Images of the Body in the Life and Death of a North Indian Catholic Catechist

by Mathew N. Schmalz
Images of the Body in the Life and Death of a North Indian Catholic Catechist
Mathew N. Schmalz
History of Religions
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In the North Indian diocese of Varanasi the priest leading the charismatic retreat motioned for Ghiira Master to be brought to the stage. GhiirB Mas- ter's head was shrouded by a long white cloth, and his eyes were covered by dark glasses, which were necessary not only to protect him from the blazing heat but to shield him from the curious gaze of people in the crowd. GhiirB Master was led to the microphone mounted on the podium and then he began his testimony with his Hindi deep and strong.

GhiirB Master introduced himself by saying that he was a member of the caste that both Hindus and Muslims despised: a CamBr, an untouchable

Names of living persons who appear in this article have been changed to protect their an- onymity. Translations of GhtirB Master's songs are my own and are based on transcriptions of my tape-recorded interviews with him. Quotations attributed to GhtirB Master in the ar- ticle also derive from my interviews with him. This article draws from research presented in my doctoral thesis, "A Space for Redemption: Catholic Tactics in Hindu North India" (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1998). Fieldwork was conducted between January 1995 and May 1996 and was supported by grants from the United States Doctoral Dissertation Re- search Abroad Program (Fulbright-Hays) and the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS). I would like to thank Dr. P. J. Lavakare of the United States Educational Foundation in India and Dr. Pradeep Mehendiratta of AIIS for their generous assistance. I would also like to acknowledge the guidance of Dr. K. N. Mishra of Banaras Hindu University as well as the patient translation assistance of Dr. M. R. Pandey. In the United States, I would like to thank the following scholars for their guidance throughout my research and writing: Professors Wendy Doniger and Frank Reynolds of the University of Chicago and Professor Francis X. Clooney, S.J., of Boston College. I would also like to thank Professor David Lorenzen of El Collegio de Mexico, Professor Eleanor Zelliot of Carleton College, and Dr. Linda Hess for reading this article in its various stages. Of course, I alone remain responsible for any errors of fact, interpretation, or translation. Finally, thanks to Mrs. Krissy, Maxi, and Jude.

O 1999 by The University of Chicago. rlghts reserved. 0018-2710/2000/3902-0004SO2.00

tanner and field laborer. In his youth, he joined the communists who were fighting for the poor and oppressed. But he eventually met a priest who told him that if he truly wanted to defend the poor, he must do so peace- fully and renounce violence. Ghiira Master then became a Catholic Chris- tian and worked to spread the gospel. He soon earned the title "Master" in recognition of his position as a catechist and teacher of Catholic belief. He recalled how much the people of his village loved him and held him in such high esteem that they elected him headman, orpradhdn. But when he won reelection by a wide margin, the village's wealthy landowners began to grow concerned. GhiirB Master then paused and recounted how he was sleeping outdoors one night five years earlier only to awake screaming in agony. The landowners, with members of "his own people," had conspired against him and poured acid over his body, leaving him blind and dis- figured. When Ghiirg Master said this, a great cry went up from the audi- ence and many women raised their hands in charismatic style and began to pray in tongues. To many of them, the story of an untouchable leader being brought down by the landowners was all too familiar. As the cacophony of glossolalia rose from the crowd, GhiirB Master also opened the palms of his hands and raised them to the sky. He then proclaimed that he had forgiven his attackers and that even in his blindness he understood how God is an "ocean of mercy" who fulfills all desires.

Ghiira Master says he wears a cloth to cover his face in order to protect himself from the "hatred" of society. Indeed, some understand his un- touchable body as defiling while others see his scars as marks of his own depravity. But Ghiirg Master is also aware of how his body has become emblematic of an idealized Christian narrative of redemption. Indeed, an article about Ghnra Master's talk appears in a Catholic newspaper under the title "The Acid That Could Not Burn the ~oul."' In reporting Ghnra Master's testimony, the article implied that there was another reality in which the physical marks of suffering point to the possibility of salvation. Of course, GhiirB Master himself quite consciously draws on Christian narrative tropes by identifying his irenic response to the acid attack with the crucified Jesus who forgave his executioners. GhUrB Master's body thus becomes a locus of contestation between competing understandings of the body's significance as a social and religious symbol.

GhiirB Master did not live to hear the stories of violence against Indian Christians that gained international attention in the early months of 1999.~

' Sri Ghiir2 Paul, "Vah Tej2b jo Atma ko Jal2 n2 Saki," Vacan Sudhd (Varanasi: Divine Printers, 1995), p. 10.

See Tunku Varadarajan, "Deadly Zeal in India," New York Times (January 11, 1999); Celia W. Dugger, "Attacks on Christians Unsettle Rural India," New York Times (January 23, 1999), "47 Suspected Militants in India Charged in Missionary's Death," New York Times (January 25, 1999), and "India's Christians: A Double Standard," New York Times (February 19, 1999).

But as a victim of violence himself, GhiirB Master was quite aware of the complex resonances elicited by the violent disfigurement of the still-living body. To explore the implications of such violence, this article will spe- cifically examine the tactics of representing and interpreting the body in the life and death of GhiirB Master, the communist activist and Catholic catechist. Beginning with GhiirB Master's life as he related it to me, we will see how he portrays himself as a courageous political leader by empha- sizing his own bodily power. But in the aftermath of the attack against him, his body becomes a symbolic pivot not only for the conflict between un- touchable Christians and high-caste landowners but also for the divisions within the Catholic community itself. In the context of these struggles, GhiirB Master sings songs of the nirguni poet Kabir to deny prevailing social values while simultaneously relating Kabir's vision to Christian un- derstandings of redemption. In so doing, GhiirB Master revalues the meaning of his own body by imaginatively washing clean the stains of untouchabil- ity and sin. Yet this tactical interpretation of the body is finally turned against Catholicism as GhiirB Master uses images of the body prevalent within North Indian culture to launch a fierce critique of the profligate body of Catholicism and the hypocrisy of its religious life. To consider images of the body in GhiirB Master's life then is to consider the society in which Christianity, untouchability, and violence have become intimately linked.

I will argue that precisely because GhiirB Master's body evokes multiple resonances, its meaning becomes subject to competing tactics of interpre- tation. In this most crucial sense, examining the images of GhiirB Master's body touches on broad themes in contemporary academic discourse sur- rounding the body and its relation to society. Yet in considering the nexus between the body and society in GhUrB Master's life, it is important not to reduce Ghura Master the person to a passive emblem of social and reli- gious struggle. GhiirB Master has a voice, and it is a voice that often sings of the body through the symbol of the cloth-the white cloth of his turban, the dirty cloth that covers his scarred face, and the thinly woven cloth of his body that waits to be washed clean. As we will finally see, the cloth of GhiirB Master's body becomes a shroud, and it is in his death that we can understand his life as a very real and often tragic struggle marked by suffering and abandonment.

