Viewing The Bible Through The Eyes And Ears of Subalterns In India

by Sathianathan Clarke

Sathianathan Clarke, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Department of Theology and Ethics, United Theological College, Bangalore, India.

Used by permission of the author. Also available online at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


This paper sets out to do four things. First, it situates the concept of Subalterns in the Indian context. Caste plays an important part in its definition. Subalterns are the outcaste (Dalits) and non-caste (Adivasis) communities in the process of contracting a labouring people’s solidarity. Second, it submits a methodological argument. In dialogue with postcolonial discourse on biblical interpretation, it makes the case that subalternity is characterized by the primary interplay of domestic, local and particular mechanisms of power. Thus, this location must be the starting point for interrogating the Bible from the Subalterns’ viewpoint. Third, it examines the complex pattern of changes that the Bible brought about for Subalterns. Three aspects are accentuated while discussing the Bible in relation to Subalterns in India: the Bible entered into a Subaltern world that already had a long history of iconizing material objects of sacred power; the Bible was an important instrument for expounding and expanding colonial mission activity; the Bible functioned as an alternate canon within the worldview of Hinduism, which kept its sacred book (Vedas) beyond the reach of Dalits and Adivasis. Finally, it extrapolates three aspects of Subaltern biblical hermeneutics in India. There is an attribute of generosity employed in retrieving universal axioms from the Bible, which is not devoid of imaginative contextual amplification in its application to human life. Moreover, Subalterns’ interpretation of the Bible is directed by the goal of transformation rather than understanding. Furthermore, the summons of Subalterns’ hermeneutics is not only to take up the challenge of working within the multiscriptural context but also to take seriously the ramifications or doing hermeneutics in the multimodal and multimedia context of the Dalits and the Adivasis of India.


Indian society is divided into three categories.1 First, we have the caste community, which Consists of four castes that are hierarchically ordered.2 The Brahmins (priests) are the preservers and protectors of the eternal laws of the Universe (Dharma); the Ksatriyas (rulers and warriors) are the defenders and the guarantors of the safety and security of the community; the Vaisyas (business persons) are the conservers and distributors of wealth; and the Sudras (the labourers) are the working majority involved in the production of essential commodities. Although there is a clear separation between the first three castes, which are ritually pure and socio-economically dominant (referred to as the twice-born), and the fourth labouring caste, which is ritually suspect and socioeconomically dominated (referred to as the once-born), they together form the constituents of the Hindu human community.

Second, related to, but outside of, these four segments of the Indian human society there exists a fifth outcaste community. Even though this populace consists of about sixteen percent of the Indian community, it was thought of as being sub- or non-human; thus it was not included into its composition. This large group was ejected from the contours of Hindu society: it still lives outside the gates of the Hindu society with the labels "Outcaste," "Untouchable," "Exterior Caste," "Depressed Class," and "Dalit." I use the term Dalit in this paper for the following three reasons.

(1) This term has become an expression of self-representation, which Dalit activists and writers have chosen both in recovering their past identity and projecting themselves as a collective.3 (2) The word Dalit comes from the root "dal" meaning oppressed, broken, and crushed, which most realistically describes the lives of almost all those who are members of this community. The Human Rights Watch report has the following to say on the situation of the Dalits:

More than one-sixth of India’s population, some 160 million people, live a precarious existence, shunned by much of society because of their rank as untouchables or Dalits -- literally meaning "broken" people -- at the bottom of India’s caste system. Dalits are discriminated against, denied access to land, forced to work in degrading conditions, and routinely abused at the hands of the police arid of higher-caste groups that enjoy the State’s protection. In what has been called "hidden apartheid" entire villages in many Indian states remain completely segregated by caste.4

(3) Finally, the term Dalit incorporates elements of a positive expression of pride5 and a resistive surge for combating oppression.6

Third, unobliged to the Indian caste system, and yet marginalized by caste communities, are many distinct and diverse communities that have been grouped under the term Adivasis. They are also referred to as Tribals or Schedule Tribes (ST). "India has 427 ‘scheduled’ tribes -- each unique in its own right . . . they ostensibly are a major segment of the Indian social fabric, with a legitimate share in the subcontinent’s unmatched pluralities."7 The term Adivasis (the ancient or original dwellers of the land) is utilized here to retain their claim of being the original people of the land and to point to their cultural and religious relatedness to things of the earth/land. Further, according to a recent article entitled "Call us Adivasis, Please," Gail Omvedt suggests that this is the term with which they would want to be named.8 The numerous Adivasis of India, who constitute about eight percent of its population, can be classified under three major racial and linguistic groups, which are spread over the mountainous and the plateau regions of the country: the Austric Munda language family group; the Dravidian group; and the Tibeto-Burmana Mongoloid group.9 The Adivasis "generally have lived through exploitative, oppressive and suppressive social and political structures in India." Mostly, they have been "alienated from their land both by ‘greedy’ caste communities and by overzealous governments, which takes away tribal land for mining and big industries."10 Thus, poverty and estrangement from the means of their livelihood (land) threaten Adivasi communities in India. Along with this there is a serious threat to their traditional culture and worldview from the forces of both modernization and Hinduization.

