These are preliminary and incomplete thoughts, but nevertheless . . .
I’m taking a class in World Religions this quarter and we spent last week on Hinduism. One of the core tenets of Hindu orthodoxy (that is, if you deny it, you’re a heretic) is the caste system. There are four castes: the highest, priestly caste; the second warrior caste; the third merchant caste; and the lowest, working-class caste. Movement up or down in the caste system is impossible in this life: the only way to move up is to perform in your current caste well, and after you die, the law of karma allows you to be reincarnated into a higher caste (or conversely, if you were bad at life, into a lower caste—even into an animal or vegetable).
Now, what I find very interesting about all of this is the sociological outcomes (or are they underpinnings? Chicken or the egg?) of this metaphysical setup. They are, as far as I can tell, twofold.
First, the doctrines of samsara (reincarnation, or better “re-death”) and karma serve to reinforce the caste system. The way for your atman (soul) to be reincarnated into a higher caste in the next life is by performing your role well in this one. To screw up means lifetimes of playing catch-up, and one way to do that is to act out of place—to be “good” is to submit to the authority of the higher castes. Anywhere else in the world this would be called oppression; in India, it is called justice, since a person is in his or her current caste because of his actions in a previous life. Thus, the dalit, the “untouchables”, are treated like dirt not because they’re being exploited, but because that’s their just reward.
Secondly, however, Hindu doctrine inherently limits Hinduism to India. The system simply doesn’t work outside of a caste system, so Hinduism is almost incapable of spreading beyond India’s borders.
Now, I don’t want to play that “my religion is better than yours” game, but it’s interesting that the sociological outcomes of Christian doctrine are essentially the opposite. If Hinduism is inherently restricted, Christianity is unavoidably expansive. More interestingly, however, is that while cultures where Christianity is dominant often retain systemic forms of oppression at first (say, the slave trade), the broader movement is inevitably toward the liberation of the oppressed (say, the abolition and civil rights movements). The message of the Bible is pretty clear, if you know how to read it, that the Christian God is the God of the poor, and that the Christian life is one in imitation of Jesus, who lived, moved, and breathed among the outcasts of his society.
How interesting, then, that 70 percent of the Christians in India are dalit, considered untouchable by the rest of Hindu society.