Volume 5.1 / Inspiration, Authority, and Canonicity of the Scripture: Comparative Study Between Hindu and Christian Scriptures


Inspiration, Authority, and Canonicity of the Scripture: Comparative Study Between Hindu and Christian Scriptures

Sochanngam Shirik
Both Hinduism and Christianity address transcendental revelation in concrete historical settings by relating to the question of inspiration, authority, and canonicity of their respective Scriptures. Although understood and explicated in different ways, there are some similarities in which they address the issue. There are also differences. This article discusses the similarities and differences between the two. The author argues that while Hinduism and Christianity share similarities in the notion of eternality of the Word, the inscripturation of the oral traditions, and the epistemological warrant of the Scripture, they differ in their ideas of what the Scripture is, what it can accomplish, and how it achieves its goal of equipping its adherents.

1. Introduction

The relationship of the divine and human, the objective and subjective, or the transcendental and historical are necessary aspects in dealing with inspiration, authority, and canonicity of any Scripture. Karl Rahner observes that one has to distinguish between the transcendental element of revelation and the predicament expression of it in concrete historical settings.[1] However, Rahner does not satisfactorily explain the transcendental feature.[2] Nevertheless, he is right in suggesting that the relationship of the objective aspect of God’s free communication and the subjective element of human understanding are two sides of the same coin. All religions claiming to have transcendental revelation and scripture must also address the axiom of these two emphases by relating to the question of inspiration, authority, and canonicity since they are intricately connected. This article is an attempt to provide some understanding of these relationships. How do Christianity and Hinduism understand the relationship between the transcendental/divine and the human regarding revelation? Are there some commonalities between how these two religions understand the issue? What might be some of the differences within the apparent similarities? Can the understanding of one religion enrich the other? These are some questions I will address in this article.

This article argues that while Hinduism and Christianity share similarities in the notion of the eternality of the Word, the inscripturation of the oral tradition, and the epistemological warrant of the Scripture, they differ in their ideas of what the Scripture is, what it can accomplish, and how it achieves its goal of equipping its adherents. Stated differently, there are both similarities and differences between Hinduism and Christianity regarding the origin, nature, and scope of their Scriptures, and the two must be acknowledged and maintained accordingly. Since there are differences and nuances in the understanding of Scripture—its nature and function—even within the respective religions, I will focus on the big picture while at the same time accentuating my evangelical Christian stance. This paper will proceed in three steps. First, I will set the stage by defining some terms and clarifying certain ideas. Second, I will discuss some apparent commonalities and underline the crucial differences between the two Scriptures. Third, I will conclude with brief practical applications that readers might derive from this reflection

2. Defining Some Terms and Clarifying Certain Ideas

In this section, I will explain some terms and clarify certain concepts that might be subject to different definitions. Even though I will attempt to investigate what inspiration, canonicity, and authority of the Scriptures mean from a Hindu perspective, I will apply Christian understanding to see how far such perception of Scripture can be applied to Hindu Scriptures. Such an approach seems both natural and inevitable.[3] One can speak of the unfamiliar only through familiar terms. Likewise, I can and will talk about Hinduism through my religious and cultural lens, which is predominantly shaped by Christian terminology and worldview. I will make a comparison with Christianity, highlighting essential differences so that we grasp a broad understanding of Hinduism, the religion "so diverse that it defies generalization."[4]

Assuming that my readers are primarily Christians, I will focus on clarifying Hindu terms and ideas that might be unfamiliar to Christians. However, a few clarifications also must be made concerning Christianity, as there are several expressions of Christian faith as the epithet “Christianities” indicates.

2.1 Hinduism and Christianity

An argument could be made that Hinduism not only transformed but also transmuted. Whereas the former conveys the idea of undergoing a radical change while at the same time maintaining its essence, the latter can mean an alteration that includes the essence. While a similar argument can be made of Christianity in the sense that the Christianity of two thousand years ago is no longer precisely the same today, Christianity has always maintained its essential belief in the centrality of Bible, Jesus Christ, and the existence of the church. Such is not the case with Hinduism.

However, to dismiss Hinduism as if there is nothing in common between the vast arrays of manifestations would also be too simplistic. A Christian who is born in India and believes only in Jesus would not be considered as belonging to Hindu religion. Although Hinduism is more about a way of life than maintaining an orthodox belief, one’s belief is centered on some central teachings and practices including, but not limited to, temple rituals and sacrifices, ethical practices derived from their traditions and Scriptures, and belief in their vast arrays of Scriptures, mainly the Vedas.

2.2 The Notion of Scripture

The term Scriptures in relation to Hinduism calls for clarifications. Some believe that the notion of Scripture in Hinduism is an exogenous import, one that is often constructed through Western linguistic and philosophical categories and therefore misleading when used in other religions' texts.[5] Others, however, argue that no term is connotation-free and any substitute term for scripture—for example, sacred writings or religious texts—also have their limitations. Therefore, the word Scripture, when used with proper understanding, is desirable.[6] For this article, we shall utilize the term Scripture even when speaking of Hindu religious texts.

