Dalit Catholic Church

Our Lady of Dalits

Dalit Catholic Church

Diocese of Tamil Nadu

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Miracles of Dalit Mother


(Presenting Jesus to the Outcasts of India)



Before proceeding to speak about the woes of the dalit Christians I want to give a brief description of who the dalits are. The term 'dalit' has its root in Sanskrit (Dal) which means broken, cracked, trodden down, scattered, crushed or destroyed. It is interesting to note that the Hebrew verb 'dal' also means the frail one or the weak one which denotes the poor and lowly of the society. (Gutierrez, 1973:291) The term was first used by Jyotiraj Phule (1827-1890), a backward class social reformer, to describe the untouchables and outcastes of India as the oppressed and broken victims of the Hindu society. The term is a constant reminder of their age-old oppression and deprivation. It does not actually mean poor or outcast but, as Dr. Kuruvila points out, it is a state to which a certain section of the people have been reduced through systematic religious process and are forced to live continually in that predicament.

There are many names used to identify the untouchables of India but dalit is the name they themselves prefer because it exactly describes their situation in the society. Mahatma Gandhi called them Harijans (people of God) but the untouchables considered it a misnomer because it did not signify their real status. They are not treated even as human beings leave alone being respected as people of God. The Indian social structure rooted as it is in the Hindu or Brahmanic caste system can indeed boast of creating children of a lesser god. A section of the people has been maliciously and deliberately made poor and outcast because according to the sacred religious system they are outside the four-fold caste system.


Caste is what determines a person's status and dignity in the Hindu society. There is nothing that a person can do about the choice of the caste. He/she is born into a caste and his/her social status is therefore predestined and unchangeable. One has to perform the duties that one inherits by being born into a particular caste and that is the only way to salvation. Mahatma Gandhi, one of the staunchest supporters and advocates of caste system says that "Caste means the predetermination of a man's profession. Caste implies that a man must practice only the profession of his ancestors for his livelihood".

Gandhi asserts that a person who does not live up to the profession of the caste in which he/she is born does violence to oneself and becomes a degraded being. He expresses the common conviction of the Hindus when he says that caste has saved Hinduism from disintegration and that the Hindu society has been able to stand precisely because it is founded on the caste system. The four steps in the caste ladder are:


1.      BRHMINS (The priestly class) According to Hindu mythology they originate from the head of God. They do the learning and teaching of the scriptures besides performing sacrifice.

2.      KSHATRIAS (The warrior class) They come from God's shoulder and their work is to protect people by fighting against enemies.

3.      VYSIAS (The trading class). Originates from the thigh of God and their work is to feed the above two classes.

4.      SUDRAS (The servant class). Originates from the feet of God. They are to be servants of the above three classes.

The rest of the people are outside this sacred caste system. Since there is nothing below the feet of God they do not certainly originate from him, They are the PANCHAMAS (The fifth class), the impure, the unclean, and untouchables. These outcasts are the scum of the society-treated with contempt.

Indian history reveals that the dalits were the original settlers of India. But the Aryans invaded India in around 1500 B.C. defeated the Kings and captured the people and made them slaves. Then they slowly created the caste system woven into their religion of Hinduism. Thus we see that this inhuman and barbaric practice of caste discrimination and untouchability has been given religious sanctions and blessings, and has been perpetuated on the Indian soil for nearly 3500 years. Since caste system is thought to be of divine origin any breaking of this system individually or collectively is considered to be a violation against God and his divine law. Very painstakingly every dimension of this divine ordinance was included in the Hindu scriptures. The Rg veda, the Upanishads and the Baghavadgita along with Manu Dharma are the principal channels through which the caste system is perpetuated.


The dalits not only find themselves out of the four-fold caste system but are also forced to live in separate colonies (cheries) outside towns and villages. Manu Dharma, the Hindu religious code of conduct, which is believed to be divinely revealed spells out clearly the meticulous details of how the outcasts should conduct themselves, where they should live and what duties are ascribed to them. It is the practice of this code of conduct that still keeps the dalits outside the villages living in subhuman conditions. Most of the dalits are bonded laborers of the village landlords. They own no land, property or houses. They still do the works that the society considers to be the works of the slaves. They are the scavengers, street cleaners, cobblers, washer-folk, those who beat the drums for the dead, those who carry the dead and those who wait upon the upper caste lords. There are still many villages where a dalit can not sit on the same bench with a high caste person in a coffee shop. There are still villages where a dalit cannot ride a bicycle through the streets of a high caste people or even walk with any kind of foot wear. The dalit women can not go to the common village well to draw water. I do not want to paint an altogether dark and pessimistic picture of our society. Things have improved considerably in some villages. But there are hundreds of villages where the pathetic plight of the dalits has hardly changed. Some dalits who have come up in life due to education prefer to migrate to towns and cities where they can live in anonymity without the fear of the social stigma attached to their caste. It will not be an exaggeration to say that the dalits are still the poorest of the poor in Indian society. They are not even low people. They are "no people". The Hindu society has robbed their identity as human beings.


