Q: Is there a savior in Hinduism? If so, how did he get to be such?
A: My first reaction to this question is to say, sure, there is not just one savior in Hinduism, but there are more saviors than one might ever imagine. Of course, the question is, what might the word savior mean for this religion? Anytime that one talks about a “savior” in a religion, one needs to be clear on what “salvation” amounts to. What is a person saved from, how does the savior provide for the salvation, and what is the final result of being saved.
In Hinduism the nature of salvation has to do with escaping from our natural existence in the world. In general, Hinduism teaches that human beings are trapped in a never-ending cycle of lives, both human and animal. As long as we live, we are going to produce karma, and as long as we produce karma, we are going to go on from life to life. It’s a vicious circle from which there does not seem to be any escape.
Still, Hinduism teaches that it may be possible to attain release (moksha) from this cycle of suffering. Even though Hinduism allows for many diverse beliefs and practices, there is a general commitment that a person who rigorously observes one of the paths laid out, whether based on ritual or mystical experience, can eventually break out of the shackles of existence. Let us call the basic teachings of Hinduism the dharma. “Dharma” can be translated literally as “the way,” and it refers to the way of salvation in Hinduism. In a more general sense, we can also think of it as the religion and culture of Hinduism in its totality.
Now we come to what I’m going to call “stage one” saviors in Hinduism. These are the gods and other beings who have at various times performed great feats in order to preserve the dharma of Hinduism. This is particularly true of the god Vishnu, who is said to have come to earth in physical form whenever there was a direct threat to the dharma in the universe. Traditionally, there are said to be ten of these saviors (avatars), including the well-known figures Krishna and Rama.
Let me illustrate how these saviors work by referring to one of the avatars of Vishnu that’s not as famous as Rama and Krishna. According to this story, there was a time in a previous age when a demon named Bali had taken over the universe. In order to reclaim the world, Vishnu confronted Bali in the form of a dwarf. This dwarf, Vamana by name, proposed a deal to Bali. Vamana would take three steps and be allowed to claim all the territory covered by his strides; everything else would remain with Bali. The demon, looking at the dwarf before him with his pitifully short legs, gladly accepted the proposition, and so Vishnu in the form of Vamana took three steps. Using his divine power, with his first step he covered the entire earth; with his second one he bestrode all of the air; and with his third step he claimed the heavens. Thus, Vamana-Vishnu reconquered the totality of the universe; the demon was defeated; and the dharma was preserved. Hindu mythology contains many similar stories involving gods functioning as saviors by defeating evil and preserving good.
But I called these figures “stage one” saviors for a reason. Even though they saved the world from demons and preserved the dharma, so that human beings can live according to truth and righteousness, they do not directly function as saviors of human beings. What I mean is that they do not give direct aid to individuals for the sake of their personal moksha.
I’m going to call the beings that actually aid persons in their salvation “stage two” saviors. And actually, some of the figures that function as “stage one” saviors in some stories, have also become known as “stage two” saviors. “Stage two” saviors not only redeem the world, but they redeem any individual who devotes himself or herself particularly to their service.
“Stage two” saviors are the foci of worship in the Hindu bhakti movement; the form of Hinduism that emphasizes a person’s loving devotion to their highest god, be it Shiva, Vishnu, Kali, or some other deity. Not all gods in this context are saviors, but some are. Again, the ones that most obviously come to mind are Rama and Krishna, two of the avatars of Vishnu.
This time, let me focus on Krishna as an example. First of all, Krishna is also a “stage one” savior, viz. there is a story of how he conquered a demon called Kamsa who was defiling the world and restored the true dharma. But second, Krishna is a paradigmatic “stage two” savior, as displayed in the Bhagavad Gita. In this latter work, Krishna instructs the warrior Arjuna that if he (Arjuna) worships Krishna with all of his being, then Krishna will take care of all of his karma and free him from the tyranny of his present existence. In other words, total devotion to Krishna will result in salvation because of Krishna’s power and mercy; thus, Krishna plays the role of savior for Arjuna, a role that he offers to all human beings.
So, we see that Hinduism has a concept of saviorhood in the sense that there are figures who save the universe (“stage one”) and figures who save individuals (“stage two”). The first type helps preserve the dharma, the way of salvation, while the second provides help with the dharma.
Now, it is important to recognize the context in which these saviors are said to function. As we stated above, in Hindu thought the main problem for human beings is being a human being in the world (maya), and the saviors contribute to a person’s being liberated from their existence in the cycle of reincarnations.
But what if that is not really the main problem that human beings face? Is the predicament that we as humans face the fact that we live in a finite world as finite beings, or does it go deeper than that? What if the real quandary that we are in is one internal to ourselves, namely that we are personally spiritually corrupt?
In that case, the concept of saviorhood in Hinduism does not have anything to offer. If my problem as a human being is that, as Christianity teaches, I have a sinful nature, then it will do me no good to follow the dharma or to rely on Krishna’s mercies. Even if I obeyed the dharma to its most punctilious extent, and even if I practiced Krishna-Yoga with all of the commitment that the Bhagavad Gita counsels, at the end of the day I would still be just a sinful as before because neither Krishna nor any of the other savior-figures have done anything to actually redeem me from my sins.
The notion of saviorhood in Christianity is very different. To be sure, Christ defeated evil when he died on the cross, but he not only encourages people to follow his way, but he actually reconciled us with God by substituting his own death for the consequences of our sins. Jesus Christ is called savior by Christians because he has, in fact, saved them. The most basic problem for us humans is that we are sinful and that we are, consequently, separated from God. Christ has bridged that gap, and all he asks of us is that we receive his redemption by faith.