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Restorative Justice

and India's Caste System

Article and Photos by J.S. Murthy

New World Outlook: July - August, 1999.

For Kshatriya (Kurmi), handsome boy...an attractive, fair girl....

Wanted: a beautiful, educated girl for a handsome Brahmin boy....

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A high-caste Brahmin wedding celebration at Hawan Kund (the Hindu wedding altar).

In India, the lists of classified matrimonial ads in the newspapers are almost endless. Caste is always mentioned, invariably. However, personal ads today also mention religious affiliations and professions. Doctors, engineers, even computer-software specialists are advertising in India for mates.

The fact that the 3500-year-old caste system should survive in India today almost defies comprehension. It has been an aberration of the Hindu psyche. Indians who use lofty rhetoric about progress, characterizing their society as "united in diversity," seem to be simply perpetuating the system of social gradation that has blighted so many lives.

Social distinctions can still be discerned in modern India in many ways. Even a highly educated Brahmin physician (a Brahmin is a Hindu of the highest caste) wraps the wrist of a Sudra (or low-caste person) with a band of cloth before feeling for the patient's pulse. That way, the Brahmin will not to be "defiled" by touching the Sudra's skin. Low-caste people are forbidden to use the wells in villages that high-caste Brahmins use for fear they will pollute the water. A low-caste family is refused the right to bury a family member near their village, where both high and low castes live, because of a superstition that the dead person's ghost will haunt the high- caste people. And a Brahmin bachelor living in a state with only a few surviving Brahmin families has to wait for five long years while his parents search for a suitable mate of the same high caste as he.

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A low-caste poverty-stricken street dweller.

An Ancient Institution

While scholars differ on the origins of the caste system in India, they agree that it is a very ancient institution. Some speculate that both the complexion and the occupations of the Aryans who invaded India around 1500 B.C. contributed to the growth of the caste system. The Aryan invaders, who spoke Indo-European languages, are believed by some to have been a fair-skinned, blue-eyed ethnic type. They dominated the darker-skinned original residents and made them subservient, much as the British did many centuries later.

According to the traditional Hindu view, human beings were divided into four categories on the basis of their intrinsic qualities. The highest caste, the Brahmins, were the thinkers, philosophers, and priests whose role was to provide both spiritual guidance and intellectual sustenance to the society. Originally, they lived on the charity of the people, given in return for the performance of various rites.

Next came the Kshatriyas, or Warriors, who were primarily concerned with the defense and governance of the state. The kings and rulers belonged to this caste. The third caste consisted of the Vaisyas, or Traders, who were involved in agricultural and commercial operations. In the fourth category were the Sudras, or Laborers. This caste, at the lowest rung of the hierarchical ladder, were responsible for various services, including menial jobs like scavenging and cleaning. They were considered "untouchable" and the three higher castes were not permitted to mingle with them. Marriage across caste lines was forbidden, and even now this taboo persists. Those who fall in love and marry in spite of the taboo risk excommunication from their castes.

This social system of gradation was given religious sanction by a verse in the ancient sacred writings of Hinduism and the earliest document of Indian history called the Rig Veda. Believed to have been composed between 1500 and 1000 B.C., it records that Brahmins came from the face of the creator, Kshatriyas from his arms, Vaisyas from his thighs, and Sudras from the soles of his feet. Members of the lowest caste were subjected to many restrictions in society.

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Lower-caste women work all day picking weeds for a wage as low as 50 cents a day.

There are also references to the four castes in the ancient epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. A detailed description of the caste system is found in the Manusmriti (Ordinances of Manu), named for its author. The Manusmriti, which dates from A.D. 700, is the most authoritative work on Hindu law. Centuries later, it was adopted by the British rulers in India.

The status of the low caste continued to be degraded by the Brahmins. Even revolts against the high castes by religious leaders such as Mahavira (540-468 B.C.), the founder of Jainism, and Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 B.C.), the founder of Buddhism, failed to reduce the rigidity of the caste system because caste distinctions persisted in both religious sects.

Caste distinctions persisted even during the period of Muslim rule in India (1206-1862). The attempts of other religions, including Christianity and Judaism, to eradicate the caste system did not succeed because class distinctions persisted even in their folds.

The Beginnings of Change

It was the Industrial Revolution that finally made a dent in the caste system and brought a new awareness to Indians that social mobility might be possible. Industrialization encouraged urbanization, as villager dwellers of both high and low castes moved into the cities for better jobs. There, they were introduced to new technologies. In the urban areas, the rigid, age-old ,caste- centered thinking gave way to a more liberal outlook, encouraging the mixing of castes without distinction. Trade unions and other associations had members from all castes working together.

