Dalit theology is a branch of Christian theology that emerged among the Dalit caste in India in the 1980s. It shares a number of themes with liberation theology, which arose two decades earlier, including a self-identity as a people undergoing Exodus.  Dalit theology sees hope in the “Nazareth Manifesto” of Luke 4, where Jesus speaks of preaching “good news to the poor … freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind” and of releasing “the oppressed. “ Development A major proponent of Dalit theology was Arvind P.
Nirmal (1936–95), a Dalit Christian in the Church of North India.  Nirmal criticised Brahminic dominance of Christian theology in India, and believed that the application of liberation theology to India should reflect the struggle of Dalits, who make up about 70% of Christians in India.  Nirmal also criticised the Marxist element within South American liberation theology.  Nirmal drew on the concept of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 to identify Jesus himself as a Dalit – “a waiter, a dhobi, and bhangi.  Dalit theologians have seen passages in the gospels, such as Jesus’ sharing a common drinking vessel with the Samaritan woman in John 4, as indicating his embracing of Dalitness.  M. E. Prabhakar expanded on the Dalitness of Jesus, stating that “the God of the Dalits … does not create others to do servile work, but does servile work Himself. “ He also suggested that Jesus experienced human, and especially Dalit, brokenness in his crucifixion.  Prabhakar has developed a Dalit creed, which reads in part: “Our cries for liberation from harsh caste-bondage
Were heard by God, who came to us in Jesus Christ To live with us and save all people from their sins. “ Vedanayagam Devasahayam (b. 1949) of the Church of South India followed Nirmal as head of Dalit theology at the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College, and further developed Nirmal’s ideas, writing a number of books.  Devasahayam later became bishop of the Church of South India’s Madras Diocese.  Dalit theology opposes indigenization movements within Indian Christian liturgy, since these are seen as reinforcing traditional aste hierarchies.  However, the incorporation of some pre-Sanskritic Indian religious traditions is supported.  Introduction The emergence of dalit theology in India can be considered as a significant event in the history of Indian Christian thinking as it is very much related to the historical experiences of an oppressed and down trodden people. It can be conceived in the context of the struggles of a community against casteism and their continued aspirations for social justice both in church and society.
However, the immediate concern for formulating a Dalit theology emerged within the Christian Dalit Liberation movement. So the sources and process of Dalit Theology lay in the agony and sufferings of Dalits in their search for self identity, equality and their search for a meaningful life in the community WHO ARE THE DALITS? The social structure of India is stratified, with in built inequalities and injustices, based on the caste- system sanctified by Brahmanic -Hinduism. Although social stratification exist in almost all societies, the caste system is quite unique to the Indian society.
Sanctioned by the religio-philosophical system, the Dalits are socially placed outside the four-fold caste system and they are referred to as the fifth caste ( panchamas ), even when they live as outcasts. Dalits are differentiated from the lowest strata of other societies with regard to their stigma of untouchability. “The Dalits form the inner core of poverty, which is birth ascribed. They have been excluded from the caste system (social hierarchy), hence out-castes; declared ritually unclean, hence untouchable; and pushed out for fear of pollution to live on the outskirts of villages, hence segregated. In fact, Dalits have been the most degraded, downtrodden, exploited and the least educated in our society. They have been socially and culturally, economically and politically subjugated and marginalized through three thousand years of our history. However, the Dalits in India are believed to be the ancient Dravidian race, the original people of India. We can say that they only introduced culture in India. They were the owners of all property. The Aryans, a series of related and highly self conscious tribes sharing a common language and religion, began their nvasions of India from the Northwest around 1500 B. C. If a king wins a battle in the neighboring country, he makes the loser king and his people as slaves and snatches all their properties. Here also, the Aryans snatched away all their properties and kept them aside branding them as out-caste. So the dominant view traces the origins of both caste and untouchability to the Aryans themselves and to their ways of relating to the original peoples of India with whom they came into contact with.