In this paper, the term Subalterns refers to the last two groups, namely, the Dalits and the Adivasis. But before I proceed further, a brief word on the background of the term ‘subaltern" may be in order. Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist writing to counter Fascism in 1920s and 1930s, popularized the term. He substituted it for the commonly accepted term "proletarian class." In India, this term has been brought to the center of critical scholarship by the Subaltern Studies Collective writing since 1982 on South Asian history and society from a "subaltern perspective." In the Preface to Subaltern Studies, Volume I, Ranajit Guha proposes the following definition: "The word ‘subaltern’. . . stands for the meaning as given in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, that is, ‘of inferior rank.’ It will be used . . . as a name for the general attitude of subordination in South Asian society whether this is expressed in terms of class, caste, age, gender and office or in any other way."11 In a clarificatory note, at the end of this same Preface, he further opines, "The terms ‘people’ and ‘subaltern classes’ have been used synonymous throughout this note. The social groups and elements included in this category represent the demographic difference between the total Indian population and all those whom we have described as the elite."12 While I have no objections to this general trend to rewrite history and write about society from a people’s viewpoint, my own use of the term is confined to the Dalit and Adivasi communities in India. In the most general of ways they can be taken to be the labouring people who are not the elite of India. They stiffer multiple disadvantages. In the words of the World Development Report 2000/2001, "Evidence from India shows that scheduled castes [Dalits] and scheduled tribes [Adivasis] face a higher risk of poverty. These are among the structural poor who not only lack economic resources but whose poverty is strongly linked to social identity, as determined mostly by caste."13 Thus, the term Subalterns is utilized to allude to those communities, which were outside the Hindu-based caste system (Dalits and Adivasis or Tribals). Dalits number about one hundred and eighty to two hundred million and Adivasis number about eighty-five to ninety million in the population that has touched the one billion mark. In this paper, I have consciously avoided talking of the Subaltern, as if it is one phenomenon. Rather, in order to integrate the awareness that this tern connotes multiple realities, having many context-specific variations, I employ the plural, that is, Subalterns. And yet I opt for the one common term mainly to reflect the history of solidarity that is emerging between Dalit and Adivasi communities. In the end, Subalterns’ scholarship finds strategic rather than essential reasons to project a common identity for the differing strands of Dalit and Adivasi communities in India.

II. Subalterns’ Viewing of the Bible Accentuates the Domestic, the Local, and the Particular

Subalternity is characterized by the primary interplay of domestic, local and particular mechanisms of colonialism. Despite all the caveats that are built into the postcolonial biblical discourse, I find that "postcolonial" is somewhat of a modern marker, which takes its multiple birthings from a common master narrative. Thus, postcolonialism tends to deal with the diverse variants of a grand narrative: East-West, North-South, European-Asian, and Empire-Native subjects.

Of course, there is a struggle to break free of this Orientalist trapping. And yet one cannot get away from the fact that there is a divide between the local or national context and an international or global context. Thus knowledge about the local and the particular is framed, and being framed, within the overall dynamics of this international/transnational world. In the domain of Asian biblical studies let me cite the example of R.S. Sugirtharajah. From one angle, his description of postcolonialism relocates its interrogatory activity well beyond the domestic and the local. Thus he suggests, "The current postcolonial criticism takes the critique of Eurocentricism as its central task . . . negatively put, postcolonialism is not about historical stages or periodization. Neither is it about lowering the flags of the Empire and wrapping oneself with new national flags. Positively, it signifies three things -- representation, identity, and a reading posture, emerging among the former victims of colonialism."14 This line of argument is further picked tip in another article, which functions as a sort of Preface for The Post-colonial Bible. Here Sugirtharajah attempts to allow representatives from various former colonies to boldly and engagingly talk back to their Eurocentric colonizers. He reiterates the west/north/colonial -- east/south/colonized feature of the bilateral dialogue pointed to earlier: "What postcolonialism does is to enable us to question the totalizing tendencies of European reading practices and interpret the texts on their own terms and read them from our specific locations. 15 Interestingly, much of the "us" and the "our" doing this reading is projected in nation-state terms.

And yet Sugirtharajah is not oblivious to the need for postcolonial discourse to incorporate the goings on in the realm of the domestic, the local, and the particular. He expresses this very clearly when he states,

Postcolonialism may give the impression that the sole preoccupation of the colonized after territorial independence is colonialism. There are grave ramifications to such a postulation. Excessive interest in colonialism can cause us to ignore our histories before colonialism, and also conveniently to overlook indigenous annexations and annihilations of our own people and their history. 16

Taking this cue from Sugirtharajah, I want to suggest that viewing the Bible through the eyes and ears of the Subaltern will require starting from the domestic, the local, and the particular and then working one’s way upward to the various dynamics of relationalities. Starting with the local and the particular affirms that power operates in the multiplex relations of everyday life in which common people are engrossed. The agency of power moves beyond state and multinational apparatuses; rather it includes all "micro-mechanisms" that effect and are effected by local Subaltern communities. The words of Felix Wilfred are apt: "Subaltern hermeneutics is not simply one more field of hermeneutical enterprise, nor is it simply a completion or corrective to the dominant hermeneutical project. It is a hermeneutics, so to say ‘from below."’17 This does not mean that the domestic, the local and the particular become fetish for such scholarship. Nor does this mean that biblical interpretation remains at the most rudimentary and parochial levels without interrogating state and global apparatuses of power. It is the task of Subaltern interpreters to synthesize the constituents of local and particular forms of power transactions with large-scale state and global agents of social, economic and cultural control. Foucault is instructive on this issue,

One must rather conduct an ascending analysis of power, starting, that is, from its infinitesimal mechanisms, which each have their own history, their own trajectory, their own techniques and tactics, and then see how these mechanisms of power have been -- and continue to be -- invested, colonised, utilised, involuted, transformed, displaced, extended etc., by ever more general mechanisms and by forms of global dominance.18

III. Subalterns in India and the Polyvalency of the Bible

The advent of the Bible engendered a complex set of changes in the Subaltern world. I suggest that the multidimensionality of these dynamics viewed from the domestic, the local and the particular will give us a broader understanding to viewing the Bible through the eyes and ears of the Subalterns. There are at least three aspects that must be stressed when discussing the Bible in relation to Subalterns in India: the Bible entered into a Subaltern world that already had a long history of iconizing material objects, which preserves and manifests magical and mysterious sacred power; the Bible was an important symbol for colonial mission activity, which used it as a means of expounding and expanding the Christian religion; and the Bible cannot but be interpreted against the backdrop of the worldview of Hinduism, which kept its sacred book (vedas) beyond the reach of Dalits and Adivasis.

