Text and Context in Dialogue

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New Paradigms for Understanding Hinduism and Contextualization
by H.L. Richard

Defining Hinduism

Hinduism is often defined in terms like the following:

Hinduism is an ancient religion that developed in India when Aryan invaders mixed with the indigenous populations around 1800 B.C. Hinduism is a complex and diverse religion; high philosophies and polytheistic worship mark its spiritual aspects, with mysticism being a prominent characteristic. Hinduism teaches that true mystical religion leads one beyond humanly-limited understandings of truth and morality as each individual can encounter the divine within their own innermost being. Hinduism developed a unique social organization, the caste system, whereby dominant high castes imposed their authority over lower and untouchable castes. The Hindu religion has been undergoing a remarkable transition over the past two centuries, with various types of reformed Hinduism developing alongside revanchist expressions (commonly referred to as Hindu fundamentalism) in response to the impact of the West and modernization.

Most readers probably have some background understanding or some feel for what Hinduism is, and will affirm the general outline of the definition just given. But that "definition" is a ruse; that definition is radically false in almost all its components. That this false definition summarizes much of evangelical writing on Hinduism and resonates with evangelical thought on that topic indicates a serious need to rethink paradigms for understanding Hinduism.


The need for a new paradigm for understanding Hinduism is not merely for the purpose of clear and accurate thought, but is a necessary perquisite for understanding contextualization in the Hindu world. Obviously the context of the Hindu world is "Hinduism", so to be wrong on that point is to skew any discussion or effort towards contextualization. A more acceptable paradigm for "Hinduism" will be found to immediately point in some helpful directions in issues of contextualization.

First, some brief comments on paradigms. The groundbreaking work of Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 study on "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" has led to an understanding of how intellectual constructs (and group commitments) determine our outlook in areas vastly other than just in the physical sciences that Kuhn focused on. These presuppositional (or even metaphysical) dominant ideas are what is meant by a paradigm. Let the illustration be the immediate topic in hand; what questions are asked and answered when we think about Hinduism? What terms do we use and what do those terms mean? When new data arises, do many people automatically know where to fit that data into the whole scheme of things? If there are commonly held definitions and perceptions among a significant number of people who view Hinduism from a common framework, then we can speak about a paradigm for understanding Hinduism.


One such paradigm for understanding Hinduism is presented in the false "definition" with which this paper opened. This can be considered an Orientalist paradigm. Orientalism has been a hot topic of debate since the landmark publication of Edward Said"s book of that title in 1978. Nowadays it seems there is as much discussion of post-Orientalism as of Orientalism, and there are still varying definitions (paradigms!) for these terms, the details of which go far beyond what this paper can explore. For the purposes of this paper, a working-level definition of Orientalism is "the study of the East by the West wherein alien constructs were/are introduced and imposed (particularly wherein the East and West were/are falsely dichotomized as fundamentally different), distorting the reality of Eastern phenomena and simultaneously affecting Eastern perceptions and life".

Orientalism is largely discredited in academia today, although debates continue towards fine-tuning Said"s thesis. The study of why and how Orientalist distortions developed, and the impact of these distortions, will no doubt be studied for decades to come.[1] The false definition of Hinduism that opens this paper is a classic summary of Orientalist distortion (as currently propagated by well meaning Christians), and the exposing of that distortion and the establishing of an alternate paradigm is the main purpose of this paper.

Sub-Paradigms under "Hinduism"

But discussion of a paradigm for Hinduism leads immediately to another important point. There are numerous sub-paradigms within the broader "Hinduism" paradigm, and the discussion of these will automatically lead up to and influence the understanding of Hinduism. For example, the "definition" of Hinduism which opens this paper begins with "Hinduism is an ancient religion". But what is meant by religion, what associations does that word carry, what conceptual framework are we automatically forcing "Hinduism" into when we call it "a religion"?

There are important paradigms of ancient history involved in paradigms of Hinduism. The "definition" above refers to an Aryan invasion of India, an Orientalist construct that needs to be abandoned, or at least radically altered. (Orientalism is perhaps most famous for its postulating of a "golden age" of Indian history, an Orientalist idea not found in current Christian constructs of Hinduism, but which lives on in some Hindu self-definitions!)

