[Disclaimer: I'm an atheist, not a believer in any religion. However, I'm an eager student of comparative religion, and I like to understand the philosophical standpoints of different religions, as well as the possible psychology of their thinkers and rule-makers. I also tend to play provocateur in religious debates. I have a number of uncomfortable questions to ask of believing Hindus. However, this particular post is aimed at evangelical Christians, to challenge their smug assumption that their faith is superior to the pagan/heathen beliefs of Hinduism.]
Let's examine some of the core beliefs of Hinduism and Christianity from a philosophical standpoint, and see which appeals to us as the superior approach.
1. The notion of Individual Accountability versus that of Collective Punishment
If I commit a crime, who should be punished for it? Me, or my family members? It's a no-brainer that I alone am accountable for my actions, not my family, and certainly not any descendents of mine who weren't even born at the time I committed the crime.
As a topical example, Israel's recent actions in Gaza violate the UN Charter of Human Rights, because it has chosen to punish the entire civilian population of Gaza (including innocent infants) in retaliation for the actions of Hamas. Collective Punishment is not justice. In fact, it is itself a crime.
The Hindu notion of Karma is all about individual accountability. According to this belief, the Cosmos rewards and punishes individuals for their actions. Karma is even believed to follow individuals across multiple lifetimes. Unexplained and undeserved strokes of good and bad fortune are explained as the possible results of actions in past lives. Regardless of the validity of this belief, the philosophical underpinning of this is the notion of individual accountability. One's actions do not result in reward or punishment to others, not even to members of one's immediate family. The fruits of action attach solely to the individual alone.
Contrast that with the fundamental Christian notion of Original Sin. The basic nature of man is believed to be that of a sinner. And what is that sin that attaches to every human being who is born? It's the "Original Sin" that was committed by Adam and Eve, from whom all humans are believed to be descended. All humans are therefore condemned to go to Hell for this sin committed by their distant ancestors. It is only thanks to the substitutional atonement of Jesus Christ that we have a way to escape this punishment. Christ died for our sins. If we accept Christ as our saviour, then we are spared the punishment of Hell, else we will be made to suffer for the sins committed by someone else.
The Hindu notion of Karma illustrates its underlying philosophy of Individual Accountability, where each person is rewarded or punished based on their actions alone. The Christian notion of Original Sin represents its philosophy of Collective Punishment, where all of us are to be punished for the actions of someone else. Which of these would you consider the superior concept?
2. "The punishment should fit the crime"
If I commit a murder, I could go to jail for 30 years (or be executed in countries that have not outlawed the death penalty). If I steal something, I may go to jail for a few months. If I steal a loaf of bread because my family is starving, I may be tasked with a few weeks of community service or even let off altogether with just a warning. Such a system of justice seems inherently fair. In Les Miserables, the protagonist steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving family, and is sentenced to jail for an inordinately long period. Virtually everyone sees this as grossly unfair. We humans inherently accept the principle that a punishment should fit the crime.
The Hindu notion of Karma is proportional. If I do something good, the Cosmos rewards me in equal measure. Likewise if I do something bad. If I poke someone, I'm likely to get a similar poke in return. Karmic retribution for a poke is unlikely to be the massacre of my entire family. Karma is believed to be proportionate in its rewards and punishments.
Once again, there is no evidence at all that Karma is real or that it works in this manner. However, the common belief among Hindus is that this is how Karma works, and hence proportionality is one of the attributes of Karma from a philosophical standpoint.
What is the Christian reward for goodness or its punishment for evil? An Eternity in Heaven or Hell. An Eternity in Heaven isn't terribly controversial, but an Eternity in Hell could be. Consider how long "Eternity" is. An individual's lifetime, in comparison, is finite. Even if a person commits heinous crimes every waking moment of their lives from the time they're a toddler until they die, the crimes they can commit in their lifetime are necessarily finite in nature. Punishment of an infinite duration is way out of proportion to the crimes anyone could possibly manage to commit over their entire, finite lifetime. Add to this the "Original Sin" of Adam and Eve if you will. Was their act so evil that they deserved an Eternity in Hell? A loving parent, which is what God is supposed to be, would have let them off with a slap on the wrist.
