Skip to main content

Dalits and Religion

Book Review

 Can we really separate the spiritual from the temporal?  Can religion make sense as an entity independent of the believer’s socio-political and economic status?  Jose Maliekal’s book, Standstill Utopias? Dalits Encountering Christianity is an academic exploration into that question with particular reference to the Madiga people in Andhra Pradesh.  The book is an adaptation of the author’s doctrinal thesis and hence is academic in style – which means it contains a lot of academic jargon.

If the reader is ready to endure words like hermeneutics, essentialization and epistemological, the book can throw a very rewarding light on what religion really means to the downtrodden and how religions need to adapt themselves in order to become really meaningful for such people.

The author carried out a protracted research among the Catholic Madigas of Konaseema in the Godavari Delta of Andhra Pradesh.  The result is a transdisciplinary study which combines anthropology, sociology, political economy, philosophy and religious studies.  The Madigas are traditionally leather workers.  Now most of them are migrant labourers uprooted from their soil, caste profession, and social identity.

The first two chapters build up the theoretical framework of the research.  The next two chapters trace the traditional Madiga religion, moving gradually towards the social and economic links which the Madiga rituals essentially have.  The last two chapters look at the role played by the Catholic Church in the lives of the Madigas.

The author, in spite of being a Catholic priest, is academically objective in his study and presentation of the findings.  He does not hesitate to point a finger at certain missionaries who maintain a high-handed approach in their dealings with the Madiga people.  There are Catholic missionaries, for example, who consider themselves superior to the untouchable Madigas because of their claimed Brahminical lineage.  More often than not, “The missionary views the help extended in its instrumental nature, by way of either a reward for the progress shown (by the converted Dalits) in faith, or as an entry point for speaking about the spiritual matters like the gospel message, Jesus Christ and salvation.” [Page 203] The author continues to point out that even when the Dalits are taken into the organizational structure of the Church, there is discrimination.  The people opt for religious conversion in the hope “that it would be a means of identity assertion and autonomy.”  But this aspiration is not often fulfilled.

The last chapter is particularly striking given that it is coming from a Catholic priest. The author seeks to combine spirit and matter and redefines salvation as well-being. “The major religions should realize,” suggests the author, “that if they are to be credible to the marginalized, their discourse of salvation should have a concrete historical content … (and) turn their attention to the cause of the emancipation of the marginalized, in promoting life in all its richness and dimensions. [281-282, emphasis added]  The author asserts that religion, to be meaningful, should be “a flesh and blood affair, involved in the concrete lives of the people.” [288] Moreover, he also suggests that the people should not be divorced from their traditional religious symbols while being converted into a new religion.

In spite of its heavily academic nature, the book is worth reading especially if you are interested in the role that religion should play in the real, practical lives of people.


  1. Caste wise church is an evident phenomena in Telugu states.Privileged castes like Reddys and Kammas are with Catholic churches.Mostly in high positions.Now,Madigas keep coming out with great rage.Once they were ashamed of uttering their own caste,are now suffixing it with pride,I have seen it all with astonishment.What a paradigm shift..!

    1. I'm not familiar with the situation in Andhra but I can understand what you say because the Catholic Church has always played power politics right from the time of Emperor Constantine. Too many centuries, and yet the Church has not learnt the required lessons and it won't. Religions are power games.

      But I'm happy that the downtrodden Madigas are able to display some pride today. That must mean something to them, I hope.

  2. The book sounds interesting. Somehow I always believed that when we say Dalit we mean the other, so the missionaries all work there, be it the Saffron Brigade, the christian or the Maoist, interestingly the Islamic and Buddhist guys don't venture into that space.

    1. But conversions to Buddhism too take place occasionally. Even recently more than 300 Dalits embraced Buddhism in Gujarat. I don't know, however, whether there are Buddhist missionaries at work. Islam too converts though in more subtle ways.

