The British claimed that India’s Adivasi population lay beyond the pale of mainstream Hindu society. Yet even a cursory mapping of the spiritual-cultural landscape reveals a deep symbiotic relationship between tribals and non-tribals, which is amply reflected in the ancient literature and in inscriptions. Indeed, it was also noted by colonial anthropologists and ethnographers (mainly British officials), who deliberately delinked tribals from Hindu society through imposition of racial categories and Census classifications.
Tribals have made an enormous contribution to India’s civilization; all major gods of the Indic tradition have tribal links. Shiva was worshipped by forest-dwelling communities in large parts of the country, as were Vishnu’s incarnations as Varaha (boar) and Narasimha (lion). Vishnu in fact evolved out of several distinct deities, notably Vasudeva, supreme lord of the Vrishni/Satvata tribe; Krishna of the Yadava clan; Gopala of the Abhira tribe; and Narayana of the Hindukush mountains. Similarly, Gautama Buddha hailed from the Sakya tribe; Vardhaman Mahavira was a scion of the Jnatrikas.
There is to this day a close relationship between the Kurumba, Lambadi, Yenadi, Yerukula and Chenchu tribes and Shri Venkateshwar of Tirupathi. Lord Ayyappam in Kerala and Mata Vaishno Devi in Jammu also appear to have tribal links. All these gods and temples, as also that of Jagannath in Puri, enjoy preeminent status in the classical Hindu pantheon.
Even caste, long regarded as the keynote of Hindu society, possibly originated in the tribal clan or gotra. The term ‘jat’ or ‘jati’ is used equally for caste and tribe in most Indian languages and tribal dialects. Moreover, the defining characteristics of tribes apply equally to castes, such as claims of descent from a common ancestor, common language, endogamy and clan exogamy, caste/tribal councils, certain taboos in matters of diet and marriage alliances, presence of hierarchy within groups, and limited self-sufficiency.
Mahatma Gandhi insisted that tribals are an inalienable part of Hindu society. This work suggests that tribal society constitutes the keynote and the bedrock of Hindu civilization.
The colonial era unleashed a genre of scholarship that portrayed India’s Adivasi or tribal population as an aggregate of primitive social groups that were separate from and beyond the pale of mainstream Hindu society. Scholars are now looking in askance at this established orthodoxy as even the most cursory mapping of the spiritual-cultural landscape reveals a deep symbiotic relationship between tribals and non-tribals from very ancient times. The dynamic interaction between the two groups, posited as polar opposites, defies the deadening stereotype of tribals living an isolated existence in remote forests or mountain ranges. In its place, a more complex picture emerges in which tribes (gana, jana-jati) evolve into and actively engage with caste and varna society, even as some opt for relative, though not complete, seclusion.
Meticulous fieldwork by anthropologists and ethnographers in the colonial period itself sheds light on the incessant nature of the exchange between the so-called tribal and so-called Hindu society (see Adi sanskriti, Sanatana dharma). This is reinforced by glimpses from ancient literature and conventional history, particularly from the early medieval period onwards, of which records are available (see Tribal state formation and evolution of dharma). It is therefore baffling that a phenomenon widely acknowledged and scrupulously documented by investigators in the field continues to be denied due recognition in mainstream academia.
During the freedom struggle, Mahatma Gandhi and other nationalist leaders expressed displeasure at the mischief perpetrated by colonial administrators among backward and disadvantaged sections, and stoutly affirmed that tribals constituted an inalienable part of Hindu society. This study attempts to show that the intimate ties between tribal and mainstream Indian society have historically spanned both the socio-cultural-spiritual continuum as well as the economic-political spectrum, and that the concepts of mainstream and fringe, and the so-called core-fringe conflict, were little more than a colonial artifice. Colonial rhetoric notwithstanding, tribals have never been passive recipients of Hindu upper class (what Max Mueller labelled as ‘Brahminical’) cultural models, but have rather contributed actively and enormously to the infinite variety of India’s civilization from its primordial beginnings. This shall become evident as we examine the ‘tribal’ gods of the ‘Hindu’ pantheon.
The nationalists refuted the colonial contention that India was an artificial construct, a collection of assorted faiths, communities, and ethnic entities situated in a specific geographical area. Pointing to the coherence and integrity of her civilization from its hoary beginnings, they attributed the great variety of beliefs and practices to the unique Hindu characteristic of representing all levels of consciousness and accepting the legitimacy of all pathways to the divine. 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. Special attempts were made to delink tribals from the main body of Hindu society through the imposition of racial categories and subterfuges in Census classifications (see Race and tribe: a colonial construct).
