The religious anthropologies of Gandhi, Phule, and Ambedkar: A Biblical Theological critique

Recently I published an article entitled, “On Putin’s War and Injustices Faced by Ukrainians: Lessons on Nonviolent Love, Peace, and Truth from the Correspondence between Tolstoy and Gandhi,” Covenant Quarterly, vol. 80, no. 1, 2022. In the article I showed how Gandhi learnt from Tolstoy but failed to change the religious anthropological caste system of India.

In this paper, I hope to develop my arguments further.

Gandhi (1869-1948) was a high caste Hindu. His religious anthropology was informed by Aryan/Hinduism, also called Brahmanism. He first developed his socio-religious anthropology in South Africa (1893-1914), and then in India (1914-48). Gandhi was quite influenced by Tolstoy’s, The Kingdom of God is Within You; and John Ruskin’s Unto this Last.

Jyotirao Phule (1827-1890) was a servant/slave caste farmer leader. He sought to fight against the religious caste system of Aryan Hinduism. Phule was quite influenced by Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man.

Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891-1956) was an outcaste/Dalit leader. He began a new movement called Dalit Buddhism to construct a new religious anthropology for outcaste people groups. Ambedkar first developed his thoughts in an anthropological seminar of Alexander Goldenweiser during his PhD studies at Colombia University, New York, entitled, “Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development,” in May 1917.

Sadly, Ambedkar and his anthropology were despised by Gandhi. Arundhati Roy has done a good analysis of this in The Doctor and the Saint: Caste, Race, and Annihilation of Caste, the Debate between B.R. Ambedkar and M.K. Gandhi, 2017.

The Christian Church in South Asia has historically espoused the religious anthropology of Aryan Brahamanic Hinduism. Western missionaries developed churches divided along caste lines- à la Donald McGavran. Isabel Wilkerson rightly calls the racial divisions in American society, as caste divisions (Caste the Origins of our Discontents, 2020).

In this paper, I will do a biblical theological critique of the religious anthropologies of Gandhi, Phule and Ambedkar. I plan to limit myself to the Book of Genesis and some sections of the Pentateuch in my critical analysis. I will seek to show that the modern Church- both in the West and the East, will gain much from this kind of a critical analysis of three crucial South Asian anthropologies. I will seek to apply the lessons of this biblical theological critique to the global Church.

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