Research Paper India


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Research Paper India

  1. 1. Tribal Religion in India: Adaptation and endurance through history Rozalyn Heidtke-Asian Studies 253 © K. L. Kamat
  2. 2. The religious life of India has some of the most diverse, interesting, and continuous traditions in the entire world. It is where Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Islam, Christianity and other traditions thrive among each other. The Tribal communities of India are the oldest, and longest surviving cultural groups in the subcontinent. Through centuries of cultural exchange between the Aryans and the indigenous peoples, what is knows today as Hinduism was formed. The ancient tribes have lasted for centuries retaining their own distinct culture as partially separated form what we now call Hinduism. The religious life of India’s Tribal people is an area of study that is often neglected, but is actually a very important aspect of Indian history and anthropology. There is great diversity of religious elements among the different tribes. vary from tribe to tribe, but there are similarities among the tribes that are essential to their way of life. First, the Tribes lived in harmony with nature, living in sustainable ways so as to preserve the natural environment. Their religion reflects their attitude towards nature, as is evident in the numerous animals, plant, and land deities. The other main aspect is that they were an egalitarian society, one that all people had equal status. This is a major difference from the caste system of Hindu India. The core values of the tribal people have lasted for thousands of years, even though they have continually been faced with the threat of assimilation and loss of identity. They have maintained their cohesion because of their meaningful values that promote healthy human life and interaction with our environment. The tribal people of India fit into one of three language groups: the Austric, the Tibeto-Chinese, or the Dravidian. Anthropologists call the oldest people that came to
  3. 3. India Negroids. They have mostly disappeared as a distinct race except for in South Indian jungles and the Andaman Islands. The Austrics were the next group to migrate to India, and several modern tribes represent them. It is believed that the Austrics first had the Hindu concept of mana, which is a divine power that pervades the universe. It is also thought that the Austrics began the philosophy of life after death and the cycle of samsara, an important tenet elaborated in the Hindu and Buddhist religions. The other major tribal peoples are the Dravidians. Descended from Mediterranean peoples, the Dravidians populated southern India. The Dravidians were the first worshippers of the deities Vishnu, Shiva, and others that were incorporated into Hinduism. The philosophy of Yoga also comes from the Dravidians, as well as puja rituals, which became an important form of worship among Hindus.1 Each tribe was originally a closely-knit, self-reliant community. The social and economic aspects were community-based as opposed to an individual-based system. There was no concept of private property. Land was shared collectively among all members of the tribe. This is true for many tribes such as Saoras of Orissa, Gonds of Madhya Pradesh, the Ho Munda and Santals of Bihar and Bengal, the Warlis of Maharashtra, and many others in almost every part of the country.2 Tribal labor and economy were based on equal responsibility and reward. Everyone participated equally for the labor of the tribe, despite the natural unequal distribution of abilities of people. In fact, they don’t place a value on ability the way we do today, because in their way of life, no one was treated as different form anyone else. It was not only people that were on equal terms and enjoyed equal benefits. In tribal hunting rituals, the dogs that accompany 1 Srirama Goyal, The Religious history of ancient India (India: Urvashi Press, 1984) 3-8. 2 Mrinal Miri, Continuity and Change in Tribal Society (New Delhi: Elegant Printers, 1993) 54.