However, when a Hindu speaks of Scripture, s/he is not using it in the same sense as a Christian is. James Laine points out that unlike Christianity, “‘Hinduism’ is no one ‘religion’, [and therefore] it has no one ‘scripture.’”[7] Hindu Scriptures can be divided into two categories: Sruti and Smriti. Although in modern Hinduism there is no strict dividing line between these two clusters of scriptures as some groups may consider some text more important than the others,[8] traditionally there has been a consensus that Sruti is the most sacred text in Hinduism.[9] As such it could be said to have a canonical status.[10] Sruti means that which is heard. Hindus believe that the rsis “heard” the eternal words (see below). Sruti is composed of the Samhita (the four Vedas), Brahmanas (commentary on the Vedas composed by Brahmins), Aranyakas (treaties by forest dwellers), and the Upanishads (philosophical and speculative material).[11]

The practices and beliefs of the popular Hinduism of today are derived more from the second category of Scriptures, Smriti. Smriti means “that which is remembered.” It includes such vital writings as Puranas, Mahabharata, and Ramayana among others. Depending on the geographical locations, it is not uncommon to have native traditions added as Scriptures. Unlike the Sruti, Smriti has an earthly origin and is more accessible to the ordinary people. However, unlike Christianity, the concept of normativity or orthodoxy in Hinduism is loosely understood, therefore relegating Sruti to a less important place and elevating Smriti for a more practical purpose is also commonly practiced. It has been noted that less than five percent of Hindus know Sruti vaguely and less than one percent has a good grasp of its content.[12] All this to say that canonicity, inspiration, and authority in Hindu Scripture is not exactly what is understood in Christianity. While there is an idea of a central corpus of unchanging text, the Vedas, there is also openness in accommodating other writings. This then brings us to the need for a more thorough investigation of the commonalities and differences in understanding of inspiration, authority, and canonicity about the Scriptures of the two religions.

3. Commonalities and Differences Between Hindu and Christian Scriptures

Even within their respective religions, not all Hindus or Christians agree on the precise nature of inspiration, authority, and canonicity. For instance, not all Hindus agree on the number of Upanishads nor do all Christians agree on the precise understanding of inspiration, much less on inerrancy. Hence, instead of focusing on differentiating the limited and unlimited inerrancy or the number of Upanishads, I will concentrate on the bigger picture. For example, I consider only the sixty-six books of the Bible as inspired even though some segments of Christianity accept more than sixty-six inspired books. I also take for granted the Vedas as the authoritative text for Hinduism since all Hindus accept them. Keeping this assumption in mind, we shall proceed to look at some shared similarities and dissimilarities between the conceptions of Scriptures between these two religions.

3.1 Commonalities

I will focus on three shared similarities before we discuss the differences. First, behind the concept of Hindu and Christian Scriptures lies the existence of eternal and unchanging Word. Hindus call this anhata sabda (anhata means “unstruck,” and sabda means “sound”), and Christians link this unchanging Word to the Trinitarian God. Christians have maintained that God and his words are intimately connected to the extent that wherever God's Word is present, there is God himself.[13] The triune God is a communicating God; he eternally communicates himself—Father to the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Son to the Holy Spirit and the Father, and the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son. Some have argued that this attribute is an essential feature of God, without which he would not be God.[14] This divine attribute is most clearly manifested in Jesus, who is called the Word of God. John 1:1 states that “in the beginning” (not “from the beginning”) was the Word. The emphasis here is the eternal preexistence of the Word.[15] The eternal Word (God) is to be distinguished from the created media through which God's Word is communicated (Bible). However, it is through the Word (Bible) and the Spirit that we come to know the full revelation of the Word (Jesus). Even though it would be misleading to say that the Scripture is God, it would also be incorrect to separate the Scripture (God’s Word) from God, because “God and his word are always present together.”[16] Thus, the words of the Bible are the true utterances and expressions of God himself,[17] and they reflect the eternal existence of the Word.

Similarly, Hinduism understands the Word as “eternally reverberating throughout the universe” which is symbolized by OM.[18] Though not necessarily identified with a personal God or the Brahman, these eternal words, analogous to the Christian view of the eternal word, are uncreated and everlasting.[19] Although unlike the Christian view that closely connects God and God’s Word, Hindus, like Christians, maintain that the truth of the Scriptures did not originate merely from human writers. While the human authors penned the words, its referents or true meanings surpass the mere intent of the rsis, (Analogous to Christian belief, the rsis are those who received the transcendental message and recorded it. A rsi is one who sees.) According to the school of Advaita Vedanta, the capacity of words to signify a particular referent or denote an object is not dependent on any personal agent but intrinsic to words.[20] This assertion does not mean that words have meaning in isolation from any sentential context, but that there is no personal agent who creates or imposes meaning on the words. Instead, meanings are eternally inherent in the nature of the words and not conventionally established.[21] If meanings of words and sentences are not conventionally created but have referential meaning, the difficulty remains for the Advaita Vedanta in answering what the object references of the words are since they deny the existence of any personal entity other than the Brahman.[22] Our purpose here, however, is to emphasize the commonality of the concept of the eternality of the words. Words do not constitute reality but represent reality.

The audible sounds, which the rsis repeatedly heard and captured at the beginning of each creation cycle, were eventually written down as Sruti. The debate among certain Hindu philosophers is how exactly the Veda is eternal, not whether it actually is.[23] In this sense, Hindus can claim that their Scriptures are holy not so much because they contain the transcendental words, which are sacred, but because the sacred words in written form are the representation of the transcendental and divine.[24]

In a comparative study between Veda and Torah, to which we shall return later, Barbara Holdrege observes that both traditions explain how the gap between the divine/transcendental and the human is overcome.[25] Although explained differently, they do share in the affirmation that eternal words exist “beyond the gross material world.”[26] In both religions, there are strong proponents who uphold the Scriptures as the unchanging, eternal words.

The second aspect of similarity is in the area of inscribing the words that exist transcendentally (in Hinduism) or in the triune God (in Christianity). To use Christian terminology, the process of this inscripturation is called inspiration. Although the word inspiration in relation to Hindu Scriptures is an imposition, the idea of a transcendental mechanism—an outside source beyond the native power “working” in conjunction with the human power—is observable even in Hinduism. The explanation of the cooperation of the transcendental and the immanent in the case of Hindu Scriptures differs depending on the categories of Scriptures. In the case of Smriti where human authors and divine agency are accommodated more openly, drawing similarity between Hindu Scriptures with Christian Scripture becomes easier. Even in the case of Sruti, if and when the divine element is acknowledged, the comparison becomes more plausible. For instance, T. M. Manickam makes a comparison: Quoting his own work, he explains Hindu revelation “as that manifestation in which God imparts his communicative content to the consciousness of man and man experiences this manifestation of the Divine consciousness as the centre and substance of his own consciousness” (emphasis original).[27] Some schools of Hinduism such as Nyāya and Vaisesika attribute the authorship of the Veda to God (Isvara).[28] In fact, some have speculated, and many have argued that the modern understanding of Scriptures as a written form, be it Sruti or Smriti, and their interpretations are largely influenced by Buddhism,[29] Christianity,[30] Western rationale,[31] and the modern transformation in India during the nineteenth century.[32] However, the question of what predates or follows does not invalidate the fact that Hinduism has its own conception of what we may call inspiration.

