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.