Three days ago, as I was boarding a packed plane to Colorado, the flight attendant was encouraging people to place their smaller carry-on items under their seats instead of overhead to make room for those with bigger carry-ons. To coax us into compliance, he said, "Life has taught us that if you are considerate to your fellow passengers, it will come back to you and you'll be given courtesy in the future." It suddenly struck me as a statement espousing the doctrine of karma. How amazing that such an idea is so casually used in Western society.
I have given many talks on how to reach out to those who hold to eastern mystical worldviews with the Gospel. After those talks, some people have asked me why I think it is important to understand eastern religious ideas like Hinduism and Buddhism, when there is such a small chance that the average American will run into a committed Hindu or Buddhist. I have three responses.
First, most people actually have run into Hindus or Buddhists and actually have had the opportunity to share the Gospel with them--they just didn't notice. Second, we shouldn't be thinking only locally (or even only nationally), but globally. There are more than 800 million Hindus in the world, which is nearly three times the population of the U.S. There are more than 400 million Buddhists, with 2.5 million in the U.S. Together, they make up almost one-sixth of the world's population. If we are interested in reaching out globally with the Gospel, we simply cannot forget that Hindus and Buddhists exist. The third reason what we should care about Eastern religious beliefs is that thy have profoundly impacted Western pop culture and spirituality. The flight attendant's statement is but one example of how pervasive "karmic" ethics are in the West. His statement has probably been repeated thousands of times just today. How many times have you heard (or even said), "What goes around comes around"?
The Eastern idea of karma has been blended with the Judeo-Christian Golden Rule to create a new sense of right and wrong. And while the "what-goes-around-comes-around" ethic is actually a mutation of true karmic doctrine, the point remains the same. It is part of our culture, ever since Swami Vivekenanda and Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan catapulted Eastern mysticism into Western culture. In fact, we need look no further than mass media to see how pervasive Eastern ideas really are. Some prominent examples spring to mind. Alanis Morrisette, the popular singer and songwriter, had a chart topping hit song called Thank You, in which she praises the country of India for helping her realize her "divinity" (a fundamental Hindu idea). The highest grossing movie of all time, Avatar, is rich with Hindu and Buddhist ideas of pantheism. In fact, the idea of an avatar is borrowed from Hindu beliefs in avatars of Hindu gods like Vishnu and Krishna (both of whom are depicted as blue entities, like the Nav'i characters in the movie). Indeed, Eastern religions have manifested themselves into relatively new, full fledged worldviews: The New Age and Scientology (among others). Looking at the beliefs and practices of both movements reveal that they are really just Westernized versions of Buddhism and Hinduism. Or, as Ravi Zacharias has called them, "Hinduism in Western dress."
But here is the application of this observation. While Christians in the West might find Eastern religions to be curious ideas that merit some attention,dew don't focus on them because we don't have much interaction (or think we don't) with Hindus or Buddhists. But the reality is, far more people than we think are given to adhering to their fundamental tenets. And those tenets are far different than the truths found in the Gospel. If we are to be serious about the Great Commission, then we should also be serious about understanding the belief systems that so pervade our society and have won the hearts of so many around us. I firmly believe that the Gospel and the Gospel alone answers the deepest questions and yearnings of the mind and heart. Yet so many around us think that Eastern ideas answer those questions. When Christians take the time to learn the questions such people are asking and the answers that their philosophies offer them, then we can begin to show them how the Gospel provides answers beyond compare. Abdu Murray