Hostility, Hypocrisy, Hospitality: Rethinking the Politics and Theology of Hospitality from a Dalit Perspective ~ Post by Philip Vinod Peacock

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Friendly Fire: Introduction, Hospitality and Opening hostilities: 

I would like to begin this presentation by locating hospitality in a specific context by pointing to two incidents, one dating from the early 19th century and the other which took place just a few days ago. The first is a narrative that is found in a book that was first published in 1893 entitled A Biographical Sketch of the Rev. K.M. Banerjea: Missionary, Scholar and Patriot[1]. The book is an attempt to eulogize K.M. Banerjea and like others that speak of the proponents of the so called school of Indian Christian Theology speak unabashedly about his upper caste origins as a matter of his virtue. The book in its very first sentences introduces K.M. Banerjea as a Kulin Brahmin and then goes on to speak of the caste antecedents[2] of the Banerjea family. Including the following narrative about his mother, and it is best to quote exactly what Ramachandra Ghosha, the author of the book has to say.

“Jivanakrishna was married to his second daughter, Sir Srimati, who was a woman of great piety and fervid devotion. She was so very strict and punctilious in religious practices, and also in the observance of caste rules that for her rigidity she received the sobriquet of Yatne Brahmani. A story is related of her that she once set out on a hideous pilgrimage to Puri; and on her way to and back from that sacred place she did not take cooked food, but sustained herself by eating only husked rice and pulse, lest the touch or the cast of eyes of the people belonging to inferior castes might defile her food. From such a stock sprang the thoughtful Scholar and unwearied Missionary.[3]

The second story is about a young man called Manoj Kumar Majhi, a Dalit from the Chapra area of Bihar. A report in the Patna Edition of the Hindustan Times dated 4th December 2009 accounts that Manoj was attending a musical programme that was intended to welcome the bridegroom and his friends and relatives as part of a wedding ceremony. On seeing Manoj Kumar Majhi occupy a chair the bridegroom’s father, Harendra Sharma asked him to reveal his identity. When Manoj revealed his name the Harendra Sharma got infuriated and began to hurl abuses at him for sitting on a chair at a function of ‘upper caste’ people. In the melee that ensued gunshots were fired that killed Manoj.

Welcome to India! The Hypocrisy of Indian Hospitality

The point of the accounting of these two narratives, one from the 19th century and the other from just a few days ago, is two-fold, firstly as already mentioned before it is to locate our discussion and theologizing on hospitality into a specific historical context.  Secondly and equally important is to present a counter narrative to the discourse of the dominant castes that presents and represents Indian hospitality as a virtue to be envied by other nations and communities. This is a discourse that not international visitors to India have bought into but also one that has popular sway in this country as well. A popular Sanskrit proverb tells us that a guest is equivalent to God! The two stories that have been narrated above bring this rhetoric into serious question. In fact if we are to probe further we would discover that Dalits are not allowed to enter into temples till today, they are made to drink from separate tea cups at tea stalls, they cannot walk with footwear or ride a cycle or a two wheeler on the main street of several villages in India, they are not permitted into the houses of dominant caste folk. Eating with dominant caste people seldom happens and intermarriage is still a distant dream.

There is evidently a large gap between the rhetoric over hospitality and what happens in reality, a gap between what is said and what is done. Fact is that hospitality in India works within the construct of the caste system and to understand hospitality from a Dalit perspective we have to analyze it from within the framework of caste, this is what the next section attempts to do.

Caste, Commensality and Hierarchy: The politics of Hospitality

Caste is probably the most complex system of social stratification in the world. Its complexity is furthered by the influence of colonial theories in the study and classification of the caste system. It is therefore not insignificant that we use a Portuguese word ‘caste’ to describe a social system that is restricted to the Indian sub-continent. Though much has been said and written about what caste is, the caste system essentially has five characteristics. These are Endogamy, Occupational Specialization, Heredity, Hierarchy and Commensality[4]. If we accept this to be true, then in as much as commensality, that is to say dining rules and the questions of who eats what and more importantly, with whom, is central to the working of the caste system then it is also clear that the question of caste is integrally linked with the question of hospitality. In fact Chandrabhan Prasad, a Dalit ideologue argues that a litmus test of whether we are casteist or not can be done in checking who we invite to our houses for dinner and whose house we are willing to go to for dinner. In his analysis in the dinner parties of the middle classes in India, Dalits are seldom invited even if they belong to the same economic strata.

