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Religion and Dalit Identity
By Fr. John Felix Raj. S.J.

The last two hundred years have seen the emergence of a new consciousness and a new identity among the 200 million people who have been considered “outcaste” or “untouchables”. Today they call themselves Dalits, a new name they have coined for themselves, and demand aggressively their share in the shaping of the destiny of the nation. It is not a mere name or title, in fact it has become an expression of hope and identity.

The term Dalit in Sanskrit is derived from the root dal which means to split, break, crack and so on. When used as an adjective, it means split, broken, burst, destroyed, crushed. It is said that Jotiba Phule(1827-1890), the founder of the Satyashodhak Samaj, a non Brahmin movement in Maharastra, a social reformer and revolutionary, used this term to describe the outcastes and untouchables as the oppressed and broken victims of the Indian caste-ridden society. It is also believed that it was Dr. B.R. Ambedkar who coined the word first.

The Dalits of today were known as “untouchables” and “outcaste” for centuries. These degrading terms were changed by the British administration into “Depressed Classes” in 1919. Gandhiji called them harijans (people of God), his favorite term to be used in the place of Untouchable. Ambedkar did not accept Gandhi’s term. He demanded a separate electorate for the “Depressed Classes”, and proposed the term “Protestant Hindus”. In 1935, the British government defined them as the “Scheduled Castes." It was during the 1970s that the followers of the Dalit Panther Movement of Maharashtra gave currency to the term Dalit. Today the term is used frequently and has become popular among the Dalit people of various religions and protest movements.

The origin of the Dalits goes back to 1500 BC. Studies about their origin tell us that they were a people without a name and without a place in the social organisation of the time. They were not only ostracised from the mainstream society and relegated to the status of “untouchables” but were also subjected to various forms of exploitation and oppression which have always been supported by religion directly or indirectly.

According to an Indian historian, S. K. Chatterjee, the original Indians were the Sudras (the serving caste people) today’s Dalits. These were the pre-Aryan people who lived for thousands of years on the Indian soil. The Aryans are said to have come into India around 1500 BC and made the local people their servants and slaves. The Dalits are the descendants of the earliest settlers of India. Because of the long history of oppression, they have lost their self-identity as full human beings.

Religion plays an important role in the life and growth of people. It has been one of the tools people have used as an agent of bondage or liberation. For centuries, India has been a cradle of religions. Many religions found the Indian soil fertile and flourished here. Some like Hinduism, Christianity, Islam came from outside and others like Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Lingayatism were born here.

Dalits joined religions that preached equality. The conversion of Dalits, in large numbers, to Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism, besides being change of religion, was also a search for equality and human dignity. For instance Dr. Ambedkar believed that neither bourgeois nationalism nor republicanism nor traditional Marxism provided any satisfactory solution to the problem of caste. Hence he turned to religion.

His long and arduous search for religious emancipation is enshrined in his magnum opus: The Buddha and His Dharma. He rejected Christianity and Islam because, though formally egalitarian religions, they did not face in their origin the task of fighting the caste system. The only Indian religion, for Ambedkar, which arose and grew out of the struggle against the caste system and never succumbed to it was Buddhism. Ambedkar was the first to characterise it as a revolutionary and the most egalitarian religion of India. Ambedkar noted that the Buddha created his Sangha as a model of casteless society and the laity was to emulate the bhikkhus in order to bring about such a society into existence.

As Rev. Kappan, an Indian theologian says, it was the Vedic religion, which provoked the first crisis of culture and religion in India. By Vedic religion he means that stage of religious consciousness represented by the Samhitas, the Brahmanas and the Upanishads, spanning a period of over 1500 years ending with the rise of Buddhism. The Rig-veda is the earliest written literary source of the ancient history of India (1500-1000 BC). A large part of the text addressed to Lord Indra, narrates a fierce war-encounter between different groups:

One for example is between the deva worshipping Aryas and the deva-less and the riteless Dasyus. Number of hymns describes how under the command of Lord Indra, the Aryas defeated, destroyed and looted the Dasyus, the indigenous people who were different from the Aryas, both culturally and racially. Indra is glorified for his capacity for war against his and the Aryas’ enemy, Dasyus. The gods were to sanction not only wars but also oppressive social institutions: for example the four varnas.

During the Vedic period, the low caste people were denied the right to education and even the right to live. The caste system placed the Dalit people at the bottom of society with least wealth or power. They were the most exploited and oppressed lot, condemned to labour freely or for little remuneration.


Dissident Sects & Anti-Caste Movements

Both Vedic ritualism and gnosis [supremacy of Brahmans] were bound to be called in question by the common people. The popular discontent found expression in dissident sects like Jainism (540-468 B.C.) and Buddhism (563-483 B.C.). There is no doubt that Jainism and Buddhism were the first attacks or revolts in general against the caste system.

Lord Buddha initiated a radical critique of contemporary religion and society. He was forthright in repudiating the caste system and the notion of ritual purity associated with it. One of his famous sayings runs like this:

No Brahmin is such by birth,
No outcaste is such by birth.
An outcaste is such by his deeds,
A Brahmin is such by his deeds.”

From out of the struggle between Vedic religion and heterodox movements like Jainism and Buddhism was born what is today called Hinduism, which reached its golden age in the Gupta period (300-700 A.D.). Many factors were responsible for this new development. Brahminism succeeded in integrating within itself popular religions. Popular deities were absorbed into the Vedic pantheon through a process of identification or subordination. Even Buddha was given the status of a vishnuite incarnation.

After the exit of the Buddhist religion from India, there were other religious and anti-caste movements that arose and functioned within the jati system and hence they were assimilated by it sooner or later. For examples the Lingayat religion led by Jangam intellectuals, the Sikh by Khatri intellectuals and the medieval Bhakti movement.

The Bhakti movement, a socio-religious expression of the revolt of the masses originated in Tamil Nadu but soon spread to Karnataka and Maharashtra, and eventually swept through the whole of north India. It is undeniable that the Bhaktas represented the aspirations of the downtrodden masses as against the interests of the twice born.

The Bhagavata Purana, the main scriptural authority of the movement, comes out with the startling idea of a God who is partial to the poor: “Hari, fond of those persons destitute of wealth and whose sole wealth is himself, and knowing their affection, does not accept the worship of evil-minded persons who by their conceit about their Vedic learning, wealth, family, and deeds bestow harm on good people who are poor."”

Saints of the Bhakti movement came from all castes and, the movement had a large mass support. Unfortunately it could not maintain its initial thrust and was domesticated by Hindu orthodoxy. As Dumont observes, “A sect cannot survive on Indian soil if it denies caste.”





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