Repentance, Sinfulness and Hinduism

Let me take the opportunity today to share with you all a question that I recently received from a friend engaged in work among South Asian Hindus in a North American city.  Since responding to this email, I’ve found myself feeling the need to share my response with several others.  Perhaps, you also will find reflecting on this question and my response to be helpful.

First, here is the question that I received:

Dear Cody,

Yesterday evening at our church prayer meeting, I mentioned my plan for this Sunday's lesson, and someone prayed that the [South Asians we are reaching out to] would repent of following after the wrong gods and turn to Jesus.

That got me to thinking about the issue of repentance. Without some understanding of the need for repentance, what does "following Jesus" mean? I acknowledge that God meets people where they are; whatever small steps we may take towards Him are all valuable. The Holy Spirit initiates everything, and in fact, "No man can come to the Father unless the Father draws him."

Still, when you have a moment, please share your thoughts on the place of repentance in coming to Christ. My sense is that when we mention the word "sin" "sins", Hindus think of really awful things like murder, and do not think of themselves as sinners. One Sunday I was with the children in the church's "Children's Church" program, and each child was to draw the silhouette of his/her hand on a piece of paper, then write on it one sin they had committed and then tack the hand onto a large cross. The Hindu children denied everything! They did not lie; they did not take someone else's things; they obeyed their parents.

When we were in South Asia, it seemed to us that Hindus thought of sin in terms of failures in their religious ritual observances. The moral sins they seemed to gloss over as "mistakes." These were excused more readily.

It's great sharing with you, but perhaps I should not trouble you...

 Jaya Masihi,

[A Friend]

And now, my response:

Dear Friend,

I appreciate the chance to hear your reflections on these things.  Of course, the issue of how repentance fits into salvation isn’t exclusively a South Asian one.  That is, I don’t know that people from Hindu backgrounds are especially handicapped in understanding their need for a savior, their sinfulness, etc.  Honestly, this subject is one that I’ve wrestled with in every ministry context I’ve been in – Americans, Chinese, Burmese, Ethiopians, Nepalis, etc.  How repentant does a person need to be?  How sinful do they need to think they are?  I’m not even sure if I’ve really figured this out in my own heart as it applies to my own life.
Nevertheless, there are a few thoughts that come to mind that I think might be helpful for you to reflect upon.  I know I could write pages on all these, but I’m going to try to make myself be brief.

Centered Set v. Bounded Set

The first thing I’d point you towards is Paul Hiebert’s work regarding “Centered” and “Bounded” sets.  You may be familiar with this already, but I’ve found it extraordinarily helpful in thinking about my mission field.  It helps me to forget about drawing artificial lines between who is saved and who is not – as if I can know.  It reminds me of my call to make disciples rather than converts.  From this view, repentance no longer becomes a question that primarily bears upon a person’s “profession of faith”.  Rather, it is an issue of critical importance throughout the life of that disciple.  From this perspective, I am reminded that for Shanti (a new follower of Jesus) to turn away from false gods was not just something that she did.  It is something that she must do, continually and for the rest of her life.

If the concept of centered and bounded sets is unfamiliar to you, I strongly suggest that you check out the following resources.  First, there is Hiebert’s original, ground-breaking article.  Second, you can watch this brief summary video on the topic.

Guilt, Shame, Fear
Repentance is an appropriate emphasis that really does transcend cultures.  However, it may be the case that Western theology has tended to favor a particular interpretation of “metanoia” that emphasizes “guilt/innocence” in a way that is difficult for people from other cultures to quickly grasp.  Here’s the announcement of Jesus:

“καὶ λέγων ὅτι πεπλήρωται ὁ καιρὸς καὶ ἤγγικεν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ: μετανοεῖτε καὶ πιστεύετε ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ.”

“The time is fulfilled.  The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe the gospel.”  (Mark 1:15).

We could translate the last sentence more literally as, “Change your mind and believe in the gospel.”  Certainly a mind-change about behavioral morality should be a part of that, but must that be the primary emphasis?  What if the person we are sharing with can much more easily grasp the concept of shame and honor?  Of fear and freedom and power?  I think a key is to come to understand what is the “bad news” as, in this case, South Asians understand it.  Where has sin and Satan taken hold of the people and the culture?  This is the point where we must preach the gospel vigorously.  I recommend taking a look at chapter 5 of my book Ethnographic Chicago, which talks about spiritual conflict in a folk Hindu context.  I guess my point is that rather than work so hard to get Ethiopians, Nepalis, Pakistanis, or Burmese to agree with us as to what their problem is and why they need a Savior, why not discover what they already believe to be the problem?  Why do they think they need a savior?  Whatever the answer is found to be, does the gospel say anything about that?  Did Jesus die for that?

