CHICAGO – It doesn't sound right: someone claiming to be both a follower of Jesus Christ while still identifying himself as a Hindu or Sikh. But some respected missiologists are defending the new communities in India called Yeshu Satsang as biblical.
Formed as a direct response to broken relationships that Hindus or Sikhs in India who convert to Christianity often must endure, members of Yeshu Satsangs seek to follow the Bible while still retaining their cultural identity as Hindu or Sikh, and thus retaining harmonious relationships with their family members and community. The communities are also a pushback against Western ways of worshipping Jesus that is seen as "other" and foreign to the community. A Yeshu Satsang can loosely be defined as a gathering of Jesus followers whose members are socially still identified as Hindus or Sikhs.
"Even though [they have] rejected the word and practices of church, they have retained a theological identity of church while seeking to retain their Hindu and Sikh socio-religious identity," explained Darren Duerksen, director and assistant professor of Intercultural Studies at Fresno Pacific University, at the recent North American Mission Leaders Conference in Chicago.
The Yeshu Satsang leaders Duerksen – who spent six years in India as a missionary and scholar – had met all come from Hindu or Sikh background, and were discipled in Christian churches or parachurch organizations, he shared during the breakout session titled "Must Insiders be Churchless? Exploring 'Insiders' models of 'church.'" Some of these Indian leaders started Yeshu Satsangs after reaching an understanding that distinguishes between the Hindu or Sikh ideology and their commitment to Jesus.
These gatherings started some seven to eight years ago, and Yeshu Satsangs are concentrated mostly in Northwest India. Although there is no official count of how many Yeshu Satsangs there are in India, Duerksen estimates that there are at least 40 but less than 100 of these groups, each with at most 15 to 20 members.
The missions professor, in general, defended the Yeshu Satsangs that he had observed in India, and advised fellow missions leaders to consider the following points when making judgment about the new communities:
• Is the local church incarnational? Does it reflect Jesus?
• Is the community of believers committed to each other and Christ?
• How do the Yeshu Satsangs seek to shape their socio-religious identity? How do they negotiate their identity within Hindu and Sikh communities?
"Each of these Yeshu Satsangs [I have seen] emphasizes the teachings of Jesus as part of the path of following him," said Duerksen. "The Bible, for example, is seen and honored as God's word. It is given a high level of authority. Even where Yeshu Satsangs have a respect for the Hindu and Sikh scriptures, the Bible is emphasized as a higher and the ultimate authority. The Bible is used therefore throughout the Yeshu Satsang meetings. The leaders encourage their people to have their own and to read it on their own during their week."
Different Religious Practices
While these Jesus followers that Duerksen observed identify themselves as Hindu or Sikh while following the teachings of the Bible, they freely change the Christian religious practices to be more in line with those in their community. For example, instead of using bread and wine or grape juice for communion, Yeshu Satsangs often modify the Christian sacrament and use a coconut and coconut milk.
Baptism, in particular, is a sensitive area for Yeshu Satsangs because the groups' leaders feel that it has taken extra-biblical meaning by the way Indian churches conduct them. Baptism of former Hindus or Sikhs is often seen by the church as well as local Indian governments as a change in socio-religious status, with some local governments even imposing a separate set of laws for Christians on the newly baptized. However, while Yeshu Satsangs do baptize new followers of Jesus, they don't ask them to change their social-religious communities. Moreover, they often don't call the practice baptism, but use a more culturally familiar term, such as those used for initiation of disciples by a guru.
"So thus, Yeshu Satsangs leaders use the Bible, practice the Lord's Supper, and baptism in ways that reflect their devotion to Jesus but also seek to minimize some of the otherness in the eyes of Hindus and Sikhs," explained Duerksen.
Also, Yeshu Satsangs sing songs call bhajans that are similar to Hindu bhajans, which promote a Hindu identity to their neighbors while also helping them praise God without cultural barriers, said the Fresno Pacific professor. Indian Christians who attend traditional churches sing Western hymns or Western-style songs, instead.
But one of the more controversial practices of Yeshu Satsangs is that its members still go to Hindu or Sikh temples. The satsang members discuss and decide among themselves which temple events are permissible to attend. Satsang members also will sometimes accept prasad, or food that is offered to Hindu gods. Some of them will accept the offered food to be polite and later discard it when the giver is out of sight, while some will also eat the prasad.
Christian churches in India strictly teach that converts cannot accept or eat offered food, but Yeshu Satsang members are more flexible in their teaching on this issue, trying to balance their desire to maintain relationships with their community while also following Jesus. There is no hard and fast rule among Yeshu Satsangs regarding prasad. Yeshu Satsangs do not accept idolatry, however, but they usually allow members a longer time to stop idol worship, waiting for them to mature and naturally understand through Bible studies.
Relationship With Wider Christian Community
Many Yeshu Satsangs, given the reason why they started, do not actively seek to fellowship with churches in their area in India. Yeshu Satsangs were formed out of what they felt was Indian churches' cultural insensitivity and thus are reluctant to also closely identify themselves with Christian churches. This leads some mission leaders to criticize these communities for their apparent isolation from the wider Christ-following community.
