God – When a Christian and a Hindu discuss God, are they talking about the same God?
Christians have been talking about God for almost two millennia now and Hindus for almost double that time span. Christianity has spread to become the largest religion on the planet, while Hinduism has largely remained in the Indian subcontinent. Are these two great religions talking about the same God?
Difficulties of Talking About God
Having a two way discussion with another person about God is fantastic but often rather difficult. This is not a conversation about football, cars, food or other topics where you can go and get personal experience of the subject. Religious beliefs and matters of faith are inner convictions. Religious and spiritual experiences are personal, though they may take place in communal settings.
Millions of believers zealously claim that their version of God is the real one and all other views are false and heretic. This makes conversation about God with them very tiresome.
Any discussion about God usually starts from a basic question – “Is there a God, the creator of the universe?” Then another question takes the conversation further– “Can Humans know about God’s nature and identity?” A further question brings up the similarities and differences in the belief systems as also personal characteristics of the persons – “What form of revelation God uses to communicate with humans?”
Differences Between Christianity and Hinduism as Types of Religions
Like Judaism or Islam, Christianity is a communal religion while Hinduism is a household religion. In communal religions, visibly belonging to a community is very important. Praying, attending services or religious ceremonies takes place among a community of faith. In household religions, you can have a shrine at home and never in your lifetime attend any religious happening outside. Though there are Hindu temples everywhere, they are not communal meeting places like churches or synagogues.
A Christian believes in God in three persons – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. But the Christian will deny being a polytheist by explaining that these three persons are in reality the same, the Holy Trinity. Now the Hindu also denies being a polytheist because he sees the myriads of gods as aspects and manifestations of a central Godhead, called the Brahman (not to be confused with a Brahmin).
When a Christian talks about God the Father, the Hindu would see Ishwara, which is similar to Elohim in Judaism (not the Mormon usage). This Ishwara is God with attributes, the ruler of the universe created by him. Ishwara has three attributes, the Trimurti: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the sustainer, and Shiva the dissolver. To a Hindu the creation of the world is an eternal cycle of Brahma creating the world, Vishnu sustaining it for a certain time and Shiva dissolving it.
When a Hindu talks about the divine, he uses names of deities like Shiva, Vishnu, Rama, Kali or Krishna. When he uses the term God, he means Brahman-Atman, similar to Ayn-Sof in Judaism, which is beyond all concepts and descriptions. A Hindu can see a parallel in the concept of the State. You just can’t interact directly with the state. You interact with its agents, like people working in ministries, departments, the police etc.
Divinity or Egoism?
A Hindu can say “AHAM BRAHMASHMI, meaning ‘I am God’ when he refers, not his ego but to the Atman in him. A Christian shudders, thinking that this is utter blasphemy and exclaims “Look what happened to Lucifer, with his huge ego!”
A Hindu believes that Ishwara or its aspects manifests periodically in human or even animal forms called Avatars. The Bhagavata Purana, said to be from 3000 B.C. lists 22 avatars: Varaha the boar and Matsya the fish in the holy company of Krishna, Rama and even Buddha. A Hindu would have no problem in seeing Jesus as one of the avatars. But to a Christian, Jesus is the only Son of God the Father and there is no room for other avatars. New saints can come up all the time.
It is lofty and noble to expect an open mind from others when we have an open mind ourselves. The problem with having an open mind is that someone always tries to fill your mind with their own ideas. So, it is better to have a knowledgeable and alert open mind.
Clarifying the different terms and concepts can help avoid unnecessary conflicts when discussing faith and religions. If we are only ready to shift the focus from differences to ties that bind, we see the underlying humanity and common aims in all religions. Rather than preaching and arguing, we focus on living together. We see that we are all people walking along different paths to the same goal and the need for conflict disappears.