History: Caste System in India


Caste system

The Caste System and the Stages of Life in Hinduism

Caste Problem

What is Dalit Theology?

Dalit: The Black Untouchables Of India

Caste marks survive India’s killer quake (CNN, 010208)

Religious “Untouchables” in India Unite for Affirmative Action (Christian Post, 050317)

Christian ‘Untouchables’ in India Speak Out (Christian Post, 050719)





Caste system


Brahmanism, the predominant religion in India during the Buddha’s time, divided all humans into four castes (attu vanna), priests, warriors, traders and labourers. Social contact between each caste was minimal and the lower one’s position in the system the less opportunities, the less freedom and the less rights one had. Outside the caste system were the outcasts (sudra) people considered so impure that they hardly counted as humans. The caste system was later absorbed into Hinduism, given religious sanction and legitimacy and has continued to function right up till the present. The Buddha, himself born into the warrior caste, was a severe critic of the caste system. He ridiculed the priests claims to be superior, he criticised the theological basis of the system and he welcomed into the Sangha people of all castes, including outcasts. His most famous saying on the subject is : “Birth does not make one a priest or an outcaste. Behaviour makes one either a priest or an outcaste”. Even during the time when Buddhism was decaying in India and Tantrayana had adopted many aspects of Hinduism, it continued to welcome all castes and some of the greatest Tantric adepts were low castes or outcastes.




The Caste System and the Stages of Life in Hinduism


The pattern of social classes in Hinduism is called the “caste system.” The chart shows the major divisions and contents of the system. The basic castes are called “varn[.]as,” or “colors.” Subcastes, or “jâtis,” are subdivisions of the varn[.]as.



Twice Born












Priests and Teachers







Warriors and Rulers







Farmers, Merchants, Artisans, etc.














Polluted Labourers



The Bhagavad Gita says this about the varn[.]as:


[41] The works of Brahmins, Ks[.]atriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras are different, in harmony with the three powers of their born nature.


[42] The works of a Brahmin are peace; self-harmony, austerity, and purity; loving-forgiveness and righteousness; vision and wisdom and faith.


[43] These are the works of a Ks[.]atriya: a heroic mind, inner fire, constancy, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity and noble leadership.


[44] Trade, agriculture and the rearing of cattle is the work of a Vaishya. And the work of the Shudra is service.


[chapter 18, Juan Mascaró translation, Penguin Books, 1962]


There are literally thousands of subcastes in India, often with an administrative or corporate structure. When Mahâtmâ Gandhi wanted to go to England to study law, he had to ask his subcaste for permission to leave India. (“Gandhi” means “greengrocer,” and that should be enough for a good guess that Gandhi was a Vaishya.) Sometimes it is denied that the varn[.]as are “castes” because, while “true” castes, the jâtis, are based on birth, the varn[.]as are based on the theory of the gun[.]as. This is no more than a rationalization: the varn[.]as came first, and they are based on birth. The gun[.]as came later, and provide a poor explanation anyway, since the gun[.]a tamas is associated with both twice born and once born, caste and outcaste.


Associated with each varn[.]a there is a traditional color. These sound suspiciously like skin colors; and, indeed, there is an expectation in India that higher caste people will have lighter skin--although there are plenty of exceptions. This all probably goes back to the original invasion of the Arya, who came from Central Asia and so were undoubtedly light skinned. The people already in India were quite dark, even as today many people in India seem positively black. Apart from skin color, Indians otherwise have “Caucasian” features--narrow noses, thin lips, etc.--and recent genetic mapping studies seem to show that Indians are more closely related to the people of the Middle East and Europe than to anyone else.


The first three varn[.]as are called the twice born. This has nothing to do with reincarnation. Being “twice born” means that you come of age religiously, making you a member of the Vedic religion, eligible to learn Sanskrit, study the Vedas, and perform Vedic rituals. The “second birth” is thus like Confirmation or a Bar Mitzvah. Boys are “born again” at specific ages: 8 for Brahmins; 11 for Ks[.]atriyas; and 12 for Vaishyas. A thread is bestowed at the coming of age to be worn around the waist as the symbol of being twice born. The equivalent of coming of age for girls is marriage. The bestowal of the thread is part of the wedding ceremony. That part of the wedding ritual is even preserved in Jainism. Ancient Iran also had a coming of age ceremony that involved a thread. That and other evidence leads to the speculation that the three classes of the twice born are from the original Indo-European social system. Even the distant Celts believed in three social classes. The three classes of Plato’s Republic thus may not have been entirely his idea. Although there must have been a great deal of early intermarriage in India, nowhere did such an Indo-European social system become as rigid a system of birth as there. The rigidity may well be due to the influence of the idea of karma, that poor birth is morally deserved.


When the twice born come of age, they enter into the four âshramas or “stages of life.”


1. The first is the brahmacarya, or the stage of the student (brahmacârin). For boys, the student is supposed to go live with a teacher (guru), who is a Brahmin, to learn about Sanskrit, the Vedas, rituals, etc. The dharma of a student includes being obedient, respectful, celibate, and non-violent. “The teacher is God.” For girls, the stage of studenthood coincides with that of the householder, and the husband stands in the place of the teacher.


2. The second stage is the gârhastya, or the stage of the householder, which is taken far more seriously in Hinduism than in Jainism or Buddhism and is usually regarded as mandatory, like studenthood, although debate continued over the centuries whether or not this stage could be skipped in favor of a later one. This is the stage where the principal dharma of the person is performed, whether as priest, warrior, etc., or for women mainly as wife and mother. Arjuna’s duty to fight the battle in the Bhagavad Gita comes from his status as a householder. Besides specific duties, there are general duties that pay off the “three debts”: a debt to the ancestors that is discharged by marrying and having children; a debt to the gods that is discharged by the household rituals and sacrifices; and a debt to the teacher that is discharged by appropriately teaching one’s wife or children.


