Indian Liberation Theology: A Critique

Seminar Paper, 2008

18 Pages, Grade: 1,0





2.1.1 Social Analysis
2.1.2 Preferential Option
2.1.3 Faith in Praxis
2.1.4 Biblical Themes
2.1.5 Critique of Ideologies
2.2.1 Integral Approach
2.2.2 Inter-religious Collaboration
2.2.3 Integration of Dialectics and Compassion





Liberation theology is familiar to the Indian folk. Beyond the Church there have been many liberation theologies in India. The Buddha was probably the first liberation theologian protesting against the ritualistic domination of the Brahmins and affirming the right of every human of any caste or sex to seek for peace in this life and liberation at death.1 The experience of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles for independence and freedom has the roots of liberation already present in India. The Christians derived the inspiration from Latin America in the 1970s.

The document of Medellin states “that misery, as a collective fact, expresses itself as injustice which cries to the heavens.”2 Similarly the backbone of liberation in India is the experience of the struggles of the marginalised people themselves who have stepped into movements of liberation seeking for their identity and dignity. Here are some examples: “Action- groups” in 60s and 70s consisting of young people, “liberation movement of peasants” in mid 1970s by led by Jayaprakash Narayan, “Chipko Movement” spearheaded by village women symbolically hugging the trees and not permitting any to cut them, etc.3

Liberation has manifold meanings. Marxists emphasise on economic and political aspects of freedom. Christianity tries to bring the role of culture and religions in the process of liberation. Traditional theologians insist on the need of personal conversion, besides liberation from oppressive socio-economic and political structures. And Dalit, Tribal and women theologians have added a socio-cultural dimension to liberation. Liberation has become an everyday topic of Indian masses.

This paper has three chapters. In the first chapter I try to analyse the Indian context of the marginalised. In the second chapter, I attempt to spell out the pointers of liberation theology as a response to oppressive structures in India proposed by Felix Wilfred and others, and then finally I shall attempt a critique of Indian liberation theology.


1.0 Introduction

The situation of oppression cannot be analysed simply in terms of class in India, since there are ethnic, racial, linguistic, cultural, and religious and caste factors which are central to any proper understanding of Indian societies. Due to diverse complexities of Indian realities, we shall categorise the marginalised into four groups: the Poor, Dalits, Tribals and Women. The driving forces behind the oppression of these people are: 1. Caste system, 2. Liberal Economy and Globalisation, 3. Negation of natural resources and 4. Patriarchal culture.

1.1 Caste System and the Cry of the Oppressed

Caste is very much alive, and more than ever before, with the difference that it has assumed new and different forms of self-expression. This ancient institution continues to have its hold, availing all the means and instruments of modernity. That the higher castes are also those wield economic power, the continuation and strengthening of caste amounts to the economic oppression as well, of the poor by the upper and middle castes. The oppression against Dalits is the worst effect of caste system, which began three thousand years ago as a Hindu Brahminical system. 4 Against this unjust system raises the cry of an oppressed Dalit – a cry for life – a cry for dignity – a cry for freedom – a cry of justice – a cry for liberation. It is a collective qãrah (Hebrew: a loud cry) or der Schrei (Deutsch) of one fifth of the total population of India. Dalits are oppressed in multiple ways. 5

