In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Dalits and Hinduism

  • Introduction
  • Classification and Category: Colonial and Postcolonial History
  • Popular Movements: Histories of Dalit Assertion
  • Majoritarian Inclusion: Dalits and Hindutva
  • Antecedents: Histories of Ancient and Premodern Untouchability
  • Phule and Ambedkar: Anti-Caste Radicalism
  • Lifeworlds: Dalit Autobiographies

Hinduism Dalits and Hinduism
Joel Lee, Kripanand Roy Komanapalli
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0253


The vexed question of the relationship of Dalits to Hinduism provokes a range of responses depending on framing and disciplinary orientation. Social scientists have debated whether those who have suffered the structural violence of untouchability should be understood as separate from, encompassed by, or an integral part of the Hindu tradition, and have sought answers in everyday Dalit discourse on ideas like karma and practices like puja. Historians of the colonial and postcolonial point to the radical modernity of both categories: “Hinduism” emerged as a broad-based religious designation in the 19th century and “Dalit” as a collective identity in the 20th. They point, moreover, to asymmetrical contestations among variously allied and opposed nationalists, missionaries, landed elites, anti-caste radicals, and the colonial state in the early 20th century in fixing the meanings of these categories, forging the very concepts with which Indian society would be represented and debated. Historians of the premodern, wary of talk of colonial “invention,” formulate the question with attention to the longue durée and with recourse to older but genealogically related terms. Aspṛśya (Sanskrit: “untouchable”), after all, is a term the brahminical tradition has applied to a despised swath of society subject to spatial segregation and legal disability from the period 200–600 CE onward. Scholars in the field of religious studies often address the caste question by highlighting the vernacular literature of medieval and early modern bhakti traditions, with its apparent themes of inclusion and spiritual equality and stories of the contested recognition of Dalit saints. Another crucial intervention in the debate over Dalits and Hinduism has come from writers in the tradition of anti-caste radical thought. Iyothee Thass, Swami Achhutanand, Bhagwan Das, Chandrika Prasad Jigyasu, and other important anti-caste writers have profoundly shaped the debate in Tamil, Urdu, Hindi, and other linguistic public spheres, even as their work remains relatively unknown in English. The work of Jotirao Phule and especially Bhimrao Ambedkar, on the other hand, has compelled the largely savarna (i.e., “upper caste”) and elite Euro-American scholarly scene of anglophone South Asian studies to confront its own institutional exclusions and to contend with Dalit and Shudra/Bahujan perspectives. Their avowedly experimental “counter-histories” figure Hinduism as a modality of structural violence opposed to subaltern indigeneity (Phule) and Buddhism (Ambedkar). Dalit autobiographies of recent decades, meanwhile, illuminate the question from yet another angle, revealing a universe of quotidian religious life often quite unlike what appears in scholarly representation.

Lived Religion: Anthropological Approaches

The preoccupation of Weberian sociology with karma as a “the most consistent theodicy ever produced by history” cast a long shadow over caste studies, provoking generations of debate over whether and in what ways Dalits acquiesced to the ideological justification of their subordination. Among others, Kolenda 1964, Béteille 1971, Berreman 1974, and Kapadia 1995 depict rural Dalits skeptical of Hindu ideas or holding values disjunctive from those of caste society; Moffatt 1979 paints a picture of “fundamental cultural consensus from the top to the bottom of a local caste hierarchy” (p. 3) and Deliège 1993, arguing on the basis of oral traditions, stakes out a medial position of “ambiguity . . . typical of the untouchables’ position in the caste system” (p. 534). The convergence of colonial ethnology and missionary accounts—compendia of detailed observations without an argument—finds a late exemplar in Briggs 1920. New questions emerged in subsequent anthropological studies: questions of the homology of human and divine hierarchies in Babb 1975, of the relation of emancipatory anti-caste thought to Indic ascetic traditions in Khare 1984, and of Dalit sectarian appropriations of sacred signs formerly forbidden to them in Lamb 2002. Prakash 1990, Mines 2005, and Sax 2008 analyze, in regions far distant from one another, traditions of dominant caste propitiation and fear of “fierce gods” associated with Dalits and, in some contexts, understood to exact retribution for crimes of caste violence. In a study of Dalit Hindus and Christians in a Chennai slum, Roberts 2016 illuminates a shared ethos of pragmatism toward the sacred, making religious conversion in both directions commonplace. Ramberg 2014 critiques the framing of devadasi practices as “sacred prostitution” by foregrounding the categories of auspiciousness and property ownership with which Dalit women dedicated to Yellamma characterize their situation. Studying the apparent disappearance of an autonomous Dalit tradition known for its self-conscious distance from Hinduism, Lee 2021 raises questions of how secrecy and subterfuge inflect the representation of religion. On account of the number of studies involved, the following entries are organized in two subsections according to region.

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