Text and Context in Dialogue

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Evangelical Approaches to Hindus
by H.L. Richard

[H. L. Richard is an independent research student focused on issues in South Asian cultures and religions.]


The evident failure of the gospel to impact the Hindu world in line with the expectations of Bible believing Christians continues to stir hearts and minds. Evangelical missiologist Timothy Tennant affirms this as the driving force behind his recent study of Brahmabandhav Upadhyay (Tennant 2000:vii). From a secularist perspective Anthony Copley sought reasons why the nineteenth century mission to Hindus failed (not least "the imperial and racial arrogance of European missionaries" (Copley 1997:216)), and how evangelical missionaries responded to that failure ("rather than admit to the weakness of Christianity, they made caste the scapegoat" (1997:xvi)).

An analysis of evangelical approaches to Hindus reveals reasons for the continued failure to impress the Hindu world. There is quite considerable diversity in approaches to Hindus by evangelicals at the present time, and recognition of these differences may also help towards developing a more united perspective. There are in fact a number of different ways that evangelical approaches to Hindus could be categorized. There is the people group approach of the church growth school, the social activism approach of Vinay Samuel and of Dalit theologians, and (at least theoretically) there is a dialogue approach.

This paper discusses evangelical approaches to Hindus at a deeper level than these, which mainly deal with strategy. Varying theological or apologetic viewpoints are evident in evangelical interaction with the Hindu world, and the five "apologetic" approaches discussed here can be (and in some cases are) carried over into any or all of the above named "strategic" approaches.

The Simple Gospel Approach

Despite talk of approaches, the first to be discussed is rather a no-approach position than any type of developed systematic viewpoint on interaction with the Hindu world. Many practitioners would define this as "preach the simple gospel"; the gospel is the same in all the world and the Hindu world like the rest of the world needs the simple gospel message. This position must be discussed first as it is undoubtedly the majority viewpoint among evangelicals approaching Hindus both historically and at the present time.

A full discussion of this (or any of the other approaches below) would demand much more space than is allowed for in this article. The appeal of this approach is its biblical simplicity; without being confused by complex Hindu philosophies or perplexing Hindu social structures the evangelical can boldly preach the biblical truth. The overwhelming problem is that this non-approach fails in exactly the area in which it likes to boast; that is, it is unbiblical.

The biblical pattern for ministry is incarnation. To be all things to all men so that by all means some might be saved is not an optional missiological approach for a few specialists to attempt, it is the basic and essential biblical pattern. No-approach "simple gospel" practitioners are in fact preaching a western gospel rather than a relevant message that reverberates in the local context. The fundamental problem here is that the gospel really is not the same in all the world, even though there is a measure of significant truth in that simplistic statement. A. J. Appasamy writes that

Once a friend said to me, "two and two make four, whether in the East or in the West. We may illustrate this in England by counting apples and in India we may use mangoes. But the fundamental proposition is the same. In the same way the Christian Gospel is the same whether in the East or in the West." This is by no means correct. The Christian Gospel is not as simple as an elementary arithmetical proposition; it is rich and varied in its nature and, therefore, calls forth different responses from different people. (Appasamy 1964:23-24)

Harvey Conn discussed the "superficiality with which we affirm the 'expression' of the gospel as 'the same' all over the world's cultural horizons" with more detail and far more theological sophistication than Appasamy; and goes far beyond what this article can even summarize (Conn 1984:122). Thoughtful evangelicals seem to be agreed now at least in principal that contextual ministry models must be developed, leading to contextual theological stances. Despite the vast differences of opinion on the practical outworkings of these matters, this point will not be further developed here.

Pentecostal Power Approaches

The second evangelical approach to Hindus is also not properly apologetic. Pentecostal power models (of varying types) continue to claim to be the solution to the problem of stubborn responses of the Hindu world to the gospel. Students of history are aware that these approaches (and claims) are not new, but have had nearly a century to demonstrate their validity. The stirrings at the Mukti Mission of the great Pandita Ramabai in 1905 can be discussed in connection with this point. [1]

Revival approaches are foreign and incomprehensible in non-Christian contexts

"God is awakening and cleansing His Church and undoubtedly preparing it for the most momentous movements of all the history of the Indian Church." (Rev. A. A. Scott in Dyer 1987 [1907]:150) "God has done a new thing....the whole outlook of missionary work in India has been changed." (Dyer 1987[1907]:158) These statements from nearly a century ago hardly differ from many still being heard. Revivals at Mukti Mission near Bombay and in the hills of northeast India had led to further manifestations in churches and mission stations all across the nation. "Praying bands" went out from Mukti Mission, where prayer focused on "fulness of Pentecostal power, so as to be able to witness to non-Christians with power sufficient to turn them to God" (Minnie Abrams in Dyer 1987 [1907]:160; in the original the entire statement is in capital letters).

