Contextualising worship for Indian Christians

The following exerts are from Indiginized Christian Worship in India: Some Considerations.

Westernized Posture

“Another significant aspect that the Indian church lost in worship was the posture of worship. In most Indian religions worshipers sit on a thick mattress spread on the floor. People sit on the floor, with their legs crossed, as an expression of their respect to their deity. During the time of prayer they kneel, with their heads bowed to the ground. But the Christian churches accepted the Western form of sitting on pews for worship. According to the Hindu tradition no one may enter the place of worship unclean or wearing sandals. But Christian churches do not emphasize these aspects in their worship. In the mind of an Indian these show a lack of respect and devotion to God.”

Westernized Preaching

“Preaching in Indian churches is also influenced by the western heritage. Indian churches typically use an elevated pulpit or a preaching stand. In recent years, influenced by the charismatic preaching seen on international Christian television channels, the preacher tends to move around on the pulpit and preach very loud in his attempt to imitate the Christianity viewed on the television. But in Indian tradition, teachers of the scriptures sit on the floor on a slightly elevated place with the scripture open in a small book holder. The name of the Hindu scriptures, upanishads, is a word picture of this aspect of teaching in Indian context. Upanishad means the inner, or mystic, teaching. The term upanishad is derived from upa (‘near’), ni (‘down’) and s(h)ad (‘to sit’): that is, sitting down near. Groups of pupils sit near the teacher to learn from him. This does not match with today’s Christian preaching.”

New Possibilities

Now, say you had Hindu neighbours who expressed interest in learning more about Jesus. You are invited to their house. Could you adapt your worship posture and teaching style to a form they found more natural, even if it felt less natural to you?

A visual guide to Shiva symbolism

Shiva is one of the most widely known and revered Hindu gods. In the Hindu mythology, Shiva is the Destroyer, working in concert with Brahma the Creator and Vishnu the Protector. Shiva has always fascinated his followers by his unique appearance: he has not two but three eyes, has ash smeared all over his body, has snakes coiled up around his head and arms, wears tiger and elephant skin, leads a wild life in the cremation grounds far removed from social pretences, and is known for his proverbial anger. Here is a visual guide to the symbols associated with Shiva.


Decoding the symbolism of the cosmic dancer

Nataraja is a well known sculptural symbol in India and popularly used as a symbol of Indian culture. It depicts the Hindu god Shiva as the cosmic dancer and the Sanskrit word actually translates as Lord of Dancers. His dance is called Tandavam or Nadanta, depending on the context and the pose and artwork is described in many Hindu texts such as the Anshumadbhed agama and Uttarakamika agama. This dance relief or idol is featured in all major Hindu temples of Shaivism, though you will often see it in Indian restaurants and elsewhere. Here’s what the image actually means:

Understanding the Hindu use of Ash

hindu-ashIn seeking to understand Hinduism more thoroughly I came across an interesting little article called, “Hindu Rituals and Routines – Why Do We Follow Those?” It covers a number of aspects of Hindu practice that, while familiar enough from observation, I’ve never heard explained so well for before. One in particular was the Hindu use of ash which I have quoted in full below. Maybe you see, as I do, some potential for redemptive analogies coming out of this.

Why do we apply the holy ash?

The ash of any burnt object is not regarded as holy ash. Bhasma (the holy ash) is the ash from the homa (sacrificial fire) where special wood along with ghee and other herbs is offered as worship of the Lord. Or the deity is worshipped by pouring ash as abhisheka and is then distributed as bhasma.

Bhasma is generally applied on the forehead. Some apply it on certain parts of the body like the upper arms, chest etc. Some ascetics rub it all over the body. Many consume a pinch of it each time they receive it.

The word bhasma means, “that by which our sins are destroyed and the Lord is remembered”. Bha implied bhartsanam (“to destroy”) and sma implies smaranam (“to remember”). The application of bhasma therefore signifies destruction of the evil and remembrance of the divine. Bhasma is called vibhuti (which means “glory”) as it gives glory to one who applies it and raksha (which means a source of protection) as it protects the wearer from ill health and evil, by purifying him or her.