The process of obtaining revelation and inscripturating the revelation involves human agency in both religions. In Christianity, those agents are the prophets, apostles, and God’s servants who are part of God’s covenant community. In Hinduism, they are the rsis. We must admit that the precise concept of revelation as understood by Christianity is incompatible with Advaita Vedanta (the school of non-dualism) because in Advaita Vedanta the Brahman (the ultimate reality) and the atman (the individual self) are intricately related. In Christianity, the revealer and the one receiving the revelation are two persons. That is not the case with Advaita Vendanta although later modification in Hinduism brought about the concept of Īśvara (personal God). However, an argument could be made, although not without difficulty, that even if the atman is the Brahman, this knowledge of the ultimate reality is achieved only by transcending oneself. The goal of the individual, therefore, is to experience oneness with the ultimate reality. The rsis, through their meditation and contemplation, develop a higher or mystical faculty that brings them in contact with the supersensuous entity.[33] The point here is not to defend Advaita Vedanta but to draw a parallel. The human agents, rsis, through contemplation, were able to “hear” and “see” the words[34] echoing in eternity[35] and pass on the content orally to the subsequent select followers, which eventually came to be written down. Thomas Coburn posits that the mixing of the metaphor—seeing and hearing—is not arbitrary; it is to convey the "holistic and supremely compelling nature of the experience" of the rsis in capturing the “revelation.”[36] In other words, there is an element of direct experiential knowledge of supersensible phenomena.[37]

The rsis also composed, fashioned, and generated hymns in praise of the transcendent. In doing so, the rsis were not creating something new but giving shape to the hymn from the substance that they had received.[38]

For the Christian understanding, it is helpful to think of inspiration from three aspects: God as the source, humans as the instruments, and the writings as the product. God superintended the biblical writers so that the Scriptures are “breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16)[39] through humans. This understanding is consonant with the biblical assertion that “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21, emphasis added). Benjamin Warfield succinctly commented on this verse thus: “The men who spoke from God are here declared, therefore, to have been taken up by the Holy Spirit and brought by His power to the goal of His choosing.”[40] In the end, the message the biblical writers received and wrote surpasses the mere existential experiences.

To leave it with the impression that biblical writers were mere pawns in the hands of the transcendental being would not only misrepresent Christian understanding of inspiration but also defeat our goal of drawing a similarity with that of Hindu Scripture. Like the rsis, the biblical writers were also holistically involved in the process of obtaining and inscribing the Word. While, strictly speaking, inspiration takes effect at the point of the writing of the Scripture,[41] the process of preparing the human personality began early on.[42] God did not impose or force any to take up the task.[43] Hence we can speak of the theology of John or Paul or Peter and at the same time talk about biblical theology. Our purpose here is to highlight the idea that the biblical writers prepared themselves morally, spiritually, and even academically to compose the Word of God. Both the rsis and the biblical writers exercise their wills and intellects yet were yielding to the transcendental force in the process of inscripturation. The outcome is such that both the Bible and the Sruti are believed to be errorless.

The third similarity is regarding ontology and epistemology. We can draw a parallel between the relationships of what is real (ontology) and how we know the real (epistemology) as understood by Christianity and Hinduism, at least in some traditions within both religions.[44] Both religions closely link ontology and epistemology. We shall focus more on the relationship between the two rather than explore each facet in detail. In both religions, the epistemological truth is implied from and based on the ontological/metaphysical truth. In other words, the epistemological truth, in the words of John Frame, is “the proper correlation between language and reality.”[45] In Hinduism, the ultimate truth is Brahman. The main concern here is not in the details of the ontological understanding of realism (Christianity) or antirealism (Vendantic Hinduism), but in the fact that one’s ontology and epistemology are connected to the extent that to discuss one is also to imply the other. So (epistemological) truth for both religions is the proper correlation and representation of the ultimate Ontos.

Both Hinduism and Christianity closely relate the ontological and epistemological inquiry to their respective Scriptures. Although Christians have entertained different epistemological approaches to the inquiry of ultimate reality, they have maintained that the Bible serves as the final authority in our search for truth. The question of how we know is subsumed under the question of what is real; Scriptures ultimately define what is real. Christians do not claim that the Bible explains everything about everything. Instead, Christians maintain, as Kevin Vanhoozer rightly points out, “the epistemic primacy of the gospel and its canonical context ” in search for the truth.[46] We can safely argue that Vanhoozer represents many Christians’ conviction when he affirms that the Christian Scripture functions as the ultimate authority when it comes to religious knowledge.

