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Spring 1994    Vol. 23 No. 1    pp. 22–26 

Salvation according to Hinduism

R. S. Lemuel

Hinduism is one of the living religions that originated in southern Asia along with Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. Hinduism, one of the oldest religions in the world, dates from perhaps 3500 B.C. It is also the largest religion in India: of the total population of 880 million, 83% are Hindus. Hinduism is unique among the religions of the world for it has a system of castes: Brahman (the priestly class); Kshatriya (the rulers and warriors); Vaisya (the common agriculturists and artisans); and the Sudra (the low caste).

Over the centuries the salvation options in Hinduism have varied widely.

Hinduism is a religion without a founder, without a central authority, and without a fixed creed. It is filled with contradictions. Some adherents worship a personified Power of Nature while others worship idols of local areas. It has no uniform moral standard. It changes, yet continues. Hence it is called “Sanathan Dharma” (Eternal Religion).

The concept of salvation in Hinduism also changes and varies in different periods of time. I will survey the teaching of salvation theme from three standpoints: 1) The early period of Hinduism; 2) popular Hinduism; 3) modern Hinduism.

SALVATION IN THE EARLY PERIODS OF HINDUISM (3500 B.C.-250 A.D.)

The way of salvation in Hinduism is unique in each of the early periods of Hinduism, which have {23} been classified into 1) The Pre-Vedic Period, 3500 B.C.-2000 B.C.; 2) The Vedic-Period, 2000-1000 B.C.; 3) The Brahamic Period 600-250 B.C.; and 4) the Devotional Period 250 B.C.-250 A.D.

The religion of the Pre-Vedic period was polytheistic. There was worship of trees, animals, goddesses, and Shiva. The way of salvation was not clearly articulated. Actual Hinduism began with the Vedic Period. The sacred scriptures of these periods are called Vedas, of which there are four classifications. The important Veda is the Rig-Veda. The religion in the Vedic Period was mostly nature worship. Hindus prayed to the personalized powers of nature, such as the sun, moon, sky, wind, rain, dawn, earth, air, and fire. The most important of the Vedic deities is Indira. The idea of sin is present in Vedic religion. Prayers were offered for the forgiveness of sins. To obtain salvation according to the Vedic teaching one had to offer prayers, offerings, and repeat magic formulas to avert the wrath of the offended gods. The chief method of salvation in the Rig Vedic was prayer.

During the Brahamanic Period the priests became more important than the gods. The chief literature of this period is Brahamanas. The priests introduced sacrifices. Salvation was obtained mainly through sacrifices performed by the Brahaman Priests. Among the sacrifices the chief and elaborate sacrifice was the Asva-Medha (horse sacrifice). The sacrifice required a whole year for its completion. It involved the slaying of 609 animals in a certain prescribed succession.

In the Uphanishadie period the writers of the Uphanishads left the deities of the Vedas and the sacrificial rituals of the Brahamanas in order to discover the inner force, the origin of the phenomena of nature and the self. The four-fold caste system was believed to have been created by Brahama (God). Maya became the doctrine of the “not real.” The Upanishads emphasized the knowledge as the supreme way of salvation. But the knowledge of what? The knowledge of Ultimate Reality. For them Brahma is Ultimate Reality. Brahma is not the person but is the Cosmic Power, that is, “Sarvam Brahma” (everything is Brahama). Those who understand this truth will experience salvation.

Regarding Salvation or Liberation a totally new dimension took shape during this period. The Uphanishads discarded the Vedic gods as necessary for man’s salvation. They also discarded the efficacy of the sacrifice for one’s salvation.

During this period Hinduism became legalistic. The Code of Manu taught the sacredness and saving efficacy of the Vedas, the performance of Hindu sacrifices, the sanctioning of war, Upanashaidic knowledge of Brahma-Atman, and the final release from transmigration. Temples and temple priests became important. Idols are first mentioned clearly in this {24} document. The four-fold caste system was greatly elaborated in this period. The Brahman by birth were considered the incarnation of deity and the Sudra was placed in low status. Salvation, according to this period, was obtained by showing obedience to the law of Manu; particularly to the law of caste.

During the period of Devotional Hinduism the Bhagavad Gita became the most important book. The Bhagavad Gita is a highly esteemed scripture of Hinduism. The Bhagavad Gita or “The Song of the Adorable” is written in the form of dialogues between Krishna the Charioteer of Arjuna and the leader of the Pandavas. Bhagavad Gita reaffirms the caste system. The main message of the Bhagavad Gita is “Do your caste duty, and trust your God for the rest of your salvation.” The nature of salvation in Bhagavad Gita is very remarkable. The Bhagavad Gita offers universal salvation to all sinners even to women and low-caste Sudras. Salvation as per the Bhagavad Gita is obtained chiefly through devotion to personal deity.

SALVATION ACCORDING TO POPULAR HINDUISM (250 A.D.-1700 A.D.)

