Hinduism In Interreligious Dialogue

Daniel Acharuparambil, OCD

In this article, Prof. Acharuparambil outlines a Christian's view of Hinduism and interreligious dialogue.� It is valuable not only for its view of how the Catholic Church is dealing with the discussions on mission and dialogue, but also for its analysis of Hinduism.� Considering his conclusions, it could be said that devotees of Krsna have much the same problems with 'proselytism' in the West as Christians might do in India. On reading the quotes from typical 'Hindu' sources such as Vivekananda, Ramakrishna, Tagore and Gandhi, one may also question whether they still adequately represent the opinions of Hindus involved in dialogue today or whether contemporary Hinduism needs to be reassessed.

It is well-known that many religions, including Hinduism, look mistrustingly at Christian attempts at interreligious dialogue ― considering them to be merely the old 'proselytism' with a new face. In this presentation I will attempt to uncover, after first briefly examining the concept of interreligous dialogue in relation to the Church's official point of view, some of the rather difficult problems that a Christian encounters in his effort to undertake serious dialogue with a Hindu.

First of all, interreligious dialogue is a method of communication among followers of different religions.[1] It means not only discussion, but also includes all positive and constructive interreligious relations with individuals and communities of other faiths which are directed at mutual understanding and enrichment. [2] It is a meeting among people religiously strong in their own tradition, all trying to witness what is specific and personal in their religious convictions and experiences regarding man and his destiny, his place in the universe, his dependence on the Supreme Being and other questions of common interest, while at the same time welcoming other testimonies with respect and sympathy.

Religious systems do not meet, but religious people, deeply-rooted in their own heritage, do; and what brings them together is love, contributing as well to a reciprocal enrichment in their faith. In fact, to find ourselves faced with the real testimony of a different faith, always entails an invitation; a positive challenge to return to our own faith in a deeper, more conscious and personalised way. Dialogue therefore means a witness given and received for mutual advancement on the road religious enquiry and experience, and at the same time, for the elimination of prejudice, intolerance and misunderstandings.[3] It allows one to discover and� respect the prodigiousness and variety of God's work in human history.

In this respect, the Second Vatican Council signals the beginning of a new age in the Church's official view of other religions. This is characterised by the dialogue, as envisaged by Nostrae Aetate, the declaration on the Church's relationships with non-Christian religions. The Post-councillor Magister has been deeply committed to developing and further deepening the doctrine and discipline of dialogue at every level. Pope John Paul II has stated, 'Dialogue does not originate from tactical concerns or self interest, but is an activity with its own guiding principles, requirements and dignity. It is demanded by deep respect for everything that has been brougth about in human beings by the Spirit who blows wherever he wills. Through dialogue the Church seeks to discover the seed of the Word, a ray of the Truth which enlightens all men.'[4]

But the recognition of the positive values of other religions and the encouragement to sincere dialogue with them, far from being an obstacle to proclaim Christ, must be an incentive to do so. The Pope teaches vigorously: those who are incorporated in the Catholic Church ought to sense their privilege and for that very reason their greater obligation of bearing witness to the faith and to the Christian life as a service to their brothers and sisters and as fitting response to God.[5]

According to the Church, missionary activities are an intrinsic need of the Christian faith. Fidelity to Her Divine Founder's mandate requires that the Church should never tire of her commitment to bring everyone the Good News of Christ. Therefore, all her activities and enterprise have always had, more or less evidently, a missionary feel. Interreligious dialogue cannot be an exception to this; on the contrary, it is an important added dimension of� it.

The problem is that it is exactly these implications in the Christian's approach to dialogue which create suspicion on the part of the Hindu. Hindus dislike external interference in their own tradition, desiring a peaceful cohabitation with other religions. Their principle is 'live and let live'. According to Hinduism, it is necessary that all interreligious dialogue respects that principle, without excluding the reciprocal enrichment which can be had from an 'unselfish' dialogue. From that point of view, it can be said that Hinduism is particularly open to interreligious dialogue, and for the same reason, it is very resistant to a Christianisation of that dialogue.