Untouchablity and segregation are resulted due to the Brahmin supremacy among the Dravidian races. The Dravidian race was initially casteless and had horizontal ethnic divisions and clan groups which under Brahmanization became vertically graded and ritually ranked by the principle of purity- pollution. WHAT IS DALIT THEOLOGY? Having looked at the background and the need for a Dalit Theology, it is legitimate to answer the question, what is Dalit theology? This question, according to John Webster , may be answered at least three different ways.
First of all, it is a theology about Dalits or theological reflection upon the Christian responsibility to the depressed classes. Secondly, it is theology for the depressed classes or the message addressed to the dalits to which they seem to be responding. Thirdly, it is a theology from the depressed classes, that is, the theology they would like to expound. Aravind P. Nirmal, who himself is a dalit believes that the authentic dalit theology will be based on their own dalit experiences and their own sufferings, their own aspirations, and their own hopes.
It will be the story of their pathos and their protest against the socio- economic injustices they have been subjugated to through out the history. Abraham Ayrookuzhiel talks of Dalit theology a counter culture in relation to the brahmanical culture that continues to serve the interests of the privileged sections in the society. He believes that dalit theology is a spiritual movement for meaning in life,self fulfillment and freedom. In other words, Dalit theology is the result of the reflection of Dalit Christians upon the gospel in the light of their own circumstances.
From the perspective of a local theology it is “a way of recovering a world-view or way of life that has been blocked by false consciousness on a large scale”, especially by the Brahmanic culture. DALIT CHRISTOLOGY In Dalit theology, Dalit Christology is of utmost importance. As a meaningful Christology, Dalit Christology finds its uniqueness as it is developed through the dialectical encounter between the Jesus of faith and the context of the Dalits in which he is experienced. Like Black theology, Dalit theology also affirms faith and praxis of the “dalitness” of God in Jesus Christ.
So the Dalit Christology is not produced in class rooms, nor in theological conferences, but in Christian communities, where Jesus is “encountered, experienced and lived”. For Dalits, the God whom Jesus Christ revealed and about whom the prophets of the Old Testament spoke is a Dalit God. Thus Dalit theology affirms both divinity and humanity of Jesus in his ‘dalitness’. According to Nirmal even the genealogy of Jesus itself is suggestive of his Dalit conditions, despite he, being a Jew. His reference as carpenter’s son also is also suggestive of his “dalitness’.
The solidarity of Jesus with the poor and the outcasts finds its Christological symbol in the incarnation. Nirmal also points out that the title ” Son of Man ” implies the “dalitness” of Jesus. The group of Son of Man sayings, which are indicative of Jesus’ present sufferings and his imminent death is significant for developing a Dalit Christology. These sayings speak specifically of Son of Man as encountering rejection, mockery, contempt, suffering, and finally death. Dalit believes that all these sufferings are from the dominant religious traditions and the established religions.
Jesus underwent all these experiences as the prototype of all dalits. So the Christological task of Dalit theology is to bring about a Dalit consciousness, which consists in being aware that their dalit humanity is constituted by their “dalitness”. Yet another noteworthy feature of Jesus’ life and ministry is his total identification with the Dalits of his time. The dominant religious leaders accused him of eating and drinking with the publicans, tax collectors and sinners of his day (Mk. 2:15- 16).
Dalits believe that Jesus’ approach and attitude towards them and the Samaritans, the dalits of his day has demonstrated that Jesus loved and cared for the Dalits. In contrast to the liberation theology, Dalit theology recognizes the total identification of Jesus with the poor, rather than the ‘preferential option for the poor. ‘ “… Jesus did not ‘opt’ for the poor- he identified himself totally with the poor- He was the hungry one, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned- he was the dalit. ” Jesus’ action of cleansing the temple is of great importance for the Dalits in India.
If the incident is interpreted in terms of its implication for the gentiles, it makes sense to Indian Dalits who had to struggle a lot for the temple entry rights. This God is a Dalit God, a servant God, who does not create others to do servile work, but does work himself. Servitude is innate in the God of Dalits. Servitude is svadharma of our God, and hence we the Indian Dalits are this God’s people, service has been our lot and privilege. The Gospel writers identified Jesus with the suffering servant of Isaiah.
