Pentecostal Movement Its Impact Among the Dalits and Tribal in India

Categories: IndiaReligion

I. Introduction
The prime focus of this paper is to explore the modern Pentecostal or charismatic movement and its impacts among the Dalits and the tribal in India. In this paper the presenter will also try to bring out a brief origins and historical development of Pentecostalism, in order to understand the movement and its impact on the Dalits and the tribal in India.

1. Etymology of the term Pentecostal
The term Pentecostal is derived from the Greek word pentekosté which literally means ‘fifty’.

It is the Greek name for the Jewish festival known as the ‘Feast of Weeks’ in the Old Testament, which celebrates the fiftieth day after Passover observances. The New Testament used the term to refer to the established Jewish feast. However, since the gift of the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), Christians reinterpreted the meaning of it in terms of this event. One of the features of the Pentecostals is the doctrine of baptism in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues.

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2. Who are the Dalits?
Dalit is a designation for a group of people traditionally regarded as untouchable. Dalits are a mixed population, consisting of numerous social groups from all over India; they speak a variety of languages and practice a multitude of religions. There are many different names proposed for defining this group of people, including Panchamas ("fifth varna"), and Asprushya ("untouchables"). Dalits are outcastes falling outside the traditional four-fold caste system consisting of the hereditary Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra classes; they are considered impure and polluted and are therefore physically and socially excluded and isolated from the rest of society.

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3. Who are the Tribal?
All over India tribal are generally known by the word Adivasi, Pazhanguli, etc., literally meaning indigenous people or original inhabitants of India. It is believed that the prehistoric India was inhabited first by the Negritos, later added to by the Australoids and then by the Dravidians and the Mongoloids. The first of the above four, viz., the Negritos, entered India as early as the 4th millennium B.C. 1. The Negritos, still exist in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andaman and Nicobar, 2. Australoids represented by the linguistically Austro-Asiatic Kolarian speaking, viz. Mundas and Kharais and Santals, and the Indo Aryan speaking non-Aryan Bhil family, 3. Mongoloids of the Sino Tibetan language family of the whole of north-eastern India, and 4. The Dravidians are the Dravidi speaking race represented now in the entire southern India population and in Madhya Pradesh by the large tribes of Gonds and Khonds, the Kuis in Orissa and the Oraon and Maler in Bihar. Almost the entire tribal population of India is non-Aryan by race and religion.

4. Origin of Pentecostalism
The modern Pentecostalism movement was started by a charismatic revival as early as 1901 in Topeka, Kansa. However, April 1906 is generally credited as the beginning date for the modern Pentecostal Movement. On that date at the Azusa Street in Los Angeles, there occurred an outbreak of speaking in tongues. Charles Fox Parham and William J. Seymour, a white and a black respectively were monumental figures in Pentecostalism around whom the Azusa Street revival evolved. Parham and Seymour developed the doctrine that speaking in tongues was the evidence of the baptism in the Spirit. Most of the scholars credited Charles Fox Parham as the founder of the Pentecostal Movement, the founder of the Bethel Bible College at Topeka in Kansas City. He encouraged his students to discover the biblical teachings on baptism of the Holy Spirit and the exercise of the spiritual gifts. On January 1, 1901, Miss. Agnes Ozman requested Pastor Parham to lay hands on her and pray for her and after the prayer she spoke in a Chinese language.

The Pentecostal fire experienced by Agnes Ozman and other students at Charles Parhamn’s Bethel Bible College at Topeka, Kansa was just the beginning of a worldwide movement that spread like wild fire. Although there were some contemporary revivals of a similar nature taking place in other countries, most of the world-wide spread of Pentecostalism can be traced directly or indirectly to Asuza Street. After the Azusa Street revival on April 1906, “Azusa Street soon became the ‘Mecca’ for thousands of visitors around the world.” The people who visited this place went back to their homelands spread this new experience and spread the Pentecostalism to other parts of the world and formed Pentecostal churches. From the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles, Pentecostalism spread rapidly around the world and began its advance toward becoming a major force in Christendom.

