Where Hindu and Christian Worlds Meet through the Yeshu Bhakti Music of Aradhna

It is not every day that a Caucasian music group, whose lyrics focus on the worship of Jesus, has the opportunity to lead a Hindu temple service. In 2007, my band, Aradhna (www.aradhnamusic.com), was invited to lead the music and give a message at one of the monthly Sunday services at a temple in Virginia.

The invitation came about because a Caucasian Christian family, who love Hindu culture and enjoy celebrating major festivals with local Hindus, introduced Aradhna’s music to the temple leader. Before the leader allowed us to come, he asked me a few questions related to his congregation’s concerns about the Christian nature of the group. Would we sing only to Jesus or include songs to some of the Hindu deities?

I answered that our group had a deep love and respect for Hindu culture and that we expressed our love for Christ through bhakti (loving devotion and surrender.) I further said that Yeshu was our Ishta Devata (God of choice)— where worshiping only one God and none other is an acceptable practice within Hindu devotional thought and practice. The temple leader was satisfied by my answer and welcomed us to lead the service.

Yeshu bhakti is the path of devotion to Jesus for Hindus who, when they become disciples of Jesus Christ, feel no obligation to leave the Hindu community. Some Hindus in the late nineteenth century realized and regretted that their conversions to Christianity carried much unnecessary baggage related to British cultural and communal loyalties. Therefore they began to re-identify themselves with the Hindu community, while maintaining an exclusive devotion to Jesus Christ. Examples include Narayan Vaman Tilak who, toward the end of his life, resigned from the American Marathi Mission and, along with his wife, became a sannyasin, a  “renouncer,” which Tilak would have defined as one who renounces worldly things in order to pursue a life dedicated to God and others. He established what he described as “a brotherhood of the baptized and unbaptized disciples of Christ” (Richard 1991, 110). Tilak died a short time later, but his ideas remained. Some Hindus, particularly toward the close of the twentieth century, began to form communities of faith in India that embraced being followers of Jesus while retaining Hindu communal identity. It was through these followers that I encountered Yeshu bhakti in India, and began associating it with Aradhna’s music when I formed the band in 1999 with my colleague Pete Hicks.

The first song we played at the Hindu temple was “Ga Ga More Manwa Yeshu Bhajan” (“Sing, My Soul, the Song of Jesus”), an arrangement by Aradhna of a bhajan (devotional song). For the next hour and a half the congregation sang and clapped along to simple antiphonal songs. Using the traditional format of the satsang, I intertwined music with spoken word—recounting stories about Jesus and sometimes explaining them in the light of poetry, not from the Bible but from well known Indian poet-saints, such as Kabir, whose lyrics we sometimes use in our songs. Satsang means “gathering of truth,” which describes Hindu spiritual gatherings where a message is preached, often with devotional singing. As we concluded our final song, the leader stood and  thanked the band for coming with a spirit of humility and heartfelt devotion and for bringing such joy to the congregation. The temple embraced an ecumenical approach to faith, he said, by welcoming the worship of God by many different names, including the name of Jesus.

In the past, I might have perceived his concluding comments as defeating my efforts to present Jesus as unique. But within an essentially Hindu Yeshu bhakti framework, I could be satisfied that by coming in the spirit of Jesus’ name and telling the stories of his life, Aradhna had fulfilled its purpose.

Clearly the Hindus at the temple in Virginia had taken a step of trust by inviting us to worship Christ and share His teachings with them. In doing so, they were no doubt enriched. It made me wonder if Christians, in turn, could not stand to learn something from the Hindu community. Surely Indian Yeshu bhaktas (devotees), who do not view a close relationship with the Hindu world and culture as compromising their exclusive faith in Christ, have valuable insights to share. Because Hindu temples now dot the landscape of the United States, learning directly from Hindus about what they believe, may become increasingly important for Caucasians as well as for Indians, in what Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard  Divinity School, calls “the new religious America” (Eck 2001).

Could this loving approach to get to know and understand Hindus not be a healthy alternative to the sometimes unfortunate teachings about the Hindu world from Christian pulpits, often given  by people who have not lived among them or understood the complexity of their civilization? The Hindu temple that invited Aradhna set an example. They were enriched by the music and message without compromising their deepest values.

