Text and Context in Dialogue

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Book Review
Comparative Study of Hinduism and Christianity in Nepal
by Mangal Man Maharjan
Reviewed by Mark Johnson

Ekta Books, Kathmandu, 2002, Rs 125, 168 pages.

In attempting to compare Hinduism and Christianity in Nepal, Mangal Man Maharjan lays out seven objectives that span a vast spectrum from understanding the historical development of Hinduism to answering the question Is there a place for Jesus in Hinduism? These are indeed noble goals and surely invite failure, given the complexity of Hindu philosophy and the diversity of expressions that the term Hindu encompasses. Nevertheless, Maharjan gives himself to fulfil his objectives.

After the introduction and a chapter on the origin and historical development of Hinduism, the work is structured around three main chapters (none of which are numbered) on the concepts of God and Man, Sin, and Salvation. Here we are presented with the greatest difficulty of the work is it valid to talk at all about the Hindu concept of God or whatever, as the author does repeatedly (see e.g. p. 41, 46). In the light of Richard's groundbreaking study (see above) the answer is clearly no. Maharjan himself acknowledges this: Hinduism is a combination of beliefs and institutions that have appeared over the centuries (p. 17). Notwithstanding such an admission, the author attempts a kind of synthesis of Hindu ideas in order to compare them with their Biblical counterparts. Most of the ideas he presents are apparently drawn from the philosophy of Vedanta and from the Puranic and Epic writings, such as the Bhagavad Gita.

Another difficulty presents itself here. The title of the book suggests that we are being treated to an explanation of how Nepali Hindus understand their theology. But, with a few exceptions, the author does not address any Nepali distinctions. For instance, we are given an explanation of the Vedantic concept of Brahman the Absolute Being(p. 45-52), but one wonders how much that concept resonates with Nepalis at all. With the exception of the philosophically-minded few, one would be hard put to find a Nepali Hindu that could articulate such a concept, or even recognise the word. And that brings me to express my main frustration with the book. I turn to such a book in order to understand my neighbours better. I have concrete questions, What is she doing when she rings her bell every morning and decorates (as my daughter puts it) the pipal plant? What is the tuft of hair on the head for? What is being placed on the leaf-plate in the lane? One is allowed a glimpse of what the book could have been in the author's description of the shraddha Ancestor Worship ceremony (p. 103) but sadly such local knowledge has not been given the value it is due.

Some knowledge of divergent Hindu philosophies is indeed necessary. The author's discussion of karma stands out in this regard. His description of Hindu understandings of sacrifice is also interesting and deserves a follow-up study of its own. Is there any concept of atonement in Hindu sacrifice? In another section, the author states that sin has nothing to do with God or gods (p. 155). But if that is the case, then what is the meaning of prayascitta? The author is happy to use Hindu Scriptures for evangelistic purposes (p. 120-4, 148-9). How much are apologists for the gospel using such writings in their presentation of the Lord Jesus? There must be many more very helpful passages that cry out to be employed in this way, just as Paul used the writings of his day (Acts 17: 28).

There are a number of typographical errors in the book, which should have been caught by careful proof reading. I presume connivance should read convenience (p. 30) and anthromorphic should read anthropomorphic (p. 56).

It is hoped that the author will write another volume on Nepali rituals as he himself experienced them in his childhood. We desperately need such writings that help us to make sense of what seems like a tangled web of customs, beliefs and institutions. We need to know what the men at the office believe, what the neighbours believe, what animates the real people we meet in the market. Such a study can come only out of the careful observation and reporting of local customs. Only then will we find the vital points of contact for the gospel.

Mark Johnson is the pen name of a missionary working in Nepal. He is the editor of Voice of Bhakti.

Voice of Bhakti welcomes interaction with its readers. If you have a comment please email the editor at the address below. Mark Johnson, editor

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