Hindu Youth lead the way to facing up to religious and cultural challenges, in the Information age of the 21st Century.
Student members of Hindu Human Rights and the Hindu Students Society of the London School of Economics hosted the first ever student inter-faith dialogue in early 2005. The debate was Titled : What does Jesus mean to Hindus. The names of guest speakers were Suneel (IT software trainer & consultant) and Rishi (Student S. Asian & Punjab studies). Executives of the Hindu Council UK, and South Asian Concern (Affiliates of the Evangelical Alliance) were also present.
Examination of the methods used for converting Hindus to Christianity, by Evangelical Christians, through direct debate gives us many insights to the underpinning principles governing inter-faith dialogue today. I suggest within this article that the main Evangelical Christian focus of conversion practises to Christianity, from Hinduism, is based upon principles of exclusion reflecting polar class and ethnic positioning, and a dualistic ideology.
This article also examines how the class & ethnic relations of Hindus and their own sense of self and awareness of others, within the non dualistic Hindu philosophical framework, impacts upon the Inter-faith dialogue today. Juxta-positioning these two separate paradigms or world views to respond to the same question, illustrates the tensions and gaps that would need to be accounted for, if Inter-faith dialogue is to indeed be effective in engendering greater understanding between Abrahamic and Eastern philosophies in the future.
I will build a case that conversion, in the UK, may only succeed with the vulnerable members of Hindu society, who are disenfranchised sections of the community and that conversion to Christianity is a means to gain social status in a predominantly White Christian society.
The presenter, Suneel, who was advocating conversion to Christianity in a subtle and personal fashion, used terminology and paradigms suggestive of the exclusion and oppression experienced in a 70’s & 80’s Britain, through a British Hindu identity. It can be suggested therefore, that his own conversion may have been a symptom of a vulnerability seeking a sense of belonging, which I explore later in this paper.
The examination of the presentation of the Hindu perspective indicates an emerging process of Hindu class and cultural agency amongst the youth, which enables claims to legitimacy for a non-liner and non-polar ideology. The main Hindu focus of the debate brings into light the understanding and interpretation of the principle of self-realisation within Hinduism, as the basis upon which pluralism exists. This approach also marks the Hindus search for identity, along non linear and temporal planes, with a distinct supple expression. The Hindu perspective of non duality differs from the Abrahamic religions of today, which are based upon duality and therefore tend to establish identities in oppositional constructions.
The detailed presentation & questioning from the young Hindu presenter Rishi & Hindu students in the audience illustrated that Hindu Youth today were well informed about both Hindu & Christian philosophy and were not easily persuaded by the evangelical Christian perspective. I suggest the Hindu students at the LSE seminar may be assumed to belong to a middle class and displayed a strong sense of a Hindu identity. The debate session was launched with a recital of the Hindu Gayatri Mantra prayer three times, in a powerful unified chorus, which imbued the event with a serious and respectful atmosphere that prevailed for the next three hours of debate.
The presentation of Hinduism suggests an inclusive plural principle and is therefore relevant for the future multi-cultural and inter-faith dialogues in the global era. The inclusion of this pluralistic paradigm in future inter-faith discourse is pivotal for the Hindu identity and offers an expansive alternative worldview, in today’s diverse and global society.
Exposing the Evangelical Christian doctrine to the Vedantic measures and epistemology, is also a valid method for understanding first how the Christian paradigm of duality has dominated the Inter-Faith dialogue thus far. Secondly how effectively a shift in this paradigm would open the way for a constructive and inclusive faith discourse in the future.Vijay Prashad, in his book ‘The Karma of Brown people advocates that when future generations of Indian diaspora turn (or return) to ‘culture’ resources as forms of resistance,
” one should remain open to the multiplicity of that cultural past, rather than accepting the one dimensional rituals forwarded by the state and by cultural ‘leaders’.“ The Hindu Human Rights students and the LSE Students appear to have followed Prashad’s advice, by reverting to the core unifying principles of Hinduism based upon Vedantic philosophy, framed and validated within a scientific western academic methodology.