Viewed from the perspective of proportionality, the Hindu notion of Karmic retribution is fairer because it tends to fit the crime. The Christian notion of an Eternity in Hell is way, way out of proportion to any possible set of crimes an individual could commit, not to mention crimes that they did not themselves commit!
3. The attitude towards Knowledge
Unlike Christianity, Hinduism does not see the basic nature of a human being as that of a sinner. Rather, it sees a human being as one trapped in ignorance and delusion. The purpose of human existence is to seek liberation for the atma (soul). Liberation is attained through enlightenment, and such enlightenment may take many lifetimes (rebirths), since the soul "grows" with each experience. When a person (finally) attains enlightenment, they realise that their consciousness is not an individual one, but part of the Supreme Consciousness, and they then attain liberation from the cycle of births and deaths by having their consciousness merge with the Supreme.
The Hindu attitude towards Knowledge is therefore positive. Humans are encouraged to seek knowledge and truth.
Furthermore, they are advised not to accept even the word of a guru as gospel truth, but to question, challenge and debate every claim until they are satisfied of its validity. The Hindu attitude towards knowledge is not just positive, but also scientific because of its encouragement of skepticism and debate. Indeed, open debates between religious denominations were common in ancient India.
The famous philosophical debate between Shankaracharya and Mandana Mishra that illustrated not just the prevalent non-dogmatic attitude to knowledge, but also the intellectual honesty of the judge, who was Mandana Mishra's wife, yet ruled that her husband had lost the debate
[Important note: The historicity of Shankaracharya is in doubt. Some accounts place him as early as the 5th century BCE, while others place him around the 8th century CE, which is quite a broad interval of time. Also, it's not clear whether the debate with Mandana Mishra ever took place. However, when discussing philosophical differences between religions, the factual accuracy of events is not as important as whether these are commonly accepted or not. The fact that the idea of debate is popularly accepted indicates that Hinduism as a philosophy is OK with heterodox views.]
Let's turn now to Christianity. What was the "Original Sin" of Adam and Eve? One could say it was disobedience towards God. But what was their specific act of disobedience? What Adam and Eve did was eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge! Mind you, it was not an apple, as some children's books portray it. Christian scripture is astonishingly candid in using the allegory of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. That's quite a startling admission of Christianity's negative attitude towards Knowledge - on two counts. One, that Adam and Eve were punished for seeking Knowledge by being expelled from Paradise, and further, all their descendents, even those then unborn, were cursed with an out-of-proportion Collective Punishment of an Eternity in Hell. Two, that they were expected to accept the word of God unquestioningly, and their curiosity or skepticism was not encouraged but punished.
The concept of heterodoxy in Christianity has a bloody history. Catholics and Protestants in Europe slaughtered each other for centuries instead of engaging in debate. The Christian attitude towards knowledge was therefore not marked by enquiry and debate, but blind and dogmatic faith. The notorious reaction of the Church to Galileo and Darwin hardly needs mentioning.
Yet again, the Hindu philosophy appears superior to the Christian one, this time through its attitude towards Knowledge in general, and specifically the encouragement to question received wisdom and to discover truth for oneself.
4. The attitude towards Diversity of Thought
Every modern corporation today has an "Inclusion and Diversity" initiative. Furthermore, the notion of diversity is claimed to be more than just the superficial diversity of gender, national origin, ethnicity or religion, but diversity of thought. (Whether diversity of thought is genuinely encouraged is doubtful, though. The Ukraine and Gaza crises have shown that people with views out of line with that of the Western establishment are summarily "cancelled", deplatformed and demonetised.)
Be that as it may, the more enlightened sections of modern society have begun to grudgingly accept that people around the world have diverse views, and that it is not desirable to impose a single viewpoint upon everyone. Diversity of thought is viewed as a strength, in that it helps to overcome "groupthink" and suboptimal decision-making. Mutual respect, as opposed to the condescending concept of "tolerance", is beginning to be appreciated as a healthier attitude in a diverse world.
