Hindu Influence (as for non-Hindus) within Indian Culture/Religion:
A Few Insights

I wrote this paper for a course titled “Dynamics of Hindu-Christian Interaction” taught by Prof. Bradley Malkovsky, taken at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, IN in July of 1995. This study earned credit with my DMin program at Western Theological Seminary. I had in mind insight that might be useful for western Mennonites who planned to attend the 1997 Mennonite World Conference in Calcutta, India. I value professor Malkovsky’s later book titled God’s Other Children Personal Encounters with Faith, Love, and Holiness in Sacred India. With that resource appear compliments by noted interfaith scholars like Huston Smith, Francis X. Clooney, Anantanand Rambachan, and Arvind Sharma.

This paper begins with quotes useful to ponder regarding the blend of culture and religion.

“. . . there was from the seventh millennium B.C.E. onward, a continual autonomous development, which ultimately led to the formation of the culture of the Indus Valley. . . This culture perished probably in the eighteenth century B.C.E.” (von Stietencron, 147-48. See Bibliography at end for sources of quotes.)

“Culture . . . is the way human beings think, feel, believe and behave. It includes the material, intellectual and the spiritual. Culture is not limited to the refined elements of human endeavour like art and music but also includes social systems, economic structures and political patterns.” (S. J. Samartha/Review, 202)

Why consider Hindu influence on culture for a theology paper? As I write thinking about worldwide Mennonite readers prior to the 1997 Mennonite World Conference to be held in Calcutta, I wish to explore and validate the pervasive Hindu influence within India. The fine video “India: The Empire of the Spirit,” portrays the world’s oldest good Shiva along with its lingam symbol of life force. It describes Varanasi (also known as Banaras/Kashi), as the city of redemption. It conveys the land’s obsession with the senses. Which is therein described, culture or religion?

Most Indians know that “all of life is sacred.” Harvard professor Diana Eck with multiple years’ study in India explains India’s sacred geography. Hill areas are known for sanctuaries; forests are places of retreat and testing. Rivers are sacred; they originate in heaven. Where several come together, as in Allahhabad, pilgrimage to a mehla attracts fifteen to twenty million people. As people bathe, they ignore boundaries of caste and sex. Quest for the inner experience and realization of the divine describes the “spiritset,” not mindset.

Some believe that all people in India either now are or once were Hindu. Others resist such hint of reincarnation. Further, when people shift from the Hindu to Christian faith, their Hindu cultural patterns rarely cease. Nor should they. Western Christian categories and meanings for theology have been transplanted to the church in India. Now, many Christians there realize that certain dimensions of their Hindu heritage, negated or hidden for decades, could enhance their sacred identity. Since Asia will never be predominantly Christian, the minority that is deserves to shape their faith in culturally rich ways—whether to draw from yogic discipline, more “Eastern” symbols, or attention to seeing (darshan).

For cultural integrity, theological endeavor in India needs to be anchored within the country’s key features: religious plurality and known poverty. How the Utimate Reality (or God or Brahman) is experienced by the masses deserves attention. Cues can be taken from feminists like Aruna Gnanadason who affirms Christian women’s

Search into the liberation strands in all faiths so as to explore the protest potentials of all religions. . . Narrow religious walls mean very little to the women’s movement since women are in a position of disadvantage in every religion.” (Gnanadason, 148, 150)

Rosemarie Tong describes feminist theory as “not one but many.” How the Hindu God-concept highlights one and many with a different twist will follow. Feminist theology expects diverse expressions to coexist without needing to prove that one is “better,” without needing an “opponent.” Intent to understand and validate difference, to avoid making the particular universal, or to emphasize lived experience for the majority, feminists seek new methods with new questions. And they credit women spiritual mentors who shaped culture: Mirabai, Bahinabai, Shobha Ma, and Sri Sarada Devi, for example.

‘Every religious act . . . is culturally formed” wrote Paul Tillich (40-51) He tied religion (substance and culture (form) to ultimate concern with God [or Brahman] as the name for the content of that concern Indian Christian S. J. Samartha more recently echoed such thought: “If religions are responses to the Mystery of life, cultures are expressions of those responses” through words, ideas, symbol, sound and colour (One Christ, 41) “Brahman is sat-cit-ananda” and “God is triune Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” reflect two cultures responding to the same Mystery (95)

Last year Sri Lankan theologian Wesley Ariarajah expanded on this topic by noting J. H. Bavinck’s statement: “culture is religion made visible.” (4) Central to every culture’s understanding of the universe and the individual is a religion or worldview. While religion determines behavior and holds communities together, culture works out the belief system. Or, faith is expressed in a cultural context. (9)

Nationalism surfaced with India’s freedom struggle—from Ram Mohan Roy to Gandhi. For too long, colonialism had repressed culture; people had been led to believe that their values were inferior. Inspired by a new faith in classical religion, political activity for independence and religious revival were linked. Retelling the Ramayana epic helped to preserve Hindu culture. The Gita called individuals to “single-minded purposefulness.” (Ashby, 96) Hopeful to realize the Supreme Being, yet devoid of desire or attachment to the result, acts were to be done for the country’s welfare. To so serve was refined into worship of God. Culture reflected the society; it was felt, even if not defined.