For example, a reformed tradition in the line of Cornelius Van Til,[47] Alvin Plantinga,[48] and John Frame,[49] tie epistemology (and ethics) strictly to ontology. Dru Johnson contrasts two kinds of knowing in Genesis: knowing that is dependent on and independent of God's authority. He argues that even before the Fall of humanity there was a process of knowing. The (right) act of process of knowledge occurs not "through reflective exploration of the nature of the human condition,” but “through the heeding guidance of YHWH.”[50] According to him, the fault of humanity in the garden was shifting allegiance of authority from God to Serpent, moving the ground of ontology, epistemology, and ethics from God's authority to the Serpent's authority. The authority from which the act of knowing is achieved is an indispensable part of biblical knowledge, Johnson argues.[51]

Hinduism has a tradition similar to Christianity.[52] Dharm Bhawuk asserts, “In Western tradition, there is much concern about the conflation of epistemology and ontology … whereas in Indian worldview they snugly fit together.”[53] Bhawuk’s explanation of the interconnectivity between epistemology and ontology and the primacy of the latter is worth reproducing here:

[W]hat is considered knowledge can be broken down into three parts: the controller, self and everything around the self, and the controller covering or permeating self and each of the elements around the self. Knowledge, it is implied, is not only knowing what we see around us in its variety as independent entities and agents but to realize that each of the elements is permeated and controlled by Brahman.[54]

In the same manner, Francis X. Clooney argues, “Brahman is the source of the intelligibility of material reality, and knowledge of Brahman is the final goal for all intelligent beings, human or other.”[55] He continues that this knowledge of ultimate reality “is made reliably accessible only through the Veda, which is authoritative and reliable, which must be learned by those seeking liberation, and which must be taken seriously in all its detail.”[56] Clooney’s observation aligns with Sara Grant’s assessment of Sankara’s conception of Sruti. She notes that for Sankara “the liberating knowledge of the Self … is accessible only through that privileged form of sabha pramana known as sruti.”[57]

The observations of the authors above are also in agreement with the proposal of Satchidananda Murthy[58] and the interpreters from the Purva-Mimamsa tradition who argue that the Veda is the means and justification of knowing dharma.[59] Dharma here is defined as a duty, right conduct that must be done not just for the sake of some merit. This rightness, they argue, is defined by the Vedas.[60] In other words, what is the right duty and how one knows this responsibility comes from the Vedas. This teaching is not far from Christianity, which sees God (and his words) as defining what is real (ontology), good (ethics), and how we know what we know (epistemology).

Other similarities may also be investigated,[61] but for this article, the aforementioned areas suffice. However, it would be a gross misrepresentation of both religions and their Scriptures if we were to stop by highlighting the similarities. Regardless of the resemblances, there are theological and philosophical differences that cannot be overlooked.

3.2 Differences

Here I will emphasize three crucial differences between Hinduism’s and Christianity’s understanding of Scripture pertaining to their nature, scope, and goals. All three are interconnected and closely related to the three commonalities we discussed. The first focuses on what the essential difference between the two Scriptures is, the second on how they are different, and the third on why they are different. Phrasing it differently, even though both Scriptures have similarities in view of the eternality of the word, their conceptions of what that eternal word is, how the eternal word must be appropriated, and why appropriating such eternal word is essential, are dissimilar.

First, in Christianity, the eternal word is inseparable from the personal God who is differentiated from creation, but in Hinduism, the eternal word is either impersonal or intricately related to creation, even if personal. We have mentioned that for Christianity, God’s Word cannot be separated from God himself like the sunbeam cannot be separated from the sun. It is partly for this reason that Karl Barth was so insistent that revelation must be personal, not propositional. However, others have demonstrated the limitations of drawing a wedge between personal and propositional.[62] Speaking of God’s revelation as propositional does not necessarily take us from an I-Thou to an I-It relationship.[63]

God, by virtue of being a triune, is a communicating God. In Christianity, the Trinitarian God is at the heart of the dispensing of the eternal word. Michael Horton phrases it perfectly: “The Father speaks in the Son and by the perfecting agency of the Spirit.”[64] We have also mentioned that Jesus Christ is the incarnation of the Word. He is the focus of God’s revelation (John 5:39) and the embodiment of God’s Word (John 1: 1–14). Also, we have discussed that all Scripture is given by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Tim 3:16). In Christianity, behind the revealed word stands a revealer, a personal Trinitarian God who is both immanent and transcendent, not so with Hinduism.

The Advaita Vedanta, the oldest and perhaps the most significant school of Hindu philosophy, holds to a strict nondualism. According to this school founded by Sankara, Brahman, the ultimate reality, is spoken of in two ways: saguna Brahman and nirguna Brahman. The latter stands for the ultimate level of reality. In this level, the Brahman is formless (nir means without, and guna means attributes) and cannot be described as having particular qualities. In the former level, Brahman is spoken of as having certain attributes, but whatever qualities are attributed to Brahman are the imperfect projections of human limitations.[65] In essence, the Brahman is impersonal.

Therefore, in the Advaita Vedanta School, the subject behind the revelation is not a personal God. The rsis becomes the subject. While the divine descends into the realms of human beings in Christianity, the rsis ascends to the abode of the transcendent in Hinduism.[66] One is God-centered while the other is self-centered.

The Hindu concept of a personal God behind the eternal word is a reification of the concept of Brahman. Dissatisfied with Sankara’s nondualism, Ramanuja sought to reconcile the paradox of one and many gods.[67] This school of thought came to be known as modified dualism. However, Timothy Tennent points out that Ramanuja locates the “manyness” within the one Brahman, placing all created order in the one body of Brahman.[68] Thus even in his model, the concept of an I-Thou relationship as understood in Christianity is unviable because Ramanuja’s model either yields a monistic picture of reality where everything is subsumed in Brahman or a relativistic reality in which multiple realities (gods and goddesses) are sanctioned. In either case, the personal is dissolved into impersonal. Holdrege’s observation that the Veda is “described as the realization of an impersonal reality and not as union with personal God”[69] is true with both schools of Sankara and Ramanuja.

