Untouchable Bodies, Resistance, and Liberation

A Comparative Theology of Divine Possessions


Author: Joshua Samuel
In Untouchable Bodies, Resistance, and Liberation, Joshua Samuel constructs an embodied comparative theology of liberation by comparing divine possessions among Hindu and Christian Dalits in South India. Critiquing the problems inherent in prioritizing texts when studying religious traditions, Samuel calls for the need to engage in body and people centered interreligious learning. This comparative theological reading of ecstatic experiences of the divine in Dalit bodies in Hinduism and Christianity brings out the powerful liberative potential inherent in the bodies of the oppressed, enabling us to identify alternative modes of resistance and new avenues of liberation among those who are dehumanized and discriminated, and to find deeper and meaningful ways of speaking about God in the context of oppression.

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Joshua Samuel, Ph.D. is Visiting Lecturer for Theology, Global Christianity, and Mission at Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, New York. Previously Samuel taught in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Marymount Manhattan College, New York.
This book is an example of Comparative Theology at its best. Through a careful, particularized, and personal (he is himself a Dalit) analysis and comparison, Samuel illustrates how the oppressed bodies of both Hindu and Christian “untouchable” Dalits of South India have become sacraments of liberation that, in their diversity, reflect and enhance each other. For both students and scholars -- illuminating and inspiring. – Paul F. Knitter, Paul Tillich Emeritus Professor of World Religions and Theology, Union Theological Seminary, NY

I love this book. It is refreshing and honest, a painstakingly argued inquiry into the possibility of a comparative Hindu and Christian theology centered on the Dalit experience of the untouchable, outcaste body. Based on extensive surveys of prior literature, as well as his own ethnographic work in Tamil Nadu, Samuel proposes that the embodied experience of divine possession is a “kairos moment,” a means of Dalit hope and liberation, not only for Christians but also for Hindus. The generosity of such theological inclusivity is explosive. As a scholar of Hindu goddesses I must take this seriously. – Rachel Fell McDermott, Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures, Barnard College

Untouchable Bodies, Resistance, Liberation is a weighty and absorbing book that carefully observes and creatively interprets Spirit-possessed Dalit bodies as they re-signify power relations though rituals of defiance, catharsis, subversion, and empowerment. Dr. Samuel discerningly and imaginatively draws from an eclectic crowd of theorists to exegete the manner in which subjugated bodies express everyday emancipatory truths through divine possession in Christian and Hindu Dalit communities. The fruition of Dr. Samuel’s labor is a sensitively embedded and ingeniously construed comparative theology of liberation. – Sathianathan Clarke, Bishop Sundo Kim Chair of World Christianity, Wesley Theological Seminary


Part 1
Dalit Bodies and Divine Possessions

Introduction: a Comparative Theology from a Dalit Perspective

1 Toward a Comparative Theology of Liberation
 1 Comparative Theology
  1.1 Interrogating Comparative Theology
  1.2 Prioritization of Texts
   1.2.1 Lingering Western/Christian Supremacy
   1.2.2 Disregarding Agency of Faith Communities
   1.2.3 Perpetuation of Hierarchies
 2 Dalit Theology
  2.1 New Directions in Dalit Theology
   2.1.1 Binarism
   2.1.2 Identitarianism
   2.1.3 Christian-Centrism
 3 A Comparative Theology of Liberation from a Dalit Perspective
   3.1.1 People Centered Theology
   3.1.2 Non-Othering Theology
   3.1.3 Comparative Liberation Theology

2 Dalit Body—the Untouchable Sacrament
 1 The Dalit Body
  1.1 Bodies That ‘Don’t’ Matter
  1.2 Disciplining the Bodies
 2 Theological Significance of the Dalit Body
  2.1 Body in Christianity
  2.2 Sacramentality of the Dalit Body
 3 Choosing a Category for Comparison
  3.1 Divine Possessions as Vague Comparative Category