J. Edwin Orr studied revivals in India and was forced to face up to their failure to produce anticipated results. He quotes approvingly from Rev. W. T. A. Barber speaking in 1900:

[God] does mightily save men in every heathen land, but a revival in the sense that we have learned to associate the term with the labour of such men as Moody does not occur among unprepared Chinese or Hindus. The remarkable thing is that such revivals do occur amidst the generations that had been leavened by the influence of Christian schools. (Orr 1970:63)

This seems a rather straightforward recognition that revival approaches (which certainly includes Pentecostal types under discussion here) are foreign and incomprehensible in non-Christian contexts. Ramabai was aware of danger in this area: "Let the missionaries begin to study the religious inclinations and the emotional side of the Indian mind; and not try to conduct revival meetings altogether according to western ways and western etiquette." (in Dyer 1987[1907]:46) But, granting that the revivals at Mukti and elsewhere did much spiritual good, one must question whether even Ramabai got to the root of the problem. The dress of the Pentecostal power method was not the problem, rather the very method itself was foreign and inadequate. No one seems to have studied out Ramabai's later reflections on the revival of 1905 (she died in 1922) and on why the anticipated impact on India never materialized. [2]

Orr concluded that "In India, the almost impregnable walls of caste hindered the flow of spiritual power from the Christians to the general population" (1970:129). This seems a confirmation of Copley's thesis that caste became the scapegoat for missionary failures (Copley 1997: xvi, etc.). If Pentecostal power could not penetrate caste, surely it was not truly biblical and Pentecostal? Focus on power is simplistic and reveals a reductionistic approach to both evangelism and to Hindu phenomena.

Christ the Fulfilment of Hinduism

A third evangelical approach to Hindus is truly an apologetic method. This is the fulfilment approach, suggesting that Christ is foreshadowed in Hindu scriptures and should be presented as the fulfilment of the Hindu's spiritual quest. A few distinct types of fulfilment apologetic could be outlined, and under J. N. Farquhar this was the dominant Protestant missionary apologetic in the early decades of the 20th century. [3] Present day evangelical fulfilment apologetics are rooted in the striking book The Arian Witness written by Krishna Mohun Banerjea in 1875 and recently reprinted (Aleaz 1998). Banerjea found Christ in the Rig Veda, particularly in the Purusha Sukta (Rig Veda 10:90, one of the most striking hymns in the Vedic corpus).

Banerjea and his followers are guilty of reading Hindu texts out of context

Banerjea and his followers to the present time are guilty of reading Hindu texts out of context. Recognition of this distorted hermeneutic explodes modern fulfilment approaches to Hindus. Rig Veda 10:90 is a creation hymn, a profound mythological account of the entire universe developing out of a primeval man (purusha, identified in later developments with the god Prajapati) who is sacrificed. The sacrifice unequivocally results in creation, including of the four-fold caste system. There is never a mention of sin or redemption, concepts completely foreign to both the immediate and broader Rig Vedic context.

Yet of this and other similar references in Hindu scripture Banerjea says "It would not be easy to account for the genesis of such an idea except on the assumption of some primitive tradition of the 'Lamb slain from the foundation of the world'"(Aleaz 1998: 515). That the lamb slain from the foundation of the world is not an ancient idea even in biblical revelation is a point not mentioned. Banerjea is at least careful to indicate that he is making assumptions, and he never states that a text says something that it does not in fact say.

In a popular book that one hopes is not truly popular a modern fulfilment writer says explicitly that "the main theme of the Purushasukta is the sacrifice of the Purusha-Prajapati which is for the remission of the sin of mankind." (Padinjarekara 1991:184) A more recent writer goes a step further still:

In verse 7 chapter 90 of the 10th book of the Rigveda, the sacrifice of Prajapathy the Son of God, is well explained. 'At the time of sacrifice, the Son of God will be tightly tied to a wooden sacrificial post using iron nails by hands and legs, he will bleed to death and on the third day he will regain his life in a resurrection.' (Menon n.d.:91) [4]

An attempt to expose all the hermeneutical fallacies of fulfilment approaches to Hindus by modern evangelicals would fill a book if not a series of books. The texts quoted are obscure and few readers, Hindu or Christian, can check the references or understand what they are reading if they do somehow manage to find the passages quoted. But intelligent Hindus and Christians can sense that something is wrong, and these approaches bear little fruit. That this is the best approach to devout Hindus known to many Indian Christians is itself a terrible tragedy.

