Special Issue "Dalits and Religion: Ambiguity, Tension, Diversity and Vitality"

A special issue of Religions (ISSN 2077-1444).

Deadline for manuscript submissions: closed (1 September 2019).

Special Issue Editors

Prof. Dr. Cosimo Zene
Website
Guest Editor
Emeritus Professor in the Study of Religions and World Philosophies, School of History, Religions and Philosophies, SOAS, University of London, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Sq., London WC1H 0XG, UK
Interests: Social Anthropology (Gift-giving); Continental Philosophy; World Philosophies; Inter-philosophical Dialogue; Study of Religions; Subalterns; Dalits; Vernacular Religions; A. Gramsci; B. R. Ambedkar
Prof. Dr. Meena Dhanda

Guest Editor
Professor in Philosophy and Cultural Politics, School of Humanities, Faculty of Arts, University of Wolverhampton, Molineux Street, Wolverhampton, WV1 1DT, UK
Interests: Empirically informed social; moral and political philosophy; Philosophy of anti-racism and anti-casteism; Feminist Philosophy; Dalit Identity; Caste Prejudice and Discrimination; Punjabi Dalits

Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

There is an extensive literature regarding the ‘Myths of Origin’ of many Dalit groups. These myths recount the story of a (supposedly) glorious past of the group, and a subsequent ‘fall’ which relegates them to the present-day status, as Untouchables, thus confirming the ideology of those Hindu ‘sacred texts’ , such as the Manusmriti (The Laws of Manu), which sanction untouchability and are habitually quoted in support of it. In these myths, often the reason for the ‘fall’ is attributed to religious leaders or priests in the group, but also frequently to women. On the other hand, many Dalit groups have themselves produced a set of religious counter-myths, so as to oppose the narrative of the ‘fall’, thus refusing the label of untouchability in favour of the word ‘Dalit’, a self-ascribed designation, which reveals the self-consciousness of being oppressed and subjugated, literally ‘crushed’. These divergent positions in themselves would be sufficient to explain the ambiguity, often underlined by scholars, which surrounds Dalits’ attitude towards religion. While the first stance underscores Dalits’ exclusion from religion, the second strives towards and reaffirms their belonging to it.

However, while both these narratives operate within the sphere of ‘religion’, a third line of inquiry, resting on a more secular stance, dismisses a religious explanation in favour of a political dimension.  We could label this ‘the politics of Dalit religion’, in which political reflection and activity is paramount when addressing the topic and providing answers. At the same time, we must not disregard a further (and fourth) line of inquiry which, although supporting political engagement, still sees religion as a viable and indeed necessary component of Dalit life. This was the choice made by the Dalit leader B. R. Ambedkar and his fellow Mahars who converted to Buddhism.  Given the predicament of Untouchables within the Hindu milieu, conversion to other religions has, over time, been an almost obvious choice for some of them, thus creating tensions between those who converted and the Hindu majority, and in particular the Hindu leaders. If on the one hand conversion seems to have provided a viable escape from untouchability and an improvement for many, especially through education, on the other hand many Dalit converts still lament the lingering of those attributes of untouchability, mostly associated with ‘impurity and pollution’, such as humiliation and shame.  As a result, Buddhist, Christian and Muslim Dalits seem to share the lot of their ‘Hindu’ Dalit brothers and sisters. This, however, does not prevent Dalits of any religious denomination from expressing their religiosity in the most of creative ways, or indeed from producing remarkable theoretical, literary and theological reflections on their experience.

This special issue of the journal Religions invites scholars involved in the (broadly defined) field of Dalit Studies to address the questions raised above and many others which, no doubt, need to be tackled, be it from a disciplinary, inter or trans-disciplinary standpoint. The existing literature on this topic is at times disseminated in more general discussions on the Dalit experience from many disciplinary perspectives, in particular within Humanities and Social Sciences, including Anthropology, History, Philosophy, Literature and Literary Studies (comprising Dalit novels), Theology and Mission Studies, Politics, Law, Economics, Music, Performing Arts, and the fields of the Study of Religions and Gender and Feminist Studies. This special issue encourages colleagues to offer creative and challenging ways to (re)interpret, from both disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives, the relationship between ‘Dalits and Religion’, focusing in particular on its ambiguity, tension, diversity and vitality.

Prof. Dr. Cosimo Zene
Prof. Dr. Meena Dhanda
Guest Editors

In the note below, prospective Authors should ignore information referring to APCs (Article Processing Charges) since the papers published in this special issue are free of charge.