The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) political group further mobilized this combination. “Hindutva”—meaning Hinduness or Hindu religion, culture and history—stresses how pride in country depends on pride in religion. To extend to culture a divine mandate reinforced the conviction that “Truth is one; sages call it variously.” (98-107) The end of this thrust has not arrived; minorities face injustice. In fact, “Hindutva” is being heavily criticized because it leads to discrimination against non-Hindus. To comprehend Hindu influence, today’s worldwide Mennonites must see both strengths and weaknesses in the religion-culture bond.

Religion and culture face modernity. (Ashby, 118-27) Will they prompt vision for change? Will traditional elements of caste, joint family, epic and Puranic literature, and local folk beliefs or habits continue to have meaning? Will new religious questions reassess traditional values? What might emerge from cultural ambivalence toward both nineteenth century reform movements and the more liberal intellectual and political elite of this century? Will the norm of Indian culture be identified with Hindu culture—the “great tradition” also known as classical—or will broader influences be credited?

Without space to respond to such questions or to pursue related cultural themes like language or respect, attention must turn more directly to specific theological themes. I begin with the idea of the One and the Many, related to Brahman. Diana Eck’s insight is useful. Christians know the Jewish “Hear, O Israel, The Lord Our God is one Lord.” Hindus confess “Truth (the Real) is One, but the wise speak of it by many names.” Eck credits Indians with the “ingenious capacity to see or presuppose the plural.” (video) Whereas in the west one is important, in India, if something is important, “it is important enough to be repeated, duplicated, and seen (darshan) from many angles.” (Eck, Encountering . . ., 60) Hindus expect the multiple; to presume to see the fullness of truth in one lifetime is absurd, for example.

So too, there are many gods (3, 306 or 330 million), yet a single “foundational oneness.” (Video) The number “has nothing to do with arithmetic, but with the capacity to ‘see’ or discern the presence of God.” No one god dominates; each when praised fills the devotee’s whole imagination. Names and forms (nama-rupa) plus epithets, for the one Unnamable are many. A temple may have many images. The scope for these varies: the Devi “sets things right” through multiple arms; Shiva has five faces; avatars descend to restore justice in Vishnu’s behalf.

Hindus and Christians know the Divine as “both ultimate and personal, beyond and yet within, transcendent and yet near.” (Encountering, 47) Oneness reflects God’s ultimacy for several living faiths. This same God they name and experience differently, plus see from different perspectives. (53) Further, Hindus claim that the impersonal ultimate is simultaneously without and with attributes. But for any one group to claim that how they know God exhausts the reality of God “is truly idolatry” (66) Eck clarifies how “idolatry is in the eye of the beholder.” Those whose vision stops at an image [or with primarily one name or descriptor] make that an object. But images are windows. (78) If North American Mennonites who attend the Calcutta conference could absorb these foundational paragraphs about God-concept, response to Indian religious culture generally would “be miles ahead.”

Another nurdle could be to internalize Samartha’s “Theocentric Christology.” (One Christ, 101-03) Interestingly, he too “calls a spade a spade”—idolatry: “Christocentrism without theocentrism leads to idolatry.” Jesus himself invited people to “move from self-centredness to God-centredness.” Benefits of theocentric Christology include: greater theological space to live with, plus avoid negation of, neighbors of other faiths; basis to retain the Mystery of God while noting Jesus’ distinct being; reason to shift from a normative to a relational posture with others; allowance for others to claim other revelations and experiences of salvation; participation with all people in God’s on-going mission.

One goddess to introduce is Kali. Dark-colored Kali is a manifestation of Durga, yet Durga on occasion calls for Kali’s help. Lina Gupta wonders whether Kali is a projection of hostile, male fear of the female, part of cultural patriarchal tradition. Is she a source of social and spiritual liberation for all? Is she the mythic Great Mother? Or does she represent the ultimate principle of Hinduism that transcends any form of the dual? (15) Gupta believes that Kali embodies conflicts common to women’s struggle to assert social rights through spiritual freedom from patriarchy. And Kali demonstrates how to face and transcend any limit.

