimarga. She writes:

"Bhakti is a generic term meaning loving devotion or attachment. It signifies a feeling and a sentiment, ie. an emotive state of mind ... the word bhakti, when used in the religious context, can acquire particularity only when the name or the notion of the deity to whom it is directed is mentioned along with it. Therefore, even in the religious context, the term bhakti, when used without any prefix, can mean devotion to God only in a general sense. It does not suggest any doctrinaire or ideational position, nor any particularized concept of God, personal or impersonal. Since the Hindu religious tradition is pluralistic in character in regard to beliefs, ideas, and practices, bhakti (in the sense of religious devotion) cannot be confined to any one part thereof. Nor can it be lent a specific meaning in the light of any particular sectarian theology or religious behaviour." [2]

Similarly, Klaus Klostermaier has written that "it is not possible to give any one common meaning to bhakti in different schools." [3] Earlier Klostermaier had referred to the often-mentioned universality of bhaktimarga in that 'it usually does not presuppose status (Brahmin-birth), learning (Veda knowledge) and complete withdrawal from the world (sannyasa) but is available to anyone who has some love for God and a desire to love him more, and who has faith in God's graciousness." [4]

These definitions clearly show that identifying ourselves as bhaktas of Christ involves no compromise with Hindu teaching, although we must of course be careful to show we do not mean nor practise what some of the various bhakti schools mean and practise.

But we must bring our bhakti terminology to the test of faithfulness to Biblical revelation, for if it fails there we may not touch it. Perhaps a point should be clarified before even beginning our Biblical study. We have seen above that a clear and culturally acceptable definition of true Christians is "bhaktas of Christ". We do not mean by this that Christianity is a bhaktimarga. With careful definition (or redefinition) we could speak of bhaktimarga, but initially it is perhaps best to say we are bhaktas of Christ, and Christ's bhaktas are justified by faith.

The relationships of faith and bhakti is a field for much study and discussion. What is clear in the Bible is that both are basic to true Christianity. The great New Testament emphasis on faith begins from Jesus Himself, and needs no documentation. The corruption of the faith doctrine and dangers implied in it are also often clearly portrayed (ie. Romans 6:1, 15; Jude 4 etc.) but nowhere more clearly than in James (see 2:14-26). In James 1:12 and 2:5 he mentions that God's salvation is for those who love Him (a fully Pauline idea as well: see Rom 8:28, 1Cor 2:9, 8:3; 2Cor 13:22; Eph 6:24, etc.) This of course can be traced to Jesus and the Old Testament also (see Mt. 22:35-40).

From the Biblical evidence one can argue that if Paul had a term like bhakta of Christ available in his Greek language, he surely would have used it. Having this term in our Sanskrit heritage, one could argue that it is unbiblical to ignore it! We are not only believers, but also bhaktas of Christ.

Two brief comments in closing. Firstly, should we adopt the contextualised identification of ourselves as bhaktas of Christ, this must not be a token concession to Hindu culture, disguising an otherwise non-contextualised life and this will only bring reproach on our cause if we are in any way seen to be actors not living and speaking from the heart.

Finally, whether this contextualised approach we are considering can be worked out within the parameters of our present church structures is a point for profound discussion. Quite possibly we will need to move outside present church structures, forming new structures that in no way condemn or oppose the present structures that have developed. This is just one of many more complex issues that follow on from a first step of helping Hindus to be bhaktas of Christ.


  1. "Encyclopedia of Religion", MacMillan Co., New York, 1987
  2. "Bhakti and the Bhakti Movement: A New Perspective", Krishna Sharma, Munshiram Manoharial, New Delhi, 1987.
  3. "Indian Theology in Dialogue", Klaus K. Klostermaier, Christian Literature Society, Madras, 1986.
  4. Ibid.

H.L. Richard is a researcher living in India. (This article was reprinted with kind permission from To All Men All Things Vol. 1, No. 1, 1988)

bhakti. bhakti, nom. devotion, love, loyalty