3. The third stage is the vânaprastya, or the stage of the forest dweller. This may be entered into optionally if (ideally) one’s hair has become gray, one’s skin wrinkled, and grandchildren exist to carry on the family. Husbands and wives may leave their affairs and possessions with their children and retire together to the forest as hermits. This does not involve the complete renunciation of the world, for husbands and wives can still have sex (once a month), and a sacred fire still should be kept and minimal rituals performed. This stage is thus not entirely free of dharma. The Forest Treatises were supposed to have been written by or for forest dwellers, who have mostly renounced the world and have begun to consider liberation.


4. The fourth stage is the sannyâsa, or the stage of the wandering ascetic, the sannyâsin (or sâdhu). If a man desires, he may continue on to this stage, but his wife will need to return home; traditionally she cannot stay alone as a forest dweller or wander the highways as an ascetic. The sannyâsin has renounced the world completely, is regarded as dead by his family (the funeral is held), and is finally beyond all dharma and caste. When a sannyâsin enters a Hindu temple, he is not a worshiper but one of the objects of worship. Not even the gods are sannyâsins (they are householders), and so this is where in Hinduism, as in Jainism and Buddhism, it is possible for human beings to be spiritually superior to the gods.


The four stages of life may, somewhat improbably, be associated with the four parts of the Vedas: the sam[.]hitâs with the stage of the student, who is particularly obligated to learn them; the brâhman[.]as with the stage of the householder, who is able to regulate his ritual behavior according to them; the âran[.]yakas with the stage of the forest dweller, who regulates his ritual behavior according to them and who begins to contemplate liberation; and finally the upanis[.]ads with the stage of the wandering ascetic, who is entirely concerned with meditation on the absolute, Brahman.


The twice born account for about 48% of Hindus. The rest are Shudras and Untouchables. The Shudras may represent the institutional provision that the Arya made for the people they already found in India. The Shudras thus remain once born, and traditionally are not allowed to learn Sanskrit or study the Vedas. Their dharma is to work for the twice born. But even below the Shudras are the Untouchables, who are literally “outcastes,” without a varn[.]a, and are regarded as “untouchable” because they are ritually polluting for caste Hindus. Some Untouchable subcastes are regarded as so polluted that members are supposed to keep out of sight and do their work at night: They are called Unseeables. Why there are so many Untouchables (20% or so of Hindus) is unclear, although caste Hindus can be ejected from their jâtis and become outcastes. When Mahâtmâ Gandhi’s subcaste refused him permission to go to England, he went anyway and was ejected. After he returned, his family got him back in, but while in England he was technically an outcaste. The Untouchables, nevertheless, have their own traditional professions and their own subcastes. Those professions involve too much pollution to be performed by caste Hindus: (1) dealing with the bodies of dead animals (like the sacred cattle that wander Indian villages) or unclaimed dead humans, (2) tanning leather, from such dead animals, and manufacturing leather goods, and (3) cleaning up the human and animal waste for which in traditional villages there is no sewer system. Mahâtmâ Gandhi referred to the latter euphemistically as “scavenging” but saw in it the most horrible thing imposed on the Untouchables by the caste system. His requirement on his farms in South Africa that everyone share in such tasks comes up in an early scene in the movie Gandhi. Since Gandhi equated suffering with holiness, he saw the Untouchables as hallowed by their miserable treatment and called them “Harijans,” the “Children of God” (Hari=Vis[.]n[.]u). Later Gandhi went on fasts in the hope of improving the condition of the Untouchables. Today the status of the Shudras and Untouchables (the “scheduled castes,” i.e. those jâtis listed as oppressed) and the preferential policies that the Indian government has designed for their advancement are sources of serious conflict in Indian society.




Caste Problem


This article is a chapter from the book, “Swami Vivekananda On India and Her Problems”. This book can be purchased from the Divine Life Society of Maryland (e-mail: Simado@aol.com).




“I have a message for the world, which I will deliver without fear and care for the future. To the reformers I will point out that I am a greater reformer than any one of them. They want to reform only little bits. I want root-and-branch reform.” - Swami Vivekananda




Though our castes and our institutions are apparently linked with our religion, they are not so. These institutions have been necessary to protect us as a nation, and when this necessity for self-preservation will no more exist, they will die a natural death. In religion there is no caste. A man from the highest caste and a man from the lowest may become a monk in India and the two castes become equal. The caste system is opposed to the religion of Vedanta.


Caste is a social custom, and all our great preachers have tried to break it down. From Buddhism downwards, every sect has preached against caste, and every time it has only riveted the chains. Beginning from Buddha to Rammohan Ray, everyone made the mistake of holding caste to be a religious institution and tried to pull down religion and caste altogether, and failed.


In spite of all the ravings of the priests, caste is simply a crystallized social institution, which after doing its service is now filling the atmosphere of India with its stench, and it can only be removed by giving back to people their lost social individuality. Caste is simply the outgrowth of the political institutions of India; it is a hereditary trade guild. Trade competition with Europe has broken caste more than any teaching.




The older I grow, the better I seem to think of caste and such other time-honored institutions of India. There was a time when I used to think that many of them were useless and worthless, but the older I grow, the more I seem to feel a difference in cursing any one of them, for each one of them is the embodiment of the experience of centuries.


