The Emerging Dalit Theology: A Historical Appraisal
by George Oommen
merged in the Asian theological scene. This theology began to take shape in the early 80’s when A.P. Nirmal, then a faculty member at the United Theological College, floated the idea of "Shudra Theology." But now, Dalit theology has come of age and it stands by its own uniqueness and creativity.
At the outset it is appropriate that I explain the term "Dalit" because it has come into popular use in India only very recently. The etymology of the term "Dalit" goes back to the 19th century when a Marathi social reformer and revolutionary Mahatma Jyotirao Phule used it to describe the "outcastes" and "untouchables" as the "oppressed and crushed victims of the Indian caste system." In the 1970’s the Dalit Panther Movement of Maharashtra gave currency to the term "Dalit" as a reminder that they were the deprived and the dispossessed section of Indian society and as a means of rejecting other names given to them with a paternalistic attitude.
"Outcastes" in India have been known by different names such as: "Harijan," meaning children of Han (God) given by Gandhi; "Avarrias" meaning casteless; "Panchamas" meaning fifth caste; "Chandalas" meaning worst of the earth; "Depressed classes" given during British Colonial days, and Scheduled Caste given by the Indian Constitution. Recent Dalit protest movements in India have increasingly used the term Dalit to demonstrate the rejection of derogatory names given by outsiders and further, to refer to their pain, suffering and hope for liberation.
James Massey, a prominent Dalit theologian captures the wide usage of the term Dalit as follows:
Dalit is thus not a mere descriptive name or title, but an expression of hope for the recovery of their past identity. The struggle of these "outcastes" has given the term dalit a positive meaning. The very realisation of themselves as Dalit, the very acceptance of the state of "dalitness," is the first step on the way towards their transformation into full and liberated human beings.1
Dalits who constitute almost 20% of the Indian population (200 million), were considered untouchables as a result of the Hindu understanding of "ritual pollution and purity." Dalits were not included in the four fold varna categories. At the top were the Brahmins, who considered themselves as the most ritually pure. Beyond the pale of society, "outcastes" were considered extremely polluted and were assigned occupations such as removal of dead animals, scavenging and cleaning of the village. They were also landless agricultural labourers and tanners. They were barred from using village water tanks and public roads. Temple doors were closed on them.
Although Christianity is an egalitarian religion, the caste system found its way into it in India. Dalit Christians within the church were discriminated against and were denied powers within the ecclesiastical structure.
Although Dalit Christians constituted approximately 70% of the Indian Christian population they were marginalized and ignored until recently. To illustrate this let me quote what Archbishop George Zur, Apostolic Pro-Nuncio to India said while inaugurating the CBCI (Catholic Bishops Conference of India) in 1991:
Though Catholics of the lower caste and tribes form 60 per cent of Church membership they have no place in decision-making. Scheduled caste converts are treated as lower caste not only by high caste Hindus but by high caste Christians too. In rural areas they cannot own or rent houses, however well-placed they may be. Separate places are marked out for them in the parish churches and burial grounds. Inter-caste marriages are frowned upon and caste tags are still appended to the Christian names of high caste people. Casteism is rampant among the clergy and the religious. Though Dalit Christians make 65 per cent’ of the 10 million Christians in the South, less than 4 per cent of the parishes are entrusted to Dalit priests. There are no Dalits among 13 Catholic Bishops of Tamilnadu or among the Vicars-general and rectors of seminaries and directors of social assistance centres.2
The situation in the Protestant Church is no different except that some Dalits have been elevated to Bishopric and other positions of power recently. Many Dalit Christian leaders refer to the thrice-alienated situation of the Dalit Christians in India, namely, discrimination within the Church, discrimination by Hindu culture and discrimination by the State as they are denied Scheduled Caste status in the Constitution, and the related privileges which come with that status.3
At the outset it should be noted that the emergence of Dalit Christian Theology in India is intrinsically linked to more recent and significant developments within the Dalit Movement in India from the 70s.
