Caste and Religion: Using Faith to Justify Discrimination

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Caste" by Isabel Wilkerson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the connection between caste and religion? How does the dominant caste use religious belief systems to perpetuate its supremacist ideology?

Caste and religion are deeply interconnected. More specifically, every caste system is built on and justified by religious beliefs. There is a reason for it—when a system is said to be the will of God, it becomes nearly impossible to argue the legitimacy of its claims.

Learn about the connection between caste and religion with examples of how faith has been used to support caste systems in India and America.

The Connection Between Caste and Religion

Every belief system is governed by a set of tenets. For caste systems, there are eight tenets that uphold the structure and allow for unquestionable participation by the related societies. The first of these tenets involves divine intervention, which is at the heart of both the Indian and American castes. 

Caste and Religion in India

The institutions of caste and religion are at the heart of the social structure in India. According to Hindu ancient scriptures, the first man was Manu, a wise deity with all-encompassing vision. Manu described the correct social order of man to several disciples who wanted to learn how to govern society. The story was about a god who created the universe and then the world. He took the form of a man named Brahma, or “the grandfather of the worlds,” and set out to build his land. 

From his mouth, he created the Brahmin; from his arms, the Kshatriya; from his thighs, the Vaishya; and from his feet, the Shudra. The part of the body from which they were created determined their status and role in society. 

Because the Shudra were made from his feet, they were the lowest form of civilized man and would be servants. The Vaishya, as the strong thighs, would be the workers, such as merchants or tradesmen. The Kshatriya, from the arms, would be the brawn, or the warriors who protected society. And the Brahmin, descending from the head, would be the highest order of man and live as philosophers, priests, or sages. The Brahmin were the representation of Brahma himself; therefore, they were the law of the land, and it was by their kindness that the others could survive. 

There was another class of man too shameful to be made from Brahma’s body. Members of this group were lower than feet because they were the reincarnation of all the bad karma of the past. This group was not to be looked at or touched, hence, they became the Untouchables. 

Caste and Religion in the United States

According to the scripture in the Bible, a great flood overtook the world. In advance, a man named Noah and his three sons, on the advice of God, had built an ark. For 40 days and 40 nights, the ark churned in the flood, but when it was over, Noah and his sons arrived safely on dry land. 

One day, Noah became inebriated on wine from his vineyard and passed out nude in his tent. One of his sons, Ham, entered the tent and saw his father exposed. He told his siblings what he’d seen, and the other two sons, Shem and Japeth, covered Noah with a blanket without peeking. When Noah heard that Ham had seen his naked body, he cursed Ham’s son, Canaan, and all of his descendants to a life of servitude. 

The three brothers spread out across the world and started their lines of descendants. Those believing they were descendants of Shem and Japeth passed down the story of Ham’s blasphemy. Over several generations, the story grew to include a description of Ham as dark-skinned. Therefore, those with light skin viewed all dark-skinned people as descendants of Ham and, thus, rightfully destined for a life of indentured servitude. The American colonists used this story to justify their colonization and enslavement of the African people. 

The Old Testament book of  Leviticus also stated that those who were not bonded to God were religious heathens and, thus, bound to the pious through the laws of nature. This scripture supported both religious and physical justifications for the dominant caste’s creation of hierarchies that swept across the Western world. 

Lasting Effects

Over the next several centuries, both the United States and India grew to be the most powerful and largest, respectively, countries in the world. The institutions of caste and religion were central to the development of both societies. The dominant castes would continue to interpret the scriptures to serve their supremacy and adjust them as needed to adapt to changing times. This main tenet at the heart of each caste system set the stage for the other tenets to follow. 

Caste and Religion: Using Faith to Justify Discrimination

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Here's what you'll find in our full Caste summary :

  • How a racial caste system exists in America today
  • How caste systems around the world are detrimental to everyone
  • How the infrastructure of the racial hierarchy can be traced back hundreds of years

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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