The Religio-Ethical Concepts of the Chamars in Northern India

STEPHEN FUCHS As missionary priest and anthropological researcher, Stephen Fuchs presents this case study in comparative religionfromthemissiologicalviewpoint Ritualobservances are seen in their wider sociological context The resultant view of sin emerges not only as inadequate from a Christian perspective, but as a source of the continuing misery, spiritually and socially, of the subject people Father Fuchs' colleagues can draw direct benefit, both motivational and strategic, from this study ² a practical goal of all missiological research At the same time, the value of such models for wider application puts all of us in the author's debt

I HE CHAMARS are a large low occupational caste of northern India. Their number reaches almost 16 million (India Government 1966:173-319). Deprived of their traditional profession as tanners and leather workers by the large scale industrialization of shoemaking and other leather work, they have been forced to seek their livelihood as field servants and daily laborers. Most of them own no land. They form more than 20 percent of the total population in northern India. On the whole, the Chamars share the religio-ethical views of the higher Hindu castes in the regions where they live. But in certain significant aspects they differ from them, being of low social status and excluded from the social and religious life of the village community as untouchables and outcastes. The life of the Hindus is mainly governed by laws and rules comprised by the term dharma (Gokhale 1961:24-48). Dharma has a wide connotation in Hinduism, and in its broadest sense stands for the universal laws of nature that uphold the cosmos. But for the Hindus of northern India it means primarily the particular social and religious code of conduct in each individual
Missiology An International ReviewSTEPHEN FUCHS The Religio-Ethical Concepts of the Chamars


caste. It prescribes not only the legitimate occupations for the members of each particular subsection of the caste, but also the ritual obligations which fall upon its members. Some of these obligations and prohibitions apply to all castes in the same strictness, as for instance caste endogamy (marriage within one's own caste) and relationship endogamy (marriage outside certain grades of relationship), also the sacredness of the cow and abstention from beef. But other obligations and prohibitions vary considerably from caste to caste. The Brahmin, for instance, is forbidden to eat meat of any kind as well as certain other foods. Other castes, however, are permitted to eat the meat of certain animals, such as goat and sheep. On some occasions the eating of sacrificial meat is permitted to castes which ordinarily do not eat meat of that kind. Often nowadays the meat of such animals is given to castes which are in the habit of eating it. This applies in particular to sacrifices of pigs and buffaloes in which the whole village community takes part but only the low castes eat the sacrificial meat. The outcaste Chamars who were traditionally employed to dispose of dead cattle and other domestic animals, were in the past also in the habit of eating carrion. This practice has now been given up as too degrading though some may continue it secretly out of sheer necessity. Meat of certain animals, such as the horse or dog, cannot be eaten even by Chamars.
The Ritual Dimension

The ritual obligations of a particular caste are considered to be its main special duty. This applies especially to the Brahmin caste which is the priestly caste. The Chamars, on the other hand, observe few ritual obligations. The only exceptions would be individuals who have joined sects like the Kabir panthis, the Shivnarayan and the Vaishnava sects. Members of these sects will generally not eat before they have taken a bath and recited a prayer directed to the Sun. Each Chamar family also venerates a house deity to which a sacrifice is due twice a year as well as on the occasion of a marriage. Possibly this family deity had in the past a much greater importance in the religious life of the Chamars. But even now the chauri, a low platform in a corner of the main room, is kept intact in every Chamar house; even converts to Christianity rarely demolish it but omit the worship of the deity (Briggs 1920:115f).

Though the Chamars are outcastes and as such cannot take part in the religious ceremonies of the village community, they are not supposed to absent themselves completely. They are allowed to attend these village feasts from a distance. They are also requested to contribute towards the expenses of such feasts. The neglect of ceremonial obligations and the faulty performance of religious rites places

