Lived religion among the rural Paraiyar Christians of South India: an ethnographic study of the social and religious worldviews in Thulasigramam
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Jeremiah, Anderson Harris Mithra
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This thesis seeks to present a study of one particular rural Paraiyar Christian community in Tamil Nadu, focusing on their religious identity and theological expressions. Such people, more commonly known as Dalits, or Untouchables are a largely socially marginalised group living within a dynamic and complex social matrix dominated by the caste system and its social and religious implications. They are heavily reliant on their landlords (the high caste Hindus) for their wages, food, and access to resources. The village has two Paraiyar communities, one of which is Hindu and other Christian, with intermarriage occurring frequently between them. With one exception, all of the thirty-one Christian families in the village were once Hindu Paraiyars before converting to Christianity. The first convert to Christianity was in the beginning of 20th century as the result of the American Arcot Mission. Fieldwork highlighted various tensions and areas of creativity regarding how Paraiyar Christians negotiate their lives within a marginalised and oppressed hierarchical system. Although the study focuses on the Christian community, it can only do so by examining their wider social context, which is dominated by religious and caste structures, ascribed and achieved identity, symbols, ritual, and boundaries. Recent writing within Dalit Theology naturally discusses Paraiyar Christians, but it is a contention of this thesis that much ‘Dalit Theology’ ignores the social, ritual and basis of rural Dalit life and thought, an omission which this thesis redresses. The main body of the thesis is divided in to three parts. The first part presents a review and discussion of written works on missionary encounters with the caste system in the church history of south India, as well as Dalit Theological writings. The second section concentrates on the ethnographic information gathered from eight months’ fieldwork and analysed under four different themes: understanding Paraiyar identity, Yesusami and the religious worldview of Paraiyar Christians, the utilisation of religious symbols and performances to advance social change, and, finally, the reproduction of social hierarchies among Paraiyar Christians. The final section attempts to articulate a relevant theological understanding of Dalit Christology using Gillian Rose’s concept of ‘Broken Middle’. This thesis does not set out to provide a comprehensive ethnography of this Paraiyar Christian community, nor does it propose a completely new theological system. Rather, it attempts to allow for the research subjects themselves to articulate their own perspectives and opinions regarding what it means to be Christians and Paraiyars simultaneously. This work allows for flexibility and volatility between the two identities combined within the Paraiyar Christian community. I argue that this is only made possible by their fluidity, being able to balance their individual and communal religious identities - creatively living in the middle of their multiple belongings.