GhiirB Master's life begins with the image of the turban, the sign of his status as a political and caste leader. In initially considering his commu- nist activism and eventual conversion to Catholicism, we will see how he presents himself as a bold untouchable leader. Within this portrayal, GhiirB Master's body assumes a prominent place, and it is the power of his body that will open our discussion of his life and death.

Images of the Body


When Ghiira Master recalls the early years of his life before his conversion to Catholicism, he remembers the filth of life as an untouchable. Around the year 1930, he was born into the untouchable CamBr caste in a Hindi- and Bhojpuri-speaking village about one hundred miles north of Varanasi. He was given the name "GhiirB RBm" to protect him from the evil eye, since a first name that means "dung heap" would hardly attract the covet- ous gaze of demons. Living in a colony removed from the main village, his family, like all members of the CamBr caste, was prohibited from using the community well and was forced to drink water from the nearby Ganges River. Men could not wear the dhoti below their knees and were not al- lowed other adornments associated with high status. Yet what Ghiir9 Master remembers most is the stench of hides that hung over his section of the village. In Ghiir9 Master's youth, many members of the CamBr caste still practiced their traditional vocation and removed dead cattle, using the hide to make sandals and often eating the flesh of the animal along with other carrion. Besides leather work, many also labored in the fields at the com- mand of the landowners-often without remuneration of any kind. Theirs was a harsh life well encapsulated by the Bhojpuri saying, "Only CamBrs know the true nature of the autumn heat."

The 1950s were a period of intense communist activism in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Because he believed that the ruling Congress Party only served the interests of Brahmans and the landowning Bhumih9r caste, Ghiir9 R9m decided to join the Majdiir or Labor Party, a local subdivision of the Com- munist Party of India (CPI). GhiirB Master worked with a small cell of Communist activists who would organize field laborers. Central to their strategy of political action was the use of violence in addition to other forms of resistance: they participated in "land grabs" to divest landlords of their holdings, closed courthouses in protest of government food distri- bution policies, and confronted local acts of intimidation with violent re- sistance. As GhiirB Master recalls, they drew inspiration and tactics from their Brahman communist leader Sarjii Pgndey, who coined the famous slogan, "If someone shows you a staff, you show him a lance."

In 1968, Ghiir9 RBm met a Catholic priest named Father PrernrFij, whose mission in the nearby village of ~Bntina~ar

had worked in partnership with local Communist groups during the famines of the mid- 1960s. During one meeting, Premraj told Ghiir9 R9m how Jesus washed the feet of his dis- ciples before he was put to death. This affected GhiirB RBm deeply. Foot washing was one of the traditions of his caste, and all guests who arrived at his house would have their feet washed by his wife and then be given water and jaggery. Because they were CamBrs, women would serve as midwives and would have to wash the feet of the high-caste ladies they served, often cleaning up their feces as well. That Jesus would so humble himself to wash the feet of his disciples meant that the Christian God had truly come to overturn social divisions of distinction and hierarchy. And so Ghiira Rgm converted to Catholicism and chose Paul as his baptismal name. He soon became a catechist and traveled to instruct his fellow Catholics along with organizing his Communist constituency. When he is described as an atheistic Communist who suddenly converted to Catholi- cism, Ghiirg Master simply says: "I wasn't against religion, I was simply a Communist and a Catholic." For him, the passion of Jesus and the sac- rifices of his Communist comrades were all part of the same struggle for human liberation.


If Ghiira Master understands his conversion to Christianity as a contin- uation of his struggle against social injustice, then it is the overall theme of power that shapes his life narrative. Most specifically, it is the image of his own robust and powerful body that often becomes the evocative center of his recollections. He recalls how he stood alone when he con- fronted a local landowner and how he boldly strode up to the chair of the judge to taunt him when he was held in contempt of court. He often humor- ously remembers local Bengalis trembling before him, since they feared his broad shoulders and the staff he would carry with him on his jour- neys. But what Ghiirg Master recalls most vividly is the turban he wore as the head of his caste brotherhood. As chaudhari, GhiirB Master would preside at weddings, discipline violators of caste law, and demand a share of the profits from tanning. When he was installed as his caste's leader, his feet were washed before he was invested with his turban. His stature only grew when in 1980 he became the area's first untouchable to gain the office of pradhan, the headman of the village council. In those days, Ghiirg Master recollects, villagers within a hundred-mile radius would call him comrade. GhUrB Master's body was then a proud royal body that stood forth in sharp relief against the background of untouchability and caste struggle.


Ghiira Master had been headman for nearly a decade by the hot night of June 4, 1990. He was sleeping on his rope bed, which he had moved out- side from his two-room brick house. Thinking back to that night, Ghiirg Master remembers the light cool breeze blowing off the Ganges as he fell asleep looking at the moon. When he awoke to the searing pain of acid burning his flesh, there was no one home to hear his cries of pain. When he was finally taken to a hospital in Varanasi, his condition was described as a case of "acid bum adhesion" in which his eyelids were bonded closed, fused with the skin bordering his eye sockets. His ears and nose were severely damaged, with one ear almost entirely burned off and one nostril closed. His lips were badly blistered and his neck, chest, and back terribly scarred. Some would liken his appearance to that of a candle scored by lines of melted wax.

If GhiirB Master's body had once commanded respect and fear, the attack against him was most certainly intended to elicit a quite different response. But in considering the various interpretations of the acid attack, we find not consensus but contestation over the meaning of the scars marking GhiirB Master's face and chest. Indeed, GhiirB Master's blind and disfigured body becomes a symbolic locus for a variety of contending interests and interpretative tactics. Within this context, the scars of GhiirB Master's body do not constitute some kind of somatic grammar but instead evoke dis- cordant resonances that reflect the power relations of the surrounding social field. Yet for this very reason, the body of GhUrB Master must be continually constructed by interpretation, just as it was acted on by phys- ical force.


During his ten years as headman, GhUrB Master vividly recalls his battle with the landowners. Often he had to go to the local police station to pro- tect constituents who faced arrest and extortion as part of the landowners' efforts to maintain untouchable subordination. In spite of this constant in- timidation, GhiirB Master says he was able to distribute the largesse of his position to the neediest families in his village: he built three paved roads to ensure access to wheat fields and wells, had ten brick homes constructed for the poor, and had fifteen hand pumps installed to increase the supply of drinking water in the area. As GhUrB Master's support and reputation grew, the landowners feared a local alliance of the untouchable castes solidified by GhUrB Master's leadership. To forestall this potential insur- gency, a landowning administrator offered GhUrB Master a mutually bene- ficial political alliance. But GhUrB Master observed, the landowners often "show you a ball of brown sugar and then hit you with a clod of dirt."