Because of the insurmountable problems they faced in remaining within Hinduism the dalits were eager to go over to other egalitarian religions in search of equality and liberation. Buddhism was one of their first alternatives as it rejected caste system and the authority of the Vedas. The arrival of the Christian missionaries to India, especially after the sixteenth century provided an occasion for many dalits to embrace Christianity. The Portuguese Padroado, the English Christian merchants, the French and the Irish missionaries and others converted thousands of dalits to the faith. It must be noted that economic benefits also played a major role in these conversions. For the dalits who lived in extreme poverty the economic benefits were the much needed and unexpected blessings. Many of them were labeled as 'wheat Christians' or 'milk powder Christians' but in truth hundreds of dalits escaped starvation solely due to the humanitarian efforts of the missionaries. But it is also true that many of the missionaries were instrumental in maintaining the caste system in the Indian church. Just a casual look at the history of the Indian church reveals how the missionaries tolerated and accepted caste horrors of the caste system. But there it was, taking deep roots in the life and practice of the church. The missionaries found themselves having to make compromises in order to escape the wrath of the upper caste converts. The equality and the human dignity promised by Christianity has remained only a dream in the case of the millions of dalit Christians.


Dalit Christians find themselves in an unenviable position today. They are a people that are twice discriminated. The state discriminates against them and refuses them any rights and privileges that their Hindu counterparts enjoy. The logic behind this is that once you become a Christian you really can not belong to a caste. Another argument from the state for not helping the dalit Christians is that they receive a lot of help from the first world churches. While this may be true, it does not dispense the government's responsibility towards its citizens, no matter what religion they belong to.


In addition to the step-motherly treatment of the state towards them the dalit Christians suffer inequality, injustice and inhuman treatment within the church. They realize the painful truth that their change of religion has in no way changed their pathetic, subhuman social condition. In effect the dalit Christians live as refugees in their own homeland. What are the different areas of discrimination in Christian communities? I want to enumerate a few of them here. The factual details that follow are founded on my personal experience in the Pastoral Ministry and the information provided by National coordination Committee for Dailt Christians

1. There is no equality in places of worship. There are still separate places for dalits in the church. Dalit Hindus are prevented from entering common temples. Dalit Christians are prevented from sitting with the other Christians.

2. There is no equality in liturgical participation. In most village parishes dalits can not be lectors. Dalit children can not be altar servers. No dalit is given any leadership role in the liturgy. Dalits can receive communion only after the others have done so (This is true in some villages). Dalit children cannot get into the parish choir even if they are gifted singers.

3. There is no equal participation in church festivals or important events in the parish. Dalits have no part in decision making of any kind.

4. Few dalits hold any position of importance in parish councils, village committees, etc.

5. Dalit children do not have equal opportunities for education in Christian institutions. First of all because they can not afford - secondly because they are said to fall short of the high standards set by Christian institutions. It is a sad fact that our Christian educational institutions cater to the affluent and socially higher classes - mostly Brahmins and high caste Hindus, who later turn against the Christian community.

6. Dalits suffer discrimination in employment opportunities. The state does not provide employment opportunities for dalits and the church adds insult to injury by shutting the doors of her institutions to these poor people. If we look at the proportion between the number of dalit Christians and those among them that are employed in Christian institutions then the disparity becomes painfully clear.

7. Discrimination is blatantly evident in the clergy representation in our churches. For a Community that makes up almost 80% of the entire Christian population which is about 25 million the clergy representation is hardly 2% (Here I base myself on the percentage of priests in the dioceses of my State which is a fair indication of how things are in other dioceses and other churches.) Only recently more and more dalit candidates are being ordained. But it must be stated that most of the dalit priests are mere numbers. They are not given any positions of power or importance in the dioceses.

8. Till very recently there were no Bishops from the dalit community. It was only three years ago that my home state which has fifteen dioceses was blessed with two dalit bishops.

9. The small number of dalit priests is due to the systematic rejection of dalit candidates in the seminaries and religious congregations. These places were filled with caste Christians and the few dalits who managed to enter could not survive.

10. There was inequality even after death! There were separate burial grounds for the dalits that really sealed their status as outcasts.          

