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Can Christianity Be a Form of Hinduism?

Many people have heard the following claim: “all religions are basically the same.” Though that claim is relatively new to many in the Western world, it’s old news to many in the East. Indeed, according to the Hindu philosopher Swami Prabhavananda, Hinduism has long been on a quest to “reconcile different faiths,” all of which it considers “so many paths… to one and the same goal.” [1] Every religion, in this view, can be considered a form of Hinduism; each religion can find at least one form of Hinduism with which it is totally compatible, and therefore each religion has a place within Hinduism’s wide theological umbrella.[2]

     I would like to ask whether orthodox Christianity can fit into Hinduism in this way. In pursuit of an answer will make two arguments. In the first, I will argue that precisely where many would expect to find the most incompatibility between the religions, there may not be any, and that one of the most popular forms of Hinduism is exactly with Christianity on that set of issues. And in the second, I will argue that despite this surprise, Christianity cannot be Hindu; one of its essential elements contradicts an essential element of every form of Hinduism.

     I. Theological Metaphysics

Perhaps the most common response that Christians have to a claim like Prabhavananda’s is that Hinduism has many gods while Christianity has just one. Because this is the go-to response of many, I will start here.

     To be sure, Hindus are unafraid to speak of many gods. But according to Prabhavananda, who follows the Vedanta school of Hindu thought, these gods are not what we might expect. Unlike the deities of mount Olympus (who constitute something like prototypical western polytheism), they are not distinct and self-subsisting entities. Rather, they are “expressions” of a single entity, who is the one true God behind all things. This is quite a different picture of the gods than is usually ascribed to Hinduism in the West, and we will need to understand it better if we are to attempt an evaluation of its compatibility with Christianity.

     “Endless change without, and at the heart of the change an abiding reality;” such is Brahman, the one true God.[3] He is “the absolute existence,” the ultimate and unchanging reality behind all things.[4] Not merely one thing existing among other things, but rather “Existence” itself, he is the ground from which all that is draws being; indeed, he is not only creator and sustainer but also the inner being, even the substance, of all we sense and experience. As the Vedanta philosopher Sankara puts it, Brahman is not only real, but is in fact “Reality.”[6]

     By contrast, says Sankara, the world both “is and is not.”[7] Insofar as it is not Brahman, who is Existence itself, the world cannot possibly “be” in any way. And as we’ve seen, the world, qua world, is distinct from Brahman. This suggests that world simply is not; and yet even Sankara, spokesman of non-dualism, concedes that somehow, the world “exists, and it exists as it appears.”[8] But this can only be possible insofar as the world is Brahman. And yet, the two are distinct, for Brahman is transcendent in the way that a cause transcends its effect.[9]

     This is a perplexing tension, and it is here that the schools of Vedanta split. But it should be noted that this split is not so much one of content as it is a split of emphasis. Regardless of the school, both sides of the tension must be given a place; in a mysterious fashion, Brahman is truly distinct from world, yet is also more present to it than its very self.

     With the Hindu theological picture articulated, our next move is to formulate a corresponding Christian account. For this we will need a representative of Christian orthodoxy, and I can think of no one more suited for the task than St. Thomas Aquinas, an especially influential theologian who has long been considered a Doctor of the Church. What, then, does Thomas have to say about the God-World relation?

     In his Summa Theologicae, Thomas says that we should not think of God (YHWY) as merely one thing among other things.[10] Instead, we should think of Him as being radically above all things; so transcendent that He cannot be fit into any class or category of creatures or objects. In other words, we should not merely say that God exists, but rather that He is Existence itself.

     This sheds quite a bit of light on the Christian metaphysical notion of the world. If God is Existence, then all that exists must somehow share in His being;[11] says Thomas, “God is in all things, and innermostly” – closer to them than even their very selves. [12] For this reason, Christians have historically believed that removed from God, the world simply is not. Conversely, Christians have said, wherever there is world, there, too, must be God. And yet even in this relation, God remains distinct in the way that a cause is set apart from its effect; he is above it, transcendent.

     Christians have also been willing to say that, because the world was made ex-nihilo rather than ex-deo – out of nothing, rather than out of God – the world and God are not substantially the same. In Aristotelian terms, they do not share a substantial cause.[13] And yet, it is undeniable: He is the supporter, and the world is His thing-supported, in a perplexingly intimate relationship. And this intimacy cannot be escaped without exiting orthodoxy.[14]

     The metaphysical parallels of these accounts are striking. Both YHWY and Brahman are unspeakably transcendent, and each is the source and innermost being of all things. Indeed, compared to them, the world is nothing at all. The similarities between these deities even extend into the paradoxical tension created in the insistence that the world can somehow be ontologically distinct from this all-encompassing God. The resemblance is uncanny.

     Here there may arise a certain objection: where Hindus are happy to talk about Brahman as the substance of created things, Christians like Thomas have dissented fiercely. This is a difference, but it is not a difference between Christianity and every form of Hinduism. Dvaita, a less-popular-though-still-orthodox Hindu school, posits two realities – Brahman and the world (prakrti) – and thus makes room for a world without the substantial cause of Brahman.[15] Therefore this difference is not one of essential incompatibility; it is only a difference with a particular Hindu school.

     In the end, the road of pure metaphysics leads Christianity and Hinduism to one and the same place, and gives no grounding to an argument for incompatibility. But this is not to say that such an argument cannot be grounded. Although the typical Western response leads to a dead end, there is at least one other aspect of Christian doctrine which, when expounded upon, opens the door to a robust soteriological narrative which can have no parallel in any form of Hinduism.

