Was C. S. Lewis right about Hinduism?

C. S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis aged 50

I have read and enjoyed a number of C. S. Lewis’s stories. I remember being read the Narnia series of stories by my father when I was small. Though you can tell that they have a Christian analogy this does not get in the way of them being good stories.

I cannot say that I have read much of his non-fiction work, but I know that he was renowned as a Christian writer. I was reminded of this by a post from the myownashram blog.

C. S. Lewis is still often quoted by Christian evangelists. As he was an atheist who converted to Christianity he is seen as validating their beliefs.  One quote that I have seen used a lot is this one:

There is no question of just a crowd of disconnected religions. The choice is between (a.) The materialist world picture: wh. I can’t believe. (b.) The real archaic primitive religions; wh. are not moral enough. (c.) The (claimed) fulfillment of these in Hinduism. (d.) The claimed fulfillment of these in Xianity. But the weakness of Hinduism is that it doesn’t really merge the two strands. Unredeemable savage religion goes on in the village; the Hermit philosophizes in the forest: and neither really interfaces with the other. It is only Xianity which compels a high brow like me to partake of a ritual blood feast, and also compels a central African convert to attempt an elightened [sic] code of ethics.

Some Christian sights embellish the quote, this is an example from a Catholic site, which gives no reference . Searches fail to find a corresponding original text!:

Religions are like soups, he said. Some, like consomme, are thin and clear (Unitarianism, Confucianism, modern Judaism); others, like minestrone, are thick and dark (paganism, “mystery religions”). Only Hinduism and Christianity are both “thin” (philosophical) and “thick” (sacramental and mysterious). But Hinduism is really two religions: “thick” for the masses, “thin” for the sages. Only Christianity is both.

I think in dismissing all religions apart from Christianity and Hinduism he does a disservice to many; I am sure that Taoism, Judaism, Sikhism and many more are practiced by both the highly sophisticated and the simple country village folk. I will leave that point for followers of these religions to answer though.  I will answer one question: Is his comment on Hinduism true though? I don’t believe it is. 

The Narnia booksFirstly C. S. Lewis is very much a man of his time, place, and class. When looking at Hinduism he is quick to include the simplest village Hindu, but  when looking at Christianity seems to only be looking at his own “Church of England”, and “Safe” converts. If he had included the South American Christians who carry out animistic rituals, the Snake Handling cults, or even the Shakers and Pentecostals he would have seen a big difference between these and his highbrow church  In fact there is as much disconnect between a Voodoo-practicing Christian in a Caribbean village and a Church of England Bishop as there is between a Vedantist and a village Hindu.

Secondly, is Hinduism really split into a “high” and “low” version? To a certain extent all religions are, a Hindu farmer is unlikely to follow theological discussions about advaita, dvaita, etc. This is just as true of Christianity though, not many Christians will even have heard of Transubstantiation for example. And despite what C. S. Lewis says the main thread of Hinduism, Ahimsa, Samskara, Reincarnation, and Moksha connects all levels.

Though he had a parochial view, not all Western scholars were set in their time like this . We can see this in  what some of his contemporaries said:

The vast literature, the magnificent opulence, the majestic sciences, the soul touching music, the awe inspiring gods. It is already becoming clearer that a chapter which has a western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in the self destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in history the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way.
Arnold Toynbee

If there is one place on the face of the earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India….For more than 30 centuries, the tree of vision, with all its thousand branches and their millions of twigs, has sprung from this torrid land, the burning womb of the Gods. It renews itself tirelessly showing no signs of decay.
– Romain Rolland

It seems that others saw a lot more in Hinduism than he did. In fact even before his generation the Transcendentalists had been greatly influenced by Hinduism.

“Northern Lights” – by Phillip Pullman

Incidentally the atheist Philip Pullman criticises C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books as “blatantly racist” and “monumentally disparaging of women”. I think that this  is unfair. Lewis’s attitudes to women are what you would expect at that time; the girls receive gifts of a healing juice and a horn while the boy gets a sword and shield! As for racism, if there is any then I failed to notice it.

