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Tribal Religions
Tribal Religions
Description

General Editior: D. P. Chattopadhyaya

 

About the Book

The volumes of the Project on the History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization aim at discovering the main aspects of India’s heritage and present. Them in an interrelated way. In spite of their unitary look, these volumes recognize the difference between the areas of material civilization and those of ideational culture. The project is not being executed by a single group of thinkers and writers who are methodologically uniform or ideologically identical in their commitments. The Project is marked by what may be called ‘methodological pluralism’. In spite of its primarily historical character, this project, both in its conceptualization and execution, has been shaped by scholars drawn from different disciplines. It is for the first time that an endeavour of such a unique and comprehensive character has been undertaken to study critically a major world civilization.

This volume comprises twenty five papers on the traditional religious beliefs and ritualistic practices of various tribes of India, more particularly the tribes of North-Eastern India. Although tribal population constitutes eight per cent of the total population of India, many Indians are ignorant of the tribal socio-cultural life and belief systems. Most of the tribes are still living in isolation from the Indian mainstream without much improvement in their socio-economic condition even after six decades of India becoming an independent republic. Moreover, the trials are facing serious problems challenging their survival and cultural identity due to exploitation by the financially and politically privileged among the non-tribal. Their indigenous religious faiths and practices have also been threatened by interference from some other communities, especially by the activities of the preachers and missionaries of other religions. The learned papers written by the experts in their own fields of specialization have thrown great light on the religion of various tribes and also addressed some of the pertinent problems that the tribal people have confronted.

 

About the Author

D. P. Chattopadfiyaya, M.A., LL.B., Ph.D. (Calcutta and London School of Economics), D. Litt., (Honoris Causa), studied, researched on Law, philosophy and history and taught at various Universities in India, Asia, Europe and USA from 1954 to 1994. Founder-Chairman of the Indian Council of Philosophical Research (1981- 1990) and President-cum-Chairman of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla (1984-1991), Chattopadhvava is currently the Project Director of the multidisciplinary ninety-six volume Project of History of Indian Science, Philosophy and Culture (PHISPC) and Chairman of the Centre for Studies in Civilizations (CSC). Among his 37 publications, authored 19 and edited or co-edited 18, are Individuals and Societies(1967); Individuals and Worlds (1976); Sri Aurobindo and Karl Marx (1988); Anthropology and Historiography of Science (1990); Induction, Probability and Skepticism (1991); Sociology, Ideology and Utopia (1997); Societies, Cultures and Ideologies (2000); Interdisciplinary Studies in Science, Society, Value and Civilization Dialogue (2002); Philosophy of Science, Phenomenology and Other Essays (2003); Philosophical Consciousness and Scientific Knowledge: Conceptual Linkages and Civilization Background (2004); Self Society and Science: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives (2004) Religion. Philosophy and Science (2006); Aesthetic Theories and Forms in Indian Tradition (2008) and Love, Life and Death (2010). He has also held high public offices, namely, of Union cabinet minister and state governor. He is a Life Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a Member of the International Institute of Philosophy, Paris. He was awarded Padma Bhushan in 1998 and Padmavibhushan in 2009 by the Government of India.

S. Shyamkishore Singh was educated in Imphal and Guwahati. He received his M.A. (Philosophy) and. Ph.D. degrees from Gauhati University. His areas of interest are Logic, Aesthetics and Cultural Studies. He started his teaching career in 1965 as a Lecturer in Government D.M. College, Imphal. He joined the Department of Philosophy, Gauhati University, in 1971 as a Lecturer (later promoted to Reader). He joined Manipur University in 1988 as Professor, and started the Department of Philosophy as the Head. As a Senior Professor, he became Dean, School of Humanities during the years 1995 to 1998. He retired from service in 2007. After retirement, he has associated himself with Manipur University as a Guest Faculty Member in the Department of Philosophy. At present, he is engaged in the work of editing the PHISPC Volumes on Perspectives in Assamese Language, Literature and Culture and Manipuri Language, Literature and Culture. He has published two books and edited one book. He has also about eighty published research papers. Dr. Singh is the former editor of Manipur University Research Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Reflections: a Journal of Philosophy, published by Manipur University.

 

Preface

This volume comprises twenty five papers on the traditional religious beliefs and ritualistic practices of various tribes of India, more particularly the tribes of North Eastern India. Although tribal population constitutes eight per cent of the total population of India, many Indians are ignorant of the tribal socio-cultural life and belief systems. Most of the tribes are still living in isolation from the Indian mainstream without much improvement in their socio-economic condition even after six decades of India becoming an independent republic. Moreover, the tribal are facing serious problems challenging their survival and cultural identity due to exploitation by the financially and politically privileged among the non-tribal. Their indigenous religious faiths and practices have also been threatened by interference from some other communities, especially by the activities of the preachers and missionaries of other religions. The learned papers written by the experts in their own fields of specialization have thrown great light on the religion of various tribes and also addressed some of the pertinent problems that the tribal people have confronted.

I am indebted to the contributors, since without their valuable co-operation it would not have been possible to bring out the volume.

I express my sincere thanks to Professor D.P. Chattopadhyaya, Director of PHISPC and Founder Chairman of Centre for Studies in Civilizations, for giving me the opportunity to edit this volume.

I am grateful to Professor Bhuvan Chandel, Project Co-coordinator PHISPC and Member-Secretary of Centre for Studies in Civilizations for her constant guidance and encouragement in bringing out this volume.

I sincerely thank Professor A.K. Anand for her abiding interest in this work and for her valuable technical advice.

I must acknowledge the valuable service rendered by Professor Sukharanjan Saha by organizing a national seminar on Tribal Religions. We have included four scholarly papers in the present volume out of the papers presented in that seminar. I extend my heartfelt thanks to him.

I thank Shri Sehdev Ram and all the members of the staff of Centre for Studies in Civilizations for their cordial help and assistance. I wish to thank all those who have played important roles in editing and printing this volume.

 

General Introduction

 

I

It is understandable that man, shaped by Nature, would like to know Nature. The human ways of knowing Nature are evidently diverse, theoretical and practical, scientific and technological, artistic and spiritual. This diversity has, on scrutiny, been found to be neither exhaustive nor exclusive. The complexity of physical nature, life- world and, particularly, human mind is so enormous that it is futile to follow a single method for comprehending all the aspects of the world in which we are situated.

One need not feel bewildered by the variety and complexity of the worldly phenomena. After all, both from traditional wisdom and our daily experience, we know that our own nature is not quite alien to the structure of the world. Positively speaking, the elements and forces that are out there in the world are also present in our body-mind complex, enabling us to adjust ourselves to our environment. Not only the natural conditions but also the social conditions of life have instructive similarities between them. This is not to underrate in anyway the difference between the human ways of life all over the world. It is partly due to the variation in climatic conditions and partly due to the distinctness of production-related tradition, history and culture.

Three broad approaches are discernible in the works on historiography of civilization, comprising science and technology, art and architecture, social sciences and institutions. Firstly, some writers are primarily interested in discovering the general laws which govern all civilizations spread over different continents. They tend to underplay what they call the noisy local events of the external world and peculiarities of different languages, literatures and histories. Their accent is on the unity of Nature, the unity of science and the unity of mankind. The second groups of writers, unlike the generalist or transcendentalist ones, attach primary importance to the distinctiveness of every culture. To these writers’ human freedom and creativity are extremely important and basic in character. Social institutions and the cultural articulations of human consciousness, they argue, are bound to be expressive of the concerned people’s consciousness. By implication they tend to reject concepts like archetypal consciousness, universal mind and providential history. There is a third group of writers who offer a composite picture of civilizations, drawing elements both from their local as well as common characteristics. Every culture has its local roots and peculiarities. At the same time, it is pointed out that due to demographic migration and immigration over the centuries an element of compositeness emerges almost in every culture. When, due to a natural calamity or political exigencies people move from one part of the world to another, they carry with them, among other things, their language, cultural inheritance and their ways of living.