A child of but yesterday, destined to die the day after tomorrow, comes to me and asks me to change all my plans and if I hear the advice of that baby and change all my surroundings according to his ideas I myself should be a fool, and no one else. Much of the advice that is coming to us from different countries is similar to this. Tell these wiseacres, “I will hear you when you have made a stable society yourselves. You cannot hold on to one idea for two days, you quarrel and fail; you are born like moths in the spring and die like them in five minutes. You come up like bubbles and burst like bubbles too. First form a stable society like ours. First make laws and institutions that remains undiminished in their power through scores of centuries. Then will be the time to talk on the subject with you, but till then, my friend, you are only a giddy child.”


Caste is a very good thing. Caste is the plan we want to follow. What caste really is, not one in a million understands. There is no country in the world without caste. Caste is based throughout on that principle. The plan in India is to make everybody Brahmana, the Brahmana being the ideal of humanity. If you read the history of India you will find that attempts have always been made to raise the lower classes. Many are the classes that have been raised. Many more will follow till the whole will become Brahmana. That is the plan.


Our ideal is the Brahmana of spiritual culture and renunciation. By the Brahmana ideal what do I mean? I mean the ideal Brahmana-ness in which worldliness is altogether absent and true wisdom is abundantly present. That is the ideal of the Hindu race. Have you not heard how it is declared he, the Brahmana, is not amenable to law, that he has no law, that he is not governed by kings, and that his body cannot be hurt? That is perfectly true. Do not understand it in the light thrown upon it by interested and ignorant fools, but understand it in the light of the true and original Vedantic conception.. If the Brahmana is he who has killed all selfishness and who lives to acquire and propagate wisdom and the power of love - if a country is altogether inhabited by such Brahmanas, by men and women who are spiritual and moral and good, is it strange to think of that country as being above and beyond all law? What police, what Military are necessary to govern them? Why should any one govern them at all? Why should they live under a government? They are good and noble, and they are the men of God; these are our ideal Brahmanas, and we read that in the SatyaYuga there was only one caste, and that was the Brahmana. We read in the Mahabharata that the whole world was in the beginning peopled with Brahmanas, and that as they began to degenerate they became divided into different castes, and that when the cycle turns round they will all go back to that Brahmanical origin.


The son of a Brahmana is not necessarily always a Brahmana; though there is every possibility of his being one, he may not become so. The Brahmana caste and the Brahmana quality are two distinct things.


As there are sattva, rajas and tamas - one or other of these gunas more or less - in every man, so the qualities which make a Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya or a Shudra are inherent in every man, more or less. But at time one or other of these qualities predominates in him in varying degrees and is manifested accordingly. Take a man in his different pursuits, for example : when he is engaged in serving another for pay, he is in Shudra-hood; when he is busy transacting some some piece of business for profit, on his account, he is a Vaishya; when he fights to right wrongs then the qualities of a Kshatriya come out in him; and when he meditates on God, or passes his time in conversation about Him, then he is a Brahmana. Naturally, it is quite possible for one to be changed from one caste into another. Otherwise, how did Viswamitra become a Brahmana and Parashurama a Kshatriya?


The means of European civilization is the sword; of the Aryans, the division into different varnas. This system of division into varnas is the stepping-stone to civilization, making one rise higher and higher in proportion to one’s learning and culture. In Europe, it is everywhere victory to the strong and death to the weak. In the land of Bharata (India), every social rule is for the protection of the weak.


Such is our ideal of caste, as meant for raising all humanity slowly and gently towards the realization of the great ideal of spiritual man, who is non-resisting, calm, steady, worshipful, pure and meditative. In that ideal there is God.


We believe in Indian caste as one of the greatest social institutions that the Lord gave to man. We also believe that through the unavoidable defects, foreign persecutions, and above all, the monumental ignorance and pride of many Brahmanas who do not deserve the name, have thwarted in many ways, the legitimate fructification of this glorious Indian institution, it has already worked wonders for the land of Bharata and it destined to lead Indian humanity to its goal.


Caste should not go; but should be readjusted occasionally. Within the old structure is to be life enough for the building of two hundred thousand new ones. It is sheer nonsense to desire the abolition of caste.




It is in the nature of society to form itself into groups; and what will go will be these privileges! Caste is a natural order. I can perform one duty in social life, and you another; you can govern a country, and I can mend a pair of old shoes, but that is no reason why you are greater than I, for can you mend my shoes? Can I govern the country? I am clever in mending shoes, you are clever in reading Vedas, that is no reason why you should trample on my head; why if one commits murder should he be praised and if another steals an apple why should he be hanged? This will have to go.


Caste is good. That is only natural way of solving life. Men must form themselves into groups, and you cannot get rid of that. Wherever you go there will be caste. But that does not mean that there should be these privileges. They should be knocked on the head. If you teach Vedanta to the fisherman, he will say, “I am as good a man as you, I am a fisherman, you are a philosopher, but I have the same God in me, as you have in you.” And that is what we want, no privilege for anyone, equal chances for all; let everyone be taught that the Divine is within, and everyone will work out his own salvation. The days of exclusive privileges and exclusive claims are gone, gone for ever from the soil of India.




Formerly the characteristic of the noble-minded was - (tribhuvanamupakara shrenibhih priyamanah) “to please the whole universe by one’s numerous acts of service”, but now it is - I am pure and the whole world is impure. “Don’t touch me!” “Don’t touch me!” The whole world is impure, and I alone am pure! Lucid Brahmajnana! Bravo! Great God! Nowadays, Brahman is neither in the recesses of the heart, nor in the highest heaven, nor in all beings - now He is in the cooking pot!


We are orthodox Hindus, but we refuse entirely to identify ourselves with “Don’t- touchism”. That is not Hinduism; it is in none of our books; it is an orthodox superstition, which has interfered with national efficiency all along the line. Religion has entered in the cooking pot. The present religion of the Hindus is neither the path of Knowledge or Reason - it is “Don’t-touchism”. - “Don’t touch me”, “Don’t touch me” - that exhausts its description.


