In the current discourse, the voice of Dalits is appropriated, and an academically constructed narrative is foisted upon them.
It is necessary to recognise the multiplicity of Dalit spiritual expression to understand the full spectrum and beauty of the Dalit narrative.
The faulty way of equating Hinduism with Brahmanism needs to be corrected.
Since the past century, there has been a systematic attempt to define what constitutes the Dalit spiritual and philosophical thought. Such an exercise is not something unique to the Dalits - all castes and communities across the world have engaged in such an exercise in modern times.
Dalits constitute that part of the Hindu society which was historically considered to be untouchable. All castes included in the Dalit fold (Scheduled Castes as per the Constitution) were considered as untouchable at one point or another in history mainly due to their respective professions, which were seen to be ‘polluting’ in nature.
The Dalit assertion, which began in the nineteenth century, first challenged their unequal position in the Hindu fold but soon went on to challenge the very classification of Dalits as Hindus itself. It was argued that since Dalits are treated as outcastes, and because they were not even allowed inside the temples, there was no reason to categorise them as Hindus.
However, there is a serious flaw in this line of argument. It does not clearly define what it means by ‘Hinduism’. Going by the criticism, which was developed, it can be concluded that this approach takes Brahmanism to be synonymous with Hinduism. So most of the critiques are actually directed towards the Brahmanical culture and socio-political world view of the varna-hierarchy. However, this is not an accurate way of looking at Hinduism.
To put it simply, Hinduism is Indian paganism. It's an umbrella term for the various heathen traditions of the Indian sub-continent. And what is called Brahmanism is a strand of it. However, what has happened is that in the name of rejecting the hierarchical social system promoted by various Brahmanical texts, the entire heathen system has been negated. Every expression of paganism, murti puja, polytheism, etc has been clubbed into ‘manuwaad’ and denounced as an alien system imposed on the Dalits.
The root of this confusion goes back to the British era and the Aryan invasion theory proposed by colonial historiography. According to this theory, Hinduism was imposed upon the Dalits, the ‘mulnivasis’ by some invading Aryans as a mechanism of subjugation. Now, of course, the theory has been discredited, and it is recognised that there have been several waves of migrations in India and from India as is a characteristic feature of the all the places around the world. There really is no such thing as mulnivasis. But the theory has persisted in the discussion on religion in the Dalit discourse. It is problematic not only because it's wrong but because it essentially robs the Dalits of their entire history and traditions by branding them as something imposed by an alien force. In a single stroke, the entire Dalit community is uprooted from its millennia-old heathen traditions in the name of opposing Brahmanism. Whereas the truth is that as we move outside the modern Hindu philosophical discourse dominated by the Advaita Vedanta, we see thousands of deities emerging in the towns, villages and clans in India. Every community has its own deity, its own unique way of worship. These deities can be kula specific or common to the entire caste or as is often the case, common to the region as a whole.
Also, among Hindus, it is the Dalits who have been among the most enthusiastic practitioners of the heathenism. Somehow, in the Dalit discourse, this reality is ignored. And a bland, monotheistic spiritual expression is presented as the default Dalit expression throughout the ages. Even in the Bhakti Movement, only the impact of the Nirguna Bhakti is given legitimacy whereas the reality is that the impact of the Saguna Bhakti was no less powerful in the Dalit expression of Bhakti in the medieval age. Sometimes it seems that the entire discourse is not interested in objectivity but rather geared towards propagating pre-conceived notions and constructs instead of engaging with the actually existing Dalit traditions. This is a serious lacuna and is problematic as it denies the plurality of the Dalit cultural and spiritual expression. It is undemocratic as well, as the voice of the subaltern is appropriated, and an academically constructed narrative is foisted upon them.
Therefore, it is necessary to discuss the multiplicity of Dalit spiritual expression to understand the full spectrum and beauty of the Dalit narrative. Moreover, the faulty way of equating Hinduism with Brahmanism and then opposing Hinduism needs to be corrected. It has to be understood that the overwhelming majority of Dalits remain Hindu, either organised in various Hindu sects or as part of the more orthodox Hindu traditions like Shaktism etc. To assert that they are Hindus because they have not seen the ‘truth’ yet is actually intolerance apart from arrogance and disdain for the same subalterns on whose behalf we claim to speak.
The scenario is rather clear in the political-philosophy aspect of the religious discourse. The Dalit emphasis has not been very different from what echoed in 1789 in France - liberté, égalité, fraternité. And unlike others, it is very clear about the nature of castes and the vision of a post-caste society. Even in the medieval period, the oral Kannada epic Manteswamy Kavya talks about spiritual victory of a lowly person over those socially superior to him but insincere in their devotion. The epic is episodic and highly symbolic. Each episode represents a stage in evolution of civilisation and how ultimately technology has to be liberated from its hereditary practitioners i.e. caste system for the further progress of mankind. This line of argument has remained consistent in the Dalit philosophical thought, although there is a somewhat inadequate emphasis on the liberty and especially the fraternity aspect. It is assumed that fraternity will follow on its own when liberty and equality are attained. But it’s a misconception because fraternity is a simultaneous project and in many aspects it precedes liberty and equality. Fraternity is most difficult of the three to achieve. It’s always easy to be a caste leader, religious or regional leader or create new categories to mobilise people. But to rise above primordial and parochial identities and bridge the gap between different groups is the most difficult thing to do.
One hopes that Dalit discourse will engage with these points and evolve into a more potent form by incorporating them.