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The Saint in the Banyan Tree

Christianity and Caste Society in India

David Mosse

Publication Year: 2012

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.

Published by: University of California Press

Series: The Anthropology of Christianity

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vii


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pp. viii-ix

List of Illustrations

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pp. x-xi

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pp. xii-xix

...Around two-thirds are Roman Catholic, and over 40 percent live in the two southernmost states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where their proportion of the population varies across regions and districts. Behind these figures is a chronicle of Christianity that is fragmented over different missions, regions, and periods. From a complex mosaic, this book draws out one tradition that is of particular importance. It began in the early seventeenth...

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pp. xx-xxii

...During the thirty years over which this book has been researched, I have gathered a small army of people to whom I am indebted. During recent fieldwork, priests, bishops, and social activists generously shared experiences and insights. I would rather not present a limited list, but I cannot resist the impulse to name some of the many who have opened their lives to my enquiry, including Fr. Xavier Arulraj; Fr. Arulselvam; Fr. Joe Arun, SJ; Fr. Jabamalairaja...

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Note on Transliteration

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pp. xxiii-xxiii

...Non-English words are italicized and given diacritical marks on their first appearance. Proper names are not italicized, and diacritical marks are generally omitted from them, whether presented in their Tamil or common-usage forms, except in the case of the first appearance of caste names. Where not dictionary verified (mostly in Fabricius 1972), the spelling is that provided...

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pp. 1-30

...On 17 March 2009, the archbishop of Chennai (Dr. M. Chinnappa, SVD) stood before an audience of priests and theologians to proclaim passionately that the Catholic Church in Tamil Nadu had to make a public confession for the sin of caste committed historically. “We have done this injustice to thousands and thousands of our own people,” he proclaimed. “We have damaged a community.” The occasion was the launch of another two volumes...

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1. A Jesuit Mission in History

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pp. 31-59

...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...

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2. A Culture of Popular Catholicism

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pp. 60-95

...Missionary Christianity of all varieties brings distinctive notions of divinity and new monopolies of mediation that demand a radical reorganization of existing religiosity. As they consolidated their mission in nineteenth-century colonial southern India, Jesuits brought new religious symbols, a plethora of divine beings including the saints, and complex notions of worship...

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3. Christians in Village Society: Caste, Place, and the Ritualization of Power

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pp. 96-132

...More than anything, the relationship between Christianity and culture in south India has revolved around caste. Nobili’s mediating space of “culture” between Christian and pagan was itself carved in the shape of the customs and distinctions of caste, and in regions such as Ramnad, Catholic practices were elaborated around the frame of caste. But what is caste, and what is it to Tamil Christians...

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4. Public Worship and Disputed Caste: The Santiyakappar Festival over 150 Years

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pp. 133-167

...The French Jesuit Edmond Favreux, who settled in Alapuram village in the 1860s, worked with a thoroughly embedded Tamil tradition of public worship. The spectacular festival for the guardian saint Santiyakappar was a meticulously scripted performance that annually mobilized and signified a Hindu-Christian social order. A century and a half later (in 2010) the festival had become a Catholic...

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5. Christianity and Dalit Struggle: 1960s to 1980s

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pp. 168-197

...How in the postmissionary era was Christianity drawn into Tamil dalit struggles against caste and untouchability? What did the Church and Christian identity have to offer amid the post-Independence project of equalization, in a society that had acquired universal franchise as well as legal protection and targeted welfare programs for dalits, who were now claimed by the state...

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6. Hindu Religious Nationalism and Dalit Christian Activism

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pp. 198-232

...In the summer of 2008, as I began preparing this book, two events brought international attention to Christians in India. Both involved violence against dalit Christians by their neighbors, who in the first case were people mobilized by Hindu nationalist organizations in a rural locality in Orissa, and in the second case upper-caste Catholics in a village in northern Tamil Nadu. These confrontations signaled two phenomena of critical...

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7. A Return Visit to Alapuram: Religion and Caste in the 2000s

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pp. 233-266

...My journey to Alapuram in October 2004 anticipated the new public profile of “ethicized” identity and caste honor. It was the anniversary of the execution in 1801 by the British of the ruler-rebel and Tevar (Backward Caste) hero Marudu Pandiyan (royal patron of Sarukani church), and Tevar youth in yellow T-shirts, accompanied by trails of flags and loud film songs celebrating Tevar caste pride, amassed at key centers of Sivagangai District amid roadblocks and police...

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pp. 267-284

...Let me recall and draw together some of the main themes from this social history of Catholicism in Tamil south India. This will return to the recurring question of the relationship between the Christian faith and its cultural setting, to the manner in which the very categories of “religion” and “culture” were themselves formed and negotiated in missionary encounters, and to the mediating role of caste...


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pp. 285-322


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pp. 323-326


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pp. 327-356


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pp. 357-385

E-ISBN-13: 9780520953970
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520273498

Page Count: 408
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: The Anthropology of Christianity
See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 826065114
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Saint in the Banyan Tree

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Christianity -- India, South.
  • Tamil (Indic people) -- Religion.
  • Christianity and other religions.
  • Social classes -- India, South -- Religious aspects.
  • Caste -- Religious aspects -- Christianity.
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