Indian Culture "Castes" its Shadow on Christianity

By Chhavi Sachdev In largely Hindu India, the number of Christians is on the rise. Despite being a child of the West, Christianity in India is growing up with its own identity. Indian Christians, because they live in close proximity with other religions, tend to take other religions seriously and bring them to their theological discourse, which the Western Christians do not need to do, said Kuruvilla Pandikattu, a Jesuit priest and physicist. By and large the perspective is similar, Pandikattu said. Certain areas in India have always been strongholds of Christianity, such as Goa, a former Portuguese settlement on the West Coast, and Kerala on the East, where the Apostle Thomas is believed to have settled in the first century. While the landing of Thomas is hard to prove or disprove, there is definite evidence of a thriving Christian community in Kerala by the third century largely because of Syrian spice merchants who stayed in Kerala and intermarried, said Corrine G. Dempsey, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. A conservative estimate is that 60 percent of all Christian Indians come from Dalit and lower classes, said Albion Universitys Selva Raj. Missionaries, though banned by the government, gain a foothold thanks, largely, to the entrenched caste system in society. Although casteism has been officially outlawed since 1950, rural society runs along strict caste lines. The lowest caste, Dalits or Harijans, previously called untouchables, faces widespread discrimination along with economic and educational disadvantages. India has a quota system, similar to the American affirmative action, but the realities of rural life are removed from it. Sociologists and anthropologists agree that a casteless religion is, therefore, attractive to indigenous tribals. Yet, it is hard to determine whether faith precedes the desire for socioeconomic mobility, or vice versa, said Raj. Evangelists also influence Christians from the mainstream churches or from other sects, said Rowena Robinson, an associate professor of sociology at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. It is difficult to judge from attendance at evangelical ceremonies, the measure of actual conversions. The two should not be confused. Many may attend healing rituals etc without aligning themselves on a more permanent basis, continued Robinson, who authored Christians of India and Religious Conversions in India: Modes, Motivations, and Meanings. Those who do convert soon discover that Christianity is also rife with discrimination, Raj said. Even after adopting Christian names that have no obvious caste markers like Hindu names do, it remains obvious they are converts and, therefore, a step below. Until 30 years ago, Christian cemeteries had separate burial grounds for Dalit converts, said Raj, whose forthcoming book is called Dealing with the Deities. Converts tend to retain their pre-conversion rituals, traditions and non-converted relations. In all conversions almost everywhere, it is unlikely that the past will be completely eradicated. Cultural retentions are always there, including in terms of kinship structures, marriage patterns and ritual elements, said Robinson. Even in educated circles, the influence of preconversion and their neighbors Hinduism abounds. Christian brides in India wear white but eschew dresses for saris. At Keralas Syrian Christian weddings, the climax of the event is the tying of the tali around the brides neck, like at Hindu weddings, said Dempsey. The tali is a gold leaf-shaped ornament worn on a gold chain. Christian talis often have crosses on them to distinguish them from Hindu talis. Syrian Christian churches often have prominently displayed gold lamps similar to lamps you see in Hindu temples, she said. Additionally, Saint festivals look very much like festivals at Hindu temples, particularly when it comes to processions in which the saints statue like the Hindu murti, or statue brings up the rear. Syrian priests even used to provide astrological advice, though Dempsey said this has fallen out of favor in the past half century.

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