India (MNN) — India is known for its strict caste system that separates its people into high and low levels based on nothing but their family’s history. Lindsay Ackerman, a spokesman for Grand Rapids Michigan-based Mission India, says there’s a connection between this segregation system and a word you’re probably familiar with. “Outcast is a word we use in our own English language pretty commonly, but we don’t really understand the true background behind that word.”
Ackerman says it’s based on the lowest level of the ancient caste system, rooted in the Hindu religion. This social order system is designed to categorize people according to rank by birth, based on the idea that people are different, and different people will fit well into different aspects and roles of society.
The end result is a segregated country and countless castes, explains Ackerman. “People are identified by their occupation and by their people group. When they’re born, they’re born into a caste, and in India they believe that you remain in that caste until you die.” She adds, “If there’s discrimination against certain castes, you’re expected to just submit to that.”
So where do outcasts come into play? Ackerman says, “In India what that means is you are so low in the caste system that you’re really outside the caste system.” Since this system dominates everything India, these outcasts (also called Dalits) are invisible and given the lowest, dirtiest, least-wanted responsibilities possible. “You’re just really doing the unclean work because you’re too low to be considered clean in the first place,” Ackerman remarks. Plus, they’re considered so low that any contact with higher caste members would render them unclean, hence the term Untouchables. “There was a time when people who were Untouchables were required to sweep away their footprints behind them because it would have been unclean for a higher caste person to step in their footprints or even cast a shadow upon a higher caste person.”
Although these traditions are technically outlawed by the Indian government, the attitudes behind them persist, especially in the more rural areas that aren’t as connected to modern society. In fact, “They’re not aware the government has outlawed these kind of things,” explains Ackerman.
So how does the Gospel change their thinking? Mission India’s impact has come through reaching lower caste members with ministries like church planting, literacy classes for adults, and Bible clubs for kids. A little care and a lot of love make all the difference in the world, Ackerman adds. “Part of that good news for India’s low-caste people is the discovery for the first time in their lives that they are created by God in His image, that they’re cherished, that He knows them personally.”
It’s a message that counters the Hindu tradition. Dalits believe they earned their low-caste position because of sins committed in a previous life. As a result, they are often blown away be the idea of a God who cares deeply for them with an unconditional love.
“It truly is life-changing for these Dalits when they’re able to understand that their Creator God loves them, cherishes the, and has wonderful plans for them,” says Ackerman.
But how does the upper caste react to the news that they are equal to the people they once considered free labor? Ackerman admits it’s not an easy thing for upper caste members to accept. “It’s a very challenging message to think that, if they come to hear the gospel, that they’re equal to somebody who they’ve thought for their entire lives is unclean or unworthy.” Yet Mission India is working hard to make a difference in the lives of both the upper and lower caste members.
“We know that transformation can’t just come from below: it has to come from above,” Ackerman explains, adding, “Everybody in the culture needs to open their eyes to the devastating effects of the caste system and be willing to honor and respect one another as equals. And the Gospel is bringing that message of hope.”
How can you help? Spread the word about what Mission India is doing, and share the stories of people who’ve seen transformation. “When you read about these topics and hear about them and then share them with your friends and neighbors, that’s really honoring to God,” comments Ackerman.
Mission India continues to use children’s Bible clubs, adult literacy classes, church-planting trips, and more to reach out to the people trapped in the traditional segregation of India’s many castes.