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The Saint in the Banyan Tree: Christianity and Caste Society in India

David Mosse
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Pages: 408
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  • Book Info
    The Saint in the Banyan Tree
    Book Description:

    The Saint in the Banyan Treeis a nuanced and historically persuasive exploration of Christianity's remarkable trajectory as a social and cultural force in southern India. Starting in the seventeenth century, when the religion was integrated into Tamil institutions of caste and popular religiosity, this study moves into the twentieth century, when Christianity became an unexpected source of radical transformation for the country's 'untouchables' (dalits). Mosse shows how caste was central to the way in which categories of 'religion' and 'culture' were formed and negotiated in missionary encounters, and how the social and semiotic possibilities of Christianity lead to a new politic of equal rights in South India. Skillfully combining archival research with anthropological fieldwork, this book examines the full cultural impact of Christianity on Indian religious, social and political life. Connecting historical ethnography to the preoccupations of priests and Jesuit social activists, Mosse throws new light on the contemporary nature of caste, conversion, religious synthesis, secularization, dalit politics, the inherent tensions of religious pluralism, and the struggle for recognition among subordinated people.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95397-0
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xix)
  6. Note on Transliteration
    (pp. xx-xx)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-30)

    On 17 March 2009, the archbishop of Chennai (Dr. M. Chinnappa, SVD) stood before an audience of priests and theologians to proclaim passionately that the Catholic Church in Tamil Nadu had to make a public confession for the sin of caste committed historically. “We have done this injustice to thousands and thousands of our own people,” he proclaimed. “We have damaged a community.” The occasion was the launch of another two volumes in a new series ofdalitcommentaries on the books of the Bible at a Jesuit center of theology.Dalitis a word of Sanskrit origin meaning “broken”...

  8. 1 A Jesuit Mission in History
    (pp. 31-59)

    The experience of religious conversion is always caught within a “matrix of motives and representations” (Hanretta 2005, 490). Whatever the inner experience, conversion to Christianity in Tamil history was an irreducibly social process that involved change of allegiance given significance by prevailing social relations. Yet regardless of its political import, new Christian affiliation came to be narrated within missionary discourses that construed the change as a matter of spiritual transformation. Inevitably, then, the history of Christian conversion is an account of the incompatible logics and mutual effects of missionary intentions and the exigencies produced by the intentions of others (cf....

  9. 2 A Culture of Popular Catholicism
    (pp. 60-95)

    Missionary Christianity of all varieties brings distinctive notions of divinity and new monopolies of mediation that demand a radical reorganization of existing religiosity. As they consolidated their mission in nineteenth-century colonial southern India, Jesuits brought new religious symbols, a plethora of divine beings including the saints, and complex notions of worship.¹ They also tried to discipline religious boundaries in an unprecedented way. But rigorous prohibitions and punishments could not possibly isolate Tamil Catholics from existing modes of religious thought and feeling. Lived Catholicism would involve imaginaries, dispositions, attitudes, and modes of signification continuous with non-Christian neighbors. Where Church interpretations of...

  10. 3 Christians in Village Society: Caste, Place, and the Ritualization of Power
    (pp. 96-132)

    More than anything, the relationship between Christianity and culture in south India has revolved around caste. Nobili’s mediating space of “culture” between Christian and pagan was itself carved in the shape of the customs and distinctions of caste, and in regions such as Ramnad, Catholic practices were elaborated around the frame of caste. But what is caste, and what is it to Tamil Christians?

    It is hard to answer the general question without rehearsing complex arguments that have preoccupied anthropologists and historians (not to mention politicians, social reformers, and activists) for a century or more, and missionaries for a lot...

  11. 4 Public Worship and Disputed Caste: The Santiyakappar Festival over 150 Years
    (pp. 133-167)

    The French Jesuit Edmond Favreux, who settled in Alapuram village in the 1860s, worked with a thoroughly embedded Tamil tradition of public worship. The spectacular festival for the guardian saint Santiyakappar was a meticulously scripted performance that annually mobilized and signified a Hindu-Christian social order. A century and a half later (in 2010) the festival had become a Catholicreligiousceremony controlled by the clergy, articulating the messages of global Catholicism and delineating a community of worshipping Christians. It now excluded Hindu participants, and its material forms, roles, and gestures no longer signified social groups in relation to one another....

  12. 5 Christianity and Dalit Struggle: 1960s to 1980s
    (pp. 168-197)

    How in the postmissionary era was Christianity drawn into Tamil dalit struggles against caste and untouchability? What did the Church and Christian identity have to offer amid the post-Independence project of equalization, in a society that had acquired universal franchise as well as legal protection and targeted welfare programs for dalits, who were now claimed by the state as its “injured subjects” (Rao 2009, 177–78)? How did dalit Christians respond when the protections and resources available for targeted victims depended upon governmental categories that excluded Christian converts and reproduced the stigmatized identities that Christians had sought to escape, and...

  13. 6 Hindu Religious Nationalism and Dalit Christian Activism
    (pp. 198-232)

    In the summer of 2008, as I began preparing this book, two events brought international attention to Christians in India. Both involved violence against dalit Christians by their neighbors, who in the first case were people mobilized by Hindu nationalist organizations in a rural locality in Orissa, and in the second case upper-caste Catholics in a village in northern Tamil Nadu. These confrontations signaled two phenomena of critical importance to Indian Catholicism at the turn of the new millennium: the rise of Hindu nationalism, and the eruption of the politics of caste within the Church. Simultaneously attacked by politically assertive...

  14. 7 A Return Visit to Alapuram: Religion and Caste in the 2000s
    (pp. 233-266)

    My journey to Alapuram in October 2004 anticipated the new public profile of “ethicized” identity and caste honor. It was the anniversary of the execution in 1801 by the British of the ruler-rebel and Tevar (Backward Caste) hero Marudu Pandiyan (royal patron of Sarukani church), and Tevar youth in yellow T-shirts, accompanied by trails of flags and loud film songs celebrating Tevar caste pride, amassed at key centers of Sivagangai District amid roadblocks and police traffic controls—a precaution that recollected the recent history of violent Tevar-dalit confrontations in the district. As I reached Alapuram, a worrying sense persisted that...

  15. Conclusion
    (pp. 267-284)

    Let me recall and draw together some of the main themes from this social history of Catholicism in Tamil south India. This will return to the recurring question of the relationship between the Christian faith and its cultural setting, to the manner in which the very categories of “religion” and “culture” were themselves formed and negotiated in missionary encounters, and to the mediating role of caste.

    In common with several other early modern European missionary encounters overseas, the Jesuit Madurai mission in the seventeenth-century Tamil country involved, first, a conception of Christian truth apart from the cultures and languages in...

  16. NOTES
    (pp. 285-322)
    (pp. 323-326)
    (pp. 327-356)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 357-385)