Caste system among Indian Christians

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The Caste system among Indian Christians often reflect stratification by sect, location, and the castes of their predecessors.[1] Social practices among certain Indian Christians parallel much of the discrimination faced by lower castes in other religious communities, as well as having features unique to this community.

Caste distinctions among Indian Christians are breaking down at about the same rate as those among Indians belonging to other religions. There exists evidence to show that Christian individuals have mobility within their respective castes.[2] But, in some cases, social inertia cause old traditions and biases against other castes to remain, causing caste segregation to persist among Indian Christians.[3] About 70–80 per cent of Indian Christians are Dalit Christian, members of the Dalit or backward classes.[4][5][6][7]

Christian priests, Nuns, Dalits and similar groups are also found in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal.[8]


Christians in Kerala are divided into several communities, including Syrian Christians and Latin Christians. Syrian Christians in Kerala consist of the members of Syro-Malabar Catholic Church (also known as Romo-Syrians), Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, Jacobite Syrian Church (a non-Catholic group), Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church, and a few members of the Church of South India in Kerala. Syrian Christians maintain their traditional Syrian rites and practices. They derive status within the caste system from the tradition that they are converted from high caste Hindus who were evangelized by St. Thomas.[9] In the pre-independence period, Untouchability was prevalent in the Kerala society and the Syrian Christians also practiced it in order to keep their upper-caste status. They used to go for a ritual bath to purify themselves on physical contact with the so-called inferior castes.[10][11][12] The Syrian Christians did not cooperate with the evangelical activities of foreign missionaries and they did not allow new converts to join their community since they were afraid that their noble position in the society could have been endangered.[13]

Writers Arundhati Roy and Anand Kurian have written personal accounts of the caste system at work in their community.[14][15] Syrian Christians tend to be endogamous, and tend not to intermarry with other Christian castes.[16]

Anthropologists have noted that the caste hierarchy among Christians in Kerala is much more polarized than the Hindu practices in the surrounding areas, due to a lack of jatis. Also, the caste status is kept even if the sect allegiance is switched (i.e. from Syrian Catholic to Syrian Orthodox).[2]


In the Indian state of Goa, mass conversions were carried out by Portuguese Latin missionaries from the 16th century onwards. The Hindu converts retained their caste practices. The continued maintenance of the caste system among the Christians in Goa is attributed to the nature of mass conversions of entire villages, as a result of which existing social stratification was not affected. The Portuguese colonists, even during the Goan Inquisition, did not do anything to change the caste system. Thus, the original Hindu Brahmins in Goa now became Christian Bamonns and the Kshatriya and Vaishya Vanis became Christian noblemen called Chardos . The Christian clergy became almost exclusively Bamonn. Those Vaishya Vanis who could not get admitted into the Chardo caste became Gauddos, and Shudras became Sudirs. Finally, the Dalits or "Untouchables" who converted to Christianity became Maharas and Chamars (an appellation of the anti-Dalit ethnic slur Chamaar). The upper caste Gaonkar Christians have demanded that only their community be given positions on the Pastoral Council of Goa's Catholic Church.[17]

Tamil Nadu[edit]

Though 3% of the Christians in the State belong to the financially powerful Nadar community, they dominate in every sphere with many of them going on to become Billionaires and Super-Rich.[18][19][20] The cohesion of jatis among caste Christians (e.g. Paravas) and the strength of caste leadership are noted by scholars to be much stronger than comparable predominantly Hindu castes in Tamil Nadu.[21] However, discrimination still persists. Lourdunathan Yesumariyan, Jesuit activist notes that "over 70 per cent of Catholics are Dalit converts. But only four out of 18 bishops are from the Dalit-Christian community."[22] In Tamil Nadu, Christian dalits also complain of discrimination by the Telugu speaking Reddiar minority[23]

Under the law[edit]

Indian law does not provide benefits for "Dalit Christians", however Christians have been agitating for the same rights given to Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh Scheduled castes. Despite the activists point of discrimination due to social tag or status, which doesn't go away, Justice K. G. Balakrishnan asked: "Could the Christians admit that they practise caste system and that Dalits (among them) face social discrimination requiring reservation to uplift their cause? This is not all that easy."[24]

Some Christians also oppose the proposed labeling of "Christian Scheduled castes" because they feel their identity may be assimilated. Pastor Salim Sharif of the Church of North India notes "We are becoming another class and caste."[25]

Caste discrimination among Christians[edit]


Caste discrimination is strongest among Christians in South India and weaker among urban Protestant congregations in North India. This is due to the fact that in South India, whole castes converted en masse to the religion, leaving members of different castes to compete in ways parallel to Hindus of the Indian caste system.[26] Also, Roman Catholicism is intrinsically more hierarchical and therefore tolerant of caste systems than Protestantism, which is more egalitarian. In Pakistan, derogatory terms are used for Christians who converted from lower caste. Further more, Christian dalits have faced the incidents such as harassment, murder, and police framing.[27]

There are separate seats, separate communion cups, burial grounds, and churches for members of the lower castes,[28][29] especially in the Roman Catholic Church.[30] Catholic churches in India are largely controlled by upper caste priests and nuns.[31] Presently in India, more than 70 per cent of Catholics are Dalits, but the higher caste Catholics (30% by estimates) control 90 per cent of the Catholic churches administrative jobs.[32] Out of the 156 catholic bishops, only six are from lower castes.[1][33]


