“Variety is the spice of life,” and there is certainly much variety in one of the world’s spiciest regions South Asia. In these seven countries live almost three thousand least-reached people groups. Islam controls the hearts of many of the peoples of Bangladesh. Buddhism was born in India, spread to Nepal, China, Bhutan and Southeast Asia, but it was embraced mainly in East Asia. Hinduism, that diverse cluster of traditional religions, has nearly one billion adherents in India and Nepal. The high caste Brahmins may be harder to reach for Christ than any Muslim people, while lower caste peoples turn to the Lord by the thousands. Some of the peoples of southern and northeastern India are Christian, but only two percent have embraced Christ. Over 920 million people in some two thousand people groups remain to be reached in India alone. Christians from these nations are making heroic efforts to reach this region for Christ and God is at work.
- Light. Pray that the Holy Spirit would cause the least-reached peoples to become dissatisfied with their traditional religions and would make them hungry for the bread of life.
- Laborers. Pray that the Lord would call people who are willing to go to the most remote groups to share the love of Jesus.
- Linguists. Pray for God to raise up qualified linguists to translate the Bible into those languages with no scriptures, in a format that will be used for new believers to be grounded in God’s word.
- Local Church. Ask the Lord to raise up a strong local church among every least-reached people group.
- Leaders. Pray that God will open the hearts of governmental leaders at every level to the truth.
- Radio and Audio Ministries. Pray for God to empower audio ministries such as Words of Hope, Gospel Recordings, Faith Comes by Hearing and Audio Scriptures to proclaim the gospel in relevant ways. Pray particularly for those which connect with people not reached in any other way.
- Itinerate Evangelists. Thank God for the itinerate evangelists and pray for God to raise up many more. Pray they live the message, as they are his voice to bring good news and hope to those living in spiritual darkness.
- Missionary Senders. Pray for more laborers to be raised up as new believers. Pray they are compelled by God’s love to go to others who still have not heard and share Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. Pray for God to meet all their needs according to his riches.
- Outcasts. Pray for the Lambadi-speaking Banjara, and other groups who are considered outcasts of society but who are precious and beloved by Jesus. Pray they will know his love and acceptance and find hope and healing in him.
- People of Peace. Pray for God to direct workers to those who had their hearts prepared to hear and receive the gospel. Ask God to give messengers courage to share and disciple others.
Resources to pray and mobilize prayer and outreach
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Although there are roughly 800 million Hindus in the world, they are mostly concentrated in South Asia. Nepal is officially a Hindu kingdom and India has a Hindu majority. Although Hinduism is a flexible and diverse religion, it is easy for westerners to try to reach them on foreign terms, but these efforts are likely to fail if we do not understand the Hindu system or cultures. There are millions of Hindu gods, but many forward caste Hindus worship only one or two of them. There are not many central Hindu religious doctrines, but people in this part of the world (like any other part) resent having outsiders expect them to turn from their culture when they give their allegiance to a different God. Is it possible to present the gospel in an Indian cup?
For this reason, it is important for us to pray for groups like the Friends Missionary Prayer Band and India Gospel Outreach. These groups send only Indian nationals who are financially supported almost entirely by Indian believers; Western funds only give the Hindu majority the impression that Christian evangelism is turning their people away from their cultural roots. Pray this month that Hindus in Nepal and India and Muslims in Bangladesh and the Maldive Islands will turn their sole allegiance to Jesus.
The Complexities of Reaching Hindus
How do you define a religion that has so many misconceptions? What we call Hinduism is actually a cluster of religious beliefs that came from the Aryan invasions of 1,500 BC and the Dravidian peoples who already lived in the Indus Valley. Some would say that Hinduism was beginning to develop five thousand years ago. But the term “Hinduism” was coined about two hundred years ago by British colonialists who were trying to put a label on the religious beliefs of the people they encountered in the Subcontinent.
There is no founder of Hinduism. Many scholars agree that Hinduism began with the first Vedic writings. These Vedic writings and the caste system are important elements of traditional Hinduism. Around 600 BC belief in reincarnation became more common among Hindus. You would attain a better rebirth or a worse rebirth, depending on how well you had conducted yourself in this life. Gradually Hindus began to want to become free from the endless cycle of rebirths. With many believing that animal sacrifices brought bad karma, this practice became less popular as well. Today some Hindus practice animal sacrifices, while others would find blood sacrifice to be revolting.
Around 300 BC Hindus began to worship new gods that did not require animal sacrifices. Although they had already been worshipping Brahma, their supreme god, they added Vishu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. Now there were three main gods, but many incarnations (or variations) of these soon followed. Some Hindus worship only one god, while others worship many. There are millions of gods in this diverse and flexible religious system.
