Religion’s landscape within the “Western world” has been influenced significantly by “Eastern” religious beliefs (primarily referring here to those of Hinduism and Buddhism). These beliefs interface with Christian beliefs, especially because Christianity has traditionally been the dominant religious tradition in Western countries.
The West’s Blended Religious Context: The Need for Religious Literacy
There is a need for an understanding of various religions in Western contexts, especially since religious literacy is low. One should acknowledge the growth of “foreign” religions in Western spaces and how this should motivate a desire for understanding.
There are likely several reasons for the growth of Eastern religious beliefs and worldviews in the West. One reason is an expansion in communication technologies that have reduced the world into a global village. New Age spiritualities, often considered a blend of Eastern religious practices and philosophies, are perhaps the leading phenomenon representative of this spiritual trend. These spiritualities have captured the minds of many younger people who find enjoyment in the mysteries of spiritualism, the supernatural, and the divine.
Many also wish to pursue spiritualities beyond the confines of traditional religion (in the West being some form of Christianity) in search of something diverse, mysterious, expressive, and foreign. This is demonstrated in a proliferation of materials and discourses in the form of books, videos, publically accessible symposiums, the increased frequency of discussions about the topic, the publication of foreign sacred texts (the Vedas, the Tao Te Ching, Analects, Sufi texts, etc.) once unknown to ordinary Westerners in bookstores, online prosperity teaching and marketing, and much else.
In light of the incredible blend of spiritualities and worldviews throughout the West, one unsurprisingly discovers differences between many of them and Christianity as commonly and traditionally understood. This leads to the question: How does Christianity, the religion of the majority, differ from these Eastern spiritualities and beliefs?
This article provides only a few examples.
Consider that the use of “Eastern religions” in the title is an overstatement as this article focuses only on Hinduism (a religion that emerged in the Indus civilization in the second millennium BCE and subsequently spread throughout India) and Buddhism (which emerged around the fifth century BCE in northeast India) in relation to Christianity (a religion that emerged in the wake of the nascent first century Jesus movement in Roman-occupied Palestine). Although Hinduism and Buddhism are indeed Eastern, this limitation does omit swathes of other religions such as Confucianism, Taoism, Jainism, and the various “indigenous” religions like Shinto of Japan, the religion and ancestor veneration of the Shang, and many others. These will be included in additional articles.
Pantheism versus Transcendence
In some Eastern worldviews, God does not transcend nature. This view is known as pantheism, which is the belief that God is part of or in some way joined to the natural, physical, and material world. Pantheism is monistic because it denies that there is any distinction between God or the Ultimate reality and the physical, material world.
Hindu scriptures, such as the Upanishads, refer to a transcendent Ultimate reality called brahman believed to permeate the universe and be the reality of all things. The Indian philosopher Adi Sankara (eighth century CE), reflecting on various Hindu sacred texts, articulated this systematically and postulated a radical non-dualism. There is, he argued, a core to each individual self (atman) that is brahman. Essentially, there is no difference between atman and brahman.
Pantheism and monism are distinguishable from Christian theism’s concept of God in which God fully transcends the world, time, and space, and is responsible for creation. God is not therefore creation or the world itself but is believed to have existed before it and will continue to exist after its destruction. Christian sacred texts also ascribe attributes to God which are placed under the umbrella terms of omniscience (all-knowing), omnipotence (all-powerful), and omnipresence (all-present).
Non-Theism versus Theism
Buddhism is a non-theistic religion in the sense that its adherents do not believe in the existence of a Supreme Being or Creator God. Buddhism does, however, acknowledge the existence of various supernatural beings called devas, many of whom were incorporated into its mythology from Hinduism and the Vedic pantheon of deities. Originally it was thirty-three deities but the number rapidly expanded soon after.
Buddhists believe that gods and supernatural beings live in one of the numerous heavens where they are reborn as a result of good karma. Mt. Meru, a cosmic mountain, features prominently as the location where they dwell. In the mythology, these gods frequently visit the human world.
Buddhists appeal to the gods for good fortune and protection, notably via offerings and sacrifices. These deities boast lifespans of hundreds of thousands of years but yet remain within the samsaric cycle of life, death, and rebirth, which is a major contrast between them and the Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, who is believed to have attained true enlightenment during his lifetime.
Buddhism’s non-theistic perspective contrasts noticeably with the traditional Christian conception of deity. An apparent difference is that a Supreme Being exists who, Christians believe, personally revealed himself over the course of human history described in the biblical texts and which culminated in the person of Jesus Christ of the first century CE.
Additionally, God is absolutely other and transcendent over the world, time, and space, and is not therefore victim or subject to any phenomenon akin to the samsaric cycle of death and rebirth as Buddhists conceive of it. Instead, the Christian God has complete power over all creation and its processes, which means no aspect of creation has any power over him. Human beings, on the other hand, are finite, limited creatures over whom creation and its natural processes have power, as is apparent in the misfortune of destruction upon human lives by natural calamities and disasters, death itself, and various biological viruses and illnesses. Notably, the Buddha himself observed these harsh existential realities of human existence during his lifetime which proved the catalyst for his teaching career.