- Economically the Dalits form the underclass of landless agricultural, seasonal and marginal and often bonded labourers. The Dalits constitute 16.48% or about one fifth of India´s population.6 They are the poorest of the poor among the 48% of Indian population living below the poverty line.7 80% of the Dalits belong to this category. They are victims of Institutionalised poverty today (xiii) .
- Politically the Dalits hardly have 5% benefit the special provisions of the govt., even though 1950 Republican Democratic Constitution accepted Dalits to be part of political entity. The “outcaste” category still prevails in the political system even after “untouchability” was officially abolished by article 17 of the constitution.
- Socially they are marginalized. This is the root of all other discriminations. This is the result of the Hindu caste hierarchy system. The 1981 census revealed that the Scheduled castes were about 16% and Scheduled tribes about 7%. “Inequality is the official doctrine of Brahmanism; and the real genius of Hinduism is to divide,” said Dr. Ambedkar. The Marxist Social Scientist Gail Omvedt has veered round to asserting “caste is a central problem of the Indian Revolution Today” (139).
- Personally they are kept under bondage and long slavery. They experience a psychological exclusion. They are psychologically crippled through no fault of their own. Dr. John C.B.Webster says picturesquely that someone threw mud on the Dalits and they have accepted it as their badge. They have interiorized a negative self-image. They need an “Exodus of Emancipation” (xvi).
- Culturally they have a culture of silence. There are no written scriptures of recorded history of their own to boast of any “ancient culture.” Jesus too found a similar community called “Ochlos” in his time. Today we need to bring them into a full-fledged human community (xvii).
- Religiously the Hindu scriptures have categorised them as non-humans (Rg.veda ch. 100: vs 8). Sad to say that this discriminative system is followed even in our Christianity. It has not escaped from the strong socio-cultural caste system. “There is today a cemetery in the town of Trichirappalli, South India, where a wall is erected between the portions where the Dalit Christians are buried and other Christians are buried. The segregation is maintained to distinguish the high-caste skeletons from those of outcaste Dalits!”8

Early Christian missionaries were keenly conscious of the danger of being too closely associated with the lowest sections of the Indian population. The alternatives were simple: either concentrate on the low castes and thereby give up the idea of converting the whole of the society by becoming a low caste religion or try to convert the whole of the society. Their most remarkable figure was undoubtedly the Tuscan aristocrat, Roberto De Nobili (1577-1656), who reached Goa in 1602 and Madurai in 1606, introduced new concepts into Catholic missionary work in India.9

In the 1860s and 1870s Protestant missionaries become active in the aid programs which inevitably followed the famines. Then began what can be considered the swan song of the Christian missions in India, the so-called “mass movement”: suddenly, whole caste groups were interested in becoming Christian. The churches’ attitude changed and they started converting people en masse; one-third of the Chuhra caste of Gujarat was converted to Christianity. In South India, hundreds of thousands of Nadars, Pulayars and Paraiyars were converted by the Church Missionary Society and the London Missionary Society. Even the Catholic missions witnessed a similar increase, mostly through the conversion of Untouchable castes. The diocese of Pondicherry, for instance, grew from 134,000 in 1873 to 205,000 in 1886. In all the cases, Untouchables accounted for the immense majority of the new conversions. This meant that Christianity increasingly became associated with the lowest rungs of Indian society. However, conversion did not radically improve the social and economic position of the Untouchables,10 although it was their expectation and hope.

1.2 Liberal Economy and its victims

In a society where the traditional bases of discrimination are still very much active with a wide gulf between the upper castes and poorer sections of the society, the modern programmes of globalisation with liberal economy as its driving force has in fact made a progressive exclusion,11 though it appears to an aura of uniting people more and more closely. Liberal economy and globalisation strengthen the traditional forces of dominating castes and exclude those who are at the lowest rungs of the caste-society. Education and media are in the hands of the urban elite inspired by the liberal economic spirit, and so they dominate and control the culture. Thus the urban forces drain the rural resources and sacrifice them at the altar of presiding deity of liberal economy.12

1.3 Negation of the Natural Resources to the Poor

In the liberalised economical system big companies and entrepreneurial groups are allowed to have private access to the huge properties of the country on contract. This debars the poor and the marginalised from having access to natural resources. To illustrate it with examples of everyday life, millions of poor fishermen do not any more have access to fishing by which they always lived, since the seas are controlled by the massive fishing enterprises of big companies who with huge trawlers sweep through the seas. The tribal people in whose lives and cultures the forests are so much an inalienable part, are deprived of access to the very the source of their livelihood, since the forests and their trees have become objects of exploitation be entrepreneurial interests.13

1.4 Patriarchal Culture and Women oppression

The traditional culture of subordinating women is legitimated through the ideology of Hindutva.14 Although the old form Sati has been constitutionally forbidden, not much has been changed as there are incidents of beating of wives and abortion of girl children. Women are used as easy commodities for work. Dowry system has taken a new form of Gold and money. Girl children are looked upon as burdens to the family.15 The dehumanizing caste system sanctioned by religious interpretation has entered into all spheres of life and has transmitted its oppressive values and meanings to women. Ideal women are supposed to have values of shyness, obedience, dependency, fearfulness, etc.