Hinduism is Forced to Change
Various Muslim empires began to carve up and dominate parts of India beginning in the eighth century. Many of them razed Hindu temples, destroyed idols and made converts to Islam. Needless to say, Hindus greatly resented their presence. By the late 1700s the Moguls were becoming less powerful and the British saw their chance to advance their empire. By the mid 1800s England controlled almost all of what is now called India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Hindus resented the Christian mission efforts that followed, seeing them as a variation of the Muslims efforts to destroy their religion.
These Christians brought with them schools and hospitals that catered to the needs of the “untouchables” who had been rejected by the Hindu establishment for centuries. For the first time, those who had known nothing but oppression under Hinduism had a chance of finding a better life. Even today many of these peoples still flee Hinduism and embrace Christianity. The question is, are they embracing Jesus Christ or just a different religion than their oppressors?
An unexpected consequence was a reform movement within Hinduism. Even many high caste Hindus like Mahatma Gandhi favored modernization within Hinduism. Rational thought, humanism, egalitarianism and a universalized form of religion became the norm. Gandhi changed the name “untouchable” to “harijans” meaning “children of god.” (they are now known as Dalits). Many, including Gandhi, went so far as to reject the caste system and call it a curse.
The Rise of Militant Hinduism
Other caste Hindus were not so accommodating. In 1948 Hindu militants assassinated Gandhi, mainly because of his willingness to accommodate members of other religions in the newly independent India. They believed their land had been dominated by foreigners and foreign religions for centuries and believed it was time to take back control. They believed non-Hindus should be converted or be expelled from India just like Hindus were ejected from Pakistan in 1947. Today the main political party of militant Hindus is the BJP, and their more forceful ally is the RSS.
These militants view Hinduism in similar terms as Islamic militants view Islam. To them, religion is integrally tied in with a political system. Militants do not see religion as a means to change the heart; it is a means to bring about political control. They would not understand Jesus’ words to Pontius Pilate that “the kingdom of God is within.”
One of their accusations is that Christians are not patriotic. Untouchables who converted to Christianity during colonial days did not whole-heartedly join the independence movement, and the stigma remains after fifty years. The militants believe these people saw the British as their protectors. The militants do not understand why the Christians dress differently and change their names after they convert. They do not understand why the Christians do not play India’s national anthem at church events.
Questions Left Unanswered
Today there is an ongoing conflict in India’s northeastern tribal belt. Many of the Christian tribal peoples in this region feel marginalized. According to Herbert Hoefer in a 2001 edition of the International Journal of Frontier Missions, “American Baptists have publicly urged their church members to fight hard to preserve their faith and culture. But some local tribal leaders, deeply resentful and suspicious of their longtime mainland oppressors, have moved beyond that and called for outright secession.”
Hoefer went on to say, “The mission work had sown seeds of social revolution. Those in economic power in the land had reasons to oppose the spread of this ‘dangerous’ thinking. With political elections, conversions were no longer just a religious matter. Conversions changed constituencies. A convert from Hinduism would be far less likely to accept his previous Hindu political leaders….They had political reasons—though couched in religious terms—for inhibiting conversions as much as possible.”
Then there is the issue of caste. In his 1984 article, “Breaking Caste Barriers in India,” former missionary to India, Vern Middleton writes, “For the high-caste Hindu of India the good news of Jesus Christ is regarded as the bad news about caste. From the beginning of the Protestant Era of missions, caste has been recognized as the prime barrier to the advance of the gospel and the extension of the kingdom of God. The missionary educational methodologies developed in India were expressly designed to destroy caste.”
He went on to say, “Church leadership in India vigorously opposes anything to do with caste. These leaders are of the opinion that the church is above caste.” It is true that caste has its roots in the Hindu religious system, and that it is a repressive system. But the problem is that a high caste Hindu believes that he is one reincarnation away from nirvana and Christians tell him that all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. If he converts, he must give up his hopes as a religious Hindu, his political power and his status in his family. It is no surprise that high caste Hindus have always rejected Christianity!
Seen another way, caste is a social grouping promoted by the Hindu scriptures. Is any Brahmin going to attend a church led by Dalits? And will any Dalit-led church leaders want Brahmins to join, posing the threat of taking control of the only thing that the Dalit controls? Neither group wants to mix. For that reason, some believe that it would be best to have separate fellowships for different caste groups.
Some believers would say that Christian efforts unnecessarily turned people away from Hindu culture when they turned away from Hindu religion. They call for an “insider movement” that would make it possible for people who come from a Hindu background to retain Hindu culture, while turning their allegiance to Christ alone.
Believers in Christ may never agree on what is cultural and what is religious Hinduism. Even something as simple as the dot used on a Hindu woman’s forehead is interpreted by some as a beauty mark, while others call it a religious symbol. To some, it is imperative that a new believer in Christ no longer has a Hindu name because he or she no longer gives his allegiance to a Hindu god. To others, a rose by any other name smells as sweet. But we all agree that it is the work of the Holy Spirit that draws sinners to Christ.
Let us pray that despite cultural and political hurdles, members of all Hindu sectors will hear of and turn their allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord.