Belief in Goddess Imoinu - A strange Meitei belief system

Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh *

  Modern goddess Imoinu with Marei pareng
Modern goddess Imoinu with Marei pareng
Photo credit: ; Courtesy: Yumnam Ashok

I have always thought all religions have flexible relationships with truth. Meitei Sanamahism is no exception. It is like the ancient "miasma theory" of diseases an obsolete medical theory a belief that all disease were caused by a harmful form of "bad air".

Sometime in January this year (2020), I was looking for Shanti Moirangthem from Uripok, a retired IGP in Imphal, on the WhatsApp. I longed to have a chat with him, He always makes me cheerful. I never find him to say harmful things about anybody. He has the genetic disposition of his late father Gojendra.

After some time he responded. He was busy parking his new car in the Imphal town centre and waiting for his wife, who was shopping for ingredients necessary for Ima Imoinu Iratpa. I was gobsmacked. It was not something I heard happening at Uripok during my growing up. I was born there.

I remember reading about its resurgence with photos on the e-Pao net about 10 years ago, at Wangkhei Ningthem pukhri mapal in Imphal. I didn't take much notice of it. This time I went on the search engine to know something about Ima Imoinu. Nothing much found. But there were several images of fantasy paintings of her. Young, adult, middle age, old, very old with a hidakpu and so on. But like Jesus Christ there were no childhood images.

For the benefit of readers I have chosen for this piece a comely and attractive image of Imoinu as a Meitei mou naha that is worth worshipping. Thanks to the first online platform for news and well-edited scholarly articles, widely read by Manipuri diaspora. At least, I have been reading it for about 20 years.

Shanti explained to me that Imoinu is a replacement for the Hindu goddess Lakshmi - as Meitei goddess of wealth to worship. There are many painted images of Lakshmi, whose youthful vigour never changed. Hindu gods never age. When the mayangs insert a hallow ring around their heads they become consecrated. I have chosen a modern version of Lakshmi without a halo for this article. She is also worth worshipping.

  Modern goddess Lakshmi with only two arms
Modern goddess Lakshmi with only two arms

Resurrection of Imoinu, the goddess of wealth, must have important spiritual meanings for Meiteis, in as much as the resurrection of Christ has for Christians, though both are belief systems. There is a theological and literary gap in Sanamahilogy in the case of Ima Imoinu.

I can't help wondering whether this is an attempt to reverse Atombabu Sharma's conversion of indigenous Meitei gods, goddesses and places into Hindu equivalents, such as Durga for Panthoibi, Pakhangba for Ananta serpent (celestial snake of Vishnu) and Nongmai cheeng for Baruni (Durga) cheeng! Or, is it an additional ritual to so many Meitei religious plurality to enhance their peace of mind?

I have written before about various opinions about the Resurrection of Christ and his ascension to heaven. Resurrection is very important for Christians. Without resurrection Jesus could not have been Christ or son of a God. Historical interpretations vary. But there is impressive discussion about its reality in Christology.

That is so in the case of what Jesus said aloud in his native Aramaic language at the cross: "Eloi, eloi, lama sabachtani?" "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:1) has been interpreted by some scholars as Jesus' doubt about the existence of God, whom he called Abba (Father in Aramaic).

  'Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?' 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'
'Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?' 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'
[From Dr Irengbam Mohendra's book 'Quest Beyond Religion']

About a week ago, I asked my friend John Parratt, who is a scholarly theologian and who had been teaching Third World Christianity in Africa, about the exact meaning of the last words of Jesus. He comments that this is the most difficult problem of the New Testament in the Bible. He kindly sent me interpretations of four scholars, among many.

But the one he favours is that "Christ suffered the worst possible experience that humans can endure, the sense of being abandoned by God, which means he (and God) understand fully whatever grief we might have (Bonhoeffer: 'only the suffering God can help)".

Another most misunderstood passage in the Bible and even in today's lectionary passage is the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John in the New Testament. It is often quoted at Christian funerals. Jesus is recorded as having said before his impending death "... In My Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you..."

Having quoted a few passages from the Bible, which is the most widely read book in the world [based on the number of copies sold over the last 50 years], I claim Religion is faith. Faith is a belief system. Belief is an attitude of mind that is positively orientated towards the likelihood of something being true regardless of absence of any empirical evidence to prove that something is cattily factual.

It is the mental attitude in which the person does not like to think for himself-herself and prefers not to take a risk in not believing it. In a less refined literary vocabulary, belief is a mental frame of gullible people to swallow some one's opinion, hook, line and sinker.

In epistemology, which is the theory of knowledge, especially the distinction between false and justified beliefs. Philosophers use the term 'belief' to refer to personal attitudes associated with true or false ideas and concepts. Belief is an important aspect of our daily life.

We believe the sun will rise in the morning. We never think why it rises. We just take it for granted. We thought the Earth was flat until some rational thinker found that it is round.

Thinking people like philosophers, regard 'belief' is a 'propositional attitude'. By this they mean it is a mental state held by some people towards a proposition that, eg Imoinu exists as a Meitei goddess, nowhere else.

The present world-view of the 'existence of this planet earth' is divided between those (a vast majority that is gradually whittling down) believers in God (creationists) that created it and everything in it, and nonbelievers (evolutionists) who belief is that God had nothing to do with it and that life forms came to exist on Earth spontaneously.

Ancient Meitei religion of Sanamahi laining of which Imoinu is one of the principal deities, is an animistic religion that believes inanimate objects, such as plants, rocks, rivers etc have souls (not unlike Hinduism that is also an ancient animistic religion). Animists believe that thir world is surrounded by some supernatural spirits; some are good and some are bad.

All the major religions of the world contain some elements of animism. All primitive people are animistic. In Manipur, while the animistic tribal people have left animism behind, Meiteis despite their conversion to Hinduism are still clinging on some animistic beliefs, such as possession by the seven sister of Helloi.

To be fair, this phenomenon is known as "possessed" (by evil spirit) in Christianity. This has been in existence since Roman times before their conversion to Christianity. Catholics, the oldest form of Christianity, still believe in it.

The Meiteis like all the major religions, have the myth of creation (Lai haraoba), which is a symbolic narrative of the beginning of the world, as understood by Meiteis ancestors. All doctrines.

The Meitei myth of creation refers to the process through which the Meitei world is centred and given a definite form of our existence from time before memory. They also serve as a basis for the orientation of the Meiteis in the world as a separate community.

While emphasising the importance in the study of ancient culture and religion, which have survived in more complex and hierarchical way of life, modern scholarship concerns the need to understand a rational and scientific universe.

I am not anti-religion. I am an evolutionist. And, in India there is freedom of worship and non-worship. In support for my faith in science, it is worth mentioning that scientists have discovered where the first life came from: from inorganic matter, literally fallen from the sky.

Scientists at the University of Chicago experimented and reproduced amino acids, which are components of the nucleic acids DNA and RNA. DNA can replicate as it does in living cells. RNA carries genetic information from DNA where it can be used. This is called the "RNA world theory" of the origin of life.

The theory of evolution, unlike creation, may be confusing for many. Darwin ended his book, On The Origin Of Species with a lyrical crescendo. "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful have been, and are being, evolved."

* Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at irengbammsingh(AT)gmail(DOT)com and Website:
This article was webcasted on March 02, 2020 .

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