Mysticism is included in the "definition" and is an extremely slippery term. Contrasts of the mystic East and rationalist West are another defining mark of Orientalism, an exceedingly superficial contrast that radically distorts Eastern realities; a distortion that lovers of the East propagate on their assumption that mysticism is superior to rationalism, while those who attempt to discredit the East talk the same superficial lingo due to their assumption that rationalism leads to progress while mysticism is responsible for the morass (their perception) of the East.

Caste is also mentioned in the "definition", and there are various paradigms afloat to deal with this extremely complex subject. This paper will not present an authoritative paradigm for caste, as such a paradigm continues to elude sociologists and anthropologists; but the Orientalist paradigm represented in the "definition" is terribly inadequate and needs to be abandoned.

Finally, discussion of reformist and revanchist Hinduism brings up current realities. Of all areas where scholars are most likely to fail in analysis, where people are least likely to find anything resembling an objective viewpoint, it is in discussion of current events that the failure to perceive clearly is most likely. Only the most tentative of paradigms should thus be considered when discussing the changes taking place in modern Hinduism.

Hinduism as a Religion

The concept of "religion" is complex indeed. The Roman Catholic Encyclopedia of Theology, Sacramentum Mundi, in its entry on "religion" states that "there is no generally accepted definition of religion" (1989[1968]: 250). This helpful article spells out eight possible paradigms for "religion", with a ninth based on the etymological meaning of the Latin term religio, none of which are found fully acceptable. For the purposes of this paper the minefield of defining "religion" will be sidestepped in favor of a simple comparison between Hinduism and Christianity.

This comparison is taken from Heinrich von Stietencron, who points out that within Hinduism there are diversities of ritual and theology and scripture and gods that dwarf the differences that exist between the three great Semitic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. So, he points out, "If we were to subsume all these [Semitic faiths] under one umbrella term as various "sects" of one Near-Eastern religion, this would give us a proper equivalent to Hinduism." [2001:40]

But this would never be accepted by votaries of the Semitic faiths, whose convictions about their own religions are so deeply held. This means there is no proper way to equate Hinduism as a religion with the phenomena evident in the Semitic religions. Stietencron then shows how a proper equation can be developed:

If we accept Judaism, Christianity and Islam as "religions" and if, compelled by intellectual honesty, we want to apply the same term to comparable phenomena, we cannot avoid concluding that there are a number of different "religions" existing side by side within "Hinduism" [2001:41].

If it is granted, as it seems must be done if there is intellectual honesty and consistency in definitions of terms, that there are various "religions" within "Hinduism", then clearly "Hinduism" is not a religion.[2] What term then should be used to describe the complex phenomena that we call "Hinduism"? Probably the best term for these expansive phenomena is to refer to Hinduism as a civilization. As European and Chinese civilizations span vast centuries and areas and religions and developments, so also does Hinduism, which is at least close to being a synonym for Indian civilization.

As nearly every basic introduction to Hinduism points out, the first uses of the term Hindu (later expanded to "Hinduism") had geographical rather than religious connotations, so this understanding of Hinduism as a multi-faceted civilization is not by any means an entirely new construct. More significantly, the Supreme Court of India defined "Hinduism" in civilizational terms. In a 1977 definition the Court stated:

In principle, Hinduism incorporates all forms of belief and worship without necessitating the selection or elimination of any. The Hindu is inclined to revere the divine in every manifestation, whatever it may be, and is doctrinally tolerant, leaving others"including both Hindus and non-Hindus"whatever creed and worship practices suit them best. A Hindu may embrace a non-Hindu religion without ceasing to be a Hindu, and the Hindu is disposed to think synthetically and to regard other forms of worship, strange Gods, and divergent doctrines as inadequate rather than objectionable. He tends to believe that the highest powers complement each other for the well-being of the world and mankind. Few religious ideas are considered to be finally irreconcilable. The core religion does not even depend on the existence or non-existence of God or on whether there is one God or many. Since religious truth is said to transcend all verbal definition, it is not conceived in dogmatic terms. Hinduism is, then, both a civilization and conglomerate of religions, with neither a beginning, a founder, nor a central authority, hierarchy, or organization.[3]