(a) Bible as Native Talisman

The Bible enters into a pre-existing religious and cultural Subaltern worldview. And the religions of Dalits and Adivasis allow for much magicality and mystery to be captured and conserved in material artifacts. The concept of the talisman is native to the Subalterns in India. A talisman is "any object held to be endowed with magic virtue" because of its ability to mediate "powers of planetary influences and celestial configurations."19 In the Dalit and Adivasi context such talismans are associated with the power to avert evil, impart healing, and invoke fortune.20 The role of the kalasam pot (a kind of tall pot made of clay) kept inside most Dalit homes in Tamilnadu may be a case in point. The spirits of deceased elders are said to be housed in these clay pots that are kept in the huts. The power of these spirits inhabits the kalasam pots. Thus these material objects are treated with reverence as symbols of the magical dimensions of everyday life. Puja (worship) is performed before these auspicious symbols of power in order to deflect evil and invite fortune for the members of that particular household.21

There is no doubt that this native Subaltern worldview influenced their viewing of the Bible. Thus, the Bible was invited to take its place as a sacred object, somewhat resembling the conception of the talisman. Grafe notes this tendency while recording the history of Christianity in Tamilnadu in the nineteenth and twentieth century.

Many of the numerous ceremonies and customs connected with those occasions, although they appear in a Hindu context, do not themselves reveal a particular religious meaning. Some have, however, gained a hidden association with the belief in evil spirits (e.g., placing a piece of iron into the hands of a girl in puberty or of a mother after giving birth in order to drive spirits away), in the rule of the stars of the divine nature of the sun. In some cases Christian symbols are substituted in them, but the underlying idea is not Christian (e.g., placing a Bible under the pillow of a sick person) 22

Let me share a similar incident from my own experience of many years ago. It was dusk and I was travelling to the Dalit colony on my motorcycle. Just as I entered the settlement, the catechist along with a couple of the Church elders waved me down in front of a particular hut. I got down from the motorcycle. They informed me that there was a Hindu woman who was sick and that they wanted me to pray for her. I went into the hut and before praying they asked me if I had the Bible. I went back to the motorcycle and took my Bible from the carry-box. When I entered the hut I started to open the Bible to find an appropriate passage to read. The catechist and elders informed me that this was not necessary as the woman and her family members were illiterate and had no knowledge about the Scriptures. And yet they urged me to place the Bible on her head as I prayed for her. This request was more than I could handle. And yet I gently rested the securely closed Bible (it was one of those Bibles that could be fastened with a zip) on her shoulder and prayed for the sick woman. I could not resist slightly opening my eyes at some point of the prayer to catch a glimpse of the intense and expectant posture of trust that was expressed by all those in the room, Christian and Hindu Dalit alike. Truly, it was a picture of reverence, awe, and mystery. The Bible may have been unread and unreadable for this Dalit community; yet its power to touch and to act was endorsed by these Subalterns. In this instance the Bible was not read but there was a distinct view of what it was and what it could perform.

Such a magical view of the Bible cannot be ignored. In fact, much of elevation of the Bible in rural India today stems from such a notion of the Bible as sacred object, which has deep roots in the religious and cultural tradition of Subalterns. Thus, it cannot be wished away by either the Enlightenment-based theologians (those like some of us who believe that the authority of the Bible is an impediment to our reason-driven worldview) or the post-modern theologians (those like some of us who believe that the Bible sets up an unnecessary universal norm over the flourishing of many particularities). Rather the magical notion of the Bible ought to be accepted as being part of the view of Subalterns in India.

It must be added that this magical notion of the Bible must also be interpreted as a pragmatic appropriation of a professed sacred object of written testimony among mostly non-literate communities. In the last Census of India (1991) literacy rates were much lower among the Dalits and Adivasis. On a national scale the literacy levels were at 52.21 percent. However, the Dalits registered 37.41 percent literacy while the Adivasis lagged further behind achieving only 29.60 percent. This brings me to one of the reasons for entitling this presentation "Viewing the Bible through the Eyes and Ears of the Subalterns." The clash of metaphors is deliberate: viewing through ears! The viewing here is not the same as reading, which most Subalterns are unable to do. Instead, viewing in this context is more akin to a perception, an outlook, an insight, a judgement, and discernment. The Bible is viewed as a sacred object, one that contains and conserves the Divine power. That is why it is found that non-literate Christians among Subalterns do not hesitate to buy copies of the Bible and display them in a prominent place in their homes.

(b) Bible as Colonial Fetish

Even while accepting the magical notion about the Bible, which comes from the native worldview of the Subalterns, we cannot depoliticize its arrival in India. The fact remains that its circulation occurred during the colonial period. And yet one cannot easily jump to the conclusion that the Bible was jointly promoted by the colonial administrators and missionary personnel as the tool for colonizing the Indian mind. Gauri Viswanathan paints a much more complex picture: "The gingerliness with which the colonial administrators approached the issue of instruction in the Bible led to what some missionaries felt were practices of only secondary and perhaps even unsound value, such as treating the life of Christ as biography or teaching the Scripture in colleges for purely secular reasons for students of law. The government schools would not even risk teaching the Bible as a historical work."23 In fact, she further unequivocally asserts, that from her review of British Indian history, "out of deference to Indian religious sentiment the Bible was proscribed from Indian schools and colleges."24

Perhaps in this ambivalence lies the power of the Bible, especially among the Subalterns. On the one hand, the Bible became a (one can even say, the) powerful metasymbol of the colonialists’ culture of literacy. Thus, it gradually influenced the manner in which the Subalterns conceived of their own future development. It also sets in motion a process of compensations whereby those who were assimilated into the system of literacy were entitled to social and economic rewards. For example, in the Christian mission, the school and the church at local levels were managed/ controlled by the "educated" native teacher-catechist and women who became sufficiently literate were employed as Bible Women. And yet, on the other hand, the Bible as the archetype of this model of progress and advancement was realistically mostly outside the reach of the Subalterns. Thus, even while tacitly consenting to the universal value of the colonial culture of literacy, Subalterns were alienated from it because of their inability to participate meaningfully in its effects.