Homa (offering of oblations into the fire with sacred chants) signifies the offering or surrender of the ego and egocentric desires into the flame of knowledge or a noble and selfless cause. The consequent ash signifies the purity of the mind, which results from such actions.

Also the fire of knowledge burns the oblation and wood signifying ignorance and inertia respectively. The ash we apply indicates that we should burn false identification with the body and become free of the limitations of birth and death. This is not to be misconstrued as a morose reminder of death but as a powerful pointer towards the fact that time and tide wait for none.

Bhasma is specially associated with Lord Shiva who applies it all over His body. Shiva devotes apply bhasma as a tripundra. When applied with a red spot at the center, the mark symbolizes Shiva-Shakti (the unity of energy and matter that creates the entire seen and unseen universe).

Bhasma has medicinal value and is used in many ayurvedic medicines. It absorbs
excess moisture from the body and prevents colds and headaches. The Upanishads say that the famous Mrityunjaya mantra should be chanted whilst applying ash on the forehead.

Tryambakam yajaamahe
Sugandhim pushtivardhanam
Urvaa rukamiva bhandhanaan
Mrytyor muksheeyamaa amrutaat

“We worship the three-eyed Lord Shiva who nourishes and spread fragrance in
our lives. May He free us from the shackles of sorrow, change and death – effortlessly,
like the fall of a rip brinjal from its stem.”

What is the difference between the Trimurti and the Trinity?

I have frequently heard non-Christians assert that the Trinity of Christianity and the Trimurti of Hinduism are equivalent “triple god” concepts.

This, however, is a gross misunderstanding.

Yes, the number three features promenantly in both teachings, but that is where the similarity largely ends.

Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer) are temporally differentiated. Not so with the Father (God above us), the Son (God among us) and the Spirit (God within us). They are equally active in every age. In the beginning, in the end, and in between.

In essence, the Trimurti concept and the Trinity concept run perpendicular to one another, as I have tried to capture in the diagram below. Only if Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva were equally active in the acts of creation, preservation and destruction could they more genuinely said to be equivalent.


Of course, this is somewhat academic as the Trimurti concept is not generally accepted by Vaishnavites or Shaivites with Hinduism. In my experience the Trimurti is more often bought up by non-Hindu, non-Christian westerners as personal justifications for different paths altogether. My plea is simply this: if you want to follow a different path, fine, but please refrain from misrepresenting the paths of others as you go about it. Do as you would be done by and all that.


The Indian Art of Jamini Roy


jamini-roy-christ-crucifiedJesus Christ is crucified” by Jamini Roy

Jamini Roy (1887-1972) was an influential (non-Christian) Indian artist who forged a style that was both Indian and avant garde, taking crude Kalighat Pat styles as his sources of inspiration.

Although I find his art eye catching I can’t help but notice that, as with many non-Christian artists who delve into Christian themes, Jamini Roy seems to have limited his exploration to the beginning and end of the life of Jesus, not venturing in between. His works include of paintings of the Maddona and Child, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and narrative-less Jesus portraits, amongst many works illustrating Hindu mythology.

Sacred shit

sacred-shitI have encountered all sorts of strange rituals in my engagement with other religions, but possibly the strangest I have ever personally witnessed was cow dung puja.

It was many years ago in Darling Harbour, at one of the seasonal Mind Body Spirit Festivals. I had struck up a conversation with some Hindu converts earlier that day and they’d invited me along to their sunset ritual. Ever curious, I eagerly accepted and arrived at dusk, just as they were lighting up this sacred … faeces, imported specially from India. They prayed over it in a kneeling posture, offering devotion to their gods and goddesses. I was amazed. But then, how strange must our ways seem to others? After all, we Christians indulge in symbolic canibalism.

