Hinduism, Christianity, and Oppression

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.

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4 Responses to Hinduism, Christianity, and Oppression

  1. ben adam says:

    Just a few quick comments: first, be wary of the word Hinduism. Hinduism as an actual religion does not actually exist. It is a word spawning from the Indus River in the same way “India” does, and it did not exist until colonial rule demanded that the indigenous religions be categorized in some way. While most Hindus share somewhat common creation myths and belief in reincarnation, their polytheism is highly reflexive of the diversity within the religion. Hinduism is really more of a loose confederation of regional deity worship. Sectionalism within the Hindu collection is best illustrated in the deities worshiped. Some Hindus consider Vishnu to be the greatest of the gods while others propagate Shiva as the top. Still others believe the female god, Shakti, is the highest. Within these, it is good to remember that over one billion people live in India, and the diversity within Hinduism both takes hold of and omits the caste system depending on region. Nevertheless, I find your analysis to be more or less spot on. Furthermore, the inherent universalism of dominant Hindu thought contributes to the forced subjection of the dalits under the more privileged castes. It is irony, I suppose, that unrestricted acceptance, instead of causing justice, creates oppression. This would be a good note for anyone who is interested in Gandhi. A staunch supporter of the caste system, he is much less a mythical character in India than he is in the West due to his views on justice–within the caste system, nonetheless.

  2. fin says:

    true that on ghandi. this heroification, as james lowen would say, puts ghandi up on a pedestal and doesn’t encourage debate about his life at all, essentially robbing the man of any meaning. he wasn’t much of a fan of black africans, either, but you don’t hear about this in school. it complicates him as a symbol.

    in terms of christianity being expansive, i would agree with that, but i wouldn’t say it has a great track record when it comes to social stratification. i think there’s more than enough evidence to show it as system that supports white anglo men. the god of the poor? maybe, but what difference does it make if it doesn’t enact change? that’s what james baldwin and marx were pissed off about, i think.

  3. praveen says:

    I dont understand why westerners always learn hinduism with “There are four caste’s ” crap.Castiesm is important but thats not what hinduism is.Its like learning christianity as “dead man on a cross”.Ofcourse there is more to christianity than that. Hinduism is the religion whiich asks the scientific question.”Is god a creation of man or man a creation of god”. There is more to hinduism than all the other religions combined, and am not jingoistic about it .I am frustrated that westerners have been reading hinduism since the time of british and still dont get the basics.Sad hinduism does not come easy to westerners since western minds are not conditioned to an experiance completely different from what they know as religion.So we have this superficial I love kali and caste’s and naked sadhus and what not crap.I dont know how to address this lack of proper knowledge. But On second thoughts..thank god an average guy dont understand it.That would make us a unique religion inaccessable to an average moron,whether you are born in it or not.

  4. praveen says:

    As far as the comment on gandhi…Again a person born with a diminished mind cannot understand what he stood for. Gandhi could not come from christianity or islam or any other middle eastern religion but could only come from the east.Sad you dont grasp his intellectual sofistication

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