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

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

by David Mosse

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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

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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.

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Choice - J. J. Preston

"The author achieves both historical depth and ethngraphic sophistication in his analysis of the complex relationship between caste and Christianity in India."

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The Saint in the Banyan Tree

Christianity and Caste Society in India

By David Mosse


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95397-0


A Jesuit Mission in History

The experience of religious conversion is always caught within a "matrix of motives and representations" (Hanretta 2005, 490). Whatever the inner experience, conversion to Christianity in Tamil history was an irreducibly social process that involved change of allegiance given significance by prevailing social relations. Yet regardless of its political import, new Christian affiliation came to be narrated within missionary discourses that construed the change as a matter of spiritual transformation. Inevitably, then, the history of Christian conversion is an account of the incompatible logics and mutual effects of missionary intentions and the exigencies produced by the intentions of others (cf. Hefner 1993). The Tamil convert communities who are the subject of this book were brought into existence in such circumstances. The message of missionaries was assimilated into existing categories of understanding and relating (Robbins 2004a), although south Indian history shows just how diversely Christianity was communicated—and how different was its reception, for instance, by Brahman philosophers, warrior kings, and "untouchables." There is also no doubt that Christian practices and agents altered existing arrangements, but since the social or religious disjunctures involved were defined by existing categories and sets of relations, it makes little sense to talk of Christian conversion as rupture per se. Christian conversion, as argued in the Introduction, is a long-term historical and institutional process of continuity and discontinuity.

The aim of this chapter is to explain in broad terms the historical conditions that shaped Catholicism in a particular Tamil region up to the twentieth century, and so to set the scene for later chapters. I begin by returning to the circumstances—south Indian and European—of Roberto Nobili's mission in the early seventeenth century, drawing a contrast between his Brahmanic perspective and the kingly politics through which Catholicism (mission, churches, affiliations) was actually drawn into Tamil society. The chapter shows how Christian centers were party to processes of precolonial state formation, and how Tamil sociopolitical relations became constitutive of the character of the Christian sacred. Indeed, while Nobili tried to separate Christianity from empire, the logics of mission and of rule were again intertwined, albeit in indigenous form within Tamil strategies of statecraft. I turn then to the external impacts on this politically and culturally assimilated Christianity: first, that of the Roman Church, which eventually suppressed the Jesuit order; and second, that of British rule in south India, which helped institutionalize religion apart from indigenous politics. It will become clear how the changed arrangements of power under colonialism brought new conflicts and new opportunities for a Jesuit mission reconsolidated in the mid–nineteenth century. Among the most significant conflicts were those with Hindu rulers and rival missions—Padroado and Protestant—which intersected in interesting ways with local caste politics. The chapter turns finally to what was the most dramatic turn of events for a mission that had sought Brahmanic emulation and eschewed the dishonor of association with inferior castes—namely, mass conversions to Christianity by subordinated dalits. We will see how the missionary response—Catholic and Protestant—to this social movement profoundly rearranged the language of caste and its position astride the social and the spiritual by putting in place the modern notion of caste as a Hindu religious institution and conversion as a religious rather than a politicaleconomic act.


When in 1606 young Roberto Nobili (1577–1656) settled in Madurai, center of the ancient Tamil Pandyan kingdom, as an "ambassador" under the protection of the Nayak ruler, he signaled a change in the course of Roman Catholicism in the region (Zupanov 2005, 233). As noted in the Introduction, Nobili imagined Christian mission to the Tamils less as a spiritual conquest than as the restoration of a lost truth—the fourth veda of salvation—and he viewed indigenous theological texts not as heathen religion but as a sort of defective Catholicism. His mission would "'sacrilize' Tamil society in the Augustinian sense of giving a visible form, the Catholic Church, to the invisible grace of God" (Zupanov 1999, 115, 133, 154).

The Pandyan kingdom (fourth century B.C.E.–fifteenth century C.E.) had been the site of earlier Christian encounters, being the transit ("mahbar") between the ancient Christian centers of Kottayam (Kerala) and the tomb of the Apostle Thomas at Mylapore (Chennai). But at the start of the seventeenth century, Christianity was largely confined to low-status Portuguese-protected fishing and pearl-diving castes baptized by Francis Xavier (see S.B. Bayly 1981, 1989; Frykenberg 2008). Christian identity was fused to European culture, and to social inferiority. In the eyes of the elite groups that Nobili hoped to influence, baptism meant joining the ritually impure community of parangis (firangi, aliens, or Westerners) whose social and bodily practices (meat eating, alcohol drinking, alleged lax bodily cleanliness) were judged morally inferior, and whose Eucharist ritual involved the use of polluting wine and an interpretation—eating blood and flesh—that "would suggest to the agamic thought the bloody and polluting 'pariah' rites of darkness" (Hudson 2004, 215; cf. Neill 1984; S.B. Bayly 1989, 389–92; Irschick 2003).

