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Wider Ecumenism as Prophetic Witness from a Dalit Perspective in Tamilnadu
Tuesday, Oct 30, 2018

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(A paper presented by Rev. J. Prem Samuel, a delegate represented the Church of South India in the Asian Ecumenical Institute organised by the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) on 15th July to 13th August 2018 in Chiang Mai, Thailand.) 

Wider Ecumenism as Prophetic Witness From a Dalit Perspective

During my childhood, we were taught about the story of “a Lion and three Bulls”.  In the story, the Bulls were able to conquer the Lion just because of the unity that they had. The unity was inculcated in our minds even in our very days of beginning. We were taught to accept and appreciate the differences that were amongst us and yet remain one. “Unity in Diversity” is the need of the hour. Since Dalit theology deals with the embracing of Dalit culture and denouncing Hindu culture I would deal first with the cultural aspects.

Culture and Religions in Asian Context

“Humanity will collapse if we do not gather all the fragments of the scattered cultures and religions”. – Raimundo Panikkar

It is a pluralistic world. We can sing about the reality of pluralism. There is a variety of people and cultures. People are identified with race, religion, and nation. Cultures are distinguished by time periods and places in the world. Pluralism is unavoidable. This is a rainbow society. By doing theology in such a pluralistic world one has to be mindful of all these factors that contribute towards making of a habitat. Among them, culture seems to be the basic factor that seems to be a driving force. We need to understand that, “religion is a part of the culture, and no religious belief is without implications for culture”[1].

But many a time we indulge in what we call as ethnocentricism. It is the attitude of regarding one’s culture as the right one, exclusively. “Our culture becomes normative for all others. We look at other cultures as uncivilized or in the earlier stages of development. They need to be improved and catch up with our culture. In a way, we as creatures of our culture take a natural pride in it. When we come into contact with people of other cultures, then the comparison with them begins. Initially, it is always safer to stay with the familiar and to reject the foreign intruder to our culture”[2]. It often results in cultural chauvinism, xenophobia and even to the extent of cultural imperialism. The important aspect of culture is language. Roman Catholicism had been of the opinion that the Bible should be read only in Latin. But reformation had brought about translations and thus we have our very own Bible in our language. Pentecost is our biblical assurance that God accepts plurality in language and thus cultures. Religion or Gospel had taken over culture in certain instances like cannibalism, sati, the death penalty for petty offences, slavery, etc.,

Cultural Assimilation
Another attack is on cultural assimilation. This is also an exclusive approach. Each culture may be different from one another but each is meaningful and good for each group of people. So we need not interact but live in co-existence with different cultures. It should be a participation in a common quest for fuller human existence. This inter-relationship of cultures will evolve to the enrichment of our culture[3]. We also need to have in mind that Christianity is seen as a Western or European religion steeped in that continent’s culture. Christianity has spread to many parts of the world, but now it’s becoming post-western religion dominated by the peoples, cultures, and countries of the global south.[4]

Decolonizing Religion and Culture
Similarly, though the western countries in the past have failed to understand pluralism, presently they are trying to understand the necessity of plurality among the people. Today, when most western countries face an influx of migrants, the new migrants bring with them their own religious traditions and they organize their own religious communities. They establish themselves in a foreign land and remain there as a separate entity.[5] In such a context wider ecumenism is the need of the hour not only for Asians but for the entire world. It is to be noted as to what Raimundo Panikkar says, “Religions can no longer live in isolation, let alone in animosity and war”. Hans Kung, a prominent Catholic theologian who has written extensively on religion says, “There is no peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundation of the religions”.[6] Hence the knowledge of the roots becomes mandatory. Most of the Asian countries were colonized by the Westerners. In that sense, too Asian culture has to be decolonized. We need to be more sensitive in preserving the crux of one’s own culture.

Mutual Co-existence of Religions in Culture
Aloysius Pieris says that “each religious tradition is a singular phenomenon and is in a way a judgment passed on every other religion and is therefore in their nature to provoke comparison and mutual criticism, confrontation, and reciprocal correction”[7]. But the correction rather than being mutual and local, it has been Western and has been called as the “Philosophy of Religion”. The West has always tried to understand other religions through the western religious experience. Dr. Wesley Ariarajah says, “Religions can be superstitious, they have been oppressive, and continue to have oppressive structures that marginalize and subjugate sections of the community; they have the tendency to take sides with the powerful; they have been patriarchal in character and have denied a meaningful role for women in their structures. But some positive dimensions of theology are that it has brought wholeness into people’s life; the sense of purpose for life that many find within its walls; the selfless service that it has inspired; the way it has drawn peoples lose to the Ultimate, and the saints and sages that have emerged from its womb”[8]. Hence one has to take positives out of Asian theological enterprise and must try to put them into practice in creating a meaningful united world.

