Hinduism

Hinduism in the UK

Introduction: Hinduism

Our norms of presentation do not lend themselves to this kaleidoscopic phenomenon known in the West as Hinduism.  It may be considered a religion, a philosophy, a way of life, a world view, but it is known to its adherents as sanatana dharma – the eternal law or sacred order, where dharma implies how things are or should be.  There are the various manifestations of religion such as rituals, myth and doctrine, but there are also social implications such as the caste system which plays a significant part of ‘how things are’.  By way of clarification, the term Hinduism is derived from the Persian reference to those people who live East of the River Indus – thus, a Hindu – and the term ‘ism’ to denote a concept or entity. The term was taken up by the British colonial authorities for convenience sake. Hinduism has no founder, no creed, and no central governing organisation equivalent to an ecclesiastical body and prior to the Hindu diaspora, was essentially an Indian phenomenon.

History of Hindu Presence in the UK

Whilst Hindus came to the UK since the beginning of the British presence in India, these were relatively few in number, mainly as students and, predominantly, men of various professions.  However, after the Second World War, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus from India came to fill much needed posts in factories, transport, and hospitals.  A second group of migrants came as a result of the expulsion from East Africa of those Indians whose forebears had gone there as indentured labourers to build, and later maintain, the railway system.  A third group came in the later decades of the twentieth century when finances allowed families to come to the UK and before immigration rules made entry more difficult.  Included in this group were Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka as well as professionals from India.

The 2011 census indicated there were about 817,000 Hindus resident in the UK, amounting to 1.5% of the population.[i] In 2012 there were over 150 Hindu Temples which are mainly autonomous in nature. Most British Hindus live in England, with half living in the London Boroughs of Brent, Harrow and Ealing.[ii]

Hindu organisations in the UK

A British form of Hinduism has emerged reflecting a tendency towards individualism but also, paradoxically, incorporating a community style of worship which enhances community solidarity. There are two umbrella organisations, The Hindu Council UK and The National Council of Hindu Temples. The latter emphasises the importance of the practice of bhakti (devotion) over the more philosophical strain associated with the 19th century teacher Vivekananda.  The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), popularly known as the Hari Krishna movement, has played an important part in the emergence of a ‘British’ Hinduism reflecting devotion to Krishna.  Its UK headquarters is at Bhaktivedanta Manor in Hertfordshire.  Other more recently built temples, reflecting the growing confidence of Hindus include the Swaminarayan Temples in Neasden and Kingsbury and the Shree Sanatan Mandir in Wembley. Both caste identity and the more assertive nature of the Hindu nationalist movement in India are also reflected in the foundation of other temples in the UK.

Hinduism – Main Features and Beliefs

The Human Condition

In brief outline, central to the understanding of popular Hinduism is the need to think in terms of a cyclical concept of time rather than a linear concept.  The individual is subject to a round of birth, death and rebirth known as samsara.  (For that matter, so is the whole of creation.)  Each person will be reborn in keeping with karma, a kind of ‘bank balance’ of good and evil deeds from previous lives, thus one’s behaviour in a previous life will have an influence on one’s rebirth, either negatively or positively.  In human terms, traditionally one would be born into a particular caste dependent on one’s karma, the four main castes being Brahmin (priestly), Kshatriya (warrior), Vaisya (merchant), Shudra (servant). Outside the caste system are the Dalits, previously known as ‘outcastes’, the term Dalit was self-chosen and means ‘one who suffers’. Each caste has its own function and duty as dictated by dharma (often translated as law, duty, conduct or right way of living). In the West, the concept of caste is downplayed and denied by some. It was outlawed after independence in 1947, but is still a cause of tension and friction.[iii] The human frame is in effect, an external package for the atman, that ‘soul’ which passes from one in carnation to another, eventually to be reunited with Brahman – the Ultimate Being, of which the atman is a micro-cosmic part.  Effectively this reunion is an escape from the round of birth, death and rebirth and is known as moksha or mukti – liberation.

