Text and Context in Dialogue

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Book Review
The Spirit of Hinduism: A Christian perspective on Hindu thought,
by David Burnett
Reviewed by Mark Johnson
Tunbridge Wells: Monarch, 1992, 286pp.

Although in South Asia there has been a steady trickle of books about Hinduism by Christians one is hard put to find even a handful published in Britain or N. America. Considering the number of missionaries coming to the region from those places this is something of a mystery. The Spirit of Hinduism: A Christian perspective on Hindu thought by David Burnett of All Nations Christian College in England was no doubt written with this in mind. As such, it has the status of a textbook for many new missionaries in their first faltering attempts to understand the religion of the people they have come to live among. Considering that the volume is just one of series on different religions by the writer it is remarkable that he has read so widely and been able to synthesise so much data from the academic literature. In 20 easy-to-read chapters the author covers the origins and development of Hindu religion, main schools of Hindu philosophy, major religious streams, and some of the modern movements. The book is rounded off with a helpful bibliography and glossary. The latter is sadly marred by the gloss of bhakti "Hindu devotion", and puja "a common form of Hindu worship". Such definitions, not found in such a form in other books, prejudice the reader against their use in the worship of Jesus. My main problems with the book, though, are more fundamental.

Firstly, rather than describe Hinduism as a civilisation that has given rise to a diverse spectrum of religions the author conveys the impression that there is a single spirit of Hinduism. So rather than simply writing that some Hindus worship Vishnu more than Shiva, he tells us that Shiva is the second deity (p. 150). Shiva is certainly not considered the second deity in either Nepal or South India. Hindu religion varies tremendously from region to region, community to community and even person to person a reality not clearly expressed in the book. As with many books of this genre the reader of this book could be forgiven for thinking that Hindus are only found in India other parts of the sub-continent are not even mentioned.

Secondly, though the blurb on the back tells us that the book will offer an indispensable resource to missionaries, I wonder how helpful such a book would be in preparing someone to live and witness in this context. The problem with the way the book is constructed is that it hardly addresses popular Hinduism at all. One is left with an introductory knowledge of Hindu history and philosophy but hardly any impressions of how it is unpacked in a Hindu's daily life. We are given a whole chapter on Vedic religion, which has very little import for today's worshipper, but no mention of the daily puja, which for millions is an essential part of their life. Nothing is mentioned of the plethora of festivals and as for caste there is only the slightest hint that the social system has changed dramatically in modern times (p. 93-5).

Expatriates who seek to witness for Christ in Nepal and want to understand their neighbours must realise that such books may not correspond very closely with the situation on the ground. This book then would need to be heavily supplemented with careful observation of local customs and the interview of informants to ascertain what they think of those customs.

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

In 1921 there was a jungle fire in the Himalayas. While most of the people round were busy putting it out, I noticed several men standing looking into a tree. I asked, "What are you looking at?" They pointed to a nest full of young birds on a tree whose branches were already alight. Above it a bird was flying wildly about in great distress. They said, "We wish we could save that nest, but we can't get near it for the fire." I watched, and a few minutes later saw the nest catch fire. I thought, "Now the mother-bird will fly away," but no! I saw her fly down, spread her wings over the young, and in a few minutes she was burnt to ashes with them. I had never seen anything like it before. Then I said to those standing by, "We are amazed at this wonderful love; but, please think that when such astonishing love is seen in this little creature, how much more wonderful must His love be Who has created such an unselfish nature. The same infinite love brought Him down from heaven to become man, so that by giving His own life he might save us who were dying in our sins."

Sunder Singh, The Spiritual Life

bhakti. bhakti, nom. devotion, love, loyalty