5. Pentecostalism Movement in India
We have observed the modern Pentecostal movement in the 20th century that sparked out of the revivals that took place at Azusa Street, Los Angeles, which spread rapidly to the ends of the earth. Most of the scholars traced back the origin of Pentecostalism to the Azusa Street revival in 1906. However, it is not yet firmly established as to when the Pentecostalism started in India because prior to the coming of Pentecostal missionaries in the 20th century there were Pentecostal like events in the history of Christianity in India. According to Gary McGee, the eminent historian of Assemblies of God, Pentecostalism had already established itself in India long before word of Azusa reached the subcontinent. He validated by showing the documentary evidence that Pentecost, with all the associated phenomena, came to Tirunelveli and Travancore (South India) long before the Azusa revival. The powerful revival was witnessed in the second half of the 19th century in the following years first in 1860, second in 1873 and third in 1895. People experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues in all these revivals though the recipients did not know that they were experiencing Pentecostal power as taught in the book of Acts.

Another incident was witnessed in 1906 at Pandita Ramabai’s Mukti Mission in Maharashtra, in which young women baptized by the Spirit had seen visions, fallen into trances and spoken in tongues, began before the Azusa Street revival, there is no indication that this was precipitated by events in Los Angeles. According to various authorities as stated by Roger E. Hedlund, Pentecostalism in India has its roots in Maharashtra at the Ramabai Mukti Mission. The Mukti Mission revival was understood by Ramabai herself to be the means by which the Holy Spirit was creating an independent Indian Christianity. However this does not mean that the Azusa revival had no impact on Indian Pentecostalism. The Western missionaries who are the products of the Azusa revival came to India and spread the Pentecostal message to certain parts of India and gave birth to the classical Pentecostalism in India. The first Pentecostal missionary who came to India in 1907 at Calcutta was A.G Gar who represents Azusa Street. There were also other missionaries likes Thomas Barrett, George Berg, Robert F. Cook and Mrs. Mary Chapman who was the first Assemblies Missionary to India who came to Madras (Chennai) in 1915.

6. History of Dalits in the Pentecostal Church
In India Christianity has been in existence two thousand years in the south-western and South-eastern corner of India. However, Pentecostalism in India began only at the dawn of the 20th century. George Berg, an American Pentecostal missionary of German descent, was the first to introduced modern Pentecostal movement in Kerala in 1909. George Berg brought number of other Pentecostal missionaries in Kerala he brought Robert Cook in the year 1914, Mary Chapman in 1916, John Burgess in 1926, and Miss Mildred C. Ginn in 1930. Among all these missionaries, Robert Cook was known as the Missionary to Dalits because his main concentration was among the Dalits. From the very inception of the Pentecostal church in the central Kerala both the communities of Syrian and Dalits were attracted and they co-existed together in the church. At the beginning the Syrian Christians has no problem in identifying with the Dalit Pentecostals because they are also from the very low socio-economic background.

Dalits on the other hand wanted to escape from caste discrimination, and continues search for liberation from all aspects of life, joined the Pentecostal movement which appeared to them non-structured, non-liturgical emotional Christian movement in the beginning. However, from the third decade of the century denominationalism came out among the Pentecostals and the peaceful co-existence began to change. The number of the Syrian Christians started to denied the rights and privileges of the Dalits especially in church administration and leadership. They were also discriminated by the uppercaste Christian within the churches because of their economical and social status. Thus Dalits felt alienated in the Church. This development has cause caste division between the Syrians and the Dalits Christians within the Pentecostal churches. As a result there was a split between the Syrian and the Dalits in 1930 under the leadership of Robert F. Cook and K.E. Abraham respectively.