In the light of the above facts, it is not at all surprising that comparative anthropologists and philologists are intrigued by the striking similarity between different language families and the rites, rituals and myths of different peoples.

Speculative philosophers of history, heavily relying on the findings of epigraphy, ethnography, archaeology and theology, try to show in very general terms that the particulars and universals of culture are ‘essentially’ or ‘secretly’ interrelated. The spiritual aspects of culture like dance and music, beliefs pertaining to life, death and duties, on analysis, are found to be mediated by the material forms of life like weather forecasting, food production, urbanization and invention of script. The transition from the oral culture to the written one was made possible because of the mastery of symbols and rules of measurement. Speech precedes grammar, poetry, prosody. All these show how the ‘matters’ and ‘forms’ of life are so subtly interwoven.

 

II

The Phispc publications on History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization, in spite of their unitary look, do recognize the differences between the areas of material civilization and those of ideational culture. It is not a work of a single author. Nor is it being executed by a group of thinkers and writers who are methodologically uniform or ideologically identical in their commitments. In conceiving the Project we have interacted with, and been influenced by, the writings and views of many Indian and non-Indian thinkers.

The attempted unity of this Project lies in its aim and inspiration. We have in India many scholarly works written by Indians on different aspects of our civilization and culture. Right from the pre-Christian era to our own time, India has drawn the attention of various countries of Asia, Europe and Africa. Some of these writings are objective and informative and many others are based on insufficient information and hearsay, and therefore not quite reliable, but they have their own value. Quality and view-points keep on changing not only because of the adequacy and inadequacy of evidence but also, and perhaps more so, because of the bias and prejudice, religious and political conviction, of the writers.

Besides, it is to be remembered that history, like Nature, is not an open book to be read alike by all. The past is mainly enclosed and only partially disclosed. History is, therefore, partly objective or ‘real’ and largely a matter of construction. This is one of the reasons why some historians themselves think that it is a form of literature or art. However, it does not mean that historical construction is ‘anarchic’ and arbitrary. Certainly, imagination plays an important role in it.

But its character is basically dependent upon the questions which the historian raises and wants to understand or answer in terms of the ideas and actions of human beings in the past ages. In a way, history, somewhat like the natural sciences, is engaged in answering questions and in exploring relationships of cause and effect between events and developments across time. While in the natural sciences, the scientist poses questions about nature in the form of hypotheses, expecting to elicit authoritative answers to such questions, the historian studies the past, partly for the sake of understanding it for its own sake and partly also for the light which the past throws upon the present, and the possibilities which it opens up for mounding the future. But the difference between the two approaches must not be lost sight of. The scientist is primarily interested in discovering laws and framing theories, in terms of which, different events and processes can be connected and anticipated. His interest in the conditions or circumstances attending the concerned events is secondary. Therefore, scientific laws turn out to be basically abstract and easily expressible in terms of mathematical language. In contrast, the historian’s main interest centers round the specific events, human ideas and actions, not general laws. So, the historian, unlike the scientist, is obliged to pay primary attention to the circumstances of the events he wants to study. Consequently, history, like most other humanistic disciplines, is concrete and particularistic. This is not to deny the obvious truth that historical event and processes consisting of human ideas and actions show some trend or other and weave some pattern or other. If these trends and patterns were not there at all in history, the study of history as a branch of knowledge would not have been profitable or instructive. But one must recognize that historical trends and patterns, unlike scientific laws and theories, are not general or purported to be universal in their scope.

 

III

The aim of this Project is to discover the main aspects of Indian culture and present them in an interrelated way. Since our culture has influenced, and has been influenced by, the neighboring cultures of West Asia, Central Asia, East Asia and South-East Asia, attempts have been made here to trace and study these influences in their mutuality. It is well known that during the last three centuries, European presence in India, both political and cultural, has been very widespread. In many volumes of the Project considerable attention has been paid to Europe and through Europe to other parts of the world. For the purpose of a comprehensive cultural study of India, the existing political boundaries of the South Asia of today are more of a hindrance than help. Cultures, like languages, often transcend the bounds of changing political territories.

If the inconstant political geography is not a reliable help to the understanding of the layered structure and spread of culture, a somewhat comparable problem is encountered in the area of historical per iodization. Per iodization or segmenting time is a very tricky affair. When exactly one period ends and another begins is not precisely ascertainable. The periods of history designated as ancient, medieval and modern are purely conventional and merely heuristic in character. The varying scopes of history, local, national and continental or universal, somewhat like the periods of history, are unavoidably fuzzy and shifting. Amidst all these difficulties, the volume-wise details have been planned and worked out by the editors in consultation with the Project Director and the General Editor. I believe that the editors of different volumes have also profited from the reactions and suggestions of the contributors of individual chapters in planning the volumes.

Another aspect of Indian history which the volume-editors and contributors of the Project have carefully dealt with is the distinction and relation between civilization and culture. The material conditions which substantially shaped Indian civilization have been discussed in detail. From agriculture and industry to metallurgy and technology, from physics and chemical practices to the life sciences and different systems of medicines—all the branches of knowledge and skill which directly affect human life—form the heart of this Project. Since the periods covered by the phispc are extensive—prehistory, proto-history, early history, medieval history and modern history of India—we do not claim to have gone into all the relevant material conditions of human life. We had to be selective. Therefore, one should not be surprised if one finds that only some material aspects of Indian civilization have received our pointed attention, while the rest have been dealt with in principle or only alluded to.

One of the main aims of the Project has been to spell out the first principles of the philosophy of different schools, both pro-Vedic and anti-Vedic. The basic ideas of Buddhism, Jainism and Islam have been given their due importance. The special position accorded to philosophy is to be understood partly in terms of its proclaimed unifying character and partly to be explained in terms of the fact that different philosophical systems represent alternative world-views, cultural perspectives, their conflict and mutual assimilation.

Most of the volume-editors and at their instance the concerned contributors have followed a middle path between the extremes of narratives and theoretic. The underlying idea has been this: if, in the process of working out a comprehensive Project like this, every contributor attempts to narrate all those interesting things that he has in the back of his mind, the enterprise is likely to prove unmanageable. If, on the other hand, particular details are consciously forced into a fixed mould or pre-supposed theoretical structure, the details lose their particularity and interesting character.’—therefore, depending on the nature of the problem of discourse, most of the writers have tried to reconcile in their presentation, the specificity of narratives and the generality of theoretical orientation. This is a conscious editorial decision. Because, in the absence of a theory, however inarticulate it may be, the factual details tend to fall apart. Spiritual network or theoretical orientation makes historical details not only meaningful but also interesting and enjoyable.

Another editorial decision which deserves spelling out is the necessity or avoids ability of duplication of the same theme in different volumes or even in the same volume. Certainly, this Project is not an assortment of several volumes. Nor is any volume intended to be a miscellany. This Project has been designed with a definite end in view and has a structure of its own. The character of the structure has admittedly been influenced by the variety of the themes accommodated within it. Again it must be understood that the complexity of structure is rooted in the aimed integrality’1’of the Project itself.

 

Introduction

 

I

The question: “What is tribal religion?” needs serious discussion, because it is not easy to give a precise definition of tribal religion. Religion, which is a cultural universal, is a very complex term that admits of various interpretations. The issue is: which sense of religion is relevant to the tribal life-worlds and systems of belief in the supernatural? The generic term, “tribal religion” is not the nomenclature which can be used to refer to an established religion in the historical sense, i.e. in the sense that the term “religion” is applied to Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. Moreover, we need to explain the meaning of “tribe” and “tribal”, also.