What we need in a pluralistic context like Asia and my own context like India would be a healthy dialogue. As Pra Maha Boonchuay Doojai rightly pointed out that, “Love” can be the centre of religious pluralism. As Asia is growing fast in population and even is a threat to America in terms of productivity and human power, we are beginning to become intolerant towards many things. Even as the world is fast becoming a global village in terms of modernization, globalization and centralization we fail to recognize the other. There is a huge communication web between us and thanks to digitalization. Due to this, people are becoming more and more individualistic. The web that has been spun to unite, has itself become a dividing factor. It is time that we add more value to people than to the gadgets.  

Reignocentric Approach
This has been proposed by Bishop Dr. Daniel Thiagarajah. It is very convenient and also meaningful to come together for a cause. Justice, Peace, Human Dignity and Harmony are what every human being long for. So here we come to our contextual way of doing dialogue in my own Tamilnadu context.

Dalit Experience or Dalitness
To make us understand the Dalit culture I will give an example from the poems. Being a Dalit is itself marginalized and being a Dalit woman is being doubly marginalized.

                            … compromise is her yardstick

                                 In her writings, her thoughts.

                                 Embrace all views, never say that which hurts.

                                 After all she is a woman!

But after all, for how long?

                              A heart stoned by experience

                              Will spit fire when struck!

                              That spreads everywhere

                              The smoking smouldering fire!

                              From under the Earth, it will erupt, like a Volcano…[9]

Dalit Culture
Dalit is not a caste. Dalit is a symbol of change and revolution. The Dalit believes in humanism. He rejects the existence of God, rebirth, soul, sacred books that teach discrimination, fate and heaven because these have made him a slave. He represents the exploited man in his country.[10] Hence Dalit culture rejects everything that denies human dignity and especially Brahmanical Hinduism. Dalits live together. They have a common meal with common boiling pot. They cooked beef which served as the food for the entire community. But the present BJP government denies them of their cultural practices. So the way the Dalits give the counter to the so-called higher caste people is through retaliation. Jesus in a way accepted and showed Righteous Anger.

Hindu Nationalism or Culture
We have seen clearly that how religion and culture are decisive elements in any given context. But in a state like Tamilnadu where culture is being politicized and used as a tool for oppression, we need to liberate culture from the ideology named as “Hindu Nationalism” or Hindutva. The intrinsic purpose of this obnoxious nationalism is to make India Hindu in a primordial way.[11] The Hindu nationalism to state simply and clearly is about one nation(Ram Rajya), one culture(Hindu culture) and one language(Sanskrit). This idea came from Manu Dharma Sastra. It states that Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra are the four classifications of the caste system. The Dalits are the outcast. They were also called as Panchamas (the 5th caste). The Brahmanas are the priestly community who owns the Sanskrit language. The Kshatriyas are rulers. The Vaishyas are traders and the Shudras are lower caste people who do menial jobs.

The Dalits are destined to do manual scavenging. “Dalits were called as Rakshasas, Pisasas, Ashuras. These kinds of names were used in the Vedic texts for denoting Dalits. Their religion is also taken away from them and a new religion Hinduism was imposed on them”[12]. So Dalitism poses a counter to the established classical, traditional, religious value. Dalitism pleads for the survival of the weakest. Dalitism accepts plurality. We may be small, but “we” matter.  Dalitism can also concentrate on morality in ethics through dharma. Not necessarily Hindu, Islamic, Buddha dharma but of Righteousness. It is secular and is against religious fundamentalism or Hindutva.[13]

Periyar’s Views on Religion
Periyar can be called as the father of enlightenment in Tamilnadu. Though he does not believe in God, he loved people. He hated superstitious beliefs and religious practices. He was of the view that, all the inequalities and oppression found in the society were brought by religion (i.e) Brahmanic Hinduism. For him society (i.e) human life is the starting point. He thought that in order to create a just and egalitarian society, religions should be reviewed from the perspective of human life. Therefore any religion or religious practice that hinders human life should be thrown away. His idea was secular humanism which has self-respect with individual freedom and dignity.[14] Periyar vehemently opposed Hindutva because he chose humans over rituals. Without answering to the cries of our neighbour for justice and equality we cannot do wider ecumenism.