“Don’t touchism” is a form of mental disease. Beware! All expansion is life, all contraction is death. All love is expansion, all selfishness is contraction. Love is therefore the only law of life. See that you do not lose your lives in this dire irreligion of “Don’t- touchism”. Must the teaching (Atmavat sarvabhuteshu) - “Looking upon all beings as your own self” - be confined to books alone? How will they grant salvation who cannot feed a hungry mouth with a crumb of bread? How will those, who become impure at the mere breath of others, purify others?


We must cease to tyrannize. To what a ludicrous state are we brought! If a bhangi comes to anybody as a bhangi, he would be shunned as the plague; but no sooner does he get a cupful of water poured upon his head with some muttering of prayers by a padri, and get a coat to his back, no matter how threadbare, and come into the room of the most orthodox Hindu, I don’t see the man who then dare refuse him a chair and a hearty shake of hands! Irony can go no farther.


Just see, for want of sympathy from the Hindus, thousands of pariahs in Madras are turning Christians. Don’t think that this is simply due to the pinch of hunger; it is because they do not get any sympathy from us. We are day and night calling out to them “Don’t touch us! Don’t touch us!” Is there any compassion or kindliness of heart in the country? Only a class of “Don’t-touchists” ; kick such customs out! I sometimes feel the urge to break the barriers of “Don’t-touchism”, go at once and call out, “Come all who are poor, miserable, wretched and downtrodden”, and to bring them all together. Unless they rise, the Mother will not awake.


Each Hindu, I say, is a brother to every other, and it is we, who have degraded them by our outcry, “Don’t touch”, “Don’t touch!” And so the whole country has been plunged to the utmost depths of meanness, cowardice and ignorance. These men have to be lifted; words of hope and faith have to be proclaimed to them. We have to tell them, “You are also men like us and you have all the rights that we have.”




Our solution of the caste question is not degrading those who are already high up, is not running amuck through food and drink, is not jumping out of our own limits in order to have more enjoyment, but it comes by every one of us fulfilling the dictates of our Vedantic religion, by our attaining spirituality and by our becoming ideal Brahmana. There is a law laid on each one of you in this land by your ancestors, whether you are Aryans, or non-Aryans, rishis or Brahmanas or the very lowest outcaste. The command is the same to you all, that you must make progress without stopping, and that from the highest man to the lowest pariah, every one in this country has to try and become the ideal Brahmana. This Vedantic idea is applicable not only here but over the whole world.


The Brahmana-hood is the ideal of humanity in India as wonderfully put forward by Shankaracharya at the beginning of his commentary on the Gita, where he speaks about the reason for Krishna’s coming as a preacher for the preservation of Brahmana- hood, of Brahmana-ness. That was the great end. This Brahmana, the man of God, he who has known Brahman, the ideal man, the perfect man, must remain, he must not go. And with all the defects of the caste now, we know that we must all be ready to give to the Brahmanas this credit, that from them have come more men with real Brahmana-ness in them than from all the other castes. We must be bold enough, must be brave enough to speak their defects, but at the same time we must give credit that is due to them.


Therefore, it is no use fighting among the castes. What good will it do? It will divide us all the more, weaken us all the more, degrade us all the more. The solution is not by bringing down the higher, but by raising the lower up to the level of the higher. And that is the line of work that is found in all our books, in spite of what you may hear from some people whose knowledge of their own Scriptures and whose capacity to understand the mighty plans of the ancients are only zero. What is the plan? The ideal at the one end is the Brahmana and the ideal at the other end is the chandala, and the whole work is to raise the chandala up to the Brahmana. Slowly and slowly you will find more and more privileges granted to them.


I regret that in modern times there should be so much discussion between the castes. This must stop. It is useless on both sides, especially on the side of the higher caste, the Brahmana, the day for these privileges and exclusive claims is gone. The duty of every aristocracy is to dig its own grave, and the sooner it does so, the better. The more he delays, the more it will fester and the worse death it will die. It is the duty of the Brahmana, therefore, to work for the salvation of the rest of mankind, in India. If he does that and so long as he does that, he is a Brahmana.


Any one who claims to be a Brahmana, then, should prove his pretensions, first by manifesting that spirituality, and next by raising others to the same status. We earnestly entreat the Brahmanas not to forget the ideal of India - the production of a universe of Brahmanas, pure as purity, good as God Himself : this was at the beginning, says the Mahabharata and so will it be in the end.


It seems that most of the Brahmanas are only nursing a false pride of birth; and any schemer, native or foreign, who can pander to this vanity and inherent laziness, by fulsome sophistry, appears to satisfy more.


Beware Brahmanas, this is the sign of death! Arise and show your manhood, your Brahmana-hood, by raising the non-Brahmanas around you - not in the spirit of a master - not with the rotten canker of egoism crawling with superstitions and charlatanry of East and West - but in the spirit of a servant.


To the Brahmanas I appeal, that they must work hard to raise the Indian people by teaching them what they know, by giving out the culture that they have accumulated for centuries. It is clearly the duty of the Brahmanas of India to remember what real Brahmana-hood is. As Manu says, all these privileges and honors are given to the Brahmana because, “with him is the treasury of virtue”. He must open that treasury and distribute to the world.


It is true that he was the earliest preacher to the Indian races, he was the first to renounce everything in order to attain to the higher realization of life, before others could reach to the idea. It was not his fault that he marched ahead of the other castes. Why did not the other castes so understand and do as they did? Why did they sit down and be lazy, and let the Brahmanas win the race?


