Dalit Theology

24/07/2011 18:59

Dalit Theology
Dalit Theology in the Twenty-first Century: Discordant Voices, Discerning Pathways
fulfills many a requirement in Dalit thought, especially as the Indian theological scenario
attempts to make Dalit theology all the more participatory and relevant among the academia, the
movements, and the real day-to-day living out. Therefore this publication is timely. The
presentations here were first deliberated upon in a symposium held in Kolkata in January 2008.
In organizing such a symposium, the ramifications of suitabilities and omissions of Dalit-related
discourses were only too-well known to the organizers of such deliberations. These deliberations
came around a time when some scholars either suspected the bearings of a thirty-year old Dalit
theology or toiled hard to rejuvenate it. Therefore, this work was highly anticipated to exhibit
judicious conduits for the future of Dalit theology. Expectedly, this work throws up some
unearthed potential within the discourses of Dalit theology and also presents as new methods that
some new-generation Dalit theologians would like to have it. Through this presentation, the book
promises a fresh discursive space for methodologies and hermeneutics for Dalit Theology. This is
because the introductory and later discussions in Dalit theology had a built-in ability to rake up
the well-projected “discordant voices.”
The accent on “discordant voices” was in the air, in theological literature, and (equally
important) in Dalit movements. As far as Dalit theological literature in English alone in the last
five years is concerned, one could not have escaped the provocative impact of some fine works
like Frontiers in Dalit Hermeneutics (James Massey and Samson Prabhakar, 2005), eds.,
Breaking Theoretical Grounds for Dalit Studies (James Massey, S. Lourdunathan and I. John
Mohan Razu, 2006), Dalit Tribal Theological Interface (James Massey and Shimreingam, 2007),
Dalit Empowerment (Felix Wilfred, 2007), The Quest of Method in Dalit Theology (Charles
Singaram, 2008), M.M. Thomas and Dalit Theology (Adrian Bird, 2008), “‘Can we now bypass
that Truth?’: Interrogating the Methodology of Dalit Theology (J. Jayakiran Sebastian, 2008),
Re-imagining Dalit Theology: Postmodern Readings (Y. T. Vinaya Raj, 2008), The Dalit
Movement in India: Local Practices, Global Connections (Eva Maria Hardtmann, 2009), Dalit
Theology and Dalit Liberation: Problems and Possibilities (Peniel Rufus Rajkumar, 2010).
In the light of a host of Dalit theological thoughts, discussions in the book in review have
either opened up or shut down some inevitabilities of Dalit theology for its future course. The
title of the book suggests this. It is both re-directive and open-ended: redirective for its earnest
receptivity to newer hermeneutical approaches, and open-ended for want of exploring unattended
to corridors of finer and crucial Dalit concerns in the ensuing decades of this century. The book
has sixteen presentations apart from a detailed Introduction, and is compiled under three broader
The editors Sathianathan Clarke, Deenabandhu Manchala, and Philip Vinod Peacock
have envisaged and tried to implement two clear yet exigent objectives: first, to tread the legacy
of earlier Dalit discourses as propounded by A.P. Nirmal, James Massey, V. Devasahayam, M. E.
Prabhakar, and others; second, to confirm that the deliberations have not just relocated the “goal
posts” but have created “a new playing field altogether” for the new generation Dalit theological
discourse. Therefore, the write-ups in this book have looked at their roles as both “contesting”
and “configuring” with “creativity, courage and determination” to change the landscape of Dalit
theology for a new age. This change in Dalit theological scenario has been tried out to
correspond to the changing socio-political landscape, to relate the impacting postmodern and
postcolonial viewpoints, and to provoke back some theological trajectories of the traditional
doctrines like, “Can a suffering God save?” A point of methodological significance that should
be noted here is the appropriation of critical tools and approaches like postmodernism and
postcolonialism that is still a taboo in some Dalit theological corridors.
The theme of the first section is Dalit Theology: Introduction, Interrogation and
Imagination. Sathianathan Clarke commences this section by re-presenting the methodological
issues in Dalit theology with greater clarity and incisive comments. He deals with the politics of
the appropriation of methodological exclusivity alongside theological inclusivity that strengthens
the resistive stance as well as reconstructive possibilities within a same discourse.
‘Anthropology’ and ‘Theological imagination’ hold keys to his interpretation. Even a first time
reader of Dalit theology would hardly miss a conceptual development of Dalit theology that has
taken place in the last thirty years. Deenabandhu Manchala seeks to present the identity of a
context-specific Dalit theology to a global context through comprehensive means. He mentions
that a portrayal of contextual theology for a wider mass is possible by forging a link between the
nature and mission of the church, by expanding the ambit of mission to a global level, and by
reiterating the justice-oriented mission of the church. In the process, he identifies some
fundamental misunderstanding of mission by those who have not considered Dalit issues as a
pertinent mission-discourse. He sees ecumenical interfaith forums to be one of the potential
grounds for endorsing Dalit cause by overcoming mere victimhood by determined resistance.