As he was struggling with the landowner, GhiirSI Master's relations with the surrounding Catholic community were becoming strained. The ten Catholic families in Ghiirs Master's village made their living largely through tanning, manual labor, and sharecropping. The local Catholic mis- sion would provide loans to these families so they could begin to earn a livelihood beyond the level of subsistence. According to GhiirB Master, a Catholic villager named YesudBs had taken out a loan to buy a sewing machine in order to expand his shoe-making business into tailoring. He borrowed Rs 2,000 from the mission's cooperative credit union and re- fused to pay back the money. GhiirB Master publicly confronted him on this matter and earned YesudBs's enmity. During this time, YesudBs's aunt had become the mistress of a landowner in the village. When GhiirB Master eventually exposed her, he only deepened the resentment of YesudBs's family. GhiirB Master also had a disagreement with the family living ad- jacent to him. According to GhiirB Master, he had always been close to the family and had even arranged the marriage of their son John Masih. But when he became pradhdn their amicable relations changed and Masih's family unsuccessfully resisted GhiirB Master's efforts to have a road made to the Ganges because it cut across their land. Masih was quite close to YesudBs, who lived close by in a hut built of mud and thatch.

After returning from the hospital, GhiirB Master says he learned that there were many hands in the attack against him. According to him, it was Masih, along with YesudBs's aunt and nephew who actually threw the acid on him, and it was Yesudas who had planned and organized the attack. The land-owning administrator also had a crucial but unspecified role in the plot. But, as he consistently insists, he never gave the name of his at- tackers to the police because he had forgiven them. Nonetheless, GhiirB Master remains vigilant since many of the suspects are his own neighbors. When Yesudas and Masih would visit to exchange pleasantries, GhiirB Master would comment, "When RBm's on their lips, a knife's alongside."


GhiirB Master's interpretation of the attack against him is not the only one that exists in his village. Masih, GhiirB Master's neighbor and a reputed perpetrator of the attack, presents a much different interpretation of the events leading to GhnrB Master's downfall. Interestingly, Masih is quite open about the rumors concerning his involvement and admits quite readily to having been detained by the police for a time. But, Masih often asks, why should he be the exclusive focus of suspicion-after all, when- ever a tyrant is brought down, there must be many hands behind it.

Masih presents his version of events in explicit contradistinction to GhiirB Master's portrayal of himself as a noble and courageous untouch- able leader. As Masih explained, GhiirB Master in fact used his moneys as headman for personal gain. Not only did GhiirB Master build a water pump on his own property, thus ensuring control of the local water supply, but he also disproportionately distributed resources to women who were open to his sexual advances. Chief among these women was YesudBs's aunt, the very woman whom GhfirB Master claims he exposed as the mis- tress of a local landowner. Given the nature of his transgressions, it was only a matter of time before GhiirB Master would be made to pay for his misdeeds.

Masih never identifies the human instruments of this harsh form of jus- tice. Instead, for Masih, what is essential to realize is that the scars and burns marking GhiirB Master's body are signs ultimately made by a divine hand. When one approaches Masih's two-room hut, one immediately sees numerous biblical passages written in bright pink paint on the dried mud walls. For Masih, the Christian God is a God who writes, who inscribes his will on the world and on the human body. Indeed, members of Masih's own family bear the markings of God's chastising script: Masih's grand- father suffered a compound fracture of his wrist in a threshing accident, and Masih now interprets his grandfather's crippled hand as divine retri- bution for a hateful nature; Masih's son lost part of a finger in another ac- cident, but its real cause was the child's disobedience; Masih, too, bears a scar to remind him of his own misdeeds, for while he was cutting veg- etables, his eyes moved toward an attractive young woman and he sliced his index finger down to the bone. If Ghura Master presents his injuries as the emblems of caste oppression and the greed of his fellow Catholics, Masih sees them as a writ of divine justice.


Ghurg Master and Masih's interpretations of the attack most immediately arise from internal struggles within the Catholic community. But the acid attack against Ghnra Master has a broader resonance within a community rent by caste conflict. Arjun Rai is a landowner whose family lives in Ghiira Master's village. One day in the company of a friend, he referred to Ghiira Master as "a real mother fucker." He then explained how mem- bers of Ghnra Master's extended family had planned and carried out the attack in order to protect their wives and daughters from his sexual ad- vances. On hearing this charge of incest, Arjun's companion said, out- raged, "That's a vile thing to do!" Arjun then spit and said, "That's what he is!" He was making a play on words, for the Hindi word for "vile" (nic) also means "low" (nic). It was in Ghiira Master's nature to be vile since he was low-meaning of low caste.

Arjun's comments reflect widely held perceptions of untouchables. There is a saying in eastern Uttar Pradesh that translates simply as "Caste nature never changes, whatever it may be." Caste merely reflects and acknowl- edges a group's innate characteristics, and untouchables are such for a rea- son. In the village Ghiira Master and Arjun call home, an old Bhojpuri saying is repeated quite often: "The Camar jackals are quite clever, they run to a looting and scatter from a beating." To fear, to run, to betray one another is simply in the CamBr's nature. Untouchables are not regulated by the duties that bind the higher castes. When they do rise to a level of power, as GhurB Master did, they cannot possibly succeed-after all, ac- cording to another Bhojpuri proverb, "A leech taken out of the water can't live in the mud." Their sexuality knows no restraint-adultery, incest, and rape are commonplace in high-caste portrayals of untouchable life. Ac- cording to Arjun, what happened to GhiirB Master was a simple outcome of caste nature asserting itself. The Camars devoured the untouchable body of GhiirB Master like the jackals and carrion eaters they are.


The tactics of representing and interpreting GhiirB Master's disfigurement elicit crucial issues in academic considerations of the body. Within the broad field of scholarly reflection on the body's significance, an important theme remains the body as medium that can be disciplined, shaped, or disfigured to convey socially significant meanings3 Indeed, there can be no doubt that the acid attack against GhiirB Master was designed to in- scribe a social message on his body. The acid attack is an all-too-frequent form of vengeance in North Indian society and one that is particularly as- sociated with sexual transgression. In a popular Hindi film, for example, a woman avenges herself on the man who raped her by pouring acid over him as he sleeps. Within North Indian Hindu culture, one of the implicit assumptions underlying such an act would be that the appearance of the body represents an "index" to the condition of the soul.4 A plump and ro- bust body would indicate spiritual health and well-being, while a dis- figured or rotting body would be a sign of moral decay.5 Perhaps the burn scars of acid, not so dissimilar to the lesions of leprosy, would then be a much more fitting emblem of sexual debauchery than castration or other similar forms of bodily mutilation. Such a disfiguring punishment also surely befits an untouchable who moves beyond his station in life and proudly shows his face in the company of the higher castes. Blindness, too, has its resonances, for it can be understood within the framework of karma as the result of any number of transgressions. Perhaps pointing to this connection, a tea shop owner near GhiirB Master's house observed simply, "No, a blind man can never be good."6

While it is crucial to understand GhiirB Master's body as a nexus of social forces, it is also important not to limit its meaning to a single underlying code that is reflexively and consistently deciphered by its would-be inter- preters. In his discussion of the nature of symbolism, Dan Sperber argues strongly against such semiological views of symbolism by calling atten- tion to how symbols differ from words in a language. Sperber observes

For general overviews of the body's treatment in academic discourse, see John Blacking, "Towards an Anthropology of the Body," in The Anthropology of the Body, ed. John Blacking (London: Academic Press, 1977) pp. 1-28; see also Thomas J. Csordas, "Body as Represen- tation and Being in the World," in Embodiment and Experience: The Existential Ground of Cul- ture and Self, ed. Thomas J. Csordas (London: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 1-23.