I still remember one of my experiments, which I performed in my rural Dalit congregation almost twenty years ago, that involved the reading of the Bible. I had noticed that there was a bored and disinterested look on the faces of most of the congregation when it came to the Bible readings. I wanted to test this observation. The reading that particular morning was from Matthew, one of the portions of the Sermon on the Mount. After I read the passage with great gusto and dramatic voice modulation, I said a prayer and moved into my sermon. I started by asking them what they thought was interesting about the Bible reading. There was complete silence. Then I deliberately gave them misleading cues. I asked them if they remembered Adam. They went on to narrate bits and pieces of the story at the Garden of Eden. Then I mischievously prompted them with the name of David. They assumed that the Bible reading also contained a reference to David; and thus they went on to creatively merge the story of Adam and Eve with King David. I was tempted to keep on with this collective exercise at creative narratology. But I restrained myself and reread the Matthew section. Still there was some lack of understanding. Thus I did what I ought to have done all along: I retold the Matthew pericope in my own words. On the one hand, they were not at all embarrassed that they had created a story that really was not part of the Genesis narrative. On the other hand, it was evident to me that the world of the Bible was in many ways an alien world to them. This was the world of text with its own structure, genre, and syntax, which was not easy to enter into for those immersed in the world of orality.

In a strange way, because of their functional distance the very thing that was invoked to be their idol alienates Subalterns. It is in this sense that I talk about the Bible as colonial fetish. It functions as a commodity that determines social, economic and cultural power within a system: even while being the ideological nucleus of the community it constantly eludes their effectual grasp. The power of the Bible thus is enhanced in such ambiguity. While the Bible, as the archetype of the colonial culture of literacy, was something of a fetish for the Subalterns, it, nonetheless, functioned more productively and forcefully in their local interactions with Caste Hinduism. It is to this dimension that we shall now move.

(c) Bible as Alternate Canon

Let me start this section with a poignant comment in a Mission Report of 1938 that expresses another major facet of the Bible as viewed from the perspective of Subalterns in India:

One hundred years ago the Marquis Wellesley thought that the circulation of the Bible, ‘which taught the doctrine of equality without the safeguard of a commentary’, seemed unsafe in India. And of course he was right in so far as he wished to maintain the status quo. For the Bible is explosive material. It has already produced a bloodless revolution in India. The whole movement for the emancipation of the Untouchables has its roots in Christian conceptions of equality.25

The Bible has disturbed the socio-cultural world of India at a provincial level. For at least a millennium Indian society has been structured by a religious worldview that advanced a system of social and economic stratification based on caste. Subalterns were outside the entitlements of the caste community. Specific to our context, the Subalterns were forbidden to read and hear the sacred scriptures of the Hindus. Thus, they were cut off from all forms of literacy, especially from Hindu sacred texts. It is in the light of the overall discrimination against the Dalits that we must interpret the design of Hindu Caste communities to keep them unlettered. Traditional knowledge as contained in the Hindu sacred scriptures was not to be communicated to the Dalits. Classical education was thus deliberately a closed system. In sharp contrast to this traditional worldview, the Christian missionaries consciously opened up education to all segments of society. And let us not ignore the fact the "church cum school" played an important part in this process of bringing knowledge to the Subalterns. Thus, the people of the no-vedas were given the opportunity to become the people of the Christian Scriptures. Moreover, in the rural regions they constructed schools where their converts were, which made Dalit and Adivasi communities the centre of missionary educational activity. This objective to utilize schools as a means of integrating Dalits into Indian society is explicitly stated as early as 1880: "Our system of education is decidedly Christian: we make no distinction of caste; the Brahmin stands in the same class with the other boys; and the influence these boys thus educated must have on their relations and on society in general is not to be fully calculated, not perhaps even fully known, until mortality is swallowed up in life.26

In this situation the accessibility of the Christian sacred Scriptures was an opportunity for empowerment. It involved the decision of embracing a central religious symbol that was denied to them by Hinduism. This aspect of the Bible with regard to disturbing, reinscribing and transfiguring the structures of power/ knowledge on behalf of the subjectivity of the Subalterns must be sufficiently taken into account in our ongoing discourse. There are two sides to this notion of Bible as alternate canon. The first suggests the furnishing aspect of the Bible. Here the Bible fills a void. The Bible supplies the Subalterns with a frame for knowledge that they did not have to start with; and yet which they seemed to have desired. The words of Thangaraj are pertinent:

Since most Christians came from the lower rungs of the caste ladder, their ignorance of and the inaccessibility’ of the Vedas made it easier for them to accept the Bible as the Veda. The term Veda did not become a bone of contention as did the terms for God and Church among others. In other instances the converts had to substitute a Christian concept, practice or place for the Hindu ones they had before. But they had not a Veda as such which had to be substituted by the Bible. Consequently, it was easy for them to accept the new book as their Veda.27