This definition clearly did not settle the issue of how to understand "Hinduism", but that the highest court in India presented a picture so terribly at odds with standard Evangelical/Orientalist understanding is certainly noteworthy. And the point most to be stressed is how radically the paradigm by which one views "Hinduism" determines the way one thinks about the contextualization of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

If Hinduism is an alternate religion to Christianity, one naturally shrinks from suggestions that the gospel of Christ should be introduced within the Hindu religion. This is pretty much the working definition of syncretism (another slippery term, but not to be discussed in this article). But if Hinduism is understood as a civilization the picture is completely changed. Surely it is obvious that the gospel of Christ must be incarnated within every civilization. So the duty of adaptation to Hindu civilization overwhelms the fear of confusion in relating to the Hindu "religion".[4]

Paradigms of Indian History

Ancient Indian history is a source of heated debates at the present time, with three competing paradigms vying for a dominant position in modern Indian culture. The Orientalist perspective on ancient Indian history, referred to in the definition that opens this paper, has at the present time been adopted by numerous associations of Dalit activists. The Aryans, understood as the forefathers of present high caste Hindus, are foreigners to India, invaders who destroyed an earlier Indian civilization and established their own civilization which had a central place for the caste system by which untold millions of Dalits (outcastes) have been oppressed for millennia. This paradigm is commonly found among Indian Christians as well, most of whom are from Dalit backgrounds, and is even presented as fact in the most recent edition of the book Operation World.

A radically alternate paradigm has developed over the past decades, associated with the Hindutva movement for "Hindu nationalism". In this paradigm for ancient Indian history, the Aryans are the native people of India; they are the inhabitants of the Indus Valley, where a great civilization dated at around 4 millennia ago is still being excavated.

The dominant paradigm in the academic world today lies between these two extremes, which both have strong ideological biases pressing in on the construction of the paradigms. An Aryan migration or infiltration into India from Central Asia still seems a necessary historical construct; the linguistic evidence of the close association of Greek and Sanskrit languages, similarities between ancient Persian and ancient Indian faiths and practices, and differences between Rig Vedic and Indus Valley phenomena all point in this direction. But that these Aryans destroyed an earlier civilization is not supported by any evidence; and that they imposed a caste system based on racial superiority is far too simplistic a construct to accept at face value.


This leads naturally to a discussion of just what caste is and just where it did come from. This is a subject so vast and so full of varying opinions that anything resembling a comprehensive overview is impossible in this paper. There is a general scholarly consensus that the origins of caste are unknown and unlikely ever to be fully traced out, as stated by Bernard Cohen:

The origins of the caste system are undoubtedly very complex, and its direct history will probably never be known. No single theory"be it race prejudice; the manipulation of small groups in the society, such as Brahmans who wanted to buttress an exclusive social position; differential variations of occupations, which led to the valuing of some occupations and the despising of others; attempts of some groups within society to maintain their culture in the face of outside pressures; or the development of the idea of pollution and power, which led to fear of loss of power if one had contact with the food or body wastes of another group"has accounted for the origin of the system. None of the single-causal theories has proved satisfactory, and today most anthropologists and sociologists feel it is fruitless to spend much time in trying to find the origins or trace the history of the case system to its beginnings. [2000[1970]: 62]

To think clearly on the subject of caste, two quite different paradigms for caste need to be defined.

Various Hindu scriptures teach about a four-fold caste system, and most books introducing Hinduism refer to this. This is caste as varna; Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra caste (varna) groups, with the Dalits (traditionally, outcastes or untouchables) as a fifth group outside of those four. It is quite possible that caste in this sense was never other than a theoretical construct that did not clearly relate to ground realities; certainly today this is not particularly relevant (especially when vocations are assigned to the different castes, as is often done in textbooks) and the simplicity of the construct too easily conceals the dynamism evident in caste as it has developed and changed over many centuries.

Caste as jati is much more true to ground realities; there can be no final list or count of jatis. Within the Brahmin caste there are many; among the Dalits there are thousands. Individuals relate to their family and jati with a deep sense of belonging and security within each. Caste (jati) has been the fundamental social order in India for many centuries, and has deeply influenced both Islam and Christianity in India despite the theoretical claims of those religions to transcend caste.

