Back from India II: On Caste — Probably Not What You Think

Cambridge, MA. In my last entry, I promised a series of five reflections on my India trip (unless your questions, comments, prompt a sixth). Today I would like to say something about caste in India — a reality all around us, whenever we travel there. I assume for this that you know that caste is very old in India, reaching back thousands of years, and that the simple classification of Brahmin (priest, educated leader), Kshatriya (warrior, ruler), Vaishya (farmer, businessman), and Shudra (worker, servant), was always too neat, and even in ancient times was subdivided into many smaller and more local birth categories, which governed who you could eat with and who you could marry. Moreover, the simple system was further complicated by the very large group of “untouchables” — Gandhi’s harijans (children of God), today’s Dalits (the crushed) — who make up a large section of Indian society today. You should also remember that Hinduism did not invent caste, but adapted to what seems to have been older patterns of social order. For millennia, Hindu and Buddhist religious intellectuals have had to juggle religious values that tend toward radical equality with a sense of the givenness and inevitability of hierarchy in society. It is very hard to be Indian without owning up to caste in some way or another; Christians in some parts of India, particularly the south, remain very caste-conscious, and so too Jesuits.
     Personally, I am rather clueless as to people’s castes, and in any case try not to let what I do recognize make a difference. Like many an American in India, I have no tolerance for discrimination, but also in fact miss the clues as to caste, and treat people alike. Often I simply do not notice, and no one really expects me to. Two weeks ago I was at the railway station in Trichy at 10PM, waiting for the night train back to Madras (Chennai) with a senior Jesuit administrator from the college. When a friend of his joined us, a professor at another local college, our conversation made it clear that both of them were Dalits, and had fought long and hard for their rightful place as leaders in education. We have a fine conversation about the latest moves toward equality, and likewise about my studies in traditional orthodox Hinduism. For as this trip also made vividly clear, many of my longest-term friends in India are Brahmins, learned representatives of Hindu traditions, educated elites who know religion deeply and articulately. By instinct, I would turn away neither from a Dalit nor from a Brahmin, though I am offended if either a Brahmin or a Dalit thinks I should not talk to the other.
     There is a long history of Jesuits and caste in India. Even in the 17th century, Portuguese and Italian Jesuits were fascinated by Brahmins and their learning, accommodated to the system, and had high hopes for converting Brahmins, so as to open the door to convert everyone else. And when that did not happen, Jesuits tended to vilify Brahmins as selfish, ignorant, and ill-willed, because not open to our persuasive speech and example. In the 19th century, the French Jesuits saw caste as a fact of life, something we needed to take for granted in doing the work of the Church and in building what was to become a famous educational system. It has only been more recently, due to deep changes in Indian culture and new sensitivities to the demands of liberation, that many Indians, Christians included, have turned more harshly, in large numbers, against caste structures, and against Brahmins in particular, even to the point of rejecting learned Sanskrit religious traditions because of their caste taint.
     Today divisions are still real, and the degree of progress since 1947 still leaves much to be desired. Just recently, Frontline had a piece on discrimination at temples in Tamil Nadu: people are still excluded at some temples, because they are Dalit. Positively speaking, though, there is much that Indians are now doing, at governmental and local levels, and in which the Church and Society of Jesus have important roles to play, to foster wider educational possibilities for the lowest castes, affirmative action in jobs at every level, and true fairness in society. All of this is wonderful, and I can only admire those who give their energies and lives to true equality.
     But on this trip too, I spent time with a wide variety of people of different castes, and was very conscious of my affinity to the most educated Hindu religious intellectuals, who are usually Brahmins. The night before my conversation on the train station, for instance, I met with a book club in the very orthodox environment of the Srirangam temple near Trichy, and enjoyed that conversation very much too. My trip once again confirms for me that it is a great mistake to hope to polarize Indian society religiously — Brahmins versus everyone else — or to dismiss thousands of years of culture for the sake of equality now. Anger is never a complete solution, and polarities do not help; animosity based solely on caste is not practical, and will not change Indian society deeply enough. Just as we realize that the old and new inequities of European society and of the Church do not justify entirely abandoning the riches of Christian tradition nor denying the religious heritage of our faith, we do well to work for justice and respect for all in India — while still be open to learning from the great literate traditions of Hinduism.
     While it is easier for me to say this as a foreigner (and white male American cleric and professor) who does not suffer any such discrimination, I think it is still true that for Indian Christians and Jesuits as well, some such balance makes the most sense, particularly in a society whose future that will not be determined by its tiny Christian minority. It is particularly important not to burden Indian society with the social ideals of the modern West, and likewise not to use caste as the latest in a long series of reasons for dismissing the value of learning from Hindu religious traditions. Oppression is evil, but the fact of oppression is no single group’s fault, and in any case it never a reason to miss the larger good realities surrounding us. And if we are against discrimination, best to root it out in the Church and Society first.