The second points to the subversive side of the Bible. From this perspective, the Bible challenges and supplants the Hindu vedas. For the Subalterns, this kind of valorization of the Bible as canon provides an alternate worldview, which displaces the worldview of the Hindu vedas. In a moving speech made in the 1830s, Ghasidas, a Dalit religious leader of the Sathnamis of Central India, talks about the Bible as such a subversive canon. He states,

pendra [white] saheb has come with only one satyanam [true and pure name] -- he has come from the north -- and has brought the jumma Dabdar (Bible) with him -- that will destroy the religious books of the Brahmins -- the Book cries out the name of the satnam [Jesus, as embodiment of true and pure name] and tells his story.28

IV. Biblical Hermeneutics through the Eyes and Ears of Subalterns in India

Thus far I have dealt at length with the manner in which the Bible as a metasymbol functioned among the Subalterns in India. In this final section I want to delve into certain features of the process of interpretation that are utilized by Subalterns. I suggest that in India at least three components can be noted in the enterprise of Subaltern Biblical hermeneutics. First, there is a distinct mindset of generosity extant in the practice of retrieving universal axioms from the Bible, which is not devoid of imaginative contextual amplification in its application to human life. Second, there is an overall transformative objective in Subalterns’ interpretation of the Bible. And, thirdly, the problematic for hermeneutics is not so much the challenge of the multiscriptural context as it is the multimodal and multimedia one.

(a) Bible as "Canon" for Recovering Universal Human Values and "Canon" for Subverting Local Forms of Subjugation and Alienation

A couple of years ago I led a two-day seminar for about twenty Dalit Christian social activists working in Tamilnadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh (three southern states in India). These were some of the most radical enablers of Dalit mobilization for liberation in South India. They were strident, courageous, confrontational and shakers of their particular worlds. In one of my early presentations, I contrasted the Hindu religious, social and cultural world of text and temple with their own Dalit world of drum and tent. In doing so I delicately tossed the Bible on the ground in front of me saying that there was nothing intrinsic to the materiality of the Christian Scripture that made it holy and venerable. Two reactions ensued. First, the activist closest to me picked it up and moved it away from me. He later confessed that he was afraid that I might kick the Bible with my foot by mistake which would have been a big insult to the whole Christian religion. It no doubt contained sacred teachings for all Christians. Second, many came to me after the talk and thanked me for the many insights that they had gained; but also shared their fear that I was going to do something dreadful with the Bible. They asserted that for them the principles for universal human rights came from the Bible. It was interesting that "my" Bible was "their" Scripture, which in turn was "the book" for humanity.

Subalterns project a unified and normative view of the Bible in order to hold other human beings accountable to a common universal. This respectful attitude is held both to the Bible as an object, which we have analysed at length in the previous section, and to the subject matter of the Bible. Such a "hermeneutics of generosity" in dealing with the content of the Bible is clearly demonstrated in a methodical and systematic way in the ten Bible studies published by V. Devasagayam. Each Bible study somewhat obediently unravels the biblical text with great clarity and creatively to distil the implications of the message of the respective passage for common human living. Here the power of the various biblical texts to come alive, address, and convict all of humankind is a manifest assumption. In the words of Devasagayam,

We live unauthorised lives of faith. Hence there is an urgency to recover our tradition of faith and to permit that tradition to permeate our Christian vocation. In these Bible studies we are seeking to recover the Biblical vision, in order that this might orient us towards an authentic Christian discipleship and thereby challenge us to work toward the dismantling of the caste system that undergirds and makes possible an oppressive culture.29

This confidence to "recover" the message of the Bible, however, is accompanied by a related process of reading their subalternity into the Biblical text in order to valorize subjectivity. Maliekal shares with us a concrete example of this dimension of Subaltern hermeneutics:

When Ebenezer, the village elder and the Madiga [Dalit from Andhra Pradesh in South India] ideologue . . . boasted that St. Thomas, the Apostle, was a Madiga, because he had dared to place his fingers into the wounded flesh of Jesus, he was presenting the software-chip of a potential Madiga identity theology. He was trying to assert his pride in his traditional trade, the identity-marker of his caste, by tracing an etiology for it and taking the stigma attached to it.30

The aforementioned words of Devasagayam and Maliekal further reveal the notion of the Bible functioning as a canon to destroy the injustices that keep the Subalterns oppressed. In the former, the attack is against the caste system and oppressive culture practiced by the Caste communities; and in the latter the censure is directed against society’s inclination to stigmatize communities based on occupation. Thus, all human beings are made obedient to the dictates of the Bible message. The truths that are recovered from the Bible are used to effect changes in the depraved power relations that exist in contravention of the biblical vision. This is in continuity with the tradition of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Peter Matheson in his fascinating work of analyzing the pamphlets that were circulated during the Reformation reminds us: "The Reformation . . . was a struggle for power as much as for truth."31 This bespeaks of a struggle in which the Bible was used to move power away from the clergy to the laity, from the nobility to the peasants and from the social elite to the commoners. It is in the representation of this ethos of struggle that "[t]he wood-cut adorning one pamphlet depicts the word of God as a canon."32

It is because of this "hermeneutics of respect" operative in Dalit interpretation of the Bible that the historical-critical method has not overtaken Subaltern readings. In fact, "a ‘Love-Hate’ relationship with historical-criticism" is said to exist in Subaltern hermeneutics.33 But this does not mean that biblical texts are fixed and rigid entities. The Bible is a fluid referent for Subalterns. It holds together a novel dialectic that does not easily end in closure: the dynamic of a correction which itself is a contextual assertion in need of further rectification. For example, let me return to the interpretation of Ebenezer, the Dalit elder and ideologue. The retrieval of the Bible narrative concerning the incident of Thomas putting his finger into the wound of Jesus is a contrived (in the sense of improvised) interpretation. By a dialectical process of calculatingly reading Subalterns’ interests into the narrative and resourcefully reading beyond the text, the Dalit elder has created fluidity for the text. The text itself does not record Thomas ever putting his fingers into the wounds of Jesus. The fact is that he was invited by Jesus to do so; but Ebenezer prolongs the story in plausible terms in order to address his particular Subaltern context. A. Maria Arul Raja, in another article, puts this well. The Dalitness of hermeneutics chooses to ‘stand between the text (here the Bible, as the record of divine revelation and/or the work of art) and the addressee (Dalits), rather than between the ad-dresser (biblical authors) and the text (Bible)."34 This already is beginning to split over into the next feature of Subaltern hermeneutics to which we shall turn.