But it is one thing to gain an advantage, and another thing to preserve it for evil use. Whenever power is used for evil it becomes diabolical; it must be used for good only. So this accumulated culture of ages of which the Brahmana has been the trustee, he must now give to the people, and it was because he did not open this treasury to the people, that the Muslims invasion was possible. It was because he did not open this treasury to the people from the beginning, that for a thousand years we have been trodden under the heels of everyone who chose to come to India; it was through that we have become degraded, and the first task must be to break open the cells that hide the wonderful treasures which our common ancestors accumulated; bring them out, and give them to everybody, and the Brahmana must be the first to do it. There is an old superstition in Bengal that if the cobra that bites, sucks out his own poison from the patient, the man must survive. Well then, the Brahmana must suck out his own poison.


To the non-Brahmana castes I say, wait, be not in a hurry. Do not seize every opportunity of fighting the Brahmana, because as I have shown; you are suffering from your own fault. Who told you to neglect spirituality and Sanskrit learning? What have you been doing all this time? Why have you been indifferent? Why do you now fret and fume because somebody else had more brains, more energy, more pluck and go than you? Instead of wasting your energies in vain discussions and quarrels in the newspapers, instead of fighting and quarreling in your own homes - which is sinful - use all your energies in acquiring the culture which the Brahmana has, and the thing is done. Why do you not become Sanskrit scholars? Why do you not spend millions to bring Sanskrit education to all the castes of India? That is the question. The moment you do these things, you are equal to the Brahmana! That is the secret power in India.


The only safety, I tell you men who belong to the lower castes, the only way to raise your condition is to study Sanskrit, and this fighting and writing and frothing against the higher castes is in vain, it does no good, and it creates fight and quarrel, and this race, unfortunately already divided, is going to be divided more and more. The only way to bring about the leveling of castes is to appropriate the culture, the education which is the strength of the higher castes.




What is Dalit Theology?


Sadguna Kumar Dasari


During the decade of the 1980s, the Christian church in India went through significant changes evident not only in the external make-up of the church, but also in the sum and substance of its faith and in the nature and goals of that faith. A significant factor in these changes is the rise of Dalit theology. Dalit theology is an emerging Indian peoples theology which can be defined as the reflection of Christian Dalits of their faith in the context of their struggles and aspirations for their liberation from social alienation, political inequality, economic deprivation, and religious unfreedom.


The word “Dalit”, although now present in many Indian vernaculars, originally is a derivative of a Sanskrit root, dal, which literally means “to break”, “to uproot”, “to crush”, etc. All the different shades of its meaning describe effects of domination and oppression. Consequently the word “Dalit”, in a wider sense, includes all the oppressed people. However, in current parlance, it represents a conglomeration of ethnic groups that constitute nearly 20 percent of India’s population who, under the influence of the principles and practices of caste system, have been segregated from the main-stream of life as “untouchable.”


The caste system of India is a unique system of social stratification that divides society into a hierarchy of rigid social groups possessing the following distinctive characteristics: (1) membership in these groups is only through birth, (2) no upward or downward mobility is possible, and (3) intercourse in terms of food, housing, and marriage among the groups is impermissible. The supporters of the caste system continue to argue that this system is pristine and preordained and that it created and maintained stability in the Indian society by assimilating various groups with different customs, occupations, faiths, and social habits. On the other hand, no other social system in the world has caused so much social discrimination, disparity and division as did the Indian caste system.


The principle and practice of untouchability is a direct by-product of the caste system. This principle implies that a section of society is regarded by a dominant minority to be inherently inferior -- so that its association, proximity, and even its sight are polluting to other humans --and thus untouchable. Nearly 20% of the total population of India (more than 130 million people), belonging to numerous castes who for centuries had been segregated from the main-stream of society, form this section that is branded as “untouchable”. It is these people that have chosen the word “Dalit” as a suitable nomenclature that represents their predicament as well as their determination to fight against all forms of oppression they are subjected to. Unlike modern Hindu Reform movements (such as the 19th-century Brahma Samaj, Arya Samaj, and Ramakrishna Mission or Gandhi’s appeals in this century), the people adopting the term Dalits for themselves, seek to abolish not only untouchability, but the caste system that has given birth to it and continues to nurture it.


Until the emergence of Dalit theology, three items have dominated the Indian church’s life and its theological agenda: (1) indigenization, (2) multi religious dialogue, and (3) the economic development of poor and marginalized people. All three concerns emerged out of the national consciousness of the Christian church in pre-independent India. It was believed that through these efforts the Christian population would be able to integrate their culture with their faith, establish a truly Indian leadership, learn to peacefully co-exist with their non-Christian neighbors, and learn to be active witnesses of Jesus Christ in a society that is so much characterized by poverty and under-development. After more than four decades of laboring under this vision India’s church has realized that its toil had yielded only shattered hopes -- for several reasons.


Firstly, the church’s efforts at “indigenization” was by and large a response to the philosophical-theological conceptions of the Brahmanic religion which is alien not only to Dalits and tribal people (who together form more than 85% of the Christian population in India), but also to the majority of shudra (i.e. lower caste) Hindus who follow popular Hinduism in a variety of manifestations. Moreover, the leadership of the Indian church by and large remains with caste Christians who are numerically a small minority in the church. Christians from Dalit and tribal communities, who are now raising their voice for their share of leadership, are criticizing, that it is not a true mark of indigenization if the communities who form the major bulk of its membership are not allowed in the leadership positions.


Secondly, although India’s church has been wrestling with the question of multi-religious dialogue for well over half a century, the progress achieved is minimal. The majority of Hindu India still believes that Indian Christians are allies of the imperialistic west and that the church is anti-nationalist. Religious violence victimizing Indian Christians continues every-day, while inter-religious harmony and mutual respect continues to be as distant a dream as it ever has been.


