Caste system among Indian Christians

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The caste system among Indian Christians often reflects stratification by sect, location, and the castes of their predecessors.[1] The caste system today is beyond Hinduism (Hindu society) and it exists in all religions in India.[2]

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.[3] But, in some cases, social inertia causes old traditions and biases against other castes to remain, causing caste segregation to persist among Indian Christians.[4][5][6][7][8]

Christian priests, nuns, Dalits and similar groups are also found in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal.[9]


Syrian Christians in Kerala consist of the members of the Jacobite Syrian Church, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church, Chaldean Syrian Church, and also Syrian Christians of the Madhya Kerala Diocese of the Church of South India, which is a united autonomous Indian church within the Anglican Communion.[10] They derive status within the caste system from the tradition that they are converted from high castes by Thomas the Apostle in the first century.[11]

The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church are sui iuris Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with the Holy See that are a part of the St. Thomas Christian tradition.


In the Indian state of Goa, mass conversions were carried out by Portuguese Latin Catholic 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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] 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.[12]

Tamil Nadu[edit]

Christians in the State that belong to the Paravar, Nadar, Vellalar, Udaiyar and other Scheduled Castes.The mass conversion of Paravars dating back to the Portuguese era and the conflict over the Pearl Fishery Coast between the Paravars and Arabs in the 15th century A.D.Though the Paravars converted 'en masse' to Christianity and become the subjects of Portuguese King,they strictly maintained the caste hierarchy and had their own king 'Pandiapathy' to govern them. The Nadar conversion to Christianity dates back to the British Colonial era in the 18th-century. The lower caste men and women of the Travancore kingdom were deprived of covering their breast.[citation needed] The Chanar community,present day Nadar community was one such untouchable caste those days. In order to get rid of the custom, and to ensure a dignified human living Chanars embraced Christianity. The first to initiate the conversion was Mylaudy Village by Sir Ringle Taube. Later in 19th century, the Vellalars, the Udaiyars and Schedule castes embraced Christianity. 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.[13] The Paravars,though accepted Vellalar and Udaiyar converts as equals,treated the Nadar and other scheduled caste converts as lower standings to themselves.[citation needed] Distinguishing themselves as 'Fernando' Christians,the surname given to their ancestors by the Portuguese priests,controlled the Roman Catholic Church of Tamilnadu for centuries with hegemony.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 Untouchable-Christian community."[14] In Tamil Nadu, Christian dalits also complain of discrimination by the Telugu speaking Reddiar minority.[15]

Under the law[edit]

Indian law does not provide benefits for "Untouchable Christians", however Christians have been agitating for the same rights given to Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh Scheduled castes.[16] Despite the activists point of discrimination due to social tag or status, which doesn't go away, 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."[17]

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."[18]

Caste discrimination among Christians[edit]


Caste discrimination is strongest among Christians in South India and weaker among urban Protestant congregations in North India.[citation needed] 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.[19] In Pakistan, derogatory terms are used for Christians who converted from lower caste. Furthermore, Christian dalits have faced incidents such as harassment, murder, and police framing.[20]

There are separate seats, separate communion cups, burial grounds, and churches for members of the lower castes,[21][22] especially in the Latin Catholic Church.[23] Catholic churches in India are largely controlled by upper caste priests and nuns.[24] Presently in India, more than 70 per cent of Latin Catholics are Dalits, but the higher caste Catholics (30% by estimates) control 90 per cent of the Catholic churches administrative jobs.[25] Out of the 156 catholic bishops, only six are from lower castes.[1][26]


Untouchable Catholics have spoken out against discrimination against them by members of the Catholic Church. A 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).[27] During 2003 ad limina visits of the bishops of India, Pope John Paul II criticized the caste discrimination in the 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".[28][29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Christian Castes Encyclopædia Britannica
  2. ^ "Beyond Hinduism: Is caste a religious or a regional problem?". 
  3. ^ Kerala Christians and the Caste System C. J. Fuller Man, New Series, Vol. 11, No. 1. (Mar., 1976), pp. 53–70.
  4. ^ "Christian caste". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 14 June 2015. 
  5. ^ Struggle for justice to Untouchable 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"
  6. ^ Carol Henderson Garcia, Carol E. Henderson 2002:40 "Today about 70 percent of Christians are Dalits"
  7. ^ Radhakrishnan 2005:23
  8. ^ Azariah 1985:5
  9. ^ Panchanan Mohanty; Ramesh C. Malik; Eswarappa Kasi (2009). Ethnographic discourse of the other: conceptual and methodological issues. Cambridge Scholars. pp. 39–116. 
  10. ^
  11. ^ Fuller, C.J. (December 1977), "Indian Christians: Pollution and Origins", Man, New Series, Vol. 12, No. 3/4., pp. 528–529 
  12. ^ "Upper caste Catholics demand special rights, threaten to reconvert" Indian Express – November 24, 1999
  13. ^ 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)
  14. ^ Indian Dalits find no refuge from caste in Christianity BBC News – 13 September 2010
  15. ^ Caste Divide The Hindu – March 14, 2011
  16. ^ "By 2050, India to have world's largest populations of Hindus and Muslims". 
  17. ^ "Do Christians also practise caste system, asks SC". Times of India. July 20, 2007. 
  18. ^ Sharif interview 17 November 1996
  19. ^ Michael 1999:17
  20. ^ Paul Ghuman (2011). British Untouchables: A Study of Dalit Identity and Education. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 67. 
  21. ^ Manickam 1988:173
  22. ^ Webster, John. 1994. The Christian Dalits: A History. Delhi: Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (ISPCK).
  23. ^ [page needed] Koshy 1968
  24. ^ Still untouchable: the politics of religious conversion Christian Century – June 19, 2002
  25. ^ Cast Identity Within The Church Twice Alienation – Dalit Christians
  26. ^ Problems and Struggles
  27. ^ A palmyra leaf that sears us The Hindu – September 16, 2001
  28. ^ "Address to the Bishops of India on their ad Limina visit". Retrieved 17 November 2003. 
  29. ^ 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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