Worldview Confrontation

A fourth evangelical approach to Hindus is best called worldview confrontationalism. This is generally rooted in a presuppositional apologetic and is quite the dominant perspective in literature from evangelical intellectuals. Historical roots of this position could certainly be traced to 19th century missionary attacks on Hindu philosophy, but one suspects its present popularity has more to do with recent trends in the western world.

When eastern religious ideas began their profound infiltration of the western world in the 1960s responses such as Os Guiness' in The East, No Exit (1968) were profoundly helpful to many, including the present writer. Guiness and many others have studied the philosophical roots and tendencies of the "export variety" of "Hinduism" which is an influential component in the New Age Movement. This monistic world view was then placed in juxtaposition to biblical theism and the superiority of the latter, both as intellectual construct and as practically fruitful in life, was demonstrated.

A full analysis of this "Hindu" teaching and its relation to classical Hindu thought systems cannot be attempted here, but all familiar with both the New Age Movement and "Hinduism" at the ground level in India are well aware that there is very little relationship between the two. What is helpful in a New Age context will not necessarily be helpful in a traditional Hindu context; in fact most likely will be completely useless.

Photo by Morna Lincoln

Resisting the temptation to develop analysis of this fascinating subject, the point of practical import will be immediately defined. Most Hindus do not have a clearly defined world-view in terms of monism and/or theism. Evangelical apologetics against monism in favour of theism are simply irrelevant in traditional Hindu contexts. The average Hindu holds to a syncretic (if this is not too pejorative a term) mix of monistic and theistic ideas; Daniel Sheridan in his outstanding study on the Bhagavata Purana (1986) shows how this is true even of inscripturated Hindu thought, so it should not be a surprise that it is a fact in popular Hindu consciousness.

Most Hindus do not have a clearly defined world-view

Of course, Hindu apologists especially since Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) have pressed the point that true "Hinduism" is from the advaita Vedanta tradition of God beyond personality and names and forms, and popular idolatry is a low level of faith that it is best to tolerantly ignore. (That Vivekananda misrepresented the advaita tradition that he claimed to expound is now clearly documented by Anantanand Rambachan (1995)). Hindu apologists can be excused for presenting what they deem the best in Hindu tradition while overlooking less appealing phenomena; for Christian thinkers to also present their propaganda position as an exposition of Hinduism is inexcusable. And that theism is dominant in popular Hindu thought and practice should be apparent to all. [5]

So a true world-view confrontation with the Hindu must entail a wrestling with varying theistic concepts, rather than a simplistic (and falsely conceived) theism vs. monism argument. The appearance of such an apologetic argument would be very welcome indeed, and yet also must be considered very inadequate in terms of a biblical interface with Hindu contexts. The Bible does not elevate the conceptual and intellectual faculties to the level that these apologists do. The Hindu sits lightly to intellectualizing, rightly perceiving that God transcends our human definitions and distinctions. A proper intellectual apologetic based on Hindu realities is thus still largely an irrelevance; the present popular misconstrued apologetic is truly a nuisance that prevents many from grappling with the realities of actual Hindu contexts while holding to an intellectual construct that distorts reality and hinders effective communication.

Holistic Contextualization

The fifth and final evangelical approach to Hindus must be acknowledged as more of a wish and a dream than a reality that can be documented. Contextualization has been a buzz word in mission circles for a few decades but despite some talk there is very little sign of serious effort by evangelicals to develop contextual witness in the Hindu world. In this brief discussion an attempt will be made to define the vital distinguishing point for contextual witness among Hindus.

In so far as evangelicals discuss contextualization among Hindus, the discussion deals with cultural concerns. Roman Catholic and ecumenical scholars and practitioners have made many pioneering steps in cultural adaptation in relation to Hindu practices and concepts, providing much scope for reflection and discussion. But if a vital evangelical concern for contextual interaction with Hindus is to be born it is vital that from the start it recognize that cultural concerns are secondary in Hindu contexts.

