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South Asian Understandings of the Holy Spirit - An Excerpt from South Asia Bible Commentary

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South Asia Bible CommentaryThe South Asia Bible Commentary is unique in that it is written by South Asian scholars for South Asian readers. Not only a one volume commentary on the whole Bible, this new resource includes ninety articles, many of them focused on building a bridge between Biblical teaching and life in modern South Asia. Ivan Satyavrata contributes this fascinating survey of how the Holy Spirit is understood within Asian culture.

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In view of the ancient tradition of spirituality in the Indian subcontinent, the subject of the Holy Spirit occupies a place of prominence in South Asian spirituality. South Asians very naturally tend to think of God as spirit. Sanskrit, the language of the Hindu tradition that dominates South Asia, is rich with “spirit” terminology such as atman (spirit, soul) and its cognates paramatman (supreme spirit), antaratman (inner spirit), jivatman (human spirit), antaryamin (inner ruler), sakti (power) and adhyatmikta (spirituality).

Inasmuch as Brahman (ultimate reality) is identified with the paramatman, ultimate reality is understood in essentially spiritual terms. Much of Hindu religion focuses on the relation of the atman (human spirit) to the paramatman. Spirituality thus pervades all of Hindu philosophy and culture. Mystical spirituality likewise permeates the various offshoots of Hinduism that today are other religions such as Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Although less prominent, the Sufi tradition within Islam in the subcontinent is also steeped in mystical spirituality.

While this positive orientation to spirituality within the dominant religious culture offers opportunities for Christian witness in South Asia, it also presents some serious hazards. The danger arises largely due to the fundamental difference between the Christian view of God as a tri-personal being and the veiled agnosticism within the Hindu conception of God. There are primarily two traditions in classical Hindu thought: one, the advaitic tradition, speaks of the Absolute as an impersonal Spirit, and the other, the bhakti tradition, speaks of a personal God. However, in contemporary Hinduism the personalist bhakti strand is often subordinated to the traditional advaitic view and treated as an essentially inferior conception, a concession to the popular devotion of the untutored masses. Alternatively, the absolutist and personalist ideas of God are treated as complementary truths – culturally conditioned expressions of the same ultimate mystery, with the personalist conception subsumed within the dominant advaitic view.

Whereas the highest conception of God in Hinduism is that of the impersonal absolute, nirguna Brahman, Christians affirm that, despite the limitations of human language, in speaking of God as tri-personal we are speaking of God as he really is. This fundamental difference in our understandings of the nature of God shapes the distinctive orientations of Christian and Hindu spirituality. We will observe this tension in a brief survey of Spirit theology and spirituality in the reflections of select South Asian Christian thinkers.

The first South Asians to reflect seriously upon Christian theological themes were not Christians but pioneers of the Hindu Renaissance in India. Ram Mohan Roy vehemently opposed the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and totally rejected any idea of the Holy Spirit’s personality. He regarded the Spirit as neither self-existent nor a distinct personality, seeing it merely as the holy influence and power of God by which humans are guided in the path of righteousness.

Keshab Chandra Sen drew on the Vedantic concept of Saccidananda in his exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity. In Sen’s idea of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is the presence and activity of God focused in Jesus Christ, the transforming activity of God the Sanctifier and Saviour.

Nehemiah Goreh affirms orthodox belief concerning the person of the Holy Spirit: the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God and the third person of the Trinity. According to Goreh, the language of Scripture clearly shows that the Holy Spirit is God and not merely a creature. A. J. Appasamy uses the word antaryamin (inner ruler) to denote the Holy Spirit – the immanent God dwelling in all. But despite Appasamy’s adoption of the bhakti philosophical framework, his approach to Christian mysticism reveals a clear tendency to accommodate the advaitic impersonalist framework.

P. Chenchiah uses the terms mahasakti (great power) or sakti (power) in referring to the Holy Spirit. He was convinced that the traditional Hindu understanding of sakti as personalised divine energy prepares the way for a fresh interpretation of the Holy Spirit that is both Christian and indigenous to South Asia. Chenchiah does not distinguish between Christ and the Holy Spirit, whom he regards simply as “the Universal Jesus”. The Holy Spirit is thus not a person but “the new cosmic energy”, the dynamic means by which the lives of believers and the entire cosmos is being transformed and incorporated into Christ, the new creation.

The Holy Spirit is also the starting point of V. Chakkarai’s thought and Christology. He, too, does not distinguish between Jesus and the Holy Spirit: the Holy Spirit is simply Jesus Christ indwelling the human personality. He identifies the Holy Spirit with the risen, living Christ at work in the world today, and sees its work as an ongoing aspect of Christ’s incarnation (avatara). Chakkarai tries to affirm that the Spirit is both personal and impersonal, but for him the “Christ of experience” whom we now worship is a “universal spirit”, clearly outside the realm of human personality…

From even this brief survey it seems obvious that there is a natural tendency in South Asian spirituality to think of God as spirit in abstract, rather than to conceive of the Holy Spirit as God. This is largely due to the dominance of advaita in Hindu thought and the impersonalist conception of the Absolute holding a greater attraction than a personal God for both Hindu and Christian thinkers alike. The influence of the personalist bhakti Hindu strand may, however, be observed in many grass-roots Christian movements. The popular Christian piety in mainline churches, in many evangelical churches and in house church movements is frequently characterized by elements of bhakti devotional worship. This is especially evident in the growing Pentecostal and charismatic church and mission movements, within which expressions of Christian bhakti worship are accompanied by healing, exorcism, prophecy and speaking in tongues.

Thus, while the Holy Spirit is very welcome and at work in South Asia, Christian spirituality in South Asia must recapture a profound sense of the Holy Spirit’s “holy-ness”. There is a critical need for the reverent realisation, based on biblical truth, that the Holy Spirit is not just an impersonal celestial force or an abstract link between the Father and the Son, nor should he be confused with the human spirit or any presence or influence already present in human beings. He is the dynamic, personal, Holy Spirit of Christ – the khrista-sakti, who comes from the Father, through the Son, to indwell and empower those who confess Jesus as Lord. (pgs 1437-8)

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Read more insights like this as well as commentary on Scripture with a purchase of The South Asia Bible Commentary, which is now available.

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