Liberation

Re-union with the Ultimate Being brings with it significant questions.  Is this Being personal or impersonal?  Does the atman lose its recognisable individuality? The several schools of philosophy proffer differing answers to these questions and more.  Some would think in terms of advaita – non-dualism, implying the loss of all distinction between atman and brahman.  Others would suggest dvaita – a distinction, whilst others would think in terms of vishishtadvaita – qualified non-dualism in which the soul is absorbed in the ‘divine’ but retains a distinction.  So, how is this brought about?  Essentially, there are three paths (marga):

Karma marga – the path of works i.e. fulfilling one’s caste duty in which there is a need for nishkarma karma – desireless action, that is that one does what is to be done not for any merit that it may bring.

Jnana marga – a philosophical approach in the search for truth, seeking the real from illusion, seeking the Absolute, the only reality.

bhakti – the path of divine grace and the worship of a personal god.

The literature of bhakti is written in vernacular languages: e.g. Bengali, Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, etc. and therefore this path is open to all people. Further, the human soul and the divine are seen as separate entities, but God is seen as completely gracious, deserving of human worship.  By contrast, humans are sinful and imperfect and in need of direction from a guru.

The scriptures which aid the devotee are of two categories, shruti, of higher authority such as the Vedas and Upanishads and others – smriti – essentially the stories of the deities.  Although the Bhagavad Gita is of this latter category, it is, nevertheless, highly regarded as a concise affirmation and articulation of the Hindu way of life and came into its own in the late Nineteenth Century as a counter to missionary influence by comparing Krishna to Christ.

God

At first glance, most Westerners would say that Hinduism is polytheistic.  By comparison to temples in India which are usually dedicated to one aspect of the Deity, as you walk into a temple in the UK you would be confronted by statues of many divine beings.  Present understanding amongst Hindus, however, would claim that these are manifestations of the differing functions and personalities of one God (Brahman) understood by some as an impersonal and formless principle and by others as personal and worthy of devotion (bhakti).  Thus one turns to Ganesh, for instance, at the outset of a new project to seek his blessing.  School children at the beginning of a new school year would make an offering to Sarasvati, the goddess of knowledge.  Shop keepers may propitiate Laxmi, the goddess of wealth.  But the central image in temples, known as a murti, may be none of these.  Some temples may be dedicated to Shiva, lauded as the creator, but also destroyer, and for the matter, re-creator, since all is subject to destruction and re-creation.  Worshippers in other temples may turn to Krishna whose exploits enhance devotion. As an avatar or incarnation of the divine, Krishna is one of a number whose function is to overcome evil and re-establish equilibrium within the world. Essentially one worships the aspect of the deity which is more appealing to one’s nature whilst not decrying the spiritual choice and practice of others.

Hindu spirituality is as alive today as it was in pre-history.  For example, there are still some who would be regarded as incarnations of the deity – or who would make such claims.  In addition, Hinduism has an ecological relevance in terms of the maintenance of a sanctity of life for all that is living and for the cosmos as a whole.

 Daily worship and Festivals

Worship starts early in the morning in temples and may include the following: the priest will open the curtains in front of the images of the deities, light a tray of ghee lamps and then ‘bathe’ the images before dressing them. All the while, devotional hymns are sung. Prasad (food gifts) are offered and prayers asking for a blessing of the devotees are made.  During the early morning, individuals may come to view the images and ask a blessing. Worship will be offered at mid-day, together with another meal for the deities.  Hymns are sung and then the curtains may be closed for a period of rest.  By mid-afternoon the curtains are again opened, the bell is rung and gifts, often of fruit or sweetmeats, are offered, incense sticks would be lit and hymns sung.  In the evening, a more elaborate service of worship is conducted with prayers and devotional songs accompanied by musical instruments and drums. The light from the arati tray of lights having been offered to the deities is then ‘offered’ to the worshippers who ‘take’ the light as a blessing, having prayed for forgiveness.   Finally the curtains will be drawn again.