The second area of difference concerns the scope of the Scripture. Whereas in nature we emphasize the characteristics of the revelation and the revealing agent, in scope we will accentuate how such eternal words are appropriated. In Christianity, tying the revealed Word to the personal God necessitates the discussion, and at times intense disagreement, regarding the meaning of the text. Although the meaning of a sentence need not always be tied to the psychological state of the agent, evangelical Christians have maintained that the meaning of the biblical text cannot be separated from the intention of both the biblical writer and God. Therefore, the cognitive element becomes a crucial point. If there is a revealer, discovering what the revealer intends to communicate becomes a key factor. The questions of whether the New Testament writers respected the Old Testament authorial intent, whether there was only one single meaning to the text or there was a fuller meaning than the authors were aware (i.e., Sensus plenior), the relationship between God and human authors, etc.,[70] presuppose that behind the text there is a communicating agent whose objective must be respected and upheld. Hence in Christianity, orthodoxy or heterodoxy is taken seriously. Although other political and cultural factors were involved, the sharp disagreements between the Eastern and the Western church on theological matters, the question of canonicity, the development of the early Creeds, the Reformation, etc., all reflect the Church’s desire to maintain orthodoxy. Orthodoxy presupposes faithfulness to the command, and fidelity to command assumes a personal lawgiver.

Therefore, among the evangelical circle, canonicity of the Scripture is understood as the church recognizing rather than deciding what the Scripture is.[71] The criteria for defining canonicity, such as apostolicity (association of a given work to apostles), orthodoxy (the test of conformity to the Church’s rule of faith), and ecclesial usage (test of broad acceptance of a given work in the early church), etc., were important guides in determining what should and should not be included in the canon. However, the church added and omitted certain texts on the basis on the authority in the text, not in the church, because the inspiration is in the former not the latter.[72] Michael Horton puts it succinctly: “Ultimate authority always reside outside the self and even outside the church, as both are always hearers of the Words and receivers of its judgment and justification.”[73] Therefore, the inclusion and omission of writings to the canon was an important debate because the canon of Christianity is a bounded set.

Conversely, in Hinduism, the meaning/content (artha) of the text is often subordinated, although not necessarily dichotomized, to the sound (sabda)[74] and therefore the notion of orthodoxy is not as important as in Christianity. Until the Scriptures were written down later out of the fear that they were in danger of being lost, they were jealously guarded by the Brahmins and transmitted orally. The Brahmins were responsible for preserving the purity of the sound from the contamination of outsiders.[75] According to Frits Stall, for Hindus, “There is no tradition for the preservation of meaning, a concern regarded as a mere individualistic pastime.”[76] Therefore the focus for Hindus is not so much on the content but the form of the transcendent words.[77] Thomas Coburn aptly explains it thus: “For many Hindus, the holiness of holy words is not a function of their intelligibility. On the contrary, sanctity often appears to be inversely related to comprehensibility.”[78] The phonetic element, not cognitive, is the primary focus of their Scripture. Even in Smriti, where the divine role in revelation is more emphasized,[79] the cognitive component takes the backseat to the phonetic. The words of J. Gonda about this issue are worth quoting in length:

The divine, the Highest assumes the form of sound substantialized in mantras, in which It, or He, reveals Its, or His, particular aspects. These mantras existing in the minds of men, in embodied souls, may “work” or become effective when the consciousness of that man, the worshipper or aspirant to self-realization, achieves its union with that Consciousness which manifest itself in the form of mantra. To produce the designed effect the mantra must be pronounced correctly.[80]

Although Gonda talks of the designed effect and of achieving a particular goal, indicating meaning and purpose, the focus is not on discerning specific cognitive content. The focus of the mantras is on the phonetic, on the repetition of words and sounds. James Laine argues that people like Ram Mohan Roy were instrumental from turning the use of Veda as a ritual-chanting instrument to “a text to be examined and more importantly whose meaning has immediate corporate, social consequences.”[81] However, such a move was met with stiff resistance from some circles because, according to Laine, the notion of scriptural truth as “discursively reasoned or exegetically derived” was an innovative idea.[82] Thus writing down the Oral Scripture was resisted for a long time as Hindus saw written image as an obstruction to the holy sounds.[83] Wilfred Cantwell Smith observes that even “in the eighteenth century, European visitors to India found themselves wondering whether the Vedas existed since no one in India seemed ever to have seen or known a copy of these works.”[84] Even though the Vedas were considered authoritative, Hindus believe that truth is encountered not primarily through the text, but mystically or existentially with the help of the gurus.

Unlike the Christian view of Scripture that locates the authority primarily in the text, the Hindus locate the authority in such persons as the gurus and individuals. Here is an irony. On the one hand, behind the Christian Scripture is a personal God whose revelation is now given in a written form and faithfulness to whose intention is vital. On the other hand, behind a Hindu Scripture is an impersonal agent, and fidelity to its purpose now primarily lays in the hands of rsis or individuals. Because the Vedic cognition is not about cognitively grasping some eternal will of a personal agent, but about becoming one with the Brahman by directly experiencing the supersensible phenomenon, the Vedic content cannot be merely passed on as cognitive truth. The whole person must experience it. Even though the truth is encountered not contrary to the Hindu Scriptures, it can be and should be encountered apart from the Scriptures. The rsis, having obtained this supersensuous experience and having accessed the abodes of the transcendent,[85] are now able to guide and assist others who in turn may also be able to achieve the same goal. Thus, Smith’s argument that the true meaning of the Scriptures lies not in the text but the minds and hearts of readers[86] seems to apply to Hindu Scriptures.

            In Hinduism, the debate about the role of the Hindu community concerning the canonicity of the text is not as a big issue as in Christianity. Although the Brahmins acted as the magisterial authority in safeguarding the Vedas, the vast majority of Hindus added other Scriptures as authoritative. In the process, therefore, even the Brahmins accepted such additional texts as part of the canon. The concept of a closed-canon does not exist in Hinduism, at least as it is in Christianity. While Christians attempts to alter their beliefs and practices based on their Scripture, Hindus reified their beliefs based on their practices. In fact, what would be considered incompatible versions, if not contradictory views, of Hinduism such as Sankhya dualism, Vaisesika atomism, Mimamsa atheistic ritualism, and Vedantic monism, are all upheld together as part of Hinduism.[87] That is not the case with Christianity, which sees the relationship between the Scripture and the ecclesial community as central. This brings us to the next area of difference.