Another analysis on the development of immigrant societies, by Etienne Balbir, suggested that there would be a danger, with second and third generation immigrants, having achieved a certain class in the west, that they would “develop a much greater degree of combativeness,
combining class demands with cultural demands.
” This inter-faith dialogue event, illustrates the potential for identifying the tensions between cultures in the emergent faith discourse and we would have to ascertain whether a tolerant and justice society of a multi-cultural Britain would deem these tensions as combative or simply a test of prevailing social and political aspirations. Suneel started his presentation with a prayer to the Father and thanked him for this opportunity to come together for open dialogue. Suneel has been a Christian for 20 years. Suneel described his own spiritual journey, starting with describing his own family background as a British Asian family which originally came from South Pakistan and of Sindhi origins. On his journey to developing his understanding of Faith, he said he was looking for a spiritual being that was greater than us, a being that cared for us and a being who invoked a sense of belonging.
The historical, social and cultural context of Suneel’s journey, may provide some sociological insight to the process which Suneel describes as his own personal journey. Using the homogenous label of British Asian family, to describe his background, locates Suneel within the same social framework as the Hindu students in the audience and therefore the personal can then be presented as a possible collective experience and this becomes an effective means of emotionally engaging an audience you wish to influence. However, I would like to suggest that this journey is actually one of a displaced and disenfranchised people, searching for their own identity and sense of belonging, within a radicalised social environment of 1980’s Britain, which was marked in British History by the Brixton riots and various other challenges to the establishment of the time.
This period of unrest was a direct follow on from the national debate initiated by the famous or infamous ‘Rivers of blood’ speech by Enoch Powell in the House of Commons, in which he warned against the dangers of allowing increasing numbers of immigrants into Britain and thereby constructed the concept of a dominant British Culture. Later in the 70’s, Alfred Sherman took this further and said, “nationhood … remains together with family and religion, man’s main focus of identity, his roots.” (The Empire Strikes back – Centre of Contemporary Cultural studies.1982) thereby laying down the framework of conditions for permanent non- integration of immigrants into the British society & British citizenship.
During Suneel’s gap year he explored Hinduism and spirituality in India, studying transcendental meditation which he felt, took away from his individual personality. Suneel also travelled to many Mandirs and places of worship. Suneel admits he realised then, that he wanted to know God on his own terms and at about that time, he also met Christians from Switzerland. Suneel was unable to see their God, however thought he would experiment with praying to Jesus anyway .
Seeking solace and a sense of belonging in the context of the original homeland (India) would be problematic for Suneel and others members of the Diaspora, according to Stuart Hall, a leading sociologist, because the construction of identity is traditionally the product of the play of binary oppositions. Hall suggests that classification and difference are established through repeated and ritualised social behaviour, which set up symbolic boundaries between what is included and what is excluded.The Indian Diaspora have acquired a set of social practises and behaviours, which mark the difference of the teleology of their experience, from that of the experience of the indigenous population of India. For example, the NRI status (Non resident Indian) would subject the individual to the experience of the binary opposition set up against that of the Indian national identity, and therefore determines what an individual feels included into and what he or she may feel excluded from.
The evangelical methodology to establish a sense of not belonging to the homeland is subtle and can be effective in invoking anti-nationalistic emotions and a sense of isolation or a lack of rootedness, for the audience.
The day Suneel prayed to Jesus and asked God for forgiveness, that night he sensed a presence and knew it was Jesus and that he would be with him forever. This, Suneel felt, was the personal relationship with God that he had been looking for and not just an image of God. Suneel suggests that he changed as a person after that and became more tolerant of his fellow human beings and that his heart grew. Suneel was able to make a direct linking of isolation and separateness from any anchor which was great enough to overcome the sense of a disenfranchised self, could be very appealing to any person who was emotionally and socially vulnerable.
Immigrants who first arrived into the UK, from the Sub continent in the 70s & 80s were not received with open arms by the white indigenous population. Avtar Brah, Sociologist at Birkbeck College, identifies that the new immigration laws during 1980s were directed mainly at SouthHall Asians, following on from the ‘anit-immigration’ and ‘alien’ culture theme that dominated Margaret Thatcher’ s pre-election speeches, with veiled allegations of wide spread abuse of the ‘arranged marriage system’ that increased the flow of immigration into the UK. For Suneel, an appeal to an alienated marginalised people, the natural next step would be to offer a physical refuge to anyone who was feeling isolated and alone. Suneel went on to explain to the audience how belonging to the Church would include relationships and bonds that stretched beyond the buildings of the church.