Finally, Christian efforts to alleviate poverty not only have been misunderstood and misinterpreted by Hindus as strategies for proselityzation, but also have been proved irrelevant and inadequate. The theology of development has proved inadequate in understanding the peculiar nature of the Indian society, the philosophical basis for its division of labor, and the religious-philosophical-theological ideology of caste that legitimizes the hierarchical stratification of society.


Occasioned by the failure of its vision, the Indian church began to rethink its ministry and theology at the same time that the Dalit activist movements burgeoned throughout the country. During the 1980s Dalit Christians started similar movements within the church. As a result of these movements, church councils throughout India formed commissions and committees on caste issues, even though at the present moment these efforts are more symbolic than action-oriented. This ascendancy of Dalit theology to the status of a “peoples’ theology” in the Indian church lies, among others, in the fact that the majority of Indian Christians are Dalits. Dalits -- neglected, ignored, and oppressed people -- form at least 65% of today’s Christian community in India. Theology in India needs to be compatible with their cultural milieu. It has to be Dalit in character. Dalit theology is an inevitable direction that Christian theology in India should take to redeem its pledge to be fully Christian and authentically Indian.


The inevitability of Dalit theology lies not only in the Dalits’ numerical majority in the Indian church but also in the very intrinsic nature of Christian theology, i.e., understanding and affirming God as one who takes the side of the poor and oppressed. Dalits are among the poor, oppressed, exploited, and suffering sections of the Indian population. Hence theology that arises from their life experiences and that reflects their struggles and aspirations, their failures and successes, their conflicts and contradictions, their dreams and hopes, and their camaraderie with people of similar situations, like any “theology from below”, bears true witness to the presence of God in the world.


The ultimate significance of any theological movement lies both in the extent to which it is able to respond to contemporary social, political, cultural, and religious developments and in the impetus it provides to the ongoing theological discussion. On the first count, Dalit theology has been more than successful. It was able to bring a revolutionary change to the outlook of India’s Church and international recognition right in its budding stage. As an academic discipline, however, it yet has to make headway beyond the pioneering efforts of its original proponents.


Sadguna Kumar Dasari is a Lutheran Minister and an alumnus of PSR (Pacific School of Religion in San Francisco, California). This article is a summary of his M.A. Thesis Dalit Christology: Search for a Method, 1995. Please notify the author if you want to reproduce this article.




Dalit: The Black Untouchables Of India


by V.T. Rajshekar


“Every hour - two Dalits are assaulted. Every day - three Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered, two Dalit houses are burnt”


Human Rights Education Movement in India


“The Dalit is not only forbidden to enter the home of a Brahmin but he must also not draw water from the same well, nor eat from the same pot or plate. He must not glance at or allow his shadow to fall on the Brahmin. All these acts will pollute the ‘pure’ Brahmin. The Dalit ‘is not only Untouchable, but also Unseeable, Unapproachable, Unshadowable and even Unthinkable’... This book should be compulsory reading for those who wish to understand the true nature of the caste system and the suffering it causes to millions.” Crescent International


Originally published in India under the title Apartheid in India, V.T. Rajshekar’s passionate work on the plight of the Indian Dalits was first introduced to North American readers through the publication of DALIT: The Black Untouchables of India in 1987. This book is the first to provide a Dalit view of the roots and continuing factors of the gross oppression of the world’s largest minority (over 150 million people) through a 3,000 year history of conquest, slavery, apartheid and worse. Rajshekar offers a penetrating, often startling overview of the role of Brahminism and the Indian caste system in embedding the notion of “untouchability” in Hindu culture, tracing the origins of the caste system to an elaborate system of political control in the guise of religion, imposed by Aryan invaders from the north on a conquered aboriginal/Dravidian civilization of African descent. He exposes the almost unimaginable social indignities which continue to be imposed upon so-called untouchables to this very day, with the complicity of the political, criminal justice, media and education systems. Under Rajshekar’s incisive critique, the much-vaunted image of Indian nonviolence shatters. Even India’s world-celebrated apostle of pacificsm emerges in less saintly guise; in seeking to ensure Hindu numerical domination in India’s new political democracy, Mahatma Gandhi advocated assimilating those whom Hindu scriptures defined as outcastes (untouchables) into the lowest Hindu caste, rather than accede to their demand for a separate electorate. Rajshekar further questions whether the Brahminist socio-political concepts so developed in turn influenced the formation of the modern Nazi doctrine of Aryan supremacy, placing the roots of Nazism deep in Indian history.


This new updated and illustrated Third Edition includes: Y.N. Kly on the Dalit plight as a warning to African-Americans; Runoko Rashidi on “Blacks as a Global Community”; the 1995 intervention at the UN on behalf of Dalits by Dr. Laxmi Berwa, and the recent US Congressional Bill 4215 on human rights in India, which marks the first US Congressional recognition of the Dalit plight.


V.T. RAJSHEKAR is recognized worldwide as one of India’s foremost human rights activists and a spokesperson for the Indian Dalits. Combining the essentials of Marxism and the philosophy of the late Dr. B.R. Ambedkar into a new indigenous political philosophy, his writings clarify the caste-class struggle in India. He is editor of the internationally distributed English-language Indian bi-weekly, Dalit Voice, and Director of the Dalit Sahitya Akademy, 109/7th Cross, Palace Lower Orchards, Bangalore 560 003, India.




Caste marks survive India’s killer quake (CNN, 010208)


LAKHOND, India -- There’s one structure that can’t be shaken in India, even by a killer earthquake -- the caste system.


While the body count continues and the country begins a national census, traditions remain. The town of Lakhond has six distinct tent camps for the earthquake homeless, all separated by caste or religion.