a number of low caste men reached eminence in these cults and even the Hindus regard them as saints. but also a faulty performance of these rites and sacrifices. who lived in the 15th century. They may not enter a temple or attend a religious ceremony of the high castes. The culprit may not even be aware of his fault. Still. a sickness or death. The doctrine of the bhaktis. to take care of them in times of special difficulties. accepted many members from the untouchable castes. their master must provide the necessary money. His caste-fellows will sooner or later try to get rid of him and force him to leave the community. Some untouchables have made strenuous efforts to escape this permanent state of sin and pollution by joining the so-called devotional (bhakti) cults. or when they have been punished by their caste elders for any breach of the caste rules. Thus the Chamars are enjoined to serve the higher castes in various menial occupations and to regard these as their traditional caste duty (dharma).a person in a spiritually dangerous position. In fact. In rural society it means that the Chamars have to be at the beck and call of the high castes for any necessary field work and must attend their domestic animals. watch the fields at night. Hinduism did not relent in spite of the great devotion of low caste bhaktis. seemed to bring relief to the spiritual exclusion of the STEPHEN FUCHS The Religio-Ethical Concepts of the Chamars 46 untouchables. However. For Chamars and other untouchable castes are in a permanent state of impurity. too. and they are excluded from the society of the caste Hindus as impure and polluting human beings. It matters little whether the mistake in the performance is intentional or not. Religious-minded untouchables felt it deeply that they should be permanently separated from God. Accepting a cup of water or a plate of cooked food from an untouchable is more defiling than having sexual intercourse with the same. and do all the scavenging in the village. Through it the outcastes can be kept under control more effectively. including the polluting task of cutting the umbilical cord. almost one fourth of the total population belongs to this state. There exist even forms of ritual impurity which are inevitable and yet make a person incapable of performing certain rites. If he still insists on performing them he may be severely punished by the supernatural agencies. They are also supposed to do other menial work around the house and village: carry messages. The Vaishnavas. They also have to serve the women as long as their pollution lasts following childbirth. a Chamar. And in cases of emergency. Thus a woman is polluted and polluting during her menstrual period and for a certain time after childbirth. . when an accident befalls them. But although Hinduism made certain concessions in exceptional cases. Thus an "irreligious" person who habitually omits the customary sacrifices and does not celebrate the common feasts is a danger to the community as he is believed to call the wrath of the gods and spirits on the whole community to which he belongs. They borrow from them when there is no employment and they cannot earn their subsistence. the state of pollution was never lifted from the low castes. except from a distance. They expect help when there is a wedding or funeral and they have more expenses than their 47 slender resources can bear. and despite their abstention from scavenging and other polluting work which allegedly caused their pollution. In return. even when they joined these devotional movements in great numbers. the Chamars expect the higher castes. The Social Context The obvious reason is that the feudal society in India requires a class of people kept in a permanent state of social and religious degradation. including the removal of all dead animals. serve visiting officials and important guests. not only the neglect of religious ceremonies and offerings is a sin which exposes the culprit and his family to the ill will and revenge of the gods and spirits. Their women have the traditional duty of acting as midwives to the women of high caste. In northern India. that devotion could overcome all ritual defilement and wipe out even the most hideous sins of the past. and they are degraded to the state of serfs and menials because they carry out these polluting tasks. The Chamar men and women have to carry out these menial tasks because they themselves are in a permanent state of pollution as the higher castes see it. a weaver. and Ravidas. A whole family is defiled after the death of one of its members. who demand these services. he has committed a sin and is liable to punishment commensurate to its seriousness. Foremost among these in northern India were Kabir.

though it exposes them to utter dependency on the higher castes. this is especially so in the villages of Uttar Pradesh where the purdha system (seclusion of women) is still widely observed. provided this helps their own family. This relieves them of the necessity of thinking ahead and providing for the future. the demands of the employers steadily increase while the wages they pay decrease to a minimum. cheating. But the over-supply of field labor makes such change unnecessary at present: it allows the landlords to further reduce their wages. Members of the higher castes. Women are expected to be modest and submissive to their husbands. scarcely above the level of starvation. The very fact that they work in the fields alongside their menfolk and earn their wages (though these are usually only half as high as those of the men) makes them less submissive. and fulfils his obligations to this family and his community. but also the Muslims. these standards of ethical behavior are often modified when individual persons are exposed to strong provocations. to their great advantage. quarrelsomeness. who watch so carefully over the virginity of their own daughters and the marital fidelity of their own wives. consider it quite legitimate to shirk work when in the employment of a mean and stingy employer. Even sexual immorality is not regarded as sinful when demanded by a person who is socially and economically superior. drunkenness. He is also expected to be "godfearing". serving classes (Joshi 1965:23If). consequently these rules are valid not only for the Hindus. physical violence and sexual immorality are generally looked upon as sinful. Such protests obviously go against the natural order of the world which always upheld the supremacy of the higher castes and the undisputed servility of the low castes. which up to modern times was based on a feudal system. lying. STEPHEN FUCHS The Religio-Ethical Concepts of the Chamars 48 Jains and Christians who happen to reside in the village. since economic necessity forces these women to leave their homes to work in the fields. They find nothing very wrong in occasional thefts when the opportunity occurs. and to perform the sacrifices and celebrate the customary feasts in the community. they keep them in perpetual debt and dependence. and the landless laborers are forced to accept the conditions of the landlords if they want to survive at all. A "good" person is one who keeps calm and does not easily lose his head. The Chamars. Even highly moral Hindu teachers make allowance 49 . is kind and generous to others. In other words. They find easy excuse for lies and deception when a big gain can be made unexpectedly by them. consider it their traditional due that Chamar girls and women submit to their lust. and it is to them they turn in all difficulties. however. The Ethical Grid Village society in northern India also recognizes a certain moral code which lays down definite rules of behavior applicable to all. Thus Chamar women and girls easily yield to the enticements of their landlords. Such lapses from the ideal moral conduct do not greatly bother the consciences of ordinary village people. Sikhs. and the consequent surplus of labor supply.The higher castes (and especially each low caste man's own landlord) are "father and mother" to them. thereby impairing their ability to shoulder the burden of economic support of the landless. Nevertheless. irrespective of caste and creed. works hard and deals honestly with those with whom and for whom he works. one who minds his own business. Because of the ever-increasing number of these dependents. for example. while helping one another in times of distress is considered a positive virtue. Occasional refusals of service by the exploited low castes in protest against these unbearable economic conditions are met with great surprise and disgust by the land-owning castes. except perhaps migration to the cities. considerably relaxed. The land-owning castes also point out that land ceiling laws and other restrictive measures recently issued by the Government have greatly reduced the economic resources of the landlords. It is no wonder that these higher castes often exploit this particular weakness of the Chamars. and still less so the Chamars and other outcastes ² provided these lapses remain casual and informal and do not come to official public attention. would be required before things could improve. They have no alternative. For Chamar women these rules are. does not quarrel or use violence. A radical change of the existing economic and social order.