One of Hinduism's fundamental beliefs is that "all paths lead to the truth", and this is borne out by the fact that Hindu evangelism and conversion to Hinduism are rarely observed in society. (Hindu evangelism is mainly seen in the Hare Krishna movement, which seems to be predominantly composed of Western people who were formerly Christian, and who perhaps therefore carry forward their old attitude of "my way is superior to yours" even after adopting a religion that explicitly rejects that notion! Rituals to convert non-Hindus to Hinduism are also a recent phenomenon. The 19th century Hindu monk, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, founded the Arya Samaj and invented conversion rituals as a response to the Christian evangelism and conversion efforts that he witnessed.)
Hindu Philosophy as stated in the Rig Veda - "ekam sat vipraa bahudhaa vadanti - The truth is one but the wise speak of it in many ways", an expression of respect for other viewpoints
The Abrahamic religions (not just Christianity) are notorious for their attitude of supremacism. Christianity and Islam are proselytising religions that do not accept the equal validity of other religions, but look down on them as inferior beliefs. Judaism may not have a strong tradition of conversion, but this is not out of a sense of mutual respect for other religions, but rather from the notion of Jews being the "Chosen People". Judaism therefore lacks even the condescending desire to share one's spiritual superiority with others!
The difference in attitudes towards non-belief is also striking. Atheism is considered part of the accepted schools of thought within Hinduism, with the atheistic thinker Charvaka being one of Hinduism's respected saints. Non-belief in God is considered sinful in Christianity, and indeed in the entire Abrahamic tradition.
Once again, it is Hinduism that exhibits the more philosophically evolved attitude of respect for diversity of thought, compared to Christianity (or indeed, any religion in the Abrahamic family).
5. The notion of Cosmic Time
The Christian view of Time is linear. "In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth." And we will all spend an Eternity either in Heaven or in Hell. That's it. A definite beginning, and no end.
The Christian theological concept of Cosmic Time, from the moment of Creation to an Eternity in Heaven or Hell
By contrast, the Hindu concept of Time is cyclical. The Universe, i.e., all of Creation, is created, lasts for a while, then undergoes dissolution. Rinse and repeat. There is no end to this cycle of creation and dissolution.
The Hindu Trinity of a Creator (Brahma), Preserver (Vishnu) and Destroyer (Shiva) keeps the Universe going forever
Of course, there is no evidence for the validity of either hypothesis. However, from a purely philosophical standpoint, the Hindu concept of a continuously repeating lifecycle of Creation is more sophisticated than the simplistic, linear one in the Christian tradition.
6. Objective Truth and the entire edifice of Western civilisation
This point is not strictly about Christianity. It's about Western thinking in general, and I have written about it in detail earlier. The entire edifice of modern Western thought, i.e., what is referred to as "scientific", "rationalistic" or "evidence-based" knowledge, rests upon a fundamental premise, that there is something called Objective Truth.
But what if there is none? An early Indic philosophy (not necessarily Hindu in a religious sense) called Samkhya claims that there can be no Objective Truth because the Observer is an inextricable part of the Universe that they claim to be observing. This means that any observation is subjective.
Is this just an academic hypothesis? Well, the famous Observer Effect from the Double-Slit Experiment raises tantalising questions. If an Observer can change the nature of a phenomenon by the very fact of their presence, then this supports the hypothesis that there may be no Objective Reality.
It's clear from the above examples that Hinduism as a collection of philosophical thoughts is too sophisticated to be dismissed as a primitive or "heathen" belief system. Indeed, Christian theological concepts seem amateurish compared to their Hindu counterparts.
Let me emphasise once again that this is not a theological debate over which set of beliefs is superior. My personal position is that all religions are fairytales and that humans need to rise above blind belief in religious scripture, or indeed, even non-denominational "spirituality", which is also just "woo". However, when we dig a level deeper into the philosophical underpinnings of various religions, there is a difference in the sophistication of concepts that are found in each. This post is a collection of my impressions on whatever I have gathered about Hinduism and Christianity.
