Dalit Theology: a transforming Grace for the Indian Church


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Dalit Theology: A Transforming Grace for the Indian Church

As the Indian theologian Felix points out, Indian Christian theology is still in its early stage. Even then, the developing Indian theology has made great strides on two crucial fronts. In the first place, Indian Christian theology has attempted to reappraise and reimagine Christianity in the cultural context of India. Part of this process has been the attempt to re-interpret the message of the Gospel and the person of Jesus Christ through concepts, categories and symbols drawn from the Indian cultural tradition and history. In fact, this has been the major enterprise of Indian Christian theology from the nineteenth century onwards, though then it mostly drew its inspirations from the dominant Hindu religious resources. Secondly, Christian theology in more recent times, addressed itself to the life-contexts of the people, to the socio-political situations prevailing in India. This orientation stems from the conviction that theology cannot be simply an intellectual solipsism or academic acrobatics on the religious arena.1 The first type of theologising focused on the salvation of the individual soul; its outlook has been individualistic; it neglected the neighbour’s physical needs; and above all it has remained silent on the crucial issues of caste and untouchability. The second trend with social orientation has not paid sufficient attention to the specific Indian realities of caste and untouchability. In the recent decades the silent lambs of the Indian society, the Untouchables or the Dalits have begun to speak forcefully. They demand their rightful space in the society and in the Churches as well. The multiple oppression of the Dalits is summarised by the Dalit Theologian M. E .Prabhakar in the following words:

Dalits have been the most degraded, downtrodden, exploited and the least educated in our society. They have been socially and culturally, economically and politically subjugated and marginalized through three thousand years of our history and remain so, even after half-a-century of protective discrimination (as Scheduled Castes) under the aegis of the Government of India. Even today they are denied individual and social identity (self-respect and status). The Dalits form the inner core of poverty, which is birth-ascribed. 2

Experience of multiple-oppression, critical awareness of the underlying causes and their hunger and thirst for dignity and justice inspire them to speak about God from within their struggles and to interpret the Christian message from their perspective. This process gives rise to Dalit theology. In the following pages, we delineate at first the meaning of the term Dalit which is very important to understand Dalit theology. Second, we explore the reasons for the emergence of Dalit theology. Third, we summarise the critique of Dalit theology on the main streams of Indian theology. Fourth, we outline the descriptions about Dalit theology by various Dalit theologians and the salient features of Dalit theology. Finally we conclude with an appraisal on the Dalit theology that is still in nascent stage.

1. The Term “Dalit

“Dalit,” in Sanskrit is both a noun and an adjective. As a noun, Dalit can be used for all three genders, masculine, feminine and neuter. It has been derived from the root “dal” which means to crack, open, split, etc. “Dalit,” has come to mean, things or persons burst, split, broken or torn asunder, downtrodden, scattered, crushed, destroyed, etc.3 The term “dalit” has also its parallel in Hebrew with the root “dal” means low, weak, poor, helpless etc.4

The present usage of the term Dalit goes back to the nineteenth century, when a Marathi social reformer and revolutionary, Mahatma Jotiba Phule (1826-1890), used it to describe the outcasts and untouchables as the oppressed and broken victims of Indian caste-ridden society.5 However it is Dr. B. R. Ambedkar (1891-1956) who brought it to the limelight.6 But it was only in 1970s, that the followers of the Dalit Panther Movement of Maharashtra gave currency to the term “dalit” as a constant reminder of their age-old subjugation, denoting both their state of deprivation and the people who are oppressed.7 At present, this term is used frequently and has become popular among the Dalits of various protest movements in India.

The Dalits were “outcasts,” because they were not fit to be included in the four-fold graded caste structure of the Indian society.8 They were below the Shudras and served the upper castes in very menial and dirty tasks like the carrying and cremation of corpses.9 On the basis of this status, they were made to bear extreme kinds of disabilities in the form of oppression for centuries - their occupation requires them to handle unclean objects - which made them almost lose their humanness and finally, they reached the state of being a “no-people.” The Dalits are known by many other names, which were/are given to them by others, mainly to despise them or to show contempt. These include: Dasa, Dasysu, Raksasa, Asura, Avarna, Nisada, Panchama, Mletcha, Svapaca, Chandala, Achchuta, Harijan, Exterior Castes, Depressed Classes, Scheduled Castes, Untouchables etc. Besides these names, there are a number of other titles or names which have been given to them at the regional language level. For example, Chura in Punjab (North West India); Bhangi or Lal-Beghi in Hindi (North India); Mahar in Marathi (Central India); Mala in Telugu, Paraiyan in Tamil, and Pulayan in Malayalam (South India).10

