Untouchable Bodies, Resistance, and Liberation

A Comparative Theology of Divine Possessions

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Joshua Samuel
Currents of Encounter

Review

Joshua Samuel’s Untouchable Bodies, Resistance, and Liberation is an intriguing blend of comparative theology and Dalit theology. Engaging with the context of contemporary South India, Samuel offers an extended theological analysis of “divine possessions” among so-called “untouchable” Hindus and Christians. These embodied religious experiences, he argues, are complex and fecund sources of resistance and liberation for those relegated to society’s margins. 

In the first of the book’s three parts, Samuel fleshes out his method for a comparative theology of liberation (chapter 1), as well as his concept of the Dalit body (chapter 2). For him, the chief problem with comparative theology is its fixation on religious texts, which is linked to a Eurocentric perception of religion, disregard for the agency of faith communities, and a hierarchical orientation dismissive of popular religion. Samuel’s distinctive remedy is a meeting between comparative theology and Dalit liberation theology. The latter is particularly helpful in its growing attunement to the body. Enmeshed within the caste system, the “abject” Dalit body is constituted by practices and processes of discipline and exclusion. Even so, this subjugated body manifests the dignity and power of human and divine agency. Indeed, in the theological register, the Dalit body, interpreted through the incarnation and crucifixion, is a sacrament, a site and source of God’s revelation. 

Part 2 applies this framework by considering Dalit religion(s) and divine possessions within Hinduism (chapters 3 and 4) and Christianity (chapters 5 and 6) in South India. Hinduism, of course, is a highly contested category, but Samuel makes a persuasive case for its utility in his project, even as he highlights Hinduism’s complexities. The lives of the Paraiyar people of Tamil Nadu, for instance, are interwoven with little-known goddesses who periodically possess Dalit devotees in dramatic, transgressive, and embodied ways. Samuel contributes his own ethnographic field work here, carefully describing these phenomena and highlighting their liberative elements, such as when possessed Dalits berate upper-caste persons. 

Dalit Christians also experience caste oppression and perform resistance in their embodied, communal practices. Specifically, since the 1980s, two generations of Dalit theologians have interpreted scripture, doctrine, and Christian life through the lens of Dalit lives. As valuable as this theological movement is, Samuel worries that Dalit God-talk can slip into anthropomorphism—problematic because it envisions an external, imperial savior who saves from without—so he points to alternative sources of liberation latent in Christians’ experiences of possession, especially through the Holy Spirit in charismatic worship. Admittedly, this mode of worship is not explicitly liberative, at least not in the sociopolitical realm. Even so, Samuel suggests that the “spiritual” language used by charismatic Christians—much like that of the biblical book of Revelation—may be an indirect way of representing and rejecting systemic evil in the world.  

Part 3 proposes a constructive reading of divine possessions by focusing on the nature of Paraiyar Dalit identity and religion (chapter 7) and on an embodied theology of kairos (time) and resistance (chapter 8). Synthesizing his study of Hindu and Christian possessions, Samuel blurs the line between the religions and argues that Paraiyar identity and worldly needs are at the core of this set of religious experiences. In his analysis, the various forms of possession share further key features: the body’s centrality, a merging of divine and human agency, indirect but potent challenges to caste injustices, and a mixing of the religious and secular spheres. Notably, Dalit possessions are not just about political gains—which liberal western scholars emphasize—but are more fundamentally an assertion of survival and existence. Considered theologically, these possessions are comparable to Paul Tillich’s kairoi, decisive moments in which the eternal breaks into the temporal. Samuel amends Tillich’s framing, however, by proposing that kairoi can occur in non-Christian contexts and by grounding kairoi in bodies and communities so that these critical moments avoid abstraction. Ultimately, Dalit possessions reveal God in Christ as “dynamic transgressive creativity” (231), a power opening new possibilities for Dalit existence, courage, and social change. 

Students and scholars of religion—especially those interested in India, liberation theology, and religious practice—will find much to appreciate in this book: its rootedness in a unique Tamil context, its impressive range of interlocutors, its fruitful analysis of divine possessions, and its consistent sensitivity to embodiment, all communicated with clear, direct writing. For me, the most valuable element is the way the book develops the framework of a comparative theology of liberation and thus imagines new directions for both comparative theology and liberation theology. Though obviously not the first to underscore the importance of comparative work in today’s world, Samuel adds two vital questions that are easily overlooked. First, what or who are we comparing? Samuel is right to argue that we should not concentrate only on texts, but also—and perhaps especially—on people, in all their embodied, communal, and agential particularity. While I wonder if Samuel could take more of a both/and approach—thus weaving together comparisons of texts and people—his accent on people is justified, especially given his commitment to Dalit liberation. This leads to his second question: How does comparative scholarship relate to liberation theology? Samuel makes a compelling case that, at minimum, the former can and should move closer to and support the latter. This happens when religious scholars seriously contemplate subaltern people and their practices of resistance, rather than, for instance, examining deities and doctrines without reference to caste. 

For all that, there still seems to be some distance between comparative and liberation theology in Samuel’s work. Here, I wish Samuel offered more commentary regarding how his scholarship figures into concrete Dalit life. Does he want his analysis to loop back into Dalit praxis, or does he intend for it to stay at the level of second-order discourse? How might his comparative theology nurture cooperation between Hindu and Christian Dalits? Could his framework incorporate Muslim Dalits, who, in some ways, face more difficulties than Hindu Dalits, especially in an age of Hindu nationalism? Samuel briefly touches on some of these issues in his epilogue, where he calls on theologians to watch and learn from marginalized people, rather than to tell them what to think and do. Such humility and restraint surely have their place. Still, Samuel’s whole project seems to call out for application in society, not only in the academy. Lacking such practical engagement, theological work may be about liberation (which is certainly valuable) without being actively liberative for the oppressed (which is the telos of liberation theologies). 

Overall, Samuel’s book is provocative, insightful, and generative. With its bridge-building methodology, it enriches Dalit theology and comparative theology, honors the subtly powerful resistance of India’s “outcastes,” and provides glimmers of hope for further liberation. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew Ronnevik is a PhD student in theology and ethics at Baylor University. 

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joshua Samuel  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.

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