Are Indian Tribals Hindus – Part 6

What is Hinduism?

In India, as in the rest of the world, religion was originally a tribal affair. Tribes in every corner of India, as of the inhabited world of the time, were followers of different tribal religions. As in other parts of the world, the rise of civilization in one particular part of India led to the development of one particular kind of religion among the different tribes and people spread out over a certain area. This area was the north and northwest, covering particularly northern Pakistan, Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh and the western half of U.P., and extending to some neighbouring areas. The area still covered many different tribes, notably the conglomerates of tribes known to traditional Indian history as the Druhyu, Anu and Puru. In present-day linguistic terms, this could be described as the Proto-Indo-European area.

The religion which developed in this area concentrated on worship of the elements (the sun, moon, clouds, rain, sky, earth, rivers, etc.) and worshipped the Gods perceived in these elements through sacrifices offered through the medium of fire, and through the medium of sounds couched in the form of hymns. This religion is found in the Rigveda (the religious book of the Puru tribes), the Zend Avesta (the religious book of the main groups among the Anu tribes who migrated westwards into Afghanistan), and in the religious practices of the ancient European priests, mainly the Celtic Druids (emigrants to Europe from among the Druhyu tribes). Other versions of these elements with more developed mythologies are found in the other European religions (Greek, Teutonic, Lithuanian, etc.).

In India, after the emigration of the Anu and Druhyu tribes, the religion of the Purus, with its highly developed priesthood and rituals, spread over the rest of the country along with Vedic culture. As the religions of the different tribes all over the country converged into the increasingly diluted Puru religion, the original Puru (Vedic) rituals and myths increasingly came to occupy the position of a nominal upper layer in a new multi-layered and multi-facetted religion which was rapidly becoming the common Pan-Indian religion of the sub-continent. When this pan-Indian religion came to be known as Hinduism is a matter of irrelevant dispute. That it is known as Hinduism is an indisputable fact.

AyyappaBut there was a big difference in the spread of Hinduism all over India and the spread of Christianity all over the world. Unlike Christianity, which demonised the Gods, beliefs and rituals of the religions which it sought to uproot, destroy and supplant, Hinduism accepted and internalised the Gods, beliefs and rituals of the tribal religions which converged into it. The result is that today the most popular Hindu deities in every single part of India are originally tribal Gods: whether Ayyappa of Kerala, Murugan of Tamilnadu, Balaji of Andhra, Vitthala (originally) of Karnataka (Vithoba of Maharashtra), Khandoba of Maharashtra, Jagannatha of Orissa, etc., or the myriad forms of the Mother Goddess, with thousands of names, in every nook and corner of India: every single local (originally tribal) God and Goddess is revered by every Hindu in every corner of India, in the form of the kuladevata, the grihadevata or the gramadevata.

In time, of course, myths were formed nominally associating many of these deities with one or the other of the main Gods and Goddesses of Puranic Hinduism as their manifestations, these Puranic Gods themselves being additions from different parts of India to the Hindu pantheon (or originally Vedic Gods like Vishnu and Rudra with basic characteristics adopted from the other local and tribal deities). But these associations were not an imposition “from above”, they were the result of popular local myth-making and part of the consolidation of the national popularization of the local deities: the deities retained their local names, forms, rituals and customs, and became all-India deities, objects of pilgrimages from distant areas.

But it is not only in respect of “Gods” and “Goddesses” that Hinduism freely and respectfully adopted from other tribes and religions: even the most basic concepts of the Hindu religion are originally elements adopted from the tribal and local religions from every part of India. The original Puru (Vedic) layer of religion which forms the pan-Indian umbrella of Hinduism was originally more or less the religion depicted in the Rigveda: the worship of Indra, Varuna, Mitra, Agni, Soma, the Maruts and Ashvins, and other specifically Vedic deities (including Vishnu and Rudra, who later become the most important Puranic Gods), and the main religious rituals were the Agni rituals (homa, yadnya, etc.) and the Soma rituals. The Soma rituals are completely defunct today (in fact, no-one knows the exact identity of Soma), the Agni rituals are still performed, but only during major ceremonies (birth, death, weddings, ritual inaugurations of houses, etc.) and on other major occasions, and the major Vedic Gods are minor figures of Puranic stories.