7. Reasons for Dalits Embracing Pentecostalism
On the basis of being labelled 'Untouchables' or 'Outcasts', Dalits have suffered extreme forms of disadvantage and oppression for centuries. They were in continuous search for their liberation from all aspects of life and their identity. It was in the 20th century the modern Pentecostal movement with its message of oneness, equality, fellowship, dignity for all races and castes and other several related subjects reached India. The Dalits found the movement appealing to their aspirations in life and began responding to the movement. One of the reasons for Dalits embracing the Pentecostal movement is that they saw several factors common to their pre-Christian culture and lifestyle, which facilitated their entry into the movement. They were able to see some continuity with many of their pre-Christian culture and practices. This aspect of continuity and discontinuity is not only among the Dalits but even among the tribal of Northeast India. Another main reason is the discrimination to the Dalits by the mainline churches basing on their caste origin. Though they became part of the church, they did not share equal status in the mainline Churches. This discrimination encouraged a better spiritual atmosphere where they can have better opportunities. There are many other reasons for Dalit inclination to the new faith, the above given are just some of the basic reasons for better understanding of the topic.

8. Tribal and the Pentecostal Movement
It was only in the later part of 18th century Northeastern region came under the influence of the gospel which has brought a tremendous transformation in the region. One of the greatest transformations is stopping the barbaric practice of head hunting especially among the Mizos and the Nagas. When Christianity came in the region Khasis tribe was the first to embraced Christianity among the tribal. According to Dr. J. Edwin Orr, the first revival experienced took place in the Khasi Hills in the 1903. From Khasi Hills the wave of revival spread to other regions in the North East. In the year 1905 the church Mawphlang in Khasi Hills of central Assam, people experienced an unusual fervour manifested by intense prayer, weeping, praise, confession of sin, prophecies, dancing etc. Similar things was happened at Pariong, Nowgong, North Lakhimpur, Golaghat, Sibsagor, Naga Hills and several other places. The tribal people of North East India has felt the impact of Pentecostal or charismatic movement during the 20th century. This movement has both positive and negative impacts. In Meghalaya the Pentecostal movement has brought change and new congregational life. This movement give the church a missionary zeal, a new vision for missionary outreach resulting in new churches and outreach into six other states as well as outside India. Leadership development and outreach continued to extend among the Garos and into Haryana, Punjab and Mumbai.

However, this movement also brought division which led to the formation of new denominations. In Mizoram the Pentecostal movement has greatly impacted on the development of leadership and the formation of mission societies among the Baptist and the Presbyterian churches, which also led to the emergence of a large number of indigenous Christian movements. Today Mizoram is the main centre for the rise of independent Pentecostal charismatic groups in North East India. In the late 1950s out of much suffering and adverse political circumstances till the early 1980s, there was a revival which swap across Nagaland thousands of people turn to Christ as Lord and Saviour. The zeal for the Lord and missions grew among the people which remain through this day. Today over whelming majority of Nagas are Christians consisting of all denominations. The main independent model, growing out of the revival movement is the Nagaland Christian Revival Church founded in 1962. In Manipur United Pentecostal Church was introduced in 1953 as the result of Pentecostal movement. Assam and Arunachal Pradesh are recently growing. As result of revival movement in Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram, major Pentecostal denominations include the Assemblies of God and the United Pentecostal Church are said to be increasing, apart from the indigenous Christian groups. Today in North-eastern part of India we have several Pentecostal or charismatic Churches who are characterized by speaking in tongues, prophesying, healing, and other spiritual gifts.

9. The Impact of Modern Pentecostal/charismatic Movement
The Pentecostal message of oneness and equality has attracted many followers especially people from the marginalised group. The Dalits and the tribal in their long search for justice, equality, freedom and status in the society found the Pentecostal movement appealing to them and they responded to it.

This Pentecostal or charismatic movement has made a great impact and spread across various denominations in India.