Peniel Rufus Rajkumar anchors his discourse on Dalithos that considers purpose, remythologizing
activity, and concept of God as the logic of the inevitable guises in the activities
of dissent and appropriation in Dalit realm. An ethological methodology, he says, propels the
category ‘Dalit’ to redesign Dalit theology. He mentions how significant it is for Dalits to set the
agenda in an inter-relational context. Philip Peacock’s article takes advantage of the super-mythic
nature of the theories of Dalit origins to see how the trajectories of each myth have in them
elements of both the origin and the end. For him it is the “resourcefulness” of such myths that
provide multiple ways of handling Dalit issues from multiple dimensions. Y. T. Vinayaraj
attempts to redeem Dalit theology from its “modernist trappings” to open it up to a plethora of
possibilities for a new subjectivity through postmodern hermeneutics. This agential significance
creates a community continually in its own right and to be free from any static constructed
identity. Lalruatkima’s presence in this collection is in the earnest dialogical tradition of
liberation theologies in India. Such interdisciplinary stances open up significant possibilities
between Tribal formations and Dalit theology at definitional realm that are at times intentionally
confined to time and space, and nonetheless unlock formational possibilities pushing each other’s
boundaries to enrich each other. Such border crossings are imperative.
The second section is entitled Foraging Dalit Worlds, Freeing Theological Symbols,
Forging Dalit World Visions. The section is highly innovative in the methods adopted to re-do
Dalit theology with the bases available well within Dalit world. This section includes works by
Jayachitra who appropriates contrapuntal way as a strategic way to place Dalit liberative symbols
like Jesus and Ambedkar. While a contrapuntal reading of Jesus and Ambedkar works as a
broader canvas of the article, a similar reading is also done for early Christians and present Dalits
By doing so, she challenges Dalit theology to overlap Dalit movements to craft conversations at
scriptural and movements realms. Joseph Prabhakar Dayam retrieves the theological imagination
in the discussions of Divine Feminine among Dalit communities. He specifically discerns the
power and Koriaka (“desire”) of Gonthelamma of the Malas in Andhra Pradesh to challenge our
male-dominant christologies and to re-formulate Christian theology into theo/alogies for an
inclusive vision of Dalit community. Another fresh method of stirring and enriching Dalit

Christology is proposed by Anderson H. M. Jeremiah. Anderson draws inspiration from John
Dominic Crossan’s proposition of Historical Jesus of the Greco-Roman history. He explains that
Dalits’ claim to ownership of their lands resonates Jesus’ own time of class-ridden society that
had a bearing on land ownership claims of the “nobodies.” Therefore, Jesus, the Theo-Ethicist
(Irai-araneriyalar Yesu), Jesus, the Transcender (Kadanth Nilaiyalar Yesu), and Jesus, the
Radical Resister (Murpoku Ethirpalar Yesu) throw up significant surprises that enhance Dalit
Christology. Geevarghese Mor Coorilos directs Dalit god-talk at once to be strongly rooted in the
scriptures and in people’s movements. He sees the “Logos” paradigm from the gospel of John as
being entangled in metanarratives that needs a relook. Similarly, Dalit theology too, he mentions,
has its future by “pitching its tent” among the homeless and the Rights-deprived just as the
embodied Logos “pitched its tent among people.” This could provoke the “philosophical
imagination, sociological imagination and poetic imagination” of Dalit theology in the contexts
of Nandigram, Plachimada, Moolampally and Narmada struggles. Sathianathan Clarke and
Philip Peacock jointly pen the last article in this section on Religious Conversion in the light of
the recent attacks on Christian in Kandhamal. The authors, while evaluating the dynamics of
survival of the Kandhamal Christians highlight three significant aspects, especially in their act of
conversion to christianity: the conversion of Dalits to Christianity has this aspect of the
experience of “God-as-Christ” who forges liberative relationship with individuals and
Dalit Hermeneutics: New Christian Vedas, Old Gospel, Different Voices is the
overarching theme of the third section. In the quest to enhance the human face of Dalit theology,
the contributors Evangeline Anderson Rajkumar, Roja Singh, Monica Melanchthon, Surekha
Nelavala and Prasuna Gnana Nelavala have brought in powerful biographical and
autobiographical theologies. These theological renderings help us keep in creative tension
‘experience’ as a crucial mode of theologizing. Evangeline Rajkumar dwells on womanist
theological consciousness to enrich the gender dimension is Dalit discourse. Evangeline furthers
this consciousness through body-discourse that challenges the culturally embedded patriarchal
manifestations. Dichotomies like body/mind and its assumed extension feminine/masculine are