The above analysis should make it sufficiently clear that even though the dalit Christians form the vast majority of the Christian population (20 million out of the total 25 million) they have been dominated, subjugated and ruled by the minority upper caste Christians. The situation is not very different today inspite of a ray of hope here and there. On top of all these misfortunes the poor dalit Christians have become the hapless victims of caste violence and atrocities barbarically engineered by Hindu fanatics who have the support and blessings of the caste conscious politicians. We constantly hear about the hundreds of dalit Christians brutally massacred, whole villages burned down, dalit women being molested and raped. Even nuns and missionaries have not been spared. These have become such common occurrences that people hardly ever take notice of them. But dalits have shown in recent times that they can not take it lying down anymore. They are beginning to muster courage and fight the enemy. Does it auger well for their eventual liberation? I personally think so.


Understanding the dalit Christians as a people and as a community in the context of their life in the society will throw some light as to how to present Jesus meaningfully to them. The dalit Christian community is one that bears deep social and psychological wounds that may take years to heal. They are a close-knit, group-oriented people. Most of the dalit communities have much in common with the strongly group embedded Mediterranean Kinship institutions that Malina describes in his article. (Malina, 1989) Their family and the village is more important to them than their own individual interest. There are individuals who will be ready to risk their lives for the sake of the group. Those who make sacrifices for the group are considered as great heroes. Dalit communities are patriarchal and we can see the male domination in every aspect of their family and social life. But they would consider it a sacred duty to protect the honor of their women.

The problem with the dalit community lies in its identity. Both individuals and groups identify themselves as slaves, servants and outcasts. Centuries of oppression and servitude have somehow forced this identity on them and it has deeply affected their psyche. As John Webster has noted the dalits especially those in rural areas, have an inherent inferiority and a strong feeling of anger towards those responsible for making them what they are. (Webster, 1995 : 36)

One can see that the sense of honor has been stolen from this community by constant suppression and they have inherited a sense of shame so much so many of them would be ashamed to own up in public that they are dalits. They may accept their dalit identity within their in group, but once they are out of their group or village they would try to hide their identity. Recently there has been considerable dalit consciousness and dalits are beginning to see their identity not as something to be ashamed of but rather to be accepted and transformed.

The dalit community has been oppressed by the upper caste people for so many centuries that they have internalized the consciousness of the oppressors. For them aping the oppressor seems natural. All they want to achieve is to become like their oppressors because that is the only image that is deeply imprinted in their hearts. So, at one and the same time they want to be free from their oppressors and also to perpetuate their memory. This is a very dehumanizing effect that the upper caste people have successfully inflicted on the dalits. (Freire, 1970: 30)

It is also a community that is sorely disappointed and disillusioned with Christianity. Christianity has not been able to give them what it had promised - equality, dignity and acceptance. Many rural dalit Christians seem to have given up hope and are resigned to their fate. They have been taught for centuries that their miserable socio-economic condition is God's will for them. The church has been teaching them the virtue of patiently suffering the injustices with the promise of a better life in the next world. The Hindu scriptures justified the existence of the caste system openly and directly whereas Christian interpretation of God's Word might have done it in a more subtle and indirect way. How does one present Jesus in an acceptable and relevant way to a community of the dalit Christians?



The society treats the dalit Christians as untouchables and outcasts and the dalit Christians feel that they are being constantly rejected, persecuted, shamed and driven to the fringes of the society. In this context of their brokenness we can try to present the historical Jesus as one who shared this brokenness or the dalitness. Jesus is a true dalit because he suffered rejection, mockery, contempt, torture and death. He not only shared our brokenness 2000 years ago but he does so here and now in our day to day life. His promise of being with us until the end of time is an assurance of his continued sharing in our dalitness.

Jesus in his ministry totally identified himself with the dalits of his time. The dominant religious leaders of his day accused him of eating and drinking with publicans, tax collectors and sinners (MK. 2:15-16). Jesus' attitude toward the people the society considered as outcasts (The Samaritans and women of his society could fit into this category), his mixing with them freely, his table fellowship with them demonstrated powerfully that he loved and cared for them - the dalits. He showed them that he was one with them. He assured privileged places for them in the Kingdom of God - a new social order he came to establish. (Mt. 21 : 3 1-3 2)

One aspect that must be stressed here is that Jesus did not merely take an option for these poor but identified himself with them. Taking an option for the poor in the context of the dalits would mean that Jesus was not one of them but that he was making some concessions for them even though he belonged to a different class. Thus there would be a distance created between Jesus the benefactor and dalits the beneficiaries. Jesus identifies himself with the dalits of today just as he became one with the dalits of his time.