It is sufficient to identify some fundamental Hindu doctrines on the attitudes that emerge therefrom to discover the reasons of that affirmation.

Hinduism and religious pluralism

For Christianity, which believes in the uniqueness of God's revelation in Christ and the universality of His message, other religions are an inevitable target of its missionary engagement. The Hindu vision is completely different. It doesn't want to grant to any religion, including itself, the attributes of uniqueness and universality. Its approach can be qualified as religious relativism, recognising the intrinsic value of individual religions and the consequent spirit of religious tolerance, accompanied by an intolerant attitude for any external interference in its own religion. This is not a vision of religious indifference, but rather a deep esteem for its own tradition and the engagement to live up to its ideals, while at the same time there is a sincere respect for other traditions and what they represent.

We can affirm that this position is as old as Hinduism itself, but in modern times, Hindu leaders have seriously deepened it. They have articulated it strongly, publicising it widely. They propose a religious philosophy which justifies such an approach. The starting point is this main principle: Religion, in an absolute sense, is only one and consists of the personal realisation of the Supreme Being. From this point of view, the profession of a doctrinal body and the observance of a ritual system are of secondary importance. 'Religion,' remarks Dr. Radhakrishnan, 'is not a creed or codex, but the intuition of reality, the direct experience of Supreme, the achievement of the state of Illumination.'[6]

The phenomenon of religious pluralism is explained by the fact that people define the Supreme Being according to their social and cultural genius and their own moral and spiritual evolution. Individual religions are historically formulations of a single religion that transcends all forms. Thus, every religion is deeply sacred for its respective followers because it is closely bound to their history and is an integral part of the interior soul; it characterises the identity of that people and determines the nature of their spiritual quest.

The following observation of Radhakrishnan is significant: if a Hindu chants the Vedas on the banks of the Ganges, if the Chinese meditates upon Analects, if the Japanese worship the image of Buddha, if the European is convinced of Christ's mediatorship, if the Arab reads the Koran in the mosque and if the African bows down to a fetish, each one of them has exactly the same reason for his particular conficence. Each form of faith appeals in precisely the same way to the inner certitude and the devotion of its followers. It is their deepest apprehension of God and God's fullest revelation to them.[7]

Religion isn't an external imposition, but an internal heritage, often simply because one is born at a certain place and time. 'We can not condemn someone for not having chosen his parents,' says Radhakrishnan, 'so we cannot convict him for not having chosen his religion.' Every religious tradition is worthwhile and precious, provided that it is able to enlighten the human soul.

Swami Vivekananda, following the teaching of his venerable master, Sri Ramakrishna, insists that we must respectfully accept every religion, and be ready to join every religious tradition to worship God, who is only one, whatever His name. In that spirit, he expressed the following prayer, at the conclusion of his talk at the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago (1893): 'May He who is the Brahman of the Hindus, the Ahura Mazda of Zoroastrians, the Buddha of Buddhists, the Jehovah of the Jews, the Father in Heavens of Christians, give strength to you to carry out your noble ideas!'[8]

Defending religious pluralism, Tagore added another intuition. God has manifested himself in this world through the immense variety of his Creation; he never wanted the world to be characterised by monotony and uniformity. Similarly, in the expression of our return to our Creator, a constant variety of individuality is required. The world would be extremely poor if one religion assimilates all the others into it. If such a flood occurs, affirms Tagore, God will provide another ark to save his creatures from the catastrophe of spiritual desolation. [9]

No religion is definitive

After justifying that religious pluralism is necessary for humanity and wanted by the Creator Himself, Hindu thinkers insist that no religion can properly boast to be final and absolute, because everyone is defective and imperfect. This is inevitable because religion is formulated and interpreted by men, who are limited and fallible. Every religion is subject to evolution and re-interpretation; the progress towards truth will be possible only through that evolution. Therefore Gandhi confesses: 'It was impossible for me to consider Christianity as the perfect religion, or as the greatest of all religions (...), neither was I convinced of Hinduism being such.' [10] The reasoning that he uses to confirm his position is this: the pious lives of Christians didn't give me anything that the lives of men of other faiths had failed to give. From the point of view of sacrifice, it seemed to me that the Hindu greatly surpassed the Christians.

