Christians and Caste
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN INDIA
WHAT comes to mind when you hear the expression “caste system”? Perhaps you think of India and the millions who are without caste—the outcastes. Although the caste system is part of the Hindu religion, Hindu reformers have fought to eradicate the effects that it has had on lower castes and the outcastes. In view of this, what would you say if you heard of the caste system being practiced even in churches claiming to be Christian?
Possible Origin of the Caste System in India
The division of people into social orders in which some feel superior is not unique to India. All continents have seen class discrimination in one form or another. What has made India’s caste system different is the fact that over 3,000 years ago, a process of social subjugation became incorporated into religion.
Although the origin of the caste system is not known with certainty, some authorities locate its roots in the ancient civilization of the Indus Valley in modern Pakistan. Archaeology seems to indicate that the earliest inhabitants there were later conquered by tribes from the northwest, in what is commonly termed the “Aryan migration.” In his book The Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru calls this “the first great cultural synthesis and fusion,” from which sprang “the Indian races and the basic Indian culture.” This fusion, however, did not result in racial equality.
The New Encyclopædia Britannica states: “Hindus account for the proliferation of the castes (jātis, literally ‘births’) by the subdividing of the four classes, or varnas, due to intermarriage (which is prohibited in Hindu works on dharma). Modern theorists, however, tend to assume that castes arose from differences in family ritual practices, racial distinctions, and occupational differentiation and specialization. Many modern scholars also doubt whether the simple varna system was ever more than a theoretical socioreligious ideal and have emphasized that the highly complex division of Hindu society into nearly 3,000 castes and subcastes was probably in place even in ancient times.”
For some time intermarriage took place between classes, and the former prejudices based on skin color became less pronounced. The stringent rules governing caste were a later religious development, set out in Vedic scriptures and the Code (or Institutes) of Manu, a Hindu sage. The Brahmans taught that the higher castes were born with a purity that set them apart from the lower castes. They instilled in the Sudras, or those of the lowest caste, the belief that their menial work was God-ordained punishment for bad deeds done in a former existence and that any attempt to break the caste barrier would make them outcastes. Intermarriage, interdining, using the same water supply, or entering the same temple as a Sudra could make a higher-caste person lose caste.
Caste in the Modern Setting
After attaining independence in 1947, India’s secular government formulated a constitution that made caste discrimination a criminal offense. Recognizing the centuries of disadvantage to lower-caste Hindus, the government legislated the reservation of government and elected posts as well as seats in educational institutions, for scheduled castes and tribes.* A term used for these Hindu groups is “Dalit,” meaning “crushed, downtrodden.” But a recent newspaper headline stated: “Dalit Christians Demand Reservations [job and university quotas].” How has this come about?
The extensive government benefits given to lower-caste Hindus are based on the fact that they have suffered injustice because of the caste system. So it was reasoned that religions that have not practiced the caste system cannot expect these benefits. However, because they were lower-caste, or untouchable, converts, say Dalit Christians, they too are experiencing discrimination, not only from Hindus but also from their ‘fellow Christians.’ Is this true?
Christendom’s Missionaries and Caste
Many Hindus were converted by Portuguese, French, and British missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, during colonial times. People from all castes became nominal Christians, some preachers attracting the Brahmans, others the Untouchables. What effect did the teaching and conduct of the missionaries have on the deeply ingrained belief in caste?
Of the British in India, author Nirad Chaudhuri says that in churches “the Indian congregation could not sit with the Europeans. The consciousness of racial superiority on which British rule in India rested was not concealed by Christianity.” Showing a similar attitude, in 1894 a missionary reported to the Board of Foreign Missions of the United States that converting lower-caste people was “raking in rubbish into the Church.”
Clearly, the feeling of racial superiority on the part of the early missionaries and the fusion of Brahmanic thought with church teachings are largely responsible for a caste system being openly practiced by many so-called Christians in India.
Caste in the Churches Today
Catholic Archbishop George Zur, while addressing the Catholic Bishops Conference of India in 1991, said: “Scheduled caste converts are treated as low caste not only by high caste Hindus but by high caste Christians too. . . . Separate places are marked out for them in the parish churches and burial grounds. Inter-caste marriages are frowned upon . . . Casteism is rampant among the clergy.”
Bishop M. Azariah, of the Church of South India, a United Protestant Church, said in his book The Un-Christian Side of the Indian Church: “The Scheduled Caste (Dalit) Christians are thus discriminated against and oppressed by fellow Christians within the various churches for no fault of their own but the accident of birth, even when they are 2nd, 3rd or 4th generation Christians. The high caste Christians who are in a minority in the Church carry their caste prejudices even after generations, unaffected by Christian belief and practice.”
