“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” Ephesians 2:14.
Recently I participated in a conversation with regards to the Indian Caste System with a Christian’s approach to it. I was glad that a bold open conversation is possible on difficult issues if only we add vision, truth, empathy and grace to channelize it properly.
Especially, in the past few years of me writing through this space on various issues relating to the concerns of the society, and also the events of the world, presenting my perspective in the light of God’s truth found in the Scriptures. I found that it requires more and more grace from God to handle such volatile and sensitive topics, but I also realized that it is more important to present the truth in its reality, so that even if it makes people and myself uncomfortable in that process , it would only benefit everyone in the longer run.
I had written a bit about the issue of caste with a theological perspective on oppression that is exhibited in various ways across the world in my article on ‘Liberation Theology’, I found the need of writing an article specifically addressing this caste issue after my recent conversation on ‘Random Thoughts’.
(Find the article on liberation theology here —–> https://aletheiatruthmatters.wordpress.com/2019/12/05/liberation-theology-where-does-it-apply/)
Post World War 2, at the Yalta conference three nations of the allied forces UK, US and USSR that defeated the Nazi rule divided Germany among themselves with West Germany going to the UK, US,French, and East Germany to communist Russia. The capital Berlin too was divided in to two, and a wall was built to separate these two countries. From its construction in August 1961 until its demolition on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall did more than separate West Germany from the East, also known as the DDR(German Democratic Republic). It symbolised a deep-rooted hatred, an insurmountable division between people that directly led to the deaths of at least 139 people who dared to try and cross it. The wall wasn’t just a physical barrier – it was there to intimidate people into submission. East Berliners who wanted to move to west for better opportunities scaling the wall as so many had given their lives to do . On November 9, 1989 the wall was demolished and in 1991 both East and West Germany was unified as one Nation. After its momentous demolition its ruins became a symbol of hope and a warning to people of the future. A small message scrawled on its remains reads: ‘None but those who have lived it can understand the real meaning of this wall. What really scares us is how easy it is to lose our freedom.’
Every hostile walls that divides and oppresses us must be put away to offer hope.Caste System is one such dividing wall which has denied hope to many. A change is possible when each one take a decisive step of conviction towards hope and freedom.
Caste System- An Introduction:
The caste system is followed in Indian subcontinent and by many Indians for many centuries, it is an unique system of social order with a static hierarchial framework based on people’s birth, occupation and ethnicty. It is fundamentally a social order based on a religious philosophy and a religous text forming an organized belief system influencing the culture and the society for a long period of time.
In the system, the society is divided up into four classes based on the principle of “varna,” which literally means “color”: the Brahmins (the priestly class); the Kshatriyas (the ruling, administrative and warrior class); the Vaishyas (the class of artisans, tradesmen, farmers and merchants); and the Shudras (manual workers). There are also people who fall outside the system, including tribal people and the Dalits, previously known as “untouchables,” although the term is somewhat contentious.
The concept of “jati,” meaning “birth,” also underlies the caste system and causes its differentiation into thousands of sub-groups based on lineage or kinship that are difficult to define.
E. Blunt defines it as this – “Caste is an endogamous group bearing a common name, membership of which is hereditary, imposing on its members certain restrictions in the matter of social intercourse, either following a common traditional occupation claiming a common origin & generally regarded as forming a single homogenous community.
Characteristics of the Caste System :
The characteristics of caste system is very evident wherever it is observed, pursued and followed,
Based on birth : Birth is the determinant factor of caste system. Once born in a caste he has to remain the same. Status, position prestige is fixed according to his caste. i.e. A scribed. The castes are divided into sub-caste.
Endogamy & Exogamy : In a caste system there is restriction on marriage. Westermarck observes- “Restriction on marriage Endogamy & Exogamy are the essence of the caste system. “Endogamy their one’s own caste or sub-caste. Exogamy –same caste but not same clean i.e. Gotra.
Social Hierarchy: Social heirarchy with a distinct discrimination is found in the caste system. Brahmin is high & sudra have the inferior position & prestige. Prof. Bhurey – Sanskritisation in this the lower caste people can initiate the upper caste. De-Sanskritisation – Upper caste can initiate the lower caste.
Occupational restriction & hereditary occupation : Occupation is fixed by your caste. A black smith son will always be a black smith.
Economic disparity – The higher caste people are generally economically better off & the lower caste people work harder & yet they get little benefit i.e. they are poorer.
There are also other characteristics such as access to power, education and rights which is submerged in caste system. The consolidated characteristic of the caste system is its impression of inequality.