What is needed though is a more nuanced understanding of how hospitality works within the context of the caste system. At its basis we can conclude that hospitality is concerned with both food and service, where service can be further elaborated to mean welcome, care, honour etc. In a hierarchical system such as caste, in which each caste community is hierarchically ordered with reference to all the other castes what we notice is that food moves in a downward pattern of descent while service moves in an upward pattern. That is to say that those who believe themselves to be higher in the caste hierarchy will offer food to those who are lower in the caste rung, but will not eat food being offered by those below them in the caste hierarchy or eat with them. The notion behind this is perceptions of purity and pollution in which one cannot accept food offered or cooked by one of a lower caste. The reasons why K.M. Banerjea’s mother underwent such a strict diet on pilgrimage becomes clearer to us now. Hospitality as far as food is concerned therefore would move in a downward descent within the caste system.

On the other hand service would follow a pattern of upward movement within the hierarchy of the caste system. Linked to this would also be related notions such as welcome, acceptance, care and honour. In this case those belonging to a higher caste would not serve those belonging to a lower caste but would only be served by them. To reverse this would be to upset the status quo and upset the hierarchy of the caste system. In fact the rigid protection of upward movement of service is integral to the maintenance of the caste system. There is no wonder then that Harendar Sharma was upset with Manoj Kumar Mahji’s presumption that he could sit on a chair at a function of the dominant caste, he should have sat on the floor like a good Dalit!

Hospitality within the caste system then works with food moving downwards and service moving upwards along the caste hierarchy. Further if we accept Bougle’s understanding of ‘repulsion’ being central to the caste system, then it would follow that hospitality itself is incompatible with the caste system.

Perhaps it is here that we should reflect on what can be called the ‘spirit’ of the caste system. Within the caste system all strangers are automatically considered to be lower in the caste hierarchy than oneself. Therefore one repulses all strangers and attempts are made to exert ones power over them. It is this attitude towards the stranger, the one who is unknown that becomes defining when one speaks of hospitality. Perhaps it is this reaction of repulsion that works in the context of civic sensibilities. It is perhaps the logic, or the spirit of caste operating that entails an aggressive attitude towards the ‘other’ who is a stranger in public spaces. Therefore it is perhaps this logic or spirit that is at work when Indians jump the queue or push themselves before others, or basically chose not to follow the norms of what can be considered publically acceptable behavior.

The question however is how do we theologically reflect on hospitality from a Dalit perspective.

II

 Theologizing Hospitality

In the following sections we shall make an attempt to theologize hospitality from a Dalit perspective.

Hospitality and Sacrament: I would argue that hospitality has an element of the sacred in it. I say this not only literally in the sense that the offering of food, welcome, acceptance and service of the other gives us a glimpse of the divine but I also speak of this in the sense that hospitality connects us with the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. Hospitality is essentially connected with a sense of household. Theologically speaking therefore it is through Baptism that we enter into the household of God, a household that reaches out in love, service, welcome and acceptance to the other. This does not mean that the ‘other’ is either extinguished or absorbed into this household but that that in the household of God that otherness is accepted and difference celebrated. It is within this household that hospitality is shared and experienced. In this sense hospitality is the mark of the church and the responsibility of each believer. From a Dalit perspective therefore baptism would demand dying to a caste system that denies hospitality and rising again to new life in which all belong to the one household of God instead of being separate.

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In the same manner hospitality is also central to the Eucharist, while there is much debate among the churches about the nature of the presence of Christ in the Holy Meal, what we would all agree with is that in as much as the Eucharist is a meal, which is served, the question of hospitality then is central to the sharing of the Lord’s supper. In the Indian context, the sharing of one loaf and the drinking from one cup is unthinkable, the sharing of a common meal unthinkable. Further a priest serving the meal…

Yet salvation from the caste system can only come with the sharing of a common meal, a true sense of community can only appear when we eat and drink together across caste lines. In this sense the Eucharist becomes a visible symbol of an alternative community that has espoused caste. It is no wonder then that several denominations in India insisted on a new believer being baptized and then sharing in a common love feast that would be cooked by a Dalit which would be the visible sign of an entry into the new community of Christ in which caste had no place. In this sense not only is hospitality sacramental but sacrament is also hospitality.

Hospitality as Empowering: We have to begin by speaking of the difficulty of the word empowering itself. Empowering immediately recognizes that one has power and the other does not. It privileges the one over the other, we can however speak of hospitality as being empowering in two senses, in one sense hospitality should empower the receiver. There is the very real danger of hospitality being disempowering and creating dependency. In as much as in the Indian context food following a downward descent down the caste hierarchy, hospitality in this sense has a very real danger of being disempowering. This is often evidenced in the feeding the poor programmes that the dominant castes indulge in, or the charity they may offer those who belong in a caste lower than they are. In this sense there is a need for hospitality when it is being extended to move beyond just charity or even acceptance to empowering.

