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A reality check on the caste paradox

By Sonie Kharduit

 Apropos to the article penned by  Barnes Mawrie on the topic ‘Culture and Religion: A tribal perspective’, I couldn’t agree more with him that religion is just a part of the bigger entity called CULTURE. Culture encompasses multiple elements of the society collectively giving a definite shape and identity for a particular community. Language, tradition, attire, food habits, settlements, the types of familial bondage etc all contribute towards cultural formation. But on one point I cannot harmonise with him and that is to say that Christianity is devoid of caste segmentation in India. It might be true for North Eastern region because of our aboriginal tribal character, but for pan India the caste is definitely part and parcel of Christianity. I can understand that he being a priest in the Catholic Church is bound to defend his backyard. But I believe the single sided story of the picture is detrimental and this is the time where media justifies its fourth pillar role in allowing the transmission of ideas, facts and other multi-dimensional viewpoints providing scope for a much better conclusion. I have tremendous respect for Mawrie and for his spiritual and intellectual contribution and I wish the counter view I’m putting down be endured in good spirit.

Coming back to the debate whether Christianity is devoid of caste prejudices, South India is the best example indeed. There are Bamonn Christian (Roman Catholic Brahmins of Goa), Shudri (Christian converted Shudra), Dalit Christian, besides there are community based Christianity like Kuruba Christian, Madiga Christian, Akkasali Christian, Lambini Christian, Nadar Christian, Nekara Christian etc in Kerela and Tamil Nadu. Somebody regular with matrimonial ads may witness how a Christian bride or groom demands certain caste and Gotra background besides religious preference, not to mention the resistance for mixed marriages between the various sub-sects within Christianity itself. Thus, caste segmentation and preference still continues even after ones get converted to Christianity because the society is already structured according to caste if not class since ages and Christianity is no holy grail to cure this age-old disease.

The Syro Malabar Church (Kerala), the second largest eastern Catholic Church in the world which claims St. Thomas as its founder, faces numerous complaints of caste prejudice. Few senior priests with the right conscience came forward highlighting the plight only to be silenced by influential sections. Instances like separate graveyards, separate sitting arrangements in church, denial of job opportunities, priests and nuns from lower castes denied from holding higher position etc are common. Conversion to Christianity doesn’t propel a Dalit to the higher echelon of caste order. A manual scavenger continues to be one, rotting at the bottom of social hierarchy with least societal respect. The Church doesn’t bother much to act on this because it may not augur well with the influential Brahmin converts who don’t want to share the same bench in Church with the lower caste converts. The situation doesn’t change much for them, in fact caste and class stratification exhibit an interchangeable role complementing each other. Even if caste is absent but class division is indeed omnipresent. That’s why a poor man’s funeral attracts less attendance than a rich man’s.  Hence to say caste prejudice is absent in Christianity is not only wrong but shows the double standards in the assessment process while condemning other faiths and  overlooking the loopholes within.

Another intriguing point mentioned by the writer is that Christianity is better suited for the tribals. It’s indeed hard to comprehend the statement. Deciphering the underlying criteria how an individual opts for a particular religion and rejects the other is highly subjective. Faith is the last thing or a mere outcome in the process. How the faith is built is the most important determining factor regulating one’s choice.  It’s not the term ‘Jesus’ that makes him famous rather it’s the message, the teaching and the actions propagated by him that give fame and name to this term Jesus thereby creating a fan base of his own around the world because people somehow could align and fulfill their spiritual needs through the journey of Christ; hence they accept him. Another dimension in this faith building process is the aspects of personal empiricism. A family that had been receiving benefits and favours from one religion will be more obliged to follow it. Tribal belts in our region have received maximum benefits from earlier missionaries hence Christianity became the dominant figure. Likewise many regions close to central India around Nagpur where RSS has a stronghold have attracted the tribals because of charitable works. Sometimes denial of service may even result in conversion, for example, a family baptized in Presbyterian church may convert to Catholic because the former denied a burial ground to the deceased family while the later provides one and vice versa although both faiths follow the same origin. This is the small example highlighting how personal interest and experiences determine our choice of religion. This phenomenon prevails in all other faiths as well. Therefore, to conclude that Christianity suits the tribal the most and not others is a statement we cannot buy. Any religion can suit the tribal population only if we practice it with humanism. There is no right religion for right people but a right people make a right religion.

 The spread of religion is more related with the message it propagates, whether it be Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha or Guru Nanak. These people are mere symbolic figures. Finally it is the connection and conviction in how individually we relate and link our personal experiences with their teachings and not to forget that the services availed by their community which also suits our personal interests greatly influence the affinity.  The philosophy of polytheism or monotheism is the last thing in people’s minds; people simply choose what they like and what’s more relevant to them.

Another interesting point that needs to be examined in detail is the continuum between culture and religion. The writer correctly states that in adopting a particular religion one doesn’t lose one’s identity. But the fact that religion has a bigger share of influence on culture than others cannot be denied. For example, everyone knows the food habits of Christians are quite liberal where meat eating is not restricted whereas Muslims although liberal, prohibit eating of pork. Likewise the Hindus, Buddhists more or less follow a vegan diet with Jains being the most extreme. Hence it’s visible that changing religion results in culture interference because it changes the food habits.

Taking the example of our State where Christianity is prominent and jotting down the changing landscape, I can’t really deny the impact whether positive or negative but for sure changes have taken place with the arrival of Christianity. On a positive note education and health sector is their biggest contribution. Even in today’s scenario the share of government run schools and those run by missionaries is incomparable. Hospitals, dispensaries, and skill centres etc had contributed immensely in improving the social indicators. Nevertheless the negative fallout is also visible. Christianity is inherently western in culture and outlook both of which are alien to our people, but its higher status symbol in the social scale attracts many to adopt it even at the cost of losing our core identity. Many families in our city have adopted English as the mother tongue. It’s sad to witness an alien language bridging the communication gap between natives. Learning English for its universal value is significant but assimilating it in toto is a shame. Language is the identity of a culture; if we don’t use it then the culture itself is dead. 

Dressing style is another aspect of how religion influences culture. Whether it’s the feeling of modernity or comfort, western style is the first choice no matter how short-long-exposed the attire.  Indeed the downside is that our indigenous attire has lost its importance. I’m sure many youngsters now lack the expertise of wearing the Jainsem or Jainboh. The flavour and taste for western musical style and not folk music, the craze for guitar rather than the duitara are all the negative fallouts of Christianity on our soil. Undeniably the faith conversion process had definite role on culture even if doesn’t result in total change but culture dilution is inevitable.

The take away from this article is to let people know that there is no such thing as a perfect religion. After all they are run by mortals open to personal discretions at various levels. Our perspective on many issues are singularly, corroded with bias. Caste and class are the two faces of the same coin. It only depends how we perceive and practice it, and in fact class division is more catastrophic because its ubiquitousness doesn’t attract attention. The rich- poor divide is visible and the gap is widening each day. Thus to find fault only with the caste system of others’ faith and neglect the deep division inside our own is sheer hypocrisy.

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