These names carry within them the virus of a binary opposition of the “we-the-pure” and “you-the-impure.” In reaction to these names which attribute hereditary impurity to “untouchables,” the “untouchables” choose to give a name to themselves and the name is Dalit. The word Dalit indicates a number of things: (i) it clearly identifies their oppressors. If today the Dalits are reduced to a life of abject poverty and treated as polluted human beings, it is the non-Dalits that must be seen as the cause of their dehumanisation. (ii) the word connotes the consciousness of their own unfree existence and outcast experience, a consciousness, which forms the basis for a new cultural unity and Dalit ideology. The core of such an ideology is freedom and humanism. (iii) the word Dalit indicates a certain militancy. The name is a symbol of commitment to change, confrontation and revolution.11

2. The Context for the Emergence of Dalit Theology

In the first half of this century, during the colonial rule, the Dalits began to organise themselves and demand their civic and political rights. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar played an important and unique role in articulating the political consciousness of the Dalits during the Independence struggle. After the Independence, he was the brain behind the affirmative action for the Dalits and the Adivasis that is enshrined in the Constitution of India. From 1970s on wards, the social, political and cultural awareness has been forcefully expressed by the Dalits in the country in the form of Dalit literature, Dalit organisations, Dalit political parties. This awareness positively influences the Christian Dalits to organise themselves into various grass-root movements and to struggle against discrimination within the Churches and against the Government that denies the constitutional rights on the basis of religion. In the last two decades the Dalit consciousness was accelerated by various historical factors, and this awareness is growing very fast within the country and in the Churches. Dalit theology is one of the expressions of this emerging Dalit consciousness. In Christopher Shelke’s opinion, the important event that created a psychological atmosphere for the birth of Dalit Theology and gave impetus to the development of the Dalit Christian movement was the protest against the planned “Freedom of Religion Bill” in 1979. This bill was introduced in the Indian parliament as a private member’s bill by Mr. Tyagi, hoping that the conversion could be controlled. After the first discussion on the bill the Christians of all denominations came together almost in all the states and publicly demonstrated against the introduction of such a bill, which was actually curtailing the freedom of religion and its proclamation. Introduction of this bill would go against the fundamental rights which the constitution has granted to every individual.12 A very important perception in this period was that the Christian leadership was mostly in the hands of non-Dalit Christians who were uncommitted to the problems of their Dalit brothers and sisters. This awareness led to another important understanding that the leadership by the Dalits could be more effective to organise the people.

M. E. Prabhakar, one of the main proponents of Dalit theology, summarises several other factors which pushed forward the perceptions regarding Dalit theology particularly in the 1980s:13 According to him the factors are: i. The spate of group reconversions of Christian Dalits to Islam during the first half of the 1980s particularly in Tamil Nadu, as a protest against inequality and injustice in churches. ii. The much publicised and often much exaggerated mass reconversions of Christian Dalits to Hinduism, under socio-political influences. iii. The precarious situation of Christian Dalits, particularly the urban and rural poor, who adopt a dual identity, as Harijans and as Christians, in an attempt to meet their economic and religious needs. iv. The rising consciousness and increasing struggles of all Dalits, against dehumanisation and deprivation. v. The intensification of atrocities against Dalits, and also the increasing communal violence involving religious minorities. vi. The formation of commissions on caste-issues by Church Councils, at the national and /or synod levels, even if they are at the moment more symbolic than action-oriented. vii. The study-action programmes of the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society, under the rubric of caste-class studies, which reveal that, both in the dominant Christian and non-Christian traditions, there is a bias in favour of the privileged sections, and viii. The formation of the Christian Dalit Liberation Movement as an all-India forum for promoting Dalit struggles against casteism both within and outside the churches. As Prabhakar suggests, it is the Christian Dalit dilemma that has thrown up the need for a Dalit theology, but it is equally true that it is the concern for the total Dalits’ struggles, of which the Christian Dalit situations are an integral part, that is the rationale for Dalit theology.14

3. Emerging Dalit Theology among the Other Theological Trends in India

Today, the Dalits have become the authentic subjects of theology with their dreams and longings for an egalitarian, just and loving society. Therefore their history, their oppression, their struggles, their sacrifices and success should be deeply probed into in doing theology. Their songs, stories, rituals and festivals should become important resources for theology. Forgetting the “little traditions” of the Dalits and concentrating only on the sources of the “great tradition” or Brahminical tradition, the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, Epics etc., will not lead to an authentic, liberating Indian Christian Theology. Enchanted by the Brahminic tradition, the pioneers of Indian Christian theology, Catholic as well as Protestants, attempted to interpret the Christian message in Hindu philosophical categories.