The British government of India had a considerable, transforming impact on the country's Hindu social structure. The British brought change by passing many important laws designed to aid the marginalized lower castes--laws such as the Hindu Act, the Caste Disabilities Act, and the Widow Remarriage Act. But the British could not find a lasting solution to the problem of castes, particularly since the British saw themselves as a privileged ruling class.

The strongest, most systematic attack on the caste system has come in the twentieth century through the Constitution of India, adopted on November 26, 1949. India's constitution guarantees the right of all its citizens to justice, liberty, equality, and dignity. It has been a long and arduous journey from ancient caste distinctions based on Hindu philosophy and religious traditions to the constitutional pledge of a democratic government with equality, dignity, and justice for all human beings.

The Caste System Today

Today, many lower-caste people--especially in rural villages--are still marginalized, with little access to education, limited resources, and unskilled or menial jobs as their only option. However, thanks to a long history of missionary schools and to various changes in government-sponsored education, many have become better educated and hold higher-paying jobs.

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The "Holy Bath," a Hindu ritual, is a purification by water before worship. Large numbers of Hindu worshipers bathe in the Narmada River for the festival of Makar Sankranti.

At present, Indian society is characterized by an obsession with the kinds of development that would lead to a free-market economy. The growing economic success of some in India has created a chasm separating the rich from the poor, who make up about 56 percent of the population. Economists describe "two Indias"--one rich and one poor. India's caste system can no longer fully contain the socioeconomic change that the country is undergoing. Different religions, occupations, and levels of education are no longer correlated with caste. A high-caste person cannot be born a chief executive, for example, but must work to become one. A person of low caste may now get a good education and become an executive, a college professor, or even a government leader.

Indians who belong to the lower castes that were once considered "untouchable" now choose to call themselves by the name Dalit, meaning "oppressed," and signaling that they are actively resisting injustice.

Dalits make up 18 to 20 percent of India's population. Only about 3 percent of India's population is Christian, but 50 percent of the Christian population is Dalit, according to Ms. Soosai Raj Faustina, a teacher and member of the Dalit Solidarity Peoples (DSP) National Working Committee. Foreign Christian missionaries have also had a history of helping Dalits with education and with economic development.

Rural India still presents a dismal picture of life for its low-caste people, though. A friend of mine, Dharamnath of Jagdalpur, a member of the Methodist Church and an excellent vocalist, says that the typical low-caste village family may have only one sari (a draped dress using several yards of cloth) for all its women. So, while one woman comes out the hut draped in the sari, four other women must wait inside for their turn to wear the same dress. They can only come out one by one.

Faustina explains that, even though she teaches in a mixed school run by the Roman Catholic Church in Ongur, Dalits are still separated in the village. "Normally, Dalits are put on the east side of the village," she reports, "because the wind blows from west to east, and non-Dalits don't want to be contaminated by wind that has touched Dalits. All the institutions are in the non- Dalit area of the village. We are resisting these things," she adds.

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The Supreme Court of India in Delhi.

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Migrant populations flock to the outskirts of cities to find work.

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A village girl holds her little brother.

In fact, empowered by India's constitution, the Dalits have organized to push for change through legislation and social institutions. Public transportation, radio, and television have begun to have a modernizing impact, especially on children and youth, even in rural villages. But a lack of political will on the part of the state prevents some recommendations from being implemented. Also, villagers who travel to large cities in search of job opportunities are likely to encounter crime syndicates and mafia organizations there. Even in small towns, gangs have proliferated. Last year, the worst-ever massacre of Dalit and landless men, women, and children occurred in Bihar. Sixty people were killed by the Ranvir Sena, a self-styled armed militia of the upper-caste landed gentry, formed to crush the movements of Dalits and agricultural laborers.

Dr. James Massey, a minister of the Church of North India and a Dalit, is a member of the government-sponsored National Commission for Minorities (NCM) in India. This commission is responsible for investigating incidents of religious violence in India. Massey says that religious violence in India is fueled by hatred and fear, not outside influences. The NCM investigated the highly publicized murder of Australian missionary Graham Stuart Staines and his two young sons, Philip (age 9) and Timothy (age 6), who were burned alive in their jeep on January 22, 1999, while they were sleeping. Staines was in Orissa working among patients with leprosy. The NCM team concluded that the incident was part of a definite plan on the part of militant Hindus to create insecurity among Christians.

This gruesome act, however, evoked unprecedented condemnation from all sectors of Indian society, including the ruling Hindu Bhartiya Janata Party. The majority of Hindus do not subscribe to these violent methods of reinforcing the nationalistic ideal of creating a Hindu state.