     II. Two Salvation Narratives

Nearing the conclusion that Christianity and Hinduism are compatible, Prabhavananda notes that Hindus and medieval Christians have theologized in all the same ways, save one: Christians have “placed far greater emphasis upon the sense of sin than is to be found anywhere in Hindu Philosophy.”[16]

     To be sure, Hindus recognize a certain tendency in man towards evil. In both societies and individuals, says Prabhavananda, there are times in which “the pendulum swings low and truth and righteousness are forgotten.”[17] It is in such times as these that an “avatar,” a learned incarnation of the Divine, comes to the world on a mission to instruct humanity towards the good by his “living example.”[18]

     This reveals to us the two major elements of the Hindu redemption narrative. First, the problem: ignorance and wickedness. Second, the solution: “God descends upon earth in the form of a man to instruct man how to ascend towards him.”[19]

     At first glance these may seem to echo the Christian narrative. But if the stories are juxtaposed, appearances change. In the beginning, goes the Christian story, man fell and was ontologically corrupted. From then on he was not merely inclined to evil, but rather destined to it.[20] But in love, “the Word became flesh;”[21] God the Son descended into the world and forever united himself with a human body, thereby not merely instructing men, but in a mysterious fashion, ontologically healing the entire race by bringing it up into the godhead.

     Thus we see again two major elements of the Christian story. First, the problem: ontological corruption. Second, the solution, “God became man so that man would be made God.”[22]

     Now juxtapose these sets of elements: in the one, man is merely ignorant and poorly formed. In the other, he is rotted in his very being. These lead to divergent solutions: In the one, God coaches man towards virtue and knowledge; In the other, God remakes him.

     The Christian account states both problem and solution much more forcefully than most Hindu schools are able. For if all people bear Brahman as their substantial cause, then because Brahman cannot be corrupted in his essence, the world must be immune to ontological corruption, and original sin impossible. Therefore, for the majority of Hindus (non-dualists), a genuine metaphysical difference between the Hindu and Christian universes expands into an irreconcilable point of dispute in the context of “the sin problem.” And although non-dualists may have room to grant original sin insofar as the world is not substantially Brahman, they have always strongly insisted that the problem of evil stems not from an ontological fall but rather from ignorance. But that fall is absolutely essential to the Christian story. So in either case, Hinduism and Christianity are here put in irreconcilable tension.

     If this is an essential difference between the religions, as I think it is, then it is one which might reveal another. Take Jesus. Without an understanding of the Christian problem-solution story, it can be hard to see Jesus in an essentially non-Hindu way. Say he’s a great moral teacher; many Hindus believe this. Say he’s God-become-man; many Hindus believe this. But no Hindu recognizes Jesus as an ontological solution to an ontological problem, for Hinduism nowhere formulates the problem of the human condition in ontological terms. In Hinduism, the problem is put in moral terms only. This leads to a disagreement about the uniqueness of Jesus. According to Hinduism, because different eras have different moral problems, numerous incarnations of God are required. Thus, a plurality of incarnations. But according to Christians, the problem is at root an ontological one, to which Christ is the entire and only solution. In other words, because of the Hindu understanding of the problem, it makes no sense to affirm Christ as the only and sufficient solution. But that only and that sufficient together form the core of Christian soteriology. Thus, an essentially different story reveals an essentially different Christology.

     Thus is our original question answered: Christianity, or at least orthodox Christianity, cannot be a form Hinduism, because its salvation narrative arises from a diagnosis of the human condition that no form of Hinduism has ever affirmed. And because this diagnosis is intimately linked to the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, it might be fitting to summarize this conclusion in the clichéd Sunday school fashion: ultimately, the question is answered in the person of Jesus Christ.


[1] Swami Prabhavananda, The Spiritual Heritage of India (Hollywood: Vedanta Press, 1979).

[2] Prabhavananda provides an excellent example of this way of thinking by frequently alluding to Jesus Christ as a possible incarnation of Brahman.

[3] Ibid. 55. Prabhavananda here refers to Brahman in the first clause and to Atman in the second, but goes on immediately to equate them as one. Therefore one can substitute Atman for Brahman and rephrase the quote in the form I’ve used.

[4] Ibid. 283.

[6] Prabhavananda, The Spiritual Heritage of India, 284.

[7] Ibid. 283.

[8] Ibid. 284.

[9] Lipner, The Face of Truth, p. 135

[10] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologicae, in Summa of the Summa, edit. Peter Kreeft (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), I. 3, A. 5, 81.

[11] Ibid. I. 8, A. 1, 101.

[12] Ibid. I. 8, A. 1, 101.

[13] Ibid. I. 3, A. 8, 85.

[14] To reject this intimacy is to slide into Deism, which has historically been considered a Christian heresy.

[15] Prabhavananda, The Spiritual Heritage of India, 211.

[16] Ibid. 315.

[17] Ibid. 120.

[18] Ibid. 120.

[19] Ibid. 120.

[20] See Augustine, The City of God, 22:30.

[21] John 1:14.

[22] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, Section 54.

 

References

Athanasius, On the Incarnation

Augustine, The City of God

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologicae, in Summa of the Summa, edit. Peter Kreeft (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990)

The Book of John

Richard King, Indian Philosophy, (Georgetown University Press, 1999)

Julius J. Lipner, The Face of Truth (Albany: University of New York Press, 1986)

Swami Prabhavananda, The Spiritual Heritage of India (Hollywood: Vedanta Press, 1979)