More recently, in a massive sociological survey of India begin in the 1980s, the Anthropological Survey of India decided to define the basic units of current Indian society as "communities" rather than as "castes". Modernization and urbanization are impacting traditional caste structures, but still most of the "communities" of India are caste (jati)-based.

One enters a caste by birth, and with exceptions for some modern conversion-to-Hinduism sects, that is the only way to enter either Hinduism or a caste. There is some debate as to whether caste affiliation was always so strictly tied to birth. The idea that birth in a higher caste is due to the merit of previous lives is a deeply problematic idea in light of biblical teaching; yet this is a doctrine which is not taught today nearly as widely or as strongly as it was in the past.

What is the relationship of caste to Hinduism" In the old paradigm of Hinduism as "a religion", one would have to say that caste was a social system sanctioned by but clearly transcending that religion. In the new paradigm of Hinduism as a civilization, caste is the fundamental social order of that civilization. To present the gospel of Christ within the Hindu context is thus to present it within a caste-based social order which can only be changed by gradual processes within the civilization (a process that is radically underway, as evident by Dalit uprising and a Dalit president and a Dalit speaker of the Parliament in India in recent years).


No scholar would defend today the simplistic Orientalist construct of Eastern religions as mystical while Western religion is rational, and as that has little place in standard evangelical discussions it will not be discussed here. But it is necessary to speak against the common evangelical summaries of Hindu religious teaching that suggest that monism (or pantheism) is the fundamental reality of Hindu thought. This tendency to misinterpret religious Hinduism in a non-theistic sense is compounded for Western Christians by the development of the New Age Movement, which indeed has roots in some schools of Eastern philosophy and which is indeed generally anti-theistic.

But if it is confusion to refer to Hinduism as mystical, it is certainly only a matter of clear fact to say that most Hindus believe in and relate to God. That is enough to show that Hinduism in is varying religious expressions is fundamentally theistic. When the standard "definition" of Hinduism that opens this paper states that "Hinduism teaches that true mystical religion leads one beyond humanly-limited understandings of truth and morality as each individual can encounter the divine within their own innermost being" it is wrong, and perniciously so. For one thing, the various schools of thought (religions) within the mainstream of Hinduism all affirm truth and morality (note that all religions have had their deviant branches where these things were denied in theory or in practice).

But on the relation of the human and the divine, and in the suggestion that Hinduism teaches one to find God and salvation within oneself, there is a more radically false statement still. That the divine is to be encountered in our innermost being is not a strange idea to most Hindus; is God not in all things, including in us? But He is also beyond all things, and most Hindus look to the God (or gods) beyond, recognizing that the grace of God is necessary to help humans out of their existential dilemma(s). Thus puja (worship) is the central religious act of Hinduism, offered to various deities depending on the Hindu tradition in which one stands. Bhakti (devotion) is dominant, to the point that speaking of three ways of salvation (knowledge, works or devotion) is almost a distortion of reality (although it is a standard Hindu construct) since bhakti (devotion) is overwhelmingly what Hinduism is all about.

Modern Hinduism

Modern Hinduism is in transition, but societies and civilizations are always transitioning so this is no surprise. Modernization certainly has brought fresh challenges to Hinduism, as to other civilizations and to the many religions of the world. New religious movements are being born within Hinduism, new civilizational goals are being defined, new paradigms (particularly that of "Hindu nationalism") are challenging traditional Hindu perceptions. The ferment of the times makes any prognosis about the future an extremely speculative affair, but it hardly seems risky to suggest that Hindu civilization will continue to make its adaptations and adjustments and will continue to thrive for many centuries to come.


This brief overview of paradigms for understanding Hindu phenomena needs to be supplemented with careful study of the history, theologies, sociology, and practical life of Hindus and Hinduism. There is certainly plenty of room for disagreement on varying emphases in such complex study, but that standard Orientalist and Evangelical paradigms need to be discarded seems clear. If this paper helps stimulate such deeper study and careful thought it will not have been in vain.

