My Favourite Theologian: Arvind P. Nirmal

Arvind P. Nirmal (1936-1995)

Revd Raj Bharath Patta

Arvind P. Nirmal, the father of Dalit Theology, is my favourite theologian, for he for the first time took cognizance of the Dalit[1] realities in the Indian Church and in the Indian public, and articulated Dalit Theology as a counter theology and as a protest theology, countering the dominant publics of the caste system[2]. His theological exposition, Towards Sudhra Theology, was delivered as a lecture at the United Theological College, Bangalore, in March 1981, and was a watershed in the Indian Christian Theological enterprise, for it shifted the gear from propositional theologising in dominant Hindu philosophical paradigms to pain and pathos of the people on the margins.

Christian Dalit Theology according to Nirmal will be a counter-theology. He continues to say that it is the 'Dalitness' which is ‘Christian’ about Dalit Theology. The ‘Christian’ for this theology is exclusively the ‘Dalit’. It is the common Dalit experience of Christian Dalits along with the other Dalits that will shape a Dalit Christian Theology.  It is therefore a people’s theology and eventually a public theology. Nirmal locates the servitude among Dalits and among the Godhead as the common denominator in drawing a Dalit God. For him, Jesus is a Dalit who relates with the outcastes, and Holy Spirit is the liberating spirit in the struggles of Dalits for justice.

Nirmal proposes methodological exclusivism as the method in doing Dalit Theology, and articulates pathos as epistemological basis and historical Dalit consciousness as the hermeneutical key in Dalit theologizing. The aim of Dalit theology is to make justice, peace, equality and liberation a reality for all people.

For further reading, see Towards a Dalit Theology edited by M.E. Prabhakar (ISPCK, 1998), Heuristic Explorations by Arvind P. Nirmal (CLS, 1990) and Doing Theology from a Dalit Perspective by Arvind P. Nirmal, in Voices from the Third World, published in December 1993.

[1] The term ‘Dalit’ means 1) the broken, the torn, the rent, the burst, the split; 2) the opened, the expended; 3) the bisected; 4) the driven asunder, the dispelled, the scattered; 5) the down trodden, the crushed, the destroyed; 6) the manifested, the displayed.

[2] The Caste system is an Indian sociological phenomenon with Hindu religious sanctions, where people are divided on the basis of descent and occupation. With Brahmins, the priestly class on top of the pyramid, Kshatriyas, the warrior class next to them, Vysyas, the business class and Shudras, the agrarian class at the bottom of the caste structure. Dalits are the ones who are born outside of the caste, and have been considered as outcastes, untouchables, polluted.

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Part of this series was also published in issue 151 of Movement magazine, the Community issue. Movement magazine is distributed free to SCM members and supporters, and you can request a copy here.