3.1. The Obsession of Indian Christian Theology with “Brahminic Tradition”

One of the Dalit theologians, Arvind P. Nirmal appreciates the pioneering work in Indian Christian theology in the following words:

To speak in terms of the traditional Indian categories Indian Christian Theology, following the Brahminic tradition, has trodden the jnana marga, the bhakti marga and the karma marga. In Brahma Bandhav Upaddhyaya, we have a brilliant theologian who attempted a synthesis of Sankara’s advaita vedanta and Christian theology. In bishop A. J. Appasamy, we had a bhakti margi theologian who tried to synthesize Ramanuja’s Vishista Advaita with Christian theology. In M. M. Thomas we have a theologian who has contributed to theological anthropology at the international level and who laid the foundation for a more active theological involvement in India - the karma marga. In Chenchiah, we find an attempt to synthesize Christian theology with Sri Aurobindo’s “Integral Yoga.15 Nevertheless, Nirmal critically raises the question whether this kind of Indian Christian theology will ever have a mass appeal. In his words: Broadly speaking, Indian Christian theology in the past has tried to work out its theological systems in terms of either Advaita Vedanta or Vishista Advaita. Most of the contributions to Indian Christian Theology in the past came from the (upper) caste converts to Christianity. The result has been that Indian Christian Theology has perpetuated within itself what I prefer to call the “Brahminic” tradition. This tradition has further perpetuated intuition-interiority oriented approach to the theological task in India. One wonders whether this kind of Indian Christian theology will ever have a mass appeal.16

In Nirmal’s opinion, from the early days of India’s ecumenical involvement (involvement with other religions), it has concerned itself with the “problem” of other faiths. Out of this ecumenical involvement emerged the concern for dialogues with other faiths and this concern continues to be taken seriously. But this concern again has contributed to “Indian Christian theology’s obsession with the Brahminic tradition.”17 This obsession is based on the presupposition that Indian culture is the Brahminical Hindu culture and neglected the popular religion and culture. The Brahminical culture has been the dominant culture that marginalized the cultures of the Dalits and the Adivasis (indigenous peoples). Moreover, the intuition-interiority approach of this approach failed to pay attention to the unjust social, economical, political and patriarchal structures that oppress the vast majority of the lower castes and women. Besides, it had no time or inclination to reflect theologically on the sufferings and struggles of the Dalit converts who formed the vast majority of the Indian Church.

3.2. The Neglect of the Dalit Sufferings and Aspirations by Indian Liberation Theology

In the 1970s Indian theologians began to take the questions of socio-economic justice more seriously and the Indian theological scene thus changed considerably and there emerged “Third world theology.” The advocates of the Third world theology were held together by their allegiance to “Liberation Theology.” Its chief attraction was the liberation motif and it seemed entirely relevant in the Indian situation where the majority of the Indian people face the problem of poverty, but the liberation motifs in India are of a different nature since the Indian situation is different and we have to search for liberation motifs that are authentically Indian. The Latin American Liberation Theology, in its early stages at least, used Marxist analysis of socio-economic realities. However, the socio- economic realities in India however are so particular that a traditional doctrinaire Marxist analysis is inadequate to unearth them. It neglects the caste factor which adds to the complexity of Indian socio-economic realities.18

Moreover, the Indian advocates of the third world theology, in Nirmal’s view, also ignored the incidents of violence against Dalits in the seventies. For example, there were several caste struggles in Belchi, Bihar in 1977, in the urban areas of the Northern India (Agra) and in the South (Villupuram), in May, 1978 and in Kanjhawala, near the heart of the country’s capital New Delhi. All these places witnessed organised violence against the Dalits by caste Hindus. This real life context was overlooked by our Indian Third World theologians as they continued to engage in the Latin American Liberation rhetoric.19The Dalit Sahitya (literature) Movement and the Dalit Panther Movement were making headways in Maharashtra. But somehow our theologians failed to see in these Dalit movements and struggles a potential for theological reflection. Thus Nirmal points out that whether it is the traditional Indian Christian theology or the more recent third world theology, they failed to see in the struggle of Indian Dalits for liberation a subject matter appropriate for doing theology in India. One can wonder how the theologians could have neglected the problems of the Christian Dalits who form the vast majority of the Indian Church.20

