Book Review, “The Saint in the Banyan Tree”

Mosse, David. 2012. The Saint in the Banyan Tree: Christianity and Caste Society in India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

By: Waqas Butt (University of California, San Diego)

In The Saint in the Banyan Tree: Christianity and Caste Society in India, David Mosse traces Christianity’s complex interactions with caste society in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu over the course of 400 years. This expansive account opens with the archbishop of Chennai publicly confessing for “historically” committing the sin of caste (1). Of course, this public confession is an act of contrition on the part of the Church for wrongdoing and injustices within its own institutions. However, this recognition itself must be understood within the context of a Church comprised by a majority that is dalit – a word derived from Sanksrit that means “broken” or “crushed” and refers to those social groups subject to untouchability. This majority converted to Christianity in order to “reject inferiority and build an alternative future for themselves” (1). This question – to what extent forms of Christianity have historically produced a reflexivity among subaltern groups who have then challenged existing social hierarchies – is neither a new one in anthropology nor is it absent in Mosse’s own account. Having introduced this question, let me now set it aside so that I can provide an overview of the book’s substantive material and novel insights for an anthropology of Christianity.

The tension between rupture and continuity is at the center of this work, and Mosse develops the debates surrounding this tension in productively new ways. Drawing upon ethnographic fieldwork in the village of Alampuram (a pseudonym) located in Tamil Nadu and analyzing a rich archive of letters, diaries, treatises, and other discursive materials, Mosse sets out to examine conversion as “a long-term historical and institutional process of continuity and discontinuity” (31). Thus, the first chapter presents a broad overview of Christianity in the region. Mosse’s historical narrative begins with the Italian Jesuit Roberto Nobili’s attempts at accommodation that would mark a change in Roman Catholicism in the region. While Nobili’s accommodation reflected a bias toward Brahmanical ideals, the primary source of converts for the Jesuit mission was from the Maravar caste (a “politically high-profile warrior caste”). In the pre-colonial period, Mosse traces the incorporation of Christianity into caste life styles, and he presents historical material on how it became part of the politico-religious order through building constituencies, affiliations, and churches that participated in a redistributive ritual and political system. Mosse then notes a shift from the precolonial to the colonial with the suppression of the Society of Jesus by Pope Clement the XIV in 1773 and the onset of British power in the region through the British East India Company. Though an abundance of material is presented, one of the most noteworthy events during this period was the mass conversion of lower caste and non-caste Hindus to Christianity, and the concomitant response by Protestant missions that understood caste through a religious vocabulary rather than as a political-economic matter of agrarian relations of servitude. Or as Mosse states, “While Protestants framed caste as spiritual slavery, Jesuits secularized caste. For the one, spiritual release from the grip of caste was essential; for the other, caste was ultimately irrelevant to eternal salvation” (59). The differing views that Catholics and Protestants had of caste impacted not only the experience of converts but also, would pose future challenges for Catholicism in the region.

In chapter two, Mosse examines the ways in which (1) Jesuits “communicated” Catholicism in rural Tamil Nadu and (2) religious figures such as saints and the Virgin Mary were incorporated into “existing structures of representation” that channeled religiosity toward “Christian rather than pagan objects” (61). Both problems are explored through saint cults in the nineteenth century, dramas of possession and rituals of confession, and a religious culture of Tamil Catholicism marked by features such as the aestheticization of death. A final contribution of this chapter is its treatment of the relationality of Catholic saints, specifically as it bears upon Hindu deities of the village, and their “nonrelational, absolute, or ‘subtantialized’ identities” (61). This section is particularly interesting for anthropological works that are concerned with the various modes of relating Christian conceptions of divinity to non-Christian deities.

Chapter three explores how caste is bound up with the social geography of Alapuram, where the “arrangement of spaces and neighborhoods” map onto caste differences, as well as “the collective organization of agricultural production and a set of relationships of service and obligation” (130). These caste differences were also found in ritual settings, in the form of seating arrangements, distributions of sacrament, and church entrances. It is here that Mosse brings attention to a series of reconciliations, between caste-ordered Tamil social life and Christian universalism, theological demands and popular religiosity. These reconciliations, Mosse seems to indicate, were accepted and authorized by village residents and church officials. However, these reconciliations did not go unnoticed and came to be subject to the politics of Alapuram village and the region more broadly.  Thus, chapter four’s primary concern is with the Santiyakappar festival, which “display[s] a rich amalgam of Hinduized Catholic and Catholicized Hindu practices,” a density of images, and a saturated visual field (136, 138). This festival became an important site for public displays of status through services, donations, and honors. Mosse provides much detail about competition between missionaries and castes to claim dominance in festivals, rituals, and churches themselves. Though there was a democratization of public worship in the 1980s, this chapter brings out how, in the twentieth century, the festival was transformed from a political institution of the village into a religious ceremony, whereby the festival’s power to symbolically reproduce local caste political order was undone, Catholic practices were disembedded from village social relations, and boundaries between Christians and Hindus were sharpened.