9.1. Social Impact: The Pentecostal movement has brought a great transformation in the lives of the individuals and families in the communities not only spiritually but socio-economically as well. The Pentecostal teaching of oneness in the body of Christ made the untouchables become the children of the Kingdom of God. To some extend this teaching has alleviated caste discrimination. Social evils like alcoholism, slavery, casteism were not tolerated in the church. Pentecostal movement has awakened the self among the Dalits and the tribal which shook the very foundations of the caste-based social structure especially in Kerala. They began to gain self-respect, identity and dignity. This movement also has largely influence some of the largest Pentecostal churches in Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai to actively engaged in various social programs for the benefits of the poor and the Marginalized. In Madhya Pradesh the Indigenous Pentecostal-Charismatic mission agencies like Blessing Youth Mission, India Evangelical Team, Native Missionary Movement, along with others are engaged in a number of translation, literacy, medical, evangelistic and community development projects as part of their ministry of social and spiritual service in this state.

9.2. Ecclesiastical Freedom: Pentecostal movement is mark by strong congregational ecclesiology. This movement gained a principle of ecclesiastical freedom, which maximizes the role of the local congregational. A movement of the Spirit not controlled by ecclesiastical structures or hierarchy. Pentecostalism promotes corporate and individual discipline and spiritual autonomy among the Dalits and the tribal. As a result of this movement every members of the Dalits Pentecostal churches are allow to fully participate in all activities of the church like prayer, reflections, singing and decision making. Their participations are not based on physical qualifications but on the basis of their experience of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Dalits worship is the expression of real democracy and equality. There is no social discrimination among the worshippers they all come together as one family in Christ. In Dalit Pentecostalism salvation is essentially the same for men and women.

9.3. Spirituality: The outpouring of the Holy Spirit, variously called revival, renewal, Pentecostal and charismatic movement, always produced a sense of sin and one’s unworthiness especially before God, a fresh realisation of sin forgiven, a fresh outburst of love for God and humanity, afresh burden to share God and his gospel to others, a new release of divine power manifested in prayers, praise, spiritual power encounters and healing. Pentecostal movement help the Dalits and the tribal to personally encounter with the Spirit of God and experienced its transformational power in their lives.

9.4. Emergence of Dalit Theology: According to V.V. Thomas, Pentecostalism has provided the Dalits with an experience of God in their everyday life. They experienced God through healing, financial blessings etc. They do not have any carefully written dogmas and theology but they narrate their experiences of God which give them a lot of satisfaction. In Dalit Pentecostal church they testify, pray spontaneously, and preach without written manuscripts but with a lot of theology in it which relates their everyday lives of the people, struggles, agonies, and burdens. It is said that some of the best preachers in the Pentecostal Movement in Kerala have come from the Dalit background. The Dalits Pentecostal formulated their theology through narrative form. The Dalits prefer a narrative expression of their theology and witness.

9.5. Mission: One of the greatest impacts of early Pentecostal revivals in India, as in most parts of the globe, was its missionary passion. The Pentecostal spirit took its people beyond their boundaries. The missionary waves from various revivals like Mukti, Kerala, and, others impelled the people to be witnesses of the Pentecostal message in many parts of India. Pentecostal has influence the Dalits in the area of mission, one of the chief reasons for Pentecostal growth is its strong emphasis on mission and evangelism. Even in tribal region in Northeast the charismatic movement has resulted in remarkable church growth in many places. Part of the Pentecostal expansion in Kerala is due to outreach ministries to tribal and other deprived population. Pentecostals have established many churches among hill tribes and estate labourers in remote areas where they have found abundant response. In South Indian Pentecostals became involved in educational and community development programmes along with the expansion of evangelistic and church-planting activities. The missionaries from south India play a vital role in making Pentecostalism a movement in Rajasthan which became a predominantly tribal religion in the state as more tribal people became involved in the movement.