3.3. Dalit Theology is a Counter Theology

The question of the distinctive identity of Dalit theology, according to Nirmal, is inseparably linked with the identity of the Dalit people. All people’s theologies are really theologies of identity seeking to express the distinctive identities of particular people who are denied their distinctive character. Examples are Dalit theology, Tribal theology, Black theology, African theology.21 In Nirmal’s view, Dalit theology will represent a radical discontinuity with the classical Indian Christian Theology of the Brahminic tradition and this Brahminic tradition will be challenged by the emerging Dalit theology. This also means that a Christian Dalit theology will be counter theology.22 For M. E. Prabhakar, it is a new theology because it is from below and uses Dalit peoples languages and expressions their stories and songs of sufferings and triumphs, popular wisdom including their values, proverbs, folk lore and myths and so on to interpret their history and culture and to articulate a faith to live by and to act on.23 Unlike the elitist theology, which as an academic discipline and an intellectual activity has little or no direct contact with realities experienced by people, Dalit theology is people’s self-affirmation of doing their theology from within their own situations, which they want to transform, with an alternative consciousness of economics of equality, politics of justice, and a religion of God’s freedom. It is the people’s challenge to the dominant consciousness that propagates economics of exploitation, politics of oppression and a religion that supports the unjust caste structure. Thus, “Dalit theology is an attempt towards an authentically Indian liberation theology”24

4. Dalit Theology: A Description

Dalit theologians describe Dalit theology in different ways. According to M. E. Prabhakar, Dalit theology is a particular people’s theology i.e. that of the Dalits, therefore a theology of the Dalits, by the Dalits and for the Dalits. In his opinion, it should emerge through the efforts to reinterpret God’s liberating presence in a society that consistently denies Dalits their humanity, socially ostracises them, economically exploits them and culturally subjugates them. It is doing theology in community - within the context of the sufferings and struggles of Dalits - through dialogue, critical reflection and committed action for building a new life order.25 In his opinion, Dalit theology is not only a prophetic theology calling for identification with the oppression of Dalits and their struggles for equality and justice, but also a political theology geared to social action in order to transform unjust, undemocratic and oppressive structures.26 In line with M. E. Prabhakar, William Madtha says that it is a theology of the riff-raff, the underside of history. Here the down-trodden become the historical locus Dei, i.e. God is encountered in the struggles for the rights of human beings through thick and thin.27 For bishop Azariah, theology, like Christ the Liberator, should play a liberative role that can induce and introduce into the soul of the Dalit person and the Dalit community, the word of hope from the God of the oppressed; indeed, any Dalit Theology will have to be a Theology of Liberation and a Theology of Hope.28

In Arvind P. Nirmal’s opinion, “Christian Dalit theology will be produced by Dalits. It will be based on their own Dalit experiences, their own sufferings, their own aspirations and their own hope. It will narrate the story of their pathos and their protest against the socio-economic injustices they have been subjugated to throughout history. It will anticipate liberation which is meaningful to them.” 29 Nirmal admits that his way of theologising is a Dalit perspective and he is open to other ways of theologising from the Dalit standpoint. However, all should take into consideration the particular experience of the Dalits (who are denied their essential humanity through untouchability) in their theologising.30

4.1. People and their Experiences as Centre of Theological Discussion

The Christian theological tradition, in Nirmal’s view, has professedly wedded itself to philosophy. It always regarded philosophy as the most adequate medium for communicating Christian theological truths. The classical Christian theology therefore, worked its way through Platonic, Aristotelian, Rationalistic, Evolutionary, Existentialist and Process philosophies. This is also true of the classical Indian Christian theology. Indian Christian theology sought to interpret itself through the various Indian philosophical systems such as Sankara’s Advaita, Ramanuja’s Vishista Advaita or Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga.31

With the emergence of liberation theologies, however, sociology has become an important discipline. This change in the stance of liberation theologies could be described as a movement from “propositions to peoples.” In Nirmal’s opinion, it involves a significant change in the character of theology itself. In the past we understood theological truths as a series of propositions which had to be logical, consistent, coherent and “systematic.” In liberation theologies, however, we move away from the propositional character of classical theologies and became more concerned with peoples and their life, with its absurdity, illogicality, inconsistency, incoherence and unsystematicness.32

