Comparing Christianity and Hinduism
Kreeft outlines the main theological and practical differences, as well as the important common elements, between Christianity and Hinduism.
There are two basic kinds of religions in the world: Eastern and Western. The main differences between Hinduism and Christianity are typical of the differences between Eastern and Western religions in general. Here are some examples:
- Hinduism is pantheistic, not theistic. The doctrine that God created the world out of nothing rather than emanating it out of His own substance or merely shaping some pre-existing material is an idea that simply never occurred to anyone but the Jews and those who learned it from them. Everyone else either thought of the gods as part of the world (paganism) or the world as part of God (pantheism).
- If God is in everything, God is in both good and evil. But then there is no absolute morality, no divine law, no divine will discriminating good and evil. In Hinduism, morality is practical; its end is to purify the soul from desires so that it can attain mystical consciousness. Again, the Jews are unique in identifying the source of morality with the object of religion. Everyone has two innate senses: the religious sense to worship, and the moral sense of conscience; but only the Jewish God is the focus of both. Only the God of the Bible is absolutely righteous.
- Eastern religions come from private mystical experiences; Western religions come from public revelations recorded in a book and summarized in a creed. In the East, human experience validates the Scriptures; in the West, Scripture judges experience.
- Eastern religions are esoteric, understandable only from within by the few who share the experience. Western religions are esoteric, public, democratic, open to all. In Hinduism there are many levels of truth: polytheism, sacred cows and reincarnation for the masses; monotheism (or monism) for the mystics, who declare the individual soul one with Brahman (God) and beyond reincarnation (“Brahman is the only reincarnator”). Truth is relative to the level of experience.
- Individuality is illusion according to Eastern mysticism. Not that we're not real, but that we are not distinct from God or each other. Christianity tells you to love your neighbors; Hinduism tells you you are your neighbors. The word spoken by God Himself as His own essential name, the word “I,” is the ultimate illusion, not the ultimate reality, according to the East. There Is no separate ego. All is one.
- Since individuality is illusion, so is free will. If free will is illusion, so is sin. And if sin is illusion, so is hell. Perhaps the strongest attraction of Eastern religions is in their denial of sin, guilt and hell.
- Thus the two essential points of Christianity — sin and salvation — are both missing in the East. If there is no sin, no salvation is needed, only enlightenment. We need not be born again; rather, we must merely wake up to our innate divinity. If I am part of God. I can never really be alienated from God by sin.
- Body, matter, history and time itself are not independently real, according to Hinduism. Mystical experience lifts the spirit out of time and the world. In contrast, Judaism and Christianity are essentially news, events in time: creation, providence, prophets, Messiah, incarnation, death and, resurrection, ascension, second coming. Incarnation and New Birth are eternity dramatically entering time. Eastern religions are not dramatic.
- The ultimate Hindu ideal is not sanctity but mysticism. Sanctity is fundamentally a matter of the will: willing God's will, loving God and neighbor. Mysticism is fundamentally a matter of intellect, intuition, consciousness. This fits the Eastern picture of God as consciousness — not will, not lawgiver.
When C.S. Lewis was converted from atheism, he shopped around in the world's religious supermarket and narrowed his choice down to Hinduism or Christianity. Religions are like soups, he said. Some, like consomme, are thin and clear (Unitarianism, Confucianism, modern Judaism); others, like minestrone, are thick and dark (paganism, “mystery religions”). Only Hinduism and Christianity are both “thin” (philosophical) and “thick” (sacramental and mysterious). But Hinduism is really two religions: “thick” for the masses, “thin” for the sages. Only Christianity is both.
Hinduism claims that all other religions are yogas: ways, deeds, paths. Christianity is a form of bhakti yoga (yoga for emotional types and lovers). There is also jnana yoga (yoga for intellectuals), raja yoga (yoga for experimenters), karma yoga (yoga for workers, practical people) and hatha yoga (the physical preliminary to the other four). For Hindus, religions are human roads up the divine mountain to enlightenment — religion is relative to human need; there is no “one way” or single objective truth.
There is, however, a universal subjective truth about human nature: It has “four wants”: pleasure, power, altruism and enlightenment. Hinduism encourages us to try all four paths, confident that only the fourth brings fulfillment. If there is reincarnation and if there is no hell, Hindus can afford to be patient and to learn the long, hard way: by experience rather than by faith and revelation.
Hindus are hard to dialogue with for the opposite reason Moslems are: Moslems are very intolerant, Hindus are very tolerant. Nothing is false; everything is true in a way.
The summit of Hinduism is the mystical experience, called mukti, or moksha: “liberation” from the illusion of finitude, realization that tat tvam asi, “thou art That (Brahman].” At the center of your being is not individual ego but Atman, universal self which is identical with Brahman, the All.
This sounds like the most absurd and blasphemous thing one could say: that I am God. But it is not that I, John Smith, am God the Father Almighty. Atman is not ego and Brahman is not God the Father. Hinduism identifies not the immanent human self with the transcendent divine self but the transcendent human self with the immanent divine self. It is not Christianity. But neither is it idiocy.
Martin Buber, in “I and Thou,” suggests that Hindu mysticism is the profound experience of the “original pre-biographical unity” of the self, beneath all forms and contents brought to it by experience, but confused with God. Even Aristotle said that “the soul is, in a way, all things.” Hinduism construes this “way” as identity, or inclusion, rather than knowing: being all things substantially rather than mentally. The soul is a mirror for the whole world.
Kreeft, Peter. “Comparing Christianity & Hinduism.” National Catholic Register. (May, 1987).
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