all the Hindu village people of northern India. exposes himself either to the revenge of a particular deity offended by his sin. a full retribution in the next life for all a person's actions. And the longer the community had in the past closed its eyes and ignored such violations. To them an unintentional and even unknown transgression of the moral code or religious ritual is equally sinful. along with other villagers of northern India. But when convicted. The soul is reborn into a Brahmin or other high caste man (or woman) if it led a good and pious life in its former birth. therefore. they often put up a good fight. the culprit is subjected to the full force and severity of the caste laws. they received their punishment and paid it in full.400. There exists no personal link between the human person and the god or spirit who sends the illness or misfortune. the offerings and sacrifices performed are merely given in the form of an appeasement. to preserve life. The superhuman powers and evil spirits which harass a transgressor have no real authority to punish him for his sin. Therefore no retribution is required and no real change of heart is necessary. if it led a bad life. For a Hindu a sin need not be willful. Sin and Salvation Concepts This current concept of sin in the Hindu villages. STEPHEN FUCHS The Religio-Ethical Concepts of the Chamars 50 A person who has committed a sin. Often the shamans or spiritistic media fall into trance and it is generally assumed that in this state a god or spirit has taken possession of them and speaks through them. The connection of sin with God is rather loose. a deviation from the ways and customs of the particular caste community to which the transgressor belongs. money or honour. Again. they become publicly known so that they can be ignored no longer. Consequently a sin is any act which . they pay the fine or submit to the punishment without much fuss. to secure a marriage partner. they expect to be fully exonerated and free of any guilt. the nature of the sin or fault committed. in the eyes of the village people of northern India. by an unfortunate coincidence. The Chamars state that a man or woman is reborn chaurassi lakh times. in fact. They committed a wrong. into a low animal." On the other hand. These diviners and spiritistic media claim the ability to get into close contact with a deity or spirit who discloses to them: the identity of the particular god or spirit who has caused a certain misfortune or illness. Sin is by far not always a willful offense of a personal God. When the punishment is over. if such lapses are brought to the official attention of the caste authority. sickness or even an early death. or if. which means: 8. a wealthy or influential villager will be judged much more leniently than a poor man with few friends.000 times! The soul is reborn into a life which it has merited by the deeds of its past life. The Chamars. but also because the world order (dharma or rita) is conceived as not depending on the will of God or the gods. They do not really watch over the strict observance of the moral code.for special occasions. The culprits usually accept the prosecution and verdict of the caste authority as an inevitable calamity ² as their fate. they generally accept their punishment with good grace. Thus according to old Hindu tradition a lie is permissible "to save a women's honour. either deliberately or unintentionally. a dog or insect. the more inexorably the prosecution proceeds once the matter has attracted official attention. Consequently sin becomes rather a deviation from the world order or. denying all charges. employ special soothsayers and shamans as middlemen between the superhuman powers and themselves. By committing a sin the transgressor simply exposes himself to their evil influence. but simply by paying the price demanded by the offended deity or evil spirit. or to protect Brahmins or cows. They do not feel any need for repentance or a pardon. But even then. The case is finished. believe in karma. although everybody in the community knows the truth perfectly well. For the Christian. This belief in the supernatural cause of all misfortune and illness is still so strong in the minds of the village people that they will consult a soothsayer or shaman rather than call a physician or go to a hospital when they fall sick. it was a disorder which has been set right. not only because the concept of God is vague and ambiguous in popular Hindu religion. But the Chamars and. including the Chamars. sin is a willful transgression of the law of God. These superhuman spirits may cause him any kind of misfortune. it is not by remorse and repentance that the sin is forgiven. or. differs considerably from the Christian idea of sin. and the number of offerings and sacrifices required to appease their wrath. more generally. they got caught. True. to the influence of evil spirits. For they all believe in an ever-recurring rebirth of the soul.