For liberation theologies, including Dalit theology, social realities are more important than philosophical propositional consistencies. This change in the stance also implies a social and sociological critique of classical theologies. We now recognise that every intellectual discipline has a social base. Ideas do not have a “life of their own.” It is a fair question to ask of any theology: whose interests it serves, and why and how? Dalit theology serves the interests of Dalit people because they are an oppressed people. It does this by empowering them for their liberation struggle.33

In Nirmal’s view, in the classical theologies, not only was the theology considered as a series of propositions, but these propositions were also believed to be revealed truths. The movement of theology therefore, was from above: grounded in the vertical revelation. A change from philosophy to sociology means that we have moved away from propositions to people’s life experiences. Theological affirmations in Dalit theology are grounded in the experiences of the marginalised. The movement of Dalit theology and other liberation theologies is from below and they are more interested in horizontal relations than in a vertical type of revelation.34

4.2. Pathos Epistemology and Pathos as the Basis of Dalit Theology

Every theology has to deal with epistemological questions. Nirmal speaks about three different modes of knowing: pathetic knowing, the empathetic knowing and the sympathetic knowing.35 In a Dalit perspective of doing theology, all knowing, including knowing God, is characterised by pathos. At the heart of Dalit experience is pathos. It is only the first hand Dalit experience of their suffering that leads to what Nirmal calls, pathetic knowing, which exclusively belongs to the Dalits. Because they alone “live” Dalit existence. However, there are other oppressed people and people like Shudras who also experience suffering. Their suffering is not Dalit pathos, but is akin to it. They can therefore, empathise with the Dalit people. Their knowing is empathetic knowing. There are people who though not Dalits themselves are inclined to identify themselves with the cause of the Dalits - and help in the process of removing the Dalit suffering. If they really side with the Dalits, then their way of knowing can be called a sympathetic knowing. The first hand experience of Dalit pathos is not theirs, but they are capable of sympathising with the Dalits. For Nirmal, though Dalit theology can be attempted at different levels, authentic Dalit theology must arise out of Dalit pathos. Pathetic knowing is the prerogative of Dalits.36 How do we know God? Classical theologies answer that we know God through His self-revelation, or through faith-reason synthesis or through the Scripture. In all these answers, according to Nirmal, the priority of theory over practice and of thought over action is conceded.37 Liberation theologies in general have rejected such a priority and have affirmed the basic unity between theory and practice. Knowledge is therefore grounded in praxis. Theory flows from practice, thought from action. Dalit theology, in Nirmal’s view, because of its liberation motifs will not question this “praxiological” basis of human knowledge; nonetheless it would affirm that pathos is prior to praxis. Dalit theology wants to assert that at the heart of the Dalit people’s experience is pathos or suffering. This pathos or suffering or pain is prior to their involvement in any activist struggle for liberation. Nirmal claims that even before praxis as the basis for theory, the Dalits know God - in and through their suffering. Thus, for a Dalit theology “Pain or Pathos is the beginning of knowledge.” For the sufferer, in Nirmal’s opinion, more certain than any principle, more certain than any proposition, more certain than any thought and more certain than any action is his/her pain-pathos. Even before he/she thinks about pathos, even before he/she acts to remove or redress or overcome this pathos , pain-pathos is simply there. It is in and through this pain-pathos that the sufferer knows God. This is because the sufferer in and through his/her pain-pathos knows that God participates in human pain. This participation of God in human pain is characterizd by the New Testament as the passion of Jesus symbolised in his crucifixion.38

Thus the living of Dalit existence by the Dalits places them in a privileged position rather than others, to speak about God or to interpret the Christian message for themselves.

4.3. Methodological Exclusivism

For Nirmal, the implication of the above epistemological discussion is that Dalit theology must observe a “methodological exclusivism in relation to other theologies.” Such a methodological exclusivism, however, does not imply a community exclusivism. As a community, Dalits must be open to other marginalised communities. They must also be willing to receive help from all possible sources and promote community relationships. But he affirms that to produce a people’s theology, it is necessary that Dalit theology should remain “exclusive in character.” This exclusivism, must be stressed “because the tendency of all dominant tradition -cultural or theological - is to accommodate, include, assimilate and finally conquer others.”39 Hence, as a people’s theology it needs to be on its guard and needs to shut off the influences of the dominant theological traditions.