     I close by noting that India is changing greatly. The society is growing dynamically, change is everywhere, the vast cities are affecting deeply how people are relating to one another, and Hindu religious insights and values continue to adjust to new situations. So too, the large number of Indians living in the West are bringing new ideas about social relationships home with them to India. India is not the timeless East, and caste, while astonishingly enduring in its good and bad aspects, is no monolith. I suspect we will be seeing many more changes in the decades to come even if, at the end of it all, India will thankfully still not be the same as the United States.
     But if you have other ideas, I’d love to hear from you.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
8 years 9 months ago
Dear Prof. Clooney,
As a Hindu who is a frequent reader of this site; I am very curious about how your other Jesuit brethern respond to your studies in comparitive theology. For one such as myself, often these experiences degenerate to a 'condescending tolerence' and a sense of superiority for being so. I do recongnize that this is not at all representative of those that are genuine, and the more vocal one tend to drown out the more thoughful; but I am very curious about how this vocal former group responds to your studies and ideas about the role of salvation within non-catholic traditions.
8 years 9 months ago
Though Hinduism did not invent the caste system, Hinduism is the only major religion where caste or class is codified directly into religious scripture. 
This is an important difference between Hionduism and Islam, Christianity and Buddhism. Though members of these religions often practiced local caste systems etc., this was presented as adherence to cultural norms and was not an intrinsic part of Christianity, Islam or Buddhism as religions. This makes discriminatory systems in these societies easier to change.
8 years 9 months ago
There is no 'ism' called Hinduism. There are multiple Hindu traditions, since the Hindu is an umbrella description. Caste is the most misunderstood term today. People in India identify themselves as a part of a 'jati' and there are thousands of them. These are similar to clans and tribes in other countries. There is another concept called 'Varna' which is the four-fold ideal described above namely Vaishya (businessmen), Kshatriya (warrior, ruler), Brahmin (Academic), Sudra (Laborer). This according to the Gita for instance, is determined by a person's 'gunas' (qualities). In practice over thousands of years many jatis based on their professions have mapped on to the above four-fold ideal and for many this mapping was done by others. In Tamil Nadu where the professor visited only the two jatis Iyers and Iyengars have mapped themselves to the Brahmin varna. The rest of the jatis do not map on to any Varna category. As for those jatis (there are again many of them) that are identified as Scheduled Castes (or Dalits or untouchables) by the government, these have historically been those that lost a war and were enslaved or were involved in professions considered unclean in old times. Over time many jatis have risen up, many have fallen down, many have merged with others and many have split from others and so they have been dynamic. Jati by itself would be fairly harmless provided discrimination between people based on jatis were to be eliminated. Modern India is getting there, except there are many stumbling blocks. including quotas and reservations, vote-bank politics and so forth.
8 years 8 months ago
Christians today constitute roughly 8-10 per cent of the Indian population, a place next to the Hindus and Muslims. But some 80% of them registered themselves as Hindus for the sake of reservation quotas in the govt. schools, colleges as also govt. jobs. But it is by no means a small segment for a population of 1140 million. This percentage is likely grow in the coming decades with more and more unreached SCs and STs reaching Christianity by whatever means. Anywaym, there's very limited chnace for Christianity to dominate in India as it could convert only the disadvantaged groups and none else. Contrary to what is propagated outside India, there is a strong educated middle class among the Hindus which accounts for 40 per cent of the total population. They never convert under any circumstances.


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Chilean clerical sex abuse survivors Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton and Jose Andres Murillo in Rome, May 2. The three met Pope Francis individually at the Vatican April 27-29. The Vatican announced on May 22 that a second group of abuse victims will visit the pope in June (CNS photo/Paul Haring).
The encounters will take place from June 1-3 at Santa Marta, the Vatican guesthouse where Francis lives.
Gerard O’ConnellMay 22, 2018
Pope Francis talks with Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, as they arrive for a meeting in the synod hall at the Vatican in this Feb. 13, 2015, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 
Righteous call-outs should be patterned after Cardinal O’Malley’s rebuke of Pope Francis on sex abuse.
Simcha FisherMay 22, 2018
In May, my cousin Christina and her husband Tyler were murdered in their home.
John J. ConleyMay 22, 2018
Follow Father Arturo Sosa's first visit to the Jesuits in Canada!
America StaffMay 22, 2018