Since the service of others has been the privilege of Dalit communities in India, the Christology of a suffering servant is very much relevant in Dalit Christology. Therefore, to speak of a servant God is to recognize him and identify as a true Dalit deity. Above all, Jesus’ dalitness is symbolized at its best on the cross. On the cross he was broken, the crushed, the split, the torn, the driven – the dalit, in the fullest possible etymological meaning of the term. The cross is no arbitrary intrusion in the life of Jesus.
It is the natural outcome of a life of solidarity with the poor and the outcasts and of the confrontation with the powerful who oppress them On the whole, the Dalit Christology is a paradigm of humiliation and suffering reflected in the life of the poor. Here Jesus is seen as a historical figure, rather than a dogmatic figure. Dalit Christology shares the views of all other people’s theologies. Theology by the people implies a Christology which sees the Lord in the frail and ugly specter of human existence and Christology is not understood in terms of power, but in terms of what is humble and frailly human.
But such theology is also a call to make sacrifices on behalf of the poor and the weak. Power is seen in acts of love, not in status. WHY DALIT THEOLOGY? What is the need for a Dalit theology, apart from Indian Christian theology? In order to answer this question adequately, it is better to analyze the dominant trends that have prevailed in Indian theological thinking. It is an accepted fact that the roots of Indian Christian theology lie in the experiences of mostly upper class/ caste Christian converts of this century nd last century. In fact, Indian christian theology is very much attached to the Brahmanical culture and ideology. For many of the Indian Christian theologians, cultural contextuality meant adjustment to the dominant ethos and even to such structures as caste. The vedas, upanishads, and their renowned commentators exercised a great deal of influence on these theologians. These thinkers and their experiences were very much different from the majority of Christians, who were poor and belonged to the lower strata of the society.
J. C. Duraisingh and K. C. Abraham in their evaluation of New Delhi EATWOT conference (1981) from an Asian perspective observe: We, in Asia are prone to the danger of romanticizing the ancient religions and accepting them uncritically, while knowing that they have been used to exploit masses and to protect the vested interests of the high and the mighty, These religions have used to silence the masses and make them accept passively their suffering, resorting to otherworldly flight from reality.
Consequently, the theological thinking in India has been alienated from the reality of the masses, especially, from the Christian community, the majority of whom are dalits and tribals. “It is a well-known fact that the majority of Christians come from the lower strata of the society, that is, from across the borderline between caste and no-caste. What is missing from Indian Christian theology is the experiences of these lowliest people. ” Aravind P.
Nirmal one of the pioneers in Christian Dalit theology had made the same kind of observation in one of his articles in the early seventies: Broadly speaking, Indian Christian theology in the past has tried to work out its theological systems in terms of either Advaita Vedanta or Vishista Advaita. Most of the contributions to Indian Christian theology in the past came from caste converts to Christianity. The result has been that Indian Christian Theology has perpetuated within itself what I prefer to call the ” Brahminic” tradition.
This tradition has further perpetuated intuition- inferiority oriented approach to the theological task in India. One wonders whether this kind of Indian christian theology will ever have a mass appeal. The situation did not change till seventies. Then another line of thought in Indian theological thinking came since 1970 concerned itself with the notion of development, poverty or the poor, liberation and the like. It was then the Indian theologians began to take up question of socio- economic justice seriously. As a result, the Indian heological scene then changed considerably and there emerged what is known as Third world theology. The Third World theology with its allegiance to liberation theology seemed relevant to the situation of India, where the majority of the Indian people face the problem of poverty. The socio- economic realities of India , however, are of different nature. Latin American Liberation theologians have laid more stress on socio- economic and political oppression using Marxist tools of social analysis to uncover the forms of oppression.
This, they have done almost to the extent of excluding of all forms of oppression like, race, gender, culture or religion. Hence the use of Marxist analysis of socio-economic realities of the liberation theology is found to be inadequate in India since it neglects the caste factor, which adds complexity to the Indian socio-economic realities. Besides, the treatment of Dalits, in the context of the caste based society is inhuman, despite India’s proud heritage of spirituality and the richness of its ancient culture. That is why, Saral K.