Practically every single basic feature of Hinduism today was adopted from the religious beliefs and rituals of the other, originally tribal, religious traditions of the people from every single corner of India as they all converged into Hinduism. To begin with, Idol-worship which is absolutely the central feature of Hinduism and which includes (a) the worship of the lingam, “rude blocks of stone” with eyes painted on them, or roughly or finely carved or cast images of stone, metal or some other material, (b) treating the idols as living beings (bathing, dressing and feeding them, putting them to sleep, etc.), (c) performing puja by offering flowers, water and fruits, bananas and coconuts, clothes and ornaments to the idols, (d) performing aarti by waving lights and incense before the idols, (e) performing music and dance before the idols, (e) partaking of prasad of food offered to the idols, (f) having idol-temples with elaborate carvings and sculptures, with sacred tanks and bathing ghats, temple festivals with palanquins and chariots, etc. (g) applying sandal-paste, turmeric, vermillion, etc. on the forehead as a mark of the idols, etc. This entire system in all its variations was adopted from the various practices of the people of eastern, central and southern India, along with the Gods and idols themselves.

All the basic philosophical concepts of mainstream Hinduism are likewise adopted from the tribal and local populations of different parts of India: the concept of rebirth and transmigration of souls, the concept of auspicious moments based on the panchanga and the tithis, the worship of particular trees and plants, animals, birds and reptiles, of particular forests, groves, mountains and rivers; the worship of ancestors in elaborate ceremonies, etc., etc.

bookThe fact is, Hinduism can never be in true conflict with any other religion (other than the two predator Abrahamic religions which themselves choose conflict with all other religions) since it has no particular God, Ritual or Dogma to impose on the followers of other religions. In itself, Hinduism contains the seeds of every kind of philosophy, and is comfortable with all streams of thought, and not necessarily to do with the worship of “Gods”. In Hinduism, we find all kinds of atheistic and materialistic philosophies, the most well known being the Lokayata philosophy of Charvaka, who believed that there is only one life, that there is no such thing as an afterlife, or heaven or hell, or rebirth, and that our only purpose in life should be to maximize our pleasures and minimize our pains.

The very basic texts of Hinduism contain the seeds and roots of agnostic philosophies, from the Rigvedic Nasadiya Sukta (X.129. 6-7, which says: “Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation? The Gods are later than this world’s production. Who knows then whence it first came into being? He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it? He whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.”) to the Upanishadic speculations which reject everything, after deep discussion, with the phrase “neti, neti”: “not this, not this”, i.e., “no, this is still not the ultimate truth”. And then of course, there is every kind of deistic, henotheistic, pantheistic, polytheistic, and every other kind of -theistic philosophy, including even (but not exclusively) monotheistic philosophy (minus the hatred of “other” false religions and false Gods, and the concepts of permanent Heaven for believers and Hell for non-believers, characteristic of Abrahamic monotheism).

This is not to say that intolerant strands are not found in Hindu texts: among the countless philosophies that flowered within Hinduism there could be found stray voices of intolerance and hatred, but they are just that: stray voices in the wilderness, which never became the voices of mainstream Hinduism, unlike in the Abrahamic religions, where they represent the Only Voice.

Hinduism thus represents the opposite end of the spectrum from the Abrahamic religions: of the four possible attitudes towards other religions and religious beliefs (respect, tolerance, indifference and hatred), Hinduism represents respect for all other religions and streams of thought and philosophy, while Christianity (as also Islam) represents hatred. This is the central thread of Hinduism: even the Manu Smriti enjoins that when a king wins a victory over an enemy king and enters his (i.e. the enemy) kingdom, the first thing he must do is to pray and worship at the feet of the deity of that king and kingdom. The Bhagawad Gita, even as it asks Arjuna (and presumably mankind in general) to abandon all other dharmas (i.e. duties, not religions) and surrender to the Supreme Entity (an abstract concept although nominally represented by “Bhagwan Shrikrishna” here), assures him that whatever form of worship he indulges in, that worship reaches Him (i.e. that Supreme Entity) and Him alone – a far cry from the “One True” God and “One True” form of worship as opposed to other “false” Gods and “false” forms of worship classified by Christianity (and Islam).