Kali can convey terror. With a dangling, prominent tongue, red eyes, unkempt hair, blood around the mouth, sharp fangs, protruding breasts, four arms—two with blood dripping and two inviting the onlooker to “Come/Fear not”—plus a necklace of fifty human heads and waistband of human arms, the sight is graphic. Does this encourage devotees to confront who they are, to re-examine assumptions or fears? Kali, who personifies shakti—the female principle of creation—is present in all of creation. Yet, to what extend does she affect the pervasive male fear of women’s creative power? Her benevolent and malevolent potency, left uncontrolled, likely prompts the cultural ideal for a Hindu wife—utter devotion to her husband/”god.” How to “prepare” Mennonites for Kali’s religious-cultural reality in Calcutta causes me fear too! Can we respect that which we fail to comprehend?

I turn now to several people who have influenced the religion-culture linkage in India, beginning with Robert de Nobili. Born in Rome in 1577, de Nobili lived in Madurai, in south India, from 1606 to 1656. He tried to be less “foreign” in approach. At first, he identified himself as of the ksatriya caste; later he became a renunciant (sannyasi) and dressed like a Hindu holy man. Hindus, through his adapting to cultural and religious patterns, learned that to convert was a spiritual choice, rather than a political/economic act. de Nobilii further allowed converts to “maintain most of the external forms of their previous way of life.” (Clooney, 25)

In the process, de Nobili both immersed himself in the culture and addressed it. His understandings of the Christian faith also changed. He presented Jesus as the divine guru, the most important local image of God. Clooney believes that such contextualization offered new light on the meaning of the Incarnation. (26) Further, he imitated the Incarnation by becoming an ascetic disciple of his teacher, Christ. (30) A key message he conveyed was that what God demonstrated in crossing between the divine and human, he also taught. We are to “cross the small boundaries among our many cultures and religions.” (37)

Nineteenth century reformer Ram Mohan Roy has been called the “father of Modern India.” (Malkovsky lecture) He countered a number of cultural practices: sati, child marriage, polygamy, and the lack of education for girls. He fostered greater equality between women and men. He also countered dimensions of religion: the use of Sanskrit (on ethical/social grounds), idolatry or image worship (believing that the image was worshipped as God), and polytheism (influenced by Islam). Because he did not credit Jesus’ divinity or get involved in Trinity, Christology, Resurrection or Eschatology debate, simple people accepted him. Roy knew Jesus as a great prophet whose focus was love; his ethics/Sermon on the Mount prompted moral improvement among Christians.

Roy began the Brahmo Samaj reform movement, for worship and to spread his ethical teaching. He realized that reason was essential for reflection on religion. Both Hindus and Christians opposed him for differing reasons. He knew every religion to be a composite of good and evil. Although he genuinely attempted to prompt change, few cultural patterns embedded in law—as were Manu’s stipulations that a woman is never to be independent—were completely altered.

Another reformer in women’s behalf was Pandita Ramabai Saraswati (1858-1922). According to scholar/humanist A. B. Shah, Ramabai was “the greatest woman produced by modern India and one of the greatest Indians in all history.” For several decades newspapers across the country reported her efforts, success, and the controversy it prompted. As a writer, she was self-supporting, rare for a woman then. The first edition of ten thousand copies of her High Caste Hindu Woman, 1888 was sold out in a year.

As a child, she had wandered with her Hindu pilgrimage family to read the Puranas in temples. Her mother trained her to have “an incisive grasp of ideas and situations; she refused to sacrifice her freedom of thought or expression.” In the ‘70s, when in Calcutta, she was publicly honored with the title pandita which means “eminent scholar and teacher.” She was known as an incarnation of Saraswati, the goddess of learning. (Tharu/Lalita, 244) Her own feminism recognized the radical action of bhaktin Mirabai who refused to worship her husband. Ramabai founded/supported a series of homes for widows, including Sharda Sadan in the western city of Pune.

When in England in 1883 Ramabai became a Christian. This lost support for her among Hindus, but she proved to also have many differences with her Christian mentors. An 1885 letter to a Miss Beale finds her involved in Christology. “I shrink from calling Christ the Supreme God, and from worshiping Him as God. To give the title and worship which belongs only to the God of gods to a man, and a created being, is, to my understanding, nothing but idolatry.” (255) She turned down philosophy as her sole teacher.

Since less well-known than Calcutta’s compassionate Mother Teresa, Pondicherry’s second notable (beyond Sri Aurobindo) person could be described in more detail with more time. Segments of her public messages, private correspondence, and personal notes, first written for a particular individual or circumstance, form volume 15 of the Collected Works of The Mother. A statement from June of 1952 (297) suggests that the Divine is everywhere and in all . . .in the world of progressive material manifestation, one must identify with Divinity as the Divine will be.

My intent has been to provide a brief perspective through which a reader might see the interplay of Hindu religion with culture in India. My hope is that nonHindus will experience the integrity of this in order to be less judgmental of that which dffers from their sense of Truth or is not fully understood. Indian Christian theologian S. J. Samartha observes: “To exclude the cultural, the mystical, and the aesthetic from the experience of inter-religious relationships is to seriously impoverish theology.” (One Christ, 103) May in-person exchange be enriched!


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