By the way, just as C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series can be enjoyed by non-Christians, so can Philip Pullmans “His Dark Materials” trilogy can be enjoyed by non-Atheists. They are a very enjoyable read.

Some people may disagree with me recommending books with Christian or Atheist analogies. In my view reading books like this helps you to understand other people’s worldviews, and thinking about the differences and similarities can help you understand your own beliefs.


All images from Wikipedia and therefore are  available for fair use or are in the public domain

39 responses to “Was C. S. Lewis right about Hinduism?

  1. I don’t think I can go back to Lewis’ Christian apologia. I might try some day, but I don’t expect it to be successful. As for Pullman, I loathed His Dark Materials trilogy. Well, the first was all right, the second infuriated me with his horrible attempts at theology (or attempts at responding to theology), and I couldn’t finish the third, it was just so bloated and uninteresting. I’m in the minority here, I know!

    • Its funny, I didn’t mind Pullman’s attempts at responding to theology because it was such an obvious. Its not like he had a “hidden agenda”.

  2. It was obvious – and I didn’t like what he had to say!

  3. Not a fan of the Narnia series, the children here really like The Golden Compass, and of course Harry Potter. Thankfully we avoided the Twilight phenomenon here…our boys very much dislike them. Whew!:P

  4. Off topic comment :-Those who are interested in vedic self-help and basic vedic principles http://agniveer.com/introduction/

  5. Very thoughtful article, I appreciated it.

  6. Pingback: Was C. S. Lewis right about Hinduism? | Sthapati

  7. to all bhaktas u can watch OM namah shivay serial(a bit old) on Youtube its in hindi ([Tandava: changed inline video to link http://goo.gl/gg7tF ] ) but with english subtitles(just turn on captions) it was orginally telecast-ed in hindi & tamil & may be also in telgu.its better than current series devon ke dev mahadev in terms of spiritual & bhakti message.but devon ke dev mahadev is better in special effects.this play list also contains serials like Shree Kishna , Shree Ganesh,Buddha & vishwamitr

  8. If CS Lewis has a brilliant definition of what hindusim is or what it it’s supposed to be then many hindus themselves living in villages/forests/cities of india would really like to know.

    The problem is that lewis himself has no clue what hinduism is. He has seen some things here and read some books there so he thinks he has enough to summarise it. Seriously, those of us who have born into this and grew with it around us and yet we find it difficult to explain what it is.

    India is a place where the environment allows all sorts of beliefs and practices to form. Over time, they get a fan following and it grows into a religion. We label this entire system as hinduism just for simplicity but it is a misleading term.

    What lewis said is partly true. But who the hell is lewis to encourage forrest sages to “civilize” the village folks? His idea smacks of megalomania(spreading religion) which is dangerous. If these “uncivilised” villagers want to follow religion derived ethical codes in their day to day lives then let them approach the sages and not the other way around.

    Lewis is making an assuption that the villagers are attrached to preaching. It does on the surface but the actual attractions are something else. The christian conversions that i’ve seen happening in remote parts of india is significantly dependent on funding(free schooling, healthcare etc). The problem for these missionaries is that the whole program is a 15-20 year process. If they terminate the funding in the middle, many of these villagers simply revert back to their old lifestyle. Some years later, when a hindu religious body visits the village, the people start singing ganesha songs to receive incentives. Later when the church people arrive, they change tune to church carols. I wonder what lewis would have to say about this drama. IMO, he should first figure out what the people want.

  9. Hi,
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  10. Wishing you and your family a Prosperous Deepavli

  11. radio show about white & black reverts & converts into arabic & indian religions on bbc asian network many hindus in uk converting to islam

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01nvrdp

  12. Wwert ..the host of this program is an sikh i have seen his other program ..his hatred toward Hinduism is so much visible..You won’t be surprised the many Sikhs in UK and Canada are kind of filled so much hate against HIndus and for their own punjabi culture…however if you go Punjab in India you will find Sikh is a peace loving community …The issue is that they want to prove themselves different from hindus…However Hindu converting to Islam is Not a digestible that too in UK…leaving those girl who convert to Islam after marrying a Muslim boy

    • I have not seen much evidence of Hindus in the UK converting to Islam. When they do marry Muslims it can often be love Jihad, where Muslims in the UK are paid £5,000 to marry Hindu or Sikh girls as a forced conversion tactic. Often they will then bring “second wives” from Muslim countries and ignore the now-converted ex-Hindu.