"Index" is the word Jonathan Parry uses to describe the connection between body and soul in contemporary Hinduism. See Jonathan Parry, Death in Banaras (Cambridge: Cam- bridge University Press, 1994), p. 170.

'Ibid. My comparison of GherS Master's scars to the lesions of leprosy follows Parry's analysis.

If the tea shop owner's comments were based on karmic theory, then it would conform to observations about the use of karma in popular Hinduism as a theory that is often contex- tually applied along with other understandings of misfortune. On this, see L. A. Babb, "Karma in Popular Hinduism," in Karma: An Anthropological Inquiry, ed. Charles F. Keyes and E. Valentine Daniel (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983), pp. 163-84.

that not only are symbolic meanings radically underdetermined but that symbols themselves can neither be paraphrased nor confined to a single grammar.' Most telling, Sperber maintains that culture in and of itself does not provide an overall algorithm or key for decoding symbolic mate- rials. Certainly, in the case of GhiirB Master's body, what we find is neither a single grammar that encompasses its meaning nor a code that can be uni- formly deciphered. Instead, we have a variety of evocations that his body elicits quite beyond the presumed intent behind the acid attack itself. In certain Christian contexts, such as the charismatic prayer service men- tioned earlier, GhiirB Master's body is likened to the scarred body of the crucified Christ. Not altogether dissimilar to this Christian interpretation are the views of Ghnra Master's Communist comrades who consider his disfigurement yet another mark in an untouchable history that has always been written in blood. In his home village, however, his disfigurement is often considered to be a reflection of his innate nature as an untouchable, or a divine punishment for his tyranny, or even a sign of the fruits that his karma now demands he reap. GhiirB Master's body then is not a text with a grammar that can be read or decoded. Instead, it is a symbol that evokes a variety of discordant resonances that reverberate through the surround- ing social field.

It is because GhiirB Master's body cannot be contained within a single framework of meaning that his body itself becomes an object of contes- tation between a variety of interpretative tactics. Accordingly, the truth reflected in the theories about the attack concerns not what actually hap- pened that night but the perceptions and power relations that structure life in the villages that GhiirB Master served as Communist leader and Catholic catechist. Immediately apparent are the mirror images that the Catholics and landowners have of one another. GhiirB Master speaks of a woman carrying on an affair with a landowner in the area while Arjun ac- cuses GhiirB Master of raping members of his own family. In one view, the landowners are sexually licentious because of the power of their high status while, in another view, untouchables are promiscuous because of their low status. Masih's version of events highlights the divisions within the Catholic community itself and how GhUrB Master's own weaknesses led to his downfall. Indeed, Masih's interpretation of GhUrB Master's life makes him emblematic of the failed hopes of these untouchables who con- verted to Catholicism in the hope of moving beyond poverty and caste. Catholicism, then, is intimately connected to the themes of greed, caste, and sexuality that seem to dominate reflection on GhiirB Master's disfigure- ment. That these themes manifest themselves so forcefully in the various

'Dan Sperber, Rethinking Symbolism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975). For a helpful discussion and vigorous critique of Sperber's understanding of symbolism, see E. Thomas Lawson and Robert N. McCauley, Rethinking Religion (Cambridge: Cam- bridge University Press, 19931, pp. 68-77.

interpretations of the attack against GhUrB Master shows how much he himself has now become part of a competing series of collective repre- sentations. In such an environment, it is perhaps not surprising that in- terpretative tactics assume a function similar to the violence that was originally used to mark GhUrB Master's body.


Publicly, GhurB Master counters the rumors surrounding him by identi- fying his own suffering with that of Christ on the cross. In this way, Christianity becomes another tactic of interpretation to be deployed in a context of caste and economic struggle. More often than not, however, when he leaves his home, he covers his face with a cloth stained from its repeated use. As we will soon see, the image of the dirty cloth becomes central to Chnra Master's effort to revalue his own bodily condition. In an original song GhUrB Master composed about his situation, he reflects on the constraints that society and his blindness have imposed on him. Yet he also obliquely refers to his baptismal namesake, Paul, who was blind for three days before his conversion brought light back into his eyes. In this sense, perhaps, GhiirB Master does not understand himself as a martyr but as a sinner in need of redemption:

So now save me God

Oh Lord, come sit by me

Because the hunter is aiming his arrows at me

There's sadness for me on both sides, quickly save my life

So now save me God

I'm like a fish writhing without water as my life slips away

Everyone is laughing

After spreading rumor and insult

I am a sinner wandering without a path

Oh Jesus, come and save me

You are great, a great ocean of mercy

As you gave Moses

Give me the knowledge of the Ten Commandments

Show me the ray of light

Oh God Jesus, save me

Satan has surrounded me by the power of lust, anger, pride, and greed

But you alone are the boatman for the boat of Paul.


In the aftermath of the attack, Ghnra Master would spend much of his time alone, sitting on his rope bed while the rest of his family attended to their daily routine. In these hours of solitude, GhurB Master would often sing to himself the songs attributed to the great North Indian mystic Kabir. Kabir belongs to the nirgun tradition, a countertradition to caste Hinduism that focuses its devotion on a formless God without attributes. Not only do Kabir's songs, called bhajans in Hindi, exist as part of a North Indian tradition of social protest in their denial of caste but they also radically devalue the significance of the phenomenal world. For Ghnra Master it is here that the image of the cloth appears again, for Kabir likens the entire body to a thinly woven cloth. By relating his body to the symbol of the cloth, Ghnra Master reimagines his own bodily experience without the marks of untouchability and sin. Indeed, through a kind of symbolic impro- visation Ghnra Master connects the nirgun tradition of North India to the sacramental vision of Catholicism, for it is the water of Christian baptism that finally washes clean the dirty cloth of the human body.


