Children Anywhere are Easy To Love
Complicated by a 5,000 year history, plagued by its 330 million Hindu gods, colonized by Germans, Portuguese and British, this one billion plus nation of various peoples is complex beyond a life time of study.
I dare not say too little about so much, but to say anything at all I’m intrigued by one slice of this multi-layered/textured society. The slice that tells much about its religion, history, societal mores and current challenges: The Caste System.
Born out of its religious history, the caste structure moves from top to bottom, defining who a person is (or is not), their role in life and where they can (and cannot) move. It is more than just about what we have called untouchables – now called Dalits – though that they are. It is about a religious vision of life that gives 5% enormous privilege, 25% favorable status and 70% relegated to being OBC (Other Backward Castes) and Dalits (Outcasts) or no caste at all.
It works this way. Society is seen as a person: the head are Bhramin (5%) – priests and academics who serve as the mouth of the body, providing spiritual well being. One can be a priest only when born into this caste. While framed within the Hindu notion of Karma and the many lives one dies and then is born until reaching this upper state, a Bhramin when dies has no further need to advance: they are like a spark returning to the fire.
Beneath the mouth are “the arms,” the warrior caste called Kshatryia (12%) who rule and protect society.
Then comes the “thighs:” Vaishya caste (12%), merchants and landowners who oversee commerce and agriculture.
Finally come the feet – image of the lowest caste, the Sudra: (25%). These are peasants, farmers and unskilled workers, those who do manual labor for the top three classes.
Notice the untouchables or Dalits aren’t included. I was not prepared for this: they aren’t a class at all. In fact they aren’t included in the image of the person. Making up 50% of society (including tribal groups) half of India is a non person. As untouchables, they are literally that. Higher castes refuse to touch what they have, to eat with them or have any association. While the government passed a non-discriminatory law, this age-old system is well entrenched. Untouchable means exactly that: you don’t touch them or allow them to touch you.
In a country with a population of over a billion, and where 70% – that means over 700 million – are classed as servants or untouchables, the caste strictures put an enormous weight on its mobility to move forward and shuts down its inner capacity to rethink the notion of persons.
Built on a religious idea that each living thing (from flea to a person) moves from one life to another depending on their karma, their movement upwards to a higher caste is based on the good they have done. After possibly millions of life times, if one does enough good in each life time, their karma will be sufficient so they eventually will be born as a Bhramin.
Dr. Richard Howell, general secretary for the Evangelical Fellowship of India put it this way: “When two Indians meet as strangers, ‘the encounter is often duel, everything – response, behaviour, body language, social niceties, form of address, receptivity – depends on an assessment of where the person stands on the scale of power and influence.’ For an Indian, superior and subordinate relationships ‘have the character of eternal verity and moral imperative – (and the) automatic reverence for superiors is a nearly universal psycho-social fact.’ The entire worth of a person is dependent on the position he occupies on a hierarchical scale. In Hinduism identity is dependent upon worth, and worth is determined as people are born and reborn in accordance with their karmas, the quality of their deeds. This certainly affects human relationships.”
This system was seriously challenged upon arrival of missions. Schools were opened for Dalits in the 1840s as Christians began the slow process of treating the untouchables as humans.
Today much has changed, but scholars and leaders say the system is alive and well, while changing in some more urban areas. For example in the IT sector, people are accepted on the basis of education and skill. But when marrying, families press hard to insure their children marry from a class no lower than theirs, as property which moves inter-generational, is to be kept within the caste of its beginning.
So how does the Gospel advance in this caste structure? It seems like wild fire: movements of faith break out all over. Howell says two things characterize today’s forces in evangelism. First fluidity – that is, many come to faith without calling themselves Christians. They keep their traditional names, clothes and customs, and meet together in something other than what would be thought of as a “church.” These groups include the Allah Abad, “the church meeting” – about 10,000 in the Allahabad meet Sundays on a field. Also there is the Yeshu Darbar, “The royal court of Jesus Christ.” Another group called The Yeshu Satsang or “truth seekers,” most wouldn’t recognize them as Christian yet they trust in Jesus and follow his teachings
Second, spontaneity – that is, Gospel initiatives break out in places where it seems there has been no strategy or any one targeting the area for evangelism. Again as in Nepal, these outbreaks of faith are characterized by a strikingly familiar Acts formula: teaching, healing and casting out evil spirits.
Today the Christian community numbers up to 6-7% (although official statistics tend to lower than number.) A large number of Christians are Dalits and Tribals, although there are movements today to engage the higher castes. Among the Christian population, Roman Catholics are the largest – 16 million. 6 million come from of the main line churches and 2 million are affiliated with the Evangelical Fellowship of India.
Looking like North American TV evangelists, Hindu gurus (sometimes called “God men”) are popping up with their own TV shows, publishing and marketing programs, large public rallies, centered on positive thinking. Providing their devotees with mantras, they promise wealth and success if their formulas are followed.
Persecution comes in a couple of ways. The BJP, a national political party, which not long ago was in power, has within its party those who threaten to pass a bill to force India to be self-named as a Hindu country so those belonging to others faiths would be penalized by opportunity and taxation. In more rural areas, churches are burned, pastors beaten and Christians intimidated. As the Gospel presses into new areas, this conflict will increase.
However, the reports of an acceleration of witness, increased engagement and outreach, is unprecedented. There are as many forms and varieties of ministries as one might imagine. Lily and I visited an ashram – ministry center – outside of New Delhi. The director, a man raised as an orphan had a heart for lepers so he got the government to give land where they could build their shanties and he helped them fill out forms for subsistence available from government. But when lepers have children, where do they go? So he built a home for them and a school. Then he noticed mentally challenged women abused on the streets so he built a home for them. But a new hospital had been just built and so I asked him where the money came for this (assuming he did his regular treks to North America or Europe). No, he didn’t even have a passport. Much came from Hindus in the area. That night in a church also at the center, a number of pastors and their people gathered. After I preached many lined up for prayer, including those wanting to be set free from evil spirits. Not being the normal fare of my ministry as a university president, I did as I’ve read in the New Testament – take authority. A pastor said the next day, with a smile, “Well Brian, welcome to India.”
Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador, World Evangelical Alliance