Indian religion

Clinging to ancient faith, Indian tribes demand religion status


November 23, 2022 GMT

GUDUTA, India (AP) — The ritual began with the thunderous rumble of leather drums, its clamor echoing throughout the village. Women dressed in colorful saris burst into an Aboriginal folk dance, tapping and moving their feet to its galloping rhythm.

At the climax, 12 devotees – proudly practicing a faith not officially recognized by the government – ​​emerged from a mud house and marched to a sacred grove believed to be the home of the village goddess. Led by the village chief Gasia Maranda, they carried religious totems – among them an earthen pitcher, a bow and arrow, a winnowing fan and a sacrificial axe.

Maranda and others in Guduta, a remote tribal village in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, which rests in a seemingly endless forest landscape, are ‘Adivasis’, or tribesmen indigenous people who adhere to the Sarna Dharma. It is a belief system that shares commonalities with the world’s many ancient nature-venerating religions.

Inside the grove that day, worshipers showed respect for the natural world, circling around a Sal plant and three sacred stones, one for each of the malevolent spirits they believe must satisfy. . They knelt while Maranda smeared the stones with vermilion paste, bowed before the sacred plant and laid down fresh leaves covered with a paste of cow dung.

“Our Gods are everywhere. We see more of them in the wild than others,” Maranda said, as he drove the men home.

But the government does not legally recognize their faith – a fact that is increasingly becoming a rallying point for change for some of the country’s estimated 5 million indigenous tribesmen who follow the Sarna Dharma. They say formal recognition would help preserve their culture and history following the slow erosion of the rights of indigenous tribes in India.

Citizens are only allowed to align themselves with one of the six officially recognized religions in India – Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Jainism and Sikhism. Although they can select the “Other” category, many nature worshipers have felt compelled by the country’s religious affiliation system to associate with one of the six named denominations.

Tribal groups have staged protests in support of granting official religious status to Sarna Dharma ahead of the upcoming national census, which requires citizens to declare their religious affiliation.

Protests escalated after Draupadi Murmu’s recent election, the first tribal woman to serve as India’s president, raising hopes that her historic victory will draw attention to the needs of the country’s indigenous population, which numbers around 110 million people according to the national census. They are scattered in various states and fragmented into hundreds of clans, with different legends, languages ​​and words for their gods – many, but not all, follow Sarna Dharma.

Salkhan Murmu, a former lawmaker and community activist who also adheres to Sarna Dharma, is at the center of protests demanding government recognition of his religion. His sit-in protests in several Indian states have drawn thousands of people.

At a recent protest in Ranchi, the capital of eastern Jharkhand state, men and women sat cross-legged on a highway blocking traffic as Murmu spoke from a nearby stage. Dressed in a traditional cotton tunic and trousers, Murmu explained how anxieties of losing their religious identity and culture drive the demand for formal recognition.

“This is a fight for our identity,” Murmu told the crowd, who raised their fists and shouted, “Victory to Sarna Dharma.” A thunderous applause swept through the room.

Murmu is also taking its religious recognition campaign beyond city centers and into remote tribal villages. His/Her message: If Sarna Dharma disappears, one of the country’s last links with its first inhabitants goes with it. It’s a compelling argument made evident by the growing number of tribal members rallying behind Murmu, helping to fuel the campaign’s slow transformation into a social movement.

“If our religion is not recognized by the government, I think we will wither away,” Murmu said, as a group of villagers huddled around him in Odisha’s Angarpada village. “The moment we enter another religion by force, by pressure or by gratification, we will lose our whole history, our way of life.”

Murmu’s efforts are just the latest push for official recognition.

In 2011, a government agency for indigenous tribes petitioned the federal government to include Sarna Dharma as a separate religion code in that year’s census. In 2020, the state of Jharkhand, where tribes make up nearly 27% of the population, passed a resolution with a similar goal.

The federal government has not responded to any of these requests.

One of the arguments in favor of official recognition of Sarna Dharma is the large number of nature worshipers in India, said Karma Oraon, an anthropologist who taught at Ranchi University and studied tribal life. natives for decades.

The 2011 national census shows that Sarna Dharma adherents in India outnumber Jains, who are officially the country’s sixth largest religious group. Hindus are No. 1, making up almost 80% of India’s 1.4 billion people.

More than half – a number close to 4.9 million – of those who chose the “Other” religion option in the 2011 national census additionally identified themselves as adherents of Sarna Dharma. By comparison, India’s Jain population is just over 4.5 million.

“Our population is more than registered believers who follow Jainism. Why then can’t our faith be recognized as a separate religion? said Oron.

Decades ago, there were more options for native tribesmen.

The census, started in 1871 under British rule, used to select “animists”, “aborigines” and “tribes”. The categories were abolished in 1951 during the first census in independent India.

Some hope of giving official status to Sarna Dharma could stem the various existential threats to the faith.

The natural environment is integrally linked to the identity of devotees, but the rapid disappearance of ancient forests and the encroachment of mining companies have led many people to leave tribal villages, creating a generational disconnect among devotees, Oraon said. . Additionally, many younger generations are abandoning their age-old religious customs for city life.

“We are going through an identity crisis,” Oraon said.

His concerns intensified after Hindu nationalist groups, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party, sought to bring nature worshipers into the Hindu fold. They are motivated by potential electoral gains, but also want to bolster their agenda of transforming a secular India into a distinctly Hindu state..

These efforts stem from a long-held belief that India’s native tribesmen are originally Hindus, but followers of Sarna Dharma claim that their faith is different from monotheistic and polytheistic religions.

Sarna Dharma has no temples or scriptures. Its adherents do not believe in heaven or hell and have no images of gods and goddesses. Unlike Hinduism, there is no caste system or belief in rebirth.

“Tribal people may share some cultural ties with Hindus, but we haven’t assimilated into their religion,” Oraon said.

The gradual adoption of Hindu and Christian values ​​by some indigenous tribal groups has exacerbated his concerns.

By the end of the 19th century, many tribal people in Jharkhand, Odisha and other states renounced nature worship – some voluntarily and others coaxed into money, food and education. free – and converted to Christianity. Hindu and Muslim groups also encouraged conversion, further reducing the number of nature worshippers.

In some cases, the conversions were resisted, said Bandhan Tigga, a Sarna Dharma religious leader. When Hindu groups showed up, some of the tribesmen sacrificed cows, a sacred animal for Hindus. They also slaughtered pigs, considered unclean in Islam, when Muslim missionaries arrived.

“In each case, the women smeared pig or cow grease on their foreheads so that no Hindu or Muslim man could marry them,” Tigga said, wearing a white-and-red-striped cotton towel around the neck, a pattern that also offsets the Sarna Dharma flag flying atop his home in Murma, a village in Jharkhand.

Most Christian missionaries meet resistance these days, but conversions can still happen, said Tigga, who travels to remote parts of eastern India to persuade converts to return to their old faith.

For Sukhram Munda, a man in his late 80s, a lot has already disappeared.

He is the great-grandson of Birsa Munda, a charismatic 19th century indigenous leader who led his forest-bound community in revolt against British colonialists. The legend of Munda grew after his death and bronze statues of him appeared in almost every tribal village in the state. Soon a man who worshiped nature was worshiped by his own people.

But Munda’s religion has barely survived the onslaught of conversions in his ancestral village of Ulihatu in Jharkhand. Half of his descendants converted to Christianity, Sukhram said. Now the first thing visitors to Ulihatu see is a church, a tall white building that stands out against the green of the surrounding forests.

“It used to be the village where we worshiped nature,” Sukhram said. “Now half the people don’t even remember what religion their ancestors followed.”


Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.