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No longer Jew or Greek, slave or free: To work for a casteless society

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28)

The particular socio-political situation prevalent in Travancore in the middle of the eighteenth century adds a special significance to the life and martyrdom of Devasahayam Pillai. His martyrdom offers a challenge to the caste-ridden Indian society and the Christian community in India today.

Devasahayam Pillai, a Champion of Equality in His Time: Nilakandan Pillai was living in a society filled with caste discriminations. Untouchability was being practiced in all its cruel forms. For example the lower castes were not allowed to wear footwear, construct tiled houses and use umbrella. They were forbidden to rear cows. Their women should not wear upper garments. These restrictions were imposed upon them by the high castes such as Nairs, Brahmins (Pottis) and Nambudiris. Most of the Christians were of lowest caste and therefore they were termed as “chandala” (vile person), slaves, “keezhjati” (low caste), “neesa jati” (cursed caste).81

The lower castes were embracing Christianity in search of liberation from these restrictions and social oppression.82 And yet the Caste was in practice among the Christians, too, and even in the place of worship. During the days prior to his baptism Nilakandan Pillai stayed at Vadakkankulam, in the house of Gnanapragasam Pillai, the catechist and Nilakandan Pillai saw the caste difference being practiced also by Christians. The caste distinction among the Christians raised questions in the mind of Nilakandan Pillai: “Why do the Christians behave against the teachings of Christ? Is not caste a pagan institution? Should I become a Christian and live just like them?”83

The Servant of God had the conviction that the caste system contradicted the principles of Christ who stood for the rights of the oppressed, the poor and the marginalized people and was killed on the Cross as a result of his option for the downtrodden and His dream of God’s Kingdom. Meditation on the life and activities of Christ in Galilee and Jerusalem made Nilakandan firm in his commitment to follow Christ, who said “Follow me” (and not the Christians!). Moreover, the courage shown by Jesus at the face of opposition from the Roman rulers instilled the same courage in him84. Thus the life and the message of Jesus, who had made a definite option for the poor and the oppressed and gave his life as a result of that life-option, had already taken possession of Nilakandan Pillai. He considered Baptism only as a ceremony to seal the decision already made to follow Christ, by identifying with thousands of fisher-people, the shanars (nadars as called by the high caste people), pallars and parayas85, according to Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom.

The Servant of God was also aware of the sufferings that the new converts were facing in the Kingdom of Travancore. Many new converts sold all their possessions and escaped to the north of the kingdom86. In this entire socio-political situation charged with religious fanaticism, Nilakandan Pillai wanted to embrace Christianity not because he wanted to be liberated from sufferings of life or to obtain the grace of a child or for any other favours. The main reason for his conversion was that Jesus was committed to the cause of the oppressed and the suffering people. So, he decided to become a Christian in order to imitate this Christ and, if needed, to give his life for Him and for His cause.

As transformed into a Christian, Lazarus Devasahayam resumed his duties in the palace and started in right earnest to put his new-found Christian vision to practice. He stopped attending the religious rituals conducted on a regular basis in the temple attached to the palace. He had no hesitation in moving freely in terms of equality with the so-called low caste people. Devasahayam Pillai chatted and ate with people of all castes and communities. The high caste people who were both fanatic in their religious as well as in their caste consciousness could not accept him back into the court, because he had refused to worship the gods and abandoned the religion of the King and the Travancore Kingdom. He had also become polluted and contaminated by moving with the untouchables87. Thirdly his proposal for the elimination of the caste system by conversion of the upper caste people and by treating all equally and working for their rights and uplift88 were seen as a threat to the prevalent domination of the upper castes in the Kingdom. All these, resulting from his baptismal transformation, caused his condemnations, tortures and death.89

The caste in India has been and is still a problem and a challenge to the church in India. First it remains still a problem unsolved throughout the Church in India. We can certainly say that every diocese and perhaps even every Christian community in India is in some way affected by this problem, which shows its ugly head not only among the laity in the Indian Church, but, and perhaps more blatantly, even among the leaders of the Indian Church. Problems arising from the rivalry based on Rites, and issues such as regionalism, linguistic groupism, etc., have all some connection to the perennial Indian problem, the Caste.

Secondly, it is also a challenge to the missionary efforts of the Church throughout the centuries. The evangelization mission has done hardly anything to eliminate the caste system and is therefore a counter witness to the Gospel: Every Christian in India belongs to one or other caste in India! Therefore the Church has, in the course of its missionary activities, not only tolerated the caste system but has even accepted it as normal in India, “even if it means disowning Jesus and his message of brotherhood”.90 Consequently, then, the evils such as untouchability have been and unfortunately still are prevalent in the Christian communities. Caste endogamy is prevalent among the Christians in the practice of arranged marriages, which is accepted as the normal way of contracting marriages. Wishing to tackle the problem of the Caste, the CBCI took it as the main theme for its plenary assembly in 1982. The Bishops of India stated clearly that the Caste is against the teachings of the Gospel and against the values of the Kingdom.91 They also decided to fight against all sorts of casteism in the Church and in the society. But indeed very little has been done. In fact even in the recent past some dioceses have been very badly affected by this problem.

The life and martyrdom of the Servant of God Devasahayam Pillai have an important message for this still caste ridden society. Declaration of his martyrdom will be a great help in the efforts of the Indian Church to create a casteless Christian community and will promote the values of the Kingdom in the society at large. His eventual canonization will give to the Church a “saint most needed for our times”, as we read in one of the fifty articles presented to the Congregation for Saints for the Nihil Obstat:

«In seeking the beatification of Martyr Devasahayam we wish to uphold to the modern, still race conscious and caste ridden society the ideal of human equality for which he had to die. He was not therefore any martyr - but the dreamer of a new society to be born in Christ Jesus, a Saint most needed for our times.»92