Etymologically, the term “tribe” derives its origin from the Latin word “tribes”, meaning one of the three political divisions. According to I.M. Lewis, “In general usage, the word “tribe” is taken to denote a primary aggregate of peoples living in a primitive or barbarous condition under a headman or chief. The unnecessary moralistic overtones that this usage implies can be avoided or minimized by the use of the expression “tribal society” which is preferable to such synonyms as “primitive society” or “preliterate society”. At the same time the word “tribe” need not be discarded. Indeed it has become a technical term denoting a territorially defined political unit, a usage that recalls the original Latin use of the word for the political divisions or patrician orders of the Roman state”.1

The tribals are called by various names in different countries. In the U.S.A., they are known as “Red Indians”, in Australia as “Aborigines”, in the European countries as “Gypsies”, in the African and Asian countries as “Tribal”. Population wise, India has the second largest concentration of tribal after the African continent. In India, they are generally called “Advises”, because they are the autochthonous people who are believed to be the earliest settlers of this country. Under the Constitution of India people belonging to various tribes have been recognized as the “scheduled tribes”, who have been given certain protections in terms of reservations under the provisions of law. As per Article 36(25) of the Indian Constitution, the Scheduled Tribes (S.T.) means such tribes or tribal communities as are deemed under Article 342 to be Scheduled Tribes for the purposes of this Constitution. The Scheduled Tribes may be specified by the President of India under Article 342 by a public notification. The Parliament may by law, include or exclude from the list of Scheduled Tribes any tribal community or part thereof in any State or Union Territory. Nearly four hundred tribal communities have so far been specified as the Scheduled Tribes in the states and Union Territories of India except the states of Punjab and Haryana and Union Territories of Chandigarh, Delhi and Pondicherry (Pudduchery).

The main criteria for specifing the tribal communities as the Scheduled Tribes are: (i) traditional occupation of a definite geographical area, (ii) distinctive culture which include whole spectrum of tribal way of life, i.e. language, customs, traditions, religious beliefs, arts and crafts, etc., (iii) primitive traits depicting occupational pattern, economy, etc., and (iv) lack of educational and techno-economic development. The tribals constitute 8 per cent of the total population of India. At present tribal population in India is about 8 crores. About 75 percent of the S.T. population lives in six states, viz., Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Bihar and Orissa. There are seven tribes which account for a population of 30 lakhs or more each. These are: the Bhils, the Gonds, the Santhals, the Minas, the Oraons, the Mundas and the Khonds. There are some other tribes like Bodos, the Kolis, the Hos and the Saoras with a considerably large population.

Based on the pre—agricultural level of technology, low level of literacy, declining or stagnant population, 75 tribal communities in 15 states and union territories have been identified and categorized as Primitive Tribe Groups (PTG). With a view to giving more focused attention to the development of Scheduled Tribes, a separate ministry known as the Ministry of Tribal Affairs was constituted in 1999.

In the above discussion we have explained the usage of the term “tribe” in the Indian context, particularly in the context of the Indian Constitution wherein some tribal communities have been specified as the Scheduled Tribes. It may be noted, however, that whereas no tribal group who have no specific settlement within a particular geographical area have been recognized as a Scheduled Tribe (for instance, no nomadic tribe is enlisted as S.T.), there is no religious bar for specifying a person as a member of a Scheduled Tribe, provided his or her forefathers were S.T.S. This means that they must have fulfilled the general criteria of being S.T. This provision is related with their legal status for being recognized as member of the Scheduled tribe. Among the criteria mentioned already, we have referred to the tribal way of life, which include among other things, their traditional (or indigenous) religious belief. This point is relevant to the task that we have at hand, that is, explaining the meaning of “tribal religion”. In this connection, we may quote the following passage from R.C. Verma’s Indian Tribes through the Ages:

For the first time the British attempted to have classified information about the tribals. Despite difficult and inaccessible terrain, they conducted census operations in the tribal areas so as to assess their population and gather other information. In the Census Report of 1891, J.A. Bains, the Commissioner of Census, classified the castes according to their traditional occupation. Under the category of “Agricultural and Pastoral castes”, he formed a sub-heading called “Forest Tribes”. The members of forest tribes were estimated to be nearly sixteen million. In the Census Report of 1901, they were classified as “Animists” and in 1911 as “ tribal animists or people following tribal religion”. In the Census Report of 1921, they were specified as “Hill and Forest Tribes” and their number was estimated to be 16 million. The 1931 Census described them as “Primitive Tribes”. The Government of India Act, n1935 specified the tribal population as “Backward Tribes” only. Their total population was estimated to be 2. 47 crores”.

The British administration used the word “tribe” to refer to those backward people who settle in the hill and forest areas and profess animistic faith. The term “tribal religion” was used during the colonial period to mean belief in animism.

 

II

The Oxford evolutionary anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor influenced the anthropological and sociological thinking in England from the latter part of 19th century to the 1920s. In his Primitive Culture (1871), Tylor expressed the view that the elementary form out of which all else developed was spirit worship — animism. The minimum definition of religion, according to him, is “a belief in spiritual beings”. Such a belief arose at the most primitive level of religion. Tylor’s anthropological theory has deeply influenced the direction taken by the study of religion. It has been generally recognized that the animistic belief is universal at a certain level of culture. He wrote: “Animism is in fact the ground work of the philosophy of religion, from that of savages upto that of civilized man”.3 Since Tylor, the anthropological study of religion remained as the study of primitive religion for quite a long time. It is from this standpoint that the British officers in India, some of whom happened to be ethnologists and anthropologists, while writing about the religious beliefs of the tribes in India characterized such beliefs as primitive religion, which is belief in animism.

Although due regard was given to Tylor’s theory as the first intellectualistic anthropological theory of the origin of religion, the subsequent scholars and anthropologists pointed out that Tylor’s theory is one-sided and cannot explain some very important dimensions of man’s belief in the supernatural being as well as the diverse aspects of ritualistic practices of religion. Animism as a theory of religion is not satisfactory because not all the spirits which animate the objects of nature are worshipped or evoke religious emotion and action.

In addition to the theory of Tylor, we would like to discuss some other theories briefly, in so far as they are relevant to the nature of tribal religion. One such theory is the theory of “mana” advocated by Bishop Codington in his book The Melanesians (1891). This scholar adopted the Melanesian term “mana” to characterize the belief in mysterious power or powers by the primitive people in the pre-animistic period. Mana is an all-pervading supernatural power that operates in natural objects of striking character, a reservoir of energy in the universe on which man can draw for good or ill. It is this mysterious power that manifests itself in extraordinary things and persons and unexpected events. In the words of Codington: “All conspicuous success is a proof that a man has mana … A man’s power, though political or social in character, is his mana If a man has been successful in fighting, it has not been his natural strength of arm … he has certainly got the mana of a spirit or of a deceased warrior to empower him”. The word “mana” also carries strong sense of awe and mystery, and wonder in the presence of the supernatural power. Religion in its origin, it is maintained, is associated with the sense of awe and mystery in the presence of the indefinable and incalculable power. This feeling and attitude of mind is more primitive in character than animism.

James G. Frazer, the giant among Victorian armchair scholars, in his famous book Golden Bough (1911) maintains that “In the evolution of thought, magic as representing the lower intellectual stratum, has probably everywhere preceded religion”. He declared that magic, not religion, characterized the cosmology of simpler peoples. According to him, magic is the primordial form of human thought. It consists in mistaking either spatio-ternporal connection (“sympathetic magic”, as when drinking the blood of an ox transfers its strength to the drinker) or phenomenal similarity (“imitative magic” as when the sound of drumming induces thunder heads to form) for true scientific causality.