Hinduism has a number of festivals, some nationally celebrated in India, others regionally.  Amongst them are:

Pongol: a four day harvest festival celebrated in January in Tamil Nadu.

Saraswati Puja: a spring festival in honour of the goddess of learning.

Maha Shivratri: held in February/March in the hour of Shiva and his marriage to Parvati.

Holi: a joyous festival, held in March, in which coloured powder is liberally thrown over people to celebrate the triumph of good over evil.

Jagganath Rath Yatra: is originally celebrated in Orissa in June/July when images are carried on huge carriages.

Raksha Bandhan: literally the bond of protection, celebrating the relationship of brothers and sisters.  It is held in August.

Krishna Janmashtami: celebrates the birth of Krishna, held in August.

Durga Puja: celebrates the triumph of good over evil.  Essentially a Bengali festival, it is celebrated in September/October.

Diwali/Deepavali: a festival of lights, celebrated in September/October to recognise the triumph of light over darkness.

Visiting a Hindu Temple

As you enter a Hindu mandir (temple) you would remove your shoes – there are normally shelves in which to leave them.  Many Hindus would then walk into the temple, bow with hands together to the deities and ring a bell usually hanging near the murtis (images) which should not be thought of as idols but as representations of the various aspects of the Supreme Being.  Visitors should stand before the images in a respectful manner.  If you feel moved to bow slightly with your hands together, then do so.  Most Hindus would take prasad, often in the form of sweetmeats or fruit, the deity’s gracious gift, from the priest and holy water which is then placed on the head and forehead.  Christians will have to make up their own minds as to whether they accept the prasad and the water.  There is an ambivalence about Paul’s dictum with regard to ‘food offered to idols’.[iv]  If you decide not to take prasad then please do so graciously. Similarly there is often at the end of corporate worship an arti ceremony in which a tray of lights (rather like tealights) are waved in front of the murtis and then brought to the congregation who ‘take the light’ by waving it towards themselves.  Again, the decision to participate is one which each individual must make.  Men and women usually sit separately on either side of the worship area.

Hindu critiques of Christianity

To convert is to give up ‘Indianness’.  This is a reflection of the post-Independence attitude that ‘to be Indian is to be Hindu’.  This has been taken up vociferously in recent years and creates an attitude which maintains that one was denying one’s culture and background if one were to convert to Christianity.

The ‘answers’ given by Christians are not answers to ‘Hindu questions’.  Salvation ‘from sin’ is not liberation from samsara (the round of rebirth) that the Hindu seeks.

Many Hindus appreciate and would even worship the figure of Jesus Christ but would reject the need to become Christians. The concept is known as the ‘unbound’ Christ of India, transcending Christianity, and means for Hindu followers of Jesus that conversion to Christianity is neither paramount nor necessary.

For many Hindus, Christ and Krishna are the same.  They are both avatars (incarnations) of God.  For the Hindu there is the ‘scandal of uniqueness’ in the Christian claim that Christ is the ‘only way’.

Gandhi and his followers  would consider Christian attitudes of mission to be arrogant, arising out of a false sense of superiority as seen from a variety of perspectives – moral, spiritual, philosophical, etc.  The Christian is thus seen as being arrogant in any claim that he/she has anything better to offer. In recent years, some Hindu groups have been themselves involved in mission, legitimised, as they see it, by the failure of Christian spirituality.

Speaking of our faith to members of the Hindu religion

 Many Christians find it difficult to express their faith in ways in which people of other faiths find understanding easy.  We tend to use vocabulary and concepts which would not be used in everyday conversation.  A newspaper report of a cricket match is nowadays the only place where you will find the use of the word ‘atone’ to indicate that a player fared better in a second innings. Similarly, we use words which have specific meaning within a Christian context but not in that of other faiths.  The purpose of this essay is to find points of discussion that may start a conversation with a Hindu colleague through recognition of a common search for deepening spirituality.  Let me stress the word ‘start’.  Hindus are often very willing to talk about matters of faith but that does not mean to say that they would find our arguments convincing, even if we thought that was the case.  What follows are essentially starter suggestions for discussion.