In Nirmal’s assessment, the primacy of the term “Dalit” will have to be conceded as against the primacy of the term “Christian” in the dominant theological primary meaning. One may ask, then what is Christian about Dalit theology? We can say that “it is the dalitness which is “Christian” about Dalit theology.”40Moreover the “Christian” for this theology is exclusively the “Dalit.” What this exclusivism implies is the affirmation that the Triune God - the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit - is on the side of the Dalits and struggles with them against the oppressors. Besides, it is the common Dalit experience of Christian Dalits along with the other Dalits that will shape a Christian Dalit theology.41

5. An Appraisal on Dalit Theology

Dalit theology has a very important significance at this crucial moment of Indian history. The underside of the Indian society, the Dalits and the Adivasis, are asserting themselves. They have set out to re-interpret their history, culture and religion. They produce their own literature known as Dalit literature that describes their predicament, the achievements of their leaders like Mahatma Jotiba Phule, Ambedkar and E.V.R. Periyar. The liberative ideas and praxis of their leaders influence the Dalit literature. At this juncture, along with other Dalits, Christian Dalits are beginning to speak about God, seek Him/Her within their struggles, reinterpret Christian faith from their perspective. There is no doubt that Dalit theology is a transforming grace of the Indian Church. Even though the Dalits have been the majority in the Indian Church they were non-persons. Now, these neglected people raise their voices and claim an active participation in the life of the Church and society. On theological level, they challenge the Indian Christian theology’s fixation on the Brahminical tradition which neglected the culture of the marginalised. They affirm that Dalit culture with its critical imagination and justice motifs is a rich source for Indian theology of liberation. Dalit theology pays the right attention to the Indian context. While affirming clearly the significance of Marxist analysis for the project of liberation, Dalit theologians involved in people’s experiences and struggles against Untouchability are also aware of its limitations. The Marxist tool of analysis is not able to explain fully the Indian situation with its unique features like caste, untouchability and Hindu religiosity, providing legitimisation to the traditional social organisation. The primary focus of Dalit theology is on the Dalit situation. Hence, the Dalit theologians insist that to adequately understand the socio-cultural reality of the Dalits, one needs to combine the Marxist analysis with the thoughts of Ambedkar and Jyotiba Phule, who combined both class and caste struggles.

Dalit theologians claim the right, justly, that Dalit theology be done by, for and with the Dalits based on their experiences, sufferings, aspirations and hopes. Among them, however, A. P. Nirmal speaks about “methodological exclusivism,” that is, Dalit theology is a counter-theology produced by the Dalits against the dominant theological and cultural tradition of India.42Here, he expresses his legitimate concern about a possible accommodation, assimilation, and neutralising appropriation by other dominant theologies. On the basis of his Pathos epistemology, one can agree with A. P. Nirmal on the hermeneutical privilege of the Dalits in developing an authentic Dalit theology. However, the Indian theologian M.Amaladoss criticises Nirmal’s exclusive claim that “the Triune God is on the side of the Dalits and not of the non-Dalits who are the oppressors.” For Amaladoss, the God of the Bible is a God of all, who opts “preferentially” but not “exclusively” for the poor. Moreover, in his opinion, Dalits will not be liberated if the whole caste system as a hierarchical ordering of society is not changed. Challenges to the system must come not only from the Dalits, but also from others who are in solidarity with them. Also, Amaladoss suggests that both the Dalit theology by the Dalits and the theological reflection of the non-Dalits on the caste system should be in dialogue. 43

In John C. B. Webster’s opinion, despite its continuities with the past, Dalit theology has been developed with little or no deliberate use of the earlier attempts (particularly among Protestants) to theologise about or for Dalits. In his opinion, Dalit theology must be built upon the older ones- theology about or for Dalits, developed before, especially in the 1920s and 1930s. Neglecting the past theology, in Webster’s view, reinforces a negative rather than a positive Dalit Christian self-understanding. Secondly, Dalit Christian theologians by ignoring past theology, unnecessarily cut themselves off from the Dalit Christian masses who have been nurtured on older theologies and if empirical studies are reliable, distrust the new theologies as “unchristian.”44One can agree with Webster that “there is much wisdom and insight buried in the past which may prove very useful for today’s theological task.”45Yet, Webster may be asked how far the Dalits were really subjects in creating their theology in the past. He himself has said that the Dalits in the past assimilated the evangelical theology and their response was a “passive response” but not a “creative response.”

