Q: Is there a concept of salvation by grace in Hinduism. Specifically I''ve heard of some thing akin to the Christian faith''s concept of grace. Is there anything to this?
A: I have heard of assertions that there is a concept of grace in Hinduism. Some translations of the Vedas even use the word “grace” (e.g. Griffith). The idea of grace must first be carefully explained in order to get at this question. The word is used in common English (rightly so) to mean many things that are associated, but not exactly the same as the theological meaning of grace in the New Testament. Encarta Dictionary (2003 Reference Library) gives the following definitions:
1) elegance: beauty, and smoothness of form or movement
2) politeness: dignified, polite, and decent behavior
3) generosity of spirit: a capacity to tolerate, accommodate, or forgive people
4) prayer and mealtimes: a short prayer to God said before, or sometimes after a meal
5) finance—grace period
6) pleasing: a pleasing and admirable quality or characteristic
7) gift of God to mankind: in Christianity, the infinite love, mercy, favor, and goodwill shown to human kind by God
8) freedom from sin: in Christianity, the condition of being free of sin…
The word “grace” can rightly be used to translate and mean definitions one, two, and six very easily, and even perhaps number three. These could be correctly used of people of almost any worldview. In Hinduism, there is certainly a concept of grace in the sense of beauty, politeness, generosity, and pleasing qualities or characteristics. These can be said to be things Hindus would hold to and “believe” in, though they are not theologically charged meanings.
There is a unique concept of grace central to the New Testament and most closely pointed to in definition number seven. This concept is the core theological concept of the entire teaching of Jesus Christ and the New Testament. It includes “cousin concepts” such as:
a. man cannot save himself
b. man cannot earn his salvation
c. God cannot simply forgive, but forgiveness must include justice
d. works are from gratitude, not in order to earn salvation
The grace of God is deepened by understanding these truths, and it is in this context that grace is taught in the New Testament. It is often contrasted to salvation by works. In Ephesians 2:8-9 it says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works so that one can boast.” ‘Salvation by works’ systems believe that men can pay for their errors or sins by doing good. These belief systems hold that good and evil balance one another out, somewhat like a scale; if your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds, then you will be saved. Jesus teaches that the only standard acceptable to God is absolute perfection. Everyone who has sinned falls short of this perfection. No amount of good works can make amends. Therefore it is impossible for any man to save himself, for every man who needs saving has already fallen short. The only solution is for God to find a way to forgive. I say “find a way,” because God cannot simply wave a wand and forgive. He must also meet the demands of His own justice. The grace of God is not dismissing sin as light and simply waving it off. The grace of God is that God takes onto Himself (His Son, Jesus) the punishment of the sins of men that are due by the demands of justice. This is what Jesus did at the cross. Anyone who simply believes in the forgiving sacrifice of Jesus is then forgiven. The cross of Jesus is the demonstration of the grace of God.
In Hinduism, there is no like theological concept of grace. Indeed, this concept is unique to Jesus and is not found in any other worldview. The central teaching of karma and reincarnation in Hinduism rule out grace completely. Karma is the law of cause and effect that operates within all life. Men are said to ascend the ladder (like the game of snakes and ladders) of improvement towards salvation by their good deeds. Lower castes and those who suffer are reaping the result of bad karma; higher castes and those who do well in this life are reaping the benefits of good karma accrued through good deeds and duty in a previous life. Through many reincarnations a man can then expect to ascend by good works through the insects and animals and castes to finally reach moksha (salvation). The closest thing I know of to grace in Hinduism comes from the bhakti (devotion) movement. This is where the followers of a particular god or guru find such pleasure or kindness from their god that they are enthralled by it. Yet, conceptually this is still not grace. Even here it is through the devotion they have to the god or guru that they will find moksha, it is not the judicial act of God to pay for their sins in a cosmic spiritual way.
So when we look at the conceptual level of grace, there is no teaching of this in Hinduism. Yet, there are clearly ways in which Hindus may claim the general meanings of this word in the English language.