  1. Many in India’s Hindu majority would say that to be Indian is to be Hindu.

In post-Independence India there was a strongly held opinion that to be Indian, one had to embrace the faith of the country, however it’s as well for us Europeans to recognise that Christianity took its root in India way before it did so in Europe.  In South India there is a tradition that both St Thomas and St Bartholomew made their way there, the former by 52CE.  Both Europeans and Indians need to escape from an understanding that religions are necessarily bound to certain cultures.  Christianity is not simply a European faith but is universal in nature.  It is beyond cultural restrictions, but it is expressed in cultural forms.  In the past, we Christians have exported our faith together with our Western culture. Present day expressions of Christianity in other parts of the world are beginning to find their own way of living the faith in ways closer to their own culture.

  1. Christians have often provided answers to questions Hindus do not ask.

 Rather than start in conversation with the figure or sacrifice of Jesus Christ, perhaps we’d be better to start where people are, with the nature of humanity.  One traditional way of starting a presentation of the Gospel has been to speak of sin. This has been the dominant Christian analysis of the human condition.  Such an analysis is not shared by Hindus.  Sometimes we Christians provide answers to questions Hindus do not ask.  That is not to say that they do not recognise that we humans have our failings.  From a Hindu perspective, the obstacle to be overcome is not sin but ignorance – ignorance, that is, that we have within ourselves an element of the divine. The question is: What’s behind sin – its cause: is it self-centredness?  But we also need to balance this with the self-regard needed for self-preservation and survival.  One matter that may be important to speak of is the selflessness that was demonstrated by Jesus.  He spoke of the need for his followers to ‘take up the cross daily’ – for whoever wishes to follow him must lose his or her life and, paradoxically, will gain it.

  1. What of Jesus Christ? Is He bound to Christianity, or is He a universal figure?

 Many Christians talk of the uniqueness of Christ.  What do we mean by this?  If we mean incarnation, then Hindus would be quick to point out that they believe that God has many incarnations and they usually occur when the forces of evil are most prolific. The claim that Christ died ‘once and for all’ might be met with a sense of inadequacy – is the Christian God such an absentee landlord of creation that evil is allowed to reign without divine intervention?  Perhaps in speaking of our faith we should return to the understanding that the Christian disciple needs to take up his or her own cross daily in the constant struggle against evil.

So is uniqueness actually about the self-emptying nature of Christ, his vulnerability?  In an age when success and powerfulness are dominant themes, such a message may not be easily communicated or understood. It may not fit in with the triumphalist nature of some presentations of the Gospel, but the theme of Good Friday must precede the victory of Easter Sunday.

Should we abandon the concept of uniqueness as a ‘selling point’?  The answer has to be ‘no’.  We need to consider carefully how we define the term – and here it would be well to suggest that the concept of vulnerability is the heart of the issue – and then we need to recognise that uniqueness does not necessarily imply exclusivity. Any talk of that nature, or any criticism of Hinduism, will immediately close down attention in a conversation.  Rather, look to the points of contact – it’s what Paul did in Acts 17[v], a tactic which was not the failure it has been portrayed to be. Many of his listeners actually said they’d come back to listen to him again.

  1. Christ and Krishna – ‘are they not one and the same,’ ask Hindu friends. Is this the case?

Incarnation is one of those areas in which Hindus vary in terms of their understanding. The concept is not anathema to them. They question: is it a matter of divinity taking on human flesh or the deification of humanity?  Both were suggested by Hindus reflecting on the being of Jesus Christ.  We need to explore the claim that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to ‘him’self.  This may be linked later with a reflection on the Brahman-Atman synthesis, that is, an understanding that there is that of God within us all. We need also to think in terms of Christ as the progenitor of, and the potential for, the human race.  For the Hindu, the goal of existence is not so much in terms of reconciliation with God, but merging into the Being of the Ultimate Reality.  Here one may suggest that for the Christian, this is only possible through the grace of God. Our liberation comes not through anything we may do, but by the graciousness of God to whom we may respond with devotion, a concept very much at the heart of Hindu practice.