The view of Frazer has not been accepted by later social scientists. Emile Durkheim says that “there is no Church of magic… The magician has a clientele and not a Church… Religion, on the other hand, is inseparable from the idea of a Church”. According to him, religion is eminently social; it supplies the bond of unity for the clan or tribe. On the other hand, magic tends to be individualistic, non-social and has recourse to secrecy. Durkheim says that the reality on which religion is founded is essentially social and based upon the solidarity and spiritual communion, which the individual feels with the fellow members of his community. In his book The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), he defines religion, thus: “A religion is an interdependent system of beliefs and practices regarding things that are sacred, that is to say, apart, forbidden beliefs and practices which unite all those who follow them in a single moral community called church”. Durkheim is quite right in giving stress upon the social basis of religion. This is true in the case of all forms of religion, including tribal religion. However, in the case of tribal religion the concept of church as a moral community is not well-defined. Durkheim’s lasting contributions are in the concepts of the profane and the sacred, the social functions of religion, especially as revealed through ritual, and the recognition that religious structures and sentiments are reflective of social ones. A strong impetus to subsequent application of Durkheim’s theory was given by the British structural functionalist Radcliffe-Brown4, who agreed with Durkheim’s postulate that the main function of religion was to celebrate and sustain the norms upon which the integration of society depends.

Another theory about the origin of religion is the theory of Herbert Spencer According to him, the origin of religion is to be traced to the worship of ancestors appearing in the form of ghosts. In support of this view he maintains that man in the early period offered sacrifices to their ancestors. He believed that the worship of ghosts of the ancestors is the most primitive form of religion, which later developed into other forms. The fear of the dead who had passed beyond the control of the living, according to Spencer was the motive which led to the observance of religious rites. But it may be remarked that Spencer’s theory is an over-simplification of man’s religious experience, which is too complex phenomenon to be accounted for by only one aspect of religious practice which is found only in the case of a few communities, and is not found as a universal belief and custom among all the communities or tribes. As Jevons has rightly said: “It never happens that the spirit of the dead are conceived to be gods. Man is dependent on the ghosts, but the spirits of his dead ancestors are dependent on him… The worshipper’s pride is that his ancestor is a god and no mere mortal… The fact is that the ancestors worshipped as gods were not believed to be humans”.5

There are many other concepts which the theoreticians of early religion introduced to characterize the nature of religious belief and practice of the primitive people. For instance, “Shaman”, from the Tungus, was accepted in anthropology as the term for a unique sort of spiritual-medical-political specialist among northern hunter-gatherers or pastoralists6. This term, now-a-days, has been used loosely to refer to any religious specialist who communicates psychologically with spirits. Magic, sorcery and witchcraft are the other terms associated with the practice of religion, according to the anthropologists.

Among the sociological approaches to early religion what is quite remarkable is the analysis of the symbolic forms. We have referred to the view of Durkheim, who also analyzed the symbolic form. Durkheim regarded to temism as the most simple and primitive religion. His interest in to theism is determined by his sociological theory as essentially a social phenomenon. For him, the substratum of all religious belief lies in the idea of a mysterious impersonal force controlling life, and this sense of force is derived from the authority of society over the individual. He maintains that the totem is the visible emblem of the mysterious power. For him, the extraordinary atmosphere surrounding sacred acts and objects was symbolic of a hidden reality, but a social, not a psychological one: the moral force of the community. Durkheim maintains that the integrity of the social order is the primary requisite for human survival.

Claude Levi-Strauss’s study of symbolic systems is another important contribution to the sociological study of religion. He contends that primitive religious systems are, like all symbolic systems, fundamentally communication systems. His study of tribal myth and ritual throws great light in this context. Levi-Strauss’s new “structuralism” posited a universal logical pattern to the human mind. His identification of basic cognitive dichotomies, or “binary opposites” (male-female, right-left, east-west, nature- culture, and so on) has had profound influence throughout the social sciences. Myth and rite are systems of signs that fix and organize abstract conceptual relations in terms of concrete images. They enable the intellectual comprehension of the sensible world in terms of sensible phenomena. This is some sort of rationalization of the sensible phenomena. “The relationships perceived among certain classes of natural objects or events can be analogized, taken as models of relationships — physical, social, psychological, or moral — obtaining between persons, groups, or other natural objects and events. Thus, for example, the natural distinctions perceived among totemic beings. Their species differentiation, can serve as a conceptual framework for the comprehension, expression, and communication of social distinctions among exogamous clans — their structural differentiation. Thus, the sharp contrasts between the wet and dry seasons … in certain regions of Australia are employed in the mythology of the native peoples. They have woven an elaborate origin myth around this natural phenomenon, one that involves a rain-making python who drowned some incestuous sisters and their children because the women polluted his water hole with menstrual blood. This model expresses and economizes the contrasts between moral purity and impurity, maleness and femaleness, social superiority and inferiority, fertilizing agent (rain) and that which is fertilized (land), and even the distinction between “high” (initiate) and “low” (lion-initiate) levels of cultural achievement”.7 A conception of the world or “reality” from the cultural perspective of a tribe or community is also involved. Having made a brief survey of the theories about the origin and nature of religion from the perspective of the social sciences and philosophy, it may be remarked that the theories have highlighted different perspectives from which religion as a sociocultural institution of mankind is viewed. Each one of them has focused on some aspects of man’s religious experience, and in that sense each of the theories has some importance. But it cannot be said that each theory has characterized the necessary and sufficient criteria of religion. Further, each theory has viewed religion and its practices by different human groups in different regions of the world. These theories are complementary to one another in giving a comprehensive view of the origin of religion and man’s religious experience. As Clifford Geertz has rightly said, every scientific analysis of religion — historical, psychological, sociological and semantic — is “necessary, but none is sufficient. A mature theory of religion will consist of an integration of them all into a conceptual system whose exact form remains to be discovered”.8 In addition to the anthropological and sociological studies, we should take into consideration the phenomenological approach to the study of religion also, because phenomenological analysis has thrown important light on the understanding of religion.

 

Contents

 

  Diacritics for Transliteration ix
  Preface
S. Shyamkishore Singh
xi
  General Introduction
DY. Chattopadhyaya
xiii
  Editors xxiii
  Contributors xxv
  Introduction
S. Shyamkishore Singh
xxxi
1 Tribal Religion in India: Its Nature of Persistence
Jayanta Sarkar
1
2 Defining the Indigenous Tribal Religion
Gangmumei Kamei
13
3 Religious Beliefs and Practices of the Idu Mishmis of Arunachal Pradesh
Sarit K Chaudhuri
19
4 Religious Rituals and Ceremonies of the Apatanis
Takhe Kani
39
5 Mising Religion
Basanta Kumar Doley
63
6 The Religion of the Karbis
Jagadish Patgiri
75
7 Traditional Religion of the Rabhas
Upen Rabha Hakacham
83
8 The Traditional Religion of the Garos
Bimal Mazumdar
95
9 Traditional Khasi Religion
Helen Gin
119
10 The Religion of the Bodos
Hira Charan Nanjinani
123
11 The Religion of the Boroks
Mohan Debbanna
141
12 The Concept of God in Thadou Kuki Religion
Jamkhothang Haokip
181
13 ‘Indawai’, Primeval Religion of Thadou Kukis
T.S. Gangte
195
14 Traditional Religious Beliefs of the Paite (Tedim Chin)
H. Kamkhenthang
205
15 A Descriptive Account of Hmar Religion
Vanlalnghak
221
16 The Religious Life of the Poumai
M. C. Arunkumar
229
17 The Traditional Religion of the Andros
Ningombam Basanta
245
18 Some Aspects of the Traditional Religious Beliefs and Practices of the Naga Tribes
Namram Sukumar Singh
265
19 Worship of Tingkao Ragwang in the Indigenous Religion of the Zeliangrong Nagas
Lanbilung Gonmei
273
20 Religious Beliefs and Practices of the Sumi Tribe of Nagaland
Hitoka H. Sumi and ELK Behera
279
21 The Santal Religion: A Review
Rajat Kanti Das
289
22 Tribal Religion in South India
P.R C. Mathur
307
23 The Religion of the Tribes of Kerala and Tamil Nadu
T. Madhava Menon
349
24 The Cosmos and Religion in the Folklores of Mundari Speaking Tribes of India
T.K Rapaz
375
25 Women in Tribal Religions
Debi Chatterjee
383
  Index  

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Tribal Religions

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General Editior: D. P. Chattopadhyaya

 

About the Book

The volumes of the Project on the History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization aim at discovering the main aspects of India’s heritage and present. Them in an interrelated way. In spite of their unitary look, these volumes recognize the difference between the areas of material civilization and those of ideational culture. The project is not being executed by a single group of thinkers and writers who are methodologically uniform or ideologically identical in their commitments. The Project is marked by what may be called ‘methodological pluralism’. In spite of its primarily historical character, this project, both in its conceptualization and execution, has been shaped by scholars drawn from different disciplines. It is for the first time that an endeavour of such a unique and comprehensive character has been undertaken to study critically a major world civilization.