The needs are overwhelming. The quake killed more than 17,000 and left behind 1 million homeless, according to a United Nations estimate. More than 60,000 were injured and survivors are in need of medical care, food, water and shelter.


Yet when relief groups showed up to hand out aid, town leaders presented them with six lists of residents: four different Hindu castes, the untouchables -- lower even than the formal caste system -- and Muslims. All the camps are separate.


Relief effort a challenge


With the pattern repeated across the zone in western India ravaged by the January 26 quake, relief groups find themselves wrestling with the country’s ingrained social hierarchy to get help to everybody -- even untouchables.


“The whole issue of making sure all the castes are included has been a challenge,” Graham Saunders of Catholic Relief Services said Wednesday as workers handed out buckets, soap and other aid to people in the town.


Officially, India’s traditional caste system -- a social hierarchy with Brahmans at the top and the so-called “untouchables” at the bottom -- has been illegal for decades, and discriminating against someone on the basis of caste in employment and housing, for example, can wind up in court.


Unofficially, however, the social order in the countryside remains strong, determining how most people live, with whom they marry and socialize.


So while modernization and urbanization have blurred the lines between castes somewhat in the cities, in places like the quake-damaged villages of Gujarat the divisions are clear, and greatly complicate the already enormous challenges of getting relief to victims.


Hierarchy hampers distribution


In the aftermath of the disaster, necessities are scarce and everyone is desperate for help. Those at the top of the pecking order use their connections and prestige to get the pick of the goods.


“Whatever the distribution of aid, it first goes to the upper castes,” said Mayuri Mistry, a Catholic Relief Services worker in Gujarat.


The social hierarchy is only one of the problems with aid distribution. There have been complaints in the quake zone that political connections are playing a big role in determining who gets help.


The French group Medicins sans Frontiers has a cultural anthropologist in Bhuj, near the epicenter, to coach workers on how to navigate the region’s social landscape.


“Indian villages look like a mess, but you know by the house what caste lives there,” said Pilar Duch. “You cannot think that a village is homogeneous. If you don’t know that, you can make a mistake.”


Nationwide headcount


India will start a national census in most of the country this week, despite the quake, although counting will be delayed in the disaster zone.


In a country with a population of 1 billion, the census, conducted every 10 years, is billed as the world’s largest administrative exercise.


While China also counts its population, its census is carried out by different agencies, including Communist Party units, commune leaders and factory heads, unlike the single authority that carries out India’s count, Banthia said.




Religious “Untouchables” in India Unite for Affirmative Action (Christian Post, 050317)


At a seminar held last week in New Delhi, which addressed freedom of faith for Dalits in India, Dalit movements of various faiths expressed support for Christian and Muslim Dalits who are demanding equal rights.


The seminar took place as the Supreme Court of India is in the process of considering whether or not to give affirmative action benefits to Christian and Muslim Dalits.


Presently, only Sikh, Buddhist and Hindu Dalits are eligible for affirmative action. The government has yet to extend the same protection to Christian and Muslim Dalits.


The questions being considered on the afternoon of March 9 were the same as the title of the seminar: “Do Dalits have Freedom of Faith? Do Dalits have Protection of the Law?”


Udit Raj, is an activist for the Justice party, which seeks to unite Dalits and religious minorities in India. At the seminar, he declared that Dalits should enjoy freedom of faith and not suffer discrimination for it.


“Choosing one’s faith is a basic human right,” he affirmed.


He continued: “India is a democracy, and all its citizens, especially the weaker sections, should never be denied the right of choice of their faith and the state should not discriminate among its citizens on the basis of religious affiliation.”


Presently, Dalits who choose to convert to Christianity or Islam are automatically excluded from affirmative action programs.


But according to writer Jaspal Singh, who also attended the seminar, a change in religion doesn’t guarantee a change in status or freedom from discrimination.


To explain his views, he related a few stories where Sikh Dalits still had to have separate cremation grounds and places of worship from other Sikhs. He lamented the unaltered position of Dalits who converted to Sikhism, saying, “The trauma of caste discrimination crossed religious boundaries.”


Pasmanda Muslim Samaj leader Ali Anwar was also present. He has fought to expose the plight of lower caste Muslims and maintained at the seminar that Muslim Dalits were trying to assert their rights.


Panelist John Dayal, president of the All India Catholic Union, also attended the seminar. This former journalist and human rights activist told a story that mirrored that of the others. He said it was a tragedy that remnants of caste-based discrimination persisted among Christians.


His exhortation for the Church’s role in the lives of Dalits is to empower them through education and social development. Like all the others, he said that Christian Dalits wanted “freedom from the unjust discrimination based on faith.”


He added, “untouchability is a humiliating and shameful malady caused by deep-rooted prejudice, which does not disappear with the change of faith.”


For that reason, he is committed to supporting affirmative action for Dalits in the private sector.




Christian ‘Untouchables’ in India Speak Out (Christian Post, 050719)


Christian Dalits, also known as “untouchables” in India, spoke out in national public hearings yesterday about the hardships they have endured for maintaining their faith.


A copy of the the testimonies will be sent to the President of India, the Prime Minister and the Chief Justice of India, along with several other government agencies.


The “Public Tribunal” hearings in the southern state of Tamil Nadu were meant to protest discrimination and demand equal rights. The Dalits are being supported by Christian religious authorities and human rights groups, along with important members of India’s legal community, according to AsiaNews.


The hearings also came ahead of a historic decision by the Supreme Court of India to review the constitutional validity of existing laws, which deny affirmative action benefits to people of formerly “untouchable” castes, including Dalit Christians, on religious grounds.


