Adoption of Caste by Christian and Jewish Communities in India

A Case of Cultural Integration or Religious Estrangement?

In: International Journal of Asian Christianity
James Ponniah Assist. Prof. & Head i/c, Department of Christian Studies, School of Philosophy and Religious Thought, University of Madras, Chennai, India

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This essay investigates how caste, the most problematic cultural category of India, renders Indian versions of two Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity, a site of ambivalence and conflict. It explores how caste has played out differently in the lives of two Abrahamic religious communities, i.e., the Christians and the Jews at two different locales, Kerala and Andhra. In Kerala, both Syrian Christians and Cochin Jews adopted caste as the given social order of the host country. They practised it to their advantage as it not only made it possible for them to get integrated into the existing Hindu cultural universe of the host nation but also conferred upon them a respectable social status, resulting in the acquisition of social/cultural capital. However, in Andhra, Christian and Jewish Madigas embraced their respective religions to eschew caste and gain self-respect. In Kerala, while caste became an effective route for a harmonious integration into the cultural matrix of the host territory, it not only disrupted intra-communal amity both among the Cochin Jews and the Kerala Christians but also became a source of defiance and alienation from the core teachings of each of these religions, resulting in the loss of ‘spiritual capital’. On the contrary, the rejection of caste on the part of the Madiga Jews and Madiga Christians, perhaps, brought them closer to the central message of fraternity and equality found both in Judaism and in Christianity, whereby they fared better in ‘spiritual and religious capitals’ than their counterparts in Kerala.

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