A government investigation into the problems of the backward classes in India, known as the Mandal Commission, found that professed Christians in Kerala were divided “into various ethnic groups on the basis of their caste background. . . . Even after conversion, the lower caste converts were continued to be treated as Harijans* . . . The Syrian and the Pulaya members of the same Church conducted religious rituals separately in separate buildings.”
An Indian Express news report in August 1996 said of the Dalit Christians: “In Tamil Nadu, they are residentially segregated from the higher castes. In Kerala, they are largely landless labourers, and work for Syrian Christians and other landed upper castes. There is no question of inter-dining or inter-marriage between the Dalits and the Syrian Christians. In many cases, the Dalits worship in their own churches, called ‘Pulaya church’ or ‘Paraya church.’” These are subcaste names. The Anglicized form of “paraya” is “pariah.”
Reactions to Discontent
Groups of layman activists, such as FACE (the Forum Against Christian Exploitation), are seeking government benefits for Christian Dalits. The chief concern is economic aid for Christian converts. Others, however, are concerned about treatment within the church. In a letter to Pope John Paul II, about 120 signatories stated that they had “embraced Christianity to be liberated from the caste system” but that they are not allowed to enter the village church or share in services. They were forced to build houses along a single street on which no high-caste Christians—and no parish priest—ever set foot! A similarly troubled Catholic woman said: “It is certainly important to me that my son study in a good college. But it is even more important that he be acknowledged as an equal by his [Catholic] brethren.”
While some are trying to better the lot of the Dalit Christians, many are losing patience. Organizations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Organization) are trying to bring the Christian converts back into the Hindu fold. The Indian Express reported a ceremony attended by 10,000 people, in which more than 600 such “Christian” families reembraced Hinduism.
The True Christian Way
Had the missionaries of the church organizations taught Christ’s teachings based on love, there would have been no “Brahman Christians,” no “Dalit Christians,” no “Paraya Christians.” (Matthew 22:37-40) There would have been no separate churches for Dalits and no segregation at meals. What is this liberating Bible teaching that transcends class distinctions?
“For Jehovah your God is the God of gods . . . , who treats none with partiality nor accepts a bribe.”—Deuteronomy 10:17.
“Now I exhort you, brothers, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that you should all speak in agreement, and that there should not be divisions among you, but that you may be fitly united in the same mind and in the same line of thought.”—1 Corinthians 1:10.
“By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love among yourselves.”—John 13:35.
The Bible teaches that God made all mankind from one man. It also says that all descendants of that one man should ‘seek God and find him, although he is not far off from each one of us.’—Acts 17:26, 27.
When class distinctions began to creep into the early Christian congregation, the writer James, under inspiration, condemned it roundly. He said: “You have class distinctions among yourselves and you have become judges rendering wicked decisions, is that not so?” (James 2:1-4) True Christian teaching does not allow for any form of caste system.
The Need for New World Thinking
Millions of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been willing to change their former beliefs and conduct learned from many different religions. The Bible’s teachings have removed from their hearts and minds feelings of superiority or inferiority, whether these were rooted in colonial conquest, race, apartheid, or the caste system. (Romans 12:1, 2) They have a clear understanding of what the Bible calls “a new earth,” in which “righteousness is to dwell.” What a glorious prospect for earth’s suffering multitudes!—2 Peter 3:13.
“Scheduled castes” is an official term for the lower castes among Hindus, or the outcastes, Untouchables, who have suffered deprivation socially and economically.
A term coined by M. K. Gandhi for the lower castes. It means “People of Hari,” one of the names of the god Vishnu.
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“God is not partial, but in every nation the man that fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.”—Acts 10:34, 35
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How Does It Feel?
Yes, how does it feel to be treated as an outcaste by people who claim to be Christians? One Christian, whose ancestors were converted from a lower caste of Hinduism known as Cheramar or Pulaya, relates an incident that took place in his home state of Kerala some years ago:
I was invited to a wedding where quite a few of the guests were church members. When they saw me at the reception, it caused quite a commotion, and those who were from the Orthodox Syrian Church said that they would not stay at the reception unless I left, since they would not share a meal with a pulayan. When the father of the bride refused to give in to their ultimatum, they boycotted the reception en masse. After they left, the meal was served. But those serving at the tables refused to clear away the plantain leaf that I had eaten off of and to clean my table.
A typical church in South India, where only lower castes meet