(Source for the italicized passage: https://www.civilserviceindia.com/subject/Sociology/notes/caste-system.html)
Text or Context:
Since the basic structure of Caste system evolves out of a particular text, does it mean that everyone follow it word by word to keep the system alive and active? Definitely not. The truth is many who follow it actually don’t know anything about the text or the idea that acts as a basis to it, and many don’t know why they follow it.
Every text will have a context, and every context can influene a text. We exactly don’t know whether the text or the context came first in originating the system. Certainly there would have been a need, but was it beneficial to all, did it begin for a common welfare?
In the caste system, the need for it becomes the context. Especially over the years from its origins, it has conditioned in to people and people groups as a tradition and belief system based on which they function, through which their feelings are oriented.
Moreover, the need for ‘I’dentity that is found in human beings, to associate and attach themselves with something beyond themselves, gives them a sense of pupose. But the problem in this idea is, it doesn’t give everyone the equal dignity, a fair share. It is framed in such away that one’s dignity is proportional to someone’s indignity, that someone’s glory is at the cost of somebody else’s shame.
Whether the origins of this system is text or a context, this system has penetrated in to people’s lifestyles for centuries, and have influenced their thought process for many seasons, and have afftected people’s personal decisions since its inception. The bigger issue is to deal with the implications it has left in the society, and the patterns that affect the functions of people’s behaviour and as a follower of Christ what would be our response and approach to such issues that is making an impact on people’s lives.
The order of caste system : A societal Need or a Societal Greed ?
“Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”. Genesis 1:2
In the creation of the universe, we can see that there is disorder in earth before the Word and the Spirit of God intervened. Then God brings an order to it, the purpose of the creative order is to bring life and meaning. So in the process of creation, the power and authority from God brought in that order. It is the ‘Spiritual order’ that brought life to earth, making it sustainable and functionable through that order. The creation of mankind is an important aspect of that order, where he was given certain authority to bring in order, through the wisdom God had granted him. The order is visible in the pages of the Bible.
There is no question of the need for an order, because it brings purpose, responsibility, growth, direction, discipline and accountability to any situation. If we look at the world societies we find many different orders like the old ethnical slavery to the class system. The bigger question is what does the order stand for, what is it trying to achieve and where does it lead people?
Any ‘Good Order’ should be an ‘Order of life’, where it inspires to make human life better and more meaningful. Any order which doesn’t add value to life is not going to be a good order. There are other areas where we can analyze an order on how good it is. It is whether the existing order is an Order of Truth, Order of Justice, Order of Relevance, Order of Service, Order of Love, Order of Welfare, Order of Growth etc. The ‘Order of Life’ is dependent on many such orders. If any existing order or a system fails to promote these standards that makes it vibrant, it doesn’t make it a good order. One cannot logically deny any order, but that order should mean ‘good’.
The Caste System doesn’t represent a societal need, but reflects a societal greed. In it there is an investment of Pride, an attitude of static supremacy which can deny hope to many.
There is a systematic accumulation of power, wealth, resources and knowledge based on the system over the years, and not an equivalent distribution happens in that order, benefitting few and leaving out many. This creates frustration in the system, and creates multiple problems based out of it. It forms an oppressive order, and when we question deep the conceptualization of it based on its functionality, we can see that it never originted in the first place to serve the need of the many, but the greed of the few. Any good order must look at the need of the many instead of the greed of the few. So the caste system fails on the basis of its conception and formation itself. It is an unwise, irrelevant, and unempathetic social order created in order to hold the power and vision within a certain group of people, forming a upper crust of privilege, then the average, and deeming everything else as garbage.
Investment of Pride and Fear:
“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall”. Proverbs 16:18.
Especially the closed hierarchical order of Caste system, has an investment of pride and fear. Pride and Fear usually goes well together, if Pride works at the top then fear at the bottom, and both strengthens one another. Pride is the seed of destruction, this static order for the privileged, thrives on the pride of those in power, and the fear of the under and the poor. This makes the entire system corrupt, and causes the fall of a society. A haughty spirit is invested within the society in the name of caste system, giving birth to an oppresive and unjust order instead of creative and welfare order. Insecurity runs deep at all levels, causing men to fear one another.
Behind every text there is a spirit, if we test the spirit of the text behind the caste system. It is a spirit of pride, that only thinks about ‘Self’, hence framing it as a static heirarchial ‘Working’ model that governs the life and mindset of people for years. Its a tool of control to benefit a certain section. The Spirit behind the text causes pride and fear that chains people to it, forming a tradition of oppression. Any Spirit that endorses ‘pride’ is not of the Spirit of truth. It stands directly against the truth that is found in the scriptures.
The Hierarchy: What does it do?