Part 2
Divine Possessions among Hindu and Christian Dalits

3 Dalits and Hinduism
 1 Dalit Religion and Hinduism
  1.1 The Modern Birth of Hinduism
  1.2 The Unity of Traditions within Hinduism
  1.3 Distinct Features of Dalit Religion
 2 Hindu Dalit Goddesses
  2.1 Goddess(es) of Hinduism
  2.2 Paraiyar Goddesses
 3 Dalit Goddesses and Liberation
  3.1 The Ambivalence of the Goddess(es) and Its Impact on Liberation Theology

4 Divine Possessions among Hindu Dalits
 1 Divine Possessions: an Overview
  1.1 Divine Possessions
  1.2 Types of Possessions
   1.2.1 Enduring Possessions
   1.2.2 Temporary Possessions
 2 Divine Possessions: a Closer View
  2.1 Preparing for the Possessions
  2.2 Experience of Being Possessed
 3 Divine Possessions: Inferences and Interpretations
  3.1 Not ‘Possession’ but Grace
  3.2 Interweaving of Traditions
  3.3 Background of the Possessed Devotees
  3.4 Sexual Ambiguity
  3.5 Body and Collective Memories
  3.6 Liberative Elements in Possessions

5 Dalit Christianity and Theology
 1 Dalit Christianity
  1.1 The Beginnings
   1.1.1 Rajanaiken of Tanjore (1700–1771)
   1.1.2 Maharasan Vedamanickam of Travancore (1772–1827)
  1.2 Mass Movements
  1.3 Dalit Christianity Today
 2 Dalit ‘God-Talk’
  2.1 The ‘Broken’ God
  2.2 Problematizing Dalit God-Talk
  2.3 New Trends in Dalit Theology: Re-Turning to the Body

6 Divine Possessions among Christian Dalits
 1 Holy Spirit Possessions
  1.1 Praise as Preparation
  1.2 Receiving the Spirit
  1.3 Interpreting Holy Spirit Possessions
  1.4 After Holy Spirit Anointing, It Is Bible Time
 2 Embodied Divine Mediation through Avi Kattu
 3 Divine Embodiment through Sacraments
 4 Christian Divine Possessions: Prospects and Possibilities
  4.1 Centering the Body
  4.2 Dalit Religious Elements
  4.3 Divine-Human Agency
  4.4 Possibilities of Resistance and Liberation
  4.5 Reimagining Evil

Part 1
Possessions as Kairos : an Embodied Constructive Theology

7 Divine Possessions as Dalit Resistance
 1 Paraiyar Dalit Religion
 2 Comparing Hindu and Christian Possessions
  2.1 Setting
  2.2 Experiences of the Devotees
  2.3 Role of the Divine
 3 Possession as Liberation
  3.1 Bodies That Want to Be Mattered
  3.2 Looking beyond Protests
  3.3 Hidden Transcripts and Infra Politics
  3.4 Divine Possession as Dalit Resistance: Reimagining Liberation
  3.5 Possessions as Alternative Resistance

8 Envisioning an Embodied Comparative Theology of Liberation
 1 Possessions as Kairos
  1.1 Kairos
  1.2 Paul Tillich’s Conceptualization of Kairos
  1.3 Possessions as Kairoi in/of the Margins
  1.4 Re-Visioning Kairos Using Divine Possessions
 2 Toward an Embodied Theology of Kairos
  2.1 Christ and Kairoi
  2.2 Spirit Christology
  2.3 Spirit Christology and Religious Diversity
  2.4 The Untouchable God in Untouchable Bodies: a Constructive Theological Imagination
   2.4.1 Possessions as Untouchable Divine Immanence
   2.4.2 Possessions as Transgressive Creativity
   2.4.3 Possessions as Empowering Be(Com)ing

9 Epilogue: Marginalized Bodies and Comparative Theology
 1 Re-Visioning Comparative Theology from and at the Margins
  1.1 Beyond Texts to Bodies
  1.2 Beyond Borders to Living at the Boundaries
 2 Some Confessions and Justifications
 3 Looking Ahead

Those interested in embodied liberation theology from an interreligious perspective and those who study subaltern/Dalit religion in South Asia.