Many Dalit Catholics have spoken out against discrimination against them by members of the Catholic Church. A famous Dalit activist with a nom-de-plume of Bama Faustina has written books that are critical of the discrimination by the nuns and priests in Churches in South India(CSI).[34] During 2003 ad limina visits of the bishops of India, Pope John Paul II criticized the caste discrimination in the Roman Catholic Church in India when addressing bishops of the ecclesiastical provinces of Madras-Mylapore, Madurai and Pondicherry-Cuddalore, the three archbishops of Tamil Nadu. He went on to say: "It is the Church's obligation to work unceasingly to change hearts, helping all people to see every human being as a child of God, a brother or sister of Christ, and therefore a member of our own family".[35][36]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Christian Castes Encyclopædia Britannica
  2. ^ a b Kerala Christians and the Caste System C. J. Fuller Man, New Series, Vol. 11, No. 1. (Mar., 1976), pp. 53–70.
  3. ^ Christian caste, Encyclopædia Britannica
  4. ^ Struggle for justice to Dalit Christians Brojendra Nath Banerjee, Uiliyāma Kerī Sṭāḍi eyāṇḍ Risārca Seṇṭāra. Page 42: "At stake is the fate of 16 million Christians of SC origin, who form 70–80 percent of the Christians in the country"
  5. ^ Carol Henderson Garcia, Carol E. Henderson 2002:40 "Today about 70 percent of Christians are Dalits"
  6. ^ Radhakrishnan 2005:23
  7. ^ Azariah 1985:5
  8. ^ Panchanan Mohanty, Ramesh C. Malik, Eswarappa Kasi (2009). Ethnographic discourse of the other: conceptual and methodological issues. Cambridge Scholars. pp. 39–116. 
  9. ^ Fuller, C.J. (December 1977), "Indian Christians: Pollution and Origins", Man, New Series, Vol. 12, No. 3/4.: 528–529 
  10. ^ Centre for Studies in Civilizations (Delhi, India) (2009), A Historical-Developmental Study of Classical Indian Philosophy of Morals, Concept Publishing Company, p. 484, ISBN 81-8069-595-6 
  11. ^ The Asiatic journal and monthly register for British and foreign India, China and Australasia, Volume 13, the Bavarian State Library, p.237
  12. ^ Journal of Kerala studies (University of Kerala), Volume 2, 1975: 25  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  13. ^ Amaladass, Amand (1993) [1989], "Dialogue between Hindus and the St Thomas Christians", Hindu-Christian dialogue: perspectives and encounters, edited by Harold Coward (1st Indian edition ed.), Motilal Banarsidass Pub, pp. 15–19, ISBN 81-208-1158-5 
  14. ^ "Racing on the fast track". Hindustan Times. 
  15. ^ Fuller, C.J.Indian Christians: Pollution and Origins.Man, New Series, Vol. 12, No. 3/4. (Dec., 1977), pp. 528–529.
  16. ^ Rao Babadur L. K. Anantakrishna Ayyar, Anthropology of the Syrian Christians. Cochin Government Press. 1926
  17. ^ "Upper caste Catholics demand special rights, threaten to reconvert" Indian Express – November 24, 1999
  18. ^ "The Nadars of Tamilnad: The Political Culture of a Community in Change"
  19. ^ "Commodities in blood of a few communities"
  20. ^ "Communities as open-air business schools"
  21. ^ Kauffman, S. B.. "A Christian Caste in Hindu Society: Religious Leadership and Social Conflict among the Paravas of Southern Tamilnadu." Modern Asian Studies. 15, No. 2, (1981)
  22. ^ Indian Dalits find no refuge from caste in Christianity BBC News – 13 September 2010
  23. ^ Caste Divide The Hindu – March 14, 2011
  24. ^ "Do Christians also practise caste system, asks SC". Times of India. July 20, 2007. 
  25. ^ Sharif interview 17 November 1996
  26. ^ Michael 1999:17
  27. ^ Paul Ghuman (2011). British Untouchables: A Study of Dalit Identity and Education. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 67. 
  28. ^ Manickam 1988:173
  29. ^ Webster, John. 1994. The Christian Dalits: A History. Delhi: Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (ISPCK).
  30. ^ [page needed] Koshy 1968
  31. ^ Still untouchable: the politics of religious conversion Christian Century – June 19, 2002
  32. ^ Cast Identity Within The Church Twice Alienation – Dalit Christians
  33. ^ Problems and Struggles
  34. ^ A palmyra leaf that sears us The Hindu – September 16, 2001
  35. ^ "Address to the Bishops of India on their ad Limina visit". Retrieved 17 November 2003. 
  36. ^ Papal Address to Bishops of Madras-Mylapore, Madurai and Pondicherry-Cuddalore ZENIT – November 17, 2003


  • Azariah M. The Un-Christian Side of the Indian Church. Alit Sahitya Academy, 1985.
  • Kenneth, Ballhatchet (1998). Caste, Class and Catholicism in India, 1789–1914. Routledge. ISBN 0-7007-1095-7. Retrieved 2007-04-24. 
  • Kerala Christians and the Caste System C. J. Fuller Man, New Series, Vol. 11, No. 1. (Mar., 1976), pp. 53–70.
  • Fuller, C.J.Indian Christians: Pollution and Origins. Man, New Series, Vol. 12, No. 3/4. (Dec., 1977)
  • Henderson, Carol. Culture and Customs of India. Greenwood Press, 2002.
  • Koshy, Ninan. Caste in the Kerala Churches. Bangalore: Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society, 1968.
  • Manickam, Sundararaj. Studies in Missionary History: Reflections on a Culture-contact. Christian Literature Society, 1988.
  • Radhakrishnan, P. Perfidies of Power: India in the New Millennium. TR Publications, 2005.
  • Michael, S.M.Untouchable: Dalits in Modern India. Lynne Riener Publishers, 1999. ISBN 1-55587-697-8
  • Webster, John. The Christian Dalits: A History. Delhi: Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (ISPCK), 1994.

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