Religious evolution among Meiteis with secular humanism

Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh *

 Lai Lamthokpa of Ema Khunthok Hanbi, Thangmeiband Lai Haraoba :: 15th May 2016
Lai Lamthokpa of Ema Khunthok Hanbi, Thangmeiband Lai Haraoba in May 2016 :: Pix - Armando Bond

This write-up is a random observation of current events in religious thinking among the young generations of Meiteis. It may sound to contend to the putative explanations of God's existence as a spiritual being. The fact that this doctor-scribe was brought-up in an orthodox Hindu family, and is now without religion, is hardly sensational, but may make the whole thing woolly.

Anthropology of religion is basically a study of religious life by examining everyday religious practices, rather than understanding religions as a set of belief systems. In the study of indigenous Meitei Sanamahism - a shamanistic cult with shallow theological underpinnings (followed by 8% of Meiteis, in the 2011 census), I find its social practices are hardly any different from Meitei Hinduism.

That is why Hinduism in Manipur, brought by Shantidas Gosai in 1709, and Sanamahism since antiquity, had been coexisting since 1717 CE, like two peas in a pod. It is like the dual religions of Buddhism and Shinto, practised by the Japanese.

Religiosity among Meitei Hindus after "Japan Laan" (WWII), has been light hearted. They have just been going through the motions with adorable rituals, such as Kang chingba and Yaoshang meithaba, as their worldview has been expanded by the impact of meeting so many people of the world during the war, who brought their cultural diversity to Manipur. As a post-war boy, they broadened my horizon as well. Some of my best friends were Tangkhuls, Kukis and Maos.

Out of these shifting scenes a picture emerges. Younger generations of Meitei youth have become much less involved in organised religions, as they have been reared in religious liberalism and tolerance.

Besides, after the year of 1949, Meiteis have been living in the description of a place - Manipur - not the place itself - where the religious and spiritual climate has been in a flux between the old and new, and between the pious and irreverent. Most young people have become secular and Hindu religion has simply become the culture they have grown up with. And, like the Japanese they have begun to think that faith is the least important.

 Kang chingba | Yaoshang Meithaba
Kang chingba | Yaoshang Meithaba

But it has its downside. In this jostle of intersecting ideas of haves and have-nots, many Meiteis, who are usually not in the habit of reading books and thinking deeply, have jumped on the passing gravy train of other religions. More recently, there has been an awakening for some, in a new irreligion of Humanism. This is what I am going to talk about.

The first cause of religious mayhem among modern thinkers in the world, is not knowing what God is and which religion has the right one. By the word modern, I am referring to the 19th century changing cultural norms, attitudes and practices. This is when the common sense irreligion - Humanism was conceived and born. Meiteis with their laisseze faire attitude in this 21st century, have been caught somewhat flat-footed by the trajectory of burgeoning religious evolutions.

The concept of God, who nobody had ever seen, and with all the virtuous epithets a believer can shower on him, lacks an intrinsic maximum and thus illogical. By this, I am referring to this greatest conceivable being (God), though exists in mind, is not proven to exist in reality. The theory of God's existence is not verifiable, and also not falsifiable. It is therefore construed as non-scientific.

Some Christian scholars have become to suspect whether Jesus himself began to doubt in the existence of God. Jesus on the cross at Calvary, expressed his insightful disappointment. He cried aloud: "Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani" in Aramaic – the language of Judea at that time. Which means, "My God, my God, for what hast thou forsaken me? (Psalm 22.2) and (Mathew 27:46). Calvary (skull-shaped) hill was probably outside the walls of Jerusalem, though it is still debatable.

 Jesus on the Cross at Calvary
Jesus on the Cross at Calvary

Nearer to home in Manipur, there is a book, 'Indian Women Through Ages', compiled by Prof Priyadarshani M Gangte – the second most illustrious Manipuri woman writer after Soroj Nalini Arambam Parratt (deceased). On page 24, the author Hawiphal Thangzom, writes: "The God of the Bible, the Creator God loves all people, throughout all ages, and his supreme love is explicitly shown on the Cross of Calvary". While I do appreciate her sincere belief in God's love, I have my own reservations.