During the period of popular Hinduism the concept of salvation derived from the teachings of literature, namely, the Epics, Purans, Philosophical Schools and the Religious Sects of Hinduism. The Epics and Purans consist of two great stories: “The Mahabarata” and “The Ramayana.” During this period a great change took place about the way of salvation. Till this period the teaching of the salvation through the way of knowledge was relevant to the intellectuals, Brahamans and to the sages. In this period a new concept was developed to make the way of salvation understandable to common people. The new way of salvation in this period was the way of devotion to any god, idol, river or mountain. To obtain the salvation the people worshipped idols, visited sacred places and observed several ceremonies. The idols were in the form of all kinds of human and animal representations, and even male and female organs.

Various philosophical schools originated at this time as the result of attacks made by the Jaims and the Buddhists against the traditions and doctrines of the Vedas and Uphanishads. There are six such schools. All these schools have some common factors to contribute to the way of salvation. The Nyaya school tells the meaning of the knowledge which is the way of salvation. The Vaisheshika school mainly deals with the atomic constitution of things. The Samkhya school explains systematically the origin of the world. The Yoga school provides means of attaining ultimate perfection by controlling physical and psychical elements of human {25} nature. This system is very popular in India. The Mimamsa school teaches that salvation will be obtained through Dharma of the ritualistic observances prescribed in the Vedas. The Vedanta school tells of the philosophy of the Uphanishads.

Saivism is a very important sect in which Siva is worshiped. Remission of sins through repentance is not mandatory; a mere performance of religious ceremonies, such as bathing in sacred rivers and the uttering of a few mantras or prayers, is effective in acquiring salvation. According to this sect the Power of Siva is defined in various names like Kali, Durga, and Parvathi. The way of salvation according to this sect is by the way of Sadhanas, that is, through different efforts to become good. The god of Vaishnavism is Vishnu. According to this sect the bhakti or loving devotion to Vishna is the best means of emancipation. Devotees of another sect, Ramaism, seek salvation through loving devotion to Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu.

SALVATION ACCORDING TO MODERN HINDUISM (1700 A.D.-PRESENT)

Hindu reformers were influenced by Christianity though their reformation was based on their original religious materials. Several leaders are significant.

Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) was born in a Bengali family. He was well versed in Bengali, Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, English and Hebrew languages. He did not accept idol worship. He wrote a book on Jesus: The Principles of Jesus: the Guide to Happiness. He accepted some truths from all other religions. In order to get salvation one has to worship only in a spiritual way instead of resorting to Hindu asceticism, temples and fixed forms of worship.

Keshab-Chandra Sen (1838-1884) became the greatest reformer of Hinduism. He started his own Samaj (Society) called the Church of New Dispensation. He tried to organize the conflicting creeds of all religions. The church harmonized reason, faith, yoga and bhakti, asceticism and social duty in their highest forms to attain spiritual growth.

Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1834-1886) was born in a pious Brahaman family. He had no education but became a devotee of Kali. His movement became the most influential of modern movements of Hinduism. His main teaching about religion was that all religions are equally good. His main method of meditation was Samadhi (concentration on God). According to his teaching, salvation can be obtained through any religion.

Swamy Vivekananda(1862-1902) was born in a middle class Kshatriya (warrior) family. He became the disciple of Ramakrishna. His main {26} teaching about religion was that no conversion should be attempted, because nobody is a sinner. To call a man a sinner is a sin. He preached in Chicago in 1893. He based his gospel on the doctrine of the identity of the individual soul with Brahma, and so espoused the divinity of man. Much of “New Age” thinking is drawn from this Indian philosophy.

SALVATION IS THE PLAN OF GOD

Christianity is a remarkable contrast to all the salvation options in Hinduism. The author and the finisher of the faith and salvation is God himself. The reality of sin and the consequence of sin in Christianity are not ignored. Individuals and society are in need of help. Therefore man inspite of his intelligence and enlightenment, cannot produce his own salvation—a contrast to Hinduism. God has planned for the salvation of humankind inspite of its unworthiness. God gave his Son Jesus Christ to save people from their sin.

“And in none other than Jesus Christ is there salvation: for neither is there any other name under heaven, that is given among men, wherein we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 RV). Through the sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ salvation is provided. In Hinduism there is no mention of such honest sacrifice by any god incarnate person who is righteous and pure and who came to the world as an historical person to save sinners.

Faith in Jesus Christ is essential for salvation (Acts 16:31). When a sinner accepts Jesus Christ as his Savior then Jesus comes into the heart to dwell (Eph. 3:17). Those who are saved by the grace of Christ are protected by the Holy Spirit. In Hinduism there is no mention of the Holy Spirit.

Whoever accepts Jesus Christ becomes part of the church where believers live together as brothers and sisters. Christian fellowship renders the caste system inoperative. Instead of the way of Knowledge (Jnana-Marga), the way of Devotion (Bhakti-Marga) and the way of Actions (Karma-Marga), the salvation is obtained through faith in Jesus Christ.

Rev. R. S. Lemuel is the Executive Director of the Mennonite Brethren Board of Evangelism and Church Ministries in South India.

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