The Co-Existence of Violence and Non-Violence in Hinduism

I have a huge amount of respect for Ghandi, and I imagine many of you reading this have too. But as I have come to understand Hinduism in more depth I have come to realise that Ghandi was not, and is not, universally representative of Hindu ethics.

There is an ethical spectrum in Hinduism that is not dissimilar from other religions.

This is something noted up front by Anantanand Rambachan in “The Co-Existence of Violence and Non-Violence in Hinduism,” an essay on religion and politics in India. Moreover, he notes, “The Mahabharata war is referred to, in the Bhagavadgita, as a dharma yuddha. A dharma yuddha is a war fought in defence of justice and righteousness and for the security and well being of the community (lokasamgraha).”

So it is clear that, not only can Hindus claim scriptural justification for violence under certain circumstances, but they have their own equivalent to the just war concept. I wouldn’t be surprised if this raises some questions for some of you.

Who can tell me more about the Hindu festival of Holi?


I was wondering if anyone out there can enlighten me on the significance of the Hindu festival of Holi?

From what I’ve read it seems to be celebrating (a) Krishna’s play with the cow-herding girls, (b) the slaying of the demoness Holika by Prahlad, a devotee of Vishnu, and (c) the arrival of spring. Is it a case that different sects see it in different ways or is it all mixed in together?

It strikes me that there may be some correspondance to the Easter tradition in the west, which is likewise a celebration of spring and the victory of good over evil. Just with brightly coloured eggs instead of brightly coloured powder. Is that plausible?

Not Quite Christian Art: Hindu Jesus

Jesus in India

An image of Jesus in India by an unknown artist.

Whatever its artistic merits I can’t help thinking that art like this is too syncretistic to properly be called Christian.

It is one thing to depict Christian stories in Hindu style. It is another to depict Hindu stories in Christian style. This strikes me as more typical of the latter than the former.

For if you changed the face, what of Christian substance would be left?

That Old Black Magic


Not that I needed further convincing that Hinduism has overtaken Catholicism in our neighbourhood, it seems a Hindu Astrologer has set up business near the puja supply shop in the centre of Pendle Hill.

Promising “Protection from any Black Magic” with a “100% success” rate, it suggests there are many out there seeking “God’s” protection. Few seem to be seeking it from Christian communities however, or, given my conversations, even aware that it is available.

Curiously however I have had a number of people approach me for dream interpretations this week as I prayerfully prepare for the Mind Body Spirit Festival next week. Signs of a different sort maybe.

What makes a person a Hindu?

As a Christian who lives in a predominatly Hindu suburb I know from personal experience that it is important to understand Hinduism through the eyes of Hindus (and not just their Western interpreters).

So when a Hindu writes on “What makes a person a Hindu?” or “What does following Sanatana Dharma mean?” I pay attention. Here are some comments on just this from the Western Hindu:

“It seems to me that Shivheru is still following Sanatana Dharma, though by a non-orthodox path. Hinduism has always been open to allowing other influences, from Ramakrishna having images of Jesus and Mary on his altar to the Arya Samaj not allowing depictions of God. It is certainly possible to include Egyptian, Celtic, or other deities into the practice of Hinduism in exactly the same way that village deities can be added to the traditional Gods.”

“However, I don’t want to give the impression that anyone who includes some Hindu practices into their beliefs is a Hindu. I see a wide continuum from the orthodox Hindus to those which include aspects of other beliefs, and if someone on this continuum wants to call themselves a Hindu then I am happy with that. I am also happy if they want to say that they are influenced by Hinduism rather than being Hindus, the self-chosen title reflects a person’s spiritual outlook.”

“As soon as someone departs from the universal principles of Hinduism then I see them as no longer followers of Sanatana Dharma.”

This accords with my own understanding from face to face conversations with Hindus and reflections on the seven dimensions of religion. Hinduism is very open, but not so open as to allow anything. Hindus embrace many divinities. Nevertheless, they hold very strong views on karma, dharma and reincarnation. There are ways that are incompatible with being a Hindu.