This volume comprises twenty five papers on the traditional religious beliefs and ritualistic practices of various tribes of India, more particularly the tribes of North-Eastern India. Although tribal population constitutes eight per cent of the total population of India, many Indians are ignorant of the tribal socio-cultural life and belief systems. Most of the tribes are still living in isolation from the Indian mainstream without much improvement in their socio-economic condition even after six decades of India becoming an independent republic. Moreover, the trials are facing serious problems challenging their survival and cultural identity due to exploitation by the financially and politically privileged among the non-tribal. Their indigenous religious faiths and practices have also been threatened by interference from some other communities, especially by the activities of the preachers and missionaries of other religions. The learned papers written by the experts in their own fields of specialization have thrown great light on the religion of various tribes and also addressed some of the pertinent problems that the tribal people have confronted.

 

About the Author

D. P. Chattopadfiyaya, M.A., LL.B., Ph.D. (Calcutta and London School of Economics), D. Litt., (Honoris Causa), studied, researched on Law, philosophy and history and taught at various Universities in India, Asia, Europe and USA from 1954 to 1994. Founder-Chairman of the Indian Council of Philosophical Research (1981- 1990) and President-cum-Chairman of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla (1984-1991), Chattopadhvava is currently the Project Director of the multidisciplinary ninety-six volume Project of History of Indian Science, Philosophy and Culture (PHISPC) and Chairman of the Centre for Studies in Civilizations (CSC). Among his 37 publications, authored 19 and edited or co-edited 18, are Individuals and Societies(1967); Individuals and Worlds (1976); Sri Aurobindo and Karl Marx (1988); Anthropology and Historiography of Science (1990); Induction, Probability and Skepticism (1991); Sociology, Ideology and Utopia (1997); Societies, Cultures and Ideologies (2000); Interdisciplinary Studies in Science, Society, Value and Civilization Dialogue (2002); Philosophy of Science, Phenomenology and Other Essays (2003); Philosophical Consciousness and Scientific Knowledge: Conceptual Linkages and Civilization Background (2004); Self Society and Science: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives (2004) Religion. Philosophy and Science (2006); Aesthetic Theories and Forms in Indian Tradition (2008) and Love, Life and Death (2010). He has also held high public offices, namely, of Union cabinet minister and state governor. He is a Life Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a Member of the International Institute of Philosophy, Paris. He was awarded Padma Bhushan in 1998 and Padmavibhushan in 2009 by the Government of India.

S. Shyamkishore Singh was educated in Imphal and Guwahati. He received his M.A. (Philosophy) and. Ph.D. degrees from Gauhati University. His areas of interest are Logic, Aesthetics and Cultural Studies. He started his teaching career in 1965 as a Lecturer in Government D.M. College, Imphal. He joined the Department of Philosophy, Gauhati University, in 1971 as a Lecturer (later promoted to Reader). He joined Manipur University in 1988 as Professor, and started the Department of Philosophy as the Head. As a Senior Professor, he became Dean, School of Humanities during the years 1995 to 1998. He retired from service in 2007. After retirement, he has associated himself with Manipur University as a Guest Faculty Member in the Department of Philosophy. At present, he is engaged in the work of editing the PHISPC Volumes on Perspectives in Assamese Language, Literature and Culture and Manipuri Language, Literature and Culture. He has published two books and edited one book. He has also about eighty published research papers. Dr. Singh is the former editor of Manipur University Research Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Reflections: a Journal of Philosophy, published by Manipur University.

 

Preface

This volume comprises twenty five papers on the traditional religious beliefs and ritualistic practices of various tribes of India, more particularly the tribes of North Eastern India. Although tribal population constitutes eight per cent of the total population of India, many Indians are ignorant of the tribal socio-cultural life and belief systems. Most of the tribes are still living in isolation from the Indian mainstream without much improvement in their socio-economic condition even after six decades of India becoming an independent republic. Moreover, the tribal are facing serious problems challenging their survival and cultural identity due to exploitation by the financially and politically privileged among the non-tribal. Their indigenous religious faiths and practices have also been threatened by interference from some other communities, especially by the activities of the preachers and missionaries of other religions. The learned papers written by the experts in their own fields of specialization have thrown great light on the religion of various tribes and also addressed some of the pertinent problems that the tribal people have confronted.

I am indebted to the contributors, since without their valuable co-operation it would not have been possible to bring out the volume.

I express my sincere thanks to Professor D.P. Chattopadhyaya, Director of PHISPC and Founder Chairman of Centre for Studies in Civilizations, for giving me the opportunity to edit this volume.

I am grateful to Professor Bhuvan Chandel, Project Co-coordinator PHISPC and Member-Secretary of Centre for Studies in Civilizations for her constant guidance and encouragement in bringing out this volume.

I sincerely thank Professor A.K. Anand for her abiding interest in this work and for her valuable technical advice.

I must acknowledge the valuable service rendered by Professor Sukharanjan Saha by organizing a national seminar on Tribal Religions. We have included four scholarly papers in the present volume out of the papers presented in that seminar. I extend my heartfelt thanks to him.

I thank Shri Sehdev Ram and all the members of the staff of Centre for Studies in Civilizations for their cordial help and assistance. I wish to thank all those who have played important roles in editing and printing this volume.

 

General Introduction

 

I

It is understandable that man, shaped by Nature, would like to know Nature. The human ways of knowing Nature are evidently diverse, theoretical and practical, scientific and technological, artistic and spiritual. This diversity has, on scrutiny, been found to be neither exhaustive nor exclusive. The complexity of physical nature, life- world and, particularly, human mind is so enormous that it is futile to follow a single method for comprehending all the aspects of the world in which we are situated.

One need not feel bewildered by the variety and complexity of the worldly phenomena. After all, both from traditional wisdom and our daily experience, we know that our own nature is not quite alien to the structure of the world. Positively speaking, the elements and forces that are out there in the world are also present in our body-mind complex, enabling us to adjust ourselves to our environment. Not only the natural conditions but also the social conditions of life have instructive similarities between them. This is not to underrate in anyway the difference between the human ways of life all over the world. It is partly due to the variation in climatic conditions and partly due to the distinctness of production-related tradition, history and culture.

Three broad approaches are discernible in the works on historiography of civilization, comprising science and technology, art and architecture, social sciences and institutions. Firstly, some writers are primarily interested in discovering the general laws which govern all civilizations spread over different continents. They tend to underplay what they call the noisy local events of the external world and peculiarities of different languages, literatures and histories. Their accent is on the unity of Nature, the unity of science and the unity of mankind. The second groups of writers, unlike the generalist or transcendentalist ones, attach primary importance to the distinctiveness of every culture. To these writers’ human freedom and creativity are extremely important and basic in character. Social institutions and the cultural articulations of human consciousness, they argue, are bound to be expressive of the concerned people’s consciousness. By implication they tend to reject concepts like archetypal consciousness, universal mind and providential history. There is a third group of writers who offer a composite picture of civilizations, drawing elements both from their local as well as common characteristics. Every culture has its local roots and peculiarities. At the same time, it is pointed out that due to demographic migration and immigration over the centuries an element of compositeness emerges almost in every culture. When, due to a natural calamity or political exigencies people move from one part of the world to another, they carry with them, among other things, their language, cultural inheritance and their ways of living.