(b) Subaltern Hermeneutics Strives for Transformation Rather than Understanding

"The Primary purpose of People’s Hermeneutics . . . is to gain enlightenment on their existential problems and to empower themselves to solve them through transformative action in order to enhance life."35 This instrumentality of the Bible has been consistently pointed to in the previous section. Whether as a native talisman or a colonial fetish or an alternate canon, the Bible was incorporated into the everyday life of the Subaltern in a functional manner. This is consistent with the way in which Subalterns deal with its content. The following crisp statement quoted in an early twentieth century Mission Report may be cited to make my point: "‘No’ said the child, ‘the Bible does not end with Timothy; it ends with Revolutions."36 The above statement, coming from a reflection on life among Christian Dalits in Tamilnadu, South India during the 1930s, is an interesting example. On the one hand, the observation that is made by the child concerning the facts of the sequential ordering of the books of the Bible is somewhat accurate: Timothy is not the last book of the Bible. On the other hand, the alternate fact that is claimed is enigmatic in its truth. And yet it bespeaks of the transformative intent of Bible interpretation. While it may not be accurate with regards to the actual name of the last book of the Bible, it nonetheless may be truthfully indicating the operative ends (‘end’ in terms of what it finally accomplishes) that can be expected if the Bible is put to work in real life. A. Maria Arul Raja makes this same point cogently when he observes that "the Bible [for Dalits] by its very nature, is not primarily meant for dogmatic or pietistic or even moralistic interpretation, but essentially oriented towards ‘performing’ transformation."37

Such "performative" dimensions are very much part of oral culture and tradition. I have in another context made the argument that "oral scriptures" are the authoritative phenomena that function realistically and tangibly in the lifeworld of the Subalterns. In a situation where Dalits and Adivasis are unable to participate in the literacy-based worldview of the Bible because of their semiliteracy or illiteracy, they live with and under oral versions of Biblical narratives that are corporately weaved together through the calculating and creative interpretations of their ears-eyes. Oral scriptures are open-ended and fluid; however, they have their origins in readings of the written word. And, such oral scriptures perform in their ability to transform. This notion of performance as transformation is native to oral cultures. Felix Wilfred puts it well:

That which has been said about the oral, performative and strongly emotional character of the religious experience of the subalterns only reinforces the need for a distinct subaltern hermeneutics, different from the textual one. Such a hermeneutic is implicit in the performative nature of subaltern experience itself. For performance is ‘a behavior mode of organizing meaning’ in immediate relationship to context and the life-world. It is in performance in a particular context that the communicative potential of the oral tradition manifests itself. Performance-in-context is the stage where oral tradition gets interpreted.38

It must be noted that this performative dimension of oral scripture bringing about transformation is not something that is not discussed in postcolonial biblical discourse. In the words of Fernando F. Segovia, "the goal [of postcolonial studies in relation to the Bible] is not one of merely analysis and description but rather one of transformation: the struggle for ‘liberation’ and ‘decolonization’."

(c) Subaltern Hermeneutics Moves from the Invitation of the Multi-scriptural Context to the Demands of the Multimodal and Multimedia One

The call by contemporary postcolonial Asian biblical scholars, particularly Thangaraj40 and Sugirtharajah, to expand the task of hermeneutics beyond the Christian Scripture is meaningful and portentous. Let me invoke Sugirtharajah for a final time. He states,

The other mark of postcolonial reading will be its advocacy of a wider hermeneutical agenda to place the study of sacred texts -- Christian-Hindu Christian-Buddhist, Christian-Confucian -- within the intersecting histories which constitute them. It will replace the totalitarian and totalizing claims of biblical narratives with the claim that they have to be understood as the negotiated narrative strategies of a community, to be heard and read along with rather communally inspired narratives. A postcolonial reading will see these texts within an intertextual continuum, embodying a multiplicity of perspectives.41

Such an ecumenical interreligious focus will no doubt enrich mutual understanding and forge innovative theological resources. This is quite apart from the prospect that it will lead to the undercutting of setting the Bible as the only true and revelatory book of religious knowledge. And yet this will not be very beneficial to the Subalterns of India. Interpretation of the Bible in India includes the recovery of the memory and hope of Subalterns, which is based on the collective experience of the divine in their history, and which is preserved in reflective media other than writing.

