CASTEISM IN NON-HINDU RELIGIONS:
Casteism is often regard as a religious matter of the Hindus. However
in India other religions too are equally caste riddled. Sikhism, Islam
and Christianity formally do not sanction caste since the varna-dharma
concept do not exist in their founding ideology. Nevertheless, in reality
members of all three replicate the Hindu caste pattern including untouchability.
Sikhism was begun by Guru Nanak
in Punjab in sixteenth century who invited all irrespective of caste to
join him as equals. He was followed by nine gurus who kept up the
tradition. Respect for manual labour is enjoined on Sikhs so that no one
is held to be high or low because of his occupation. Sikh commitment to equality
is demonstrated by the institutions of 'sangat' (gathering) and 'langar'
(dining). It is a religious requirement for Sikhs to socialize
in the gurudwara (temple) and take food together in the community dining
hall. Since commsensality is the most important element of caste,
such practices break down caste -barriers. Priesthood was open to
all. The new religion was naturally attractive to low castes and many
joined. However, gradually, social forces came into play and inevitably all
kinds of distinctions came in.
Sikhism does not have any Brahmin as such,
but the equivalent position is occupied by Jats, a land-owning and soldiering
caste. Belonging to the peasant caste, which is a low caste, they had converted
to Sikhism : there they found mobility and soon established themselves
at the top by virtue of their wealth and political power. By the seventeenth
century a great Sikh empire had been established. But Sikh society
had also become split into several castes like Jats, Arora, Ramdasias,
Khatris etc., with them further subdivided and it was hierarchical. The
various castes were strictly ranked, and commsensality and connubium was
adhered to rigidly. All Sikhs were equal in langar, but in the outside world
social difference were legitimized. Even untouchability made a return; Sikh
untouchables, called Mazhabis, were denied access to gurudwaras
and village wells. When the Sikhs took service in British army, Sikh regiments
were caste based, since the higher castes would neither mix nor take orders
from lower castes. Caste was a way for Jats to retain their social
In 1880's Bhai Kahn
Singh published his book Hum Hindu Nahi. The aim of the book
backed by a large number of educated Sikhs was to persuade the British
that Sikhs constituted a separate people from Hindus so that Sikhs
should have their own representatives and laws. The thesis of the book
was that Sikhism did not not support Varna, while Hinduism does. Probably
in answer , Gianni Ditt Singh, a disillusioned new convert, wrote Naqli
Sikh Prabodh; he pointed out that an amritdhari or fully baptized Sikh
retained his caste name and an untouchable remained an untouchable even
In 1900's Rahtia Sikhs tried
to enter the Golden Temple, the chief temple of Sikhs. The head Sardar
ordered their arrest. The reason for their barring was that they were impure
and so defiled the purity of the temple.
Because of dangerous reformist
tendencies developing, the Khalsa Dharam Shastra was published
in 1914. It strictly laid down the rules. Members of Mazhabi, Rahtia and
Ramdasia castes did not have the right to go beyond four steps inside
the Golden Temple. The four Varnas were instructed not to mix with the
untouchable Sikhs. Those guilty of breaking the caste rules were called
'patit' or fallen and were shunned by civil society.
1920' s saw the Gurudwara
Reform Movement which continued to gather steam. The religious body
of SGPC was set up and they passed resolution to ban untouchability
and took in low caste priests. However it did not make much headway. Even
in 1933 the head of Golden Temple noted that mahzbis' offerings of consecrated
food were not accepted and other Sikhs denied them use of public utilities.
(One story is that when Ambedkar wanted Hindu dalits to convert to Sikhism,
Sikh dalits told him of the atrocities they suffered daily and dissuaded
him). In fact so entrenched had the caste system become in the Sikh psyche
that after Independence the Sikh leaders demanded that Sikh untouchables
should have the same reservation rights as Hindu untouchables. Thus
the same Sikhs who demanded that the Indian Constitution recognize them as
a separate religion because they did not recognize caste , now argued that
not recognizing Sikhs had untouchables was discrimination against Sikhs.
Since then caste system had continued among the Sikhs, though
concern with purity and mixing is less than it si with the Hindus.
A survey in 2001 found that each
castes have separate temples. Most villages even have separate crematoriums
for dalits. Though the upper castes insist there is no discrimination because
Sikhism do not believe in caste, the dalits tell a different story. They
had to sit at the last rows in the temple, to eat last at langar (which
defeats its purpose), are often not allowed to cook or serve food at langar,
are not allowed to carry the Granth sahib or Sikh holy book and is often
taunted for their origins. If the try to cross the limits set for
them (like taking out a guruparb procession or entering a caste gurudwara)
violence is inflicted on them by the upper castes. The more they assert themselves,
the more atrocities are inflicted on them, religion notwithstanding.
Sikhism is confined to a limited
area, is a newer religion and had been documented extensively since
its inception; hence it is easier to study the development of caste hierarchy
in it. Study of Sikh social history tells us a great deal about the rise
of caste in Hinduism.