10. Evaluation
Pentecostalism has been described as one of the fastest growing global religion of the 20th century. Indian Pentecostals understand the manifestations of the Holy Spirit as a transforming and an empowering experience. Being filled with the Holy Spirit enables people to do extraordinary things otherwise impossible. Pentecostals believe that living in the life of the Spirit can lead to deliverances from all types of oppressions even physical healing. The Holy Spirit is seen as encompassing all of life’s experiences and afflictions. Through Pentecostalism Dalits expressed their opposition to the caste system in Hinduism as well as to the caste based hierarchy of the Church. This is one reason I find that people of different faith traditions to join in the Pentecostal movement on a basis of millennial equality because they just wanted to become people with full dignity before God. Pentecostal therefore became a sanctuary for people who were seeking better social status. Dalits and tribal has a long history on struggle for freedom from various domains. They go through discrimination, inequality, injustice and oppression from the high caste and also from within the church. It was in this context the modern Pentecostal movement message of oneness, equality, dignity regardless of castes and races reached India. The Dalits whose situations are worse than the tribal found this movement appealing to their aspiration in life began to respond to the movement.

By 20th century the Dalit actively take part in the Pentecostal movement which has its great impact upon them. This movement has arose the self-awareness within the community and they became conscious of their social identity and they responded to the movement. The Dalit-led congregations tend to emphasize emotionalism, spontaneity, and the priesthood of all believers, and to conceive salvation in collective terms and as the overcoming of worldly oppression. The Dalits and tribal are the weaker ones in the society and in many ways they have been subjugated and discriminated by the high caste people and their history of struggle still continue. However, the tribal have better status and position than Dalits in the society. Dalits embraced Pentecostal movement mostly with the hope of physical aspect of liberation, whereas, the tribal mostly on the aspect of spiritual liberation. Though Pentecostal movement has made a great contribution towards the Dalits and tribal Pentecostal, there are also some areas where this movement has its negative impacts upon the Dalits and tribal. Especially in tribal region in the North east the coming of the Pentecostal movement has divided the church into denominations which has become one of the biggest hindrances to the non-Christians to accept Christ.

In the present generation many of the charismatic churches has lots of nominalism. There are instances where their charismatic activity has become a hindrance to others because there are some people who pretend to speak tongues and prophesies which is not from the Spirit but from their own heart. These things are creating confusions and doubts in the working of the Holy Spirit. There are also some people who carry two different personalities in them, inside the church they are different person and outside the church another different person. When we reflect to the beginning of the Pentecostal movement, the early believers received the gifts of the Holy Spirit and they were moved by the Spirit. But today speaking of tongue, using of symbols like “Hallelujah” or “Praise the Lord” are becoming a mere traditional in the charismatic churches. These are some of the negative impacts rising in the charismatic churches which are dangerous for our churches. Pentecostal churches needs to be biblically grounded and go back to the earlier emphasis on purity of life and transparency in one’s relationship with God and with one another. The central focus should be on God and not in any other else.

II. Conclusion
Revival in the Christian community has paved way for the emergence of Pentecostal movement in India. This movement has a great impact to the Dalits and the Tribal. However, as to my observation very few documentation or research work has been done on the Pentecostal movement in India. In fact among the tribal we hardly have any research works on Pentecostalism especially in North East India. Therefore, with the limited source the presenter has tried to bring to our understanding of modern Pentecostal movement and its impact among the Dalits and the Tribal of India in this paper. To sum up the paper Pentecostal movement aims to achieve human dignity, respect, equality, and for more freedom both in social and spiritual aspects. In spite of the progress and the changes resulted by the Pentecostal movement, the Dalits and the tribal struggle and quest for further freedom still continue in India.

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[ 7 ]. V.V. Thomas, Pentecostalism in the Post Modern Era: Potentials/Possibilities, Problems and Challenges. Paper presentation as part of the requirement for promotion to full Professorship (Pune: Union Biblical Seminary, 2013), Unpublished Material, 3. [ 8 ]., accessed on 23/07/2013. [ 9 ]. Cheryl Bridges Johns, Pentecostal Formation: A Pedagogy Among the Oppressed (Sheffield: Sheffeild Academic Press, 1998), 37.

[ 10 ]. Nancy A. Hardesty, Faith Cure: Divine Healing in the holiness and Pentecostal Movement (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2003), 103. [ 11 ]. A.C. George, Trailblazers for God: A History of the Assemblies of God of India (Bangalore: SABC Publications, 2004), 29. [ 12 ].
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Updated: Jul 06, 2022
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