This is the reason a Hindu would not think twice before bowing his head in genuine reverent worship before an idol of Osiris or Isis in Egypt, Quetzalcoatl or Kulkulcan in Central America, or Kuan Yin in China (or, indeed, before visiting churches and dargahs, not realizing the difference between non-Abrahamic and Abrahamic religious entities). This is the reason why the Zoroastrians who fled Iran from Abrahamic persecution, and the Jews who fled ancient Palestine, found safe, respectful and helpful refuge only in Hindu India and nowhere else. And this is also the reason why the tribal Gods and tribal religions in different parts of India which, either due to isolated location or out of choice, did not choose to merge, or merge fully, into the greater pan-Indian Hindu entity (where, in any case, their distinctive characteristics would only have been respected, preserved and popularised everywhere) continued to freely maintain their distinctive identities to this day – i.e. till the advent of the predatory missionaries.

Shrikant Talageri is a scholar and acclaimed author of The Rigveda: A Historical Analysis, the seminal work on the Aryan Invasion debate. His latest work is “Rigveda And Avesta The Final Evidence.”
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  • Whenever India mentions any word to connote a phenomenon across the country, it does not really talk about the Northeast in the truest sense. It is obvious because tribals of India and of the Northeast are not of the same genesis. Secondly, knowledge about the Northeast is minimal in the academic minds of the rest of India. Indian tribals may be Hindu, Northeast tribals are NOT. Hindu (or Brahminical) efforts to get vedas, the Durgas, the Devadasis et al to spread Brahminical exploitation (caste system, sati, dowry, untouchability etc) into the cultural psyche of the tribes in then greater Assam, caused the fall of the great 600 years old Ahom Kingdom. Over 60% people (largely the educated and fearless) got killed in the whole Brahminical Hindu conspiracy. We Ahoms forgot our own Gods and even our burial customs. Brahmins of that period are solely responsible for the poor state of economic affairs in this region. So any effort to wrongly write history to highlight Hinduism with respect to the Northeast of India should be condemned.

    • shrikant talageri

      You are partly right, but not fully. The northeast is certainly more isolated from the rest of the country, but when you note that Hinduism was prevalent as far east of northeastern India as Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia, this isolation is nominal. You are also right in that if any section of tribals in the northeast (or even in mainland India) has “forgotten” their Gods, these Gods should be revived. This can only be done within the umbrella of Hinduism, but is impossible in a Muslim or Chritian milieu. I have pointed out that everything within the boundaries of India is “Hindu”: even the religion of the Andamanese is “Hindu” although it may have nothing whatsoever to do with Sanskrit or Vedic Hinduism or Brahmins. And nor should anything be done to “Sanskritize” or “Vedicize” or “Brahminize” other indigenous religions (i.e. “Hindu Category III” as per the constitution) since they are fully “Hindu” in their pure original form. Your allegation that over 60% of people (Assamese? Ahoms?) got killed in a “Brahminical Hindu conspiracy” is totally ridiculous, false and unhistorical and reeks of missionary propaganda. If this were true, it would go into the Guinness Book of Records as the biggest, or only, massacre in history committed in the name of the Hindu religion. Brahmins have been guilty of many social crimes in the Hindu caste set-up, but religious massacres is a new one to me – and I am sure to any sane historian. You can “condemn” the highlighting of Hinduism with respect to the Northeast, but thereby you condemn all the inhabitants of the Northeast to the mercies of Muslim infiltrators from Bangladesh and Christian Evangelists. And to ultimate annihilation. But, as your comments suggest, you directly or indirectly represent the Christian evangelists, so I’m sure that is exactly what you want.

      • Jishnu

        No “Hindu caste setup” as brahmin conspiracy is an equally evangelist theory. Thousand year past and the past two hundred years of lies by xtians easily stand in evidence. The reason for floating the theory is also well documented by the brits.

