Bishop emeritus Francis Sharma was the first bishop of Nepal. Nepal’s Jesuits use education to undermine the negative effects of the Hindu caste system. Photo by Michael Swan.

Church grapples with caste system in Nepal

  • September 27, 2014

Bishop Anthony Francis Sharma loves his title as emeritus bishop of Nepal. He loves it because it allows him to make a little joke at his own expense.

“So, I merit to be a bishop now,” Sharma says as he introduces himself.

The 77-year-old little bundle of charm, intelligence and delight laughs because he never wanted to be a bishop in the first place. Before the Vatican came knocking in 1996, he was perfectly happy as a Jesuit, a school principal and a teacher.

All Jesuits must turn down higher office in the Church until a second request invokes their vow of obedience. But there was nothing tentative or perfunctory about Sharma’s first refusal. He really didn’t want to be the first bishop of Nepal.

“I had no qualifications,” Sharma said. “The only qualification I had was that I happened to belong to the Brahmin caste and Nepal was a Hindu country. Rome felt that having a Brahmin would make a big difference in a Hindu country.”

Even today the idea of caste based appointments still rankles Sharma. Rome’s logic is sound. Bishops have to deal with the government on all sorts of issues — permissions to build churches, contracts to run schools, advocacy for the poor — and in a Hindu country senior government officials simply will not talk to somebody from the lower castes.

“I don’t subscribe to that kind of mentality that the appointment should be caste based,” Sharma said. “I think they should be majority based.”

In Sharma’s view the bishop should reflect the majority of the Catholics under his care. If most of the Christians are low-caste dalits, then why not a dalit bishop?

Yet Sharma concedes there were advantages to being a Brahmin. While Christians can never agree to the caste system, it won’t just disappear overnight. It is too deeply ingrained in the culture.

“Rome was right,” he said. “Because that way even a corrupt Brahmin is acceptable to a totally Hindu Brahmin.”

The caste system divides people, creating classes from whom it is permissible to accept a glass of water and those who would render a high caste person impure by offering a glass of water. Lowest of all is the Dalit caste, often called the untouchables.

“Dalit means oppressed. Dalit means someone who is sat upon and rubbed against the floor — pressed upon, sat upon, taken advantage of,” explained Sharma.

The word “brahma” means the god within you, making the Brahmins those who speak with the breath of the god.

One can’t read the Gospels and imagine God restricts Himself to a small class of people, or denies Himself to a large class of people.

“Why did Jesus become part of us? He chose the outcast to be His people,” said Sharma. “The Christmas message is so beautiful. He became one of us.”

Of Nepal’s 30 million, 4.5 million Nepalese are Dalits. Less than two per cent of Nepalis are Christian.

But the Jesuits and the Loreto Sisters in Nepal have a secret weapon worming its way into Nepalese society — education.

“You will find every caste represented in our schools. What makes me happy is our children have begun to accept each other,” Sharma said. “Even if they may not be accepted in their families, they are accepted at school.”

The Jesuits run 32 schools in Nepal with 25,000 students, 13,000 of them girls.

The Jesuits were first invited into Nepal by the king in 1951. At that point there had been no Catholic presence in the mountainous kingdom for 140 years. A previous mission Church begun by Capuchin Franciscans was driven out after suspicion fell on them of collaborating with the British East India Company against the Shah dynasty after the Shahs took over the Kathmandu valley in 1768. Though the allegation was false, the last Capuchin missionary died in Nepal in 1810 and the tiny Catholic community fled south into India.

When the Jesuits arrived in the 1950s they were told to teach and not preach, and restrict their activities to Kathmandu valley.

The effect that education for rich and poor, male and female alike has had on Nepalese society is what is important, said Sharma.

“Education, I realized being in Nepal, has a very evangelical purpose,” Sharma said. “Not that we teach religion in our schools. But until 1951 there was no education available for ordinary people… Today if you come to Nepal you will see our children walking for miles to get to the nearest educational institution. The hunger for education is so great.”

It’s not just the caste divisions that are fading under the light of education. Attitudes to women are changing.

“It’s the only way to empower women,” said Sharma. “Men will not fight for women’s liberation. Women have to fight for their own liberation. The only way to fight is to be empowered by education — through that process. So, it’s evangelical.”

For Jesuits, education is nothing new. For Nepal, it’s the new evangelization. 

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