In the light of the above facts, it is not at all surprising that comparative anthropologists and philologists are intrigued by the striking similarity between different language families and the rites, rituals and myths of different peoples.

Speculative philosophers of history, heavily relying on the findings of epigraphy, ethnography, archaeology and theology, try to show in very general terms that the particulars and universals of culture are ‘essentially’ or ‘secretly’ interrelated. The spiritual aspects of culture like dance and music, beliefs pertaining to life, death and duties, on analysis, are found to be mediated by the material forms of life like weather forecasting, food production, urbanization and invention of script. The transition from the oral culture to the written one was made possible because of the mastery of symbols and rules of measurement. Speech precedes grammar, poetry, prosody. All these show how the ‘matters’ and ‘forms’ of life are so subtly interwoven.

 

II

The Phispc publications on History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization, in spite of their unitary look, do recognize the differences between the areas of material civilization and those of ideational culture. It is not a work of a single author. Nor is it being executed by a group of thinkers and writers who are methodologically uniform or ideologically identical in their commitments. In conceiving the Project we have interacted with, and been influenced by, the writings and views of many Indian and non-Indian thinkers.

The attempted unity of this Project lies in its aim and inspiration. We have in India many scholarly works written by Indians on different aspects of our civilization and culture. Right from the pre-Christian era to our own time, India has drawn the attention of various countries of Asia, Europe and Africa. Some of these writings are objective and informative and many others are based on insufficient information and hearsay, and therefore not quite reliable, but they have their own value. Quality and view-points keep on changing not only because of the adequacy and inadequacy of evidence but also, and perhaps more so, because of the bias and prejudice, religious and political conviction, of the writers.

Besides, it is to be remembered that history, like Nature, is not an open book to be read alike by all. The past is mainly enclosed and only partially disclosed. History is, therefore, partly objective or ‘real’ and largely a matter of construction. This is one of the reasons why some historians themselves think that it is a form of literature or art. However, it does not mean that historical construction is ‘anarchic’ and arbitrary. Certainly, imagination plays an important role in it.

But its character is basically dependent upon the questions which the historian raises and wants to understand or answer in terms of the ideas and actions of human beings in the past ages. In a way, history, somewhat like the natural sciences, is engaged in answering questions and in exploring relationships of cause and effect between events and developments across time. While in the natural sciences, the scientist poses questions about nature in the form of hypotheses, expecting to elicit authoritative answers to such questions, the historian studies the past, partly for the sake of understanding it for its own sake and partly also for the light which the past throws upon the present, and the possibilities which it opens up for mounding the future. But the difference between the two approaches must not be lost sight of. The scientist is primarily interested in discovering laws and framing theories, in terms of which, different events and processes can be connected and anticipated. His interest in the conditions or circumstances attending the concerned events is secondary. Therefore, scientific laws turn out to be basically abstract and easily expressible in terms of mathematical language. In contrast, the historian’s main interest centers round the specific events, human ideas and actions, not general laws. So, the historian, unlike the scientist, is obliged to pay primary attention to the circumstances of the events he wants to study. Consequently, history, like most other humanistic disciplines, is concrete and particularistic. This is not to deny the obvious truth that historical event and processes consisting of human ideas and actions show some trend or other and weave some pattern or other. If these trends and patterns were not there at all in history, the study of history as a branch of knowledge would not have been profitable or instructive. But one must recognize that historical trends and patterns, unlike scientific laws and theories, are not general or purported to be universal in their scope.

 

III

The aim of this Project is to discover the main aspects of Indian culture and present them in an interrelated way. Since our culture has influenced, and has been influenced by, the neighboring cultures of West Asia, Central Asia, East Asia and South-East Asia, attempts have been made here to trace and study these influences in their mutuality. It is well known that during the last three centuries, European presence in India, both political and cultural, has been very widespread. In many volumes of the Project considerable attention has been paid to Europe and through Europe to other parts of the world. For the purpose of a comprehensive cultural study of India, the existing political boundaries of the South Asia of today are more of a hindrance than help. Cultures, like languages, often transcend the bounds of changing political territories.

If the inconstant political geography is not a reliable help to the understanding of the layered structure and spread of culture, a somewhat comparable problem is encountered in the area of historical per iodization. Per iodization or segmenting time is a very tricky affair. When exactly one period ends and another begins is not precisely ascertainable. The periods of history designated as ancient, medieval and modern are purely conventional and merely heuristic in character. The varying scopes of history, local, national and continental or universal, somewhat like the periods of history, are unavoidably fuzzy and shifting. Amidst all these difficulties, the volume-wise details have been planned and worked out by the editors in consultation with the Project Director and the General Editor. I believe that the editors of different volumes have also profited from the reactions and suggestions of the contributors of individual chapters in planning the volumes.

Another aspect of Indian history which the volume-editors and contributors of the Project have carefully dealt with is the distinction and relation between civilization and culture. The material conditions which substantially shaped Indian civilization have been discussed in detail. From agriculture and industry to metallurgy and technology, from physics and chemical practices to the life sciences and different systems of medicines—all the branches of knowledge and skill which directly affect human life—form the heart of this Project. Since the periods covered by the phispc are extensive—prehistory, proto-history, early history, medieval history and modern history of India—we do not claim to have gone into all the relevant material conditions of human life. We had to be selective. Therefore, one should not be surprised if one finds that only some material aspects of Indian civilization have received our pointed attention, while the rest have been dealt with in principle or only alluded to.

One of the main aims of the Project has been to spell out the first principles of the philosophy of different schools, both pro-Vedic and anti-Vedic. The basic ideas of Buddhism, Jainism and Islam have been given their due importance. The special position accorded to philosophy is to be understood partly in terms of its proclaimed unifying character and partly to be explained in terms of the fact that different philosophical systems represent alternative world-views, cultural perspectives, their conflict and mutual assimilation.

Most of the volume-editors and at their instance the concerned contributors have followed a middle path between the extremes of narratives and theoretic. The underlying idea has been this: if, in the process of working out a comprehensive Project like this, every contributor attempts to narrate all those interesting things that he has in the back of his mind, the enterprise is likely to prove unmanageable. If, on the other hand, particular details are consciously forced into a fixed mould or pre-supposed theoretical structure, the details lose their particularity and interesting character.’—therefore, depending on the nature of the problem of discourse, most of the writers have tried to reconcile in their presentation, the specificity of narratives and the generality of theoretical orientation. This is a conscious editorial decision. Because, in the absence of a theory, however inarticulate it may be, the factual details tend to fall apart. Spiritual network or theoretical orientation makes historical details not only meaningful but also interesting and enjoyable.

Another editorial decision which deserves spelling out is the necessity or avoids ability of duplication of the same theme in different volumes or even in the same volume. Certainly, this Project is not an assortment of several volumes. Nor is any volume intended to be a miscellany. This Project has been designed with a definite end in view and has a structure of its own. The character of the structure has admittedly been influenced by the variety of the themes accommodated within it. Again it must be understood that the complexity of structure is rooted in the aimed integrality’1’of the Project itself.

 

Introduction

 

I

The question: “What is tribal religion?” needs serious discussion, because it is not easy to give a precise definition of tribal religion. Religion, which is a cultural universal, is a very complex term that admits of various interpretations. The issue is: which sense of religion is relevant to the tribal life-worlds and systems of belief in the supernatural? The generic term, “tribal religion” is not the nomenclature which can be used to refer to an established religion in the historical sense, i.e. in the sense that the term “religion” is applied to Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. Moreover, we need to explain the meaning of “tribe” and “tribal”, also.

