Sunday, May 19, 2002
I was chatting this morning with a Texan youngster who seemed to have some misconceptions about the caste system. The chap and his parents (who travel widely, and are also involved with charity and evangelical activities) had been in India several years before. Anyway, he told me his parents had been taught that Hindus treated anyone who was not Hindu as untouchable. Which goes to show how little about India is really known outside.
(The following is based on my memories of a sophomore course on sociology - if I goof up anywhere, I'd like you to mail me about it).
Hindu society was organised into 4 varnas - Brahmin (the priests), Kshatriya (the kings), Vaishya (sometimes referred to as Baniyas; the shopkeepers and traders) and Shudra (the peasants and labourers). Varna itself is the Sanskrit word for 'colour' - the varnas probably originally applied only to the Aryans (who were of fairer skin tone than indigenous Indians), but was later adopted all over India (or maybe there was lots of inter-marrying and mixing). The 'untouchables' lie outside the varna-system proper; and people of the varnas may not have direct contact with them.
This 4-varna (or 5 - depending on how you look at it) broadly applies all over India. Each region also has specific jatis (or castes proper) - and each jati belongs to one of the four varnas.
(For more on this, check out Aharon Daniel's page)
Of course, the untouchables were called Harijan ("God's people") by Gandhi, who fought hard to remove the stigma of untouchability. These days, it's politically correct to call them Dalits. Much of the worst of untouchability is a matter of the past - India even has a Dalit President now. Nevertheless, there are still several regions of India where Dalit oppression continues - hopefully all of that will come to end in the not-so-distant future.
Anyway, one of the interesting questions that came up was - how are Christians treated in the caste hierarchy? Also - do castes exist in Christianity in India?
India has nearly 25 million Christians. About 19 million (or 70%) of them are Dalit. The other 30% are converts or descendents of converts (some going back nearly 2 millennia - like the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala) from upper castes. The evidence suggests that, even after conversion, the caste hierarchy was maintained. So, while the St. Thomas Christians (descendents of people converted by the Apostle Thomas - also known as Syrian Christians because of their connections to the Syrian Church in early centuries) were treated with great respect due to their ex-Brahminical status; Dalit and other lower caste converts (most of whom converted under European rule - and hence called Latin Christians) continued to be treated according to their caste (Arundhati Roy's Booker-winning God of Small Things catalogues many such incidents, probably based on incidents from the author's youth).
Probably as a result of all these, the Church in India is dominated by the Syrian Christians (although the Latin Christians who owe their conversions to St. Francis Xavier are also a powerful group), who occupy several powerful positions. Dalit Christians got stranded at the doldrums in 1985 when the Supreme Court ruled that Dalit Christians were not eligible for SC/ST privileges (although Hindu and Sikh, and later Buddhist Dalits, were eligible).
- Fr. Berchman Kodackal's excellent history of the Church in India
- DalitChristians.com - of course, one-sided and a little exaggerated; but a must-read.
- SyroMalabarChurch.com - a lay site on the sui iuris Eastern Church that is part of the Roman Catholic Church.
- Another interesting page on the varna system and caste.
By the way, I'm a Syro-Malabar Catholic.
posted by Kensy |