Chatterji, while speaking about the rationale for a Dalit theology says, “the idea and ideology of caste as well as its morphological aspects, the nature of oppression, and the inherited inequalities perpetuated by it and its persistence through the interaction of social, cultural, religious and economic factors remained neglected in Marxian analysis. ” To sum up then, the Indian Christian theology, whether it is the traditional one or the recent Third world Theology has failed to see suffering and the ongoing struggle of Indian Dalits for liberation as a subject matter appropriate for doing theology in India.
What is surprising here is the reality that fifty to eighty percent of Christians are of Dalits in origin. That means, the Christian population numbering over 25 millions, about 20 millions are from the Dalit background. In other words, the Indian theologians have virtually ignored the social reality of Indian Church. To put it in another way, the concern for subaltern identity which should have been the major area of theological reflection was not at all pursued in Indian Theological thinking. SIGNIFICANCE OF THE DALIT THEOLOGY
Dalit theology, which is being taken shape in India can be considered as one of the attempts to do a local theology taking seriously the context of struggles of the people who are marginalized and oppressed, reflecting on their struggles for liberation from the structures which marginalize them. It is very much committed to the liberation and humanization of the Dalits, the most oppressed of India Dalit theology not only shows a relevant perspective for doing a local theology, but also questions the so- called neutral philosophical perspectives of theology.
It exhibits its conflict with the elite perspective, which justifies the status quo, that leads to exploitation and oppression. Dalit Theology is a “theology from the underside of history” That means, this is based on the discernment that the theological reflection should be done from the perspective of those who are victims of domination and oppression. It is clearly an attempt to give voice to the voiceless of the Indian society Moreover, Dalit theology affirms the Biblical faith that the poor are today’s suffering servants, today’s “crucified peoples”.
Their sufferings sheds light on the evil and injustices prevalent today in the religion and society and condemns them. Their struggle for a full human life and dignity announces the hope of a new world, the redeemed humanity. Despite the fact that Dalits are India’s suffering servants and crucified people, their theology calls for an “obligatory solidarity” with the poor of the whole world, a necessary task in doing theology today.
Dalit theology as a local theology differs very much from the missionary theology which is evangelistic in nature and aimed at the conversion of Dalits to Christianity from their original religion. The teachings of the missionaries in India provided only a half salvation to the Christians. It was a half salvation, because in it no effort was taken to relate the teachings of Christian faith to the real life of the people. But Dalit theology seeks to help the Dalits to live in solidarity with their fellow Dalits despite the religious background.
Since it assumes religious pluralism of our context, it not only helps the Christian Dalits but also shares a common ideology with other Dalits in their common struggle for liberation, justice and dignity. Further, Dalit theology shows a radical discontinuity with the Indian Christian Theology of the Brahmanical tradition. In this case Dalit theology is a counter theology in relation to other dominant theologies. The dominant theologies are considered to be normative and therefore imposed upon the oppressed.
As the Brahmanic theological tradition is the dominant one, it has been imposed upon Dalits who are the Christian majority CONCLUSION The growing interest in Dalit theology has raised number of questions. Is not Christian theology common for all Christians irrespective of caste, color, and different historical contexts in which Christians find themselves? Are we not in danger of creating divisions and encouraging polarizations, thereby endangering Christian unity by speaking about Dalit theology?
Would we then accept Non- Dalits to develop a Non-Dalit theology? Although we cannot give a satisfactory answer to these questions, it is evident from the above discussions that Dalit theology is not meant to reject the known expressions or its usefulness. Rather, it is another expression of Indian Christian theology based on the living experience of Dalit themselves, which have been neglected in the earlier Indian Christian Theology. It comes as a powerful voice from the Dalit people in their language and for the service of the people.
As a contextual theology it seeks to confront situations of oppression perpetuated by the dominant religious traditions without neglecting the ecumenical concern for one human community. As a matter of fact, an active commitment to peace and justice becomes an integral concern of this theological enterprise. It can also provide an opportunity for the non- Dalits a repentance of their past participation either directly or indirectly in the unjust structures, practices and attitudes produced and nurtured by the caste system.