Nobili sought to redefine and render honorable the Christian faith, while at the same time revising the European view of Indian paganism. This was to be accomplished by carving out a mediating space for "culture" in the mutual confrontations of civilization and barbarism (cf. Eagleton 2009), beginning with cultural work on himself. Nobili dissociated himself from the Portuguese. He devoted his mind to the study of Sanskrit and Tamil sacred texts, while expecting that his "body covered in the right signs" would be the "passport into the world of the other" (Zupanov 1999, 126). He dressed in layers of ochre robes, wore the sacred thread, separated himself from polluting substances and persons, and lived in a simple thatched hut. He combined behavioral codes of the Brahman with renunciation of the sanniyasi to test a culturally acceptable Tamil model of Christian holiness, while drawing on the devotional and epic traditions of Saivism to develop a Tamil Christian vocabulary (1999, 3, 25–27, 116–17). Nobili presented himself as a Brahman renouncer of royal (Kshatriya) birth, the guru of a devotional tradition "based on privileged knowledge (ñanam) as a way of approaching and understanding the transcendent" (1999, 161). He likened himself to St. Paul, becoming Brahman in order to convert Brahmans, following Jesuit founder St. Ignatius of Loyola's injunction "to enter by the door of the others in order to make them come out" (1999, 126).

At a time when pagans and Christians were regarded as absolutely different and Christian doctrine hardly translatable into pagan languages (Zupanov 2005, 232 et seq.), Nobili framed the relationship between Tamil culture and Christianity as "form" and "content," signifier and signified. As Zupanov (1996, 1203–5) puts it, he replaced a theological articulation (of Brahmanism) with a sociological one. His was an ethnographic perception: where superstition and paganism had hitherto been seen, he discovered Hinduism as a universe of social practice onto which Christianity would graft the light of true religion.

Nobili's innovations were forged not in the abstract, but through contests within a specific social and ecclesiastical context; his ideas were conceived in order to contradict opponents and to persuade and enroll supporters, whether in Cochin, Goa, or Rome, and it was to them (rather than to Tamils) that his arguments were first communicated. There was more than one ecclesiastical conflict into which the controversy over Nobili's methods was drawn, but as Zupanov's brilliant analysis of Jesuit correspondence argues, the most immediate foil for Nobili's peculiar mix of ethnographic argument and inquisitorial investigation (1999, 84) was an older Portuguese missionary, Gonçalo Fernandes, who served the small enclave of Paravar and European Christians in Madurai. Folded into and shaping an epistolary contest between these two missionaries were frictions of class, national rivalries, and a tension between the Holy See and the Portuguese royal Padroado (patronage), which itself revealed the struggle of the time between the papacy and rising nation states (Zupanov 1999, 114; Wright 2004, 56). Nobili was a highly educated self-fashioned Italian aristocrat well connected in Rome, while Fernandes was a lower-class, locally recruited ex-military man, loyal to Padroado and resentful of Nobili's anti-Portuguese elitism and Brahmanic claims, which would have recalled for him precisely the kind of social hierarchy from which his career as a Jesuit had promised escape (1999, 34, 54). Typical of European subaltern agents, insecure in their social position and threatened by alterity, Fernandes's letters adopt what Zupanov calls a proto-etic approach—that is, a descriptive ethnology that positioned him firmly outside the object of study in order to enumerate and classify observed diversity and to record a rejected outer world of pagan idolatry. Nobili's approach, on the other hand, involved a proto-emic "participant observation" concern with the inner hidden world, an ideal Brahmanical textual order that was generative of the manifest world (its imperfect residue) open to theological speculation and reinterpretation with the "eyes of the soul" (Zupanov 1999, passim).

The significant social implication of Nobili's position was not only that converts could retain caste identities and separations, but also that parallel divisions were required among missionaries themselves in order to minister to those of different rank in separate churches. The Brahmanic Jesuit sanniyasis distanced themselves from the priests serving lower castes, restricting contact and commensality, and from c. 1640 a second category of Jesuits, known as pantaracamis (from pantaram, a low-caste Saivite mendicant and ascetic), was created to work among non-Brahmans (Ponnad 1983, 5; Dumont 1972, 250–51, 272 n102g). The only way Jesuits imagined they could preach to the most inferiorized "Pariahs" without jeopardizing the whole mission was covertly, at night, in separate locations, without visible churches. Even then this provoked violent reactions: the demolition of converts' shrines and the arrest of priests (Manickam 2001).