        • shrikant talageri

          I did not say that the Hindu caste set-up was a brahmin “conspiracy”. I said that, within the existing caste set-up, brahmins (not meaning all brahmins, but certainly some among that section of Hindus who had acquired a high status in that caste set-up) have been guilty of many social crimes. In any social set-up in any society in any part of the world, especially after it acquires a certain rigidity, the privileged sections in that society always tend to misuse their privileged position. Why should we want to insist, in the face of all logic and evidence, that brahmins in India had some particularly divine DNA which made them the only privileged people in the world who resisted this sadly human tendency and never misused their privileged position? Was the story of Shambuka in the Valmiki Ramayan written by Christian evangelists? Why should any Hindu have such a poor image of Hinduism that he should find it necessary to lie and pretend in order to present what he feels is a good image of Hinduism? Let us accept the facts: as I wrote in the article above: “This is not to say that intolerant strands are not found in Hindu texts: among the countless philosophies that flowered within Hinduism there could be found stray voices of intolerance and hatred, but they are just that: stray voices in the wilderness, which never became the voices of mainstream Hinduism, unlike in the Abrahamic religions, where they represent the Only Voice.” As Hindus, let us have the courage to be honest, and only then we will realize why Hinduism is such a great religion, especially when compared to the Abrahamic ideologies.

      • pp_chn

        brahmins have been guilty of only one thing. they preserved human diversity through caste. If only they had annihilated everyone not following brahmincal traditions, they wouldnt be facing extinction today.

      • So if Hinduism was supposedly present as far as Indonesia, the isolation of NE is nominal. What do you imply? That, it should not have been isolated. Please understand that it is okay to not be a Hindu in the Indian peninsula. Someone may follow Sanatan Dharma and not be a Hindu. ‘Hindu’ was a term for civilisation by the side of the river Indus, used by Muslim / Arab invaders. Sindhu became Hindu in their style of pronouncing.

        Secondly, your ignorance of the Muamuriya Rebellion followed by continual Burmese plundering killing over 60% of the population is not shocking. It is not entirely Brahminical conspiracy, but the Brahmins from West Bengal brought in by the Ahom king – Rudra Singha among others acted as the stimulant. Of course they were not religious massacres. It was like a civil war situation like in Somalia today. Please read and make it to the Guiness Book if possible. We Assamese will be ever grateful. We are not christians, unlike citizens of Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram. We are primarily Vaishnavs following Srimanta Sankaradev who is the greatest man ever lived. Please read about him. He created one-act plays 100 years before shakespeare. Read about Borgeets. Sattriya Dance is the only classical dance attributed to a person and it is Sankaradev. I won’t be surprised if you have not heard much about him either.

        Lastly, not being a Hindu does not insinuate that we follow Islam or christianity. Please don’t polarise. Let every individual be whatever he or she wants to be. Natural order will prevail and religion cannot affect natural order in any significant manner. Humanity will rise above this sick word called religion. Bhakti and Spiritualism will survive eternity. Naming a particular kind of bhakti towards the supreme as Hindu or Islam, won’t survive eternity.

        I pray everyday but I don’t have a religion. Please understand this concept and spread the message.

        • shrikant talageri

          It does not matter how the word originated, the word Hinduism has a definite meaning now: it means all religions which originated in India. If you are a Vaishnav following Srimanta Sankardev, and yet you claim you are not a Hindu, and further add that “Someone may follow Sanatan Dharma and not be a Hindu”, I am sorry to say you either have very serious problems of perception and logic, or have a strong ulterior motive behind
          writing such senseless things. You say you pray everyday (to whom?) but you don’t have a religion. I am an agnostic, but I am a Hindu. Further, anyone counting you as a Hindu is trying to “polarise”!

          With such moles in their midst, only God can save the Vaishnavs of Assam from the Bangladeshi hordes and the proselytising armies. Entire areas in the Indian subcontinent where Hindus hardly exist today were formerly overflowing with Hindus (including Vaishnavas) who took pride in chanting obfuscatory mantras like your “Humanity will rise above this sick word called religion. Bhakti and Spiritualism will survive eternity”. They have been swallowed up by the Abrahamic religions. I just can not understand whose “message” you are trying to spread in what is probably the most sensitive area in India today.