      Also as for Sikhs being filled with hate for Hindus, though I have occasionally seen it I think it is a small vocal group of leaders. Most of the Hindus at our Mandir are of Punjabi descent, and Sikhs often come into the Mandir and Hindus visit the Gurdwara. The anti_Hindu siks seem to have picked up the Muslim attitude that those of different faiths are “wrong”, and so to emphasise their difference they have to say that Hindus are wrong.

      • @ TANDAVA….. I GOT AN IMPRESSION THAT MANY INDIAN HINDUS IN UK(BECOZ SOME INDIANS CALLED IN & SAID THEY CONVERTED TO ISLAM BUT NO MUSLIM CALLED IN TO SAY THEY CONVERTED TO HINDUISM) ARE CONVERTING TO ISLAM, AS ARE WHITE & BLACK PEOPLE

        • Wwesrt ..So you are expecting some muslim to called in and say this thing..Don’t you think once they admit that there life would be in danger….

    • actually he is of a sri lankan budhist heritage he is a Dj(bhangra) . he usually picks up sikh(extremist) agernda as all his friends in bhangra dj circle r khalistani sympathysers & hindu & india haters.the shows r ussually neutral but sometimes gets anti hindu & INDIA due to sikh khalistani view dominating & no strong anti khalistani voice like Mr bitta or KPS Gill are given any space

    • @ Bhismah Arya –>actually he(NIHAL) is of a sri lankan budhist heritage he is a Dj(bhangra) . he usually picks up sikh(extremist) agernda as all his friends in bhangra dj circle r khalistani sympathysers & hindu & india haters.the shows r ussually neutral but sometimes gets anti hindu & INDIA due to sikh khalistani view dominating & no strong anti khalistani voice like Mr bitta or KPS Gill are given any spac

      • Ohh thats fine…Actually I am from Punjab India..there Names Like Nihal ,Kripan etc are common among sikhs… so I have thought he is Sikh..Anyway the program that i had listened to were filled with hate for Hindus ..

  13. Yes Tandava…The Love Jihad…is too famous in India ..Mostly in Kerala…and southern Part of India..Rates are fixed for all Non – Muslim Girls..after girl get married to that Muslim..she was immediately asked to convert …and the once the girl is converted she was not allowed to meet their parents as they are now kafirs..so to meet her they also had to convert…however worst is observed in Pakistan..where young HIndu girls are kidnapped and abducted..forcibly converted to Islam..and No Legal protection for them………..

    Yes Regarding sikhs I agree there are some people who are trying to radicalize sikhs against HIndus…However these whole thing seems to be artificial….just these few groups keep ranting ..yes you are Right..Yes seeing sikhs in HIndu temple is a normal thing…as we are used to it..In India also HIndus visit Gurudwara and Sikhs Visit HIndu temples….Hindus have so much respect for Sikhs …Hindus consider Sikhs as Martial clan of Hindus..who fighted back the Islamic tyranny ..Marriage between Sikhs and HIndus is also common thing…

