Prayer guide controversy reveals worldwide influence of Hinduism

ALPHARETTA, GA. (BP)--As a native of India and a former Hindu, N.S.R.K. Ravi is ideally suited to coordinate interfaith evangelism training on Hinduism for the North American Mission Board. And when a prayer guide for Hindus recently was released by the International Mission Board, he knew perhaps better than most what the response might be.

What the controversy has illustrated, Ravi said, is the growing dominance of Philosophical Hinduism on the worldwide stage -- particularly its influence on western New Age philosophy. Under this paradigm, all paths to God are acceptable -- except those that do not hold the same inclusive view.

"By traveling the country for five years I could not have raised this much awareness," said Ravi, an associate on NAMB's interfaith evangelism team. "God in his sovereign wisdom is going to do something good out of this. At least our people will be aware of the increasing Hindu population in the United States and their influence on society and religious belief, and be able to pray for them more effectively."

The IMB booklet that has been the target of so much criticism describes Hindus as "more than 900 million people lost in the hopeless darkness of Hinduism." It goes on to say: "Pray that Hindus, who celebrate the festival of lights (known as Divali), would become aware of the darkness in their hearts that no lamp can dispel."

Protests have since erupted in various cities, including one at Second Baptist Church of Houston and another in Atlanta. Also, several Hindu and Indian-American organizations have complained to government officials expressing outrage at the assertions.

The IMB has since issued a statement expressing regret about the reaction, while explaining its intent. "The language in the prayer guide was chosen to communicate to Southern Baptists, not Hindus," the statement said, "and the truths in it, as we understand them, are rooted in the Bible, the book we believe to be God's revealed Word.

"It is distressing to us that elements of the guide may have offended our Hindu neighbors and for that we are profoundly sorry. We understand that the good news of God's saving love in Jesus, the Savior, may be offensive to some but never was it our intent to express that love in an offensive way."

Ravi, who holds a Ph.D. in missions and theology, said part of the uproar is due to the multifaceted nature of Hinduism itself. It is based on a collection of sacred writings spanning a period of almost 2000 years.

While Popular Hinduism, for instance, includes the worship of as many as 330 million different gods, the vocal opponents of the prayer guide have been adherents of Philosophical Hinduism. For them, Hinduism is a universal message for mankind, and their god at least in some sense is monotheistic -- a pantheistic/New Age concept of god as the sum of all consciousness.

"I even had a conversation just an hour ago with a follower of Popular Hinduism, and he did not see [the prayer guide's assertions] as offensive at all," Ravi said. "He was basically saying everyone has a right to practice their own religion."

Adding to the response has been the growing political power of the Hindu culture worldwide, as well as the Hindus' sense of moral outrage at an American "Christian" culture that they see as anything but reflective of a high moral standard.

"The questions I'm getting are things like, 'What kind of moral authority do you have to say we are in the dark?'" Ravi said. His answers, of course, have centered on the fact that both the proclamation of an exclusive gospel and prayer are simply inseparable from Christian faith and practice.

"What they are saying is you should not proclaim the gospel to Hindus, and that's not true at all," Ravi said. "It is mandated from the Lord to proclaim the gospel and to pray, which is part of practicing the Christian faith."

In Ravi's own life, the foundational Hindu beliefs in karma and reincarnation convinced him that the true "light" actually was found in the eternal forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

At three years old he was stricken with polio, rendering him a paraplegic. And as he grew up -- even within his own family -- he felt clearly the rejection of those who did not want to associate with someone who so obviously had angered the gods.

"Gradually I started noticing subtle rejections of my presence in family gatherings," he said. "On certain ritualistic occasions, my presence was not desired, and they even felt that my presence would bring bad results."

As a teenager in India, his hatred toward his family and the gods grew. Then one day a street evangelist in India told him how God really loved him. Ravi had always been told that gods get angry if he didn't please them. The evangelist explained God's provision for eternal forgiveness of sin through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, God who came to earth as man.

Ravi rejected the story initially, but it began 14 months of study and searching that ended with his acceptance of Christ.

"One statement [the evangelist] made that I could not wipe off of my mind from that entire conversation was this: 'When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up' (Psalm 27:10). For several months … these words were ringing in my ears. I did not remember anything else. Now I know it was God the Holy Sprit who engraved the Word of God on my heart to show that he truly loved me."

Ravi initially was rejected by his family -- made an outcast -- because of his decision to accept Christ. He was from a high caste and a wealthy family, and Christians were automatically forced into the lowest of the castes. But after 17 years, his parents -- who still live in India -- also became followers of Christ.

Ravi said he tries to use sensitive language when talking with Hindus so as not to alienate them.

"Like many religions, Hinduism has some spiritual truth -- by natural revelation of God to every man as revealed in Psalm 19," Ravi said. "It's like the blind man touching the elephant. He knows one part of it, but not all of it."


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