Every religion is worthwhile

Even if no religion can claim to be absolute and decisive, every religion, according to Hindu tradition, is worthwhile and efficacious. Sri Ramakrishna tirelessly teaches that all religions are safe paths which lead men to the unique source of eternal happiness, the Divine, and so everyone must faithfully follow his way and respect the same freedom of the others.

Gandhi was particularly eloquent when defending the variety of religions. He writes: 'After long study and experience, I have come to the conclusion� that 1) All religions are true; 2) All religions have some errors in them; 3) All religions are almost as dear to me as my own Hinduism.'[11] 'All religions are true,' explains Gandhi, 'because they contribute efficaciously to the spiritual progress of humanity.' But since men, their heirs and interpreters are imperfect, they are stained by some imperfections. If we are open and welcoming enough, we will be able to purify them of these faults. So Gandhi's advice is that we must not only appreciate, but also integrate into our own faith, the best elements of other religions.

Religious tolerance

The logical conclusion of the principle of unity in diversity of religions, and the consequent insistence on the essential validity of all religions, is precisely the need for religious tolerance. Practically all great Hindu figures are given to that ideal. Religious tolerance is the necessary condition for peace among men. The affirmation by an individual religion that it has the light and that others are groping in darkness, is actually a challenge to other religions, a provocation to fight. Never forget: the recognition in other religions of the presence of the seed of the Word and of the ray of truth which enlightens all men, though generous and� positive on the part of Christianity, is far from satisfying for the followers of those religions.

Dr. Radhakrishnan points out that the spirit of tolerance, (dialogue is its current development), must not spring from a vague feeling of sympathy or compassion for the faults of others, but from the belief that Truth always transcends human understanding; that God contains in Himself more then man knows. For that reason he affirms: 'Toleration is the homage which the finite mind pays to the inexhaustibility of the Infinite.' [12]

Gandhi was, if we can say such, the incarnation of religious tolerance. Perhaps no-one else in human history has engaged himself with so much dedication to remove fanaticism and to spread religious tolerance. In fact that kind of effort cost him his life!

Hindu tolerance is not at all a passive attitude; but rather it is strongly active and intolerant towards every expression of intolerance and interference with other religions. Hindus react in an aggressive way against so-called 'proselytism', which is seen as the most odious manifestation of religious intolerance. That kind of reaction is part of a self-defence mechanism which came to be consolidated among the Hindus in the light of long years of sad experiences from Islam and Christianity. From the time the Portuguese landed on Indian soil (1498) until the independence of India from British Rule (1947), Christianity and missionary activity were seen as deeply bound to Western Imperialism and to oppressive Colonialism. In addition, the missionaries not only converted many Hindus to Christianity, but also expressed severe criticism of the errors, real or supposed, of Hinduism. All this contributed to create the impression that Christianity and missionary activity were against Indian interest, creating many militant Hindu movements.

Thus, in 1875, Swami Dayananda Saraswati founded the Arya Samaj association with the aim of both reviving in the Hindu society a deep pride of her millenary religion and culture and purging it of every extraneous 'contamination', particularly from Christianity and the West. Inspired and incited by those ideals, there are some political parties working in India today (Hindu Maha Sabha, Rama Rajya, Rashtriya Seva Samgha, Jana Samgha and Bharatya Janata Party) with the declared purpose of transforming the country into a Hindu theocracy and assimilating the minority religions as much as possible. All these movements are resolutely hostile to missionary activity and to conversion. In fact they have introduced a 'purification' ritual to resume in Hindu society, those who have been converted to Islam or Christianity.

There are still other cultural and religious elements in Hindu tradition that make the dialogue between Hinduism and Christianity extremely� difficult.

The refusal of an institutionalised religion

Although Hindu social life is strictly institutional, religious and spiritual life, especially at its advanced levels, is very liberal and individualistic, and consequently it instinctively refuses a rigorously organised religion. Hindu thinkers believe that when religion is articulated in a dogmatic way, it curtails man's freedom and prevents the spontaneous and efficacious blooming of his spiritual energy. The variety of human character and temperament also needs variety in its quest of the Divine.