When Ghnra Master would talk about his specific injuries, his efforts to discern their meaning would often enter obliquely into more general dis- cussions about sexuality and the body. Sexuality, for example, was a con- stant theme in his recollections of his fellow catechists, for he would often describe them, using the English word, as "characterless" to indicate their loose morals. Sex is indeed dangerous if for no other reason than that it drains a man's vital fluids. Ghnra Master would often explain to me that a man who has never had sex or ejaculation, including nocturnal emission or "night-fall," would live forever. Such a person's forehead (lalii~)is clear of wrinkles and shines brightly, presumably because semen is often un- derstood to be stored in the head, and, thus, any depletion would be readily apparent in a person's appearan~e.~

In making these observations, he would often wonder about the problems that a body presents because it is both so necessary and so dangerous. With characteristic Bhojpuri word play, Ghnra Master would often explain that the body is not something for kiim, a word that can mean both work and sexual desire. By this he meant that the body is both useless, for it inevitably declines physically, and also that the body should not be the object of desire, because sexuality more than anything else can lead one astray. This is the dilemma of having a body, for it is used, and indeed must be used, for both work and pleasure. The problem of the body is central to a song attributed to Kabir that GhnrB Master often sings:

Why are you saying "Kabir, Kabir?"
Control your body
Keep the five elements in check

On the theory that semen is stored in the head, see Wendy Doniger, Women, Androg- ynes and Other Mythical Beasts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 45-46. On the connection between semen retention and immortality in village culture, see Moms

G. Carstairs, The Twice Born (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967), p. 78.

That's Kabir

Kabir stands in the marketplace

And wishes everyone well

Friends with no one

Enemies with no one

A cloth, soaked in the name of the Lord

A thinly woven cloth

What is its warp and woof?

Of what strand is it woven?

A thinly woven cloth

The ingald and pingald are its warp and woof

The ingala and pingala are its warp and woof

Woven with the Susumna strand

A thinly woven cloth

The eight petaled lotus is the wheel

Spinning five elements and three strands

A thinly woven cloth

It takes God ten months

And carefully he makes it

Men, women, and holy men cover themselves with it

They put it on and they dirty it

A thinly woven cloth

Kabir puts it on carefully

And keeps it just as it was.

This song is probably the most popular of all songs attributed to Kabir, and the version GhUrFi Master sings is largely in modern ~hojpuri.~ Because of its contemporary language, it is not surprising that the song does not appear in the three standard collections of Kabir's verses-the Bijak, the Granthavali, and the Adi Granth-while it is included in most modern Hindi collections of ~abir.'~

Kabir here likens the body to a cloth that humans must wear carefully lest it become stained by accretions of karma. Yet it is not simply the physical body of which Kabir speaks. Instead, the song concerns the subtle body of yogic theory, a mystical body coex- tensive with the gross body. The ingala and pingala are the two channels (nadi)that irrigate the subtle body, crossing the Susumna nadi that runs the

For an excellent discussion and translation of this bhajan, see David Lorenzen, Praises to a Formless God: Nirguni Texts from North India (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1996),

p. 208. Ghfir2 Master's version, which I recorded, transcribed, and translated, is slightly different and includes the line "soaked in the name of the Lord," which does not appear in the versions Lorenzen mentions.

'O See Kabir, Bijak, ed. Bana Scheba (Darabhanga: Kabira Vicora Praccra Sangha, 1989), and Granthavali, ed. Syam Sundar Das (Kasi: Nagaripraccrini Sabha, 1959). On Kabir in the Adi Granth, see Nirmal Das, Songs of Kabir in the 'Xdi Granth" (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1991). Lorenzen has researched the appearances of this most popular bhajan. According to him, outside his own translation and in this article, it appears in En- glish in J. Das, ed., The Kabir Voice (Surrey, B.C.: Kabir Association of Canada, 1991).

length of the spine. This yogic imagery has a complex symbolism, for the left ingald channel represents the feminine and is associated with the moon and the river Ganges." The right channel, the pingah, is masculine and is connected to heat and the sun.12 The Susumna, however, is neuter and is related to fire and lucidity. The three channels of the subtle body intersect and meet at the base of the spine, in the cave where the serpent Kundalini resides. This intricate weave becomes even more dense as the spinning wheel of the heart combines the five elements of earth (pritvi),water (jal),fire (dg, pdvak), air (vdya, samir), and ether (aka$, gagan). These elements then meet with the cosmic qualities of sdnkhya theory: lucidity (sattva),darkness (tamas),and passion (rajas).What emerges, as David Lorenzen observes, is an image appropriate to Kabir, the weaver saint.13 The human body, in both its subtle and gross forms, becomes like a thin blanket woven from the metaphysical threads that constitute the very fab- ric of the universe.

While Ghura Master is aware of the metaphysical implications of Kabir's imagery, he focuses on the physical body in his interpretation of the song. He recognizes that the ingald, pingah, and Susumna are the channels of the mystical body that weave through the person as warp, woof, and guiding thread. But when he discusses the symbolism of the cloth, GhUrB Master relates it not only to the physical body in general but to his experience of his own body. For Ghtira Master, the cloth of Kabir's song represents the physical body: the body's pores and wrinkles resem- ble the fabric of linen, silk, or cotton. When he explains this, Ghnra Mas- ter's fingers often trace the acid scars along his chest. To his touch, the raised and intersecting lines of the burns felt similar to the fold and weave of a cloth. This cloth, however, is not simply woven by the three strands and five elements. In a confusing but interesting conflation of im- ages, Ghtira Master maintains that there are actually nine elements that make up the person, including greed (lobh), anger (krodh), agitation (mad),and lust (kdm).Within Kabir's religious vision these are the four elemental vices that ensnare the person. For Ghura Master, however, these emotions are themselves akin to physical elements, like fire or ether, wo- ven into the human person by the breath. Although here he departs from what generally would be recognized as consistent with Kabir's philoso- phy, Ghnra Master's idiosyncratic interpretation of the song does reflect his own bodily experience. Every breath for Ghiira Master requires effort since his mouth and nose were so severely damaged by the attack. Be- cause the flesh on his neck never healed property, his head is always tilted

l1 Jean Varenne, Yoga and the Hindu Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

1976), p. 161.

l2 Ibid.
l3 Lorenzen, p. 208.

down into his chest, making his breathing heavy and labored. It is not sur- prising to hear Ghiirii Master say that, in the act of breathing, humans become stained by sin because they weave into their bodies the very qual- ities that lead them astray. Trapped in his body by blindness, which some would say was caused by his desire for sexual pleasure, GhiirFi Master is reminded with every breath that the body is something that must be tamed.

