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

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

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

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

Synopsis

The Saint in the Banyan Tree is 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.

Excerpt

Anywhere between 2.3 and 6 percent of the Indian population are Christian, 24 to 68 million people. Around two-thirds are Roman Catholic, and over 40 percent live in the two southernmost states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where their proportion of the population varies across regions and districts. Behind these figures is a chronicle of Christianity that is fragmented over different missions, regions, and periods. From a complex mosaic, this book draws out one tradition that is of particular importance. It began in the early seventeenth century with a remarkable Jesuit missionary experiment, which by the twenty-first century had been turned to radical social and theological ends. Researched over three decades, this is a historical project with anthropological objectives (cf. Peel 2000). Its first ethnographic and historical subjects are the inheritors of the Jesuit tradition in one particular region and community on the southern plains of present-day Tamil Nadu state (map 1). This locality offers up some of its history through a rich archive of letters, diaries, and notebooks from generations of mostly Jesuit priests who worked there from the early eighteenth century, including the parish priests who lived in the village of what I shall call Alapuram, where I stayed in 1982–84 and to which I have often returned since.

Alapuram, meaning “village of the banyan tree,” is the pseudonym I have invented (to preserve anonymity for present-day informants and to ensure consistency with other published research) for a settlement first mentioned in Jesuit letters of the 1730s as the site of a popular pilgrimage focusing on the miracle-working tree of Santiyākappar, or Saint James the Greater. The saint had been brought from a coastal shrine to this interior village several decades earlier by four brothers, ancestors of the subordinated Paḷḷar caste (long treated as . . .

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