The primary issue (at least in south Asian Hindu contexts, where the vast majority of Hindus live) is that of community identity. While an extreme polarization between western individualism and eastern community-consciousness must be avoided, it is certainly true that a Hindu's identity is very much more tied to a social community than is a westerner's identity. It is a tragedy of Indian Christian history that discipleship to Christ has always (with very few exceptions) been defined and practiced as involving the transfer of community identity from birth community to a new community. Originally this new community was perhaps hoped to be that of the disciples of Jesus; for over four centuries now it has in fact included all Europeans in India (soldiers, colonial rulers, etc.) and anyone born of ancestors who were once baptized as Christians.

The primary issue is that of community identity

The offense and scandal in Hindu homes to Christian baptism is widely known; that the reason for this offense is the sociological dislocation of the "convert" from his own parents and society is not widely recognized. ("Conversion" in India means this sociological change; that Indian evangelicals also include a spiritual aspect in their understanding is easily missed by Hindus who are deeply offended by this sociological aspect which Indian evangelicals have yet to distance themselves from.) Biblical faith and evangelism know nothing of this type of sociological transfer of community allegiance (nor is there anything resembling a parallel in western cultures, thus assisting continued blindness to this reality by outside observers). Yet this is the cutting edge of contextual ministry among Hindus, and it is past time to seriously reflect and take action on this point.

The repercussions of this can be quickly spelled out but are emotionally shocking and so extremely controversial. The very terminology of "Christian," which is popularly and legally enshrined as meaning a separate sociological community from Hindu and Muslim communities, needs to be abandoned. The disciple of Christ needs to own his own people's community designation and adamantly affirm that he remains with them sociologically and will follow Christ among them and will not join the "Christian community". Only when community identity and relations are so affirmed is the sociological context of India taken sufficiently seriously, so this approach alone should be considered as contextual ministry among Hindus. [6]

The offense to baptism is widely known; that the reason for this offense is the sociological dislocation of the "convert" from his own parents and society is not widely recognized

Caste and Identity

If that is not sufficiently shocking, community identities in modern India are still predominantly based on caste. (See the definitive (surely not infallible) list of India's 4,635 communities from The Anthropological Survey of India, Singh 1992 and/or 1998.) So the new disciple of Christ in contextual ministry will be encouraged to maintain his or her caste identity while following Christ. A few facts should perhaps be stated to prevent total misunderstanding at this point:

1. Caste is no longer today what it was even a century or two ago, and the theology of superiority by birth of "higher" over "lower" castes is no longer the dominant ideology. [Superiority educationally and economically, and structural hindrances to the lifting of "lower castes" remain as massive problems quite on a parallel with racial issues in the western world.]

2. Caste normally defines only social and not spiritual concerns; inter-caste marriage is scandalous but inter-caste worship is not. Caste-based churches are thus not implied in this contextual ministry, although in some cases these may develop even as they have in the past in spite of Christian anti-caste teaching and attempted practice.

3. Caste and community are both dynamic concepts and no one can foresee what the future holds in this complex area. Contextualization must also be dynamic and in no way blindly conservative.

4. The burden of proof and defense surely does not lie with incarnational witness within Hindu civilization, which means witness within caste structures. Those who wish to supplant Hindu society with an entirely new society and civilization certainly carry a heavy burden of proof in light of New Testament revelation. [7]

5. Far from paving a smooth path for the new disciple of Christ, this model leaves him or her in limbo. His or her family and society know the antecedents of confession of Christ and "know" he or she will soon betray them. Christian disciples of Christ are aghast and fail to comprehend what is being attempted and why, and so shun rather than encourage the new disciple. [8]

Historical models of contextual witness in this sense of recognizing the vital role of community are not lacking. Robert de Nobili is of course the classic case, but much nearer to the present and from a decidedly evangelical stance N. V. Tilak showed the basic steps towards a truly contextual ministry approach. [9]

When the hurdle of community identity is addressed and crossed, the secondary but still vital concerns of culture fall into proper perspective. Of course new disciples of Christ will not change diet or dress or name when they continue a primary identification with their natural community; these questions only arise when the Christian community consciously or unconsciously pressures the new disciple to conform to the ways of the new community. Complex questions related to marriage and participation in religio-cultural festivals are of course raised anew with much more at stake that a feeling of orthodox orthopraxy. Providing adequate fellowship and discipleship for such new disciples becomes a heavy burden for those not inside the community of the new disciple. And this is only a beginning, not the end of a list of complications. But the Lord Jesus called his disciples neither to easy ways nor to the avoidance of controversy.