This inventive thinking of 'God's love' for humanity leaped out of the pages of the New Testament of the Bible, in which the gospel writer John said: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).

I am not antichrist, but I am antigod. It is just that my hectic mind is skimming across a number of rational explanations as to how John, 2,000 years ago, and for that matter, Hawiphal Thangzom in 2015 CE, would have known about God's love for humanity?

Another deliciously intelligent entertainment, crouched in a prose that confronts Islam's total historicity, was its interpretation by Zakir Naik, an Indian doctor-turned-preacher (now living in Malaysia in self-exile).

He says: "Islam, [the youngest religion, which was founded in the 7th century, and about 600 years after the founding of Christianity], has been there from time immemorial, and Muhammad is the last prophet." Zakir is scholarly unique in that he can quote numbers of verse after verse from the Quran, Bible and Gita. As a devout Muslim, he believes the pious Muslims go to Heaven – Islamic Paradise – Jannah in Arabic and Jannat in Urdu.

I do have some misgiving at the authenticity of Naik's statement about the age of Islam. Judaism – the foundation of monotheistic Christianity and Islam, is believed to be only 3,500 years old, whilst Hinduism, the oldest religion, is 4,000 years old.

Perhaps countering Zakir Naik's views on Paradise, another Indian, known as Sadhguru, regarded to be one of the 50 most important people in India, says, there is nothing like Heaven. If there is one, we should be going there now. If the soul, without the body after death, is going to Paradise, what use is all the sumptuous food, delectable drink, and sensuous virgins in the Paradise?

Osho alias Rajneesh (deceased), another Indian thinker, told the story when asked about Jesus' resurrection: '… there was a stratagem about Jesus's crucifixion, hatched between the Jews and Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor. Jesus was to be the last person to be crucified late on Friday. And, as Saturday was Jewish Sabbath when Jews do nothing, Jesus was taken off the cross after 4-5 hours in the evening'. [Death from crucifixion takes about 24 hours, death being caused by asphyxia when the lungs can no more operate against gravity]. He continued: 'Jesus only fainted, and when revived in the cave, he came out of it on Sunday and went all the way to Kashmir, where he died'. Accounts of Jesus do vary according to who was telling the story.

David Hume, a Scot, one of my favourite philosophers (18th century), famous worldwide for his philosophical scepticism and naturalism, noted in his "Argument from ethical confusion" that, contrary claims of competing religions are mutually exclusive and thus cannot all be true. Agreeing with him, I believe the paradigm shift of Meiteis from religious consciousness that is neither thinking nor acting (intuition) to identifiable form of consciousness (intentional), which is irreligion or Humanism, is a force of religious evolution.

While scientific ideas could not totally replace major religions, Humanism was born after the French Revolution, when some people, such as Renι Descartes began to realise that human virtue could be created by human reason alone, independently from traditional religious institutions.

Modern religions with distinctive Gods and rituals that accumulated in their geographical birthplaces, continue to survive worldwide today. The Godless religion of Humanism that began in pro-Christian America, has now not incredulously, reached Meiteis of Manipur.

I have studied Meitei history, not to learn what went wrong, but to know that our present existence likewise, is not flawless, and that the future is rather unpredictable. Meiteis are very adaptable and can emulate and reproduce things easily. Following Independence in 1947, a series of social and cultural shifts have altered the place of religion in the lives of Meiteis.

Meiteis unknowingly, have become more humanist in outlook. Meitei Hindu youth that encountered the evangelical revival of indigenous Sanamahism and the impact of Christian missionary activity in late 1950s, were faced with different core values (fundamental belief) in religion. Many became unaffiliated to Hinduism.

