Q: Why are people converting to christianity in India? Why can''t they instead accept two faiths at a time? The theory of George Harrison converting to Hinduism and Mahatma Gandhi''s love for christianity confuses me.
A: Surely every religion has some positive things to offer. We find the principle of ahimsa, or not harming any living being in Indian religions, Christianity teaches love for one’s neighbor, from Islam we learn the importance of spiritual discipline, and so on. So, the question rightly comes up, why make people choose between religions? Maybe that would have been appropriate at one time, but now that people know about all the different world religions, doesn’t it make the most sense to take what ever is best in each religion and combine them into an informed, positive faith? As you say in your question, why do people have to decide between Christianity and Hinduism when it seems to make the most sense to adapt the two to each other? It would appear that such a mutual acceptance would not only be more satisfying to the individual who would not have to abandon whatever he had come to love in his older religion, but it might also contribute to preventing hostility between religious groups in society.
Now, I can’t say that such a thing can’t be done. People do it all the time, such as in your two examples: George Harrison who added Hinduism (specifically, devotion to Lord Krishna) to his beliefs and Mahatma Gandhi, who was influenced by Christian ideals, though he confessed greater admiration for Christ than for the religion of Christianity. There are people who call themselves Christians who are incorporating various Hindu notions, such as the idea of finding God deep within yourself, into their beliefs, and many Hindus do not think that devotion to Christ necessitates foreswearing devotion to other gods. After all, couldn’t Jesus be yet one more avatar of God along with Rama, Krishna, and the many others?
Unfortunately, just because it can be done does not make it right. Let us for the rest of this little essay refer to the idea of a person trying to combine what they see as best in two religions as “combination religion.” I’m going to show that combination religion has problems in four areas: content, logic, authority, and redemptive power.
1. Content. In our contemporary environment, religions are frequently thought of as promoting a kind of vaguely-formulated “spirituality,” the idea being that by engaging in the religious practices of my choice, I will somehow become more “spiritual,” whatever that may mean. Of course, that’s pretty silly; religions always have a specific content, whether it has to do with the redemption of a soul, the union of a soul with God, or just plain finding enough divine help to make it through a hard life. Whatever “spirituality” may be generated in the process is directly related to the content of the religion.
Now, different religions have different contents. It is true that contemporary people often do not recognize what the actual teaching of a religion is, and so they wind up reading the content of one into the other, but the truth is that in doing so, they actually violate the meaning of one or the other religion. Many uninformed Christians think that the Hindu concept of karma is the same as the Christian concept of sin and that Hindus are trying to find a way of salvation (i.e. to heaven) that’s the same as the Christian one, and many Hindus think that the goal of Christianity must be the same as that of Hinduism, that is to say, to find a way out of the cycle or reincarnation (samsara) and to permanent union with God. Both of them are mistaken. Even when the words that people use in the two religions are the same, the meaning is basically very different. Karma and sin, moksha and salvation, avatar and incarnation, the members of these and many other crucial pairs of terms have specific meanings within their religion that one cannot simply transfer to another one.
Take the concept of ahimsa, for example, the Indian (Hindu, Jain, Buddhist) idea that one ought never to hurt a living being (at least a sentient one). This virtue seems to be pretty much the same as the Christian ideal of agape, or self-giving love and the commandment, “You shall not murder.” But, in fact, if we explore what is actually meant by each of these ideas in their religious contexts, some crucial differences emerge.
The Hindu concept of ahimsa is at home in the Hindu world view in which all of life is suffering, and suffering is exacerbated by the fact of continuous reincarnations. I am not only suffering in this life, but I can look forward to suffering in another billion or so lifetimes hereafter. All I can do is hope to accumulate good karma and eliminate bad karma from my spiritual tally sheet, as it were, so that I might eventually in another life be able to escape from the cycle altogether. One of the ways in which I can help myself out in this process is to practice ahimsa; by not adding to the suffering of another being, I might actually be able to reduce my own in the long run. Thus my compassion may contribute to my eventual moksha. Even if I add to this process the benevolence of a deity, such as Krishna, who may help me shortcut my obligations through devotion to him, the basic picture has not changed: the problem is karma and reincarnation, and the goal is to escape from this cycle.
But in Christianity, the setting is entirely different. Agape love is first and foremost the love that God manifested when he sent his son to die on the cross for us. In this act, God reconciled us to himself because sin, as understood in the Christian sense, is primarily the state of being separated from God. Sin is not so much our action nor the consequences of our actions but what we are, namely creatures who are alienated from their creator and must consequently be separated from him for all eternity. The question is not one of successive lives, but the eternal state that awaits each of us after the one and only life we have been given on earth. And so, agape love is first of all what God brought to us by providing us with a way of redemption (Christ’s death on the cross), and then, secondly, it is a way in which we live by showing our gratitude to God for what he has done.