Any society will have levels of functioning based on many reasons, one of the implications of caste system is its clear categorization of who to stay on the top and who to stay in the bottom of the hierarchy based on their birth, ethnicity and profession. It makes them slaves to the particular category and divides the society. It stays as their identity all through their life. Though the modern day constitutional democracy doesn’t encourage it, the society still largely functions on it, because of their consciences and identity which are tied to it.
In this hierarchy, the vision, power and wealth stays at the top, and manpower for the work lies at the bottom. The manpower crisis is a universal crisis across the world, even now it is one of the main crisis in developed countries, in ancient civilizations too manpower was fundamental for big projects, slavery is a means to the workforce or that viable man power. The powerful doesn’t empower the powerless, but make them more weak so that they will be under their control, in order to carry out their vision. In the Bible, The Israelites became slaves in Egypt and became their workforce. The reason Pharaoh didn’t want to leave them is that he loses potential manpower. So he oppresses them with his power so that they will stay within their control. Till a greater authority and a mightier hand delivered them.
We exactly don’t know the need of evolution of such system, even if we can visualize that it would have connected the society well with its supply chain order, yet it certainly is not characterized well. So opportunities for dream and vision of their own was denied to many groups in the name of a system that is religious in nature. The whole system was controlled in the name of God, that made it more complex. Those who were under oppression through this system believed they were created by God to live that way, the slavery they underwent, the discrimination they faced, the oppression and the denial of dignity they endured was because of their ‘Fate’, morever another reason was given for their misery is their ‘sin’. That their sin is permanent, the curse is permanent, and there is no way out of it. So people in every category live with that identity as the absolute reality. In some cases many gods were created to strengthen the control of the system.
The hierarchy also has a cultural implication on it. The Indian subcontinent is a home to many ethnic groups, though many claim to be indigenous, the migration of people groups over the years has multi- cultural imprint here, so the heirarchy has different food culture, family culture, faith culture and language orientation at different levels.
This hierarchial system does have an economic impact too. It has left the sudras and the untouchables economically dependent on the higher section, hence becoming vulnerable for exploitation. The oppressive nature of this system is evident by the widespread poverty among those who are at the bottom.
Knowledge too is associated with this hierarchy , access for knowledge is denied outside their work need or skill set, because knowledge leads to power,organization and everything. So truths were hidden too keep the system active, as well truths were dictated from the highest order, which denied rationality and reasoning for many at the bottom. In continuation to denial of knowledge, it also lead to denial of justice in the society. It also is tied to a specific language that made it more complex.
Since it is a static and closed hierarchy, it protects the identity of people at different levels, making it easy and comfortable for those at the top, and making life difficult for those at the bottom. It is caged and gauged for everyone. There is a systematic punishment associated with the hierarchy, mostly endured by those at the bottom with no accountability from the people at the top.
The Biblical view :
“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are”. 1 Corinthians 1:27, 28.
The Bible too has an order seen right from the creation so as to organize accountability and employ growth in the society. It is a ‘Spiritual Order’ with God being the supreme authority from whom every power proceeds from. This also can be called a ‘Faith Order’ for a very specific reason.
God called Abraham and blessed him, a nomad without resting place became the friend of God in faith. He had fellowship and received the covenant from God. His descendants became the chosen people. ‘A Nobody becoming Somebody by the grace of God’, is the story of the Bible. ‘A marginalized becoming empowered by the power of God’ is a Bblical value. God’s choice was always the least, that’s the principle on which the spiritual order functions.
Even when the Israelites became slaves in Egypt, God again intervened to raise them up. But he made it clear that they are not special, but God chose them for a specific purpose, and that they too had to endure punishment from him like other Nations,
“The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples”. Deuteronomy 7:7.
It is a ‘Faith Order’, because the trust in the grace of God is supreme. Faith through obedience became the fundamental of this order to access God. After they came out of Egypt they were organized according to the tribes that came out of the sons of Jacob. It is not a static hierarchical oppressive order but a organization of families in to larger groups in order to function effectively. Even the march towards the promised Land was organized in such a way based on courage, character and the need. A specific group ‘Levi’ was chosen as priests, the priestly order helped in worship which involved many rituals, and Judah probably lead the march. The move towards the core of the order is based on faith, holiness and obedience, and the move away from the core of the order is because of sin, unbelief and disobedience. Hence it is not a hierachial pyramid model as in caste system, but a orbital model.
