How Brahminical legacy of caste discrimination influenced Christians and Muslims in India

dalit christians muslims

By Sheshu Babu*

It is a well-known fact that Hindu religion has deep caste divisions. This is one of the major causes of Dalits and other backward caste people willing to convert into other religions like Christianity. The disgust with caste system can be assessed when Dr BR Ambedkar said that, though he was born a Hindu, he would not die as a Hindu. But, do other religions have similar problems?

In an article, “Is the caste system deep rooted among Christians in Kerala?”, a Kerala bishop recently stirred up a hornet’s nest. Written by TA Ameerudheen, the article states, a senior bishop of Kerala’s Jacobite Syrian church  said that some Christians practice caste system  in the state, hence he would stay away from traditional family gatherings of the members of the church.

According to this senior bishop, Geeverghese Mor Coorilos, who serves at Niranam  Diocese, some financially-sound Syrian Christians organise annual gatherings attended by prominent priests, adding, these meetings were organised to “proclaim the artificially cultivated upper caste identity and lineage”, hence he would not like to be a part of this tradition any more.

The article further states that, on April 9, Mor Coorilos wrote on his Facebook page, “These people believe that their ancestors were Brahmins converted by St. Thomas. They even publish family history books during the get- together. Such baseless upper-caste myths have to be busted …”

Syrian Christians are believed to be one of the oldest Christian communities, who trace their origin to St Thomas, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus Christ. It is believed that when St Thomas visited Kerala in 1st Century CE, he converted some Brahmin families to Christianity.

Scholars point out that some Christian tendency to hark back to their Brahminical lineage indicates that Christianity is not free from the blight of caste. They draw attention to Dalits who converted from Hinduism only to find similar oppression in Christianity. Dr Sanal Mohan, visiting fellow in Commonwealth studies at the University of Cambridge, opines that caste oppression of Dalits in Kerala has led to formation of many churches exclusively meant for dalits. A prominent church is Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha (PRDS) founded in 1909 by Dalit activist and poet Poikayil Yohannan, which was an early movement against caste oppression, according to Dr Mohan.

Other exclusive churches for Dalits that formed later include the World Evangelical Mission, the CMS Anglican church, the Salvation Army and so on. This indicates that there has been a ‘Dalit movement’ within Christianity in the state.

Boby Thomas, author of the Malayalam book “Christians: A Handbook for Christianity’, agreed that discrimination of Dalits is rampant in the state, and Christians pretending to be from upper castes take pride in their Brahminical roots.

In Tamil Nadu, the Untouchability Eradication Front published a damning report exposing discrimination of Dalits. The formation of parishes (administration districts of priests) and separate chapels for Dalit Christians in villages reflect caste discrimination.

A Dalit activist and writer Antonysami Marx expressed dismay over the discrimination and pointed out that church or its members did not address the problem.

While some historians disagree on the presence of Brahmins in Kerala during St Thomas’ supposed visit, Susan Viswanathan,  sociologist, Jawaharlal Nehru University, who wrote a book  “Christian of Kerala” agrees, it is hard to prove conclusively that St Thomas Christians or Syrian Christians used their upper caste status to remain close to power. They are patrilocal and patrilineal like Brahmins they claim descent from.

In backward states where the population of Adivasi and tribes is high, converted Christians face discrimination to a large extent. The church priests and Christian missionaries must address the problem and treat Dalits on par.

Not much has been said about Hindu caste influence on Islam. In an article, Remy Delage (“Muslim castes in India”, analyses the importance of castes in understanding the social organizations of Muslims in India. Islam in India, along with its Arab and Middle-East practices of patriarchy, exploitation of women, practice of marriage, has also deep caste divisions – the Ashraf nobility with its lineage dating back to the Prophet and the lowest stratum (Arzals).

The discrimination based on caste and the forced conversions were prevalent during Mughal rule, the kings being upper caste Muslims. The Dalits and backward converts were invariably placed in the lowest strata of muslims (Arzals) and discrimination continued.

After a lot of introspection, Ambedkar arrived at the decision of a ‘religion’ that has no caste system – Buddhism. Though it has been split into Mahayana and Hinayana by Brahmins to dilute the religion, he found it as an appropriate replacement. Ambedkar believed that the religion of Buddha gave freedom of thought and development of all (see “Ambedkar , Buddhism and Democracy, Christopher” by Christophe Jefferlot).

Ambedkar made a comparison between Buddhism and French Revolution. Therefore, to end discrimination of Dalits and other castes, a perfect way is essential in order to establish egalitarian society.

*A writer from anywhere and everywhere. Whenever he ponders on the question ‘ who am I?’ , he finds some response in a lyric ‘Ami ek jajabor’ by Bhupen Hazarika:
“I am a gypsy
The earth has called me her own
And I have forgotten my home …” 


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