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E-Pao! Essay - Defining the indigenous tribal religion

Defining the indigenous tribal religion

By Prof Gangmumei Kamei/The Sangai Express *



Man is a thinking and speaking being who always believes in the supernatural as the cause, continuity and end of his existence. There are no people without a religion. Religion is the system of worship of God by men which a code of moral, spiritual and social behaviour in dealing with God and society.

The indigenous people have a religion of their own for ages. Religion has been the core of the indigenous way of life. Their religion has been misinterpreted by the anthropologists, Christian missionaries and scholars of comparative theology as 'animism'. This paper is an attempt to examine the indigenous tribal religion from the indigenous point of view.

Tylor's Animism:

Sir Edward B. Tylor (1832-1917) who is generally accepted as the father of social anthropology was the first scholar who propounded the concept of animism in his paper entitled 'Religion of Savages' in the Fortnightly Review (1866) in which he wrote, 'The theory which endows the phenomenon of nature with personal life might perhaps conveniently be called 'animism'.

He further developed it in greater detail in his classic, 'Primitive Culture: Research into Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Arts and Culture' (1871). With this work, the term 'animism' has stuck to Tylor's name. He further replied to the criticism of animism by his contemporaries in his paper, 'On the Limits of Savage Religion' in the Journal of Anthropological Institute (1896).

Tylor describes animism as the definition of the religion of the savages as 'the Belief in the Spiritual Beings'. Tylor's use of the term, 'Savage' to mean the primitive people is a subject of the critical comments. But many writers in the 19th century Europe used this term universally. It is said that Tylor would have preferred the term 'Spiritualism' to describe in the primitive religion but for his dislike for a group known as the Spiritualists the mid nineteenth century who were a religious group which had the object of establishing communication with the dead.

The Spiritualists sought to communicate with the dead and they were condemned by the mainstream churches. Tylor's use of the term, animism has been described by the critics as misleading. Animism is a belief that all natural objects have souls. But his animism is more a spiritism, dealing with an unempirical world of the spirits. There had been criticism of the concept by sociologists like Andrew Lang, Emile Durkheim, RR Marrett and Wihhelm Schmidt as the 'Belief in the Spiritual Beings (Soul, ghost, demon and ghosts) did not cover the primitive religion or the religious beliefs of the tribals.

Tylor defended that his concept was an answer to the question, "What is the most rudimentary form of religion which may yet bear that name?" Tylor thought that religion was present in all cultures properly observed and it might turn out to be present everywhere. He entertained the idea of a pre-religious stage in the evolution of cultures and believed that a tribe in that stage might be found.

To proceed in a systematic study of the problem, he required a minimum of religion and found it in the 'Belief in the Spiritual Beings'. According to this concept, religion had evolved from a doctrine of souls arising from the spontaneous reflection upon 'death, dream, apparitions to a wider doctrine of spirits' which eventually expanded to embrace 'powerful demons and gods'. He left out the religions of vision and passion.

Andrew Lang (1844-1912), a Scottish folklorist theorized that the primitive tribes believed in a High God, a creator and often a legislator of a moral order as found among the tribes who had been explored both by the Christian missionaries and anthropologists. Andrew Lang was pleading for the existence of a 'primordial monotheism', a belief in a Supreme God among the tribes. EB Tylor dismissed this as an imagination of the Christian missionaries. This is not so, the concept exists in the present times among the tribes.

Wilhelm Schmidt in his: Origin of the Idea of God (1912) discovered a High God among the primitive religion and confirmed Andrew Lang's primordial monotheism. He wrote, 'Tribes have a memory of a High God, a benign creator, a Father-God who is no longer worshipped because that God is not feared'. Monotheism has been suggested to be more naturally primitive as a world view than animism.

It has been asserted that the tribes are found not to be animistic, as their system of religious beliefs and mode of worship of the God do not present a picture of degenerated religious practice. It has been suggested that due to the loss of contact with prophets and religious seers, they had degenerated to polytheism, worship of many gods.

James Frazer in this 'The Golden Bough' observed that when definite deities with specific names and functions were reorganised, the animist had become a polytheist and the term animism was no longer strictly applicable. Frazer's thesis is that animism is a stage in the evolutionary development of the tribal religion. If animism means Belief in Spiritual Beings, every religion has these rudimentary ideas in one form or the other.