The settlement too was based on their faith, courage and obedience. We can see that Caleb and Joshua believed at kadesh Barnea, that God can give them what was promised. So naturally when they settled in Canaan, the tribe of Ephraim and Judah which the leaders Joshua and Caleb belonged to got the core portion of the land. The levites, eventhough had a priestly which was given to them to help in worship and sacrifices were not the sole proprietors of the spiritual life of people. God raised prophets in the community to remind them of their ways, even the priests and kings were corrected by the prophets, who belonged to different tribes. The levites dwelled among all the tribes which paved way for mutual accountability. And all tribes were united based on mutual respect and faith in one God. In a way the positioning of the levites is to organize worship and also importantly fellowship and peace within the communities.
Especially after they settled, God raised judges through his Spirit who belonged to different tribes on different occasions based on the need, of their courageous faith and for different other reasons. In every season God raised leaders from different backgrounds to carry out his purposes. Some were mighty, others were weak and ordinary. When he chose Gideon, he says ‘I’m the least of all’. He also raised woman leaders like Deborah and Jael.
It was not in God’s plan to raise a King among Israel, because God was their Supreme and Everlasting king. And more importantly God knew that a king can oppress his people. A static order will be created and it can lead to oppression. But since the people demanded a king, God warned them through Prophet samuel, but obliged to their persistent demand, but it resulted in tragedy, since the subsequent unrighteous kings brought in oppression in to the community, later they became captives of foreign kings. But even when the first king Saul was chosen, he belonged to the smallest of clan in Benjamin, and a Shepherd boy who was least in his family to replace him when Saul didn’t walk according to the ways of God.
The New Testament projects Jesus Christ as the Eternal Priest, King, Prophet and Saviour whose core mission was for the least. Jesus represents the fact that God has the sovereign control of that order.
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:40.
So the Biblical social order is entirely different than the caste system. The Spirit and intention behind the Biblical order was not oppression but liberation found in God. It demands justice and accountability at all levels. Its ambition is hope to those who are the least.
The Spiritual order found in the Bible, represented through human faith is not without its flaws. Since the spiritual order needs human involvement. Those who engage with it must orient themselves to the spirit of the order. If ‘Self’ becomes the motivation and not the spirit, and a desire for control at any cost becomes the principle, then the system breaks down and doesn’t serve the purpose. Even in the scripture, we find that oppression had taken place in the Name of God. The order which was formed to serve and lift people became a tool of oppression by those who were in power.
Every now and then God raised people,the voices of truth and justice to remind of the disintegration of the order from its original stature losing its purpose. In the times of Jesus, he was straight forward in his approach about the religious order and their failure to maintain the spirit of the order. The order which was originated for the least and lost, became the order of the privileged and the powerful which divided and oppressed people. Jesus sought the order to reclaim its spirit to serve the community once again. He also demonstrated God’s love for all humanity and opened up the truth to Go in to all the world.
The Scripture doesn’t endorse a closed system but an open system under the authority of God.
Spiritual Order: The Reforming model
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free”. Luke 4:18.
The Intention, goal and the Spirit behind the Spiritual order is found in the above verse. It is like the Vision statement for the ‘Spiritual Order’ or ‘Faith order’ or the ‘Life order’, as we call it. This is the spirit upon which the order found in the Bible must function. If it doesn’t, it needs reformation.
A good order then is a ‘Reformative Order’. The Bible is a reformative book since it has laid out in open, both the disintegration of the order and the periods of reformation to make the order to comeback to its originality. The New Testament completing the Old Testament testifies the reformative natue of the book. It is the reason why it still reforms any system.
When any order which had lost its purpose in the course of time, if it give iself to reformation must possess these characteristics. It should be an order of relevance, order of truth, order of Justice, order of service, order of welfare, order of love and order of growth, most importantly it should be an order for the least. In ‘I’dentity there is an ‘I’, and in ‘we’lfare there is a ‘We’. A common Welfare should be the identity of the order. A goal of Welfare for all, reforms any identity.
The Remfoming model will always orient any order towards the ‘Truth’. It encourages any system to analyze itself to seek the truth. Wherever there is oppression we can see that there is a deep lack of truth. A Spiritual order will always journey towards the truth in faith, even when its difficult. This can reform any oppressive order found either in the society or in the families.
The origins of the Spiritual order is not pride but humility and service which doesn’t destroy but build. It is not represented in ‘Pleasing Self ‘, but to become a ‘Pleasing Sacrifice’
Jesus emphasized us to treat others, in the way we expect us to be treated. Jesus said ‘ just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20 : 28. The ‘Spirit of the Son’ , can reform any order or the system to become an order of truth and relevance to serve the least.
Spirit (intent) —–> Script (content) —–> System (order) —–> Society (Impact)
Reformation happens when there is transformation at the spirit of the order. Any order which is open for reformation stays relevant and useful. It will benefit the least. Any order which is rigid and repulsive to reformation becomes irrelevant and oppressive.
