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Dalits and Religion (2/2)

Panel Chair: Martin Fuchs | Friday, August 28, 3:30-5:30 p.m. | Venue

What is it that Dalits seek in religion? How do they understand religion? How do the problems of conceptualizing “religion” reflect in the ways the relations and problems of Dalits with the field thus categorized are being understood? (“Dalit”, originally a modern self-designation, is here to cover the historically discriminated people earlier termed “Untouchables”). The panel wants to discuss the different ways in which members of marginalized groups, whose authority in these (as well as in other) matters has traditionally been questioned or overlooked, structure religious discourses and define their religious practices. The category Dalit in actual fact covers a wide range of discriminated, but differently positioned groups of people. The relation between (religious) ideas-practices and social groups cannot be reduced to questions of identity, but has to be conceived as interactive. The panel will focus both on the ways religious practices and ideas are being articulated and appropriated by different actors as well as on the ways new and uncommon religious experiences and imaginaries are being formulated and expressed (this includes non-verbal modes of expression). Cases addressed in this panel may comprise religious movements and self-constituted denominations of Dalits, the engagement of Dalits with bhakti, the changing relations of Dalits with institutionalized Hindu religion(s), Dalit engagement with Christian and Islamic denominations, as the presentations may also encompass the local religious traditions of Dalits.

M.T. Joseph

'Engaged Buddhism' of Dalits in Maharashtra: Plurality of Perspectives and Practices

Navayana Buddhism of the dalits of Maharashtra embodies a modern interpretation of Buddhism. Along with Siddartha Gautama (The Buddha), the interpreter (Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar) is accorded supreme sentiments of veneration by the Navayana Buddhists. This paper is based on observations carried out by the author and is an attempt to look at the multiplicity of ways in which dalits belonging to different strata and ideologies approach Buddhism. Scholars who have studied dalit religiosity generally characterise it as systems of thought and practice that privilege immanence over transcendence, the ethical dimensions over metaphysical ones, and instrumentality over abstraction. The acts of interpretation have been analysed as interventions in fashioning religion to political and social philosophy for the purspose forging ideologies of emancipation. However, a closer look at the theory and practice of Navayana Buddhism would present a complex picture. Atheistic rationalism and related standpoints that read modernity in tradition exists side by side a growing practice of 'devotionalism'. The notion of the monk as social worker enshrined in Dr. Ambedkar's thoughts is supplanted in some contexts by bhanteji (monk) with ritualistic and devotional overtones. Very broadly one could also observe differences of class and gender habitus flowing into the variations in the way a Navayana Buddhist would approach and understand his/her religious thought and practice. This paper seeks to demonstrate how the ideas and practices relating of Navayana Buddhism in the field is a mixture of many streams, coming from different standpoints and historical antecedents. If this diversity is to be studied in its own terms, it is imperative for the academicians to move beyond the familiar terrain of binaries and polemics. This paper is an attempt in that direction. At the same time it also attempts to pin point certain common denominators that bind these multiplicity of ideas and practices into certain identities.

Saurabh Dube

Religiosity and Iconography in a Dalit Art

This paper shall explore issues of religiosity and iconography in the work of Savindra (“Savi”) Sarkar, an important, contemporary expressionist and dalit artist. Savi is a Mahar, a neo-Budhist from Nagpur, who lives and works in Delhi now. Central to his iconography and imagination are very particular representations of religiosity and hierarchy, history and the here-and-now. The sources are overlapping and distinct, poignant and varied. Moving recitals of untouchable pasts by Savi’s unlettered paternal grandmother. Liturgical lists drawn up within the political movement led by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar concerning the disabilities faced by untouchables, especially under Brahman kingship in western India in the eighteenth century. Haunting lore of dalit communities deriving from different regions of India. Passionate parables regarding the life and times of Dr. Ambedkar and of other (major and minor) dalit protagonists. Telling tales of Buddhist reason. Sensorial stories from dalit literature. And Savi’s own experiences as an artist, an activist, and a dalit in distinct locales, from statist spaces in New Delhi, to remote places of gender and caste oppression in rural and semi-urban India. My paper would explore how Savi seizes upon these discursive and experiential resources, of faith and reason, sieving them through the force of an expressionist art, in order to construe thereby icons and imaginings, a religiosity and an ethic that are contestatory yet complex, strong yet sensitive.

Heinz Werner Wessler

Dalit criticism of Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism

While the Mahar community in Maharashtra followed Ambedkar in his conversion to Buddhism in October 1956 to quite some extent, and while Buddhist conversion campaigns among marginalized groups in Indian society are a continuing feature of Dalit consciousness movements since then, certain groups within the Dalit community resist the call to Buddhism as part of the Dalit awareness movement. One of the prominent voices among these Dalit critics of Ambedkar are MC Raj, who has identified bhūśakti (“the power of the earth”) as the most prominent feature of Dalit religiosity, and Dharmvīr. “There always were enemies of the Dalits in this country – in the old days Brahmans and Buddhists, in the middle age Hindus and Moslems and in the present age Hindus and British” (Dharmvīr, Kabīr aur Rāmānaṃd : kiṃvadaṃtiyāṃ. Nayī dillī 2000. Kabīr naī sadī meṃ ; 2, p.134). After a phase of a rigorous re-reading of Sant religiosity in an effort in reclaiming Kabīr and the nirguṇ bhakti tradition, Dharmvīr turned toward an effort to revive the Ājīvaka religion, the third prominent heterodox tradition besides Buddhism and Jainism in Indian antiquity. It died out early, and only few original inscriptions and quotations have survived. A.L. Basham and other researchers have tried to reconstruct the structure of its text corpus and belief system from these few sources and from Buddhist polemics. One of the arguments used by Dharmvīr and his followers on their return to the Ājīvaka religion is the belief that its founder, Makkalī Gosālā, appears to have belonged to the Kumbhakāra, i.e. potter caste, and therefore by modern standards a representative of a marginalized group.

Sanal Mohan

Social and Religious Experience of Dalit Christians in Kerala: A Historical Analysis

The proposed paper will address the history of Dalit Christians in Kerala from the mid nineteenth century onwards. The paper will commence with an analysis of the social relations in the traditional caste society in Kerala and the power relations that sustained them. The pre-colonial social conditions are discussed in order to provide an essential background of the Dalit communities that joined the missionary Churches in a later period. In this paper I will look into the activities of both protestant and Catholic missions and their interface with Dalits. The paper will emphasize the significance of new religious ideas among Dalits in the course of their interaction with Christianity in addition to the social and economic changes taking place in that period. I wish to proceed with empirical case studies of missions and the setting up of new congregations by the missionaries. This is important to provide a historical appreciation of the subsequent changes that Christianity brought about in the life of Dalits. It will also enable us to focus on micro narratives that are crucial in understanding the perceptions of the people who joined missions. In other words, our focus is on the changes that the ‘converts’ have undergone as a result of their interactions with Christian missions. Until now historians of missions have been concerned more with the socio-economic changes that the missions have brought about in the life of Dalits and ‘converts’. Quite often they seem to thrust aside the inner transformation of the people and their communities. The narratives that we deal with help us to locate people in their social world with all its complexities; they help us to have a critical history of Dalit Christians in Kerala that have not been attempted so far. Alongside this I wish to engage with the debates in the field of the Anthropology of Christianity that has taken a decisive turn in the last decade in the western academia. So far the relationship between Dalits and Christianity in India has been outside such debates. This will open up new research questions especially related to the question of consciousness.


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