What does it mean to be all things to all men in Hindu contexts? Simple gospel and Pentecostal power methodologies avoid the question. Those who espouse a fulfilment approach are generally very sensitive to cultural realities and must be commended at this point; but they miss the centrality of community and misuse Hindu scripture. Worldview apologists are intellectualistic rather than holistic, and work from inadequate paradigms of Hindu worldviews.

A holistic contextual approach to Hindus is the antidote to these inadequate approaches. Rigorous thought is necessary to engage the complex pluralism of the Indian philosophical tradition and (more so) to trace out the non-intellectualist appeal of devotional Hinduism. Cultural (and some religious) symbols with their dynamic meanings must be understood and adopted or adapted appropriately.

But particularly the gospel is only contextual in India when it enters the social structure and is lived out by disciples within existing sociological communities. There is little hope for penetration of the gospel through the thousands of Hindu communities as long as the leaven of a new disciple of Jesus is removed from the lump of the natural Hindu community and placed into another ("Christian") community with different cultural norms. But within the rich diversity of the variegated communities of Hindus the gospel may prosper and expand until, in the words of R. C. Das,

to the Indian heart illumined by the light of the cross will be manifest the wonders, beauty and fascinating power of the love of God in a manner, and with a result, undreamt of before. (Richard 1995:106)


1. Note that by doing so no disagreement is implied with the nuanced discussion of Werner Hoerschelmann, who considers Ramabai and the Mukti experience outside of "specific Pentecostalism" and its "increasingly denominational character" (Hoerschelmann 1998:34-35). Rather, here the "Pentecostal power" approach to Hindus is used in a broad and not carefully nuanced sense.

2. Ramabai is brilliantly discussed by Ram Bapat (1995), and Nicol Macnicol's (1926) perspective on her complex (over-)reaction to her Hindu heritage is still worthy of note.

3. For a brief summary and analysis of this early 20th century fulfilment theology see Richard 1997.

4. R. T. H. Griffith in the standard English translation of the Rig Veda gives this for R.V. 10:90:7: They balmed as victim on the grass Purusha born in earliest time. With him the Deities and all Sadhyas and Rsis sacrificed. (Griffith 1973(1889):602-3) Menon acknowledges that he used a Malayalam translation of the Vedas, and perhaps he confused a Christian gloss with the actual text. Or perhaps he "quoted" from confused memory (there is no reference to a sacrificial post or binding anywhere in the Purusha Sukta, let alone of resurrection; other examples of similar quoting of texts that do not exist could be given from popular evangelical fulfilment literature). Padinjarekara's problem in the quotation here is a more standard reading in of his own Christian ideas to the Vedic text; he is guilty of still worse hermeneutical extravagances at other points in his volume.

5. Not "pure" theism, however that might be defined, since as already noted the Bhagavata Purana demonstrates a mixture of advaitic and theistic concepts. Note that the Ramayana of Tulsidas, probably the only scripture more popular in north India than the Bhagavata Purana, includes this brilliant summary statement: Let them preach in their wisdom, who contemplate thee as the Supreme Spirit, the Uncreated, the inseparable from the universe, recognizable only by inference and beyond the understanding; but we, O Lord, will unceasingly hymn the glories of thy incarnation. (Book 7 Chand 5 quoted from Growse 1987[1891]:636)

6. I have discussed this point in more detail in analysing the data related to Christianity in India presented in the massively impressive work of the Anthropological Survey of India (Richard 2000).

7. For caste as a fundamental defining point of Hindu civilization many past missionary scholars could be quoted; see Farquhar 1976[1904]:v for example. The eccentric Hindu Nirad C. Chaudhuri perhaps says it best: Taking the [caste] system as a whole I would describe it as a social organisation which contributes to order, stability, and regulation of competition, and I would close the digression with a piece of advice to the foreign reformers of Hindu society, and their Hindu imitators: Please keep your tongues and pens off the caste system. If I could believe that the caste system was going to be destroyed in India by the palaver I would have added: "Please do not pulverize a society which has no other force of cohesion, into amorphous dust." But since there is no danger whatever to the caste system, I would only say: "Don't make fools of yourselves". (Chaudhuri 1987[1965]:62)

8. For an anecdotal account demonstrating this phenomenon see Bharati 1997.

9. On de Nobili see Sauliere 1995; on Tilak see Richard 1999.

References Cited

Evangelical Approaches to Hindus, Missiology, Vol 29, No 3, July 2001 used with permission Sept 4, 2001

bhakti. bhakti, nom. devotion, love, loyalty