      Poverty is the real villain. The book under review mentions it too. Those with sound economic background seldom change their religion. Missionaries, irrespective of religion, feed on poverty.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

An Aberration of Kali Yuga

Are we Indians now living in an aberrant period of history? A period that is far worse than the puranic Kali Yuga? A period in which gods decide to run away in fear of men? That’s a very provocative question, isn’t it, especially in a time when people are being arrested for raising much more innocuous questions than that? But I raise my hands in surrender because I’m not raising this question; the Malayalam movie that Maggie and I watched is. Before I go to the provocations of the movie, I am compelled to clarify a spelling problem with the title of the movie. The title is Bhramayugam [ ഭ്രമയുഗം] in Malayalam. But the movie’s records and ads write it as Bramayugam [ ബ്രമയുഗം ] which would mean the yuga of Brama. Since Brama doesn’t mean anything in Malayalam, people like me will be tempted to understand it as the yuga of Brahma . In fact, that is how I understood it until Maggie corrected me before we set off to watch the movie by drawing my attention to the Malayalam spelling

Karma in Gita

I bought a copy of annotated Bhagavad Gita a few months back with the intention of understanding the scripture better since I’m living in a country that has become a Hindu theocracy in all but the Constitution. After reading the first part [chapters 1 to 6] which is about Karma, I gave up. Shelving a book [literally and metaphorically] is not entirely strange to me. If a book fails to appeal to me after a reasonable number of pages, I abandon it. The Gita failed to make sense to me just like any other scripture. That’s not surprising since I’m not a religious kind of a person. I go by reason. I accept poetry which is not quite rational. Art is meaningful for me though I can’t detect any logic in it. Even mysticism is acceptable. But the kind of stuff that Krishna was telling Arjuna didn’t make any sense at all. To me. Just a sample. When Arjuna says he doesn’t want to fight the war because he can’t kill his own kith and kin, Krishna’s answer is: Fight. If you are killed, you win he

Kabir the Guru - 1

Kabirvad Kabirvad is a banyan tree in Gujarat. It is named after Kabir, the mystic poet and saint of the 15 th century. There is a legend behind the tree. Two brothers are in search of a guru. They have an intuitive feeling that the guru will appear when they are ready for it. They plant a dry banyan root at a central spot in their courtyard. Whenever a sadhu passes by, they wash his feet at this particular spot. Their conviction is that the root will sprout into a sapling when their guru appears. Years pass and there’s no sign of any sapling. No less than four decades later, the sapling rises. The man who had come the previous day was a beggarly figure whom the brothers didn’t treat particularly well though they gave him some water to drink out of courtesy. But the sapling rose, after 40 years! So the brothers went in search of that beggarly figure. Kabir, the great 15 th century mystic poet, had been their guest. The legend says that the brothers became Kabir’s disciples. The b

Raising Stars

Bringing up children is both an art and a science. The parents must have certain skills as well as qualities and value systems if the children are to grow up into good human beings. How do the Bollywood stars bring up their children? That is an interesting subject which probably no one studied seriously until Rashmi Uchil did. The result of her study is the book titled Raising Stars: The challenges and joys of being a Bollywood parent . The book brings us the examples of no less than 26 Bollywood personalities on how they brought up their children in spite of their hectic schedules and other demands of the profession. In each chapter, the author highlights one particular virtue or skill or quality from each of these stars to teach us about the importance of that aspect in bringing up children. Managing anger, for example, is the topic of the first chapter where Mahima Chowdhary is our example. We move on to gender equality, confidence, discipline, etc, and end with spirituality whi

Kabir the Guru – 2

Read Part 1 of thi s here . K abir lived in the 15 th century. But his poems and songs are still valued. Being illiterate, he didn’t write them. They were passed on orally until they were collected by certain enthusiasts into books. Vipul Rikhi’s book, Drunk on Love: The Life, Vision and Songs of Kabir , not only brings the songs and poems together in one volume but also seeks to impart the very spirit of Kabir to the reader. Kabir is not just a name, the book informs us somewhere in the beginning. Kabir is a tradition. He is a legend, a philosophy, poetry and music. I would add that Kabir was a mystic. Most of his songs have something to do with spirituality. They strive to convey the deep meaning of reality. They also question the ordinary person’s practice of religion. They criticise the religious leaders such as pandits and mullahs. Though a Muslim, Kabir was immensely taken up by Ram, the Hindu god, for reasons known only to him perhaps. Most of the songs are about the gr