Obviously, much more can be said about either Hinduism or Christianity on this topic, but all I want to do here is to show that there are some fundamental differences between the two religions. They have two separate stories: escape from samsara by eliminating karma or reconciliation to God by an atonement. To combine parts of the two stories cannot really do justice to either. Christ did not die to help us find release from reincarnation, and the practice of yoga will not reconcile us to God.
2. Logic. But the problems with combination religion have only just begun. Not only are there differences in content between the religions, but much of the content is mutually exclusive. It’s not just that there are two stories, but if one story is true, the other one cannot be. On the surface, it seems logically possible to include Jesus among the many other deities and avatars that Hinduism recognizes, but, in fact, this only works if one empties one’s understanding of Jesus of what he actually did and taught. As soon as one pays attention to the historical Jesus, as recorded in the New Testament, one finds that it is contradictory to list him side by side with other deities.
Let me point out two specific issues at work here. First of all, Jesus was a monotheist. Like his Jewish contemporaries, his entire frame of reference was that there was only one God, who had created the world, revealed himself to the prophets, and guided his people. This is what makes Jesus’ claims to be God so remarkable (John 5:17, John 8:58, John 10:30, etc.); he asserted that he was, in fact, that one and only God. If there had been any room for more than one god in his teachings, his claims to deity would not have been particularly controversial. There are many gods; I am one of them; big deal. But it is because everyone knew that there was only one God that his declarations of deity caused such a stir. Now, clearly, this monotheistic frame of reference and the idea that he is one god among many are not logically compatible. You cannot have one god and more than one god at the same time. (And I might just point out that the Christian doctrine of the trinity is not that there is one God who is also three gods, but there is one God in three persons—an important distinction.)
Secondly, if a religion makes statements of exclusive truth for itself, it cannot also become a part of a larger combination religion. An exclusive religion can be true or false, but it cannot be one truth among many because then it would not longer be exclusive. Some forms of Hinduism make exclusive claims for themselves; for example, devotees of Krishna claim that he is the highest form of personal godhead. In that case, the Christian statement that we see all the fullness of God in Christ (Colossians 1:19) cannot also be true. But even more so, the whole story of Christianity as recorded in the New Testament is based on an assumption of exclusivity. Christ died for all human beings, and everyone is called to faith in him for their salvation. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) This assertion can logically be true—in which case he is the only way to God, or it can logically be false—in which case there can be many ways to God, but it cannot be true while there are ways to God other than through him. So, it is impossible logically to make Jesus become one element in a composite religion and do justice to what he taught.
3. Authority. A combination religion in which a person brings together whatever he may find best in some religions also has a serious problem with its source of truth. Who decides what belongs into such a religion? Obviously, it is the human being himself who decides what he wants to believe on what appeals the most to him. Does it fit his expectations? Fine, keep it. Does it challenge him, contradict his assumptions, or make him feel uncomfortable? Leave it to the side. But surely this is no way to find truth in religion! Paradoxically, it is precisely on this basis that so much harm is being done in the name of religion today. Rather than submitting to the teaching of a religion and allowing oneself to be taught, people create for themselves religions that serve to undergird their position in society or culture.
Reality is a stubborn thing. Ultimately it is what it is, and we cannot change it with our thoughts and conceptions. If the Hindu view of reality is true, then we ought to embrace it, and if the Christian view of reality is true, then we should accept it, but we cannot alter reality according to our own ideas.
4. Redemptive power. Finally, a combination religion is a powerless religion. After all, it is something that a finite human being has thought up, and so it cannot do any more for him than his own wisdom allows, and for most of us that’s not very much at all. I’m always surprised—though I know I should not be—when people tell me that they do not find Christianity to work in their lives, and then, when I explore with them a little bit about what exactly they mean by “Christianity,” they have a long list of Christian beliefs that they are not willing to embrace. In other words, first they decide for themselves what God can or cannot do, and then they complain that God is not changing their lives the way they want him to. It’s as though I complain to my doctor for not helping me with an illness while I’m not taking the medicine he’s prescribed for me. If the doctor tells me that I need to take some yellow pills and some green pills, but I decide I only want the yellow ones, and then I help myself to some pink ones that another doctor has prescribed for someone else (who may be suffering from another illness altogether), I only have myself to blame if I don’t get better. This is the position that the person who creates for himself a combined religion.
The fact is that humankind is suffering from a problem beyond our control, namely the reality of sin and the need of redemption. God has provided a solution to this problem; he has made salvation available to us, and all we can do is believe what he has said about it and accept it. If we want to edit his way of salvation or combine it with some other plan, we are relying on our own cleverness, and we have removed ourselves from the possibility of solving the problem because it is not ours to solve.
In summary, then, trying to create a combined religion with Christianity and another religion, such as Hinduism, does not work. It would spoil the content of both religions; it would create logical contradictions; it would make a human being the ultimate source of religious truth; and it would not be able to provide salvation. Pretty good reasons to examine Christianity on its own terms!