How to Explain the Incarnation to Hindus

Almost ten years ago, with a title inexplicably branded in simple Papyrus font, James Cameron’s Avatar busted the box offices. This cinematic creation presents an accurate depiction of the Hindu concept of a being’s incarnation from one world to another.

According to Hinduism, an avatar—pronounced, “of tar”—is a figure that embodies or represents deity in a tangible form. Hindus usually recognize ten avatars. All ten are found in Hindu religious writings and all are incarnations of Hinduism’s great god Vishnu. His avatar forms are many, from a boar to a dwarf to a human man.

“The incarnation really is uniquely good news of great joy for all people precisely because the same one who was our infant Lord is still our reigning king.”

The most widely proliferated Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, tells the story of one of those avatar appearances. The main character is Lord Krishna, the charioteer for a beleaguered soldier, Arjuna, to whom he offers poetic wartime wise counsel. Krishna’s message to Arjuna is that he must do his duty as a soldier and bring justice upon those who oppose him across the field. Avatars like Krishna abound throughout the volumes and volumes of Hindu sacred texts.

The Common Question from Hindus: Is Jesus an Avatar?

The English sci-fi novelist Aldous Huxley famously compared the Hindu avatar concept with Christ’s incarnation in his 1945 book, The Perennial Philosophy. Huxley had been deeply influenced by Hinduism, and it’s quite natural to see how he and Hindus today are reminded of the godmen from their holy stories whenever they hear of God taking on flesh and dwelling among us.

Since Huxley’s time, others have noted more points of similarity. Religious scholar Geoffrey Parrinder explained in 1970, “That God has personal relationships with man, and appears in the world through a human form, is common ground to Hinduism and Christianity, and here at least they are closer to each other than to other religions.” Like Parrinder, Catholic theologian Pavulraj Michael drew no distinction between Hindu and Christian incarnations and suggested that both the Hindu avatar concept and Jesus’s incarnation reveal God’s personal love and concern for humanity and the whole cosmos.

Such connections are not only drawn by authors and academics. It’s common for Hindus everywhere to hear about Jesus and equate him with an avatar. Some believe he was an incarnation of Vishnu while others believe he was another version of Vishnu’s avatar, Krishna. “Yes, we believe in the same thing!” they exclaim when told the story of Christ’s birth.

Three Distinctions, Three Pieces of Good News

As we reflect missionally on Christ’s incarnation this Christmas season, we should be keenly aware of how the coming of Jesus may resonate in the ears of our Hindu friends and neighbors. Contrary to what our friends may think, the avatar-incarnation comparison is not as simple as it may seem. There are three main distinctions between the Hindu and Christian beliefs of an incarnation.

The first is that Hindus claim many divine incarnations have appeared throughout history, while Christians have traditionally viewed Jesus as unique—the only begotten Son of God. The notion that there have been many avatars yet only one Christ exhibits Jesus’s uniqueness in the hearts of those familiar with the multitude of Hindu avatars. His coming was perfect in purpose and sufficient in providing right teaching and a restored relationship to God.

“Jesus’s coming was perfect in purpose and sufficient in providing right teaching and a restored relationship to God.”

The second distinction we can discuss is the purpose of avatars and the purpose of Christ. The general purpose of an avatar is to restore righteousness by destroying the wicked and protecting the good. This idea of destroying the wicked is very different from the Christian message that Jesus came to save sinners and is not willing that any should perish. Romans 3 and 6 tell us that we’re all wicked and our sin should be met with destruction. If Christ was just another avatar in Hindu theology, he would not be on our side.

But Scripture also teaches that Christ died for sinful people from every tribe, tongue, and nation nonetheless. “Furthermore,” explains Subin Raj of the Indian Evangelical Lutheran Church, “avatars never take away sin. Taking away sin is not their way of acting and not their purpose for coming to earth. On the contrary, the purpose of Jesus’s incarnation is to take away sins and lead people to salvation.” The uniquely beautiful message of the incarnate Christ is that he came and dwelt among us to redeem that which had been corrupted.

The third distinction—one I think is the most impactful for us to remember as we discuss the incarnation with our Hindu loved ones this Christmas season—is Christ’s eternal purpose. In his article, Raj went on to explain that “An avatar has nothing to do after his duty is completed. He will be killed or dies and goes back to his previous existence. . . . But the incarnated Jesus is always understood as being ‘with us’ (Immanuel) and sits at the right hand (session) of God.”

Our Christmas Opportunity

Mission-minded Christians are occasionally accused of skipping over the manger to get to the empty tomb in a gospel presentation, but in this case, I think the events of Christ’s birth and resurrection can’t help but go hand-in-hand. The incarnation really is uniquely good news of great joy for all people precisely because the same one who was our infant Lord is still our reigning king.

This Christmas, let’s warmly engage our Hindu friends with the whole gospel. Their complex worldview and faith surely make room for an encounter with our God-King who took on flesh. The avatar concept paves the way for their experience of the incarnate Christ, but our glad tidings go so, so much further.


Caleb Cohen serves as a church planter with his wife and daughter in South Asia.


Sources

Huxley, Aldous. The Perennial Philosophy. New York, London: Harper & Brothers, 1945.

Long, Jeffery D. “Universal Avatār: A Hindu Theology of Divine Incarnation in the Tradition of Sri Ramakrishna.” Studies in Interreligious Dialogue 22, no. 2 (2012): 170–85.

Michael, Pavulraj. “Avatar and Incarnation: Gita Spirituality and Ignatian Spirituality at the Crossroads.” Gregorianum 97, no. 2 (2016): 323–42.

Noel, Sheth. “Hindu Avatāra and Christian Incarnation: A Comparison.” Philosophy East and West, no. 1 (2002): 98.

Parrinder, Geoffrey. Avatar and Incarnation. Wilde Lectures in Natural and Comparative Religion. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970.

Raj, Subin. “Why Jesus Is Not an Avatar: A Critique of the Indian Hindu and Christian Incarnation Idea of Jesus as ‘Avatar’ on the Basis of Nicene Affirmation for Future Missions.” Missio Apostolica 22, no. 1 (May 2014): 94–108.