Caste System and Reformation:
There were many social movements initiated by influential individuals to reform the society by opening up the system in india. Even the constitution of India aims to protect the vulnerable and laws were framed to weaken the system of oppression. But unless the Spirit of people is transfored it will still remain a distant dream.
Especially the Church should be conscious of this, instead of strengthening the system by our choices decisions based on it. We must weaken the oppressive system by transforming ourselves in accordance to the Spirit of Christ.
“For God does not show favoritism”. Romans 2:11.
How can we approach caste system as Christians?
We must apply careful consideration, and as Christians we must make any order or system reformative. Since the foundation of caste system is Pride and as it generates oppression in the society, we who believe in the order of liberation must reject it fundamentally. Casteistic mentality is a ‘dividing wall of hostility’, which Christians need to break by the grace of God.
Here are some reasons why we must reject it,
1. Scriptural Authority:
As Believers, we believe in the scriptural authority over every of our life’s choices. We receive inspiration from the word to direct our paths in this world. But casteism is not found in the Bible, actually its against the Bible principle. Bible doesn’t endorse casteism. The Bible endorses a liberative spiritual order. In any multi- cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-lingual plural society, discrimination will be present at different levels, and it causes a common pain all across the world. Casteism is a unique hierarchical system which has penetrated in to people’s identity and lifestyles breeding it’s own culture and sub-culture in people groups for centuries, for example racism in America involves discrimination, but there is no textual basis to it, but casteism has a textual basis forming a systematic oppression, and that text is not the Bible ! So caste system can be rejected on the scriptural Basis.
2. Moral Validity:
If we look at the damage caused by the caste system, we can see it becomes a cause for many evils in the society. It doesn’t take the society towards a higher morality . Instead it causes deep divides. May be as Christians we can say, it doesn’t affect us, but when see the society it has caused much divide and brokenness. It should bother us, we should take a personal responsibility and intercede as well consciously work towards a higher morality. Caste system causes oppression, poverty, marginalization, discrimination, untouchability, denial of rights, opportunities and justice, discord between communities, murder, strife and so on. It’s a fact that caste system is one of the obstacles for India’s inclusive economic growth. Especially ‘Value’ is very important to Christians. Our morality comes out of the value God gives us, the Bible says ‘We are made in the image of God’, but casteism denies that value and dignity to people. It differentiates people from birth, this crushes the moral standards of the society. Jesus went for that one lost sheep, hence he declared the truth, that everyone is valuable in God’s eyes. Jesus came down and died for us, when we were still sinners showing how much he valued us, he gives us . Caste system denies this basis of morality. We Christians are grace generation , we must value others like Christ valued us.
3. Gospel’s possibility:
Gospel is the lifeline to a believer, it is through the Gospel we were saved. Jesus said “Go in to all the world and preach the Gospel to all creation, and make disciples among all Nations’. It’s a great possibility and wide scope that Jesus was talking about. But casteism in many places has been a stumbling block for the Gospel to reach certain communities. It denies many the truth of the Gospel. Many who love Jesus and have a desire to follow him, and wants to grow in the truth, could not freely express their faith, because of fear of rejection from their community. It denies hope to many . In Jesus time, there were discrimination between Jews and Samaritans, during the Apostle Paul’s times, there were Jews and Gentiles. Both Jesus Christ and Apostle Paul breached these walls of hostility to reach people, knowing the value of the Gospel. We who tasted the Gospel must think about casteism seriously.
4. The Church’s Unity:
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in. Christ Jesus”. Galatians 3:28.
The Bible says there neither Jew nor Gentile in the Church of Christ. Especially the vision of the status of heaven found in the heaven has all the tribes and people of this world ( Revelation 7:9). Any order which promotes division in the Church stands directly against the vision of combined worshippers. If that’s the status of heaven, then it must be order of the Church. Fellowship and unity of the Church is constantly threatened by the caste system followed within the Church. If the Church is not found worthy to embrace the Spirit of Christ, what hope does the world have?
In Conclusion, If there was one great Holy wall, it was between God and man, but in his love and grace God broke that wall to offer favour to all men. If that Holy wall can be broken in order to offer hope, these unholy walls must be broken amongst us! The underlying need is that we must be open for God to lead us and his spirit to guide us, and not restrict him within our tiny hostile walls. We must willingly sacrifice our identity attached with it, small pleasures and pride we derive out of it. We must not normalize it, but categorize casteistic mindset as sin. We need to grow in grace, and please God in our approach to casteism. It’s not easy for everyone , but it’s not impossible. With God all things are possible!!!
“Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain”. Isaiah 40:4.