Suneel makes a distinction between Christianity and ‘Churchianity’, the latter which he described as the practice of praying in a place of worship without performing the Christian love outside of the place of worship. Two years after becoming a Christian he reviewed his decision and realised that he did not choose this life and so he was at the mercy of God. Suneel presented a passage from the Bible, where Jesus promises rest for the souls, promises to prepare a room for everyone and will also take on the responsibility for all your individual sins.
The appeal to the students, through the Evangelical Christian perspective suggests that rather than pursue the difficult and rigorous path of self realization within Hinduism, there is an easier option offered through Jesus Christ. Suneel later even suggested that, no one would choose to go through millions of births, lives and deaths when they could live this one difficult life and then be granted a place in heaven by seeking forgiveness. This methodology for conversion was directly focused on the person as a victim, and this would appeal to anyone who felt vulnerable as a victim of the racial 1980s British society. It is an appeal for salvation from the struggle of life, in which people are seen to be weak and unable to cope with their social environments.
The presentation ended with a short clip showing a scene from the controversial movie, denounced by the church as inaccurate and too violent and anit-semetic by Jewish groups -“The passion of Christ”, where Jesus is arrested in the garden. Suneel points out that, in the movie, Jesus shows how he is in control of the situation and that the situation does not control him, the very special relationship of compassion Jesus has with Judas and that Jesus miraculously heals the soldier whose ear has been cut off in the struggle to arrest him.Presenting Jesus as above the law of the land and in control of his own destiny, again sends a message to any victim of society, that aligning oneself with Jesus will make it easier to cope with the hardship of a British racist and intolerant society. The students of LSE are probably not class or cultural victims of British society and therefore were not receptive to the salvation being offered by this evangelical model of Christianity, and made this apparent in the question & answer session I will discuss later in this paper.
The presentation of the Hindu perspective of Jesus was completely in contrast to the first personal presentation. Rishi used a Power point slide show and took a western academic approach to the debate, with an explanation of the difference between the Christian duality in polar positions of God and self , and Hindu non duality of a non linear and the whole monistic creation.
Rishi, situated the debate in an analysis based upon textual scripts from the Bible in which he suggested, that scriptures are maps and not the ultimate destination and also warned against the possibility of unhelpful circular arguments whereby the script itself is used as evidence for it’s own content and presentation. This warning was accompanied by a list of reasons why this practise is detrimental to the complete understanding of the philosophy being presented within the Bible. These were,
Fallible results of powerful human enterprise Evidence of tampering and inconsistency within the Bible Factual mistakes Missing books between 1611KJV and modern KJV Missing gospels found, now stored in Nag Hammdi Library, which have profound concepts that contradict hegemonic interpretations of the Bible.
Rishi has made a significant break from the Evangelical Christian perspective of scriptures as the embodiment of the word of God. The scientific academic requirements of validation and historical evidence to establish the valence of any document, provided Rishi with the tools to challenge the authenticity and validity of the Bible as the word of God.
The shift of emphasis from emotional engagement with philosophy, as Suneel presented it, to a scientific approach of philosophical textual analysis suggests an active use of cultural capital. Pierre Bourdieu , a French sociologist suggests, that culture is the field in which class relations operate. The cultural understanding and depth of research into the Christian doctrine, demonstrates that Rishi was not open to emotional conversion practises.
The examination of the History of Christianity enabled the debate to be framed within an objective scientific mould that reflected Rishi’s western educational influence which was then combined with the use of measuring the evangelical philosophy against the Hindu paradigm of non duality. The synergy of these two processes is congruent with the flexible non linear and temporal cultural expression of the principles of the Vedanta and which underpins Hindu cultural practises.
