To be Born an Untouchable
One night, while an Indian man was away in a nearby city, a group of men came to his farm. They broke his fences, stole his tractor, beat his wife and burned down his house. He was a leatherworker and Hindu law says that working with animal skins makes him unclean, someone to avoid and revile.
The attackers insisted that his sins were many and that he had bad karma. “Why else would he be born an Untouchable if not to pay for his past lives?” His prosperity was seen as a sin. He had gone too far buying a small plot of land outside the village. Then he had dared speak up to the authorities, demanding to use the new well. In the thinking of the attackers, he got what Untouchables deserve.
The Inherent Inequality of Hinduism
This kind of story is often repeated, even in modern-day India. For to be born a Hindu in India is to enter the caste system, one of the world’s longest surviving forms of social stratification. Diametrically opposite to the Christian belief that every human being is made in the image of God with intrinsic value and dignity, the caste system follows a basic precept — all people are created unequal.
According to Hinduism, which began 3,000 years ago, people are innately divided into four groups, called castes. The Brahmins are the priestly caste; the Kshatriya are the warrior caste; the Vaishya are the business caste, while the Sudra are workers serving the upper three castes.
The first three castes form approximately 15 percent of the Hindu population and possess all religious, economic and spiritual rights. The fourth caste is nearly 50 percent of all Hindus. These are the workers behind India’s industrialisation, as well as those who pull the rickshaws or who work in the fields. But outside the caste system are the 250 million Untouchables, otherwise known as Dalits.
Joseph D’Souza, the President of the All India Christian Council and author of Dalit Freedom — Now and Forever, explains that Dalits are not part of the caste system because Hinduism teaches that they are subhuman and rejected by God.
Untouchables perform society’s unclean work as defined by Hindu law. They cannot own land. They are forced to do the jobs no one else will do, such as clean toilets, sweep the streets and pick up dead animals. For the most part, they are illiterate. Children are usually pulled out of school and sold into the job market. Many young girls are taken from their families and dedicated to a goddess as sex slaves.
“Dalits accepted their fate, believing they had done unspeakable acts in previous lives, that God did not love them, that they were born to serve the upper castes, and that they had no rights.”
It is no wonder that the name the Dalits have given to themselves, means “broken” and “crushed”.
Untouchability and Modern Law
The ancient Hindu belief system that created the Untouchables overpowers modern law. While India’s Constitution forbids caste discrimination, with Article 17 specifically abolishing untouchability, Hinduism, the religion of 80 percent of India’s population, still governs daily life with rigid social codes. Despite all the prohibitions, untouchability continues to be practised in India in many forms.
In the 1930s, Mahatma Gandhi tried to address the plight of the Untouchables. In his writings and speeches, Gandhi implored Indians to reject the notion that any human is innately impure and to cease discriminating against Untouchables. At his ashram, all residents performed traditionally unclean chores. Gandhi even bestowed on Untouchables a new name, Harijan, which means “people of God”.
It is believed that Gandhi was influenced by the teachings of Jesus and tried to implement them, while at the same time faithfully adhering to Hinduism. Sadly, he had rejected Christianity because during his time in South Africa, he was deeply hurt by his experiences with apartheid and disillusioned with what he saw as the church’s indifference to the poor.
Gandhi deserves great credit for trying to address the plight of the Untouchables in India. But because he never actually renounced the Hindu caste system, the concrete results of his actions were few. Today Amnesty International considers the treatment of Dalits as India’s “hidden apartheid”.
Buddha or Jesus?
A half century ago, the Christian church in India had another opportunity to open its doors to the Dalits. A Dalit leader, Ambedkar, considered both Christianity and Buddhism as alternative faiths, before settling on the latter. Sadly, D’Souza relates in Dalit Freedom:
“Ambedkar recognized the fact that Jesus stood out against the caste system. However, he also saw that Indian Christianity had been poisoned by caste-based oppression.”
Today many Dalits are still converting to Buddhism. Even so, D’Souza emphatically states,
“It is our moral duty to stand by the Dalits. If the Church says only one thing, that Jesus Christ loves them, it’s the message the Dalit community most needs to hear!”
God Loves Them
Today more and more Dalits are hearing for the first time that they are loved by God. The Dignity Freedom Network for Australia / New Zealand is committed to “helping India’s oppressed realise their human worth and dignity and gain self-reliance”. CEO Kate Rodwell says,
“Transformation is what I see when I visit India. Children learning, dreaming, walking tall, they speak confident English and aspire to further studies. They understand that they are created in God’s image, and that He loves them. … Women in rural villages are finding hope and dignity, learning that they have intrinsic worth.”
The Christian support for Dalit freedom has not gone uncontested. Violence committed by Hindu extremists against Christians is growing, including beatings, kidnappings, rapes and murder. Crimes against property are also common, such as the destruction of churches, schools and cemeteries.
Father God, thank You that You see the plight of the 250 million Dalits in India.
Thank You that their designation as Untouchables does not negate the reality that each person bears Your image and possesses inherent value and dignity as a human being.
Thank You that Jesus touched untouchable lepers and healed them.
May more and more Dalits turn to Jesus and not Buddha.
Quell the violence that is being brought against them.
Help the leaders in India rectify this longstanding injustice
through the existing provisions of the Indian Constitution.
O God, set the captives free and give the Dalits a new name!
In the Name of Jesus, Amen.