  14. BUT peace between hindus & sikhs is not same any more as sikh youths from punjab are now fed on the diet of anti hindu & anti india lectures in punjabi & english from extemist sikh preachers most of the videos are propaganda videos based on lies.
    a link of video produced from a Southall gurudwara in 2012 THE GUY giving lecture is a ex british army soldier.he gives good lesson in sikhism & then reveals “SIKH KHALISTANI wants TO TAKE OVER india & world” (this video on youtube only has sikh extremist goals & agenda the clip is 56 sec long all citizens of uk must watch this video )

    http://bit.ly/PPxpKW

  15. Yes wwert you are right ..there are khalistani terrorist organisations operating in west to collect the fund from these brain washed people…and to revive terrorism in India .however things are worse in canada..and seems like Hindus are also getting it…In India any person can’t even think in dream ,,that there can be a drift between sikhs and Hindus..I have checked some of their website which are openly spreading hate against hindus…However I feel that more the sikh is Dharmic more he feel close to Hinduism..NOTE :- I am Not saying all of those who are sitting those in Gurudwara are dharmic…because if you take out the Name of Ram,Krishna,Shiva,Durga ..hindu dieties from Gurugranth sahib ..you will just left with few pages..

  16. just watch this video on youtube just start from 8:09 “Rajiv Malhotra Invading the Sacred Book Launch Best of Mumbai & Delhi July 1st & 2nd, 2007” it gives a prespective how hinduism is studied in some REPUTED EDUCATIONAL circles of USA

    [Tandava: inline video replaced by link]

  17. You may want to read this article in your free time by a notable Author :- http://rivr.sulekha.com/myth-of-hindu-sameness_103638_blog

  18. I’m afraid C.S. Lewis is right. The vast majority of Hindus do follow ‘low’ Hinduism. These days, much of the non-Brahmin Hindu middle class does follow elements of ‘high’ Hinduism you mentioned. At the same time, its very common to combine this with simpler, more primitive, forms of worship linked to ethnicity. The two strains often have several contradictions, which never do get resolved.

    May God bless you

    • Even if true that doesn’t make C. S. Lewis’s claims right. It is also true in Christianity that many people don’t follow the high philosophies, his contention is that in Hinduism the two are totally disconnected – you cannot start with low level puja and then move on to learn the philosophy. He is clearly wrong about this

      • The reason C.S. Lewis’ claim is true, is that there is no real high philosophy in Christianity. Its all graspable and in plain sight in the New Testament: including the 11th commandment. There is meant to be no division between ‘ignorant’ laity and clergy exposed to esoteric concepts (at least, the Christianity that C.S. Lewis followed.) Unlike Brahmins, the only priesthood in the writings of Christianity (i.e. in the New Testament of the Bible,) is the priesthood of _all_ believers.

        Yes, there are prophesies whose meaning isn’t clear yet (e.g. The Book of Daniel, or the Book of Revelation.) However these are encoded foretellings of future events, purposely masked by God until the time. These are to do with how we must _live_ our life.

        Sure, there are plenty of invented ‘high’ philosophies and traditions in Christianity: transubstantiation (that ignores Jesus’ establishment of the partaking of bread and wine as a _memorial_), a celibate priesthood and nuns (that ignores New Testament admonishments), how many angels can fit on the head of a pin… even the institution of Christmas itself! But if you look at the origins of these, you see no core _written_ support for these in original teachings of Christ and the apostles. What you find instead is that these were grafted on at a later date and are pretty much worthless.

        • And its the same for Hinduism. People who follow bhakti traditions will say exactly the same as you, people following esoteric traditions won’t. You will find that in Christianity there are plenty of people who think the philosophy primarily important, I have even seen some claim that those who don’t understand that the son is co-eternal with the rest of the trinity but begotten of the father are not worshipping the real God and will go to hell. That makes even the Zen koans look simple!

  19. Pingback: HINDUISM FACES ECLIPSE – Future of A Besieged Civilization | sambhalkezabaan

  20. Just wanted to mention that I believe you Lewis a disservice by claiming he didn’t write about, as if he didn’t know about, certain sects of Christianity that practice what seem to be (or may be, in fact) paganistic (or “low-brow”) practices. He does mention them in some of his writings (I believe with the term “emotionalists” – but I was trying to look this up, with little success with the time I have). It’s not fair to criticize someone because they don’t blatantly cover a topic you would like to see (or, you didn’t find it yet), when it was their choice to focus on other topics. Lewis’ view was to converse about Christianity as written about in the scriptures, not address all the deviations from it.

