7 ways to be culturally sensitive to Hindusby Christopher W. Jones
Currently, five of the largest concentrations of unreached people groups (UPGs) in North Carolina identify themselves predominantly as Hindu. They include: Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi (Sikh), Nepali and Telugu.
It’s important that we learn about these individuals so we don’t offend them unnecessarily. In our attempts to make disciples among our international neighbors, we should always allow the cross and gospel of Christ to be the offense rather than offending them over any secondary issues (1 Corinthians 1:23). With that in mind, here are some tips related to seven different areas of Hindu culture and worldview to help you become more sensitive to your Hindu neighbors.
Perhaps the most explicit way we can avoid offending our Hindu neighbors is by being sensitive regarding their diet. Although many Hindus occasionally eat meat, we should default to the possibility that they are vegetarian. When inviting Hindus to our homes for a meal, we could prepare a vegetarian dish (this includes no eggs) or ask before they come if they prefer veg or non-veg. Most Hindus are more than happy to specify any dietary restrictions, so we can ask with confidence knowing that we will not offend them. It is best to avoid talking about beef at all, as this could offend even those with a more liberal diet.
2. Social mindset
While American culture is direct and individualistic, the Hindu/South Asian culture is largely indirect and communal. If some type of conflict were to arise with a Hindu coworker, for example, rather than addressing him directly over the issue, it may be best to use a third party to bring the issue to his attention. Because this worldview is much more communal, a direct confrontation can bring shame upon the one confronted within his community. Rather than gaining an enemy, we could gain a deeper friendship with a person who sees that we are attempting to relate to him according to his worldview.
3. Caste system
One of the most important elements of Hinduism is that of the caste system. According to the Hindu scriptures, a person’s caste is based on his karma from his past lives. Caste is a type of judgment from the gods that cannot be altered in this life by man. It is generally best to avoid bringing up the topic of caste. Those of lower castes are generally ashamed of their caste and have, in modern times, tried to distance themselves from any such distinctions.
4. Living situation
As mentioned above, South Asians in general are much more communal and less individualistic than Westerners. As such, it is not uncommon for several generations to live in one home together. When inviting a Hindu neighbor over for dinner, we should find out how many people live with him and be prepared to invite them all over. If his parents or in-laws live with him, it shows honor if we invite them as well. South Asians pay great respect to their elders. While it may be hard for a Westerner to understand the lengths that a Hindu will go to for his family, for the Hindu, much of his karma is contingent on this duty (dharma) that he pays to his family and caste.
5. Gender norms
There are still sharp boundaries between men and women in South Asian culture, which is much more traditional and conservative than Western culture. While a short and simple conversation in public between a man and woman should not be a problem, we should be careful not to take the relationship much further. In order to deepen a relationship with a family, we should keep it segregated by gender as much as possible to avoid giving the wrong impression.
When we have the privilege of being invited into the home of a South Asian, a few general manners can prevent us from unnecessarily offending them. We should be sure to remove shoes before entering their home, avoid putting our feet on any of their furniture and be careful not to point the bottoms of our feet in the direction of anyone present. Feet are generally thought of as unclean, so being mindful of this can keep us out of trouble. Another general rule of thumb is to avoid shaking hands or eating with the left hand, which is considered unclean by many South Asians.
Another significant difference between the South Asian and Western cultures that can cause unnecessary intercultural conflict is the tension between time and event. Western culture is much more time-based, and punctuality is considered a virtue. South Asian culture, on the other hand, is not as concerned with punctuality, but regards the event to have started when all the right people are there. The unaware Westerner could easily be offended when he shows up on time, but the event does not start for another hour or two. Knowing these differences can help us avoid any such conflict.
Although the tips in this article are specific to our relationships with Hindus, the underlying principles can apply to reaching any people group. Let us not try to push our international friends into our cultural box, but rather, let us learn about their culture and humble ourselves by serving them, the way our Lord Jesus came to serve us (Philippians 2:3-8). As the apostle Paul writes, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).