Etymologically, the term “tribe” derives its origin from the Latin word “tribes”, meaning one of the three political divisions. According to I.M. Lewis, “In general usage, the word “tribe” is taken to denote a primary aggregate of peoples living in a primitive or barbarous condition under a headman or chief. The unnecessary moralistic overtones that this usage implies can be avoided or minimized by the use of the expression “tribal society” which is preferable to such synonyms as “primitive society” or “preliterate society”. At the same time the word “tribe” need not be discarded. Indeed it has become a technical term denoting a territorially defined political unit, a usage that recalls the original Latin use of the word for the political divisions or patrician orders of the Roman state”.1

The tribals are called by various names in different countries. In the U.S.A., they are known as “Red Indians”, in Australia as “Aborigines”, in the European countries as “Gypsies”, in the African and Asian countries as “Tribal”. Population wise, India has the second largest concentration of tribal after the African continent. In India, they are generally called “Advises”, because they are the autochthonous people who are believed to be the earliest settlers of this country. Under the Constitution of India people belonging to various tribes have been recognized as the “scheduled tribes”, who have been given certain protections in terms of reservations under the provisions of law. As per Article 36(25) of the Indian Constitution, the Scheduled Tribes (S.T.) means such tribes or tribal communities as are deemed under Article 342 to be Scheduled Tribes for the purposes of this Constitution. The Scheduled Tribes may be specified by the President of India under Article 342 by a public notification. The Parliament may by law, include or exclude from the list of Scheduled Tribes any tribal community or part thereof in any State or Union Territory. Nearly four hundred tribal communities have so far been specified as the Scheduled Tribes in the states and Union Territories of India except the states of Punjab and Haryana and Union Territories of Chandigarh, Delhi and Pondicherry (Pudduchery).

The main criteria for specifing the tribal communities as the Scheduled Tribes are: (i) traditional occupation of a definite geographical area, (ii) distinctive culture which include whole spectrum of tribal way of life, i.e. language, customs, traditions, religious beliefs, arts and crafts, etc., (iii) primitive traits depicting occupational pattern, economy, etc., and (iv) lack of educational and techno-economic development. The tribals constitute 8 per cent of the total population of India. At present tribal population in India is about 8 crores. About 75 percent of the S.T. population lives in six states, viz., Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Bihar and Orissa. There are seven tribes which account for a population of 30 lakhs or more each. These are: the Bhils, the Gonds, the Santhals, the Minas, the Oraons, the Mundas and the Khonds. There are some other tribes like Bodos, the Kolis, the Hos and the Saoras with a considerably large population.

Based on the pre—agricultural level of technology, low level of literacy, declining or stagnant population, 75 tribal communities in 15 states and union territories have been identified and categorized as Primitive Tribe Groups (PTG). With a view to giving more focused attention to the development of Scheduled Tribes, a separate ministry known as the Ministry of Tribal Affairs was constituted in 1999.

In the above discussion we have explained the usage of the term “tribe” in the Indian context, particularly in the context of the Indian Constitution wherein some tribal communities have been specified as the Scheduled Tribes. It may be noted, however, that whereas no tribal group who have no specific settlement within a particular geographical area have been recognized as a Scheduled Tribe (for instance, no nomadic tribe is enlisted as S.T.), there is no religious bar for specifying a person as a member of a Scheduled Tribe, provided his or her forefathers were S.T.S. This means that they must have fulfilled the general criteria of being S.T. This provision is related with their legal status for being recognized as member of the Scheduled tribe. Among the criteria mentioned already, we have referred to the tribal way of life, which include among other things, their traditional (or indigenous) religious belief. This point is relevant to the task that we have at hand, that is, explaining the meaning of “tribal religion”. In this connection, we may quote the following passage from R.C. Verma’s Indian Tribes through the Ages:

For the first time the British attempted to have classified information about the tribals. Despite difficult and inaccessible terrain, they conducted census operations in the tribal areas so as to assess their population and gather other information. In the Census Report of 1891, J.A. Bains, the Commissioner of Census, classified the castes according to their traditional occupation. Under the category of “Agricultural and Pastoral castes”, he formed a sub-heading called “Forest Tribes”. The members of forest tribes were estimated to be nearly sixteen million. In the Census Report of 1901, they were classified as “Animists” and in 1911 as “ tribal animists or people following tribal religion”. In the Census Report of 1921, they were specified as “Hill and Forest Tribes” and their number was estimated to be 16 million. The 1931 Census described them as “Primitive Tribes”. The Government of India Act, n1935 specified the tribal population as “Backward Tribes” only. Their total population was estimated to be 2. 47 crores”.

The British administration used the word “tribe” to refer to those backward people who settle in the hill and forest areas and profess animistic faith. The term “tribal religion” was used during the colonial period to mean belief in animism.

 

II

The Oxford evolutionary anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor influenced the anthropological and sociological thinking in England from the latter part of 19th century to the 1920s. In his Primitive Culture (1871), Tylor expressed the view that the elementary form out of which all else developed was spirit worship — animism. The minimum definition of religion, according to him, is “a belief in spiritual beings”. Such a belief arose at the most primitive level of religion. Tylor’s anthropological theory has deeply influenced the direction taken by the study of religion. It has been generally recognized that the animistic belief is universal at a certain level of culture. He wrote: “Animism is in fact the ground work of the philosophy of religion, from that of savages upto that of civilized man”.3 Since Tylor, the anthropological study of religion remained as the study of primitive religion for quite a long time. It is from this standpoint that the British officers in India, some of whom happened to be ethnologists and anthropologists, while writing about the religious beliefs of the tribes in India characterized such beliefs as primitive religion, which is belief in animism.

Although due regard was given to Tylor’s theory as the first intellectualistic anthropological theory of the origin of religion, the subsequent scholars and anthropologists pointed out that Tylor’s theory is one-sided and cannot explain some very important dimensions of man’s belief in the supernatural being as well as the diverse aspects of ritualistic practices of religion. Animism as a theory of religion is not satisfactory because not all the spirits which animate the objects of nature are worshipped or evoke religious emotion and action.

In addition to the theory of Tylor, we would like to discuss some other theories briefly, in so far as they are relevant to the nature of tribal religion. One such theory is the theory of “mana” advocated by Bishop Codington in his book The Melanesians (1891). This scholar adopted the Melanesian term “mana” to characterize the belief in mysterious power or powers by the primitive people in the pre-animistic period. Mana is an all-pervading supernatural power that operates in natural objects of striking character, a reservoir of energy in the universe on which man can draw for good or ill. It is this mysterious power that manifests itself in extraordinary things and persons and unexpected events. In the words of Codington: “All conspicuous success is a proof that a man has mana … A man’s power, though political or social in character, is his mana If a man has been successful in fighting, it has not been his natural strength of arm … he has certainly got the mana of a spirit or of a deceased warrior to empower him”. The word “mana” also carries strong sense of awe and mystery, and wonder in the presence of the supernatural power. Religion in its origin, it is maintained, is associated with the sense of awe and mystery in the presence of the indefinable and incalculable power. This feeling and attitude of mind is more primitive in character than animism.

James G. Frazer, the giant among Victorian armchair scholars, in his famous book Golden Bough (1911) maintains that “In the evolution of thought, magic as representing the lower intellectual stratum, has probably everywhere preceded religion”. He declared that magic, not religion, characterized the cosmology of simpler peoples. According to him, magic is the primordial form of human thought. It consists in mistaking either spatio-ternporal connection (“sympathetic magic”, as when drinking the blood of an ox transfers its strength to the drinker) or phenomenal similarity (“imitative magic” as when the sound of drumming induces thunder heads to form) for true scientific causality.