Another aspect which will make sense to the Dalits is the understanding of Jesus as the servant God. He is not an upper caste landlord who forces other people to work for him. He is a God who serves, who does all the menial jobs, and who washes the feet of others Qn 13:1-17) The image of Christ the king (a triumphant King and Lord) has, in my judgment proved to be counter cultural in the case of dalits. King and Lord are terms always associated (at least in their minds) with power, domination and oppression. They are already slaves to their landlords and moneylenders. They do not need a God to enslave them again. Seeing Jesus as the suffering servant of God will be a perfect identification with the dalit community as a serving community that receives only insults and injuries as a reward for its services. But their sufferings and pains will turn into joy when justice is established in the society. The suffering and cross of Christ becomes meaningful only in relation to the liberation and salvation he accomplished through them. This makes it possible for the dalits to find meaning and value for their sufferings. Dalits will obviously be attracted to Jesus who is poor. He owned no properties, no house,

no land, no wealth - nothing that he could call his own. He was a poor carpenter who went about as an itinerant preacher. A dalit would feel very close to this Jesus because he himself owns nothing. Yet when he thinks of what this poor carpenter's son from Galilee has achieved - the transformations that he has brought about in societies the lives that he has touched and changed, the millions of disciples that walk .... in his ways the dalit will be challenged to break the shackles of his inferiority and plunge whole heartedly into the task of transforming the society that keeps him bound and enslaved.

Poverty also meant for Jesus that he was totally dependent on the Father. Dalit community is also a dependent community. They have to depend on the others for their survival and growth. Whereas Jesus' dependency was one that he chose voluntarily the dependence of dalits is forced on them. The dependence of Jesus on God is founded on love whereas the dalits can not love those people who keep them under their thumbs. It is high time that the dalits break the myth of dependency and become a free and independent people - placing their trust and confidence in God.



Jesus' dalitness is symbolized at its best on the cross. It is on the cross that we see him as the broken one, the one crushed, rejected, cast out of the city - a true dalit. He hangs on the cross exposing the highest measure of dehumanization.

The cross is also the price he had to pay for his identification with the dalits - his solidarity with the poor and the outcasts and his confrontation with the powerful that oppress them Here I think, the dalits could be motivated for social change. They should be made to realize that their misery and injustice is not God given - it is man made - and it can and must be changed. We can show Jesus as the one who fought to bring down the unjust socia structure. Just as Jesus had to take up the cross and die in the process of establishing socia justice - the dalits must be prepared for sacrifices and even loss of lives in order to restore their honor and dignity. But their struggle for liberation must go on.

Many Dalit Theologians would identify the cry of Jesus on the cross, 'My God, My God why have you forsaken me" (Mt.27: 46-47) as one of the most authentic dalit experiences. The experience of God-forsakeness is a common and inevitable feeling of the dalits. Sometimes God seems to be so far away - he doesn't seem to care. One can meaningfully convey to the dalits that Jesus has experienced this authentically dalit emptiness. Just as the people mocked and ridiculed Jesus the dalits may become a laughing stock or an abomination in the eyes of the public. But Jesus tells them that even at the thick of the God forsakeness he was certain that God would vindicate him and help him achieve his mission. The same compassionate God (though the dalits can not see the compassion many times - they feel they suffer alone) will certainly vindicate the dalit community.

The Resurrection is the vindication of the mission of Jesus. This can be a tremendous sign of hope for the dalits that they could in fact realize their dream of equality and justice. The risen Jesus is still with them encouraging them and strengthening them to continue their fight against injustice and oppression. By rising from the dead Jesus proved that death is not the last word. Evil and injustice can not and will not have the final victory. This gives hope to the dalits that their struggle against injustice and oppression is not a lost battle. They will see the light of day. They will be able to rise with Jesus to a more human existence.


The problem of the Dalit Christians is indeed a real and serious problem of the Indian Church. It is an issue that demands the immediate attention of the church leadership. They can no longer sit back and tell the world that there is no caste distinction or discrimination in the church. Everyone knows that the opposite is true and the Indian church needs to take bold initiatives in order to liberate the dalit Christians from their age-old slavery and oppression. The injustices and inequalities within the church must first be rooted out if the church needs to challenge the caste - ridden Indian society to change and become more human. Pastors and ministers should involve themselves in the transformation of the society and commit themselves to the task of liberating the innocent victims of an inhuman and unjust social system. In this liberation process there is a need for a specific Theology and Christology that takes in to account the life situation of the dalit Christians.

The present paper is an attempt to look for a meaningful Dalit Theology and more specifically a Dalit Christology. A clear understanding of how to present Jesus in a situation of injustice and exploitation will not only be a help in our own pastoral involvement but can certainly provide a new meaning to the lives of dalits who struggle to make sense out of their misery and exploitation. I have tried to present as actual a picture of the life situation of the dalit-christians as I can. It may appear I am afraid, a bit too negative and pessimistic. People come up with statements that things have changed drastically. My own experience has been different and I am convinced that the changes are only on the periphery. My purpose in taking a close look at the dalit reality in the context of Christology is to refocus my own pastoral ministry and to help if that is possible, some of my associates in ministry to see the relevance of a dalit option.