Dalit and Adivasi communities in the task of reflexivity, which involve both the capacities to be reflective and negotiate meaning, utilize material culture in its multimodal and multimedia forms. By multimodal I am referring to various modes of receiving knowledge. The mode of reason, a function of the mind, is often assumed to be the only instrument of knowledge reception and production. And yet communities receive and generate knowledge using the modalities of heart, body, and soul also. The term "multimedia" refers to the material forms in which such knowledge is contained, preserved and circulated. Again it is easy to buy into the view that written texts are the predominant medium by which human beings record, store and distribute the knowledge that they receive and produce. But that would not be true of many subaltern communities in India. Local and traditional knowledge for such communities are received, produced, stored and circulated in an array of multimodal and multimedia forms. "Coming to our senses" thus for those interested in including the knowledge systems of Subalterns in India means becoming aware of what is represented by heart, body, mind and soul through reflection on all the modes of seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting. It is pertinent to register the point that communities that work with their hands and are intimately related to the products that they create do not have a need to separate their reflective activity from the material activity that they are involved with. Thus production, reflection and communication are connected and integrated into a human way of living. Praxis is a way of life: action-reflection-action is not an artificial exercise that one must take time to inculcate into one’s everyday existence; rather it becomes the natural cycle of individual and corporate living. Thus, on the one hand, drumming, dancing, weaving, painting and making of artifacts become media through which Dalits contain, shape and express their reflections on the Divine, the world and human beings. On the other hand, drumming, dancing, spinning, weaving, bamboo work, painting and carving are vehicles, that naturally function to capture, corroborate and communicate the Adivasis reflection on their experience of all aspects of reality as they encounter it. In quite a different context, Coomaraswamy brilliantly sums it up in the following succinct manner: "Craftsmanship is a mode of thought."42

Let me suggest that recognizing and advocating for such a multimodal and multimedia orientation to locate and decipher the forms and the content of indigenous knowledge have significant resistive and liberative potential from the viewpoint of Subalterns of India. Let me briefly discuss at least one such liberative implication directed against dominant notions of knowledge: this multimodal and multimedia conception of thinking about human reflection removes the stigma that Caste Hinduism and Western colonialism have placed on the labouring class as non-reflexive communities. The bias that only the Twice-born castes (Brahmin, Ksatriya and Vaisya) are endowed with the capacities for theoretical reflection on God, the world and human beings is based on the premise that thinking is the sole prerogative of the reader and the writer. Thus, texts become the embodiment of thinking and knowledge. And, in its distance and abstraction from the real world of productive activity, knowledge was generated and stored. This might explain why the medium of philosophy and theology of Caste Hinduism (i.e., Sanskrit) was limited to the twice-born castes; Sudra and Dalits were not permitted to learn Sanskrit. There appears to be a correlation between those castes involved in productive labour and their lack of access to Sanskrit, which was the language of knowledge. The acceptance of multimodal frames of knowledge undercuts the exclusive domain of human reflection, which identifies knowledge with being alienated from the productive processes of human life. Rather it incorporates the human knowledge that arises from the blood and sweat of everyday activity expressed through the modes that working people are most easily able to put to use to represent their reflections. In a context in which National Hinduism and Christian westernization may be aligned with the glorification of the text (the Vedas and the Bible respectively) and may advance the literacy mode of thought as the most sophisticated, minorities must be vigilant that their various frames of knowing and expressing knowledge are not overcome and eliminated: the world of orality with all its variety and richness must not submit to the dominant world of literacy.

Since I have already given summaries of the arguments of this paper at various junctures, let me indulge in an opening in the space assigned for conclusion. One of the issues that cannot be set aside in the field of Subaltern hermeneutics is the role of the scholar in biblical studies. The clout of the scholar is two-fold. On the one hand, the biblical studies scholar possesses the literary skills to construe oral scriptures from reading and rendering what is read meaningful to many illiterate Subalterns. The majority of Subalterns rely on the interpretative role of the lettered biblical scholar. On the other hand, the biblical scholar has the prerogative to selectively valorize elements of the various modes and media of Subalterns’ reflexivity to be correlated with biblical texts. This is because discourse happens mainly in written or verbalized language. Thus, the meaning communicated by drumming ends up being discussed in writing or speaking rather than through further drumming. Two suggestions may be in order. First, the Subalterns themselves must continuously problematize the functioning of the Subaltern scholar. The power vested in knowledge-making is crucial and substantive. Thus, consistent interrogation is a built-in thing for Subaltern biblical scholars. Second, the Subaltern scholar cannot be separated from either the culture of orality or the culture of literacy. In fact his/her marginality stems from this dual belonging that is often interpreted to be an unbelonging. The choice then of becoming a Subaltern scholar is an act of self-imposed marginality; it assures a peripheral status in and to both the communities of Subalterns as well as to the community of literary intellectuals.43


1. This paper was presented at the Ecumenical Enablers’ Programme organized by the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) on "The Quest for New Hermeneutics in Asia" in Bangkok, Thailand, from March 28 to April 2, 2001. I am thankful to my friend and fellow Asian theologian, Dr. Daniel Thiagarajah, for this invitation and wholehearted encouragement.

2. I am using the most general category of caste (Varna) since it is sufficient to place the Dalits outside of the Indian stratification of human community. I am well aware of the fact that these four castes are divided into numerous sub-castes (jaatis) which operate as the functional identities on the ground. For a recent essay on this distinction, see Simon R. Charsley, "Caste, Cultural Resources and Social Mobility," in Simon R. Charsley and G. K. Karanth (eds.), Dalits Initiatives and Experience from Karnataka (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1998), pp. 44-71.

3. For an excellent analysis of the history and politics of naming the Dalits, see Gopal Guru, " The Politics of Naming," Seminar 491 (1998), pp. 14-18.

4. Human Broken People: Caste Violence Against India’s "Untouchables" (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999), pp. 1-2.

5. Eleanor Zelliot, From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement (New Delhi: Manohar, rev. edn., 1996).

6. Gail Omvedt, Dalits and the Democratic Revolution: Dr. Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in Colonial India (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1994).

7. Buddhadeb Chaudhuri, "Preface," in B. Chaudhuri (ed.), Tribal Transformation in India (New Delhi: Inter-India Publications, 1992), vol. 2, p. xiii.