In India, under the greater influence of EB Tylor the official administrators including ethnographers were instructed by the then British Govt of India to use the term 'animism' to describe the religion of the tribal or indigenous communities. They were also directed to use the term in the Census of India since 1901.

In the North east, the Govt of Assam published anthropological monograph from 1906 onwards, like the Khasis by PTR Gurdon, The Garos by A Mayflair, The Meitheis by TC Hodson, The Kacharis by Rev S Endle, The Naga Tribes of Manipur by TC Hodson, The Lushai Kuki Clans by John Shakespeare, The Sema Nagas by JH Hutteon, The Angami Naga by JH Hutton, The Ao Nagas by JP Mills, The Lothas Naga by JP Mills, The Thadou-Kuki by William Shaw, The Lushai Crysalis by AG McCall, The Lakhers by PN Perry.

These powerful writings have described the tribal religion as animism. Even, the religion of the Meitheis has been wrongly described as animistic by TC Hodson. Following these anthropological writers, the Christian missionaries in their declared objective of converting the tribes into Christianity had condemned the tribal religion as heathen, pagan and animistic. Their religion was described as worship of demons and evil spirits.

The tribal educated elite including the new Christian converts condemned their own religion as animism. However, enlightened scholars of the tribal communities who are the followers of the traditional religion refuse to accept the derogatory name. Even Christian writers who have sympathy for the tribal culture do not accept the appendage.

Primal Religion:

Dr. Harod Turner, a Presbyterian theologian of New Zealand in the recent article in 'A Lion Handbook: The World Religion' (1994, London) came out in a strong defence of the religion of the indigenous people. He writes, 'Most of the common terms for these religions are either offensive of inaccurate.

Tribal people do not like to be called heathen, savage, primitive or superstitious and words such as a animistic, pre-literature, traditional or ethnic are not accurate'. He pleaded that 'Religion must be carefully distinguished from magic where people try to use spirit power for their selfish ends. The term 'Primal religion' has been proposed to replace Animism'.

According to Turner, the word, 'Primal Religion' means the religions that are prior to the universal religions. Primal religions are not religions for all people. They are the religions of one tribe or a people who realize that other people have their own gods and religious system. The word 'primal' means primary or basic. Primal religions usually have the main basic features that belong to all religions.

Tenets of Primal Religions:

Basic to primal religion is a belief in a spiritual world of power or beings stronger than man himself. Men are not alone in the universe, behind every ordinary thing and daily event there is a 'spirit power' which is called Mana by the Polynesian in south Pacific, Mutunga by the South Africans and Orenda by North American Indians.

i) Every primal religion has a group of spirit power whom they called gods.
ii) Primal religion have a belief in a supreme God above all other power. This God is thought of as a Universal God for all people (like the Great Spirit of the North American Eskimos or Indian, Io of the Maoris of New Zealand). This is the creator of all, High God, Sky God and is concerned with the moral lives of the people or community. He is the Almighty God.
iii) Ancestor Worship: Worship or honour of the living dead. There is a strong belief in the continuing presence of the ancestors who are honoured rather than worshipped and remembered as human beings and not as Gods.

1. Belief in the Supreme God who is the creator of the Universe, benevolent and protector of men.
2. Belief in the existence of many Gods and deities who are to look after the different aspects of the world, nature and the humans.
3. The concept of Ancestor worship and belief in the rebirth of soul.
4. Belief in the heaven, the abode of God and gods; land of the dead where the man or his soul goes after death.
5. Belief in the deities presiding over villages and places.
6. Offering made to gods and deities in worship or propitiation to them.
7. Organization of the religion at the village levels.
9. Concept of sin as a deviation from social and moral code and customs and retribution by God, society and man for the sin.
10. Belief in the redemption and salvation of soul for the good doers.
11. Traditionally, the tribal religions have no founders; they are historically evolved. They do not usually have any name.

The recent trend in the primordial religion is the establishment of religious organizations which supervise their ancient religion. They have coined name or discovered ancient name for their religion. The village level religion has been upgraded to community level. They have written down the religious teachings and tenets in books in their own dialects. There is a concurrent development of religion and culture.

Religion is seen as an aspect of culture, heritage and social solidarity. Leaders of the religion have developed philosophy and theology in their own way. They gave strong emphasis that primordial religion and culture are inseparable. Culture can be preserved when the religion of the community survives. There is a universal realization of the identity of the indigenous people who are aroused to fight for the preservation of their religion and culture.


Prof Gangmumei Kamei wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on 18th April 2005.


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