"This is an important point, but in this critique we need to be careful not to hold the Yeshu Satsangs or any other beginning insider groups to a standard higher than we hold to our churches and denominations," warned Duerksen.
He noted that in Western Christianity there are many examples of churches cutting ties with other churches over differences in practices and doctrines.
"Even in contemporary times, various denominations remain highly isolated from and suspect of other churches," he pointed out. "And while we would lament this and urge for greater levels of trust and cooperation, the identity of such denominations as churches would rarely be questioned on the basis of their trust towards others."
Relationship With the Hindu or Sikh Community
Unlike Jesus followers who attend Christian churches in India, those who are part of Yeshu Satsangs tell their family members that they love Jesus but have not changed their religion.
"Religion in this case is understood not so much as doctrines, philosophies or ideologies, but rather as part of the community and its culture," explains Duerksen. "The satsangs are thus arguing that they can stay within their Sikh and Hindu communities, while changing the focus of their personal devotion to Jesus."
Duerksen gave an example of one satsang leader identified as Ravi who says he is not a Christian, but a Hindu, even though he is devoted to Jesus. Ravi would defend his Hindu identity even though he follows Jesus by saying, "On my birth form it is written: Hindu. And I live in Hindu style and I speak Hindi. That is why I am a Hindu. Also, Hindu is not a religion, it is a community."
Hindus are permitted to pray and give devotions to deities of other communities and still call themselves Hindus, Ravi would point out.
"The Yeshu Satsangs are, or seeking to be, subgroups within the Hindu and Sikh communities, while being church in the theological sense," the professor said. "This is clear that the Yeshu Satsangs are pioneering something that is generally quite unique and important to their context and are attracting people who may not otherwise follow Jesus within the context of the Christian church."
He continued, "It is too early to say whether or not this model of church will result in a wider movement of Christ followers in India. However, at the very least there is reason to encourage the development of Christ communities that adhere to the biblical contours of church while socially reflecting India's rich identities."
Former Hindu Turned Pastor and Missiologist Weigh In
While Duerksen mostly praised and defended the Yeshu Satsangs based on his experience, former Hindu and now Pastor Ananth Kumar of First Baptist Church of Rahway in New Jersey had a less favorable opinion.
Kumar, who is a Southern Baptist, shared with The Christian Post during the Chicago mission conference that he had visited a Yeshu Satsang in Toronto, Canada that was "shocking" to him. He described the setting as having more flowers, candlesticks and fruits than he had seen in Hindu temples. Kumar said that he felt the over-contextualizing of the satsang could lead to "danger." He noted there was no cross in the building where the satsang demonstration was given, and there was a picture of Jesus with a candle in front of his photo as well as milk and sliced bananas. A photo of Mary and baby Jesus was also on display.
"Hindus coming to satsangs and seeing that think, 'Oh, they are doing exactly the same thing that I am, so what is the difference between my temple and this Christian satsang," the former Hindu asked. "That is exactly what happened in Toronto."
He informed CP that he asked the satsang leaders how long they have been holding satsangs and how many people have dedicated their life to Christ. The leaders replied that they have been holding such gatherings for several years and there have been zero conversion, zero baptism, and no commitment, according to Kumar.
The former-Hindu-turned-preacher was also disturbed that at the satsang in Toronto they used the word Bhagwan, which is a term for God that is not biblical, as well as Ishwar, which is used by practicing Hindus to also refer to God.
"This is really wrong," Kumar said of the satsang he witnessed in Toronto. "We definitely didn't feel the presence of God at all … you are totally compromising to Hindu songs. There were no words of yeshu, Jesus was not mentioned in those songs."
For the communion, the satsang leaders in Toronto put a slice of banana in the participants' palm and dropped milk on it.
"That is totally wrong. That is completely being practiced by Hindus. If I am Hindu in Bombay or Toronto or somewhere, and I practice same thing as communion, then what is the difference between my temple and this Christian satsang?" he asked. "I rather continue to not bother my relatives, not bother religion and not offend anyone. So just let me continue as a Hindu."
He recalled his own Holy Communion experience. He had heard the Gospel for two or three months at that time and asked a church leader if he could take part in communion. But the leader asked if he had confessed his sins and received the Lord yet. He said no, and was guided on how to do that.
"That day, I closed my eyes, I knelt, I cried, I wept when I saw Christ being crucified. So that was a turning point," recalled Kumar. "So that communion is very important. Communion is fundamental basis of our Christian faith. You cannot compromise that communion with other form used by other religions. Communion is very sacred, that is why we call it Holy Communion. You cannot compromise it with a piece of banana and milk."
But Greg Parsons, global director of the U.S. Center for World Mission, cautioned against judging a whole movement by one or a few examples.
"I think the most important first thing to realize is these movements are all over the map doctrinally," said Parsons to CP. "So you can't judge one by another."
"So if these movements are coming to Christ, and they are focused on the Bible, then they will likely straighten out. If they are not, then they probably won't. And that is the principle of McGavern (Donald McGavern, 20th century missiologist), that the key thing to look at in a movement is, is the Bible central as the authority to them or something else? If the Bible is central, then they will likely get straightened out as they spend more time with the Bible."