8. Gail Omvedt "Call us Adivasis, Please," The Hindu: Folio (July II, 2000), pp. 10-13.

9. Nirmal Minz, Rise up, my People, and Claim the Promise: The Gospel among the Tribes of India (Delhi: ISPCK, 1997), pp. 9-10. This section also provides a good description of the various regions in which the various major tribes live in the Indian sub-continent.

10. Minz, Rise up, my People pp. 11-12.

11. Ranajit Guha, "Preface," in Ranajit Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies I: Writings on South Asian History and Society (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. vii.

12. Guha, Subaltern. Studies I, p. 8. Emphasis in text.

13. World Development Report 2000/2001: Attacking Poverty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) , p. 28.

14. R.S. Sugirtharajah, Asian Biblical Hermeneutics and Postcolonialism: Contesting the Interpretations (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), p. 16.

15. R.S. Sugirtharajah, "Biblical Studies after the Empire: From a Colonial to a Postcolonial Mode of Interpretation," in R.S. Sugirtharajah (ed.), The Postcolonial Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), p. 16.

16. R.S. Sugirtharajah, "A Postcolonial Exploration of Collusion and Construction in Biblical Interpretation," in Sugirtharajah (ed.), The Postcolonial Bible, p. 112.

17. Felix Wilfred, Asian Dreams and Christian hope: At the Dawn of the, Millennium (Delhi: ISPCK, 2000), p. 268.

18. Michel Foucault, "Truth and Power," in Colin Gordon (ed.), Power/knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), p. 98.

19. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (London: Oxford University Press, 1989), vol. 2, p. 3228.

20. For more information on Dalit and Adivasi worldviews see Robert Deliege, The World of the ‘Untouchable’: Paraiyars of Tamilnadu (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997) and Anil Kumar Singh (ed.), Tribes and Tribal Life: Aspects of tribal Life in India (New Delhi: Sarup and Sons, 1995).

21. For detailed information on the kalasam pot and other aspects of the religion of the Dalits in South India, see Sathianathan Clarke, Dalits and Christianity: Subaltern Religion and Liberation Theology in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998).

22. Hugald Grafe, History of Christianity in India: Tamilnadu in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Bangalore: CHAI, 1990), vol. 4, pp. 179-180. Emphases mine.

23. Gauri Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 79.

24. Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest, p. 13.

25. The Forty-fifth Report of the South India Provincial Synod (Mysore: Wesley Press, 1938), p. 126.

26. Report of the Committee of the Wesleyan Methodist Society of 1830 (London: Jowett and Mills, 1830), p. 35.

27. M. Thomas Thangaraj, "The Bible as Veda: Biblical Hermeneutics in Tamil Christianity," in R.S. Sugirtharajah (ed.) , Vernacular Hermeneutics (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), pp. 138-39.

28. Saurabh Dube, Untouchable Pasts: Religion, Identity, and Power among a Central Indian Community, 1790-1950 (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1998), p. 198

29. V. Devasagayam, "Recovering the Biblical Vision," in V. Devasagayam (ed.), Dalits and Women: Quest for Humanity (Madras: Gurukul, 1992), p. 213.

30. Jose D. Maliekal, "Identity-Consciousness of the Christian Madigas: Story of a People in Emergence.," Jeevadhara xxxi. 181 (2001), p. 25.

31. Peter Matheson, The Rhetoric of the Reformation (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1998), p. 5.

32. Matheson, The Rhetoric of the Reformation, p. 4.

33. A. Maria Arul Raja, "Rereading the Bible from a Dalit Location: Some Points for Interpretation," Voices from the Third World xxiii.1 (2000), p. 85.

34. A. Maria Arul Raja, "A Dialogue between Dalits and the Bible: Certain Indicators for Interpretation," in Thomas Kadankavil (ed.), Religion and Politics from the Subaltern Perspective (Bangalore: Dharmavaram Publications, 1999), p. 69.

35. Anthoniraj Thumma, Wisdom of the Weak: Foundation of People’s Theology (Delhi: ISPCK, 2000), p. 163.

36. Mission Report of the South India Provincial Synod of 1938 (Mysore: Wesley Press, 1939), p. 126.

37. A. Maria Arul Raja, "Rereading the Bible from a Dalit Location." p. 80. Also see his "Towards a Dalit Reading of the Bible: Some Hermeneutical Reflections," Jeevadhara xxvi.51 (1996), pp. 29-31.

38. Felix Wilfred Asian Dreams and Christian Hope, p. 266.

39. Fernando, V. Segovia, "Biblical Criticism and Postcolonial Studies: Toward a Postcolonial Optic," in Sugirtharajah (ed.), The Postcolonial Bible, p. 64. Sugirtharajah’s words are also relevant in this discussion. "A postcolonial critic’s role is not simply limited to the textual dealings or literary concerns. Postcolonial hermeneutics has to be a pragmatic engagement, an engagement in which praxis Is not an extra option or a subsidiary enterprise taker. as an aftermath of judicious deconstruction and reconstruction of the text. Rather, this praxiological involvement is there from the outset of the hermeneutical process, informing and ontesting the whole procedure." R.S. Sugirtharajah, "A Postcolonial Exploration of Collusion and Construction in Biblical Interpretation," The Postcolonial Bible, p. l13.

40. See M. Thomas Thangaraj, The Crucified Guru: An Experiment in Cross-Cultural Christology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994) and Thomas Thangaraj, "The Bible as Veda," in Sugirtharajah (ed), Vernacular Hermeneutics, pp. 133-43.

41. Sugirtharajah, Asian Biblical Hermeneutics and Postcolonialism p. 23.

42. Quoted in Roger Lipsey, Coomaraswamy: His Life and Work (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), p. 40.

43. Adapted from Cornel West, Keeping the Faith: Philosophy and Race in America (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 67.