            The third area of difference between Christian and Hindu Scriptures is regarding the goal. In Christianity, Scripture and ecclesial community cannot be separated because the primary purpose of the Scripture is to equip the church and draw people closer to God. Whether it is revealing God’s nature, human predicament, or Jesus Christ, Scripture is given so that it will function as means to equip readers for righteous living. Second Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (emphasis added). In fact, one of the primary goals of the incarnation of the Word, Jesus Christ, was precisely for the reason that humanity would receive him and thus become children of God. The idea of righteousness expresses the standard of conformity to the will of a God who gives the law.[88] We become more righteous or more like God not merely by obtaining cognitive knowledge, although that is important, but by following his commands. C. C. Newman concisely puts it thus: "Humanity expresses righteousness in and through loyal obedience" to God's command.[89] To draw closer to the fellowship of the triune God is the end goal of Christian Scripture. 

            Depending on the denominational affiliation, Christians have articulated differently about the need and importance of participating in the life of God. For the Orthodox denomination, Christian mission is more than "proclaiming some ethical truths or principles but calling people to union with God," i.e., participating in the divine energies, not essence (theosis).[90] Similarly, the Reformed tradition has emphasized the concept of union with Christ, and some, similar to the Orthodox tradition, have also formulated a Reformed understanding of theosis.[91] Even though there are nuances in articulation, Christians unanimously agree that the primary purpose of the Scripture is to help the church achieve a meaningful relationship with the triune God.

            While the Christian Scripture focuses on God’s search for humans, Hindu Scriptures focus on humanity’s search for God or the transcendent. Hence, the goal of achieving an interpersonal relationship is not the primary focus of Hindu Scriptures. For rsis in particular and Hindus in general, humans initiate union with the transcendent/gods. While Christianity emphasizes positive response, obedience, acceptance, and submission to the revelation to obtain a theotic life (life in union with God), Hinduism stresses that Moksha is attained through the application of self-acquired techniques such as mantras, meditation, and enchantments.[92]

With Christianity focusing on a personal relationship with the Creator and Hinduism on an impersonal realization of the self, the commonalities between these two religions become insubstantial compared to the differences. Therefore, Christians must be cautious of any uncritical equivalence between the two, much less assume or speculate that these two religions provides different ways of relating to one God. Both Hinduism and Christianity are two religions that seek to answer the question of the transcendental revelation and the human predicament of appropriating the transcendence. One starts from above, and the other from below; the conclusions they reach are antithetical to the extent that a comparative study without emphasizing the radical difference is of little benefit to the adherents of both religions

4. Applications to Contemporary Missions

First, it will be worthwhile to remember that the relativistic claims of truth do not bother Hindus as much as they do to Christians. As far as Hindus are concerned, our standards of truth and falsity do not apply to them. Even though Hindus are acutely aware of common logic such as the Law of Non-Contradiction and observe the law in their daily life, when it comes to philosophical reading, they are not so much bothered by such laws. Hence, logical argumentations and demonstrations may not be the most efficient tools for evangelizing the Hindus.

Second, Hinduism’s strong emphasis on the eternality of truth and the ability of words to represent truth is a bridge where Christians and Hindus can develop meaningful conversations. Unless we define truth in terms of a linguistic game, as some have done, we share with Hindus that words/languages represent, and correspond to, reality. In this aspect, truth claims cannot be a mere linguistic claim of and by a specific community. Christians can cultivate this aspect of shared resemblance with Hinduism as a window for further evangelism. The Hindu emphasis on hearing and remembering and Christian emphasis on the importance of cognitive comprehension through careful textual analyses to develop a deeper relationship with the triune God can be cultivated for more meaningful exchange.

Third, we must uphold the Bible with the highest respect. In this regard, we can learn from Hindus. We have explored how Hindus considered their Scripture (the Sruti) to be errorless regardless of their ability to understand and explain. An average Hindu does not know much, if anything, about their Scripture yet they esteem their sacred texts to the highest level. They cannot imagine a religious belief system built on something that contains error. Today, many Christians are losing confidence in the truthfulness and veracity of the Scripture. The doctrine of inerrancy has become a source of division rather than a means for edifying Christians. There is a place for debate, but we need to maintain, if not restore, our confidence in the truthfulness of the Bible. Benjamin B. Warfield once bewailed that Christians have come to "agree that there is less of the truth of God and more of the error of man in the Bible than Christians have been wont to believe."[93] He could not conceive of a Bible that contains error. Regardless of whether we agree with Warfield’s precise understanding of Scripture, we can agree that the Bible is God's Word and as God's Word it is holy, right, and without error. It demands our obedience. This is not bibliolatry, it is submission to God; for what the Bible says, God says.

Fourth, we must embrace and cultivate an epistemological posture grounded in the Scripture. It is true that different cultures come to the Scripture with various presuppositions. It is also true that as we read the Scripture from various perspectives, we are enriched, and the truth of the text is enhanced. A Christian from a Muslim community background may bring insights that a Western Christian may not be able to see or a Hindu convert may manifest sensitivity that others are not accustomed to. The right interpretation or an authentic Christian living is not the monopoly of one denomination or region; all Christians have the right to read the text and apply it in context that addresses the existential challenges and realities of life. At the same time, it is also true (must be) that all Christians stand under the authority of the Scripture. We bring insights and perspectives, yet the claims of the text must test our views. We try to understand the text in its own terms and let them speak to our concrete realities.

