Many tribals are not Hindus or Muslims as is the case with most Indians. Many are animists that believe in spirits. Some are Christians. Some tribes believe that having their picture taken will shorten their lives.
Among tribals, the religious concepts, terminologies, and practices are as varied as the hundreds of tribes, but members of these groups have one thing in common: they are under constant pressure from the major organized religions. Some of this pressure is intentional, as outside missionaries work among tribal groups to gain converts. Most of the pressure, however, comes from the process of integration within a national political and economic system that brings tribes into increasing contact with other groups and different, prestigious belief systems. In general, those tribes that remain geographically isolated in desert, hill, and forest regions or on islands are able to retain their traditional cultures and religions longer. Those tribes that make the transition away from hunting and gathering and toward sedentary agriculture, usually as low-status laborers, find their ancient religious forms in decay and their place filled by practices of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, or Buddhism. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]
One of the most studied tribal religions is that of the Santal of Orissa, Bihar, and West Bengal, one of the largest tribes in India, having a population estimated at 4.2 million. According to the 1991 census, however, only 23,645 people listed Santal as their religious belief.According to the Santal religion, the supreme deity, who ultimately controls the entire universe, is Thakurji. The weight of belief, however, falls on a court of spirits (bonga ), who handle different aspects of the world and who must be placated with prayers and offerings in order to ward off evil influences. These spirits operate at the village, household, ancestor, and subclan level, along with evil spirits that cause disease, and can inhabit village boundaries, mountains, water, tigers, and the forest. A characteristic feature of the Santal village is a sacred grove on the edge of the settlement where many spirits live and where a series of annual festivals take place. The most important spirit is Maran Buru (Great Mountain), who is invoked whenever offerings are made and who instructed the first Santals in sex and brewing of rice beer. Maran Buru's consort is the benevolent Jaher Era (Lady of the Grove). *
A yearly round of rituals connected with the agricultural cycle, along with life-cycle rituals for birth, marriage and burial at death, involves petitions to the spirits and offerings that include the sacrifice of animals, usually birds. Religious leaders are male specialists in medical cures who practice divination and witchcraft. Similar beliefs are common among other tribes of northeast and central India such as the Kharia, Munda, and Oraon. *
Smaller and more isolated tribes often demonstrate less articulated classification systems of the spiritual hierarchy, described as animism or a generalized worship of spiritual energies connected with locations, activities, and social groups. Religious concepts are intricately entwined with ideas about nature and interaction with local ecological systems. As in Santal religion, religious specialists are drawn from the village or family and serve a wide range of spiritual functions that focus on placating potentially dangerous spirits and coordinating rituals. *
Unlike the Santal, who have a large population long accustomed to agriculture and a distinguished history of resistance to outsiders, many smaller tribal groups are quite sensitive to ecological degradation caused by modernization, and their unique religious beliefs are under constant threat. Even among the Santal, there are 300,000 Christians who are alienated from traditional festivals, although even among converts the belief in the spirits remains strong. Among the Munda and Oraon in Bihar, about 25 percent of the population are Christians. Among the Kharia of Bihar (population about 130,000), about 60 percent are Christians, but all are heavily influenced by Hindu concepts of major deities and the annual Hindu cycle of festivals. Tribal groups in the Himalayas were similarly affected by both Hinduism and Buddhism in the late twentieth century. Even the small hunting-and-gathering groups in the union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands have been under severe pressure because of immigration to this area and the resulting reduction of their hunting area.
Minority Folk Beliefs in India
The Baiga—a tribe with around 200,000 members that live in central India in what is now Madhya Pradesh state—worship an ever-changing pantheon of deities, which are roughly divided into those that are good and those that are evil and includes some Hindu gods. Their religious practitioners include priests that presides over agricultural and anti-earthquake rituals; medicine men who use magic to cure diseases; and clairvoyants who communicate with spirts through dreams and visions. Disease is believed to be caused by witchcraft and evil spirts. The best cure for sexually-transmitted diseases is believed to be sex with a virgin. The Baiga believe that after death the soul breaks into three spiritual forces: one stay goes to an afterlife, one remains in the family’s home and a third, regarded as evil, ideally stays in the ground where the dead are buried.