The view of Frazer has not been accepted by later social scientists. Emile Durkheim says that “there is no Church of magic… The magician has a clientele and not a Church… Religion, on the other hand, is inseparable from the idea of a Church”. According to him, religion is eminently social; it supplies the bond of unity for the clan or tribe. On the other hand, magic tends to be individualistic, non-social and has recourse to secrecy. Durkheim says that the reality on which religion is founded is essentially social and based upon the solidarity and spiritual communion, which the individual feels with the fellow members of his community. In his book The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), he defines religion, thus: “A religion is an interdependent system of beliefs and practices regarding things that are sacred, that is to say, apart, forbidden beliefs and practices which unite all those who follow them in a single moral community called church”. Durkheim is quite right in giving stress upon the social basis of religion. This is true in the case of all forms of religion, including tribal religion. However, in the case of tribal religion the concept of church as a moral community is not well-defined. Durkheim’s lasting contributions are in the concepts of the profane and the sacred, the social functions of religion, especially as revealed through ritual, and the recognition that religious structures and sentiments are reflective of social ones. A strong impetus to subsequent application of Durkheim’s theory was given by the British structural functionalist Radcliffe-Brown4, who agreed with Durkheim’s postulate that the main function of religion was to celebrate and sustain the norms upon which the integration of society depends.

Another theory about the origin of religion is the theory of Herbert Spencer According to him, the origin of religion is to be traced to the worship of ancestors appearing in the form of ghosts. In support of this view he maintains that man in the early period offered sacrifices to their ancestors. He believed that the worship of ghosts of the ancestors is the most primitive form of religion, which later developed into other forms. The fear of the dead who had passed beyond the control of the living, according to Spencer was the motive which led to the observance of religious rites. But it may be remarked that Spencer’s theory is an over-simplification of man’s religious experience, which is too complex phenomenon to be accounted for by only one aspect of religious practice which is found only in the case of a few communities, and is not found as a universal belief and custom among all the communities or tribes. As Jevons has rightly said: “It never happens that the spirit of the dead are conceived to be gods. Man is dependent on the ghosts, but the spirits of his dead ancestors are dependent on him… The worshipper’s pride is that his ancestor is a god and no mere mortal… The fact is that the ancestors worshipped as gods were not believed to be humans”.5

There are many other concepts which the theoreticians of early religion introduced to characterize the nature of religious belief and practice of the primitive people. For instance, “Shaman”, from the Tungus, was accepted in anthropology as the term for a unique sort of spiritual-medical-political specialist among northern hunter-gatherers or pastoralists6. This term, now-a-days, has been used loosely to refer to any religious specialist who communicates psychologically with spirits. Magic, sorcery and witchcraft are the other terms associated with the practice of religion, according to the anthropologists.

Among the sociological approaches to early religion what is quite remarkable is the analysis of the symbolic forms. We have referred to the view of Durkheim, who also analyzed the symbolic form. Durkheim regarded to temism as the most simple and primitive religion. His interest in to theism is determined by his sociological theory as essentially a social phenomenon. For him, the substratum of all religious belief lies in the idea of a mysterious impersonal force controlling life, and this sense of force is derived from the authority of society over the individual. He maintains that the totem is the visible emblem of the mysterious power. For him, the extraordinary atmosphere surrounding sacred acts and objects was symbolic of a hidden reality, but a social, not a psychological one: the moral force of the community. Durkheim maintains that the integrity of the social order is the primary requisite for human survival.

Claude Levi-Strauss’s study of symbolic systems is another important contribution to the sociological study of religion. He contends that primitive religious systems are, like all symbolic systems, fundamentally communication systems. His study of tribal myth and ritual throws great light in this context. Levi-Strauss’s new “structuralism” posited a universal logical pattern to the human mind. His identification of basic cognitive dichotomies, or “binary opposites” (male-female, right-left, east-west, nature- culture, and so on) has had profound influence throughout the social sciences. Myth and rite are systems of signs that fix and organize abstract conceptual relations in terms of concrete images. They enable the intellectual comprehension of the sensible world in terms of sensible phenomena. This is some sort of rationalization of the sensible phenomena. “The relationships perceived among certain classes of natural objects or events can be analogized, taken as models of relationships — physical, social, psychological, or moral — obtaining between persons, groups, or other natural objects and events. Thus, for example, the natural distinctions perceived among totemic beings. Their species differentiation, can serve as a conceptual framework for the comprehension, expression, and communication of social distinctions among exogamous clans — their structural differentiation. Thus, the sharp contrasts between the wet and dry seasons … in certain regions of Australia are employed in the mythology of the native peoples. They have woven an elaborate origin myth around this natural phenomenon, one that involves a rain-making python who drowned some incestuous sisters and their children because the women polluted his water hole with menstrual blood. This model expresses and economizes the contrasts between moral purity and impurity, maleness and femaleness, social superiority and inferiority, fertilizing agent (rain) and that which is fertilized (land), and even the distinction between “high” (initiate) and “low” (lion-initiate) levels of cultural achievement”.7 A conception of the world or “reality” from the cultural perspective of a tribe or community is also involved. Having made a brief survey of the theories about the origin and nature of religion from the perspective of the social sciences and philosophy, it may be remarked that the theories have highlighted different perspectives from which religion as a sociocultural institution of mankind is viewed. Each one of them has focused on some aspects of man’s religious experience, and in that sense each of the theories has some importance. But it cannot be said that each theory has characterized the necessary and sufficient criteria of religion. Further, each theory has viewed religion and its practices by different human groups in different regions of the world. These theories are complementary to one another in giving a comprehensive view of the origin of religion and man’s religious experience. As Clifford Geertz has rightly said, every scientific analysis of religion — historical, psychological, sociological and semantic — is “necessary, but none is sufficient. A mature theory of religion will consist of an integration of them all into a conceptual system whose exact form remains to be discovered”.8 In addition to the anthropological and sociological studies, we should take into consideration the phenomenological approach to the study of religion also, because phenomenological analysis has thrown important light on the understanding of religion.

 

Contents

 

  Diacritics for Transliteration ix
  Preface
S. Shyamkishore Singh
xi
  General Introduction
DY. Chattopadhyaya
xiii
  Editors xxiii
  Contributors xxv
  Introduction
S. Shyamkishore Singh
xxxi
1 Tribal Religion in India: Its Nature of Persistence
Jayanta Sarkar
1
2 Defining the Indigenous Tribal Religion
Gangmumei Kamei
13
3 Religious Beliefs and Practices of the Idu Mishmis of Arunachal Pradesh
Sarit K Chaudhuri
19
4 Religious Rituals and Ceremonies of the Apatanis
Takhe Kani
39
5 Mising Religion
Basanta Kumar Doley
63
6 The Religion of the Karbis
Jagadish Patgiri
75
7 Traditional Religion of the Rabhas
Upen Rabha Hakacham
83
8 The Traditional Religion of the Garos
Bimal Mazumdar
95
9 Traditional Khasi Religion
Helen Gin
119
10 The Religion of the Bodos
Hira Charan Nanjinani
123
11 The Religion of the Boroks
Mohan Debbanna
141
12 The Concept of God in Thadou Kuki Religion
Jamkhothang Haokip
181
13 ‘Indawai’, Primeval Religion of Thadou Kukis
T.S. Gangte
195
14 Traditional Religious Beliefs of the Paite (Tedim Chin)
H. Kamkhenthang
205
15 A Descriptive Account of Hmar Religion
Vanlalnghak
221
16 The Religious Life of the Poumai
M. C. Arunkumar
229
17 The Traditional Religion of the Andros
Ningombam Basanta
245
18 Some Aspects of the Traditional Religious Beliefs and Practices of the Naga Tribes
Namram Sukumar Singh
265
19 Worship of Tingkao Ragwang in the Indigenous Religion of the Zeliangrong Nagas
Lanbilung Gonmei
273
20 Religious Beliefs and Practices of the Sumi Tribe of Nagaland
Hitoka H. Sumi and ELK Behera
279
21 The Santal Religion: A Review
Rajat Kanti Das
289
22 Tribal Religion in South India
P.R C. Mathur
307
23 The Religion of the Tribes of Kerala and Tamil Nadu
T. Madhava Menon
349
24 The Cosmos and Religion in the Folklores of Mundari Speaking Tribes of India
T.K Rapaz
375
25 Women in Tribal Religions
Debi Chatterjee
383
  Index  

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