Fifth and lastly, while keeping Scripture as the supreme authority, our contextualization methodology must make room for experiences of the grassroots Christians. Since all our experiences are built on the pre-existing framework—cultural, mental, societal, etc.—the pre-Christian traditions and experiences are neither to be suppressed nor baptized completely; they are to be critically encountered, redeemed, and integrated in contextualizing the gospel. Such was the case with Western Christianity. We see the residue of the pre-Christian beliefs and practices in the names of the weekdays, in the observation of Christmas and Halloween; we celebrate the bravery and sacrifices of our ancestors and heroes (Veterans Day and Memorial Day) even during corporate worship gathering. We integrate those practices in Christian life with the awareness that all things are being redeemed through Christ. Even those who tend to see it differently are mindful that disagreements in these areas are in-house Christian differences. We could extent the same courtesy and self-criticism to the practices of our brothers and sisters around the globe. This proposal is not a call to adopt a negative syncretistic Christianity, but a suggestion to allow room for Christianity to emerge through the interaction with the inspired, infallible Word of God. This would mean, among other things, that the truth of the Scripture must be wrestled with and understood using available local categories. We can make sense of the unknown only through the known. This process is not an easy task, but one which Christians must pay careful attention.

5.  Conclusion

I have discussed some commonalities and differences between the Hindu and Christian Scriptures. While there are similarities in the notion of the eternality of the Word, the inscripturation of the oral tradition, and the Scripture functioning as a ground for epistemology, there are differences concerning the nature, scope, and goal of Scriptures. Therefore, we maintain the differences while comparing the similarities and vice versa. We should be careful not to ignore the similarities while emphasizing the differences. We should also be careful not to draw similarities without understanding the underlying theological and philosophical assumptions. Christian Scripture must uphold the Trinitarian origin, Christological focus, and ecclesiastical emphasis. For Christianity, Scripture is to be understood within the covenantal relationship between God and his people. Anything that undermines this focus must be checked. One can respect the Scripture of other religions while at the same time maintaining our conviction of the uniqueness of God’s revelation in and through the Christian Scripture.

[1] Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger, Revelation and Tradition, trans. W. J. O’Hara (New York: Herder and Herder, 1966), 13–16.

[2] For a brief discussion and critique of Rahner’s position, see Michael Scott Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 144–46.

[3] So argues George Chemparathy, “The Veda as Revelation,” Journal of Dharma 7, no. 3 (July 1982): 254.

[4] Christy Lohr and Ian S. Markham, A World Religions Reader (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 32.

[5] Miriam Levering, ed., Rethinking Scripture: Essays from a Comparative Perspective (Albany: State University Press of New York, 1989), 102–28, 170–79.

[6] Ibid., 5–6.

[7] James Laine, “The Notion of ‘Scripture’ in Modern Indian Thought,” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, no. 1/4 (1983): 167.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Timothy C. Tennent, “Can Hindu Scriptures Serve as a ‘Tutor’ to Christ?” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016), 1074.

[10] Kenneth Kramer, World Scriptures : An Introduction to Comparative Religions (New York : Paulist Press, 1986), 23.

[11] Tennent, "Can Hindu Scriptures Serve as a 'Tutor' to Christ?" 1073–74.

[12] Jean Holm and John Westerdale Bowker, Sacred Writings (London : Pinter Publishers, 1994), 72.

[13] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, A Theology of Lordship 4 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Pub., 2010), 40–48.

[14] Ibid., 48. John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2013), 522–24.

[15] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 1:369.

[16] Frame, Systematic Theology, 521.

[17] Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 48.

[18] Tennent, "Can Hindu Scriptures Serve as a 'Tutor,'" 1072.

[19] For further discussion of the eternality of sabda, see Barbara A. Holdrege, Veda and Torah: Transcending the Textuality of Scripture (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 117–20.

[20] K. Satchidananda Murty, Revelation and Reason in Advaita Vedānta (Waltair: Andhra University, 1959), 15.

[21] Roy W. Perrett, An Introduction to Indian Philosophy, Cambridge Introductions to Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 120–21.

[22] One way the school of Advaita Vedanta has tried to navigate this seeming inconsistency is by differentiating primary and secondary meaning. Primary meaning (abhidhā) refers to "the direct relation between a word and its meaning, such that knowledge of the word leads immediately to the knowledge of its relation to that meaning [and] the secondary meaning (lakṣaṇa) of a word is the indirect or implied meaning we understand when primary meaning is contextually inappropriate. Lakṣaṇa involves a kind of transfer of meaning by using a word to denote a referent other than its normal one, but in some way intimately related to it.” Ibid., 131–33.

[23] Murty, Revelation and Reason, 40–41.

[24] C. Mackenzie Brown, “Purāna as Scripture: From Sound to Image of the Holy Word in the Hindu Tradition,” History of Religions 26, no. 1 (August 1986): 81–82.

[25] Holdrege, Veda and Torah, 327–28.

[26] Ibid., 327.

[27] D. S. Amalorpavadass, ed., Research Seminar on Non-Biblical Scriptures (Bangalore, India: Nat’l Biblical, Catechetical and Liturgical Ctr, 1974), 334.

[28] Cheever Mackenzie Brown, God as Mother: A Feminine Theology in India: An Historical and Theological Study of the Brahmavaivarta Purāna (Hartford, VT: Claude Stark & Co, 1974), 10.

[29] Brown, “Purāna as Scripture,” 80–81.

[30] Laine, “The Notion of ‘Scripture,’” 169–72.

[31] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, What Is Scripture? : A Comparative Approach (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 138–39.

[32] Ursula King, “Some Reflections on Sociological Approaches to the Study of Modern Hinduism,” Numen 36, no. 1 (June 1989): 79–82.

[33] J. Gonda, The Vision of the Vedic Poets (The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton & Co, 1963), 18.

[34] The concept of seeing God's manifestation and hearing God's voice is also a central facet of Christian revelation. Holdrege, Veda and Torah, 253–324. Bill T. Arnold argues that in the Pentateuch, “In most cases, the ‘appearance’ becomes a verbal communiqué from God instead of a vision of God’s physicality.” Arnold, “Divine Revelation in the Pentateuch” (presentation, Advanced Research Program Interdisciplinary Colloquium, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, KY, October 13, 2017).

[35] Rig Veda 10.777.1-2; 06.009.6; 06.009.6; 10.177.1-2; 03.026.8

[36] Levering, Rethinking Scripture, 109.