The commission presiding over the hearings was comprised of prominent figures, including a former Supreme Court Judge, a former chairperson of the State Women Commission, and the the chairperson of the Executive Committee of Bar Council of India.


Also in attendance were representatives from the All India Christian Union, Anglican and Catholic Churches.


The main focus of the Supreme Court in August will be on a 1950 Presidential Order that excluded Christian and Muslim Dalits from government affirmative action programs. Quotas are currently in place that protect Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh Dalits.


The National Movement for Dalit Christians Rights released a statement backing the efforts of the People’s Tribunal.


More than 70 percent of Chrisian Dalits are concentrated in the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Andhara Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka, according to AsiaNews.


There are 25 million Christians in India, with 60 percent being from the Dalit caste, the lowest rung on the social ladder.


Christian religious leaders and international human rights groups are supporting the Tribunal.




Affirmative action in India flips caste roles (Washington Times, 060925)


By Erica Lee Nelson


NEW DELHI — Years of affirmative action have upended India’s caste system to the point where some upper-caste Brahmins are reduced to working as porters and pedaling rickshaws, while almost half the places in universities will soon be reserved for lower castes and tribal people.


Ramesh Jha, a Brahmin, came to New Delhi because he could not find work in his village in eastern Bihar state, where farming jobs have disappeared and almost all the government jobs are reserved for lower castes.


He now cleans toilets, performing a job once done by only the lowest of castes — “untouchable” scavengers who cleaned excreta with their bare hands.


India’s version of affirmative action has gradually taken hold over the past 50 years, designed to bring justice to those who were long oppressed by the Hindu caste system.


Now the government, using data from a caste census taken in 1931, is on its way to increasing the number of university admissions reserved for lower castes and tribal people to 49.5 percent from 22.5 percent.


When the reservation system was introduced in 1990, violent protests surged through the country and one student immolated himself in protest. This year, large groups of medical and engineering students went on hunger strikes, faced tear gas and left hospitals unmanned for days to participate in protests.


The demonstrators say the quota system will squelch merit in India’s most respected universities and further fracture Indian society. More protests are expected when Parliament reconvenes for the winter session.


Since caste cannot always be determined by looks, corrupt government officials are known to create fake lower-caste certificates for anyone who pays. Recently, the Indian Express newspaper obtained a backward-caste certificate for Atal Behari Vajpayee — a Brahmin and former prime minister — simply by paying a bribe of less than $10.


Meanwhile, the status of Brahmins in many states is abysmal. In Andhra Pradesh, 44 percent of Brahmins in the 5 to 18 age group dropped out of school at the primary level, according to a book by J. Radhakrishna. And hundreds of thousands of Brahmins who were forced to leave insurgency-hit Kashmir now live as refugees in other parts of India.


Much of the progress made by the lowest castes is attributable to the work of the Sulabh Sanitation Movement in New Delhi, which has worked to improve conditions for those who clean public toilets while training them for other kinds of work.


Its founder, Bindeshwar Pathak, a Brahmin, recalls the day from his childhood that his grandmother forced him to swallow sand and cow manure because he had touched an “untouchable.” Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s social movement, he made it his life’s work as an adult to fight against that prejudice.


Mr. Pathak, 64, estimates that 13 million toilets are cleaned by members of the manual scavenging caste — women like Usha who started cleaning sewage when she was 15 years old, just after her marriage.


“I was sick when I did that work,” says Usha, who uses only one name. “My stomach always felt bad. My employers would never hand me food. They would only drop it on the ground.”


The Sulabh Sanitation Movement trained her to make noodles and grind spices to sell to hotels in the area. The community now looks up to her, and she makes enough money to send her children to school.


But, she says, no one in her slum has benefited much from reserved jobs in the government: They only get jobs as cleaners. And no one of her generation has enough education to gain admission to a university, even if the increased reservations are implemented.


Rather, she says, it is members of the subcastes that stand slightly above the untouchables who are in a position to take advantage of the government benefits.


In order to correct this imbalance, Mr. Jha says, reserved jobs and places in universities should be allotted on the basis of income rather than caste.


“Anyone coming from poverty level should be helped by the government, no matter what the caste, so they can grow and develop,” he says.




100,000 ‘Untouchables’ Expected for Massive Religious Freedom Rally (Christian Post, 061012)


One hundred thousand Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables,” are expected to participate in a rally for religious freedom in India this week.


The “World Religious Freedom Day” rally will be held Saturday in Nagpur, India, where participants will protest the continued oppression of the caste system and state-level anti-conversion laws, reported Christian Solidarity Worldwide.


“We fully support the AICC and the All India Confederation of Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes Organizations in their fight against caste-based oppression and anti-conversion legislation,” said CSW National Director, Stuart Windsor, in a statement. “It is abhorrent that the Dalits are consistently denied the right to religious freedom through discriminatory legislation, social pressure and outright violence. We join with our partners in a call for true religious freedom in India.”


The demonstration, which is sponsored by CSW and partner the All India Christian Council (AICC), will include a mass conversion ceremony. The rally is supported by a wide range of religions including Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu leaders.


Religious freedom is a particularly sensitive topic as the Hindu Nationalist Party (BJP) has strived to introduce or strengthen existing anti-conversion laws in states where it holds power. According to CSW, the conversion legislations are especially harsh on Dalits and other vulnerable groups who are given more severe punishment for conversion.


“We believe this peaceful rally will be the start of nationwide movement promoting the most basic human right – the freedom of conscience and the ability to choose one’s religion,” said Dr Joseph D’Souza, President of the AICC and Dalit Freedom Network (DFN). “The citizens of India will overturn these anti-conversion laws through an unrelenting campaign in the media, in the courts, and in civic life.”


High-profile attendees will include legislators and ‘Bollywood’ actors.