Accepted Paper:

Seeing through mirage: Marxist perspectives on Catholicism and conversion from K. Daniel's "Kanal" (1983), a Sri Lankan Tamil Dalit novel  


Richard Young (Princeton Theological Seminary)
Subramaniam Jebanesan (Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society [Jaffna])

Paper short abstract:

Creating a semi-fictionalized Catholic priest forced to admit defeat in his attempt at converting the Nalavas of Jaffna, Dalit author K. Daniel asks what really changes when ‘conversion’ occurs, arguing that a deeper revolution is needed than the Church’s in order to eradicate the ‘scourge’ of caste.

Paper long abstract:

Revered to this day by Roman Catholics of Sri Lanka's Jaffna Peninsula for his Tamil scholarship, prowess in Saiva Siddhanta, and evangelical zeal, Fr. Saminatapillai Gnana Prakasar (1875-1939), has been widely hailed as the 'Apostle to the Untouchables' (though a Vellala himself in a largely Karaiyar Church) for having successfully brought large numbers of downtrodden Nalavas to the baptismal font. While respecting the integrity of this Catholic paragon, Dalit author K. Daniel asks what really changes when 'conversion' occurs, finding that very little actually does, and then using his quasi-historical novel to advocate Marxism as a more profound source of revolution than the Church's, for eradicating the scourge of caste once and for all. Imagining that a religion affords a 'once-and-for-all' solution, when the Church itself perpetuates caste (through communalized worship)—that is the mirage Fr. Gnana Prakasar must eventually see through, as Nalava converts exchange one form of caste-based exploitation for a Christian facsimile (serfdom under Vellala domination, for cheap labor at the hands of unpitying Catholic Karaiyar fishing contractors). Based on the Colombo (1993) edition of Kanal (Mirage), our discussion focuses in part on the specifics of an undeservedly-obscure artifact from a local literature; more broadly, it asks how a literary resource such as Kanal might illuminate not only the figure at its heart (Fr. Gnana Prakasar), but also the author himself (K. Daniel, a Catholic turned Marxist), and whether it might be helpfully construed as a kind of caste 'biography' (that of the Nalavas).

Panel P47
Of saints, converts, and heroes: hagiographies and conversion auto/biographies across religions in South Asia