The Indian Muslim society is divided into Asrafs
(noble) and non-Asrafs. Ashrafs and non-Ashrafs are collectively referred
to as 'oonchi zat' (high caste) and 'neechi zat' (low caste). In their turn
Asrafs are subdivided into Sayyids supposedly descendants of
Muhammad, Shaykhs (Arabic: “Chiefs”), descendants of Arab or Persian invaders,
Pathans (members of Pasthun tribes) and Mughals. It is not that all who
belong to such castes actually are descended from these races; but high hindu
castes who have become absorbed into them took such designations as well.
Economic relationships between Asrafs and non-Asrafs depend
on the jajman-kamin or patron-client system. The non-ashraf Muslim castes
are similarly subdivided into farmer, artisan castes etc., with untouchables
at the bottom. They follow the same rules of endogamy and intermixing
as do their Hindu counterparts. Though rules of pollution are less strict,
they are nevertheless observed so that people like barbers are treated as
untouchables. Nightsoil and carrion carriers form the most untouchable caste
whose very touch pollutes. Even mosques are sometimes separate. Among the
non-Asrafs superiority or inferiority of a caste is determined by the relatively
pure or impure nature of the occupation associated with each, and how close
they come to physical proximity of the Asrafs in their daily activities.
However non-Asrafs are always inferior to Asrafs. If an Asraf marries non-Asraf
the Asrafs will not accept him or her as equal and would not dine with them,
particulary not on formal occasions before the general public. The
non-Asrafs are also known as Ajlaf meaning wretched, mean. Even after conversion
all the old practices remain. For example, Meos are Muslim rajputs
who employed Brahmin genealogists to fabricate claims to Ksatiryahood.
The case is the same with Indian Christians. They
too are divided into a number of castes with the previously Brahmin castes
at the top and untouchables at the bottom. The same rules of Hindu
caste system govern them, and they are known by their caste names --- Christian
Nayars, Christian Paraya etc. Hardly any lower castes are allowed
to be appointed as priest. Untouchables have separate graveyards and churches.
So entrenched is the system that if a Christian upper caste cannot find
a suitable caste Christian to marry, then a Hindu of the same caste will
be selected rather than another Christian of lower caste. The Dalits
who converted to Christianity possibly gained a new sense of self-respect,
but the gains were wiped out by the fact that uppercaste Christians from
whose ranks their religious superiors come still treated them as untouchables.
There has been recorded instances of priests refusing to enter the houses
of their dalit congregation; the mission schools have separate arrangmenets
for dalits and other castes. Nor did their relationship with Hindu castes
change in any way. So, many Dalit Christians have either started new churches
themselves or reconverted back to Hinduism. How castesim is practised
by Christians is attested by the Christian dalits themselves.
"But the irony is that caste discrimination is very much practised
in Christianity. For example, there are separate seats for the dalits in
churches; in fact there are separate churches for Christian
dalits, separate communion cups, and even separate burial grounds.
As Mr. Kaka Karlekar. Chairman of the Backward Classes Commission,
commented, "even today the Christians belonging to the SCs are forced
to have separate cemeteries in some parts of India. Even the dead must observe
caste and untouchability."
Though Christianity also does not recognize caste system, there are upper
and lower caste among Christians. In Goa, for example, there are upper caste
Catholic Brahmins who do not marry Christians belonging to the lower castes.
In many churches, the low caste Christians have to sit apart from the high
caste Christians. In Andhra Pradesh, there are Christian Dalit, Christian
Malas, Christian Reddys, Christian Kammas, etc. In Tamil Nadu, converts
to Christianity form Scheduled Castes - Latin Catholics, Christian Shanars,
and Christian Gramani are in the list of Scheduled Castes. Such instances
are many and vary from region to region.
" The external forms of untouchability and their practice still exist
among Christians, within the Church, in the graveyard, in the festivals,
in marriage alliances, etc. The most unfortunate thing is that the caste Christians,
practising these inhuman acts are often supported by their own caste-priests
and nuns, who even encourage them to attack Dalit Christians. That is the
main reason for caste-practice continuing in the Church. Incidents in the
past and also in recent years prove that in those areas and villages where
large number of priests and nuns have been ordained, (few example: Thatchoor
in Madras diocese, Eraiyur in Pondy diocese, Varadarajanpet in Kumbakonam
diocese) the Caste-Christians are more active in oppressing Dalit
Christians and resisting vigorously when they demand dignity, equality, and
justice. Most of the caste priests, nuns and some in hierarchical positions
use their money, authority and institutional power against Dalit Christians
at the times of crisis, instead of supporting their just cause. We are saying
this from many experience"
"Archbishop George Zur, the apostolic Pro-nuncio to India spoke to the Catholic
Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) in December 1991, declaring ....: "Though
Catholics of the lower castes and tribes form sixty percent of church membership,
they have no place in decision- making. Scheduled caste converts are treated
as low caste not only by high caste Hindus but by high caste Christians
too. In rural areas they cannot own or rent houses, however well-placed
they may be. Separate places are marked for them in the parish churches
and burial grounds. Inter- caste marriages are frowned upon and caste tags
are still appended to the Christian names of high caste people. Casteism
is rampant among the clergy and the religious. Though Dalit Christians make
up 65 percent of the ten million Christians in the south, less than 4 percent
of the parishes are entrusted to Dalit Priests. There are no Dalits among
thirteen Catholic bishops of Tamilnadu or among the Vicars-General and Rectors
of seminaries and Directors of Social Assistance Centres."