The Brahmanic necessities of Nobili's mission might seem strange in the light of recent scholarship suggesting that rigid rules of caste became prevalent only in the nineteenth century as the result of British colonial rule and the unprecedented prominence it gave to Brahmans and their codes (Dirks 2001; Inden 1990). However, Nobili's missionaries worked at a time when south Indian society was already becoming more susceptible to Brahman influence and more "castelike" in a manner that would, for sure, be intensified under British rule. As S.B. Bayly (1999) argues, in the seventeenth century caste identity and rank became a strategic asset. Self-made warrior rulers of successor states thrown up as the Mogul polity fragmented invoked caste norms, idioms of purity-pollution, exalted blood ancestry, and courtly styles and titles to legitimize their rule and to forge upward links and downward domination. And Brahmans (and other literate groups) themselves gained social power with the growing importance of trade and revenue systems as "men of pen, lamp and ledger" (S.B. Bayly 1999, 66).

Nobili's sociology may not have been mere Brahman fantasy (although the centrality of caste rank and regulations was likely exaggerated to serve the end of defending his mission in Europe), but his goal of winning over the intelligentsia in the expectation that the rest of society would follow in a process of "global conversion" was doomed by the elitist failure to accept the heterogeneity of Tamil society (Zupanov 1999, 175). By the 1630s there were still very few Brahman converts. Jesuits were losing trust in Sanskrit as a missionary tool for recreating sacred texts, and by 1673 the missionary model of Brahmanic dialogue was probably abandoned (ibid., 235), leaving the Madurai mission to expand through the work of its pantaracamis who catalyzed large-scale conversions, not so much among exteriorized "Pariahs" (for whom a third category of missionaries was appointed [Rajamanickam 1972, 49–50]), but rather among the politically highprofile warrior castes (such as Maavars), especially in the southeastern coastal plains known as "Maravar country" (maravar natu)—that is, the kingdoms of Ramnad and Sivagangai.


The mid–seventeenth century is widely regarded by historians as a period of considerable social upheaval in south India. Population movements and political competition accompanied the often unsuccessful attempts to resist invading Mogul armies after the 1565 Battle of Talikota. With the militarization of the southern region, the kingdom of Ramnad itself gained importance as a source of troops and military supplies for Nayak rulers of Madurai (viceroys of the Vijayanagar emperor), who "exploited a pre-existing system of decentralised Maravar martial-political authority, obliging a set of auxiliary powers or palaiyakkarars ('poligars' or chiefs of a palaiyam 'fort') to build garrisons, organize levies and push forward cultivation in return for regional political autonomy" (Baker 1984, 36). The ruling Maravar Ctupatis ("lords of the causeway" to the pan-Indian pilgrimage of Rameswaram) maintained a degree of independence from the Nayak overlords. This was jealously guarded against the constant threats from Dutch and Portuguese powers on the coast, and assertions by lesser chieftains within this loosely structured and decentralized polity.

This was a time of shifting power, secessionism, and royal succession disputes that opened up spaces for new forms of religious leadership offering legitimacy and status to competing warrior chiefs aspiring to become sovereign rulers. Christianity took root in Ramnad as a dissident but not markedly foreign "Brahmanic" sect, spreading through caste and kinship networks, accelerated by the baptism of members of the royal lineage and those with high office in the army (S.B. Bayly 1989, 394, 398; Zupanov 1999, 74). Between 1640 and 1690 the Jesuits Antão de Proença (Paramandarswami) and then João (John) de Britto (Arulanandaswami) claimed tens of thousands of converts often arranged through mass baptism ceremonies. Baptism signified affiliation to a sect that allowed an ambitious but culturally marginal caste or lineage to enhance its standing. Warrior clans had already promoted the cults of their own non-Sanskritic goddesses and warrior deities that dramatized martial power and honor. Thus Christian religion, Bayly suggests, was easily incorporated into the caste lifestyle of the martial Maravars, facilitated by the existence of two well-known soldier groups who were Christian: the Syrian Christians; and the Eurasian Christians or "Topasses," commonly recruited into the armies of the south Indian "poligars" (S.B. Bayly 1989, 395).

Christian affiliation also helped build constituencies or demarcate autonomous domains. Conversion, Bayly argues, was "conceived and understood as an act of statecraft" through which political alliances were forged or fissured. This might involve a "strategic tightening of the ruler's open-ended alliance system," but it could equally dramatize political challenge as individual "poligars" joined Christian churches "to define and stabilise their [own] domains" and to mark these off from the ruling Cetupati (S.B. Bayly 1989, 396–97, 400–401; cf. Dirks 1987, 48). For example, late-seventeenth-century challengers to ruling Raghunatha Tevar ("Kilavan") Cetupati—including influential Maravar chiefs and village headmen, kinsmen of the ruler, members of his court, and contenders for the throne—regularly turned to the Jesuit mission along with their dependents and followers, some perhaps expecting links via the missionaries to the foreign coastal powers.


Excerpted from The Saint in the Banyan Tree by David Mosse. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Meet the Author

David Mosse is Professor of Social Anthropology, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Among his books are The Rule of Water: Statecraft, Ecology and Collective Action in South India (2003) and Cultivating Development: An Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice (2004).

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