deconstructed. The batteredness of women’s bodies is likened to the “cross of Jesus Christ lifted
up at Golgotha” giving the broken bodies of women a Christological significance. However, the
resurrection turns the body “inside out” towards a new ecclesiology. Roja Singh’s article has a
Christian Dalit woman writer Bama as the protagonist. Roja Singh presents Bama’s works as
breaking new paths in Dalit consciousness through her works like Karukku and Sangati. Bama’s
loud anger is but a breaking of uneasy silence of Dalit women who are dismembered from their
own cultural canvas especially by ecclesiastical orders. Bama’s writings attempt to “Re-member”
Dalit women. Monica Melancthon innovatively re-reads the unnamed maid-servant in the Book
of Judith from the lenses of Badri Narayan’s narratives to infuse rich meaning to the text. This
method of rereading gives agential significance to marginalized women like the maid-servant,
thus streaming their myths (super-truths) into the mainline historiography. Surekha Nelavala rereads
Lukan narrative (7: 36-50) about the “sinful woman” from Dalit feminist perspective along
side the tagged and stigmatized lives of Dalit women like Sujatha, a Dalit woman. In this article,
Jesus’s role in Lukan narrative is articulative of empowering roles that theologies should uphold.
Prasuna Nelavala takes a relook at the Markan passage (5: 21-43) where Jesus interacts with a
woman with a flow of blood. Jesus’ healing model of “touchability” stands as a powerful contrast
to the “untouchability” discourse rooted in the class-gender discourse.
A note-worthy concern here on Dalit hermeneutics is that the section has been greatly
enriched by and confined only to women’s issues. This has taken much of the sparkle off the
volume. In this work as a whole, one cannot but notice a subtle back and forth movement of
‘Experience’ as one of the core formative factors for doing Dalit theology in India towards
identifying oneself with the struggles of Dalit communities. Through this there are both clear and
veiled redefining of ‘organic’ of Dalit hermeneutical discourse and hence navigating Dalit
theology from an almost dead-end of the identity-specific discourse. This is symbolic of the
realization of intergenerational efforts to make Dalit theology context-specific at various realms.
Many of the contributors have wondered how long could Dalit theology build its discourses
purely on its victimized-history. Rather, they see intelligent negotiative tactics coming from
many actors within such histories that would give Dalit theology a phoenix-like resurgence.
Therefore, the new discursive tools as employed by the contributors have helped them to weave
their theologies around these factors. The editors have surely invited “Dalit and Dalit-identified”
scholars in this novel endeavor.
The composition of the contributors is predominantly protestant Christian theologians
who are well-known scholars, teachers and leaders. They have been part of a few movements too
and have created global attention for Dalit concerns. However, a volume like this would only be
near-complete with direct contributions and voices representing interfaith and grass-root Dalit
movements in India. That would authenticate a more balanced Dalit theological praxis, and that
remains the greatest challenge in the coming decades. Without these concerns consciously taken
up, Dalit theology risks relevance. Moreover, while this book’s sense of “subalternity
consciousness” has shed ‘androcentric’ tag emphatically, anthropocentricity is still construed to
be the domain of Dalit theology, with an exception of Coorilos’ thoughts where eco-liberative
concerns come to the fore as significantly as human-liberative concerns. Needless to say, Dalit
theology is still an adult domain by not considering caste politics entrenched in child-rights
discourses in India. In that sense, this work has consciously or otherwise has greater liberation as
its motif, and reflexively opened up yet-unaddressed avenues in Dalit theology in India for a
broader “heterologic” base for Dalit theology. Yet, this work treats its readers with a refreshing
language and style steeped in “fluidity, ambivalence and plurivocity.” In fact, they attracted my
attention to this work!