[37] Holdrege, Veda and Torah, 231.

[38] Ibid., 235.

[39] All Scripture references and quotations are from English Standard Version.

[40] Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield and Cornelius Van Til, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Louisville: SBTS Press, 2014), 137.

[41] Ibid., 160.

[42] Erickson, unlike Warfield, emphasizes that inspiration applies both to the writers and the writings. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, 2005), 242–44.

[43] Warfield and Van Til, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, 155–56.

[44] The question of ontology/metaphysics and epistemology and their relationships is not without debate among Christian philosophers and theologians. It would be fair, however, to assume that there is a broad consensus that ontology and epistemology are closely related, and necessarily, therefore, must be investigated together.

[45] Frame, Systematic Theology, 525.

[46] Kevin Vanhoozer, “Pilgrim’s Digress: Christian Thinking on and about the Post/Modern Way,” in Christianity and the Postmodern Turn, ed. Myron B. Penner (Grand Rapids: BrazosPress, 2005), 86.

[47] Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (NP: den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1969), 116–228.

[48] Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York : Oxford University Press, 2000).

[49] John M Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God: A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg, NJ.: P & R Pubishing, 1987), 104–64.

[50] Dru Johnson, Scripture’s Knowing : A Companion to Biblical Epistemolog (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), 21–23.

[51] Ibid., 18–32.

[52] I must mention that there are important variations among the six schools of Hindu philosophy; however, here I am tracing a particular strand without highlighting the differences and the nuances in each.

[53] Dharm P. S. Bhawuk, Spirituality and Indian Psychology: Lessons from the Bhagavad-Gita (New York: Springer, 2011), 165–66.

[54] Ibid., 165.

[55] Richard V. de Smet and Bradley J. Malkovsky, New Perspectives on Advaita Vedānta : Essays in Commemoration of Professor Richard De Smet, S.J., Studies in the History of Religions, vol. 85 (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 33.

[56] Ibid.

[57] D. S. Amalorpavadass, Research Seminar on Non-Biblical Scriptures, 344–45.

[58] According to him, the three types of the revelation of the total four are tied to the Vedas. He summarized the second type thus: "The Veda revealed by God at the beginning of each aeon contains the final truth about Dharma and Brahman." Murty, Revelation and Reason in Advaita Vedānta, 10.

[59] Ganganatha Jha Mahamahopadhyaya and Umesha Mishra, Pūrva-Mīṃāṁsā in Its Sources, Library of Indian Philosophy and Religion, ed. by S. Radhakrishnan (Benares: Benares Hindu University, 1942), 175–78.

[60] Ibid., 173.

[61] Another aspect of similarity that is connected to the concept of inspiration is the existence of Scripture in the oral form before they were written down. Although the transition from the oral form to the written form was much quicker in Christianity, Scriptures continued to exist (and still exists to this day in Hinduism) in the oral form for both Christianity and Hinduism. Before the canonization (the official recognition of the inspired text), some Christian writings were scriptures in the process of canonization, and some were scripture in the making. Written and circulated letters of the apostles are an example of the former and the oral traditions, which eventually came to be written down, are an example of the latter. When the same principle is applied to the Hindu Scriptures, they do not appear so strange as when they did at first. Vempeny, Inspiration in the Non-Biblical Scriptures, 14–19. However, I also do not want to leave the impression that I condone uncritical comparison between the two religions such as finding Christ’s figures in Hindu deities. While all people have access to God’s general revelation and the subsequent blessings that come along with it, the Scriptures as God’s special and final revelation must test all such claims.

[62] Timothy C. Tennent, Christianity at the Religious Roundtable : Evangelicalism in Conversation with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam (Grand Rapids, MI. : Baker Academic, 2002), 51–52.

[63] Erickson, Christian Theology, 221.

[64] Horton, The Christian Faith, 156.

[65] Tennent, Christianity at the Religious Roundtable, 41–42.

[66] Holdrege, Veda and Torah, 328.

[67] Tennent, Christianity at the Religious Roundtable, 43.

[68] Ibid., 44.

[69] Holdrege, Veda and Torah, 330.

[70] G. K. Beale, The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, MI. : Baker Books, 1994).

[71] Köstenberger, Kellum, and Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown, 4–5.

[72] Horton, The Christian Faith, 172.

[73] Ibid., 194.

[74] Brown, “Purāna as Scripture,” 73–74.

[75] Frits Stall, “The Concept of Scripture in the Indian Tradition,” in Sikh Studies: Comparative Perspectives on a Changing Tradition, eds. Mark Juergenmeyer and N. Gerald Barrier (Berkeley: Graduate Theological Union, 1979), 122.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Holdrege, Veda and Torah, 333.

[78] Levering, Rethinking Scripture, 112.

[79] Tennent, '"Can the Hindu "Scriptures Serve as a "Tutor" to Christ?"' 1074.

[80] Gonda, The Vision of the Vedic Poets, 66.

[81] James. Laine, “The Notion of ‘Scripture’ in Modern Indian Thought,” 169.

[82] Ibid., 171.

[83] Smith, What Is Scripture? 133–139.

[84] Ibid., 139.

[85] Holdrege, Veda and Torah, 229–231.

[86] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, “The True Meaning of Scripture: An Empirical Historian’s Nonreductionist Interpretation of the Qur’an,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, no. 4 (1980): 505.

[87] Vempeny, Inspiration in the Non-Biblical Scriptures, 12.

[88] Daniel G. Reid, ed., The IVP Dictionary of the New Testament : A One-Volume Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (Downers Grove, IL. : InterVarsity Press, 2004), 955.

[89] Ibid., 971.

[90] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (Crestwood, NY. : St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, c1995), 22–23, 124–126.

[91] Gannon Murphy, “Reformed Theosis?,” Theology Today 65, no. 2 (July 2008): 199–212. 

[92] Holdrege, Veda and Torah, 328–329.

[93] Warfield and Van Til, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, 105.


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