Mennonites have encountered Hinduism, the major religion of India, primarily in India where they were involved in the mission of bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, in the 20th century, as Hinduism became more aggressive and its devotees moved into Europe and North America, there was encounter, either directly with Hinduism or with religious movements having Hindu components. Departments of religion in colleges and universities offered courses in Hinduism or at least dealt with Hinduism in courses on world religions. With the immigration of Indians to North America in recent years, Hindus have become next-door neighbors for some Mennonites.
A scholarly exponent of Hinduism, Shri Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who also served as president of the Republic of India (1962-1967), describes Hinduism as "not a definite dogmatic creed, but a vast, complex, but subtly unified mass of spiritual thought and realization." The expression of this religion manifests itself in philosophical exposition by learned teachers, religious festivals, caste regulations, household rituals, visual representation of gods (icons), sculpture, drama, and literature.
As western missionaries, including Mennonite missionaries, encountered Hinduism they tried to understand what it was they were confronting. Superficially it appeared to be a religion of superstition, enslavement, and oppression (caste, subjugation of women, fatalism, appeasement of the gods, etc.) Missionary libraries included books about Hinduism and Indian culture. There are numerous accounts in reports of mission activity which include observations of Hindu faith and practice, experience of dialogue and confrontation. However, there are no records of formal group interaction with representatives of Hinduism and no documents which could be identified as Mennonite-Hindu statements of understanding. Mennonite missionaries and Indian Christians worked at separating from the Hindu cultural fabric the strands that would compose an Indian Christian fabric that had integrity. Some of this occurred informally, and some of it occurred in conferences of the denominations and in interdenominational settings, such as conferences and consultations of the National Christian Council of India and its subsidiary organizations. Publications of these events were available to Mennonite readers even though they may not have participated directly in the conferences or dialogues.
Peter Hamm, a missionary of the Mennonite Brethren Church, has identified typical approaches which Christians have taken toward other religions, including Hinduism. Individual Mennonites would find themselves, no doubt, taking one of these approaches: (a) "Radical displacement" or "conflictual," i.e., viewing "non-Christian religions as enemies of the gospel, adherents of this approach find little or nothing that is commendable in another faith and militantly seek to destroy it and displace it by Christianity. And although called an attitude of hostility and 'religious imperialism,' this is not usually accompanied by hatred on the part of the missionary." (b) "Fulfillment," i.e., "Christianity fulfills all that is good and true in non-Christian faiths. Stressing resemblance rather than contrast, this attitude sees the gospel as the completion of those truths anticipated in non-Christian religions." (c) "Co-operation," i.e., "the way of synthesis," "based on the premise that each religion has something of value to contribute and to receive . . . this view stresses inter-religious communion or 'dialogue' but fails to emphasize Christianity's unique contribution." (d) "Discontinuity," i.e., insisting on "a fundamental discontinuity 'between God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ and the whole range of human religion.' Therefore, the task of the missionary is not to attempt to find points of contact, or even of contrast with other religions, but simply to confront them with the message of God's 'act of redemption' in Christ Jesus and summon them to respond in faith."
Two doctoral dissertations represent inquiry by Mennonite scholars into Hindu thought, namely, "The Religious Significance of the Writings of Harischandra" submitted by Martin C. Lehman at Yale University in 1933, and "Nonviolence: A Comparative Study of Mohandas K. Gandhi and the Mennonite Church on the Subject of Nonviolence," submitted by Weyburn W. Groff at New York University in 1963.
Hamm, Peter M. "A Reappraisal of Christianity's Confrontation with Other Religions." and Paul G. Hiebert, "Mission and the Understanding of Culture." A. J. Klassen, ed., The Church in Mission. Fresno, CA: Mennonite Brethren Board of Christian Literature, (1967): 222-250.
Lapp, John Allen. The Mennonite Church in India, 1897-1962, Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History, vol. 14. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1972: 81-82;
Lapp, George J. "Strengths and Weaknesses of Hinduism." Unpublished manuscript, Lapp papers, Archives of Mennonite Church USA (Goshen, Indiana, USA).
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 371-372. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
©1996-2013 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.
MLA style: Groff, Weyburn W. "Hinduism." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 25 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/H563.html.
APA style: Groff, Weyburn W. (1987). Hinduism. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 25 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/H563.html.