But the application of recent scholarly insight into Hindus and Hinduism screams for application in the area of contextual Biblical witness for Christ in the Hindu world. The old paradigm of introducing the blessings of Christian civilization to replace the darkness of Hindu civilization, still today apparent in much Christian teaching and practice, must be abandoned in favor of an incarnational approach that seeks to plant the seed of the gospel within Hindu civilization. The fundamental stumbling block for most Hindus when facing Christianity remains that Christianity is a foreign religion, and all the evidence shows that this Hindu perception is true. Clearer thinking about Hinduism should lead to a deeper commitment to radically incarnational (contextual) approaches to the Hindu world, so that Hindus might see and feel that Christ and His good news are vitally relevant within their civilizational heritage. Without such shifts of paradigm and approach, there is little reason to hope that present and future Hindus will heed the biblical message any more than their forefathers have.


  1. Said wrote from a Middle Eastern perspective that barely mentioned India. For an appreciative but critical look at his work as it applies to India, with suggested refinements of his ideas, note Trautmann [1997: 19-27]. Extended treatments of Orientalist distortions of Indian realities can be studied in Inden 1990 and King 1991.I
  2. That Hinduism is a parliament of religions is almost a truism among many participants in South Asian life; for example R.C. Das: "Hinduism is not one religion. Many religions are covered by a meaningless term, "Hindu" [1965: 158]; and Dayanand Bharati: "Hinduism"which is rightly called a parliament of religions" [2001: 3]. It should be noted here that Stietencron"s proposal is not universally accepted among scholars. The quotations here are from his paper presented at the Ninth European Conference of Modern South Asia Studies in 1986. In his introduction to the published papers from this gathering, editor Herman Kulke refers to the "often heated and controversial discussions" [2001: 1], and suggests that Stitencron"s paper involved the "most radical reconstruction of Hinduism in this volume" [2001: 2]. Nevertheless, papers in that same volume by Romila Thapar and R. E. Frykenberg largely support Stietencron, and the whole purpose of the gathering was to wrestle with the obvious need to move beyond essentialist definitions of Hinduism to recognition of the dynamic diversity of Hindu teachings and traditions.
  3. Quoted from Sumithra [1990: 13], where no further reference is indicated. Note that Stietencron also suggests that "Hinduism" should "denote a socio-cultural unit or civilization which contains a plurality of distinct religions." [2001: 33]
  4. Obviously in this alternate paradigm there are numerous "religions" within "Hinduism", and syncretism with any and all of these needs to be avoided.

References Cited

  1. Bharati, Dayanand 2001. Living Water and Indian Bowl: An Analysis of Christian Failings in Communicating Christ to Hindus, with Suggestions towards Improvement. Second revised edition. Delhi: ISPCK.
  2. Cohen, Bernard S. 2000 [1970]. India: The Social Anthropology of a Civilization. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  3. Das, R. C. 1965. "Shree Shree Yeeshu Khrista: A Review of Benode Bihari Bandyopadhyaya"s Bengali Book "Jesus Christ the Beautiful: His Life and Discussion"" in Indian Journal of Theology, Vol. XIV No 3. Pp. 150-161.
  4. Inden, Ronald B. 2000 [1990]. Imaging India. London: C. Hurst & Co.
  5. King, Richard 1991. Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and "The Mystic East". New Delhi: Oxford University Press
  6. Kulke, Hermann, Sontheimer, Gunther-Dietz (eds) 2001. Hinduism Reconsidered. Second revised edition. Delhi: Manohar.
  7. Said, Edward W. 1994[1979]. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.
  8. Stietencron, Heinrich von 2001. "Hinduism: On the Proper Use of a Deceptive Term". In Hinduism Reconsidered, ed. Kulke and Sontheimer. Delhi: Manohar.
  9. Sumithra, Sunand 1990. Christian Theology from an Indian Perspective. Bangalore: Theological Book Trust.
  10. Trautmann, Thomas R.1997. Aryans and British India. New Delhi: Vistaar Publications.

H.L. Richard is part of the Rethinking Forum (http://www.rethinkingforum.com), an association of scholars and activists focused on contextual biblical witness among Hindus.

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

bhakti. bhakti, nom. devotion, love, loyalty