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
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
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
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
Srirama Goyal, The Religious history of ancient India (India: Urvashi Press, 1984) 3-8.
Mrinal Miri, Continuity and Change in Tribal Society (New Delhi: Elegant Printers, 1993) 54.
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
Mrinal Miri Continuity and Change in Tribal Society (New Delhi: Elegant Printers, 1993) 14.
M.C. Behera, Tribal Religion: Change and Continuity (New Delhi: Commonwealth, 2000) 144.
Mrinal Miri Continuity and Change in Tribal Society (New Delhi: Elegant Printers, 1993) 55.
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
M.C. Behera, Tribal Religion: Change and Continuity (New Delhi: Commonwealth, 2000) 152.
M.C. Behera, Tribal Religion: Change and Continuity (New Delhi: Commonwealth, 2000) 158.
H.S. Bhatti Folk Religion: Change and Continuity (Jaipur, India: Rawat Publications, 2000) 190.
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,
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
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
M.C. Behera, Tribal Religion: Change and Continuity (New Delhi: Commonwealth, 2000) 206.
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
M.C. Behera, Tribal Religion: Change and Continuity (New Delhi: Commonwealth, 2000) 123.
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.
M.C. Behera, Tribal Religion: Change and Continuity (New Delhi: Commonwealth, 2000) 137.
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
Mrinal Miri Continuity and Change in Tribal Society (New Delhi: Elegant Printers, 1993) 134.
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
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.
Mrinal Miri Continuity and Change in Tribal Society (New Delhi: Elegant Printers, 1993) 173-174.
M.C. Behera, Tribal Religion: Change and Continuity (New Delhi:
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
Srirama Goyal, The Religious History of Ancient India (India: Urvashi Press,
Mrinal Miri, Continuity and Change in Tribal Society (New Delhi: Elegant