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Christian Self-Understanding in Relation to Hindu Religion

A consultation with the participation of thirty persons from most of the major traditions of the Christian church met at the Ecumenical Institute, Bossey, Switzerland, from the 12-15 October 2011 under the auspices of the World Council of Churches to explore the issues of Christian self-understanding in relation to their Hindu neighbours and to Hinduism as a religious tradition.

18 October 2011

A consultation with the participation of thirty persons from most of the major traditions of the Christian church met at the Ecumenical Institute, Bossey, Switzerland, from the 12-15 October 2011 under the auspices of the World Council of Churches to explore the issues of Christian self-understanding in relation to their Hindu neighbours and to Hinduism as a religious tradition. The participants, who were scholars and practitioners of interfaith dialogue in local contexts, included church leaders and specialists in religions, theology, missiology, Indology as well as social and political scientists. They were drawn from different parts of India and from other South and South-East Asian countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia, where Christians and Hindus live together in significant numbers. The consultation was part of a series of consultations that the WCC has organized to explore Christian self-understandings in relation to other world religions - Islam, Judaism and Buddhism.

In his opening address at the consultation, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, emphasized the challenges the churches are facing in our day to respond creatively to religious plurality, to foster harmonious relations between religious traditions and to explore in greater depth the significance of religious plurality for Christian theology, practice and self-understanding. 

The Consultation began with the recognition that, on the whole, Hindu-Christian relationships have been a positive experience in history. India’s attitude to plurality in general, and the Hindu approach to religious diversity in particular, had enabled many religious traditions to live together in harmony with Hinduism for most of its history.  Hindu-Christian dialogue has been part of the WCC programme on Interfaith Dialogue from the time it was initiated in 1971. The programme has had the advantage of building on the ongoing Hindu-Christian relations and dialogue from the time since Christianity arrived in India in the first century. The Consultation also noted the issues and problems that arose in this relationship with the subsequent arrival of Christianity in company with Western colonization of Asia and the missionary expansion that went with colonialism.  This history of nexus between the missionaries and colonialists has been the cause of mutual misunderstandings and misconceptions of each religion in regard to the other.  Christians, in particular, need to remove some of the misconceptions about Hindu religion that were promoted in the course of the missionary effort.

Christian self-understanding in relation to other religious traditions has grown and changed over the centuries, and mapping these changes and the historical circumstances that brought them about was part of the task of the consultation. Today, the rise of religious fundamentalism and religious extremism in many parts of the world and the recent tensions in India over the issue of conversions and the rise of Hindu nationalism calls for an urgent review of Hindu-Christian relationships.

Based on the sharing of experiences on Hindu-Christian relations from many contexts, scholarly expositions on the issues involved, and on the basis of discussions that followed, the consultation highlighted the following:

Dialogue of Life

To many the concept of dialogue conjures the image of scholars and teachers of religion coming together to explore their respective doctrines.  While these formal dialogues have their place, the consultation emphasized the importance of recognizing, affirming and enhancing the ongoing “dialogue of life” that had been prevalent and continues to be the bedrock of Hindu-Christian relations over many centuries.  Also to be affirmed is “dialogue of action”, where the adherents of Hindu and Christian religions come together to join forces in their struggle for justice, peace, human rights and other issues of common concern to the community.  The Consultation was also conscious of the common issues faced by women in the context of patriarchy that run across all religious traditions, and it underlined the need to strengthen the women to women relationship in interfaith dialogue.  It also spoke of the deep spiritual dimensions that Hindus bring to the “dialogue of spirituality” that individuals and ashrams have promoted in many parts of India.  It noted that developing a new theological, spiritual and practical approach to religious plurality is one of the important challenges to the churches in our day. 

Mission and Conversion

While recognizing the long history of positive relationship, it is also important to acknowledge the difficulties that have marked Hindu-Christian relationships, partly because of the different self-understandings they carry as religious traditions.  Christian missions in India and other parts of Asia have been among the contentious issues in Hindu-Christian relations.  It is part of Christian self-understanding that they bear witness to their faith and be in service to the people among whom they live. Many Hindus readily admit to the beneficial effects of Christian missions in bringing education, health care, social justice and liberation.  However, Hindus have also had considerable problems with some Christians’ exclusive claims, the creation of culturally alternate communities, and the negative presentation of Hindu religion and its values as part of the preaching of the gospel.  This reality calls on the churches to re-think the assumptions, presuppositions and goals of mission that were formulated during the colonial period.

The conversion debate in India, especially since it has also led to a number of instances of violence and laws against conversion, has raised a number of issues related to religious freedom, the rights of individuals and communities to change, practice and propagate their faith, and the use of unethical methods in search of converts or to prevent persons moving from one faith to another.  The Consultation delved into the complex realities of the development and the current manifestations of the Hindutva ideology. While recognizing the fact that the proponents of Hindutva represent only a small sector within the Hindu community, the trend of politicization of religion affects the long tradition of religious tolerance and communal harmony in India. The participants acknowledged the rich traditions of spirituality and tolerance of Hindu religion and also underscored that they do not equate Hindutva ideology with that of the Hindu religion. The Consultation called on Christians to pay attention to some of the issues that tend to promote extremist reactions from within the Hindu fold. It reaffirmed rejection of all forms of aggressive and unethical methods of witnessing to one’s faith, from wherever these may come. It also affirmed the need to make the Hindus more aware of the internal diversities within Christianity on this issue. While welcoming the recent ecumenical document, “Recommendations for Conduct: Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World”, the Consultation recommends that Christians continue the work further to explore some of the specific theological issues on missions and conversions raised in the Hindu-Christian context. The Consultation also affirmed the need for building up a cordial relation and strengthening of dialogue and collaboration between the adherents of Christian and Hindu religions. It also emphasized the need for engaging in dialogue with those who take hard-line positions.

Social Justice

One of the areas that called for the special attention of the consultation was the way Hindu and Christian religious self-understandings have worked out in the organization of society. The Hindu social organization on the basis of caste hierarchy, which was established and given religious legitimacy by a stream within the Indian religious heritage, marginalized a significant segment of the population as “outcastes”.  This social reality has been a bone of contention in Hindu-Christian relationships.  While many Dalits, Tribals and Adivasis, who have endured social oppression for centuries, have embraced Christianity as a way to find their dignity and to escape the clutches of the caste structure, sections of Hindu society see this as a disruption of their social fabric .  In this area Christians are often put into the predicament of having to choose between maintaining good relationships and standing for justice and human rights; many recognize this as an issue that calls for advocacy, solidarity or dialogue, as the situation demands.  It also calls for alliances across the religious and secular divides in search for greater justice for all.

Growing together

The consultation was mindful that Hinduism and Christianity as religious traditions that have initially evolved and developed in geographic isolation and in very different cultural and social contexts, are significantly different from one another and bring very distinct gifts to the religious quest of humankind.  Each of these traditions holds dimensions of spiritual life that can lead to mutual enrichment and correction.

 The consultation is convinced that a genuine encounter with the spiritual dimensions of Hinduism can enlighten and enrich Christian experience and theology.  In this regard, recovering the spiritual dimensions and the interiority of Christian life as a community of Jesus, and a renewed emphasis on the Reign of God, were seen as important to the life of the church in the Hindu context.

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