There’s one thing you can say about Bhaktimarg Swami. He likes to walk. He has traversed Canada on foot from coast to coast several times. Why?
Well, he loves the scenery and the people he meets. But
mainly he wants people to know about the Hare Krishna
movement and Hinduism.
I first met Bhaktimarg thirty years ago in my doctoral research. I would meet him at the Krishna temple in Toronto,
in the building where Charles Templeton used to preach
the gospel. He has come to my classes over the years, and
I have taken students to the Krishna temple (though, to be
clear, to watch and not worship).
When I met him in the 1980s, Canada had an estimated
70,000 followers of Hinduism. Today, thanks mainly to
immigration, there are about 500,000.
Bhaktimarg grew up Catholic in Southern Ontario and
was drawn to the images, rituals and teachings of Hinduism. He sees great similarity between Christian faith and
Hinduism. Some liberal Christian scholars side with him
and propose Christians should join in Hindu worship.
Diana Eck, a famous Harvard scholar, has her roots in
Methodism but delights in ceremonies at Hindu temples.
In her book Encountering God (Beacon, 2003) she critiques Christians who stress the exclusive claims of Jesus
and recounts her participation in the worship of Vishnu,
one of the Hindu deities, at the Padmanabhaswamy temple
in Trivandrum, south India.
Eck describes the huge image of Vishnu in the inner
sanctum and the sound of bells as an evening fire cere-
mony began. The last lamp of fire offered to Vishnu was
brought out to bless the people. “Four hundred pairs of
hands stretched out to touch the flame and then touch its
blessing to the forehead. Mine were among them.”
All things being equal, Christians should defend the free-
dom of Eck or anyone else – Christian, Hindu or otherwise
– to worship as they wish. (Defending freedom of religion
and speech is not the same as endorsing various views or
practices.) Reciprocally, it would be great if conservative
Hindus in India would honour the freedom of others to
worship, whether it be Muslims, Buddhists or Christians.
Traditionalist Hindus also need to do a lot more to defend
freedom of speech and inquiry in general. In February Penguin Books India was forced to destroy all their remaining
copies of Wendy Doniger’s scholarly 2009 work The Hindus:
clarity on hinduism
The longings expressed in the hindu
religion can be truly satisfied in Christ.
An Alternative History. Some powerful fundamentalist Hindus claimed the book is inaccurate and abusive to Hindus.
What, then, is a proper Christian estimate of Hinduism? Hindu worship of Brahman as the “one” God must
be noted, but the parallel to Christian monotheism is lost in
the face of the thousands of gods and goddesses in Hindu
scripture and folklore.
More importantly, the historical integrity of Hindu
worship is lost in the completely mythological character of
the many deities. I once interviewed A. L. Basham, a great
scholar on this topic. He loved India, was not a fan of the
Christian faith, but told me with great clarity that traditional
Hindu views of gods such as Krishna are not backed up by
The same critique is made by Steve Tsoukalas, a Christian specialist on the translation of the Bhagavad Gita, the
most-loved Hindu scripture, and an authority on Krishna.
He tells me the primary documents about Krishna date hundreds of years from his alleged time in history. In contrast,
the first writings in the New Testament date within two or
three decades of Jesus.
Christian mission to South Asia’s Hindu worlds was
fuelled by deep belief in salvation by grace alone. In contrast,
Hinduism offers a works-based system, with emphasis on
getting rid of one’s karma as the way to salvation.
In orthodox Hinduism the karma doctrine was tied in
with the caste system, which leads even today to fatalism and
inequalities, even in high society India. I clearly remember a
conversation with a powerful business leader in New Delhi
who told me the downtrodden in society deserved their fate.
In the end, the distinctions between Hinduism and
Christianity centre on Jesus Christ, who He is and what
He did. Hinduism’s search for the image of the divine can
find its true, wonderful and only resting place in Christ. As
C. S. Lewis reminded us, the longings in various religions
and philosophies can find their fulfillment in actual history.
Myth did once become fact through the Incarnation.
As well, the death of Jesus shows forgiveness can be
known, not through karma but by grace. I still recall staring
at a spot at a temple near the Ganges River where animals
had just been sacrificed to cover human sin. It brought to
mind passages in the book of Hebrews about a final and
perfect shedding of blood. Certainly, Christians can pray
that Hindu recognition of the reality of sin and need for
atonement will lead Hindus to find their true resting place
in the walk Jesus made to the Cross. FT
JaMES a. BEvErlEY is professor of Christian thought
and ethics at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto. find more of
these columns at www.theEfC.ca/religion Watch.
Religion Watch n BY JAMES A. BEVERLEY