The Dalit theology of India

The 1970s also saw the emergence of this theology from among the Christian Dalits, that is, "those broken, downtrodden, destroyed" by the nefarious system of discrimination between the so-called high, low, and scheduled castes in India. Their weak self-identity as untouchables and outcastes is derived from centuries of cruel segregation religiously sanctioned by the Hindu "canon law" (dharmasastra). Today all the "backward" castes (the current euphemism for so-called low castes and outcastes), tribal people, and landless laborers who maintain the primary service sector in contemporary India are loosely termed "Dalits." As in the case of Minjung theology, the Dalit movement, too, was on the scene before the Christians thought of appropriating it theologically. The Dalits had rejected Mahatma Gandhi's appellation harijan (people of God) as a brahmanic ruse for condescendingly coopting them into the Hindu religious system. They prefer to be what their name indicates: broken ones. This broken-ness includes also their own internal divisions into subcastes.

The Dalit theologians who emerged from among the conscientized Christians of Dalit origin insist that it is the Dalitness of the Christians rather than the Christianness of the Dalits that constitutes their identity, and consequently also the basis of their Christianness. Hence, just as the early Dalit literature (dalit sahitya) cites among its sources of inspiration Marx, Lenin, Mao Tse Tung, Che

Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X, rather than Mahatma Gandhi or any of the great Indian reformers, so also Dalit theology finds no inspiration in the works of any of the pioneering Indian Christian theologians or reformers. For Dalit theology by its very origin and nature is a many-sided protest not merely against the Hindu caste system, but equally against the Indian church. Their complaint needs to be spelt out in detail.

First, Christianity, said to have arrived in India during apostolic times, and developed under the patronage of the Persian (East Syrian/Nestorian) church, seemed unaware of the Pauline doctrine of "neither slave nor free" (Gal. 3: 28), allegedly because the New Testament had not yet been written down at that time. The East Syrian Christianity which acclimatized to the Hindu religious ethos was itself affected or rather infected by caste consciousness. It was a millennium and a half before Francis Xavier came to India and baptized the Dalits for the first time. But the process of Indianization of Christianity which followed that event, both in the initiative of Roberto de Nobili in the seventeenth century and in the attempts of the indigenizers of the nineteenth century, as well as those of the modern-day inculturationists, is dismissed as a brahmanization of theology involving Christians who hail from the forward castes (the current term for high castes). For the Dalits, these attempts were no more than a substitution for the colonialist theology of domination of an Indian version of the same.

Second, even though the majority of Indian Christians are Dalits (in some places, 60 per cent, in others 90 per cent), the forward-caste minority continues to take the key roles in church leadership and the academic theological industry. Third, even the liberation theologians are said to come mostly from the same "high" castes; it is claimed that their zeal for the poor did not include a concern for Dalits, and that the Marxist tools of social analysis employed by them are blunted by the neglect of the caste dimension of Indian society. This, incidentally, was also the blind spot of Indian Marxists, they complain. For, unlike Marx who, excusably, depended on information derived from Max Muller's study of Sanskrit literature rather than from any field study of rural India, these Indian Marxists (who were also from the higher castes!) culpably ignored the magnitude of personal and structural violence which the caste system inflicted upon the Dalits.

Understandably, therefore, the Exodus text so central to Indian and other third world liberation theologians is reinterpreted by being traced back to the confessional text, Deut. 26: 5-12, which establishes the historical roots of the Exodus people. For the Dalits regard themselves as the adivasis ("original inhabitants") of India, whom the invading Aryans, with their colour consciousness (the Vedic word for caste is varna, colour), treated as a slave class (dasyus in Vedic hymns). Their Dalitness, to which Isaiah (53: 2ff.) alludes in the "one without comeliness," "sorrowful person acquainted with grief," "one from whom people hide their faces," one who "was despised," is precisely that attribute which Jesus, the divine man of sorrows and slave God, had reportedly appropriated as proper to his messianic mission. This Jesus of the Dalits, or rather "Jesus, the Dalit," whom the Gospels proclaim so clearly and emphatically, has never been recognized by the Indian church, not even by the allegedly Indianized sections of it. It is this Jesus who is the center of the Dalit world and from whom, therefore, Dalit Christology radiates.

Today, moreover, Dalitness has become a political discourse which the whole world has been summoned to recognize, especially since the Durban Conference on Racism in 2001 and in the face of contemporary India's militant Hinduism or the ideology of hindutva; from which we may conclude that its Christian version may very well be India's major political theology in the future.

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    What is dalit theology?
    2 years ago

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