by Esther Larisa David
May 22nd, 2023
Illustration by Juhi
/raɪs bæg θɪˈɒləʤi/
Unpoetically, mine was a colonial faith. A faith from pasty, milky-white officers of ages past, with condescension and moral superiority vibrating through their bones; Missionaries convinced our holy souls needed saving (from whom? They themselves?)
It is a religion of dominance and power. A material faith wielded through gunpowder and saviour complexes.
Poetically, mine is a liberating faith, wrested from land-owning, cigar-smoking, Dalit-flogging vegetarians. 1 A religion incentivized by material gain? No, we sing of a celebratory faith that we shaped and cemented with our own hands. A faith that we have feasted on together for generations.
Mine is a material faith. A rice bag 2 faith, fierce and gentle. A religion wielded through wisdom, justice, and love.
I confess that the abstract faith of the pulpit is something I don’t have. Personal relationships with God sound great on loose-leaf sheets, and in bland white-bread worship bands, but I am not one to be convinced by sermons. Or creeds. Or bible chain references for that matter. Perhaps I am too much of a sceptic. Perhaps I have too much faith.
My faith is in god's hands. And god is in the economics of things, the politics of things, the flesh and blood and wounds and food and coins and documents of things. My god is in roosters and monoliths, community feasts and funeral feeding rites.
I am like St. Thomas, the weak link, incredulously looking for scars in flesh and skin to believe his Lord had risen. I cannot recline and let faith enter my heart. I search for it in kitchens, offices, food, and paper; things I can touch and see with my own senses. I cannot help it. Mine is a material faith.
1. Tribal Christianity Sullied by white missionaries? Roots given up for economic prosperity?
2. Dalit Christianity Resistance or escapism? Traitors for upward mobility?
3. Faith I am caught between the faith I was raised in and the religion of my colonizers. What I’m trying to say is, material conditions breed beliefs and ideas. Why do I believe what I believe in?
I use these terms as euphemisms for upper-caste Hindus in India, many of whom had access to luxury goods and material wealth during European colonialism. Caste is an ascribed identity, most obviously identifiable through a person’s surname and eating habits. Caste mobility is not possible; it is caste hierarchies that have historically determined profession, access to resources, and social location within a society. There is enough writing about how caste hierarchies continue to be the basis of how contemporary Indian society is structured. While the nuances of caste dynamics tend to be location-specific, it is undeniable that upper-caste communities have dominated social, economic, and cultural capital for centuries across the country. In contemporary India, Brahmin and Baniya communities continue to be dominant castes. Economically, members of these communities are large landowners and business owners. Further, they occupy important decision making positions across industries and disciplines, favouring members of their own communities in employment. In terms of culture, Brahminic culture is camouflaged as ‘Indian’ culture, necessarily involving casteism and denigration of Dalit cultures in their mythology and religion. Upper-caste Indians also form the cultural elite, dominating academia and creative fields, influencing thought and discourse. Further, caste endogamy maintains caste hierarchies by restricting marriage within the same caste.
Rice bag: ‘Rice bag’ or ‘rice christian’ is a derogatory term to describe people/communities who supposedly converted to Christianity for material gains (such as free food, education or medical care) rather than due to conviction of faith. It is associated with missionary Christianity that spread across the world alongside European colonialism, with missionaries sometimes exploiting famines and droughts to proseletyse. The term has gained more prominence in India over the past few years as a slur. Oppressor-caste Hindus, especially Hindu nationalists, direct this slur at Dalit and tribal Christians, insinuating that we caved in front of missionaries and gave up our ‘Hindu’ religion in exchange for paltry bags of rice (it is important to note upper-caste religion is markedly different from lower-caste religion, even prior to conversion). Facing extreme material deprivation and violence of all sorts at the hands of upper caste Hindus, is it any surprise that our ancestors found no solace in our supposedly ‘original’ faith?
Esther Larisa is an aspiring researcher currently pursuing an MSc in Global Mental Health at King's College London. To them, earnest faith goes hand-in-hand with irreverence. This faith-fueled playfulness and their relationship with god guides their approach to art and poetry; Deeply personal, and deeply political aspects of faith and religion are therefore less intimidating. More of their work can be found on Instagram (@defixiones).