The filth of the human body is intimately related to the filth all humans hold within their thoughts. In another bhajan GhiirFi Master sings, Kabir taunts his audience by asking how the cloth, understood as the subtle body, became stained. The human body is likened to a house with ten doors.14 Each door represents a body orifice-two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, the mouth, anus, urinary tract, and the "third eye" in the middle of the fore- head. Ideally these doors are locked, and there are two guards who stand constantly on watch in the form of wisdom (budhi) and discernment (vivek).So, how did the cloth become dirty? Did a thief sneak in or did the stain originate from the inside, from the person's own undisciplined mind? In the previous bhajan, Kabir remarks that the five elements must be controlled. Here the bodily openings are the points of concern. One of the primary goals of Hatha or Kundalini Yoga, to which Kabir often al- ludes, is precisely to close the bodily orifices in order to control the vital winds within the body and thus discipline the restless mind.15 Signif- icantly, when GhtirFi Master began to identify the ten doors on his body, he pointed to his eyes, nostrils, and ears, all of which had been severely damaged and some even closed by the scarring. Within Ghiirii Master's blindness, then, lies the possibility of transformation since it forces an in- ward journey of mental discipline. In singing this song, Ghiir2 Master is perhaps contemplating how the darkness that he finds so painful also holds the possibility that the cloth, trapped in the physical body, might still be- come clean and infused with the love of the Lord:

How did the stain get on the cloth? How did the stain get on the cloth? Well, it's on the peg, inside the house And the cloth covers the peg And there are ten doors to the house And there are locks on all ten of them So how did the stain get on the cloth? How did the stain get on the cloth? And the house has two guards

l4 This is a common image in Kabir's poetry. See Brahmajit Gautam, Kabir Pratik-Kosh (A concordance of Kabir's symbolism) (Dilli: Hindi Pustak Bhavan, 1990), p. 33.

l5 On Hatha or Kundalini Yoga in Kabir, see Charlotte Vaudeville, Kabir (Oxford: Clar- endon Press, 1974), 1: 132; see also Harzariprasad Dvivedi, Kabir (Bombay: Hindi Granth Ratnaker, 1964), pp. 44-52.

Who always stay awake So did a thief sneak in And mark it before he fled? How did the stain get on the cloth? How did the stain get on the cloth? So everyone's tried to clean the cloth And after washing it, they've gone crazy Everyone's tried to clean the cloth And gone crazy after washing it Kabir says, Listen brother renouncers It's infused with the love of God.


For Kabir, the cloth of the human body is thinly woven and stained by accretions of karma. For GhiirB Master, this image of the cloth holds meaning because it resonates within his own bodily experience. Within the interplay of these images and association, Jesus Christ becomes the washerman who cleans the cloth that is the body of his devotee. In an original composition in Bhojpuri, Ghtirg Master reflects on the true riches of Christianity, riches that come from the holy water of baptism:

Our wealth is the holy water of Jesus Someone's wealth is a house Someone's wealth is a granary Someone's wealth is the fruits of the orchards But our wealth is the holy water of Jesus Someone has become rich by theft and tanning And someone has become rich by bribery and hoarding And someone's wealth is the strength of his body And our wealth is the holy water of Jesus And someone has become rich by opening a shop And someone has become rich by renting his home And someone has become rich through factories and workshops But our wealth is the holy water of Jesus So many rich people came to hear the preaching of the Lord And after hearing his preaching They went crazy They went away saying these are people Who have renounced everything But our wealth is the holy water of Jesus To hear the sermon of the Lord, all the disciples came But Paul is caught in the boat of Ghiirii the catechist.

It is significant that GhtirB Master's primary association with Christian- ity is cleanliness. After his conversion to Christianity, he remembers that members of the higher castes did not refuse to eat with him as before.

Constantly, Ghiirl Master would emphasize how the higher castes be- lieved Christians to be "cleaner" than Camlrs. It is unclear to me to what extent the social ostracism of untouchables was relaxed after their con- version to Christianity. When this did happen, it seems to have been largely due to the fact that economic assistance from the church allowed them to abandon occupations such as tanning that were associated with their untouchability. Often, as we have seen, higher castes make no dis- tinction between Catholics and untouchables. What is significant, how- ever, is that Ghiirl Master draws on Christian imagery to reimagine his own identity. The holy water of Jesus not only washed away his sin but, in his view, removed the stain of caste. When Christ died on the cross, he accepted the sinful pollution of humanity on himself. When Christians eat his body, the Eucharist cleanses them by absorbing and transforming the internal filth of their own iniquity. Sin and pollution are thus merged and conflated, related to each other as dharma and karma are connected. In this sense, baptism is not only a sacrament in a Christian sense but a samsknra in a Hindu sense, a ritual act McKim Marriot has likened to a "pol- ishing."16 Hence, conversion to Christianity is a social tool, not used so much to lessen the distance from caste Hindus but to imagine an identity no longer connected to untouchability. Seen against the background of his use of Kabir and the nirgun tradition, perhaps Ghiirl Master's Christian imagery is then designed to show the very impossibility of a formless divinity, since if religious vision is to become social vision, it must inev- itably be incarnated.

In considering such views, it would be tempting to describe Ghiirl Master's religious views as syncretic-a blending of two religious tradi- tions into a new religious vision. But instead of a merging of sagun Catholicism with North Indian nirgun bhakti, what Ghiirl Master does is use both tactically around a symbolic pivot. For Ghiirl Master, the body is a thinly woven cloth, a cloth that recalls other images of the cloth in his life, whether the turban that once marked his status or the cloth that covers his scarred face. These images of the cloth are then symbolically related to Christian baptismal imagery. Drawing on Sperber once again, we could say that in confronting his blindness and disfigurement, Ghiirl Master follows a complex and idiosyncratic string of symbolic associations to reimagine his own bodily condition. Because this process is improvisa- tional, Ghiirl Master does not systematically relate the body-cosmology of Kabir to Christian beliefs in the afterlife or discuss underlying connec- tions between sagun and nirgun bhakti. Instead, he probes different reli- gious images according to his relation to the social field and his own

l6 On this description, see McKim Marriot, "Constructing an Indian Ethnosociology," in her India through Hindu Categories (Delhi: Institute for Economic Growth, 1990). p. 17.

bodily consciousness. The very fact that his body does not have a fixed place within a particular grammar of perception allows, or even necessi- tates, such a fluid process of symbolic evocation and association. That his overall religious vision is adaptable and pragmatic in no way makes it less Christian, GhiirB Master would often assert. To explain what he meant, he would employ yet another proverb: "Mix with all, meet with all, and take the name from all, but live in your own village." To this he would add, "We're Christians, after all." In the end, as long as you know where you live and where you are going, it does not matter where you stop along the way.


In light of the foregoing discussion, it would be tempting to consider Catholicism as a kind of random element that GhiirB Master employs not only to destabilize conventional images of his own body but also to reimag- ine a new identity for himself beyond the strictures of caste and disability. But Catholicism does not exist as an autonomous entity somehow disen- gaged from the social and economic struggles that have so characterized GhDrB Master's life. Instead, Catholicism is very much a part of the social field in which its Christian imagery is deployed. In what follows, we will consider how GhiirB Master once again reimagines his own body, this time in contradistinction to the avaricious and prideful "heat" of the body of Catholicism. Such a final turn of body imagery emphasizes that the body cannot be reduced to an inert status in which its meaning is statically cir- cumscribed by discourse or violence. Instead, it is the very fluidity of the body's meaning that invites efforts to create or control it. But for GhiirB Master, this contested interplay of association and interpretation finally ends with his death and his vision of his body covered by a thinly woven shroud.