But before we go into that, a word about the history of Dalit Movement in India is in place. Dalit protest and resistance movements seem to have gone through several phases. Bhakti movements within Hinduism between 14th and 16th centuries symbolised low castes’ aspiration for an egalitarian society and religion. The Bhakti movement stood for transformation of Hindu society and used religious resources to push forward the basic ideology that all persons were equal before God. However, the dominant castes co-opted it and transformed it into a reform movement within Hinduism. Moreover the British Colonial system dealt a decisive blow to the growth of the Bhakti movement.
The destruction of the Jajmani system, communal ownership of landed property, by the British and introduction of legal land relationship changed the situation of Dalits for the worse. Jajmani had used traditional caste relationships for division of labour and had provided some material security for them, although it was an exploitative and unjust system.4
The entry of colonialism enabled Dalits to search for new means of protest and liberation. Some Dalits integrated themselves into the colonial system by joining the army or by serving as indentured labourers in British colonies. Others chose Sanskritization as a means of upward mobility. Self respect movements and religious and social reform movements for educational and political rights in South Indian analysis of the Kamataka situation in Godwin Shin, The Plight of Christian Dalits: A South Indian Case Study. Bangalore: ATC, 1997.
States were expression of this self assertion movements. This took place at the turn of the 20th century.
However, mass conversions to non-Hindu religions were the most prominent means of Dalit protest which began during the second half of the 19th Century. Many historians, such as John Webster, say that the modern Dalit movement was begun in and through the Christian conversion movements.5
Several opinions are expressed regarding the reasons for Dalit conversion to Christianity. They range from the spiritual to socio-economic. But there is a general consensus among scholars that, "the underlying motivation was the search for improved social status, for a greater sense of personal dignity and self respect, for freedom from bondage to oppressive land owners."6 A complete break with the past was impossible for Dalit Christians. But it is beyond doubt that Dalit Christians initiated a movement of Dalit power and cultural changes through conversion movement which included "alterations in perceptions of self and the world, in life-style, as well as the acquisition of enhanced resources for self-improvement and self-empowerment."7
Dalits in post-Independent India sought new avenues of liberation. One of the best examples of this new wave of Dalit emancipatory movement was the Dalit Panther Movement in Maharashtra which popularized the use of the term Dalit. The Dalit Panthers saw caste as the major source by which their "humanity" was being virtually reduced to a state of "being no people."8 However, class analysis also was used as an effective tool to understand the plight of this downtrodden people.9
Further there was a surge in the Dalit literature in 1960s. This literary tradition had a distinct anti-caste message. It embodied the Dalit search for a culture of their own and developed a counter culture parallel to the ‘Great Tradition’ without being co-opted into the Sanskritic tradition. This literary movement created a Dalit folklore with the assertion that they have had a culture of their own and that they do have one which is not in any way inferior to any other traditions of India.10 Dalit literary movements were considerably influenced by Black American Literature and there were direct references, although in passing to the Blacks’ situation in America in these writings. The following is an interesting one:
The words "a peculiar institution" describe the untouchability created by the caste system. The Negro should not change the colour of his hide, nor the untouchable his caste. There is no difference between the place of the Negro in America and the step or level of the Untouchable in India. And so, for a long time, both were caught in whirlwind of self-denigration and self-hatred. Both were confined in the prison of fatalism. To prolong this imprisonment, the whites found authority in the Bible’s myths and symbols, and the clean castes in the Vedas and Manusmniti!11
Closely following the teachings of B.R. Ambedkar, the 20th Century symbol of Dalit power and protest, the Dalit asserted their separateness from other Hindus and demonstrated vehement opposition to classical Brahmanic Hinduism.12 However, it may be stated that Dalit movement in India is not yet homogenous and does represent diverse policies and means of liberation. However, a pan-Indian psychological solidarity was increasingly emerging in the 1980s.
