Y. T. Vinaya Raj. Re-imagining Dalit Theology - Postmodern Readings. Tiruvalla:Christava Sahitya Samithi. .
Even though the book is only less than 100 pages, it is rich and solid in its contents. The attempt of the author is to construct an Indian Christian theology based on Dalit experiences along postmodern lines. Vinaya Raj views caste as an epistemological problem. Caste as an episteme positions Dalits in a “subordinate” social status and renders them as “lesser human beings.” The category, Dalit, is interpreted as epistemological, political and plurivocal discourses He reexamines the classical Indian Christian theology which is heavily biased towards Brahministic ideology. Vinaya Raj devlops his theme analyzing the stories of Kerala Dalit leaders like Habel (Daivathan), the first Dalit Christian convert in Central Travancore, Poikayil Kumara Gurudevan (Yohannan) who declined his membership in the Mar Thoma Church to start his own Dalit movement, Pratyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha (Church of God of Realized Salvation). Kumara Gurudevan developed alternate liturgical traditions against the casteist liturgies of the traditional Christian communities. . Vinaya Raj finally engages in a Dalit hermeneutics which would foster an “embodied spirituality” against the prevailing spirituality which neglected the significance of the body in human spirituality.
Dr. Sanal Mohan, Profesor at the School of social Sciences of Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, wrote a Forward and Rev. Sunny George has contributed an introductory study note. Both of them place the book in the context of Postmodernism. Sanal Mohan in his forward wrote that the use of postmodern theories have enabled the author “to identify the liberatory aspects of Dalit histories or narratives of life worlds.” Sanal Mohan highlights the contribnution of Vinaya Raj in rejecting the essentialist notions of identity and his attempts to construct an identity through discursive formation, through its historical, sociological , linguistic and cultural discourses. He observes that the Dalit body is “in a position to transgress the restrictions imposed” upon it and “to transform itself in a radically different manner which enables it to enter into the new social body” (pp. 9-10).
There are some striking observations Vinaya Raj makes: “Dalit,” for him is not a caste category, as conceived by majority of the scholars; He observes that it is a category through which the “Dalits reject the notions of caste and its formation of casteist subjectivity. It is a category by which Dalits envision a renewed social status and social space” (p.25). Making use of of the post modernist theories of Steven Seidman he argues that “Dalit” is contested knowledge category which rejects the dominant Brahminic epistemology which conceives knowledge as “situated in the soul and disseminated through ritualistic practices”(27). His main thesis is that the dominant epistemologies rejects the role of body in the knowledge system. For him body becomes the hermeneutical tool of Dalit theology. The reconstructed Dalit body can only transform the Indian social body by shedding its casteist constrictions and thus Dalits can serve as the platform for a dialogical pluriform social existence.
Vinaya Raj is very critical of the traditional Indian Christian theology which has been built upon the modern colonialist frame work. He challenges the Dalit theologians to go beyond the modernist paradigm and carve out a new identity, not in terms of the binary “other,” but as “contested knowledge” (Steven Seidman) or in terms of what Michel Foucault identified as the subjugated “low ranking knowledges.” The discursive formation of the new Dalit subjectivity through the open ended historical , social economic process can create new languages, meaning systems and social and cultural capitals.
Vinay Raj is not very sympathetic to the Marxist categories which are modernsit and essentialist which make people the object of the social process. Rather, he conceives, following Anthony Giddens, Dalits as a social agency establishing a discursive consciousness through the life process. Dalit identity is not a fixed identity, In fact there is no such fixed identity anywhere. However the dominant epistemologies place the marginalized groups in binary categories with fixed secondary status in relation to the dominant ones. Vinay Raj’s attempt is to destroy this basic methodological flaw that infests the major traditions which push Dalits to the margins of society. He is very much indebted to Derrida’s deconstructionist model in developing his Dalit biblical hermeneutics. Dalit reading of the Bible is not simply reading of the text, but reading of themselves. Derrida’s theory of deconstruction helps him to discern the power play behind the construction of meanings. Dalits, for him, constitute a social agency and social space. As a political discourse it provides for the Dalits the “possibility of determining themselves” (28).
The final essay in this book envisions an embodied spirituality. for the author, “spirituality is fundamentally a relational and communal commitment” (67). In Dalit spirituality body becomes the locus
and anti-caste social practice becomes an act of worship and forms its liturgy. Vinay Raj writes: “Labouring in the land, ffor Dalits, is participation in the divine intention of creation” (68). Modernity desacralized nature, marginalized people who lived in a symbiotic relationship with nature and ridiculed their knowledge as irrational and unscientific. What the author tries to do is to reverse this “disenchantment” and cultivate a spirituality of “re-enchantment.”
The author’s attempt to develop a Dalit theological methodology making use of the postmodern theories is commendable.