Sinfulness in Hinduism
On the issue of sin itself.  If I find myself in a situation where I have a Hindu telling me that they aren’t sinful, I need to find a humble way to explain Hinduism to them a little better.  Let me explain.  Some time ago, I got word that a few of the older men in our Nepali community were feeling hesitant to continue coming to our Satsangs because of our frequent use and broad application of the Sanskrit/Nepali term “paapi” (meaning “sinner”).  I came to understand that this term had a very narrow application among Nepalis.  It referred to criminals and to the absolute dregs of society.  Once I discovered this, I took the time to teach about the word from a Biblical perspective.  I warned against the dangers of comparisons and told the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  The story, which I told in a very interactive way, was very well-received.  I also used that teaching time to remind everyone of a famous Hindu mantra.  It was a mantra that most were somewhat familiar with, though many have not taken the time to consider the meaning.  The most memorable line of the mantra goes like this:

“Paapoham paapakarmaanam paapaatmaa paapasambuva”

Which means, “I am a sinner by birth and deeds, my soul is depraved by sin; I am conceived in sin.”  John Calvin couldn’t have said it better himself.  I also had a conversation personally with a Hindu man about this topic.  I found that he was hesitant to disagree with Jesus’ assessment of his soul.  And he seemed downright embarrassed to discover that a mantra he had heard all his life confirmed the fact that he indeed was a sinner.  Of course, it still doesn’t mean that he’s going to understand sin primarily as an issue of guilt that must be atoned for or misdeeds that must be confessed.  He may more easily conceive of sin resulting in shame and separation from God and/or leading to his victimization by and bondage to evil spirits.  I’m okay with that.  What I’m praying for is that he’ll see his need to be saved – his need for God’s Muktidata (salvation-giver).

Airport Pick Up

Let me close with a story that illustrates well for me what I think needs to happen in people’s hearts:
It was a Tuesday, a couple weeks ago. I was in the international terminal at Chicago O’Hare awaiting the arrival of flight 37 from Seoul which carried a bunch of Koreans and a few Bhutanese-Nepali refugee families. I was there to pick up a young Hindu couple who I end up being related to through my Nepali sister’s family. Anyway, we had to wait a long time for them to clear customs and I found myself pacing back and forth throughout the terminal.

Well, I walked all the way down to the far end of the building and then pivoted back towards the area where some of my Nepali friends were sitting (they had come to help me greet the new arrivals). They were sitting in an area near an escalator that led to the intra-airport train that took people to domestic terminals. As I began making my way back to that seating area, I saw a small group of people quickly emerge from one of the gates and hurriedly proceed towards the escalator. Leading the group was a middle-aged woman wearing a blue IOM (International Office of Migration) vest and rather impatiently commanding her followers to hurry along. She was followed by a young (mid to late twenties) Nepali couple who were each holding small children (toddlers) in their arms. The husband was mustached, maybe 29, and speedily walking about 10 paces behind the IOM worker. He was intently following, occasionally giving a nervous look back to his wife who was perhaps another 10 steps behind him. The IOM worker was halfway up the steps before the Nepali man reached the bottom of the mysterious moving staircase. He hesitated for a couple seconds and then, prompted by the impatient IOM worker, lunged onto the first step.

A few seconds later, his wife reached the escalator. I was now maybe 20 yards away and saw her look down at the moving stairs and simply freeze. Somehow, in that second, I knew her. She was my sister. She was Nepal. She was all nations. She was Jesus. I knew her heart. And I was Jesus. And I was the Church. And I was her brother. And I was my same old sinful self.

I moved quickly now as I heard the IOM worker, now at the top of the escalator, somewhat angrily barking at the woman to come up the stairs. I saw her husband looking back helplessly as the machine carried him further and further away from his bride. In seconds, I was standing at her side. “Topailai dar lagyo?” I asked gently. She turned to see a big, white American speaking to her in her heart language. Her eyes were filled with tears, her face was simple and pretty, her arms were tired from holding her baby for hours – she exuded fear from her whole being. And yet, without even a tinge of surprise to hear me speaking Nepali and with absolute trust, she replied, “Yes,” with a graceful tilting of her head.

I reached my arm over the handrail that divided us and firmly gripped her right arm. Her small frame gave off no resistance as I gently but forcefully led her forward. In a second, she was on the step. A few seconds later, she was gone – off to face an airport train, a connecting flight, and countless other scary and imposing challenges.  I took a deep breath and turned towards my Nepali friends. Only one word came to my mind, “Bichaara.” I figure that there is no good English word for this. It means something like, “I feel pity and love and compassion with and for that person.”

I have not been able to escape that moment. Those few seconds, for some reason, landed so powerfully upon me. Later in the day, I couldn’t help but cry as I relayed the story to my wife. My feeling has been that somehow, God was able to compress everything that I am into that one interaction. That is who I am. That is who I want to be. That is what I want my life to consist of.

The following Sunday I relayed that story to our community during the Satsang.  Then I explained that sin leaves us in the condition of that young woman.  Scared, paralyzed, helpless, separated from the one who loves us (God).  We look down at the moving steps and realize that we can do nothing, absolutely nothing to close the gap between ourselves and God.  Then there is a voice in our ears.  “Are you afraid?” it asks.  And that’s Jesus.  And he’s down at the ground-level with us.  And he has learned to speak our language.  We are afraid.  But, just like that young woman, we have an opportunity to trust him.  And if we say, “Yes," if we trust our lives to him, he’ll reach out a gentle and firm hand and take us to our Father.    

Well, so much for brevity.  Thank you for reading through my Blog-pistle today.  May the Lord bless you as you serve Him!


  1. I have been on both sides of that feeling. Felt afraid and grateful for,loving, gentle help. Seen another in fear, and been able to help. Tx for the story, it spoke to my hdeart

    1. Thanks for your feedback! Blessings to you.

  2. I have been on both sides of that feeling. Felt afraid and grateful for,loving, gentle help. Seen another in fear, and been able to help. Tx for the story, it spoke to my hdeart