When GhiirB Master sings the songs of Kabir, he takes part in a broad North Indian tradition of social protest. Just as the songs of Kabir often deny the overall importance of the phenomenal world, so, too, do they treat specific claims to holiness with suspicion. As an untouchable Camiir, GhiirB Master would sing nirgun bhajans to ridicule Brahmanical claims of status and rank. While this is the explicit focus of a song attributed to Kabir, for GhiirB Master its resonance extends to the Roman Catholic priesthood and its pretenses to sanctity:

Devotees of God and religious books are stupid fools Devotees of God and religious books are stupid fools When whores wear fine clothes

Bordered with fine embroidery While noble women who fast Can't even get rags Who's fine and who's crude? Pimps eat fine food and sweets Along with a nice ball of cannabis But for holy men, a handful of grain is hard to get They can't even fill their jugs with water But all the yogis, renouncers, and ascetics Wear their loincloths loose They don't know the important mantras In vain their locks grow long If everyone's got to go naked Then who's great and who's small? Kabir says, Listen brother renouncers A whip's going to come down on your head.

When GhiirB Master sings this bhajan from Kabir, he reflects not only on the deceptions of appearance but also on the specific hypocrisy of those who proclaim themselves to be "holy men." When Catholic priests first arrived in GhiirB Master's village in the 1950s, they were French Canadian Capuchins. They gave their newly converted Catholics milk, butter, and grain along with clothes to cover their bodies. The initial South Indian priests who followed them continued distributing these material goods. But the later priests decided that such distributions were merely creating a debilitating cycle of dependence, and so the mission turned away Cath- olics who sought food and clothing for their families. As Ghiirg Master remembers, one priest was beaten bloody by Catholics who demanded the goods they considered rightfully theirs. While this reversal was dismaying enough for GhiirB Master, his resentment only grew when the church refused to explore the possibility that an operation could restore his eye- sight. In GhiirB Master's view, the Catholic Church had promised to nurture and transform the untouchable body, but now it had assumed the de- meanor displayed by the landowners at the height of their powers. But GhiirB Master would also add, this reversal should perhaps come as no surprise because "the elephant has one set of ivories for show and another for eating."17

This gap between appearance and reality is perhaps nowhere more ap- parent than in the way the priests and nuns treat their own bodies. When the South Indian priests and nuns first came in the 1960s, they clothed themselves in striking habits of black. GhiirB felt this was appropriate, not only because the nuns were demurely covered but also because the attire

"I would like to thank Linda Hess for suggesting "ivories" instead of the more literal "teeth."

of the priests was clearly foreign and thus pointed to a reality beyond the local strictures of caste. But strangely, the Catholic Church became "1ndianized"-priests and nuns began to wear saffron-colored robes and saris. But although the priests assumed the posture of renunciants, they still rode motorcycles with their hair finely coifed. But what was worse was that they later abandoned vegetarianism. Now the priests and nuns live together in the same mission compound and eat meat to celebrate the feast days of their patron saints. The dangerous combination of male-female cohabitation, meat eating, and sexuality was made clear by GhiirB Master when he explained that meat eating was appropriate for married couples but not for celibates because meat heats the body and increases sexual de- sire. According to GhDrB Master, meat would be appropriate for foreign priests who come from a cold climate and need the heat that meat would provide. But what is most certainly not appropriate is for Indian renounc- ers to eat meat because they must remain cool and take care lest their bodily humors go out of balance. Indeed, GhiirB Master would argue that the priests and nuns should limit themselves to a diet of milk and fruit since anything more than this would dangerously heat their bodies. The body of the institutional church is profligate, not "fat" in its luxury but "hot" in its pride and avarice. By contrast, the body of GhiirB Master exists in a cooling darkness.

GhDrB Master's criticisms derive from a broad tradition of Hindu reflec- tions on meat eating and vegetarianism. On one end of the dietary spec- trum, meat is appropriate for kings and warriors, whose duty demands that they rule and fight. On the other end of the spectrum, eating certain kinds of meat, especially bovine flesh and carrion, marks others as outcasts. What is most significant in GhiirB Master's evaluation of the diet of the priests and nuns is its relation to ayuwedic medicine. The body in this conception has a pervading unctuousness; there is no anatomy, only chan- nels through which vital fluids pass.'' Vegetables and other cooling foods are sattva, explicitly associated with the strand, or guna, of lucidity and calmnes~.'~

But instead of adhering to a diet appropriate to renouncers, the priests and nuns consume meat and alcohol, substances respectively associated with rajas and tamas, passion and darkness. Thus there is a reciprocal interplay between the body's diet and its spiritual or moral dis- position: the corruption and hypocrisy of Catholicism is both caused by and reflected in particular bodily practices. Along with the contested

l8 Francis Zirnrnerman, "Remarks on Conceptions of the Body in Ayurvedic Medicine:' South Asia Digest of Regional Writing 8 (1979): 19-20. Zirnmerman translates the Sanskrit snehatva as "unctuousness."

l9 In making this observation I am drawing on an excellent discussion of food and its re- lation to the gunas found in Joseph S. Alter, The Wrestler's Body (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 119-29.

images of Ghiirti Master's body, images of the body of Catholicism also have their place, for they, too, arise from a ferment of social struggle.


In criticizing the profligate body of Catholicism, Ghiirti Master draws on body images quite different from those he employs when he reimagines his own bodily experience. In the context of the various suspicions and rumors spread in the wake of the acid attack, GhiirB Master was particu- larly concerned to separate his physical appearance from theories con- necting bodily appearance to spiritual and moral disposition. Sin, after all, stains the bodily cloth of all human beings. When Ghiirti Master sings Kabir's bhajan that speaks of the three strands of existence, GhDrB Master does not associate this metaphysic with the innate characteristics attrib- uted to caste or varna. In fact, for Ghiirti Master, blindness is not a man- ifestation of his tamas, or darkness, or an untouchable but a reflection of his coolness. Instead of a consistent framework for understanding the body's meaning, what we find instead are tactics of interpreting the body as symbolic associations-all shaped by the fluid but uneven interplay between culture, society, and the idiosyncrasies of human memory and intent. The images of the body, employed by GhiirB Master or deployed against him, are as shifting as the power relations with which they are in- extricably linked.

If the competing images surrounding Ghiirti Master's body tell us any- thing, then they tell us that the body is not simply an inert medium for meaning. Certainly, the body does exist within a nexus of social forces. But as the Australian anthropologist Michael Jackson observes, when the body is seen as simply a thing on to which social patterns are projected, there emerges a Cartesian split between the knowing subject and the pas- sive body.20 Within this framework, the body often becomes understood as the object of purely mental operations or as a vehicle for expressing "a reified social rati~nality."~' But as shown by the images of the body in the life of Ghiira Master, the meaning of the body at the very least cannot be translated to a single set of social codes. Instead, there are a variety of ways by which the body is constructed-through violence, through the symbolic associations of religious imagination, or through an understand- ing of biological properties. But the body is not simply a material entity that exists to be acted on. Instead, the body is living, and embodiment it- self is a lived reality.22 The body moves, adapts, changes, and resists. It is

20 Michael Jackson, "Knowledge of the Body," Man, n.s., 18 (1983): 329. Ibid. 22 Here I am following an observation made by Jackson. Jackson himself is also clearly drawing on the phenomenology of M. Merleau Ponty.

for this very reason that the body so often becomes a locus of contesta- tion in order to change or expand the parameters of its existence. Certainly, the images that GhiirB Master uses to describe his body are as much a result of his own experience of embodiment as they are an active effort to subordinate or reimagine his own physical existence. Of course, the application of disfiguring violence to his body must have also been a response to the lived and changing reality of the untouchable body.