Personal versus Impersonal Being or Ultimate Reality
As observed above, Hindu literature presents the notion of brahman, the Ultimate reality. brahman is not, however, personal but rather impersonal. For Hindus, the desire is to escape the repeated cycle of rebirth and find absorption and release in brahman. But brahman is not considered a personal being because it does not have a personality to which human beings can relate.
For Christians, however, God is a person. He has a personality, emotions, likes, and dislikes. He is interested in what human beings do and he also freely manifests himself within his creation with the aim of interacting with human beings for whatever purpose he wishes to do so.
God is also understood to be personally related to human beings in their rational cognition and moral awareness. Theologians reason that this is the natural deduction from human beings being made in the image of God, which is a fundamental Christian doctrine.
Most prominent for Christians is God’s personal relation to humanity through the person of Jesus Christ who is considered humanity’s Lord and Savior. Because God is considered to care for human beings and wishes them to find salvation from sin’s destruction, he made this possible by entering into his creation through the incarnation of Jesus. Christians believe that Jesus was (and is) sinless and because of this his death by crucifixion on a Roman cross makes salvation possible.
Monotheism versus Polytheism
The three Abrahamic religions affirm strict monotheism by affirming the existence of only one all-powerful deity. All the other gods of historical and contemporary religions do not exist or are considered nefarious supernatural forces that do really exist but are not God or of God. For Christians, the God of the Bible and Jesus is the one True God of the universe and all creation.
There is a range of supernatural agencies in the Christian New Testament but there is no concept of a pantheon of deities. A little background context is needed. The earliest Hebrew belief was monolatric, which is a form of polytheism that affirms that although many gods exist only one is supreme and worthy of worship. For the Jews, this God is Yahweh. The prophet Isaiah of the eighth century BCE gives the first biblical description of strict monotheism when he revealed God saying: “I am the first and I am the last; beside me there is no God” (44:6). Christianity has adopted this monotheistic conception of deity.
But for many Hindus, as was the case for the ancient Greeks and Romans, there are many gods who exist. These gods exist and do so within hierarchies. Often these pantheons constitute gods in familial structures and many stories are told about them and their relations between each other and with human beings.
Western academic terms such as “polytheism” are often difficult to apply to non-Western religious beliefs and do not necessarily fit well with them. Despite that, one can view certain phases of Hinduism as being polytheistic yet still affirming a Supreme Being as the focus of devotion. The many gods in the pantheon are also viewed as aspects of the Supreme Being.
The gods of Hinduism came to Earth in the form of various avatars to aid human beings. A well-known example comes from the Bhagavad Gita, another sacred Hindu text, which narrates a story about a conflict called the Battle of Kurukshetra. The major character is Arjuna, a member of the Kshatriya class (the warrior or ruling elite in the Hindu varna) who fronts up against another branch of his family over a dispute on who should rule the kingdom. However, he is despairing over the prospect of killing his relatives and those he respects on the opposing side.
But to keep him on the right path, Arjuna is encouraged by his charioteer, Krishna, who is an avatar of the god Vishnu. Krishna is there to encourage Arjuna to stay committed to his duty as a member of the Kshatriya class by engaging his opponents in battle.
Some of the most important Hindu deities are Brahma (the creator of the world and living things), Shiva (destroyer of the world and who is worshiped by Shaivites as the supreme god), Vishnu (worshiped by Vaishnavas), Lakshmi (goddess of wealth and good fortune), and the goddess Devi.
Becoming One with God Versus God’s Absolute Transcendence
Many Eastern conceptions differ significantly from the Christian God concept on the topic of becoming one with God or the Ultimate Reality.
Proponents often claim that all human beings are inherently divine but just do not realize it or that this truth has been overlaid and obscured by religious doctrines that were corrupted. The true spiritual goal is to attain perfect oneness with this divine being or Ultimate reality.
Hindus believe that by attaining knowledge of the self (atman), it is possible to become one with brahman or the Ultimate reality. Many New Age spiritualities embedded within the West today are inspired by these beliefs, have appropriated them, and maintain that there exists a kind of metaphysical energy with which the individual can become one.
In Christianity, however, human beings, although made in the image of God, are not God or inherently divine in the sense of being God. Human beings boast some traits of God although God is fully and wholly distinct in his goodness, being, and essence from them.
There is also no notion within Christianity of becoming one with God, although Christians believe that they will spend eternity in heaven in his presence. Many Christians believe that they can draw nearer to God through certain practices. Not unlike Eastern traditions, meditation is considered important during which the individual contemplates and pays full attention to God.
Conception of the Afterlife
A distinction between Buddhism and Christianity is apparent in their concepts of an afterlife.