  4. 4. people get an exactly equal share of the meat as the people as well.3 There are many documented examples of how the communal mentality played out in tribal life. Among the Noctes, in Arunchal Pradesh, each family’s home is built with the help of the whole community. Everyone in the village helps gather materials, and the owner of the house provides food and beer for everyone. At the end of the day, the house is finished, and they have a ceremonial dance.4 Among the Souras, all people of the village had to attend religious rituals, including weddings, funerals, and festivals.5 The social life of tribes is reflected in the characters of the deities they worship as well. Among the Murias of Bastar, it is believed that their deities communicate with each other and have interpersonal conflicts and scenarios just as people do. The social structure of the divine beings is a direct reflection of the social structure of the tribe.6 The status of Women in tribal societies is considerably higher than that of women in the Hindu caste system. The tribes in North-east India are matrilineal, but even in patrilineal systems women have high status. Women usually get the final say about whom they will marry, and are allowed to divorce and remarry. Women dominate the economic life in the family, though men generally had control over specific resources.7 The sexuality of tribal people is practiced in a health fashion that doesn’t objectify women or make them become submissive to their male partners. The religious beliefs of the tribes are closely linked with their communal values and their respect for the land that they lived on. In nearly all of the tribal religions, spirits that lived in nature were venerated and respected because they provided people with 3 Mrinal Miri Continuity and Change in Tribal Society (New Delhi: Elegant Printers, 1993) 14. 4 M.C. Behera, Tribal Religion: Change and Continuity (New Delhi: Commonwealth, 2000) 144. 5 Ibid. 105. 6 Ibid. 125. 7 Mrinal Miri Continuity and Change in Tribal Society (New Delhi: Elegant Printers, 1993) 55.
  5. 5. natural resources they needed to survive. Among the peoples of Arunachal Pradesh, deities are worshipped during seasonal festivals. Among their deities are Kline Naane who is the goddess of grain, Daadi Bote, the keeper of domestic animals, and Guumin Soyin, the caretaker of the family.8 The deities of individual tribes usually live in particular areas of the tribe’s land. For example, among the Kharias (in Assam), traditional spirits are mainly jungle spirits, hill spirits, village spirits, ancestor spirits, as well as the Supreme Deity. Tribes commonly had totem animals or plants that they linked to their tribal identity. Hunting or harvesting the totem is not allowed except for on one holiday. Their reverence for Gods of nature kept the tribal people in balance with nature, never exploiting nature for any individual’s desires. Practices that caused major destruction of forests or land were strictly prohibited. Another aspect of tribal culture is that they vigorously remember and respect their dead ancestors. They believe that their ancestors’ spirits still live on the land that they inhabit. That is one reason why tribes generally stay in the same location for hundreds of years. For the tribes in Bastar, ancestor worship is the most important focus of religion. After a person dies, their relatives will perform a ritual to call them back to the household, and from then on it is believed that the deceased spirit will protect the family. Ancestor spirits are given offerings of food first, when it is harvested, before the living people eat it.9 There are many legends and myths surrounding the cult of the ancestor that highlight the magical powers and admirable qualities of the ancestor spirits.10 In modern-day Punjab region, most villages have shrines to their ancestors, both communal shrines and ones within the homes of individual families. Every Hindu family 8 M.C. Behera, Tribal Religion: Change and Continuity (New Delhi: Commonwealth, 2000) 152. 9 M.C. Behera, Tribal Religion: Change and Continuity (New Delhi: Commonwealth, 2000) 158. 10 H.S. Bhatti Folk Religion: Change and Continuity (Jaipur, India: Rawat Publications, 2000) 190.
  6. 6. has their own deity that they worship regularly. Worship of the dead lives among communities that have converted to Islam as well, even though it is outlawed in Islam. Grave majar worship is something that Muslims of the area take part in regularly, nonetheless.11 Of course, to believe in these ancestor spirits tribal people also believed in life after death. The Hindu concept of reincarnation was adopted from this tribal philosophy. Some tribes believed that a people were reborn within their family, several generations down the line. Other tribes believed you could be reincarnated as anyone. This was the basis of the philosophy of samsara, the endless cycle of birth and death in which all beings participate until they gather enough merit to be released from suffering. The Dimisa Kacharis of North-east India believe that all people go to a place above the earth, and those who earned merit in their lifetime would go to Dambra, a place much like heaven.12 There are aspects of tribal religion that are unique to only the tribes, and were not adopted into any other religious framework in India. Animal sacrifices are one of these. Also, priests perform many magic rites and spells to control evil spirits. Worship of evil spirits in done to keep their wrath away. Other tribes practiced human sacrifice and other gruesome rituals. An age-old practice of the Noctes in Arunachal Pradesh is head hunting. This war-like tribe kept heads of their enemies that they killed in battles as trophies and hung them up in homes. This tradition has faded away, but the old skulls are still kept. One of the main distinctions between Tribal religion and Hinduism is the presence of animal gods only among the tribes. One of the cults of animal-god worship in 11 Ibid. 190. 12 M.C. Behera, Tribal Religion: Change and Continuity (New Delhi: Commonwealth, 2000) 206.
