I had the privilege of welcoming a Hindu friend and teacher of Hinduism to Global Ministries of the UMC on April 18, 2018 for our Mission Dialogue Forum-the staff educational programme initiated by the Mission Theology Desk of Global Ministries. Mr. Manhar Valand is originally from South Africa, and he refers to his ancestral connections in India. Mr. Valand serves as a teacher at the Chinmaya Niketan Ashram – Atlanta Mission, in Norcross, Georgia. He also serves as a general chaplain to the Hindu community in Atlanta and instructor for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), Emory University. He has been very well connected with the wider interfaith movement in Georgia.
It was absolutely a fresh experience for Global Ministries staff to hear from Mr. Valand and to gain some basic teachings of the Hindu faith and our Hindu neighbors. This visit also enhanced our cross-cultural intelligence as an agency that is located in a predominantly Methodist context.
Who Are Hindus?
During the forum, we discovered that the term 'Hindu' was derived from the river or river complex of northwest India, the Sindhu. Sindhu is a Sanskrit word used by the inhabitants of the region, the Aryans in the second millennium BCE. The 'ism' was added to 'Hindu' only in the 19th century in the context of British colonialism and missionary activity. In some ways, Hinduism is perhaps the oldest living religion in the world, or at least elements within it stretch back many thousands of years. Yet Hinduism resists easy definition partly because of the vast array of practices and beliefs found within it. It is also closely associated conceptually and historically with the other Indian religions Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism.
Most Hindus revere a body of texts as sacred scripture known as the Vedas. Maybe the most popular Vedic collection globally would be the Bhagavat Gita. Most Hindus believe in a Supreme God, whose qualities and forms are represented by the multitude of deities which emanate from him. Hindus believe that this supreme spirit is Brahman. Brahman has many forms, pervades the whole universe, and is symbolized by the sacred syllable Om (or Aum). Most Hindus believe that Brahman is present in every person as the eternal spirit or soul, called the atman. Brahman contains everything: creation and destruction, masculine and feminine, good and evil, movement and stillness. Hindus believe that existence is a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, governed by Karma.
Understanding the fundamentals
If you ask an average person what he/she knows of Hinduism, he/she would probably say, “Oh, I know about Yoga!” This is a very reductionist understanding of Hindu practices. Their fundamentals are much broader and lager than most think. Mr. Valand, our teacher of the day, synthesized them as follows.
The core concept in Hinduism is Sanatana dharma, and that is the term used to offer the meaning the “eternal teachings” or absolute set of duties or religiously ordained practices incumbent upon all Hindus, regardless of class, caste, or sect. Dharma is the Sanskrit word for teaching, which is much closer to the Christian teaching on the Word of God – Dabar/Logos. This may be one of the reasons many Hindus find a very close mystical affiliation to John’s Gospel. In general, sanatana dharma consists of virtues such as honesty, refraining from injuring living beings, purity, goodwill, mercy, patience, forbearance, self-restraint, generosity, service and asceticism.
The most powerful Hindu teachings that have attracted Christians and people of other faiths are searching the divine through Bhakthi – the way of devotion to God/gods/goddesses – and Ahimsa – non-violent tradition and compassionate service to all beings.
Religious demographics matters. Christianity in the western world is in a general decline but other faiths are not or at least not at a same scale of Christian decline. Hinduism is the religion of most people in India and Nepal. It also exists among significant populations outside of the Indian sub-continent. According to pew research Worldwide, the number of Hindus is projected to rise by 27%, from 1.1 billion to 1.4 billion.
Regarding the US context, there are estimated 1.2 million Hindus in the United States (http://religions.pewforum.org/affiliations). Wherever there are south Asian communities it is very likely that majority of them are Hindus or have some affiliation to any of the Hindu movements. We might encounter them in market places, businesses, work places and during our church-related activities too.
Hinduism in the US context
Hinduism was introduced to America through the nineteenth-century translations of religious texts, most notably the Bhagavad Gita, much admired by the Transcendentalists Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1893, the famous World Parliament of Religions was held in Chicago, and the charismatic Hindu leader Swami Vivekananda was a leading personality of the World Parliament. Vivekananda would also be the catalyst for the founding of the first Hindu group in America—the Vedanta Societies, which early on developed centers in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
Hinduism in the US has gone through various periods of up and downs. As the Hindu population in America has emerged, it has not been evenly distributed across the country. Clusters of Indian-Americans have formed in relative proximity to their entry points, America’s international airports in New York, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Approximately a third of all Hindus in the United States are found in a mere three states, California, New York and New Jersey.
Let me raise three questions for us to grapple with missiologically as Christians and Hindus journey together:
- Can we develop the mission of ahimsa (non-violence) in the context of the global need for peace, reconciliation and justice? We all know that Gandhi influenced Martin Luther King Jr., in his vision of racial justice and non-violent action. This may be a greater missional point of renewed interest if we see this from the point of view of missional friendships.
- Given the missional friendships, can we openly engage on the issues of caste and race, engage in soul searching within and share our honest appraisals as friends from Hindu and Christian faiths?
- Can we share more openly and have mutual exposure and leaning by visiting and partaking in the prayers, mediations and spiritual practices of each other’s faith traditions? Would that generate renewed energy for global peace and global missions?
Om, Shanthi, Shalom!