Rishi explained to the audience, of approximately 30 students from various ethnic and religious backgrounds, that the Augustine principle, introduced later in the hermeneutics of the Bible, established within Christianity the concept that Man is fundamentally evil commonly referred to as ‘The Fall of Adam’. This duality is manufactured by thisprinciple argues Rishi. Taking into account all of the above, Rishi asks, why the Church would disallow (or rather not acknowledge) this new knowledge? Rishi suggests that the motives of the Church to remain as mediators between the individual and God would be threatened by the inclusion of this information into the Christian discourse. The Gnostic Christianity, that these new findings indicate, should be a part and parcel of the modern accepted Christianity in which they would therefore suggest, that self realisation is subscribed for Man who is not perceived as separate from the divine. However, this concept would alter the role of the Church.
First Rishi distanced the New versions of the Bible from the authors, and then introduced the idea of an institutional and ideological intervention, which created the break from the original ideology promoted by the Bible and it’s authors. The locating of the Bible within a historical and sociological framework demonstrates the innate vulnerability of all ideological thought, to the machinations of time and social space which Rishi later suggested was accounted for within the vedantic pluralism.
Dr David Frawley, Director of the American institute of Vedic Studies, also makes the same suggestion and says, “Westerners need not regard the Vedic heritage as simply Eastern, it is universal and also part of an older European heritage that can again be reclaimed, now that the hold of the exclusive religions of the Middle ages, which suppressed mysticism and spirituality, is coming to an end.” Rishi presented, on power point, several passages quoting Jesus from the Bible. The essence of which was captured in the last quote, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.” Rishi suggests that Jesus told everyone, that those who achieve self realization will be one with God. He called this the Cristos principle.
Rishi then went on to correlate this concept of divinity in man, with the teachings of Shri Krishna in the Geeta and explained that we are all like drops from the same ocean and that through self realization we become one with the divine. Thus, the Cristos principle (as opposed to Christ the man) is within all of mankind and thus mankind is not separated from the eternal. Hindus do not perceive any duality. Critics of this universalising conception of Hinduism, such as Chetan Bhatt of Goldsmith’s College, suggested that this trend is influenced by important strands of European romantic thinking and cannot be seen as Indian in origin.(1999) which never the less had frequently been the mobilising core of Hindu supremacism and Nationalism .(2001). It is interesting to note, that Bhatt is able to use the western paradigm of a privileged western academic position to determine an oppositional position for the Hindu ideology, that challenges the binary hierarchy invisibly underpinning the western academic methodology, that upon reflection reveals racial constructions.
I would concur with Dr. Koenraad Elst, from Belgium, that the Hindu revival and affirmation of a Hindu identity today is not a bid for supremacy of Hindu fundamental principles because, a Hindu cannot be a fundamentalist where the role of scriptures has the same relevance as that of the Bible or Quran. There is a plurality of Hindu scriptures and this again is congruent with the Vedantic ethos of pluralism. Indeed as Bhatt also points out Swami Dayananda, founder of the Arya Samaj rejected several numbers of Hindu texts, and yet the Arya Samaj is retained and recognised within the diverse family of Hinduism. According to Rishi, the story of Adam and Eve is an allegory and leads to the formation of the ego creating a hierarchy with the separation of man from god.
For Hindus the Cristos principle is not separated from God and Rishi went on to present several passages from the Bible to illustrate this point. Rishi informed the audience that from the age of 18 to 30 Jesus was missing and that this has been researched by a few scholars – 1887 Russian scholar Nicolas Natovich 1925 Russian scholar Nicholas Roerich 1992 Indian scholar Swami Abhedananda Scripts and evidence found through this research suggests, that Jesus lived amongst Indians in India and learned Yoga and the Hindu and Buddhist teachings. Rishi suggested therefore, If the Bible is read without the literal translation, many parts of the Bible reflect the wisdom that is the essence of the philosophy of self realisation, that the Veda and Upanishads espouse.
