The Pulse

How India’s Indigenous Peoples Have Reacted to Formal Religion

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The Pulse

How India’s Indigenous Peoples Have Reacted to Formal Religion

The interaction between formal religion and India’s Adivasi population represents a source of change.

How India’s Indigenous Peoples Have Reacted to Formal Religion
Credit: Ekta Parishad via Wikipedia Commons

Religion is a touchy subject in India. Religious conversions and intrusions even more so. But there are certain hard conversations we need to have – especially when it comes to these intrusions being made among the country’s indigenous people. The effect of structured religion entering their lives has had drastic results. It changes not just their lives; but it has profound implications on their communities, their surroundings, and their ecosystems.

My first introduction to religion entering the lives of Adivasis (as indigenous people are known in India – meaning the original dwellers) was about five or six years ago during a trip to the eastern Indian state of Odisha’s southern belt, which boasts about an 80 percent Adivasi population. An old woman in a village complained that the children who go to government schools are forced to participate in Saraswati (goddess of knowledge) Puja and Ganesh (Elephant god) Puja – both festivals immensely popular among non-tribal Odiya Hindu population. These children like the pomp and show of the festivals, in comparison to the subtle rituals of their community’s festivals. The old woman could feel the young generation getting disconnected from their roots, and a sense of inadequacy and shame seeping in among them.

It was a revealing conversation. The government functionaries in India inadvertently like to assume that the default religion of indigenous people is Hinduism. It is easy to find in old age cards or other identity cards that the religion of an indigenous person has been filled up as Hindu, since there is no other option given, or understood by government functionaries. Adivasis do not belong to any formal religion and worship their land, forest, seeds and nature – all forces that provide for them and nurture life. While most of the people don’t care so much about what has been written on the card, the physical intrusion in their lives is definitely raising concerns.

The other subtle invasion I noticed back then in villages, especially near towns, was the Hindu imagery being introduced in Kondh Adivasi households through architecture. The wooden frames of doors had Hindu gods like Ganesha and Saraswati painted or carved onto them. These homes were built under the Indian government’s Indira Avas Yojna, a scheme for providing cemented homes to everyone in Indian villages, where a common contractor would provide material to all in a particular area. While this wasn’t out of choice, I noticed on my recent trip in January that many Adivasi villages have started putting a Tulsi (Indian basil) in the middle of the village – a ritual popular among Hindus. These are usually villages closer to towns as well and chiefly engaged in commercial agriculture. The disconnect with their earlier way of life was quite evident.

There are also reports of the Ramakrishna Mission working in the northeast as well as in Odisha, trying to convert Adivasis to Hinduism. It is done through the schools they open in Adivasi areas, where the children are persuaded to become Hindus. Hindu fundamentalists like to believe that everyone’s default religion in was Hinduism and people should revert to this, or return to their “home.”

Even more distressing is the effect of all this in forest areas. It was Ganesh Puja festival day in October last year when I had gone to a Dongria Kondh tribe village, who live deep inside forests of Niyamgiri Hills. As we were returning a little late after the noon, there were extremely loud music noises coming from the village on the opposite hill. Some Dalit villagers in that village were apparently celebrating Ganesh Puja with music blaring from loudspeakers and the entire forest reeled under its effect. The timid natured and calm-loving Adivasis were aghast.

In villages where Christianity has arrived, it has divided and shaken the basis of an Adivasi communities. Traditionally, a Kondh tribe village used to function around Kutumbh, a social structure which emphasized the clan identity, organized ritually and politically through many activities. But when there is a division of interest in collective activities, the clan identity becomes vulnerable. In villages where only some families have converted, the new Christians are not interested in worshiping mother Earth and the village deity anymore – and the interest in important festivals related to agriculture is also low. The Adivasi community’s life used to revolve around these events, not just because it integrates them as a community, but it also defines their philosophy of life where the land and forest and nature needed to be worshiped. Traditionally, this has been an important factor in conservation of their lands.

The Chandrapur block of Rayagada district is a very interesting case in point here. With the exception of one village in the block, the rest have converted to Christianity. The entire block is also swamped by BT Cotton cultivation, instead of the cultivation of the traditional food crops of the area. It’s not that people are taught to live a different lifestyle, but it is easy for market forces to persuade an Adivasi who has lost connect with his community’s life philosophy. The forest and land, which were earlier their mothers, have now become another extractive resource. There hasn’t been any study but it is easy to draw conclusions by evidence. The NGOs working locally among Adivasis have been troubled by this trend for sometime now.

While there is tension rising because of changed dynamics in mix villages, the non-converted Adivasis also don’t like to invite converted to traditional festivals where the entire community from various villages would get together. This is extremely bad news in vulnerable areas like south Odisha where tribal unity and mobilization were the last resisting forces against corporates and the government wishing to take over their forests for minerals and mining.

In all the villages I visited that are either close to towns or if they have converted, there is a clear disinterest in the forest, with almost no one going to the forest for foraging food. The relationship with the forest has changed. It is no longer the provider, the caretaker. The food availability and diversity have also been affected drastically in these areas. If we genuinely care for the well being of these vulnerable communities – who are also our last hope to protect remaining forests – we would better leave them alone, now.