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.”  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.