Sunday, July 25, 2010

Conversion by Caste

Last winter, I discovered the lectures available on Buddhism is a popular religion, not only among local Asians but also for non-Asians as well. Since my familiarity with the particulars was limited to the typical overviews gleaned from general books on world religions and history, I decided to listen to Dr. Timothy Tennent’s Introduction to Buddhism.

I immediately noticed that Christianity and Buddhism have a few things in common. Both claim a monopoly over the Way, the correct spiritual path (salvation through Jesus Christ vs. the Eight-Fold Path), and both place importance on the end of suffering. In addition, early on, both stole converts from the traditional religion, which in my opinion was due to their ability to offer hope in a way that Hinduism, with its thousands of reincarnations and ascetic demands, was unable to do.

However, the lecture made me curious about the different initial acceptance patterns. A more egalitarian religion than Hinduism, Buddhism was promoted by the Kshatriyas, who sought to expand their political power by diminishing the Brahmins' spiritual power. (This story tends to remind me of the German princes who supported Martin Luther primarily to remove the Holy Roman Empire’s authority rather than for religious reasons.)

In contrast, Christianity, with its condemnations against partiality, appealed to the Brahmins of Kerala, who later became the St. Thomas Christians. They came to accept a religion that might have severely weakened their religious control and most likely would have encouraged them to eat and interact with members of inferior castes. This would have been an especially dangerous position to take because of the risk of becoming “outcasted” from Hindu society.

So a possible, but not necessarily accurate, interpretation is that ancient Buddhism appealed to the self-seeking “middles” while ancient Christianity appealed to the self-sacrificing “uppers.” Christianity has always had a reputation for bringing a message of comfort and hope to the oppressed, but it’s ability to change the heart of the oppressor says something very special about it.