Protestant Churches suffer from the same malaise.
The feelings of the low castes can be gauged from the event where about
a 1,000 Dalit Christians armed with lethal weapons had barged into the
"Conversion Victory Mela" on July 13, 2002 at the Chengalput St. Joseph's
Church shouting "Don't dupe Dalit Hindus by promising equal treatment!"
It might appear surprising that Islam and Christianity though
being religions of equality should be so riddled with caste. Their apologists
invariably explain that Hinduism has corrupted them. Of course it is true
that when castes converted enbloc, they carried all their baggage with them
and the economic-political forces ensured that the social relationships
do not change. But they ignore the beam in their own eye, viz that, though
all Muslims or all Christians might be equal in God's eyes, the religious
institutions had always sanctioned social inequality.
Among the Arabs the
Querash claimed excellence by virtue of being Prophet's tribe, and Omar
distributed booty according to the length of time one has been a convert.
In India the names of the Asrafs give away their claims to superiority;
they were superior because of their birth from conquering invaders,
while their conquered subjects were low or ajlaf. Rather like the varna
system, Humayun brought with him a Muslim society divided into Ahl-e-kalam
or clergy, Ahl-e-Jegh or warriors and Ahl-e-Murad. Above all slavery
was practiced. Though the Koran says that freeing slaves is a meritorious
act slavery was never abolished; Muhammad himself enslaved captives of war
and freely engaged in buying and selling slaves --- there can be no greater
social discrimination than that. Therefore though the Muslim rulers and
clergy expressed surprise at untouchability which did not exist among them,
they saw nothing wrong with a endogamous hierarchy and made no attempts to
change things when their co-religionists practiced it. Indeed there do not
seem to have been any highly regarded Islamic authority who ever spoke
of an equal society.
In Christianity also, spiritual salvation
was no guarantee of social equality. Whatever Christ may have taught,
the Christian Church had never been too eager for equality. The New Testament
condones slavery explicitly.
Ephesians 6: 5-9:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with
sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.
Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but
like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.
Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because
you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does,
whether he is slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same
way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master
and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.
1 Timothy 6:1-3 "Let as many servants
as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, that
the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed. And they that have
believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren;
but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers
of the benefit. These things teach and exhort. If any man teach otherwise,
and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ,
and to the doctrine which is according to godliness;"
Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try
to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them,
but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will
make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.
1 Peter 2:18-21:
Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only
to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.
For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering
because he is conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive
a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good
and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called,
because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should
follow in his steps.
He is no longer just a slave; he is a beloved brother, especially
to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a slave and as a brother
in the Lord.
Slavery was continued in Christian Byzantine and slaves were kept
in the heart of Catholic Rome by the Popes during medieval age. USA of course
practised slavery , justifying it with quotes from the Bible.
Ages Europe was ruled the hierarchical system of feudalism --- though pollution
was not a concern and interdining was allowed, in every other respect from
dress codes to marriage rules it showed the same pattern as the caste system.
The Church taught that this feudalism is divinely ordained, and a good Christian
who did not protest his lowly position would be rewarded by God. After
the Protestant revolution at first there was some impulse towards equality
and reformation within the Church. . But soon both Catholic and Protestant
Churches became more interested in retaining power and gaining wealth.
The mainstream Churches taught that one should not rebel against
the status quo; indeed after the 1857 mutiny in India, the Monghyr Baptists
told the British govt. that had they been allowed to convert all Hindus
then the mutiny would never have happened because "Christianity does not
teach subjects to rebel".
Churches came to India it was never with the idea to change society; saving
souls was only a way to swell their numbers. Letters still exist from the
Colonial times where we find churches engaged in bidding for heathen souls.
Caste leaders would send letters asking what material benefits each Church
could offer even listing what other Churches had offered; an auction of
sorts would ensue until the whole caste converted. When uppercastes converted
it was with the understanding that caste distinctions would be maintained.
Some priests did try to do away with these practices but the Churches were
more anxious not to upset wealthy and powerful patrons. The missionaries
themselves came from a society that was class-based with fixed ideas about
how each class should behave. So though they found untouchability to be against
Christian principles they found nothing wrong with a hierarchical society
per se. (Not to mention they missed the irony of trying to separate the
Hindus and Christians on basis of purity). Moreover the Britishers brought
with them racism. They thought that darker skinned people were inherently
inferior. When the first Brahmin clergyman, (fully convinced of his
superiority as well) demanded equal salary with European missionaries his
religious superiors were scandalized. They spoke bitterly of his ingratitude
and lamented that natives now thought themselves to be as good as white
men. It is not surprising therefore that the Churches made no serious attempts
at eradicating casteism, though the Bishops are fond of proclaiming loudly
how they are eradicating caste. In fact even now certain Christian
groups are quite prepared to accept caste, if only Hindus would convert.