The shadows of caste in a baptism certificate

The caste system, with its origins deeply rooted in ancient Indian civilisation, has left an indelible mark on the country’s social fabric.

May 03, 2024

From the other side - Regina William

My mom was born in India, 90 years ago in a village in Karaikal, Pondicherry. Recently, thanks to technology and the ability to connect the historical dots remotely, through a distant relative who lives in France, we managed to obtain an extract of her baptism certificate from the Church of St Andrew, Kurumbagaram in Karaikal.

Mom did not have her birth certificate, hence no one could ascertain her date of birth for official documents and the family was thrilled with the baptism certificate, which recorded her date of birth and date of baptism 90 years ago.

As I delved into the document, I stumbled upon a detail that surprised and unsettled me. as the extract of the baptism certificate had the word “caste” on it.

Born and raised in India, my mother’s journey intertwines with the complex tapestry of Indian society, where the caste system has long dictated social norms and hierarchies. Yet, what intrigues me even more is the revelation that this societal construct found its way into the sacred confines of the Catholic Church.

The caste system, with its origins deeply rooted in ancient Indian civilisation, has left an indelible mark on the country’s social fabric. Defined by rigid hierarchical divisions based on birth, occupation, and perceived purity, it has governed every aspect of life, including religion.

The caste system is part of the Indian culture present in Christianity today. Those who converted to Christianity brought the caste system, which is purely a Hindu tradition, along with them.

However, what many may not realise is the extent to which the caste system permeated even the most unexpected corners, such as baptism certificates within the Catholic Church.

Despite being outlawed in 1950, the caste system remains a powerful force in Indian society. It dictates social roles, professions, and even personal relationships.

The caste hierarchy, which predates Hinduism, divides people into rigid groups based on their karma (work) and dharma (duty). These castes are ranked from highest to lowest, with the Dalits (formerly known as ‘untouchables’) at the bottom.

Dalits often perform tasks like manual scavenging, cleaning sewers, and other menial jobs. This system is deeply entrenched and sanctioned by Hindu religious beliefs.

While the Catholic Church in India has made efforts to address caste discrimination, challenges remain.
Mom used to tell us stories of how when she was growing up, she would not be allowed to enter the home if she had ventured out of their village into the “prohibited” area where the population from the “lower caste” lived. Each time, she had to take a dip in the river to “cleanse” herself before being allowed into the house.

Just recently, while on a flight to Chennai from Kuala Lumpur, I was surprised when a lady sitting next to me actually asked about which caste I belonged to, while stating hers nonchalantly as if we were talking about the weather.

In Malaysia, the caste system is not as overtly structured as it has been historically in some other regions.
Growing up in Malaysia with my mom’s older sister, my siblings and I also experienced how the caste system was also very much “alive” here years ago.

My aunt would not even have a drink or eat at any of the homes or weddings we were invited to attend, and we were also not allowed to invite friends over during festive occasions. It used to frustrate me so much as I could not understand why this was an issue to begin with until I was much older.

These days, many Malaysian Indians do not actively refer to the caste system within their families. It is considered outdated and irrelevant in today’s society. Many believe that the caste system should not be practised, and individuals should not be judged based on their so called “standings” among the community.

Though the caste system is not outwardly known to be practised here, it is still a major denominator when matchmaking among Indians, even Catholics.

Combatting caste discrimination within the Catholic Church is essential for fostering inclusivity and promoting the fundamental equality that Christianity upholds.

Jesus did not speak specifically about the caste system but He spoke on the issues surrounding social justice, commanding us and all men to love God and one another as they love themselves. That includes feeding the poor and treating everyone justly, so the principles of the Indian caste system are not harmonious with the principles of Christianity.

All said and done, I’m glad that this practice is slowly dissipating in Malaysia as caste is no longer an issue in Malaysia, with inter marriages being the norm these days.

(Regina William is an ex-journalist turned head of communications, now full-time grandmother to three children aged between five and 1.5 years old, crisscrossing the globe to play the role. She can be reached at [email protected])

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