However when we speak of hospitality from a Dalit perspective we should consider what it means for Dalits when they are the ones who offer hospitality and are not the receivers of it. There is no doubt that the offering of hospitality empowers those who are offering it, it is evidently more blessed to give than to receive. Therefore in the feeding of the five thousand an alternative reading suggests that Jesus does not steal the food of a child, but instead empowers him by receiving his hospitality.

In the conflux of hospitality and power hospitality is seen to flow from the powerful to the powerless, this is particularly noticed when it comes to food in the caste context. What is to be understood is that Dalits by offering hospitality are empowering themselves. It is no wonder then that community meals and the service of food seems to be the culture of not only Dalits, but also of many other oppressed communities.

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Hospitality as incarnation: The last theological point that I would like to offer is hospitality to be considered as incarnation. Much of the discourse around hospitality is concentrated around an understanding of the household as we have seen earlier. Hospitality in this sense is a question of space and if we are to nuance it, also a question of authority. After all as we have seen in the two points above hospitality is a question of the household as well as that is enmeshes with power to sometimes create a system of false dependency and disempowerment. Hospitality as incarnation however offers us a new way of looking at the concept. The incarnation is God’s hospitality with humanity, it moves away from ideas of authority and false dependency in the sense that involves a kenosis, an emptying of oneself for the sake of the other. At the same time it involves pitching ones tent along with the other thus moving away from the traditional concept of hospitality linked to household. This understanding of hospitality as incarnation redefines inclusion, it does this by shifting the focus away from the so called mainstream to the margins. Inclusion then is not asking to be included within the system of those who hold the power, but instead it is redefined from the perspective of the margins. Inclusion is then the hospitable invitation of the marginalized to the powerful to come and join with them in their struggles. Within the caste context of India this calls for the moving beyond boundaries and the building of bridges, it an invitation to stand in solidarity with those communities that are struggling for justice and inclusion. To those belonging to dominant castes it is a invitation to give up and stand along with Dalit communities. From the Dalit communities it demands authentic hospitality towards those who choose to give up their caste privilege and stand in solidarity.

Conclusion: Hospitality lies at the heart of a genuine Christian ethic. Within the caste context an authentic hospitality makes a powerful critique of the caste system since it calls into question systems of hierarchy, commensality and repulsion. This paper calls us to rethink hospitality from the perspectives of sacrament, empowerment and incarnation. These are only a few ideas how hospitality can be developed as a critique against the hostile hierarchy of caste.


[1] K.M. Banerjea was a 19th century convert to Christianity who reached some eminence as an educator but also as the Sheriff of Calcutta. Significantly for the purposes of theology he wrote works that related the Bible and the Christian faith to the Vedas. His works are part of what is today referred to as Indian Christian Theology, a body of work that attempted to interface Christian Theology with Vedantic Hinduism. All the proponents of this school of theology were from dominant caste communities.

[2] Banerjea himself had an ambiguous relationship with the caste system which is the matter of another paper.

[3] Ramachandra Ghosha, The Biographical Sketch of The Rev. K. M. Banerjea (Calcutta: Samya Press, 1893) p. 1

[4] Morton Klass Caste: The emergence of the South Asian Social System (New Delhi: Manohar, 1998) p. 33,34 Klass here relies on N.K. Dutta, however Bougle would be inclined to add repulsion as a characteristic feature of caste.

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4 Responses to Hostility, Hypocrisy, Hospitality: Rethinking the Politics and Theology of Hospitality from a Dalit Perspective ~ Post by Philip Vinod Peacock

  1. Aruna Gnanadason says:

    “Hospitality as incarnation however offers us a new way of looking at the concept. The incarnation is God’s hospitality with humanity, it moves away from ideas of authority and false dependency in the sense that involves a kenosis, an emptying of oneself for the sake of the other. At the same time it involves pitching ones tent along with the other thus moving away from the traditional concept of hospitality linked to household. This understanding of hospitality as incarnation redefines inclusion, it does this by shifting the focus away from the so called mainstream to the margins.” Every sentence in this blog is filled with significance….thank you Philip. I love this paragraph that I have quoted because as a woman (and a feminist) I realise just how much the concept of hospitality linked to the household (which I incidentally use often!) could gloss over the unjust relationships within the household. Bp. Devasahayam told of his experience in a congregation in Chennai where preaching on “Family Sunday” he asked a question “Can we claim to be a family of the church (a household) when we are torn apart by caste?” This simple question provoked an angry response from the congregation who turned hostile to him. This is the church in India! Yes, let us lift up hospitality as incarnation….let us allow Christ to push us to the margins……God of Life PLEASE lead us to justice and peace…..

  2. Pamela Brubaker says:

    I learned so much from your brilliant article, Philip! I appreciated your reply, Aruna; amazing how fraught this concept of “household is.” Thank you both!

  3. Pingback: Tejas Express: Public Property and Civic Duties – The Al-Zulaij Collective

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