There is a labyrinth of literature, produced by both Western & Eastern research about the life of Jesus and even the possibility that there was no such person. It is not within the scope of this article to make any comment upon these, apart from confirming that it is and remains a controversial area of research. At the end of the presentation Rishi concluded that Hindus therefore would view Jesus as a wise man. What is wisdom according to Hindu philosophy? Wisdom is the state attained through self realisation which would enable an individual to refrain from making judgement -You are only able to judge when there is duality. As the audience to this presentation, we should all ask ourselves first, whether this analysis and realignment of the interpretation of the Bible is, as Hobsbawn & Ranger (1984) might suggest, a process for the invention of traditions to establish social cohesion, group membership or imagined communities.
The Hobsbawn & Ranger study was researching the historiography of fundamentalism and the invention of traditions in the recreation of ethnicities. I would like to suggest that this re-alignment i s a break from the exclusive nature of fundamentalism towards an inclusive process of sameness. Secondly we should consider, Chetan Bhatt’s critique in his latest book ‘Liberation & Purity’ where he begins the chapter on Neotraditional Hinduism with the caveat, “…the following chapters are focused on far right-wing Hindu formations and are not about Hinduism in general “, and Bhatt puts forward the argument that the methodological claim, made by Neotraditional Hindus, of an essential transcendental ‘Hindu civilization’which is increasingly able to aggregate any and all Hinduisms and their institutional structures into its unitary discourse, is both a dominant ideology and a guide to political organisation and activism for Hindu nationalists. This claim, I would first suggest, does critique the underpinning ideology of universality that the Vedantic tradition follows and which Rishi’s presentation is based upon.
The Bhatt critique follows the traditional framework of Western epistemic social theory, whereas the evidence presents a frame of reference from a Vedantic and Gnostic paradigm and thus the question arises as to why the former is privileged, within the academic context. Second, Chetan Bhatt also assumes that the claim to ‘civilization’ is an automatic claim for domination and doesn’t take any account of the universal appeal of Vedantic principles and practises, as evidenced by the adoption of these by a multicultural western society in the proliferation of centres for Yoga, Transcendental Meditation, Ayurveda and various Hindu study.
Within the interfaith context, it could be suggested that the “invention of traditions” to establish social cohesion across old traditional boundaries, wider group membership of a broader inclusive philosophy and an imagined community at a global scale, then this process may be a possible solution for the challenges facing humanity in today’s global era. The comments from the audience reveal a marked difference between Hindu youth who understood the social and ideological implications of both Christianity and Hinduism in it’s Vedantic format and the Christian youth who had very little knowledge of Hinduism. The difference of knowledge and shared meanings between the two groups has stark implications for Inter-Faith dialogue in the future.
The Q & A session brought up the following issues: Is Jesus God for Christians or a medium to God? Is Christianity an attractive option for someone who is displaced in society and therefore seeking inclusion into the ranks of the elite? Does the transfer of responsibility of the individuals sins and the associated sense of redemption give comfort that the Hindu philosophy does not with it’s emphasis on self realisation?
The personal presentation of a journey was honest and therefore applauded, but it was thought that it might be a sophisticated method of attempting to convert Hindus to Christianity.
Not familiar with Hinduism, but the greatness of Christ is revealed in the Bible and is powerful and special, So why would Hindus not perceive it to be so? Are all people who do not convert to Christianity and ask for forgiveness from Christ damned to eternal hell? – The response was that you have free choice until the day of judgement, after which you are damned to eternal hell. Rishi reminded the audience that the principle of Augustine does not give man the free choice which is being assumed.
I will conclude that, this event illustrated, how Etienne Balbir has misjudged the potential of the next generations of Hindu Diaspora, who would appear to be approaching the question of their own identities and histories from terms of reference which reflect the concentric epistemology of Hindu ideology and not the hierarchical prevailing Christian ideology and it’s associated western social class structures. This shifting of the terms of reference from a vertical and historically linear construct as is demonstrated to a horizontal and timeless circular construct, opens up the dimension of ‘whiteness’ and its associated discourse of silence, into this debate. However, this issue is not within the scope of this current article, nevertheless it is important in the analysis of this shift, to reflect upon the comments of Jeff Hitchcocks, Cofounder of The Centre for the study of White American culture, in a recent interview ,“For people of colour, who are assimilating to ‘whiteness’ to enter the mainstream, collaborating on the silence becomes a key requirement. They can reap rich rewards by pretending denial of the situation.”