A Series of attempts and initiatives began in the early eighties to systematically articulate the faith in the context of the newly emerging Dalit aspiration for liberation. A.P. Nirmal, James Massey, M.E. Prabhakar, M. Azariah, K. Wilson, V. Devasahayam and F.J. Balasundaram are some of the prominent persons who figure in this theological movement.13 As theology predominantly became a vehicle to serve the elite interests, marginalizing the Dalits’ faith, Dalit theology manifested itself as a counter-theology movement. Re-formulation and re-visioning were the objectives rather than reconstruction and deconstruction. Both the European missionary movement and the traditional Indian ‘Christian Theology of the 20th Century were rejected as metaphysical speculations having nothing to do directly with the history and existence of the marginalized majority within the Indian Church.
Dalit theologians felt the need to consciously reflect upon the oppressive situation of Dalits in India. "Thus, when Dalit theologians speak of Dalit theology," says James Massey:
they are in fact making an affirmation about the need for a theological expression which will help them in their search for daily bread and their struggle to overcome a situation of oppression, poverty, suffering, injustice, illiteracy and denial of human dignity and identity. It is these realities of Dalit life which require the formulation of a Dalit theology. The highly philosophical schools of thoughts such as Gnana Marga, Karma Marga and Bhakti Marga were of no liberative and theological value to Dalits.
Many felt that the theological task of India need not be the preserve of the "Brahmanic Tradition" within the Indian Church, which had always used "intuition, inferiority oriented approach" to theologising.14 Dalit theologians were of the opinion that the theological and cultural domination of Brahmanic traditions within Indian Christianity, ignoring the rich cultural and religious experience of the Dalits had to be ignored, if not rejected completely. 15
It is relevant to note here that sacred texts of the Hindu religion such as Vedas and Mantras were not accessible to Dalits as a rule. They could perceive the same tradition continuing within Christianity in theology. In that sense Dalit theological movement was also an expression of appropriating a sacred mode from high caste theology. Thus Dalit theological movement was a corrective to the institutionalization of inequality and inaccessibility within the theological field. "To sum up, then," Nirmal says;
Whether it is the traditional Indian Christian theology or the more recent third-world theology, our theologians failed to see the struggle of Indian Dalits for liberation a subject matter appropriate for doing theology in India. What is amazing is that fact that Indian theologians ignore the reality of the Indian Church. While estimates vary, between 50 and 80 percent of all the Christians in India today are of scheduled-caste origin. This is the most important commonality cutting across the various diversities of the Indian Church that would have provided an authentic liberation motif for Indian Christian theology. If our theologians failed, to see this in the past, there is all the more reason for our waking up to this reality today and for applying ourselves seriously to the ‘task of doing theology’.16
Thus, essentially, Dalit theology was a liberative action in itself, in the sense that its coming into being created space for the development of a Dalit Christian voice.
Major Affirmations and Features
The primary affirmation of Dalit theology is that it is a theology about Dalits, for Dalits and originated from them; "the theology which they themselves would like to expound."17 They alone are the authors of this articulation. Almost closely following the Dalit literary movement, Dalit theology promotes an exclusiveness in the doing of theology. Defending this methodological exclusivism, the chief architect of this theology writes, "This exclusivism is necessary because the chief tendency of all dominant traditions - cultural or theological - is to accommodate, include, assimilate, and finally conquer others. Counter -theologies or people’s theology therefore need to be on guard and need18 to shut off the influences of the dominant theological traditions.
fact it is the very Christian character of "Dalitness" which will justify this primacy given to Dalits and the methodological exclusivism. Some Dalit theologians say Dalit theology can be done only by the Dalits who have experienced sufferings and who understand the pain of people.
However, not all Dalit theologians accept this approach of virtual exclusion of others from doing Dalit theology. Balasundaram, a departmental colleague, says, "Dalit theology is not and can’t be exclusive. A theology that is exclusive can’t be Christian. Dalit theology is pursued for others’ liberation also."19 Further, acknowledging the very inclusive structural nature of sin, in this case the caste system, and the role both the oppressed and the oppressors have in this., K. Wilson challenges the exclusive methodological approach. Non-Dalits’ expression of solidarity with Dalits also is seen as an inevitable component of the ultimate liberation of Dalits. K. Wilson expresses it is as follows: " Christian Dalit theology does not forbid Christian Dalits from working with non-Dalit authentic Christians, the renascent Hindus, the reformed Muslims and humanistic forces from various other faiths and ideologies, on a common human platform and thus hasten the process of establishing a human and humane culture which is why the Word became flesh.