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Keywords

  • Dalits and Religion
  • Untouchability
  • Exclusion
  • Conversion
  • Ambedkar
  • Politics of Religion
  • Dalit Theology

Published Papers (6 papers)

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Research

Open AccessArticle
Freedom from God: Periyar and Religion
Religions 2020, 11(1), 10; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11010010 - 24 Dec 2019
Abstract
This paper looks at South Indian rationalist and anti-caste leader Periyar EV Ramasamy’s approach to religion. Periyar saw Hinduism as a fundamental degradation of the non-Brahmin community in general, the Dalits in particular. Here, I draw parallels between Periyar and Russian anarchist Mikhail [...] Read more.
This paper looks at South Indian rationalist and anti-caste leader Periyar EV Ramasamy’s approach to religion. Periyar saw Hinduism as a fundamental degradation of the non-Brahmin community in general, the Dalits in particular. Here, I draw parallels between Periyar and Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, especially with regards to their radical readings of religion and social power. Similar to Bakunin who inverts Christianity to look at Satan as the original free thinker, Periyar inverts Ramayana to consider the asura Ravana as a Dravidian hero and a victim of Brahminical supremacy. A militant atheist and an avowed enemy of God, Periyar was nevertheless aware of the importance of religion in social life, and I briefly explore his qualified support for Islam and Buddhism and his rationale for urging the lower castes to convert to these religions. I conclude that reading Periyar in the anarchist tradition might open up new ways of understanding his political thought. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Dalits and Religion: Ambiguity, Tension, Diversity and Vitality)
Open AccessArticle
‘Mirrored in God’: Gramsci, Religion and Dalit Women Subalterns in South India
Religions 2019, 10(12), 666; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10120666 - 12 Dec 2019
Abstract
The Tamil Dalit Pentecostal conversion movement that has been active in Chennai’s slums and low-income settlements for the last four decades is also a political movement. It is, moreover, a women’s political movement. Normally both Dalits and women are ignored in India, they [...] Read more.
The Tamil Dalit Pentecostal conversion movement that has been active in Chennai’s slums and low-income settlements for the last four decades is also a political movement. It is, moreover, a women’s political movement. Normally both Dalits and women are ignored in India, they are considered people of no importance and irrelevant to the issues that grab the headlines. But it is important for us to recognize both the political nature and the importance of this Dalit women’s conversion movement, because we are at a time of great peril in India, where, as elsewhere, populist nationalism has swept an authoritarian leader to power and the fascist tendencies of an overbearing state are becoming increasingly obvious. In such a context Gramsci’s theorizations provide important suggestions for how to understand religio-cultural movements as political movements and how to evaluate both their importance and what they can teach us about the possibilities for religio-cultural-political resistance to authoritarian populism, and the crucial importance of low-income, low-status women in political processes of grassroots resistance. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Dalits and Religion: Ambiguity, Tension, Diversity and Vitality)
Open AccessArticle
‘Smell Your Sheep, Shepherd’: What Does It Mean to Be Catholic for the Dalit?
Religions 2019, 10(12), 659; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10120659 - 04 Dec 2019
Abstract
The anthropology of Christianity has emerged as an exciting field in the last decade or so. Themes of interest for us in India and South Asia in general include issues of caste, conversion and belief, the ideas of sin and morality, individualism, and [...] Read more.
The anthropology of Christianity has emerged as an exciting field in the last decade or so. Themes of interest for us in India and South Asia in general include issues of caste, conversion and belief, the ideas of sin and morality, individualism, and the like. As part of this growing field, the issue of belief in particular has gained considerable importance. It has been argued that the strict reliance on belief is obstructive and counterproductive for the understanding of non-Western Christianity, particularly where religious affiliations may be shifting rather than stable. Moreover, it has been suggested that belief could be laid aside in favor of the notion of commitment, wherein the latter term encompasses presence, embodiment, shared social location, and the like. This paper argues that while the discourse oscillates between belief on the one hand and commitment on the other, the intermediating term between these might be community. There are social and spiritual divisions, which the available discourse does not immediately allow us to contend with. In the words of one Dalit Catholic, the church must be with its people, the Bishop-Shepherd must ‘smell’ his sheep. This paper will explore how it is precisely the absence of community that Dalit Catholics experience when they find that Christian equality becomes physical separation and Christian fraternity remains outside the social domain and will suggest the implications this has for the anthropology of Christianity. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Dalits and Religion: Ambiguity, Tension, Diversity and Vitality)
Open AccessArticle
In Search of a Touchable Body: Christian Mission and Dalit Conversions
Religions 2019, 10(12), 644; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10120644 - 21 Nov 2019
Abstract
