Kent, “Secret Christians of Sivakasi”

Eliza F. Kent. 2011. “Secret Christians of Sivakasi: Gender, Syncretism, and Crypto-Religion in Early Twentieth-Century South IndiaJournal of the American Academy of Religions 79 (3):676-705

ABSTRACT: A frequent pattern found among crypto-religious communities is that the rituals or beliefs held in secret are transmitted primarily by women, from mothers to daughters. This paper examines a small community of women in south India, the secret Christians of Sivakasi, in order to investigate why these women chose to maintain a delicate, and at times dangerous, balance between their outward observance of Hindu rituals and their inner, private adherence to Christianity. By contextualizing these Nadar women’s lives in the vexed history of caste conflict in late nineteenth-century south India, I show that women in this upwardly mobile Hindu community found in clandestine Christian circles a means of securing a limited autonomy in an intensely patriarchal milieu, especially as their lives became increasingly circumscribed by Brahmanical customs. Georg Simmel and Paul Christopher Johnson’s analyses of the affective dynamics of secrecy illuminate the complex motivations for women’s involvement in these groups, in spite of the risks, and help explain why the conjugal bond becomes the focus of so much attention in the narratives of Secret Christians. By identifying features that distinguish crypto-religiosity, a relatively rare but distinctive outcome of religious encounter, in dialogue with Maurus Reinkowski and Joel Robbins’s work, I hope to make this category more useful, and push our understanding of the complexities of religious change beyond the well-known dyad of conversion and syncretism.