Due to influence of the ‘secular’ Dalit movement in India and the liberation theology from Latin America, Dalit theology began the movement by accepting Marxian analytical tools. However,’ caste is now seen as the major socio-economic formative force in shaping and understanding the history of Dalits. Moreover the over-arching impact of Ambedkarism on all Dalits further seems to enhance the process of accepting caste as the sole source of the suffering of Dalits. Ambedkar was very forthright in declaring the separateness of Dalits from the caste system as the means of their liberation. Dalit theology seems to be totally in conformity with this position.
2) One of the major sources of doing Dalit theology is Dalit experience of suffering and pain. The narration of the story of their pathos and their protest has a primary place in this. Dalit literary movement gives "expression to their anger against those who have made them Dalits." And Dalit theology gives vent to the agony and pain of God’s people.
Thus it results in the recovery of their past and the memory of their rejection. This recovery of the collective memory of their "wounded psyche" has another purpose also. It helps Dalits and Dalit theologians to theologically reflect on the "subjugated and submerged" rich cultural identity of Dalits. There is a conscious effort made by Christian theologians to capture the growing awareness among Dalits that they were "members of an ancient primeval society disinherited and uprooted by the alien Brahmanical civilization."20
Thus, history is fundamental to the theological task in this movement. History is not illusionary or unreal as Hindu metaphysical philosophy may make one to believe. First, history is fundamental in the sense that realization of Dalits as the "subjects" of history is essential towards recovery and recapture of their lost dignity. Secondly, unlike the classical Indian Christian Theology, or for that matter the Indian classical Philosophy of the high caste, which is based on the transcendental nature of the Ultimate Reality and a cyclical view of history. History is fundamental in comprehending Dalit humanity. Human experience and ultimate liberation which are integral parts of the ‘here and now’ are primary to the doing of Dalit theology. This anubhava (experience) takes precedence over anumana (speculation).
James Massey expounds four layer of colonisation as the fundamental causes for the suffering and the submergence of the identity and culture of the Dalits. They are Aryan, Muslim, British and the high caste internal colonisations.21 This is how he summarizes his position:
the colonization of the Dalits, which began with their defeat at the hands of the Aryans, was internalized through religious myths and stories and finally by introducing a fixed social order based on a caste system dependent on one’s birth. Neither the centuries during which India was successively dominated by Muslims and the British nor the arrival of other religions, including Christianity, succeeded in overcoming the influence of this caste system; indeed, the effect of Muslim and British colonization was to strengthen the status quo. With independence, the rule of the country went back in to the hands of the so-called upper caste, the original colonizers of the Dalits.22
3) The ultimate function of Dalit theology is two fold: to act in solidarity and to act for liberation. Liberation is envisaged as liberation of Dalits from the historically oppressive structures both religio-cultural and socio-economic. Hence, theological articulation is not only a faith expression but also a means for liberation. According to this school of thought, any theological expression that will not lead to action and the resultant liberation is futile.
The concept for solidarity has also emerged in this school of theology. Christian values of sacrifice, charity and commitment to others are all intertwined in this profound understanding of solidarity. Transcending one’s creed, ideology and religion a Dalit is invited "to lose oneself for the sake of the other." Incarnational theology is the basis of such a two-sided solidarity with God and with fellow Dalits. According to James Massey the core of the act of the incarnation of God in Jesus was God’s "acting in solidarity with human beings, particularly the oppressed of this world."23 Massey sees in this solidarity of God with human beings a challenge for Dalit solidarity:
The model of solidarity we find in God’s incarnational act in history challenges us Dalit Christians to follow it, so that the experiences we share with the Dalits in general should become the basis of an authentic Dalit theology. . . . Being in solidarity with our fellow Dalits of different faiths and ideologies is a demand which the God of the Bible, through his own act of incarnation, places on Dalit Christians. This is an important factor for the’ authenticity of Dalit theology, enabling it to become an instrument of destroying the social and religious structures responsible for the Dalits’ historical captivity.24
4) It is not merely the enslavement of the Dalits by the dominating groups which comes under the critical scrutiny of Dalit theology but also the enslavement of the Dalit psyche or "the inner nature of Dalitness." James Massey describes it as "a self-captivity" of the Dalit community. Dalit theology seeks to liberate people from this slavery of "self-captivity," "a slavery from which it seems almost impossible to be liberated."25 The psychological dimensions within the Dalit theological movement are far more significant than we see at the surface. This should be recognized as an important aspect of Dalit theology.
