Dalit Theology

Dalit Theology emerged among the Dalit caste in the Indian subcontinent in the 1980s. It shares various themes from Latin American liberation theology, including identifying themselves as a people undergoing Exodus. This theology sees hope in Luke 4:18-19: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Dalits constitute 20 percent of the Indian population (200 million). They were considered untouchables. They were not included in the fourfold varna categories. At the top were the Brahmins who considered themselves as the most pure. On the other end, outcasts (or Dalits) were considered extremely polluted. They were assigned occupations such as removing dead animals, scavenging and cleaning the village. They were also landless agricultural laborers and tanners. They were prohibited from using village water tanks and public roads. They could not enter the Hindu temples.

Bhakti movements within Hinduism between 14th and 16th centuries symbolized low caste aspiration for an egalitarian society and religion. These movements stood for transformation of Hindu society and pushed for the basic ideology that all persons were equal before God. However the Dominant caste transformed it into a reform movement within Hinduism. The British Colonial System dealt a severe blow to the growth of the Bhakti movement by destroying the “Jagmani” system. Beginning from the second half of the 19th century, Dalits used mass conversion to non-Hindu religions as their most prominent means of protest. Their primary motivation to convert to Christianity was to gain an improved social status,  A greater sense of personal dignity and self-respect and freedom from bondage to oppressive land owners. After India’s independence, Dalits sought new avenues of liberation. The most prominent movements are the Dalit Panther Movement in Maharashtra and the more recent Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh in North India. The most notable figure of the Dalit samaj is the author of our Indian Constitution, Dr. B. R.  Ambedkar.

70% of Indian Christians are from Dalit background. Still, until recently, they were marginalised and ignored even in the Church. Dalit Theology arose to uplift such Christians in the church and society. However, it was not so for them in the Indian subcontinent Christians’ history.

The Thomas (Syrian churches), which are the earliest churches in India and believed to be started by apostle Thomas, were segregated by caste. As per their tradition, the Christian community established by the apostle had 6,850 Brahmins, 2,800 Kshatriyas, 3,750 Vashiyas, and 4,250 Shudhras. The Dalits or Adivasis are not even mentioned in this list. In 1888, The Mar Thoma church (a branch of Thomas tradition) established an evangelistic association aimed at reaching out to the lower caste persons. The converts were reluctant to join the established congregations.

Catholicism was introduced in India through the arrival of Vasco de Gama in 1498. Today, Catholics are the largest Christian group in India. In the early 16th century, Jesuit missionaries reached out to both the upper caste people and the lower caste people. A fishing community, Paravars, converted to Christianity through the Portuguese. Soon, through them other Dalit subcastes also converted. The largest of these groups was Mukkavars, another fishing community. These fishing clans maintained their social and religious elements of their pre-Christian life. Caste was often maintained as a means of group conversion.

Protestantism came to India in the 18th century. Western Protestant missionaries both perpetuated and resisted the caste system. Their most important base was Thanjore. An Indian evangelist, Rajanaiken, who was from Dalit background, persuaded the king to permit European mission staff. However, when the time came for ordaining a leader, Rajanaiken was bypassed for an upper caste Indian Christian. Despite this rejection, Rajanaiken continued his evangelistic ministry. Through his ministry he prepared leaders who would later advocate for social reforms.

In the early 20th century, Pentecostalism emerged in India. In 1906, Mukti Mission in Ketgaon, Maharashtra (founder Pandita Ramabai) experienced an outpouring of the Holy spirit in its prayer meetings. Kerala became a prominent base for the Pentecostal movement. By 1920, 4 pentecostal Churches were established in Kerala. Most converts to Pentecostalism were from Dalit background. However they decided to not join the Pentecostal Church because it was quickly dominated by Thomas christians who migrated into the movement.

Arvind P. Nirmal was a major proponent of Dalit Theology in the 1980s. He was a Dalit Christian in the Church of North India. He criticised Brahminic dominance of Christian Theology in India. He also criticised The Marxist element within South American liberation Theology. He drew on the concept of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 to identify Jesus as a Dalit – “a waiter, a dhobi and bhangi.” Evelyn Ruth Bhajan brought Dalit Theology in the Church of Pakistan. She stated that this liberation theology includes liberation from persecution, segregation, and economic depression. M. E. Prabhakar said that the God of the Dalits does not create others to do servile work. But he himself does the servile work. Prabhakar developed a Dalit creed that Jesus came to do the servile work of living with us and saving all people from their sins. Vadanayagam Devasahayam of the Church of South India followed Arvind P. Nirmal as the head of Dalit Theology at Gurukul Lutheran Theological College. He further developed Nirmal’s ideas and wrote a number of books. He later became bishop of Church of South India’s Madras diocese.



Dalit Theology – Wikipedia

The Emerging Dalit Theology: A Historical Appraisal – Religion Online

Religions | Free Full-Text | Dalit Theology and Indian Christian History in Dialogue: Constructive and Practical Possibilities | HTML (mdpi.com)

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