Dalit Theology
Arvind P. Nirmal was the one who proposed Dalit Theology. The Sanskrit word “Dal” means broken, wounded, torn asunder, crushed, impoverished and made dry and thin.[15] The Dalits are being called as “untouchables”. Though it is being abolished by the law, through the great work of Dr. Ambedkar, caste still prevails. Dalit Christology presents the Jesus of Nazareth as a Dalit. This might be surprising for us. But the sufferings of the Dalits can be easily equated with the sufferings of Christ himself. The way he hung on the Cross denotes the same broken, wounded, left alone, torn asunder Dalitness. So with this introduction to Dalit Theology let us try to unearth wider ecumenism from the Dalit perspective.

Mass Conversion
Mass conversion movements are not just a change of religion but also a slap in the face of the oppressors as they assume a distinctly political dimension. They, thus have the character of being both “political as well as protesting”. It is a protest, a social protest.[16] Though there has been a thought that many Dalits converted into Buddhism, in Tamilnadu that too in my Trichy-Tanjore Diocese there were many converts from Dharapuram and Nagapattinam. Azhagan became Abraham. He was a Dalit who embraced Christianity. They were named as “Rice Christians”. But they stood firm in their faith.

In Karur, a missionary named Henry Little came during a severe famine. He and his wife dedicated their life for the Dalits and they started a Children home. They gave skill-based training in 1877. The Dalits who were snake catchers etc., learnt carpentry. The chairs made by them are still being used in the Tamilnadu Legislative Assembly. So what Dalits needed was the new way of life, which the Christianity promised in our Diocese. The membership increased and so is the standard of living of the Dalits.

Though wider ecumenism deals with people of other faith, I concentrated on my context which demands to come together for a common cause. In Nazareth Manifesto in   Luke 4 Jesus speaks about setting the captive free and about announcing the Jubilee Year or the year of freedom. It is in the realization of quality life to the Dalits that wider ecumenism should concentrate upon. A prophet is one who is daring enough to speak the truth amidst uncertainty or life threats. Thus by standing for the cause of upliftment of standard of living for the Dalits or in solidarity with them in ensuring their human dignity I will try and continue to be a prophetic witness.


[1] Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society. WCC: Michigan, 1989. P.184.

[2] Ibid. p. 21.

[3] Ibid. p. 22.

[4] George, Matthews Chunnakara. Ecumenism in Asia. Christava Sahitya Samithi: Tiruvalla, 2014. P. 79.

[5] Ibid. p. 81.

[6] Ibid. p.82.

[7] Aloysius Pieris, “Western Christianity and Asian: A Theological reading of Historical Encounters,” Dialogue, New Series VII 2, 1980, p.49.

[8] Ariarajah, Wesley. Asian Christian Theological Task in the Midst of other Religious Traditions. Edited by: Daniel S. Thiagarajah and A. Wati Longchar (Visioning New Life Together Among Asian Religions). CCA: Hong Kong, 2002.p. 10,11.

[9] Takbhoware, Susheela. The Silent Volcano. Ed. Vimal Thorat. NFDW: New Delhi, 2002. P.18.

[10] Pantawane, Dr. Gangadhar: ‘Evolving a New Identity: The Development of Dalit Culture’, in Untouchable! Voice of the Liberation Movement, edited by Barbara Joshi, New Delhi, 1986, p.79

[11] Roberson S. “Politics and Religion in India: An Analysis”. The Asia Journal of Theology. Vol.23, No.2, Oct 2009. P.236

[12] Nirmal,   P. “Fundamentalism and Dalit Concerns”. Religious Fundamentalism: An Asian Perspective. Ed. Augustine S. John. SATHRI, 1993. P.93.

[13] Ibid. p. 96.

[14] Robertson S. “Approaching Religion in a Pluralistic Context”. The Asian Journal of Theology. P.323-324

[15] Nirmal Arvind P. Towards A Common Dalit Ideology. Gurukul Lutheran Theological College: Madras, 1989.p. 54.

[16] Ibid. p. 94.

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