Vernacular Catholicism, Vernacular Saints

Selva J. Raj on "Being Catholic the Tamil Way"

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Reid B. Locklin
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , April
     318 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Vernacular Catholicism, Vernacular Saints is a celebration of the life and scholarship of Selva J. Raj, a scholar and ethnographer of popular Christianity and South Asian religion. The book offers ethnographic studies of lived religion in Tamil Nadu and east-central India. The main focus of the book is understanding how ordinary Catholics’ ways of observing rituals in the mundane life situations mix practices from different religious traditions, and illustrating their significance for the academic study of religion.

Raj had submitted a book proposal to the State University of New York Press in 2008 provisionally titled Vernacular Catholicism, Vernacular Saints: Identity, Caste, Exchange and Authenticity in Tamil Nadu, but he passed away before he could write the book. Raj’s friends and colleagues took up his project by creatively utilizing what Raj had already written and published on the topic, and adding new essays by his friends and colleagues. Raj would have definitely added more research into this book had he been alive, but Locklin has done a wonderful job of editing his work, creatively selecting and arranging Raj’s essays in a coherent form, and incorporating essays that contextualise Raj’s work, compare it with ethnographies from other contexts and critically examine his ideas. An afterword has been written by the famous South Asianist Wendy Doniger, who was Raj’s doctoral supervisor in the 1990s.

After an introductory chapter which is an essay from Raj that sets the thematic background of the book, the remaining essays are divided into four parts. Apart from one essay (chapter 2) by Michael Amaladoss on the history of Catholicism in Tamil Nadu, all essays in the first three parts are previously published works by Raj based on his field work.

Raj’s theoretical perspectives in the study of religion and his field work challenge the institutional elite theorization of the religiosity of lay Catholics in Tamil Nadu. Highlighting the limitations of inculturation, formal interreligious dialogue, and theologies promoted by priests and theologians in interpreting the religious lives of ordinary Catholics, Raj, through intensive fieldwork, focused on the spontaneous steps taken by the laity in their ritual lives that challenge institutional efforts to interpret their lived religion. He contrasts the existential realities and concerns of the people in the religious sphere with essentialized theories of religion.

Some of the ritual practices Raj studied include funeral rites, animal sacrifice, hair-shaving, cattle procession, health and fertility rituals, vow rituals, miraculous healing narratives, material exchange, and processions. He specifically studied the way lay Catholics perform these rituals in four rural Catholic shrines in Tamil Nadu. With autobiographical reflections and input, Raj has shown how ritual exchanges happen between Catholics and Hindus in Tamil Nadu and how existential concerns and receiving divine blessings play a significant role in everyday religious life. Utilizing Victor Turner’s theory of liminality, Raj discusses the transcendence of distinctions between Hindus and Christians in ritual life—what he calls “ritual transgression.”Against the mainline reductionist paradigms that study ritual traditions mostly in terms of assimilation or differentiation, Raj shows that the lives of lay Catholics in Tamil Nadu often do not fit such neatly defined frameworks but have a complex and hybrid religious culture characterized by ritual variety.

Towards the end of the volume, Vernacular Catholicism, Vernacular Saints also has essays which critically engage with Raj’s work and offer critical evaluations of his ideas. Corinne Dempsey compares the vernacular traditions of Catholics in Tamil Nadu with those in Kerala; Eliza Kent studies Tamil Protestants; Vasudha Narayanan discusses the Tamil Catholic diaspora and Hindu diaspora in US; Purushottama Bilimoria finds “performative transgression” in adaptations of Bharatanatyam and other Indian dance in the US and Australia. Some of these studies not only engage with Raj’s ideas and extend them to study other contexts, but also highlight the limitations of his works and perspectives. The tenability of Raj’s exterior devotion versus interior faith—or existential concerns versus essential theologies—can be questioned, since they promote rigid binaries. Further, an idealization of hybrid practices can be a problem as these practices too cannot escape from creating boundaries. Especially in the contemporary context in India, political forces have been attempting to divide communities along religious lines in spite of hybrid religious culture and ritual exchanges, and Raj’s works generally fail to record and discuss these changes.

Nevertheless, Raj’s works and this book bring to the fore some important but often neglected perspectives in the study of religions. For me, Raj’s contributions in the following three areas are important.

First, the ways people interact in religious life in a multi-religious context ignore elite theological discourses based on inculturation, assimilation, and differentiation or distinction. Raj shows the hybrid and complex nature of the ritual patterns and transgressions. Boundary crossing in ritual life is not conditioned by institutionalized theologies, but rather by existential concerns that influence people’s everyday religious lives.

Second, the mundane and everyday aspects of religious lives should be brought to the center in the academic study of religion. Even ethnographies can be conditioned by pre-established theories. Raj’s studies offer significant challenges to such an approach.

Third, everyday religious lives of ordinary believers offer an alternative paradigm for interreligious dialogue and Hindu-Christian relations in India. These are not simply based on the structured, formal, and institutional interreligious dialogue of elites, but rather on what Raj calls “dialogue in action.”

Personally, this work has a special interest for me. I come from the southern part of Tamil Nadu, not far from where Raj grew up and later did his field research. Having taken a similar approach in my recent ethnographic work in southern Tamil Nadu, I can understand the issues and the examples he provides. I regret not knowing Raj and his work while doing my own research. No doubt, Raj’s scholarship and ethnographic studies will deeply impact the study of everyday expressions of Christianity in India and the religiosity of ordinary people, and this volume is an important contribution toward this end.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Muthuraj Swamy is associate professor of religious studies at Serampore University, India and visiting fellow at at St. John's College, Durham.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Reid B. Locklin is associate professor of Christianity and the intellectual tradition at St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto. He is the author of Spiritual But Not Religious? An Oar Stroke Closer to the Farther Shore and Liturgy of Liberation: A Christian Commentary on Shankara’s Upadeśasāhasrī, as well as the coeditor (with Mara Brecht) of Comparative Theology in the Millennial Classroom: Hybrid Identities, Negotiated Boundaries.


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