In Indian context, the cultural analysis is very important, as culture gives identity, values and meaning to social groups. When the cultural structure has an oppressive system, then the people are trapped in a particular mind set. Thus we need a cultural analysis in the socio-political mediation.


1 Cf. Michal Amaladoss, “Liberation Theologies and Indian Experiences,” VJTR 69 (2005): 725-733.

2 Medellin Documents (Justice, no.1) in Joseph Gremillion, The Gospel of Peace and Justice (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1976): 455-476.

3 Cf. Felix Wilfred, On the Banks of Ganges: Doing Contextual Theology (Delhi: ISPCK, 2005): 84-86.

4 Caste is something unique in the Indian civilisation, and without parallel. The life-world of an Indian is determined by the position he or she occupies in the social hierarchy made up of four castes – Brahmins (the priestly caste), Kshatriya (the kingly and warrior groups), Vaisya (the agriculturalists, traders, artisans, etc.), and the sudra (domestic workers attending on the needs of other castes). But there is a group of people who cannot claim any place within the four-fold caste system. That is why they have been referred to as avarna, which means out-castes. They are other disparing expressions as chandala, panchama. “Untouchables” (asprsya: die Unberührbaren) is another expression. The word goes right back to third or fourth century BC, occurring for the first time in the book Visnu-Dharma- Sastra. Their touch, even their shadow was considered polluting, and therefore the caste people kept even physical distance from the Dalits.

5 The following has been collected from Masilamani Azariah, A Pastor's Search for Dalit Theology (Delhi: ISPCK, 2000).

6 Quoted in Felix Wilfred, On the Banks of Ganges: Doing Contextual Theology (ISPCK: 2005): 113. Cf. Manorama Yearbook 2000 (Kottayam: 2000): 506. Another oppressed group is that of Tribals who form 8.08% of Indian population which has reached the one billion mark.

7 Ibid., 61.

8 Ibid., 130.

9 His three main innovations were: (1) Like Matteo Ricci in China, he considered that the top layers of the society had to be converted first and then the bottom would follow automatically. (2) The beliefs, practices and religious tradition of the Hindus had to be taken seriously. De Nobili studied the Vedas in order to be able to debate with the pundits and he dressed himself as a sannyasi (Hindu Priest), concentrating his efforts on the upper section of the society. He adopted a vegetarian diet and avoided any contact with lower caste people. (3) Finally, he pointed out that many “Hindu” practices were secular and did not need to be rejected by the newly converted; therefore the sacred thread, the ashes on the forehead, etc. were in no way incompatible with Christianity. Cf. Robert Deliège, “Untouchability and Catholicism: The Case of the Paraiyars in South India,” in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa And The Middle East (formerly SOUTH ASIA BULLETIN), 18/1 (1998): 31.

10 Cf. Robert Deliège, “Untouchability and Catholicism,” 2.

11 Cf. Jon Sobrino – Felix Wilfred (eds), “Globalisation and its Victims,” Concilium 2000/5.

13 Felix Wilfred, On the Banks of the Ganges, 88.

14 Hindutva is the ideology of religious nationalism and its influence is penetrating in all areas of life. The ideology in many respects has many traits in common with the Nationalist Socialism of Germany. Christopher Jaffrelot, The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India (Delhi: Viking, 1996); “Religion and Naionalism,” Concilium 1995/6.

15 Felix Wilfred, On the Banks of the Ganges, 88.

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Indian Liberation Theology: A Critique
Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology St. Georgen in Frankfurt am Main
Hauptseminar: Theologische Gesellschaftskritik - heute noch möglich?
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Charles Davis James (Author), 2008, Indian Liberation Theology: A Critique, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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