If we speak of embodiment as a lived reality then, for Ghiirti Master, it was a lived reality of pain. There were the rumors and innuendo surround- ing the attack and there was the physical pain from skin that would easily blister and crack. Perhaps most painful of all was the fact that he could still sense light in one eye. Many times he asked the church to provide an operation, and each time he was refused. Then in 1996, one priest prom- ised to bear the expenses if an operation could provide GhiirB Master par- tial sight in his left eye. Yet when GhiirB Master was examined by a specialist, it was clear that nothing could be done to alleviate his blind- ness. In the following months, GhOrB Master's wife and daughter-in-law died, and his grandchild was put out of the family for stealing. GhDrB Master's son, who had refused to speak with him since the acid attack, left home to find work. With no one to take care of him, GhiirB Master's health deteriorated, and finally, he died. At his funeral, one of his fellow cate- chists gave the oration and praised GhiirB Master as a great man while cas- tigating Catholics of his village for blinding GhiirB Master with acid. But the priest who said the mass made it clear that the words of the catechist fell on deaf ears, and the service itself seemed subdued and perfunctory. GhiirB Master was then covered with a shroud and buried in a plot marked only by a cross of dried mud made on the raised earth covering his grave.


If GhiirB Master had lived to hear the stories of recent anti-Christian vio- lence in India, he would not have been surprised. After all, he would surely mention, such violence claimed his own eyesight. Yet he might dis- agree with some of the prevailing interpretations of this violence as expressed in the Indian press. Commentaries on anti-Christian violence have linked it to resurgent Hindu nationalism, to allegations of coerced con- version and even to the rise of the Catholic Sonia Gandhi to political prom-

To these assertions, GhDrB Master might remark that the homes and churches of wealthy Catholics remain untouched in states such as Kerala, Goa, or Tamil Nadu where the Church has steadily accrued power

23 See Samar Halarnkar and Uday Mahurkar, "Burning the Cross," India Today Interna- tional (January 11, 1999); and Uday Mahurkar and Sheela Raval, "Politics by Other Means," India Today International (January 25, 1999).

for centuries. Surely, GhiirSl Master would argue, the issue of anti-Christian violence is more complex than the name suggests.

GhDrSl Master would understand violence against Christians as yet an- other manifestation of caste violence, waged by the landowners against the poor. Violence against Christian untouchables in Gujarat becomes anti- Christian violence and makes its way into the New York ~irnes.~~

The fear that often motivates such violence is not a hatred of Christianity per se but a fear of how the opportunity to become Christian might change local re- lations of power. Against this background, GhDrSl Master might find it painfully ironic that in his own case his identity as a Catholic Christian was only acknowledged by the Catholics themselves and in a context that would seem to reveal the underlying greed and opportunism of these Cath- olic converts from untouchability. While GhDrSl Master might link violence against Christian untouchables to an overarching Catholic narrative of crucifixion and redemption, he would hasten to emphasize that Christian- ity has inserted itself into a social context shaped by caste, poverty, and oppression. In such an environment, religiosity becomes intimately related to issues of subordination and resistance. These, of course, are the themes he emphasizes in his own personal narrative. There are those who would say that to make GhDrSl Master an emblem of religious or social struggle is to ignore how his own personal failings led to his downfall. But what- ever perspective one chooses, it is clear that GhDrFi Master's body was always an untouchable body.


For GhiirSl Master, singing songs was the way he attempted to recreate his lived reality. Through these songs, whether his original Bhojpuri compo- sitions or the bhajans of Kabir, he wove his bodily experience into the changing symbolism of the cloth. It was the white cloth of his turban that signified his power, and it was a stained cloth that shielded his scarred face. It was the dirty cloth that represented the sinful flesh in GhiirFi Mas- ter's interpretations of the songs of Kabir, and it was Christ who cleaned this cloth with the purifying water of baptism. Finally, it was a thinly woven shroud that covered GhiirFi Master at his death.

In a song that GhiirSl Master would often sing, the image of the cloth appears again but this time in relation not only to the living body but also to the life after death. The song speaks of the time when a bride must leave her natal home to be with her husband. This image evokes the inevitability

24 TO be fair, it is important to mention that the New York Times correspondent Celia W. Dugger has also written articles specifically addressing untouchability; most recently, see Celia W. Dugger, "In India, Lower-Caste Women Turn Village Rule Upside Down," New York Times (May 3, 1999).

of death; for just as a bride has no choice but to leave her parents' home, so humans have no choice but to die. The song then records the bride's lament since her dirty bridal sari means that she has already lost her vir- ginity. So, too, does the individual worry about the stains on his body and soul that would make it difficult for him even to recognize his beloved, who awaits him beyond death. And so both the bride and the dying soul fear the journey they both know they must take. The white cloth, the veil, and the shroud, then, are all symbolically linked in the comtemplation of death. For GhiirFi Master, especially poignant were the song's introductory lines. The devotee's love for the guru is likened to a partridge's love of the moon. In North Indian folklore, the partridge is said to live on moonbeams and to eat fire. The partridge gazes continually at the moon, hoping that it will 'a11 so he can eat it. With such desire, all devotees must look at the true guru as they travel the long distance to meet him. Recall that the last image GhiirB Master saw with his eyes was the moon. In commenting on the song, GhiirFi Master would often say that with all the desire of a par- tridge gazing at the moon, he craved to see the face of Jesus. He did not know whether he would see his transfigured Lord beyond the veil of death, and so he prayed that it would be in the light, before his open eyes:

The image of the guru is like the moon
The devotee's eye is like the partridge
The devotee's eye is like the partridge
Gazing at the guru
Gazing at the guru
Oh, I'm not going to my husband's house
My veil is dirty
Oh, I'm not going to my husband's house
My veil is dirty
Seven miles of sand and twelve miles of darkness
Three hundred and sixty miles covered by water
I can't do it
Oh, I'm not going to my husband's house
My veil is dirty
What will my beloved be like?
What about his home?
How will I recognize my darling?
I'm hungry for virtue
Because my veil is dirty
I'm not going to my husband's house
All around the neighborhood
They're packing my things from my father's house
Bundling them up for my in-laws
Oh, but I'm hungry for virtue
Because my veil is dirty

I'm not going to my husband's house Yes, but some day everyone's got to go to the beloved's abode One day everyone's got to go to the beloved's abode Kabir says there are seven days in the week And on one of those days, it's sure to happen Oh, but my veil is dirty.

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