the good or bad actions of man are rewarded or punished respectively. $4 95x paper Readings in Missionary Anthropology edited by William A Smalley. Chamars. 264 pp . is not governed by a personal God. articles by Jacob A Loewen. The Christian religion can thus make a valuable contribution to the moral uplift of the Hindus in general and the Chamars in STEPHEN FUCHS The Religio-Ethical Concepts of the Chamars 52 particular whom Hindu religion has kept in moral ignorance and degradation for millennia. without regard to whether an action is deliberate or not. According to Hindu belief. There is a difference of opinion among Hindus as to whether every righteous act brings merit. in their view. edited by William A Smalley. thus affecting the soul's status in a future birth. $3 95 paper Christopagantsm or Indigenous Christianity ? edited by Tetsunao Yamamon and Charles R Taber. $3 95 paper The Church and Cultures An Applied Anthropology for the Religious Worker by Louis J Luzbetak. 256 pp. and moral conduct. 320 pp . $5 95 cloth. has to attribute his low social status and his hard economic condition to his sins committed in a former life. 305 Pasadena Avenue. 164 pp . $4 95x paper Understanding Latin Americans with Special Reference to Religious Values and Move. Edttor Becommg Bilingual A Guide to Language Learning by Donald . Here the opposite of sin (päp) is merit (punya). A Chamar. but by an impersonal world order which hands out reward and punishment inexorably and automatically. No doubt this belief is partially responsible for the meekness and passivity with which the Chamars accept their present hard lot. G 1961 Indian Thought through the Ages Bombay Asia Pub House India Government 1966 Joshi. 448 pp . It also partially accounts for their lack of initiative in improving their really bad living conditions. 522 pp . $3 95x paper Manual of Articulator) Phonetics by William A Smalley. or only those which are done over and above the demands of duty (dharma). One's fate in life is thus determined by one's good or bad actions in the previous life. and even many high caste Hindus. California 91030. Summary of Missiological Implications All that has been said so far shows clearly that the religio-ethical concepts of the Chamars differ considerably from those of the Christian faith.ments by Eugene A Nida. "Special Tables for Scheduled Castes" Part V-A(l) in Census of India Volume 1 Bombay 1965 Gazetteers of India Uttar Pradesh. consequently. W 1968 The Popular Religion and Folklore of Northern India 2 vols (Reprint) Delhi M Manoharlal Gokhale. 425 pp . $5 95 paper Customs and Cultures Anthtopology for Christian Missions by Eugene A Nida. G W 1920 The Chamars New York Oxford University Press Crooke. 384 pp. and he can rid himself of these bad effects only by accepting his hard life as ajust punishment for his former sins. $5 95 paper Bibliography for Cross-Cultural Workers compiled by Alan R Tippett. These effects of karma can be neutralized by a patient acceptance of one's fate and by leading a life fully in accord with one's caste status. Any defiance of the inexorable law of karma and any attempt to improve his social and economic status would prevent his attainment of a better life in his next birth. 464 pp. do not feel responsible for their misdeeds and are not really sorry for their sins. available winter. References Cited Briggs. 1976 ‡Order from the William Carey Library. Varanasi Allahabad Larson and William A Smalley. USA WILLIAM CAREY LIBRARY Series On Applied Cultural Anthropology William A. and the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us if we truly and sincerely want to lead a good life. $5 95 paper Culture and Human Values Christian Intervention in Anthropological Perspective. either in this present life or in the future life. a Saviour who has died for our sins and offers us forgiveness if we truly repent them. Smalley. For they do not believe in a loving God.causes bad karma and diminishes merit 51 (punya) or increases the demerit of the soul. or whether a sin is repented or not. $5 95x paper. South Pasadena. The Chamars are ignorant of the fact that sin offends an all-loving Father who has created us and sustains us.

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