    • Thanks for your comment. I did not claim that Lewis did not know about “low brow” Christianity, merely that he did not mention it. If he did know at the time he wrote the above I would be very disappointed in him. I have always thought that Lewis was straightforward and honest, despite having a parochial view. If he knew that there were low-brow Christian movements at the same time as he was writing that Christianity was superior because it did not have them, then he would have been a dishonest propagandist.

      As for writing about “Christianity as written about in the scriptures”, I am certain that with his education he would have known that it would have been dishonest to compare only the Christians who follow the scriptures with Hindus who do not follow the Vedas.

      • I am by no means an expert on Hindus and how they practice (though I have read that Hinduism has a great many views, sects, and levels of worship – that most Hindus don’t read their scriptures – this is what I’ve read), nor have I ever read Lewis get into detail about Hindu’s and how they practice! I’ve never read Lewis get into that kind-of critique. It wouldn’t have mattered to him, so you are misunderstanding Lewis. What mattered to him was the truth, and to him, God revealed Himself through Christ. And what Christ represented and asked of us, if it is the truth about God, cannot be contradicted elsewhere. God doesn’t contradict Himself, since He is the Truth. He wouldn’t deceive people. This is what Lewis was interested in, and frankly, what you say about people and how they practice their religion is false. There are many who call themselves Christian who in fact practice something else (as I’m quite sure there are Hindus and Buddhists and so forth – it’s because humans are humans). Why in the world should Lewis list them all in whatever article you think he wrote?? I think you didn’t even quote is original works. I didn’t recognize them, though I haven’t read every single thing Lewis wrote. He was prolific. What matters is what God conveyed, not how some people (of whatever religion) mess it up.

        • nor have I ever read Lewis get into detail about Hindu’s and how they practice! I’ve never read Lewis get into that kind-of critique. It wouldn’t have mattered to him, so you are misunderstanding Lewis. What mattered to him was the truth, and to him, God revealed Himself through Christ. And what Christ represented and asked of us, if it is the truth about God, cannot be contradicted elsewhere.

          So what you are saying is that Lewis really just disregarded Hinduism because it was not Christianity, and all the reasons he gave in his letter to Sheldon Vanauken were just propaganda; he cared nothing about the actual beliefs and practices. (BTW I gave the reference http://www.discovery.org/cslewis/articles/writingspblcdmn/letters.php). If you are right then again he is a mere propagandist, giving reasons he doesn’t believe. As I said previously I would be disappointed if this were the case as Lewis has always appeared to be honest to me.

          • I will read that letter later as I have to go to work, but no, Lewis was not a propagandist. You seem to have made up your mind about him without actually studying him very closely. He studied things very thoroughly. And since you very clearly misrepresent what I was saying and getting at, then I can see why you read into Lewis whatever you like. You actually don’t even address what I said about there being truth aside from practices. Christianity in its pure form actually has very few “rituals,” only prayer and love/devotion to God. Anyway, you seem to be wanting to insult the man without knowing really what he thought. Why be so worried whether he was a propagandist or not, then? We’ll read the holy writings of various faiths and let God talk to us, directing us to what His true words are. I would hope that anyone seeking to be close to God would do that.

            • It seems to me that you are insulting him by suggesting that when he wrote that Christianity was different to Hinduism because there is a low brow Hinduism he was well aware that there was a lowbrow Christianity but chose to ignore it. Also if he wrote that even though his true reason for rejecting Hinduism was just that it was not Christianity. I really don’t know how you can say that and claim he is no propagandist!

              Personally I have always believed him to be a man of integrity with a rather limited viewpoint, but I concede you could be right – he may have been writing the letter as propaganda while not believing it. This would disappoint me because I have always enjoyed his writings and thought that I could understand how things were from his perspective. I also enjoyed his fictional works

  21. Being a Hindu I always loved to know more about the religion and the culture. This website give me more information about these things. I believed that the man is the human of integrity. I would be disappointed for any news against him.

  22. Pingback: The Two Perennial Philosophies | Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

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