Archive for April 22, 2014

Christianity and Caste Society in South India

“The Saint in the Banyan Tree: Christianity and Caste Society in India,” by David Mosse, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012, vii-385 pp., ISBN: 978-0-520-27349-8.

David Mosse’s “The Saint in the Banyan Tree” is a product of more than three decades research in south India. The book examines Christianity’s encounter with caste society and the way it has negotiated with Tamil ‘culture’ for its localization. The central questions in this book are: What are the processes through which Christianity has become localised? How has it affected the institutional structures and practices of caste in local society and what implications have these had for politics of secularism and democratic rights in India? Addressing these questions, Mosse presents a historical and thick ethnographic account of Catholicism in a village he calls Alapuram in the Ramanathapuram district in south India. In this study, he unravels not just the complex history of missionization but also the dynamic and contradictory relationships between the Church and the indigenous culture. Mosse argues that while studying religion, it must be approached not as a ‘transhistorical essence or translocal cultural regime with agency of its own, but as an emergent field of debate and practice, the product of particular regional histories’ (24).


In so doing, Mosse moves beyond the general anthropological explanations of the missionary encounter with the indigenous culture and offers a radical and more nuanced perspective that takes into account the question of cultural continuity and rupture, the importance of long-term historical perspective, and the interlinking of culture and power.

Mosse begins with a discussion of Roberto de Nobili’s dualism of ‘religion’ and ‘culture’, which is central to understanding Catholicism’s entry into the Tamil cultural setting. To him, de Nobili viewed Christianity as a rationalizing religion and the local traditions as superstitious. Christianity, hence, attempted to rationalize local culture by reforming indigenous traditions and by secularizing caste. With this, caste was denied its religious significance and practiced only as a civil institution. Secularization of caste allowed converts to retain their caste practices. As Catholicism became indigenized, caste continued to influence the structure of relationship within it.

However, with the ‘consolidation of ecclesiastical authority’ under the British rule, the domain of Catholic religion became ‘progressively dis-embedded from caste society’ and eventually the ‘dual moral complementarity between Christian faith and caste collapsed’ (23). The Santiyakappar festival, which was common to both Hindus and Christians, also became increasingly fragmented, sharpening the religious boundaries between the two communities. With this, the Church became more and more intolerant of caste hierarchy that existed within Christianity and acted as a ‘liberative countercultural space’ (276) for dalit (ex-untouchables) politics, demanding dignity and equality. It used religious conversion as an ‘idiom of protest’ (276) against the institution of caste, which was severely opposed by Hindu nationalists, leading to conflict and violence against Christians. Today, after 30 years, competitive caste and religious politics have altered the structure of relationships in Alapuram. In this study, Mosse has compellingly captured ‘the events, conflicts, compromises, and missionary exigencies that go into making of localized Christianity…, and the responses and effects that this brings’ (269).

While some may find the book’s narrative a little dense, it nonetheless provides a meticulous historical and ethnographic account of the relationship between Christianity and caste society in south India. The study is also important for its uniquely temporal comparison of events in a village for over three decades. Filled with rich empirical analysis and theoretical rigour, the book is a fine piece of anthropological scholarship and contributes immensely to our understanding of caste, religion and identity politics in India. The book will be useful to scholars and students of Anthropology, South Asian politics, and Religious Studies.


© 2014, Sarbeswar Sahoo ‘The saint in the banyan tree: Christianity and caste society in India,’ Contemporary South Asia, 22:2, 213-214,