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

By Baxter, Matthew H. | International Bulletin of Mission Research, April 2014 | Go to article overview

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


Baxter, Matthew H., International Bulletin of Mission Research


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

By David Mosse. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 2012. Pp. xx, 385. $75/52[pounds sterling]; paperback $34.95 /24.95[pounds sterling].

David Mosse provides a nuanced study of the history of the relationship of Roman Catholicism to caste in Tamil speaking South India. The relationship is one marked by dramatic reversal: early seventeenth-century Catholicism fused with hierarchical social orderings of caste (Brahmin), whereas late twentieth-century Catholicism fused with egalitarian social critiques of caste (Dalit). This reversal is carefully discussed in chapters that are archivally, anthropologically, and theoretically rich. Mosse's important text will be of interest to those invested in Tamil-speaking South India, Christian mission, and the political development of demands for social justice.

The Saint in the Banyan Tree emphasizes practice as prior to belief. Its approach is genealogical (though the term is not mentioned), not assuming a "preexisting order of religion" but attending to how such order was "shaped through contact with other local discourses, practices, and events" and seeing "coherence, universality, and authority" as the effect of "struggle and contingent action" subsequently concealed (64). The book has a related research stance, arguing against "theorizing anthropologists who have sought not the outer form ... but the inner reasons of caste" (115) and finding that "caste remained central to ... village life" as a basis for relationships of distinction and equality rather than structuralist "notions of purity or impurity" (126). …

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