The Unity Of Indic Religions (IV) – Tribal Traditions: Nailing A Lie That Has Survived Colonial Rule

The Unity Of Indic Religions (IV) – Tribal Traditions: Nailing A Lie That Has Survived Colonial Rule

[Parts I, II and III of this series of articles can be found here (I), here (II) and here (III).]

Colonial rulers had a bottomless toolbox of divisive ploys and tactics. They exploited Hindu-Muslim discord to the hilt, leading to the creation of Pakistan. They deployed the Aryan Invasion Theory to divide the north and the south. They invented the bogus concept of martial and non-martial races, subtly equating caste with race. They sought to cut Dalits off from the rest of Hindu society by offering them separate electorates.

It is only natural that tribal communities living in forests and mountains received special attention of their dirty tricks department comprising administrators, missionaries, and scholars. These communities occupied large areas, some of them rich with natural resources, and often rebelled against intrusions of alien rulers. Moreover, their relative isolation and poverty made them a fertile ground for proselytization.

Moving in concert with highly motivated missionaries, the formally religiously “neutral” officials of the East India Company adroitly played the game of delinking whole sections like Dalits and tribals from Hindu society. Members of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) doubling as anthropologists arbitrarily labeled large numbers of groups as tribes. This was an entirely new social category, although the word tribe had no equivalent in several native Indian languages.1

As tribals, now called aborigines, were delinked from Hindu society, devout Christians working for the Raj saw an opportunity. Sir Richard Temple, who rose to the position of the Chief Commissioner of Central Provinces, candidly told the Baptist Missionary Society in London in 1883 that it was a fortunate fact that almost one-eighth of all British subjects in India were untouchables and tribes who “are beyond the pale of the principal Oriental religions, and their minds present a tabula rasa (a clean slate) on which Christianity may work.”2

The “scholar/administrators” in charge of census operations, in league with missionaries, floated a convenient lie which has survived colonial rule: “Tribals are not Hindus. Making them Christians is not conversion but giving religion to a heathen people who had none before”. So, we are told, Hindus need not get exercised about proselytizing activities of missionaries among tribals.

Like so many other false notions floated by colonial rulers to undermine Hinduism and to consolidate British rule, this one too is lapped up by the English-educated elite. However, like many other such notions, it does not bear close scrutiny.

The cultural cleavage between forest society and urban Hindu culture disappears on closer analysis. Belgian scholar Armand Neven set out to study the mutual influencing of tribal and Hindu cultures but gave up the project altogether when he found that no fundamental distinction could be made between the two, that they were essentially the same.

More recently, in a monumental study of tribal-Hindu continuum, Sandhya Jain has amply demonstrated that there is a strong affinity between the tribal concept of divinity and Hindu Dharma, as evidenced in practice, mythology and recorded history.

Jain’s highly scholarly work “Adi Deo Arya Devta: A Panoramic View of Tribal-Hindu Cultural Interface” (Rupa & Co, Delhi, 2004) draws on published works of professional anthropologists, ethnographers, sociologists, and historians to show that India’s native culture and civilization has grown upon a common substratum which does not easily yield to artificial divisions.

Tribal elements can be traced to the very core of Hindu dharma. Shiva and Vishnu, two of the greatest gods of the Hindu pantheon exhibit strong traces of a tribal origin. The tribal belt to this day is dotted with temples dedicated to Shiva and Shakti, both closely linked with Tantra and magic which are widely practiced in tribal communities. Lord Ganesha undoubtedly bears a tribal imprint. As Dr. S Radhakrishnan points out in The Hindu View of Life, many tribes and races in ancient India worshipped mystic animals which were later made vehicles and companions of gods. One of them is mounted on the peacock, another on the swan, the third is carried by the bull, and the fourth by the goat.

A number of Vishnu incarnations like Matsya (fish) Koorma (tortoise), Varāha (boar) and Nrisimha (Man-lion) bear strong impress of the forest and reinforce tribal inputs into classical dharma. Tribals in Dangs worship the tiger, cobras, and mountains. The tiger is revered by all Hindus as the mount of Durgā, and worship of snakes (naga, nag devta) permeates equally the forest community, village, and regional and classical practices and beliefs. Mountains like the Himālayas and the Shetrunjaya are held in high esteem as abodes of gods.

Jain points out that with great agility, tribal gods overcame their forest or mountain environment and acquired all-India eminence, symbolizing an eternal verity of Hindu spiritual tradition. The mother goddess is variously worshipped as Prithvimata, Dharatimata, Kali, Parvati, Durga, etc. But, as K. S. Singh points out, the nature of the sacrifices offered to her (goat, fowl, buffalo) is consistent with the ancient tribal practice and betrays her tribal origins.