Comments by my friend Seshadri Kumar, a fellow ex-Hindu atheist (with minor edits of typos, and my observations in italics):
1. Individual responsibility vs collective punishment. While I understand where you are going with this, the reality is that Hinduism also has collective punishment. That's why we do shraddha. You are supposed to do a ritual every amavasai (new moon day, pronounced "amaavaasai" in Tamil) for the welfare of the spirits of your ancestors. This, incidentally, was the reason the sage Agastya decided to marry. He was walking one day and saw several sages hanging upside down and crying in pain. He asked them why they were in this state. They told him they were his ancestors and [that they were] suffering because he had not married and produced a child. This is the reason I flatly refuse to do rituals for my parents. I did the bare minimum for my mother so her relatives would not be offended. When she was alive, I made a deal with her that the only religious ritual I would do was my dad's annual shraddha, and that too, a highly abbreviated, 15 minute version. (Fair point. However, there is a spectrum of belief among Hindus, and the less ritualistic do not worry too much about this.)
2. The punishment should fit the crime. Not really. You should read the Garuda Purana. The punishments described in it are horrific. Again, this is related to funeral ceremonies. Traditionally, priests read out the Garuda Purana to the relatives of the dead to scare them into paying huge sums of money so that appropriate rituals are done, including gifting of cows and gold to Brahmins, to prevent horrible tortures from being inflicted on their loved ones. (The Garuda Purana is a little-known text that is only cited at the time of funerals, for the reasons you describe. It's probably a self-serving invention of priests, as you say. However, this isn't an everyday text for Hindus, so I would argue that it isn't that relevant.)
3. The attitude towards knowledge. What you have described is all fine in theory, but the idea that it will take several lifetimes offers zero hope to those born in low castes. In fact, knowledge was explicitly denied to those born as Shudras and Dalits because they were supposed to have been born with dark, tamasic (pronounced "taamasik") souls, and so any knowledge given to them would only be misused for evil purposes. (True.) All the stuff you have described is only for privileged Brahmins. Also, you talk about how even the guru can be challenged by the disciple, but that's certainly not the case anywhere in India. Teachers do not like to be challenged, and that comes from Hindu culture. There was one chap who was working in Silicon Valley and decided to chuck it all to learn Hindustani music from a guru. The first thing his guru said was that you should never challenge the guru, accept everything he says, etc. (You're right in that in practice, gurus generally take offence at being challenged. The better ones take challenges in the right spirit. Vivekananda once followed Ramakrishna Paramahamsa at night to check if he was going to visit his wife, and the man just chuckled and said, "That's right, test your guru at every turn." That behaviour aligns with the philosophy. 99% of gurus probably wouldn't respond that positively.)
4. Hinduism's attitude towards conversion is largely because of the caste system. If you convert someone, which varNa (caste) are you going to put them in? And, historically, for more than 2000 years, Hinduism did not encounter foreign religions in any significant number, until the arrival of Christianity and Islam, and their initial response was like that of the Jews - we are the superior religion, you are "mlecchas" (outcastes, untouchables). Hinduism had so many adherents, they weren't interested in conversions. They took pains to kick people out when they didn't like them. (Yes, caste is a practical reason why conversion to Hinduism wouldn't work.)
5. Why is cyclic time any better than linear time? (Not "better", just more sophisticated. Linear time is like a story made up by a 6 year old, while cyclic time is like a story made up by a 12 year old. Both fairytales of course, but one is slightly more sophisticated than the other.)
6. Careful with your arguments about objective truth. A lot of [Hindu propagandists] use exactly this to justify anything under the sun. Especially the Advaita guys. All nonsense. (Any point made can be subverted and misused. I can't refrain from talking about this just because it could be used to justify random stuff.)
[If you liked this post, you may find these interesting too:
The Three Hinduisms
Fixing The Symbolism Of The Dashaavataar Mythology]