Christian leaders in India have appealed for safety and security not only for Christians but also for indigenous people, regardless of their religion. One banner carried by a child at a mass rally read: "Burn Hatred, Not Children." In a secular society, tolerance and coexistence are two sides of the same coin. Under Article 25 of India's constitution, a citizen has the freedom to profess, practice, and propagate any religion.

Dr. James Massey

Dr. James Massey, a minister of the Church of North India and member of India's National Commission for Minorities (NCM), visited New York recently as part of a delegation from Dalit Solidarity Peoples (DSP). His visit was cosponsored by the National Council of Churches' Southern Asia Office, the United Church Board for World Ministries, and Union Theological Seminary. NCM conducts on-site studies of the most severe incidents of anti-minority violence in India.

The idea that India's Dalits might be united "creates the greatest fear in the minds of the upper classes," observed Professor N.G. Meshram, a Buddhist who is national treasurer of DSP. But he said that DSP is not seeking revenge. "All we want is to be able to identify ourselves." he said. "Enough misery has been suffered for all the ages."

The NCM issues detailed reports on its findings, including extensive recommendations to the government. In the report on the minority situation in Gujarat, 20 recommendations were advised, including those that follow.

  • Convene meetings of nonpolitical representatives of all religious communities to discuss ways to create, promote, and preserve harmony.
  • Order proper, effective, and time-bound enquiries into all incidents of anti-minority violence and vandalism that have occurred since March 1998.
  • Award deterrent punishment to all those found guilty of crimes against minorities.
  • Pay adequate compensation to victims of anti-minority violence.
  • Set up a Minority Welfare Department in the state government secretariat.
  • Protect all places of worship.
  • Implement the provisions of the Constitution of India, provisions of the Indian Penal Code relating to offences against religion, and other relevant legislative enactments.

"Politically and economically, the upper castes hold the power," said Ms. Soosai Raj Faustina, a member of the DSP National Working Committee. "So the fear is always there, especially among those of us who resist."

Dr. Massey encourages US church members to learn about the Dalit situation in India and to support organizations like DSP, along with schools and other institutions that support the Dalits.

The Methodist Church in India

The present Methodist Church in India (MCI) is a partner of The United Methodist Church through the General Board of Global Ministries. It began as the Methodist Church in Southern Asia. In the early years, pioneer missionaries such as William Butler, the founder of the Methodist Church in India in 1856, made a profound impact on the Indian psyche with their total commitment to bringing Christ's Gospel of love and service to India. They were held in high esteem for their integrity and selfless service by national leaders. Dr. James E. McEldowney, now 92 and living in Florida, spent more than half a century of his dedicated life in India and made remarkable contributions to the Methodist Church. His ministry led many young men and women to accept Jesus Christ. Some became bishops and leaders of the church.

The ongoing task of the Methodist Church in India is to realize the Kingdom of God, which the Hindus call Ram Rajya, meaning "Reign of God Rama." The Kingdom of God is understood as being identical with the presence of Christ here and now. As all are children of God, all are equal in the sight of God. There are no distinctions of race, caste, or status. The concept of the Kingdom of God corresponds to liberation theology in Latin America, in which it is believed that God works through the liberation of peoples to establish His Kingdom of peace, justice, equality, and prosperity, as promised in the Gospel.

The eschatological reality that is to come has another dimension--the concept of restoring justice to the oppressed. This concept of restorative justice must become a real experience in the life of India's society, which is culturally, religiously, linguistically, and ethnically pluralistic. Only with restorative justice can the Kingdom of God become a reality in India, especially when we witness all around us the denials of social entitlements and the struggles of the oppressed. A parallel can be seen in the oracle of the prophet Amos, admonishing the people who tried to please God with the best sacrifice and music but with no thought of justice for the poor and the oppressed (Amos 5:24). It is also a reminder to the present materialistic society that God's desire is to see that the oppressed and poor are given justice to ensure peace and prosperity.

The new paradigm of the Kingdom of God transcends national and political orders. An encounter with Christ in the post-resurrection period means accepting the marginalized and oppressed, embracing the concept of servanthood, and working to improve the status and rights of women and children. These are among the issues that must be owned, understood, and proclaimed by the church. It is the mission of the church to hold high the vision of the Kingdom of God, thereby countering the 3500-year-old social institution of caste.

Dr. J. S. Murthy is an award-winning photographer in India and the United States. He is also a lecturer at Leonard Theological School in Jabalpur, India.

Text and photographs copyright 1999 by New World Outlook: The Mission Magazine of The United Methodist Church. Used by Permission. Visit New World Outlook Online at http://gbgm-umc.org/nwo/.

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