For millennia, tribals and “caste” Hindus have worshipped the powers of the universe in the form of Sun, fire, forest (Vanadevi, elephant, lion, eagle), plants (tulsi), sacred trees, river waters, and natural springs. From Vedic times homage has been paid to the tree in its natural form as well as a locus of supernatural beings such as gods, gandharvas, apsaras, yakshas, and pretas or ghosts. The tenth chapter of the Gita lists nearly thirty important primitive gods who were incorporated in the Hindu pantheon as partial incarnations of Lord Krishna.

The Buddhist and Jain traditions also have tribal linkages. Naga (cobra) is the guardian deity of Buddha and the Tirthankaras. The twenty-thirdirthankara Parshwanath was found to have a blue complexion and snakelike forms all over his body. He is also called Phanibhushan (cobra-ornate), which is an epithet of Shiva.

According to Robert Redfield, a renowned anthropologist, “the most important conclusion of anthropological studies of Hinduism is that the unity of Hinduism does not reside exclusively in an exemplary set of norms and scriptures… or an alternative lower-level popular Hinduism of the uncultivated masses. The unity is to be found rather in the continuities that can be traced in the concrete media of songs, dance, play, sculpture, painting, religious stories and rites that connect the rituals and beliefs of the villager with those of the townsmen and urbanites, one region with the other and the educated with the uneducated”. 3

The colonial state insisted that Brahmins, peasants, untouchables and tribals were separate groups with distinct customs and beliefs and that Brahmins sought to subjugate all others to establish their hegemony. Census classifications were sought to be used to delink tribals from the main body of Hindu society through the imposition of arbitrary social categories.

At the grassroots level, however, census enumerators in the British period found it impossible to differentiate between Hindus and tribal animists. Arun Shourie, in his book “Missionaries in India: Continuities, Changes, Dilemmas” (1994) has documented extensively and meticulously the problems they faced. One census report after another noted that the task was proving extremely difficult. For one thing, tribals did not know the name of their own religion. Worse, the dividing line between Hinduism and animism was uncertain.

The 1901 Census noted, “Hinduism does not, (un)like Christianity and Islam, demand of its votaries the rejection of all other religious beliefs and… among many lower castes the real working religion derives its inspiration, not from the Vedas, but from non-Aryan beliefs of the aborigines”.

The 1911 Census noted the same difficulty and admitted that enumeration depended on the idiosyncrasies of enumerators and vagaries of respondents, both of which varied and changed over time and place. These led to wide fluctuations and differences in the case of same people and places, rendering the data unreliable.

In the 1921 Census report, Colonel Luard said that the classification “animist” had never been satisfactory and had better been dropped because “it is never possible to know where the animist begins, and the Hindu ends and there are ample instances of animistic survivals even in Christian creeds and practices”.

The 1931 Census report for Central Provinces and Berar quoted from the Central Provinces Gazetteer, “The Hinduism of the Central Provinces is largely tinctured by nature and animal worship and by the veneration of deified human beings. Even in the more advanced districts there are usually a number of village gods, for the worship of whom a special priest belonging to the primitive tribes called Bhumka or Baiga is supported by contributors from the villagers.”

The same census report for Bihar and Orissa says, “The process of dividing up the population of the province into so many watertight compartments is attended with numerous difficulties… the conception of a religion in contradistinction to another religion, where each has its own quite definite creed and peculiar observances is something foreign to the minds of vast bulk of India’s population”.

And yet the distinction was retained because it served a very useful purpose both for the British Government and the missionaries. It kept out of the Hindu society the tribals whom the 1931 Census Report had described as the “most fruitful field for Christian missionaries”. No wonder the church clings to it so tenaciously.

For long, Hinduism has been defined for Hindus by its inveterate enemies. The leading ideas of Hinduism, we are told, are idolatry, polytheism, Brahmanism, and other “superstitions”. The fact that these are all Abrahamic thought categories and that they have never been used by Hindus in discussing their fundamental ideas is willfully glossed over. Instead, this self-serving definition is used to claim that those who do not share all or most of these “defining characteristics” of Hinduism are not Hindus.

In their manifesto, “Truth Shall Prevail: Reply to the Niyogi Committee,” missionaries argue that tribals are not Hindus because they believe in the Creator, eat beef, do not worship the phallus (lingam), practice ancestor worship, and believe in an eternal soul but not in reincarnation.