          About the massacres in Assam, you now say they were by “Burmese plunderers”, and they were “not entirely Brahminical conspiracies” and “not religious massacres”, so why exactly did you first claim that “Over 60% people (largely the educated and fearless) got killed in the whole Brahminical Hindu conspiracy”? And this does not amount to trying to “polarise” different groups within Hinduism against each other? I am sorry these massacres will not make it to the Guinness Book: a large scale religious massacre led by Brahmins would have qualified for the Guinness Book.

  • sighbaboo

    Thank you Sir, for writing these articles. They were quite educative. In particular, I liked your exposition of the multi-layered & multi-faceted nature of Hinduism. I also suppose that all the layers coexist at any point in time (even now); so it should not be taken to mean that a top-layer supplants an underlying one.
    The writing style too was very lucid and accessible to people not having much knowledge in these matters (like myself).

  • muruganar

    Indeed a set of insightful articles! Great value in every one of these! In my own limited interactions with distinguished individuals of “malaigounder” tribe in Kolli Hills in TN State, I learnt that they were forced out of their original habitations in the plains during the very devastating wars that the british waged with Tipu Sultan and Hydera Ali. In other words, predatory action of the conquerors eight generations back also led to tribalisation of people of India.

  • Dr. MS

    It is interesting how idiotic some commentators can be. After reading the first one line of my earlier comment, I received an email, how they got my email I don’t know. accusing me of being now a Communist. So,,,I have gone from being a fundamentalist Christian to being a Communist and then what…hetero Gay? When you get crazy crude cruel people…the first thing that goes out of the window is the ability to listen, think, intuit and perceive reality without projecting,

  • Sree Charan R

    Really, a very important article.
    A small question(to my knowledge):
    Many of the philosophies that India had,and continues to experience,cannot be translate into English, where such experiences are scarce.Such as,Hindu Dharma does NOT have materialism,agnosticism or any other “ism”,in modern-western sense, and hence can be misused for ideological purposes. And by confusing it with the original philosophical ideas, we are essentially destroying the Inner Experiential Essence that is central to all of Indian Philosophy.Many of the gods in Hindu Dharma are personalized forms of Cosmic/Human thoughts?
    Note:Can someone inform about the early connections of Mayan civilization to the Indian(Hindu) Civilization; since, I came to know about few similarities between them?

  • Shubhangi Raykar

    This is a great article that puts in a cohesive manner how Hinduism or Sanatan dharma has taken into its fold all the practices followed by multitudes of villages and provinces worshipping the gods of clans-kuldevata, village gods -gram devata and the gods you worship by choice-ishta devata. That is why it has survived.

  • N.Paramasivam

    I have forgotten to mention the author and article. So beautifully written. I want to know, whether the author has published any Book based on Indian History. If so, please let me have details of the book or atleast about the author.

  • N.Paramasivam

    Zoroastrians who fled Iran from Abrahamic persecution, and the Jews who fled ancient Palestine, found safe, respectful and helpful refuge only in Hindu India and nowhere else.

    This is the fact. Even now, all religions co-exist in India and all are flourishing. In fact, Hindu population reduced from 91% to 68%. The reduction is due to increase in other religions.
    Hindu philosophy is Live and let live.

    • Vikram

      this ‘sadgun vikriti’ – i.e tolerance for those who are intolerant towards you is at the root of the crisis facing our Dharma today. As Abrahamic faiths are not reciprocating this respect/tolerance we have shown for them, we need to educate ourselves and our younger generation properly on what these abrahamic faiths really stand for, and agitate for a level playing field through UCC, education reform, population control etc

      • N.Paramasivam

        I agree fully. The need of the hour,as explained by you, should reach the decision making authority early so that some self-respect will be left with future generaion Hindus.

  • Dr. MS

    Excellent article. How are these articles and information integrated into class curriculum?

  • Dr. MS

    A little outside the article. How come some of the comments on the various articles on this website are showing up on New York Times…with the same language or words or terms or arguments? Strange. Someone reading in the editorial board and passing it on to their friends or family in New York city and/or New York Times (that might be declining in quality, authenticity and readership)? Kindly stop doing that.