Webster also speaks about a “great theological tradition” and “little theological traditions vis-à-vis the Dalit Christians. Great theological tradition is the theology of the well-educated leadership, most of whom have had considerable formal theological training and it is written in English. Little theological traditions are the theologies of the less well educated village pastors and catechists or of the semi-literate and illiterate majority of the Dalit Christian population. They are expressed in the various regional languages. Webster supports the agenda of the Dalit theologians of today to interact theologically with the little theological traditions of Dalit Christians, with other theological traditions within the Indian Church and with Dalits who do not share their Christian convictions.46

Timothy C. Tennent, professor of world religions in the United States, points out that the contemporary theological scene in India particularly Dalit theology has unnecessarily distanced itself from the Sanskritic theological tradition because of its long association with Brahminical ethnicity. He argues that within the Sanskritic tradition, there is also a historic theology of dissent as well as anti-Brahminical strands such as Buddhism, Advaita and Visistadvaita, facts which demonstrate that the Sanskritic language, tradition and theological forms are not the exclusive property of Brahminical ethnicity. Indeed, the ancient tradition may prove to be a valuable ally, not a formidable adversary in the current theological climate.47

Even though the dissent traditions were anti-Brahminic, they have not radically questioned the caste system and untouchability. However, Dalits want the annihilation of caste system and untouchability. Moreover, the Dalit culture with its own characteristics has been pushed to the margins by the dominant Sanskritic culture. At this historical moment of Dalit awakening and self-affirmation, they want to rediscover their culture and appreciate it. Hence Dalit culture with its liberative elements is more important than the dissent tradition. They are the better means to speak about God and interpret the Christian message.


Even though nearly seventy five percent of the Indian Church is made up of Dalits, they are pushed to the margins by the high caste leadership in the Church. On the theological level, on the one hand many of the Indian theologians, in their obsession with the Brahminic tradition, have produced Brahminical theology and neglected the Dalit aspirations and their valuable traditions; on the other hand a group of Indian liberation theologians analyse the Indian situation using class analysis that failed to pay enough attention to the socio-cultural factor of caste. To understand the problems of the Shudras, the women and the Dalits, a critical analysis of Caste system, Untouchability and their various manifestations in Indian society is conditio sine qua non. Besides, the Indian liberation theologians have not raised their voice enough against caste discrimination or atrocities against the Dalits within and outside the Church. While the irruption of the Dalits is gaining momentum within the Indian Church, the Dalit Christians have begun to demand their legitimate rights. At this historical moment the Church should welcome Dalit theology as a transforming grace for the Indian Church although, terrifyingly, grace may always be refused.48 Dalit theology is still in its nascent stage. Studies on Dalit cultures, religion, folk-lore are produced by Dalit and non-Dalit scholars. Moreover, the forgotten Dalit leaders such as Baba Saheb Ambedkar, Mahatma Phule, Ayothee Thass are remembered and the Dalit scholars disseminate their revolutionary ideas from their writings and speeches that are published posthumously. Dalit scholars have begun to do research on these writings. Much task is ahead of the Dalit theologians to integrate the valuable insights from these studies and the present struggles of the Dalits in their God-talk.

1felix wilfred, Beyond Settled Foundations :The Journey of Indian Theology (Madras: University of Madras, 1995) p. viii.

2 m. e. prabhakar, “The Search for a Dalit Theology,” in m. e. prabhakar, ed., Toward a Dalit Theology (Delhi: The Indian Society for Promoting Christians Knowledge, 1988) p. 40.

3 james massey, Roots: A Concise History of Dalits (Delhi: The Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1994, [1991]) p. 6.

4 james massey, “Christian Dalits: A Historical Perspective,” Journal of Dharma 16 (1991) pp. 44 -60, 44.

5 eleanor zelliot, From Untouchable to Dalit (New Delhi: Manohar Publication, 1992) p. 271.

6 james massey, Roots: A Concise History of Dalits, p. 6.

7 See “Dalit Panthers Manifesto,” in barbara r. joshi, ed., Untouchable, Voice of the Dalit Liberation Movement, (Delhi: Select Book Service Syndicate, 1986) pp. 141-147.

8 The “four-folded caste structure” of the Indian society includes: the Priestly (Brahmin), the Warrior (Kshatriyas), the Traders (Vaishya) and Serving caste (Shudras) which includes peasants and labourers.