The Buddha taught that life is suffering as it entails sickness, degradation, and death. However, one can overcome these circumstances by attaining nirvana or enlightenment, which the Buddha is believed to have attained according to traditional, legendary accounts. Similarly, Christians agree that life entails suffering. Suffering is the result of sin entering creation but it shall cease and be absent in heaven.
The major distinction, however, is that Christianity contains a doctrine of an eternal afterlife which the Bible describes using numerous metaphors, images, and symbols. The soul continues to exist after the death and destruction of the physical body. But no such afterlife conception of an eternal realm exists within Buddhism.
Instead, Buddhism posits twenty-six heavenly worlds, although the number slightly varies in different schools. These heavens are not eternal like the Christian afterlife but are impermanent states that entail one being reborn in different realms. The ultimate goal of the Buddhist is therefore not heaven, but nirvana. Further, the Buddha often described the state of nirvana in apophatic terms by describing what it is not. It becomes apparent that whatever it is, it is not heaven as conceived in the Christian sense.
Conception of the Universe
Christianity and Hinduism differ in their conceptions of the universe, especially of its beginning.
The Rigveda, the oldest of Hinduism’s sacred texts, describes the sacrifice of Purusha, a primal being whose cut-up body parts become the elements of the universe. Noteworthy is that his dismemberment also becomes the template for social order in the form of the four varnas or classes of Indian society. This creation account does not affirm the creation of something out of nothing but instead rearrangement. Purusha eventually became synonymous with the Ultimate reality, brahman, and atman.
Another account depicts a cyclical process. The god Brahma, through his thoughts, created the universe which passes through cycles, each of which contains four yugas (Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dwapar Yuga, and Kali Yuga) or periods, of time. Numbers ascribed to these cycles are large ranging from the millions to the billions. It is believed that humanity currently lives in the fourth yuga, the Kali Yuga, which is permeated with immoralities and calamities. Shiva will destroy the universe and Brahma will once again create it.
Whereas Hindus believe in an eternal universe and not one that had a finite beginning at some point in the past, Christians, based on teachings in the book of Genesis of the Old Testament, maintain that the universe had a finite beginning. It is God who, as an all-powerful creator, made the “heavens and the earth” at the very beginning of time. The universe is not therefore eternal and is not repeatedly created and destroyed in a cyclical process but one that had a beginning and will have an end.
Significance of Historical Religious Figures
Many religions have founding figures who are for various reasons considered important. The Buddha founded Buddhism, Chou Tun-i (and a few others) established neo-Confucianism, Christianity emerged from the early Jesus movement, and Muhammad founded Islam during his tumultuous period in Mecca.
What makes Christianity distinct from many Eastern religious traditions is the emphasis on the historicity of many of its figures and, most importantly, Jesus Christ. The Hindus, on the other hand, have their divinely inspired stories communicated by the ancient Rishis and it does not therefore matter that there is no (known) founding figure of the religion itself. The veracity of Hinduism’s many claims does not depend on a single individual.
For Buddhists, even if the Buddha had not existed or taught what he did, some other ascetic figure would have discovered the same truths about reality needed for attaining enlightenment and then impart them to his followers. Many Mahayana Buddhists believe in countless individuals (buddhas) who have attained enlightenment and figures such as bodhisattvas who, although having attained enlightenment, decide to stay in the world to aid others in their journey.
Christianity is viewed differently. Jesus is presented as a historical figure who proclaimed the coming Kingdom of God to his audiences. He described his ministerial purpose as needing to sacrifice himself to rescue sinners in order to make them pure in the sight of a holy God. This ministry, although often legendary and highly theologized in the Gospels, took place in time and space. It is embedded within a very real first-century Roman-Jewish historical context and is connected to various historical persons and locations. The New Testament further depicts Jesus perishing by a socially shameful death in the form of a brutal Roman crucifixion outside Jerusalem.
The Christian will admit that the message of Jesus being Lord and Savior of humanity falls apart if Jesus was not a historical figure or if, as a historical figure, he did not historically die on a Roman cross and later be raised from the dead by God in vindication of his claims as the Gospel describe happened.
A final difference is that Hinduism and Buddhism affirm reincarnation in that the individual is entangled in the process of repeated rebirth. The process is considered negative and the goal for the individual is to escape it. As noted, for Hindus, the goal is to escape and find union with the Ultimate reality, brahman. For Buddhists, it can only be escaped by attaining enlightenment through the acceptance of the Four Nobel Truths and a rigorous application of the Eightfold Path.
No similar concept exists in traditional Christian views and interpretations of their scriptures. Christians claim the Bible teaches that the individual will die once. A verse from the New Testament book of Hebrews is often cited: “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (9:27). There is no “second chance” for moral improvement or for an attempt to gain salvation. How the individual will be judged by a holy God will be determined by how that individual lived his or her one life on Earth and whether or not he or she accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior as God’s means of saving them from retribution.