  7. 7. the Punjab region is the cult of Gugga Jahir Pir, the snake god. Each tribe worships dozens of animals, rivers, mountains, and trees as well. The Tribal religions contributed to much of what the Dravidian polytheistic religion became. It is believed that Shiva, one of the top gods of Hinduism was adapted from Lingo, one of the Gods of the Muria tribe in the region of Bastar. Lingo is seen as a link between tribal animism and Dravidian polytheism.13 The Murian religion is hard to classify as either Hindu or tribal, because it has several aspects that are common to both structures of belief. In the centuries of contact with the Aryan/Vedic culture that spread mainly throughout northern India, tribal people appropriated some of the Vedic beliefs and customs. The rulers of India were Hindus (not tribal based) and living in India meant that the tribal people had to serve the Kings as well as pay taxes. This is one of the ways that tribal people, who would otherwise not come in contact with Hindu communities, learned of Hindu values and culture. All tribes in India have been affected by Hindu culture, and have all gone through some process of Hinduization. Also, since British colonization, Christianity has permeated entire regions and many tribes have converted partially. The third cultural influence that has is currently shifting tribal identity is modern technology and capitalism. These three main cultural systems have each caused turmoil and identity crisis among tribes, but in each, different tribes have adapted in their own fashion, and have struggled to preserve their core values. When tribes came in contact with Hindu culture, centuries after Vedic times, they didn’t encounter a totally different belief system, because much of Hinduism developed out of tribal religions. Mainly, the social structure of the communal tribes was very 13 M.C. Behera, Tribal Religion: Change and Continuity (New Delhi: Commonwealth, 2000) 123.
  8. 8. different from the rigid Hindu caste system. Often, tribes adopted the local Hindu gods and goddesses, used Hindu temples, and began using idols and images to worship the new gods. The tribes called themselves Hindus, but tribal culture continued to thrive, and their ancient customs set them apart from other Hindus. Nowadays, the younger generation of Tribal people would rather participate in Hindu rituals than keep the beliefs and practices of their ancestors.14 Though a good portion of tribal religion has been supplanted with foreign, Hindu customs, there are several key characteristics that point out a tribal community. Worship of images and Idols, a universal Hindu practice, has never been a part of tribal religion. There was also, until recently, no written history or scriptures in tribal culture. This is a main difference from the Aryan-Vedic culture that relied on Vedic texts as the ultimate authority on religion. In contrast to the Vedic religion that imposed a strict structure onto the entire Indian social and religious life, the tribal religions are very unstructured and have many variations according to location. The conversion to Christianity that began in the 1800’s had a quick and drastic impact on tribal identities. The message that Christianity offered the tribal people was that the Christian god was always kind and loving, as opposed to the tribal gods who had to constantly be given offerings to be appeased. As opposed to the Christian god of love, the tribal gods were an emotional and economic burden. The conversion to Christianity also offered tribal people a sense of belonging to a larger group. Becoming Christian also meant that they would have tons of Christian allies. They also had access to educational institutions that non-Christian tribes didn’t. 14 M.C. Behera, Tribal Religion: Change and Continuity (New Delhi: Commonwealth, 2000) 137.