The primary religious authority of the Bohra—a Shiite Muslims group that lives in Bombay and the Surat and Bharuck districts of Gujarat State—is the mullah of Surat. His authority is not questioned. Some regard him as divine. Every major Bohra community has its own mullah, who serve as a religious leader and earns his income acting as a schoolmaster. There are different Bohra sects, with slight variations in customs and beliefs. Punishments of most religious matters are in the form of jokes. For some crimes people are flogged. The Bohra are famous for the fish, beef and fowl curies. They cook with ghee and abstain from pork, alcohol and drugs. There are maybe 300,000 of them.
The Chenchu—who mostly live in central India north of the Kistna River on the Amrabad Plateau— believe in anthropomorphic gods and invisible spirits that affect "human spirits as part of the natural order." They do not have a creation theory and their attitude towards their gods is "free of emotional involvement." The Chenchus's concept of afterlife is vague and there is a clear association that good deeds in life are rewarded in the afterlife. Contact with plains people has resulted in the adoption of some Hindu beliefs and incorporating Hindu deities into their pantheon of gods.
The most important Chenchu god is a female deity called Garelaisama. She is associated with edible plants and good luck in hunting as said to have the power to keep drunk people from quarreling. Whenever an animal is caught a piece is cut off and immediately offered to Garelaisama. In the past only male animals were killed so as not to upset the female deity. If one was accidently killed the hunter prayed for forgiveness. Another important deity is the god Bhagavantarau. He is thought to live in the sky and controls thunder and rain. Religious ceremonies consist of offering some millet to a stone altar. ["World Religions" edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]
The Gonds live primarily in eastern Madhya Pradesh. Their gods include clan gods, an earth-mother, village deities, mountain gods, ancestor spirits and spirits associated with every hill, lake, tree, or rock or river. They are not arranged in a hierarchal order. Important deities include the Sivalike Bhagavan and Yama, the god of death. The earth goddess is responsible for bringing fertility and crops and evil gods, it is believed, bring sickness. In the old days their principal deities were cholera and small pox gods.
Ceremonies for gods and spirts are generally brief and infrequent although the gods are often consulted for advice and help with problems. The most important ceremonies are sacrifices of cows, goats and sheep which are held in thatch temples twice a year. Religious objects include iron spear points and yak-tail whisks like those used by Hindus. During festivals, priests dress up in peacock feathers and masks to act out dramas about mythical figures and shamans go into a trances, acting as oracles and mediums, so that the gods can speak directly to the people.
The Gonds believe they are kept alive by a substance called jiv that when removed after death changes the person's personality. The dead live in their own personal sphere with clan deities. There is no connection between the gods and morality nor is the one between good deeds and a positive afterlife. Gonds were buried with toothpicks for use in the after-life. Cases of human sacrifice were reported in the 19th century.
The Bhils—a tribal group found in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra—merge animism and Hinduism and many are Muslims and Christians. Traditionally, they believed in a pantheon of deities that over time absorbed Hindu gods. Important local deities include Wagh deo, the tiger god, and Nandervo, the god of agriculture, and Chagwam, the supreme deity. They also believe in an afterlife where one is reunited with family members, a pantheon of earth spirits that sometimes band together in groups and malicious individuals that cause harm through sorcery and witchcraft. Muslim Bihl were converted during Muslim invasions of India and interaction with Rajputs. Christians have adopted the faith relatively recently due to the efforts of missionaries.
The dead were traditionally buried but Hindu influences has meant that many are cremated and their remains and are buried. People who die unnatural deaths it is believed can become malevolent spirits that can cause great harm and those who die natural deaths become good spirits Twins and babies with unusual deformities are also believed to cause harm and have traditionally been destroyed immediately after birth.
Many tribes have priests that act as mediums, diviners and healers and undergo a long training period. For serious matters witch doctors are called in because they are said to have the power to battle sorcery and witchcraft. Among the important ceremonies are appeasements and exorcisms of ghosts, one of which is the exorcism of the cattle shed.
Abor Folk Religion
The Abor—the general name given to tribal groups that lives in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh— have traditionally been animists who practiced animal sacrifice and believed in a pantheon of benevolent and malevolent spirits. They consider rivers as gods and fear river nippongs (water spirits associated with women who died pregnancy), Epom (offspring of Robo, the father of evil spirits) and souls the deceased people who died unnatural deaths or were not properly buried. Among the most prominent of the benevolent spirits is Benji Bama (controller of human destiny).