A Dalit God and Jesus the Dalit
The Christian God is a Dalit god, affirm Dalit theologians. This God who is revealed in the Old Testament and Jesus who sided with the Dalits of the world are the liberative paradigms for the doing of Dalit theology. It not only helps them to come to terms with their historical consciousness, which is submerged in pathos and protest, but also to comprehend a God who in Jesus restores "humanness" to Dalits.
The Exodus liberation paradigm which had tremendous implications for liberation theologies in Latin America has extensively influenced the thinking and articulation of Dalit theology in India. A.P. Nirmal particularly depended on the Deuteronomic account of the affliction, toil and the oppression of the foreparents of the Israelites to expound the movement of Dalits from a "no people" to "God’s people."
Using the Deuteronomic Creed as model, Dalit theology can construct the historical Dalit consciousness which has to do with their roots, identities and struggle for human dignity and "for the right to live as free people created in the image of God." Nirmal says:
The historical Dalit consciousness in depicts even greater and deeper pathos than is found in the Deuteronomic Creed. My Dalit ancestors did not enjoy the nomadic freedom of the wandering Aramean. As outcasts, they were also cast out of their villages
When my Dalit ancestors walked the dusty roads of his village, the Sa Varnas tied a branch of a tree around his rest so that he would not leave any unclean foot prints and pollute the roads." Nirmal concludes,
The Dalit consciousness should realise that the ultimate goal of its liberation movement cannot be the ‘land flowing with milk and honey’. For Christian Dalit Theology, it cannot be simply the gaining of the rights, the reservation, and the privileges.. The goal is the realisation of our full humanness or, conversely our full divinity, the ideal of the Imago Dei, the image of God in us. To use another biblical metaphor, our goal is the ‘glorious liberty of the children of god."26
For Dalit theologians God is clearly a Dalit God. God, who reveals himself, both through the prophets and Jesus Christ, is a God of the Dalits. The servant God, a God who identifies with the servant-hood of Dalits, is perceived by Dalit theologians as Dalit God. The servant role that the ex-untouchable played in India was indeed a participation in this "servant-God’s ministries." Thus, Nirmal says, "To speak of a Servant-God, therefore, is to recognise and identify him as a truly Dalit deity ,27 For Dalit theologians Jesus is the ultimate Dalit, the servant God whom God reveals. However, it may be noted here that some of the recent theologians underplay the use of this servant’ imagery as it evokes extremely painful memories. Moreover, they feel, this will only help perpetuate structures of domination and subservience within which Dalits are caught up even now.
Jesus’ tilt towards the poor and the marginalized, tax-collectors, prostitutes and lepers, according to Dalit theology, portrays Jesus as God incarnated as a Dalit. Devasahayam reflects as follows on Jesus’ image from a Dalit perspective:
Jesus reveals a free God, who is uncoopted and uncontained by those identified with religion This God is free to hear the cry of the outcasts against the guardians of religious society This God is not under the power of Brahman but is free to hear ones against Brahmans and other upper castes and side with the Dalits, who are ousted from the Temples and who are denied the right to study the Scriptures.28
The Cross has a special meaning in Dalit theology. Both the liberative praxis and the Dalitness of Jesus culminates in the symbol of Gurukul, 1992.