Dalit Hindu Meiteis and Tribals in Manipur, were converted to Christianity at the expense of their old cultures and traditions, for convenience. There are about 2,000 Meitei Christian converts in Manipur (1527 by 2011 census), which initiated in Kakching. Almost all tribal peole are now Christians. It is good that, Indian constitution grants religious freedom, which in turn, preserves its diversity. For the the Meitei youth, like the rolling current of a river, the prevailing secular social attitude, the result of upbringing, polishes the stones on their ethical bed.

Humanism is based on ethical values ie the aim of determining what action of life is best to do or live. The rationale of Humanism is a functional one, which adequately serves the personal and social needs of Homo sapiens without the help of a Supreme god.

While in England, 62 years ago, Francis Crick, the Cambridge scientist, who deciphered the genetic code for encoding information, was then so confident that science would triumph and religion would fade, that he offered a prize for the best use for Cambridge college chapels that would become defunct eventually. "Swimming pools - said the winning entry". He was not too far wrong. With the closure of almost all churches in Britain, a conscious religion - Humanism - has been on the prowl.

People normally associate religion with a God, which is essential to instil a paralysing fear of death. But strictly speaking, religion is simply human laws and behaviours. Modern religions are of two kinds: (1) Theist religions, and (2) Atheist religions. While theist religions worship an unknown superhuman deity, atheist religions worship humanity. In essence, the purpose of these religions is the same. That is, to make choices of what one is prepared to do and what one will not due (morality), and if there is a God, to offer due worship and obedience to Him/Her/It.

The best argument in favour of criticism is criticism itself. It came naturally to freethinkers after the Industrial Revolution in the West in the 18th century. This was called the 'Enlightenment era' and the 'Age of Reason'. Many thinkers with background in the sciences emerged. And the philosophical trends at that time stressed the superiority of reason. Their attitude to religion was an opposition to bigotry. Their ideas were essentially secular, pluralistic and liberal.

In the past two hundred years, many lay people, especially in America that is full of believers, began to censure the nature of 'religions with gods' with the notion that it is humans not gods, who are providing sustenance for Homo sapiens and therefore, it's only appropriate to have a rational outlook that gives prime importance to humans rather than divine matters. Humanist religion was born.

Though the US remains home to more Christians than any other country, the Christian population is falling sharply from 78.4% to 70.6% between 2007 and 2014. Over the same period, those describing as having no particular religion jumped from 16.1% to 22.8%.

Humanism is a philosophical pragmatism (common sense) unlike metaphysical (speculative) religion. Humanism was born at the University of Chicago in 1920s and gingerly made public in 1933. The American Humanist Association was formed in Illinois in 1943, the British Humanist Association in 1967 and the Indian Humanist Association (1960). I ran into Manipur Humanist Association through my friend, the late Waikhom Damodar.

Humanism recognises that moral values are founded in human nature, and rejects supernaturalism. It emphasises individual freedom ie rejects authoritarian beliefs (eg religious doctrines of God or Gods breathing down your neck). It takes responsibility of looking after our lives, communities and the world we live in.

Humanistic religion has two main sub-divisions: (1) Secular Humanism and (2) Religious Humanism. 'Secular Humanists' see themselves as Homo sapiens who arose through evolution, possessing unique attributes to form their own ethics, and the moral worth of the individual. "No God will save us,"- declared Humanist Manifesto II (1973). 'Religious Humanists' despite its name, are not influenced by religion. They stand on the side of reason rather than on blind faith. They believe in religious rituals that centre on human needs and interests.

Though it's impossible to predict the future of religion among Meiteis, it's possible that with higher education, economic and existential stability, Meitei religious evolution will in the near future, marginalise Hinduism, Sanamahism or any other religion, though Hindu and indigenous rituals, such as Thabal chongba and Lai harouba will stay as a cohesive social force. It is because the symbols and religious rituals were never purely invented, but evolved through the imaginary history of a particular God with his hiddenness.

This is cat's pyjamas in inter-ethnic relationship.

* 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 November 11, 2019. .

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