Hinduism traditionally respects the Adhikara-Bheda principle, that is the variety of people's spiritual competence. In fact, the different currents of Yoga,[13] that outline as many orientations in spiritual path, are designed to serve people according to their natural tendencies. The institution of guru assures that the candidate has made the most suitable choice.

Thus, the outward observances of rites, sacraments and of other expressions of a religious cult, even if important and compulsory for popular religions, are ignored in spiritually advanced stages. The only things that matter at that level, they say, is contemplation, accompanied by asceticism and detachment, to be crowned by the Divine experience.

Divine revelation is not definite

According to Hinduism, the affirmation that revelation, both in the form of sacred books and of Divine Incarnation is definite, is unacceptable. It asserts, contrarily, that God's revelation is a continuous and unceasing process. As for the scriptures, Swami Vivekananda states: 'The Bible, The Vedas, The Koran and all the other sacred books are but so many pages of revelation and an infinite number of pages remain yet to be unfolded.' [14] His advice, therefore, is that we must be open to welcome divine light that comes from all sources at all times.

As for Divine Incarnation, specifically in Jesus, many Hindus accept willingly that he is an incarnation of God. But in general they respect him as a great master (guru) and a thaumaturge like a famous ancient yogi. Testimonies abound which show how deep is the fascination that Jesus Christ exerts on the Hindu heart  especially for his extraordinary dignity, his moral integrity, his courage, his patience, his unselfish love, the beauty and the depth of his teachings. But if we affirm that Jesus Christ is the unique and definite incarnation of God, then Hindu refusal will be unequivocal.

The reason for this refusal must be found in the Hindu tradition itself which, many centuries before the Christian age, believed in a similar well-rooted doctrine that talked about different incarnations of God. The word used is avatara, meaning descent. It is the belief in the repeated descents of God in a visible form with the intent to save people. Whenever humanity finds itself in particular difficulty, God comes visibly to its help. Krsna, the incarnated God, says in the Bhagavad-gita: 'Whenever there is a decline of righteousness, O descendant of Bharata, and a rise of unrighteousness then I descend Myself. In order to deliver the pious and to destroy the miscreants, as well as to reestablish righteousness, I came in to being from age to age.'[15]

According to that vision, Sri Ramakrishna teaches: 'It is the same universal God that assumes different shapes of incarnation: diving in the ocean of life he manifests himself here as Rama, there as Krsna, somewhere else as Christ!' Similarly, Vivekananda exhorts: 'Let us find God not only in Jesus of Nazareth, but in all the great Ones that proclaimed Him, in all who have came after him and in all who are yet to come.' [16]

Historicity has no special appeal to the Hindu

The Hindu religion, its beliefs and observances, are not founded on historical events. At a popular level, the Hindus live, one might say, their mythologies; at a higher level, to the contrary, they devote themselves to seek the Divine that transcends every configuration of time and space. In this way, contrary to the Jewish and Christian approach, Hindus are not inclined to ascribe any importance to a sacred history. A religion, deeply bound to the historical events of a people, may be pertinent only for those that can share them; whereas a universal religion must be founded on truths and principles that transcend history. This explains why many of the events and characters of the Hindu tradition are lost in the jungle of legends and mythologies!

The non-historical Hindu mentality is rooted in its cyclic vision of time, world and human life. While for the Jewish and Christian traditions time is linear, entailing a certain beginning and a decisive ending, for Hindus it is circular, nearly eternal. The belief of the soul's reincarnation is closely bound to this cyclic conception: man is subject to the cycle of birth and rebirth, determined by the relentless law of retribution (karma-samsara).[17] � Man's final destiny is not decided with just one life; he can hope in many attempts to finally and certainly reach the Summus Bonum of life.