"On the Cross, he was the broken, the crushed, the split, the torn, the driven-asunder man," revealing his Dalitness.29
The vision of a new community under God is also envisaged by some Dalit theologians. Here the emphasis is on the invitation of Jesus to a new fellowship in which all equally and fully participate. "The focus is not merely on the oppression and God’ option for the oppressed, but on the new community of freedom and fellowship, love and justice, which is the new people of the reign of God to which God calls all’ peoples."30 Theologians like Wilson feel that God’s plan is to transform Dalits into a community which liberates not only themselves but also their oppressors and thus gives a liberative dimension to their very dalitness.
The use of the Bible in Dalit theology needs a special mention. Dalit theologians entirely depend on Bible and Biblical examples. Dalit theologians are not essentially different from liberation school of theology. However, there is a conscious and deliberate attempt on the part of Dalit theologians to re-read the Bible from the perspective of the experience of the victims.
1, Dalit theology is part of the post colonial struggle of different communities for their distinct identity and space. In a largely homogenizing trend influenced by two processes namely globalization and Hinduisation, Dalits and Dalit Christians are still struggling for a Dalit identify of their own. Intra-Dalit conflicts and Dalit sub-groups still continue despite the striving for a common Dalit identity and solidarity. Therefore, the challenge for Dalit theology is to strike an ideal balance.
Hindutva revival/reform movements are trying to absorb Dalits into a monolithic Hindu fundamentalist culture. Their systematic propaganda concentrates on the message that Dalits had been truly part of the ‘Hindu’ religio-cultural structures. Several Hindu organizations are involved in re-conversion efforts to drive home this ideology. Although it is a clear historical distortion, Dalits are caught up in a dilemma whether to declare their solidarity with Hindus’ or with Dalits.’ In fact Dalits are caught between Hinduisation and Dalitisation. This historic dilemma appears to have had its impact upon Dalit Christians and Dalit theological movement too. This may be the reason why this new strand of theology appears to be at a standstill right now.
However, the recent efforts to genuinely develop a constructive theological strand is a welcome change. The trend setting work of Sathiyanathan Clarke, Dalits and Christianity Subaltern Religion and Liberation Theology in India (1998) deserves special mention here, as it opens up new avenues for Dalit theology movement. . .
2. The almost total dependence on Biblical thought for. theological construction needs further reconsideration in the light of the historical experience of Dalits.
Pre-existing/Christian egalitarian thoughts and struggle for equality and justice were evident in Dalit history and memory But the early Dalits had their own ways of protest and resistance. This is ignored by Dalit theologians.
Dalit theologians also need to widen the definition of "texts," given the oral emphasis in Dalit Tradition By probing into Dalit folklore and songs they are likely to unearth extra textual sources for doing Dalit theology. This could also help create new hermeneutical principles unique to the Dalit theological movements.31
3. Ancestral worship and female deities appear prominently in Dalit myths and songs. Dalit theologians could explore how the pre-existing religio-cultural ideas might have shaped their journey into Christianity and how they deal with such questions in their everyday life. All these could function as rich source of theologising and Dalit faith articulation in India.
4. While pathos, suffering and pain have found a place in Dalit theology, the rich Dalit traditions of celebrating life in the context of communitarian values seem to have been completely forgotten by Dalit theologians with few exceptions. The rich culture of the Dalit have a lot of egalitarian ideas. This needs to be further explored by Dalit theologians.
5. The ‘dialogue’ and ‘accommodation’ that take shape at the popular level of both Hinduism and Christianity need systematic consideration by Dalit theology. It appears that in a silent way people at the village level are moulding meaningful ‘systems’ of interaction in a pluralistic socio-religious setting like that of India. If "the reality of the religion of a people can be studied only through the empirical enquiry into the meaning appropriated by them as persons and community of persons in their life situations,"32 then Dalit theology needs to look carefully into popular level of Hindu-Christian religious encounter. Luke and Camian’s study reveals that religious boundaries at the level of belief systems and rituals are not so marked in the minds of the people in villages. In the popular worship context, there is mutual sharing of practices, symbols and values without so much fuss.33 These marginalised spaces deserves systematic attention.