There are two main religious practitioner: epak miri (diviners) and nyibo (medicine men). They use incantations and spiritual discernment to determine which spirts might be causing a particular illness or problem. Treatments involve herbal remedies, appeasement of spirits and using signs, dancing and special beads to exorcize the spirits.
Big events are the annual hunt and rice harvests. Most ceremonies are associated with life cycle events such as initiations into the boy’s and girls houses and hunting ceremonies. Song, dance, and telling tribal myths, stories and histories are important fixtures of these events. The Abor have a rich oral literature of legends, folk tales, ballads and political narrations. In the afterlife, they believe, the dead live on in a world that is not much different from the world of the living. At funerals the dead are given possessions, food and drink to take with them to the afterlife.
Toda Religion and Sacred Cow Cult
The Toda have traditionally believed in a world of the dead and the world of the living. In there scheme there is no hell; those who have lived meritorious lives have less trouble reaching the world of the dead. Their pantheon of gods and spirits includes “gods of the mountains” that reside in the Nilgiri Hills. The most important deity is Tokisy, who rules over the world of the living and created the Toda and their buffalo. The land of the dead is watched over by Tokisy’s brother On, and is regarded as similar to the world of the living except harsher and more grueling.
The Toda have developed a cult that revolves around sacred cows and dairies. They believe that God resides within their herds of buffalo which also provide them milk and butter. The so called “sacred cows” (in this case buffalo) have traditionally been more than simply objects of worship. According to Cambridge anthropologist William Rivers, they provided the Toda with a communally owned safety net. The sacred buffalo wandered where they pleased and usually grazed with domestic buffalo during the day.
The Toda divide their herds into secular cattle and sacred cows. For the latter, every task—herding, milking, making clarified butter, mating the buffalo and giving them salt—has religious significance, and there are special rituals attached to each act. The cows are ranked in hierarchies and the priests and other people that take care of them are also ranked.
The dairies where the sacred cows are milked also serve as temples. The entrance to the Toda dairy-temple has traditionally been only one-meter high. When worshipers prayed at the temple they inserted only their head and shoulders into the temple for a few minutes and made an offering to the gods of buffalo milk. Inside the temple were relief images of snakes, celestial bodies and buffalo heads and the temple itself was shaped like a hogshead. A great deal of effort was put in to making sure the dairies stayed pure. They were looked over by “gods of sacred places.”
Santal Religion and Witchcraft
The Santals—who live mostly in Bihar, West Bengal and Orissa— have animist beliefs which involve idols and evil spirits. The Santal believe in a pantheon of spirits known as bongas, many of which are linked to certain clans. Disease and ill fortune are often blamed on sorcery. Accusations of witchcraft are fairly common. In the old days people accused of witchcraft were often killed. These days they are often forced into a settlement decided by a village council. Healers often use their own blood in healing ceremonies. Cases of human sacrifice were reported in the 19th century. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
Santal religion is one of the most studied tribal religions. According to the 1991 census, however, only 23,645 people listed Santal as their religious belief out of a population estimated at 4.2 million..According to the Santal religion, the supreme deity, who ultimately controls the entire universe, is Thakurji. The weight of belief, however, falls on a court of spirits (bonga ), who handle different aspects of the world and who must be placated with prayers and offerings in order to ward off evil influences. These spirits operate at the village, household, ancestor, and subclan level, along with evil spirits that cause disease, and can inhabit village boundaries, mountains, water, tigers, and the forest. A characteristic feature of the Santal village is a sacred grove on the edge of the settlement where many spirits live and where a series of annual festivals take place. [Source: Library of Congress]
The most important spirit is Maran Buru (Great Mountain), who is invoked whenever offerings are made and who instructed the first Santals in sex and brewing of rice beer. Maran Buru's consort is the benevolent Jaher Era (Lady of the Grove). A yearly round of rituals connected with the agricultural cycle, along with life-cycle rituals for birth, marriage and burial at death, involves petitions to the spirits and offerings that include the sacrifice of animals, usually birds. Religious leaders are male specialists in medical cures who practice divination and witchcraft. Similar beliefs are common among other tribes of northeast and central India such as the Kharia, Munda, and Oraon.
The deceased are cremated. Some of the bones are collected a and kept for a while under the rafters of the house. The bones are washed and regularly ritually fed milk, rice beer and sacred water and given flowers. A year after death the bones are immersed in water and a goat is sacrificed. All this is done to ensure the spirit proceeds through three generations after death and becomes a benevolent bonga.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015