  9. 9. Tribes of the northeast have the highest percentage of Christians in the country. In Meghalaya, Christianity is the dominant faith, but exists alongside local indigenous tribes as well. 50 percent of the population professes to be Christian, while 40 belong to tribal faiths. In this area, tribes once considered backward populations have been able to raise their social standing by becoming familiar with Christianity and the western way of life.15 As more tribes became aware of western technology, they sought to become more modern and have since abandoned their beliefs and heritage for western ideas. Modernization has had a dramatic effect on tribal populations, and has mainly alienated people from their heritage and confused their identity. Each tribe has been affected to different degrees, but they all have been shaken up by the capitalist, individualistic, fast-paced modern urban culture. Among tribes such as the Oraons of Assam the established communal social structure has suffered a breakdown. The spirit of individualism has permeated into life and disrupted the once cohesive bonds between family members and community members.16 Another reason for the breakdown of family is the changing economy. It is not advantageous anymore to have many children to help with labor. Tribal economies now rely to different degrees on exchange with other communities. Large populations of tribes have migrated into urban, industrialized centers in search of jobs as well, breaking the away from their culture. The modern technology that has been introduced in tribal communities has alienated people from their land, which has been so central in their value system. Exposure to other cultures though mass 15 Ibid 16 Mrinal Miri Continuity and Change in Tribal Society (New Delhi: Elegant Printers, 1993) 134.
  10. 10. media (television, newspapers, radio, etc.) has turned some people away from their tradition to imitate foreign ones instead.17 One of the most devastating things to happen to Tribal Societies is the destruction of their land. Over 50 percent of the forests that are now being cut down for industrial uses are on tribal lands. The tribal people had no concept of destroying the environment for personal economic gain, so they had a hard time interacting with and understanding the capitalists who came in and took advantage of them. Having no written laws or formal systems of ownership other than word of mouth, it was too easy for people to come in and claim their land. Massive clear cutting of forests set in motion a vicious cycle of poverty, alienation, and bondage for thousands of Tribal people in India. Because of their impoverishment, they have become dependent on the destruction of natural resources for their survival18. Alienation from the forests in younger generations of tribal people has resulted in an accelerated modernization of the youth. Women have been especially victimized by the deforestation of tribal land because first they have lost their economic basis for survival, and they have lost the equality that they enjoyed in tribal communities and are subject to a lower class status.19 In response to the invasion of outsiders destroying their societies, many tribes have formed successful resistance movements. Other tribes have accepted modernization, and have since decreased significantly in numbers. In order to gain political freedom, tribes have been putting their oral customs into writing. Tribes that were converted to Christianity are now looking back to their previous culture and rejected the alien Christian culture. The Jarkhand movement is one of the most famous tribal resistance 17 Ibid. 44. 18 Ibid. 47-48 19 Ibid. 67
  11. 11. movements in India. The indigenous people of Jarkhand have historically resisted strongly the Aryan, Muslim, British, and modern Indian colonialism in their land. Jarkhand tribes have successfully survived for thousands of years retaining their own culture and social structure for several reasons. First, the there is political unity among most of the indigenous people. Also, they have been accommodative to the invading cultures, but not so much so that they lose their self-control.20 The greatest weapon that tribes of Jarkhand and in other places of India have gained to protect their way of life is consciousness of their situation. They have become conscious of their heritage by getting their oral history and myths written down and preserved for future generations. They have also begun to critically think about their culture and be able to articulate it. From their efforts at raising self-awareness in tribal communities, the Indigenous peoples have begun to gain a new self-confidence that will enable them to resist assimilation.21 The Ancient Tribes of India have come a long way from their pre-Vedic societies into the 21st century. Their religion is deeply rooted at a subconscious level even among converts, and will most likely continue in Indian culture for several more centuries. Qualities of tribal religion that have sustained the culture is the focus on equality, respect for nature, flexibility and ability to co-exist with other traditions, and the interesting, imaginative ways of acknowledging the sacred in this world. 20 Ibid. 440. 21 Mrinal Miri Continuity and Change in Tribal Society (New Delhi: Elegant Printers, 1993) 173-174.
  12. 12. Refernces: M.C. Behera, Tribal Religion: Change and Continuity (New Delhi: Commonwealth, 2000). N.N. Bhattacharyya, Ancient Indian Rituals and Their Social Contents (New- Delhi: Manohar, 1996). H.S. Bhatti, Folk Religion: Change and Continuity (Jaipur, India: Rawat Publications, 2000). Srirama Goyal, The Religious History of Ancient India (India: Urvashi Press, 1984). Mrinal Miri, Continuity and Change in Tribal Society (New Delhi: Elegant Printers, 1993).