The remaining chapters of the book deal primarily with the relationship of Christianity to more recent political struggles on the part of dalits. Chapter five details actions (mass protests, legal-political actions, etc.) on the part of certain groups in Alapuram for greater constitutional rights, civic access, and equality in public spaces. Importantly, these actions were directed at the Indian state (a secular power) rather than missionary churches (a religious one). One difficulty that Christians faced was being excluded from benefits, provisions, and protections that targeted dalits because receiving such items required them to claim a Hindu identity. In this chapter, Mosse also differentiates between those dalits who converted en masse to Protestant Christianity and those who had adopted Catholicism, as well as a third case of those who remained Hindu. Each of these instances illustrates different strategies of social mobility and negotiations of dignity adopted by dalits within specific contexts of power. Chapter six develops fully how contradictions in Tamil Catholicism between Christian universal and the persistence of caste was taken up by dalit Christian activists in the context of Hindu nationalism. This activism targeted anticonversion laws, claims to schedule caste status, and internal discrimination within the church itself while also appropriating the discourse of international human rights, which would allowed them to broadcast experiences of suffering and discrimination to a global network of activist. Moreover, attempts were made to create Christianity as a dalit religion by reworking biblical interpretations and building a dalit theology and anthropology. Mosse concludes this chapter by mentioning how “regional, national, and global arenas of identity formation coincided with a village-level dismantling of earlier religious integration in places like Alapuram” (231). This observation sets the stage for the final substantive chapter, in which Mosse traces village-level discourses on religion and caste and how they articulate with more dominant discourses. In particular, he details the sharpening of boundaries between Christian and Hindu communities and the supposed rise of interreligious antagonism, both of which coincided with the standardization of religious worship in the village in line with global Christianity. However, at the same time, priests and other church officials became more responsive to local social concerns (238-241). Mosse also brings to light a seemingly paradoxical change in Christian Tamil social life: the structural change in which dalits experienced political and economic mobility was increasingly attributed to the agency of individual actors. Drawing on the work of Webb Keane (2007), Mosse makes the point that such an articulation is presupposed by and entails a process of “being social,” that “separate[s] the actors and the act,” “[the] self from social roles and substance and thus a reflective awareness of ‘society’ as a discursive subject of free individuals” (250-51).  I now return to the original question with which I opened this book review; however, let me elaborate on it with material and a conceptual vocabulary taken from Mosse.

An important figure throughout the work is the Italian Jesuit Roberto Nobili previously mentioned. His attempts at accommodation in Tamil Nadu built upon Thomas Aquinas’s differentiation between “truths that the human mind can know through reason and experience” and “truth beyond, known by revelation and faith” (5). Nobili further built upon such a dualism when he differentiated between religion, consisting of abstract claims about “truth, salvation, and morality,” and “the languages and cultures in which it could be implanted” (5). While the truth found in Christian revelation was assumed to demarcate the domain of the religious, the cultural as that which is neutral, civil, or practical could be attached to Christian faith and retained by converts. Mosse rightly points out that this was a particular kind of semiotic ideology that allowed cultural forms (e.g. words as vessels) that could be hollowed out and then, infused with inner meaning taken from an abstract (i.e. transcendental and immaterial) Christian truth. However, this dualism (religion and culture) involved a third term – idolatry. The idolatrous was understood to be dangerous as it was bound up with the superstitious, and unlike the cultural that understood the relationship between signifier and signified as “contingent and changeable,” the idolatrous fused, and potentially confused, semiotic form and meaning (6). Understood as a set of civil distinctions accorded particular social groups, Nobili created an ideological space in which caste society was simultaneously accommodated and relativized while more idolatrous practices were rejected, though Mosse mentions that even in cases of idolatry, a certain amount of latitude was permissible. This insight, the accommodation and relativization of non-Christian religion and society, casts the problematic of rupture and continuity in a distinct light. It allows anthropological studies of Christians to rethink the relationship that many Christian communities must fashion to non-Christian communities, practices, and cultures. Though these questions are not unheard of within the anthropology of Christian (see Engelke 2010), Mosse’s analysis does provide us with an approach to start exploring them in unique ways.

In moving between ethnographic and historical modes of analysis, we can rethink the problem of continuity and discontinuity as a process unfolding in historical time. Mosse argues that, by asking what Christianity has done and continues to do in Tamil social history, the tension between cultural continuity and discontinuity can be resolved, which is undeniably one of the most powerful insights of his work. However, adopting an approach that is at once historical and ethnographic could provide the anthropology of Christianity with new methodological and conceptual concerns that both continue and expand some of its most central empirical interests and conceptual debates. For instance, such an approach would allows us to rethink the sociological awareness and transformative potential associated with Christian conversion, or consider, as Mosse does with Hindu nationalism, the significance that antagonism, as a social experience and political reality, has in the everyday lives of Christian communities that share intimate spaces with non-Christians, Hindu or otherwise. These possibilities reside at the heart of both Mosse’s astute analysis and the anthropology of Christianity itself.

References Cited

Engelke, Matthew. 2010. “Past Pentecostalism: Notes on Rupture, Realignment, and Everyday Life in Pentecostal and African Independent Churches.” Africa 80(2):177–199.

Keane, Webb. 2007. Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter. 1st ed. University of California Press.

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