9 a. l. basham, The Wonder that was India (Calcutta: Rupa & Co, 1991)146-147. Basham points out that some chandalas had other means of livelihood. He also notes that sometimes the untouchables were called the “fifth class” (panchama), but most authorities rejected this term, as if to insist that they were to be excluded from the four-fold graded social order altogether.

10 james massey, Roots: A Concise History of Dalits , p. 7.

11 antonyraj, “The Dalit Christian Reality in Tamilnadu,” Jeevadhara 22 (1992) 95-112, 96.

12christopher shelke, “Dalit Theology: Emergence and Emergency,” in Neue Zeitschrift für Missionwissenschaft 41 (1994) p. 263.

13m. e. prabhakar, “The Search for a Dalit Theology,” in james massey, ed., Indigenous People: Dalits, Dalit Issues in Today’s Theological Debate (Delhi: ISPCK) p. 202.

14m. e. prabhakar, “The Search for a Dalit Theology,” p. 202.

15arvind p. Nirmal, “Towards A Christian Dalit Theology,” in arvind p. nirmal, ed., A Reader in Dalit Theology (Madras: Gurukul, 1991) pp. 54 -55. Here he only refers to the Protestant theologians. There are also Catholic theologians who followed this trend. Fr. P. Johanns and the Calcutta School, Swami Parama Arubi Anandam, Swami Abhishiktananda, Swami Dayananda. For more details refer felix wilfred, Beyond Settled Foundations: The Journey of Indian Theology, pp. 37-61.

16arvind p. Nirmal, “Towards A Christian Dalit Theology,” pp. 54-55.

17arvind p. Nirmal, “Towards A Christian Dalit Theology,” p. 55.

18 saral k. chatterji, “Why Dalit Theology,” in arvind p. nirmal, ed., A Reader in Dalit Theology (Madras: Gurukul, 1991) pp. 24 - 26. Saral points out that “the idea and ideology of caste as well as its morphological aspects, the nature of oppression and the inherited inequalities perpetuated by it, and its persistence through the interaction of social, cultural religious and economic factors remained neglected in Marxian analysis.

19arvind p. Nirmal, “Towards A Christian Dalit Theology,” p. 56.

20Ibid., 57.

21arvind p. Nirmal, “Doing Theology from a Dalit Perspective,” in arvind p. nirmal, ed., A Reader in Dalit Theology (Madras: Gurukul, 1991) p.143.

22arvind p. Nirmal, “Towards A Christian Dalit Theology,” pp. 58-59.

23m. e. prabhakar, “The Search for a Dalit Theology,” p. 48.

24m. e. prabhakar, “The Search for a Dalit Theology,”p. 50

25 Ibid., pp. 47-48.


27william madtha, “Dalit Theology: Voice of the Oppressed,” Journal of Dharma 16 (1991) pp. 74-75.

28m. azariah, “Doing Theology in India Today,” in arvind p. nirmal, ed., A Reader in Dalit Theology (Madras: Gurukul, 1991) p. 92.

29arvind p. Nirmal, “Towards A Christian Dalit Theology,” pp. 58-59.

30arvind p. nirmal, “Doing Theology from a Dalit Perspective,” p. 139.

31Ibid., p. 140.


33arvind p. nirmal, “Doing Theology from a Dalit Perspective,” p. 140


35Ibid., 142.


37Ibid., p. 141.

38arvind p. nirmal, “Doing Theology from a Dalit Perspective,” p. 141. Nirmal refers to L. Boff who says: “Passion of Christ (is) the passion of the World.” Passion, therefore, is important for theological knowing. Theology is a “passionate discipline.”

39arvind p. Nirmal, “Towards A Christian Dalit Theology,” pp. 58-59.



42arvind p. nirmal, “Doing Theology from a Dalit Perspective,” pp.142-143.

43m. amaladoss, A Call to Community: The Caste System and Christian Responsibility (Ananad, Gujarat: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1994) pp. 100-101.

44john c. b. webster, The Dalit Christians: A History (Delhi: Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1994) pp. 242-243.

45Ibid., p. 243.

46Ibid., pp. 243-245.

47timothy c. tennent, “Ethnicity and the Sanskritic Tradition,” Vidyajothi Journal of Theological Reflection 61 (1997) p. 179.

48Elizabeth a. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1996) 8. Elizabeth quotes Anne Carr who says that the Church should welcome the women’s movement and feminist theology as a transforming grace for the whole Church. I have borrowed the phrase “transforming grace” from Anne Carr.


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