On these criteria, even Vedic Aryans were not Hindus, as Koenraad Elst points out in his “Indigenous Aryans: Agastya to Ambedkar” (1993). The Rig Veda has several references to Prajapati, the Creator. Whether the Vedic Aryans were beef eaters is hotly debated. Dr. P V Kane, a great scholar on Dharmashāstras wrote: “It was not that the cow was not sacred in Vedic times, it was because of the sacredness that it is ordained in Vājasaneyi Samhitā that beef should be eaten.”4 Later, however, beef eating fell into disrepute and in the Vedic age itself the cow became Aghnyā (not to be killed). That teaching seeped deep down the Hindu consciousness through the ages. In the 1931 Census, some members of the Panda tribe in Central Provinces, a typical people of the forest living principally by hunting claimed to be Hindus because they did not eat beef.5

There is no anomaly or contradiction here. As Dr. Radhakrishnan says in Hindu View of Life (1962), Hinduism is a movement, not a position; a process, not a result; a growing tradition, not a fixed revelation. Such a dynamic concept of Dharma is alien to the cut-and-dried closed creeds.

So, it should not surprise us that Aryans also did not worship the lingam as the disapproving term Shishnadevāh suggests; but later Hindus started worshipping Shiva in the form of this tribal symbol. Vedic ancestor worship survives to this day in the form of Shrāddha. In many Indian villages, the dead are revered in the form of a stone picked from the village stream and carried to the clan ossuary – thus formally anointed as Pitru or ancestor. Vedic Aryans had no notion of reincarnation and believed that after death the soul goes to heaven. So, by standards of missionary scholarship, Vedic Aryans were not Hindus. Nor were Harappans whose civilization the Aryan “invaders” destroyed. And now we are told that tribals are not Hindus. In short, Hinduism does not exist. How nice!

The missionaries’ attempt to distinguish tribal “religion” from Hindu “religion” should not make us forget that “both” the “religions” are pagan, evil, and doomed in the Christian view! Under a Christian theocracy, the tribal practice of propitiating ghosts and spirits would have cost them death at the stake for practicing witchcraft.

On the other hand, their so-called animism shares an important common element with Hinduism. Even the most primitive animism is characterized by non-exclusiveness, non-dependence on a specific revelation, potential universality, and its rootedness in the common experience of reality. This is what Hinduism affirms and this is what closed creeds like Christianity and Islam reject decisively.

Time was when missionaries openly ran down all other religions as the handiwork of the Devil and frightened their followers with eternal hell fire. As the Belgian Indologist Koenraad Elst points out, the current strategy is a variation of “divide and rule”. The prospective convert is told that not his religion, but that of his neighbors is utterly objectionable and so he should break with them completely to lead a life of purity.

The target group is isolated from its cultural surrounding by inventing a deep difference between the two, then pulled closer to Christianity, and finally absorbed. The means have changed, but the goal is the same: harvesting souls for “the only true faith”. Christian insistence on a Hindu-tribal opposition is born from this soul greed rather than an observation of reality.

The other point that Hindus need not get exercised over conversion of tribals to Christianity can be dismissed in passing. One has only to look at Northeast India to realize what unabated conversions could lead to. What the missions spread among tribals is not just another name of God and another form of worship, but altogether different ideas about themselves and their relationship with fellow countrymen. Having seen the long-term consequences of their “selfless service,” Hindus have reason to be apprehensive when missionaries focus on a particular area.

Sister Carmen Borges, the Principal of Deep Darshan High School at Ahwa in the the Dangs told me in 1998 she would applaud Hindu organizations if they offered tribals genuine social service.

All Hindus would have been applauding missionaries if they had confined themselves only to genuine social service.



1. Tribal society in India: An Anthropo-historical Perspective, K S Singh, Manohar Publishers, Delhi, 1985, pp. 6-7.
2. Missionaries in India: Continuities, Changes, Dilemmas, Arun Shourie, ASA Publications, Delhi, 1994, p.107
3. Quoted by Sandhya Jain in “Adi Deo Arya Devta: A Panoramic View of Tribal-Hindu Cultural Interface,” Rupa & Co, Delhi, 2004, p. 4
4. P. V. Kane, Dharma Shastra Vichar, p.180., quoted by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar in The Untouchables, in Writings and Speeches, p. 324.
5. W. H. Shoobert, Census of India 1931, Vol. VII, Central Provinces and Berar Part I, p. 324., quoted by Arun Shourie in Missionaries in India, p.190.

Virendra Parekh

Virendra Parekh is a senior journalist of 45 years’ standing. He writes in English and Gujarati on economics and politics as also on issues related to Indian civilization, history and cultural nationalism. Currently, he is Executive Editor of Vyapar, a 72-year-old Mumbai-based Gujarati bi-weekly economy, business and investment.