For Hindus, history therefore is less significant; what matters instead in the religious field, is the authenticity of truth and the integrity of the message. To transmit this doctrine, Hinduism uses different methods, such as mythological tales, parables, dialogues and doctrinal discussions. In fact, the mythological tales have always been used as a very effective vehicle to communicate sublime religious and spiritual ideals to the people. Critics can continue to discuss the historicity of the great figures like Rama and Krsna, but the fact remains that they continue to inspire and strengthen the religious devotion and mystic dedication of many people. This is the justification for the Hindu non-historical approach!

The following quote from Gandhi shows with extreme clarity the typical Hindu mentality: 'I must say that I was never interested in an historical Jesus. I should not care if it was proved by someone that the man called Jesus never lived, and that what was narrated in the Gospel was a figment of the writer's imagination. For the sermon on the Mount would still be true to me.'[18]


I have tried to spell out clearly and objectively some fundamental, doctrinal and practical elements that make dialogue with Hinduism  understood in the sense of the official Christian teaching  a quite difficult enterprise. This presentation clearly shows that the fundamentals of Hinduism and the attitudes rooted within it make it, in one sense, particularly open to dialogue, yet in another, more resistant to it when it bears the stamp of missionary activity.

In this, we should remember Sri Ramakrishna's advice: 'As you remain firm in your faith and opinion, so leave the others the same freedom to remain firm in their faith and opinion.'[19] With this perspective in mind, the fruit of every religious dialogue, according to Gandhi, must be: 'Want the Christians to be good Christians, the Moslems to be good Moslems, the Sikhs to be good Sikhs and the Hindus to be good Hindus under all circumstances. That to me is real conversion.'[20]

All this does not mean that there is no room for dialogue between Hinduism and Christianity. On the contrary. But we must state it in a way that doesn't provoke the Hindu's immediate refusal. It is sufficient to remember the open orientation offered by the Second Vatican Council that tells us: 'Prudently and lovingly, through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, and in witness to Christian faith and life, acknowledge, preserve and promote the spiritual and moral goods found among these men, as well as the values in their Society and Culture.' [21] Christ did not come to abolish, but to fulfill!


[1] Two official Vatican documents expressly treat this theme, obviously from a Christian point of view: a) Pontifical Council for the Interreligious Dialogue, The attitude of the Church towards the Followers of Other Religions: (Reflections and Orientations upon Dialogue and Mission), Vatican City 1984.

b) This was further completed with the following document, subscribed also by the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples: Dialogue and Proclamation: Reflection and Orientations on Interreligious Dialogue and the Proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Vatican City, 1991.

[2] DM, n. 3.

[3] The Encyclical, Redemptoris Missio, n. 56.

[4] Ibid., n. 56.

[5] Ibid., n. 11; cfr. Also nn. 55–6.

[6] cf. Religion in a Changing World, London 1967, pp.102-3.

[7] Eastern Religions and Western Thought, New York 1969, pp. 326–7.

[8] Hinduism, in The World's Parliament of Religions, J. H. Barrows (Ed.), Vol. II, Chicago 1893, p. 978.

[9] cf. R. Tagore, The Reality of Religion, in Vedanta for Modern Man, C. Isherwood (Ed.), New York 1972, p. 100.

[10] Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, S. Narayan (Ed.), Vol.I, Ahemedabad 1968, pp. 202–3.

[11] Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, cit., vol. VI, p. 269.

[12] Eastern Religions and Western Thought, cit., p. 317.

[13] cf. D. Acharuparambil, Spiritualite Mistica Indu, Rome 1982.

[14] What Religion is in the Words of Swami Vivekananda, S. Vidyatmananda (ed.), Calcutta 1972, pp. 24–5.

[15] Bhagavad-gita, 4, 7-8.

[16] What Religion is in the Words of Swami Vivekananda, S. Vidyatmananda (ed.), Calcutta 1972, p. 325.

[17] cf. D. Acharuparambil, Spiritualite Mistica Indu, cit., pp. 56-72.

[18] The Message of Jesus Christ, Bombay 1940, p. 35

[19] S. Ghanananda, Sri Ramakrishna and His Unique Message, London 1970, p. 139.

[20] Selected Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, R. Duncan (Ed.), Fontana 1971, p. 199.

[21] Nostra Aetate, n. 2