For many Christians, their deepest value is an undivided devotion to Jesus Christ. Perhaps  exploring various Hindu philosophies and paths—with Hindus, face-to-face—would not threaten that exclusive devotion to Christ but rather deepen it. Christians might gain much by discovering cultures and philosophical systems outside the Western world that can bring out new and life-giving insights regarding the nature of God and what it means to be a follower of Christ. Greek culture and philosophy did just that for Jewish Christianity in the first century through the introduction of terms such as “logos,” which explained the nature of God as “the Word.” The essential message of the resurrected Jesus did not change as Christianity gradually took on Greek language and culture and moved away from its Jewish roots. Likewise, Yeshu bhaktas (Hindu  devotees of Jesus) may be able to bring new beauty to the Christian faith by preserving the same message of the resurrected Christ, but sharing it, not from a Greek worldview, as the New Testament writers Paul and John did, but rather from a Hindu one.

Selected Bibliography

Dicran, C. H. [pseud]. “Hindi Christian Bhajans: A Survey of Their Use by Christians and a Critique by Hindu Professionals in the Music World.” MA Thesis, Briercrest Biblical Seminary, 2000.

Duerksen, Darren. “Ecclesial Identities in a Multi-Faith Context: Jesus Truth-Gatherings (Yeshu Satsangs) Among Hindus and Sikhs in Northwest India.” PhD diss., Fuller Theological Seminary, 2011.

Duncan, Stephen Frederick. “Christian Bhajans: A Study of the Uses of Indigenous Music in the Rites of the Catholic Church on the Sub-Continent of India Since the Second Vatican Council with Particular Attention to Bhajan and Kirtan.” PhD diss., Memphis State University, 1992.

Eck, Diana L. A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

Hale, Chris. “Aradhna: From Comfort to Discomfort, Church to Temple.” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 24/3 Fall (2007): 147–50.

Lipner, Julius J. Brahmabandhab Upadhyay: The Life and Thought of a Revolutionary. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Lipner, Julius J. Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, 2nd ed. Oxford: Routledge, 2010.

Hivner, Richard L. “The Christian Society for the Study of Hinduism, 1940-1956: Interreligious Engagement in Mid-Twentieth Century India.” PhD diss., University of South Africa, 2011.

Richard, H. L. Christ-Bhakti: Narayan Vaman Tilak and Christian Work among Hindus. Delhi: I.S.P.C.K, 1991.

Biography

Christopher Dicran Hale was born in Albany, New York, in 1968. Within a year, he accompanied his parents, both of whom were doctors, to a remote mountain village in Nepal. Besides being a pediatrician, his mother was also a concert pianist. The music of his childhood was a combination of Western classical music and Nepali folk songs.

During his adolescence at Woodstock School in Mussoorie, India, he was introduced to the sitar by his first guru, Ajit Singh. Being involved with the jazz program there, he also studied several other Western instruments and formed his first rock band.

Between 1987 and 1990, he studied jazz guitar and composition at Berklee College of Music in Boston. It was during this time that he was influenced by Joseph Gabriel Maneri, one of the leading figures in microtonal music.

Upon returning to India in 1990, he became the vocalist and guitarist for the rock band ‘Olio.’ In 1993 he attended Bhatkhande Music College, in Lucknow, to focus on the sitar. Christopher toured India and produced two records with Olio until it disbanded in 1999. During a trip to England in 1999, he formed the Indian devotional group Aradhna with guitarist Pete Hicks. This partnership prompted a move to New York City in 2000, and a study period with surbahar player Shubha Sankaran. In 2002, sitarist Paul Livingstone introduced Christopher to Indian sarod and vocal guru Rajeev Taranath and his current sitar guru, Partha Chatterjee, foremost disciple of sitar master Pt. Nikhil Banerjee. Christopher continues to tour with Aradhna, and the band has released five albums to date. He has performed across North America, India, Europe, South Africa, and the Caribbean. He also performs locally in Toronto for South Asian weddings, and teaches sitar from his home in “Gerrard Indian Bazaar,” where he lives with his wife.

For more information visit christopherhalesitar.com and aradhnamusic.com