This paper significantly wishes to unpack the social and cultural impact of the mass religious conversion movements in Rayalaseema society with specific reference to Dalits during the period 1850 to 1880. This paper will use the archival material such as missionary records, magazines, [...] Read more.
This paper significantly wishes to unpack the social and cultural impact of the mass religious conversion movements in Rayalaseema society with specific reference to Dalits during the period 1850 to 1880. This paper will use the archival material such as missionary records, magazines, pamphlets, and books written by missionaries; further, it will also utilize oral interviews collected from the field. The mass conversion movements established a relationship between Dalits and missionaries and brought them together. In their efforts to create a new Christian community of Dalit converts, missionaries had interacted with Dalits, shared meal with them, stayed with them and transformed forbidden and “polluted” ghettos into social spaces. The present paper argues that the practices of the missionaries were liberating and humanizing for Dalits. It will examine how these practices led to unintended consequences. It needs to be remembered that the missionaries’ aim was not to abolish caste but to develop Christianity. How did the missionaries contribute to social interaction and build a spirit of solidarity among the Dalit converts? Based on specific situations, incidents, and examples recorded in the missionary archives and oral interviews, the article observes that community conversion movements destabilized the caste structure and brought significant changes in the social life of Dalits in colonial Rayalaseema. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Dalits and Religion: Ambiguity, Tension, Diversity and Vitality)
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Open AccessArticle
Appropriation of Caste Spaces in Pakistan: The Theo-Politics of Short Stories in Sindhi Progressive Literature
Religions 2019, 10(11), 627; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10110627 - 12 Nov 2019
Abstract
This paper is an attempt to understand the appropriation of spaces of Dalits by Sindhi progressive activists and short story writers in Pakistan as they construct, or rather undermine, caste at the anvil of religion and gender to reframe their own theo-political agenda [...] Read more.
This paper is an attempt to understand the appropriation of spaces of Dalits by Sindhi progressive activists and short story writers in Pakistan as they construct, or rather undermine, caste at the anvil of religion and gender to reframe their own theo-political agenda premised on political Sufism or Sufi nationalism. I specifically discuss the narratives emergent of the three popular short stories that are reframed as having exceptional emancipatory potential for the Dalits. Assessing the emancipatory limits of the Sindhi progressive narrative, I argue that while the short stories purport to give fuller expression to religious, gender-based, and class dimensions of the problem, it elides the problem of casteism and the subsequent existential demand of Dalit emancipation. Given the hegemonic influence of local Ashrafia class, the internal caste frictions are glossed over through political Sufism or Sindhi nationalism. This gloss of politicized Sufism hampers Dalit agency and rather facilitates the appropriation of Dalit spaces by the Ashrafia class. This leads to the conclusion that the seemingly progressive literary-political narratives framed in theo-political idiom may offer to the oppressed no more than token sympathy, compassion, self-pity, and false pride in legends. Instead, they allow the appropriation of spaces and events of the oppressed, and the objectification of oppressed bodies by the oppressor. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Dalits and Religion: Ambiguity, Tension, Diversity and Vitality)
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Open AccessArticle
Contempt and Labour: An Exploration through Muslim Barbers of South Asia
Religions 2019, 10(11), 616; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10110616 - 06 Nov 2019
Abstract
This article explores historical shifts in the ways the Muslim barbers of South Asia are viewed and the intertwined ways they are conceptualised. Tracing various concepts, such as caste identity, and their multiple links to contempt, labour and Islamic ethical discourses and practices, [...] Read more.
This article explores historical shifts in the ways the Muslim barbers of South Asia are viewed and the intertwined ways they are conceptualised. Tracing various concepts, such as caste identity, and their multiple links to contempt, labour and Islamic ethical discourses and practices, this article demonstrates shifting meanings of these concepts and ways in which the Muslim barbers of Malabar (in southwest India) negotiate religious and social histories as well as status in everyday life. The aim was to link legal and social realms by considering how bodily comportment of barbers and pious Muslims intersect and diverge. Relying on ethnographic fieldwork among Muslim barbers of Malabar and their oral histories, it becomes apparent that status is negotiated in a fluid community where professional contempt, multiple attitudes about modernity and piety crosscut one another to inform local perceptions of themselves or others. This paper seeks to avoid the presentation of a teleology of past to present, binaries distinguishing professionals from quacks, and the pious from the scorned. The argument instead is that opposition between caste/caste-like practices and Islamic ethics is more complex than an essentialised dichotomy would convey. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Dalits and Religion: Ambiguity, Tension, Diversity and Vitality)
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