The history of the modern encounter of Hindus and Christians, now stretching over more than two hundred years, has been one of Hindu appreciation of the figure of Jesus Christ, but a questioning of the nature and practice of the Church. Consequently, Hindus speak of the ‘unbound’ Christ.  Some would claim Christ as their own, a teacher of remarkable spirituality but who must be freed from the Western captivity of the missionaries.  As a starting point, in the appreciation of the figure of Jesus it may have merit, but Christians would also want to point to the importance of commitment to each other, of the importance of being caught up in the support of the Body of Christ, both as recipient of its fellowship and active participant in mutual interdependence, whilst possibly questioning extra ecclesia nula salus est – outside the church there is no salvation. Do we rather speak in terms of Christ’s as the only way rather than Christ as the only way?  By this, I mean escaping from a mantra style of witness to a recognition of the need for the Cross as life-style.

  1. How do we appear to Hindus?

Many responses to Christians have been dominated by a critique of claims of Christian superiority in both exclusive theological terms and in life-style.  Witness to the Christian faith is something to be modestly lived as much as spoken. There is no place for arrogance or any sense of superiority.  Missionaries in previous times spent much of their time bad-mouthing Hinduism, so must we, rather, acknowledge the depth of the spirituality of our partners in dialogue?  Hindus will talk appreciatively of spiritual matters unlike those wedded to our more secular environment.

There will be need to consider the Trinity. Here do we need to consider the matter using Hindu understanding as a basis? The various deities are seen as manifestations of the one Brahman.  They have particular functions, e.g. Saraswati as the goddess of learning, Ganesha as the god of new beginnings, Shiva as the one who both creates and destroys.  Thus one may move from the functionality of the Hindu deities to the various persona of the Trinity.  There could be a danger of functionalism here, but is that more a theological prejudice rather than a heresy?  Hindu philosophers have spoken of a Hindu ‘trinity’ of Sat, Chit, and Ananda, often referred to as Sacchidānanda representing “existence, consciousness, and bliss” or “truth, consciousness, bliss”. It is an epithet and description for the subjective experience of the ultimate, unchanging reality in Hinduism called Brahman.   Some Christian theologians have linked these concepts to the Christian understanding of the Trinity – but that would be for a later conversation.

Notice, however, the word experience. To be quite honest, it’s not persuasive and logical argument that wins attention but the nature of one’s life.  Does it reflect the way of the Gospel? How are we going to speak of the atonement? Traditional theories cut little ice – further thought is necessary here. Can we actually explain the nature of the atonement or does one rest on its mystery and one’s experience of being at one with God? Hindu partners in dialogue would probably be pleased to talk philosophy/theology, but one has to recognise that what is far more significant is the living out of the Gospel in a manner which reflects the nature of Jesus of Nazareth.

Further Reading

Klostermaier, K. Hindu and Christian in Vrindaban SCM pub. 2009

Clooney, F. Hindu Wisdom for all God’s Children Wipf and Stock pub. 2005

References

[i] Hinduism in the UK, Religion Media Centre, 2018. https://religionmediacentre.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Hinduism-in-the-UK.pdf Accessed: 21.2.19

[ii] See above.

[iii] Agrawal, R. India’s Caste System: Outlawed, but still Omnipresent. CNN Edition, Feb. 24, 2016. https://edition.cnn.com/2016/02/23/asia/india-caste-system/index.html. Accessed: 10.2.19

[iv] 1 Corinthians 8:3-11

[v] Acts 17:16-34