The nationalists (anthropologists Verrier Elwin, Sarat Chandra Roy, G.S. Ghurye and more recently K. Suresh Singh) emphasized the strong affinity between the tribal concept of divinity and Hindu dharma, as evidenced in practice, mythology, and recorded history. The living Hindu tradition disproved the colonial hypothesis of a one-way percolation of so-called Brahminical values and revealed instead a vigorous mobility and proliferation of the belief systems of supposedly ‘lower’ social strata. Indeed, the very attempt to codify social groups in terms of a pre-conceived hierarchy is a uniquely colonial contribution to the public discourse. Marriot noted that there was clear evidence that the spiritual spectrum embraced tribal and classical Hindu dharma; tribal elements freely entered the formal Hindu tradition even as features of the latter were integrated into tribal modes of worship.
New research increasingly suggests that India’s native culture and civilization has grown upon a common substratum and does not easily yield to artificial divisions. The question, therefore, legitimately arises whether categories such as ‘tribal’ and ‘Hindu’ are at all valid. Yet given the absence of an academic consensus on the issue, this study is constrained to abide by the old terminologies, even though they now prove to be grossly inadequate. The present study broadly acknowledges tribal faith as that which is practiced in wholly or almost-wholly tribal communities, and Hindu as that which is practiced in temples according to shastric rites generally recognized by all Hindus. Hitherto, it has been a convention among scholars to designate these as ‘little’ and ‘great’ traditions respectively, but in reality the two realms readily commingle and complement each other. Sometimes, as in the case of Orissa, they coalesce into a well-defined regional tradition (see Jagannatha: tribal god par excellence).
Redfield analyzed this interaction: “This… is perhaps the most important conclusion of recent anthropological studies of Hinduism… the unity of Hinduism does not exclusively reside in an exemplary set of norms and scriptures, such as those defined by Sanskritic Hinduism, or in 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 song, dance, play, sculpture, painting, religious story and rite that connect the rituals and beliefs of the villager with those of the townsman and urbanite, one region with another, and the educated with the uneducated.” Hindu influence is visible in villages where tribal groups constantly interact with caste Hindus. Eschmann claimed that the decisive stage of ‘Hinduization’ is reached when an aboriginal god is incorporated in a Hindu temple having three specific characteristics, viz., daily puja; recognition by all castes; and an eminence surpassing local boundaries.
Whenever a tribal deity was elevated in the Hindu pantheon, it retained its original uniconical symbol as well as its tribal priests, as Kulke observed. In fact, the symbol and the priest served as a bridge between the new devotees (non-tribal caste Hindus) and the original (tribal) worshippers. In such situations, a ruler submitting to the power of the tribal deity would often get a substitute or “movable image” (chalanti pratima) of the god consecrated at his palace for worship by court-appointed Brahmins. Usually an image of Durga or Chamunda would be placed in front of or behind the original murti.
This agility with which tribal gods overcame their native forest or mountain environment and acquired all-India eminence symbolizes an eternal verity of the Hindu spiritual tradition. Notable examples of this outward mobility include the pan-India tribal phenomenon of worshipping snakes (naga, nag devata) and the Earth Mother (Devi), which permeate equally the forest community, village, regional and classical ethos. The Mother Goddess is variously worshipped as Prithvi Mata, Dharti Mata, Kali, Parvati, Durga, et al. But, as K.S. Singh points out, the nature of the sacrifices offered to her (goat, fowl, buffaloes) is consistent with ancient tribal practice and betrays her tribal origins (see Naga and Devi). In innumerable temples across the length and breadth of the country, including large cities and metropolises, one finds thriving to this day the autochthonous practice of revering stones or pebbles (tribal symbols of Devi) besides the main image in the garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum). Likewise, the naga (serpent) has been revered from primordial times as the symbol of indigenous power, fertility, and wealth. It is even today worshipped live in several temples and places, and the special festival of Nag Panchami in the month of Sravana commemorates society’s enduring attraction for the strength and wisdom represented by the serpent. The naga in Hindu mythology is an attribute of Shiva, a god with strong tribal links.
The serpent also has intimate links with Krishna, who also has impressive tribal credentials. K.C. Mishra observes that the tenth chapter of the Bhagvad Gita lists nearly thirty important primitive gods who were incorporated in the Hindu pantheon as partial incarnations of Krishna (“Whatever is glorious and auspicious or endowed with power springs from a portion of my glory,” X.41). These deities were widely worshipped by tribes in the pre-Buddha era and are mentioned in an early text, the Niddesa, commentary of Suttanipata.
In Baudha and Jaina traditions, which too have tribal links, the snake is the guardian deity of the Buddha and the Tirthankaras. As is well known, Gautama Buddha hailed from the Sakya tribe while Vardhaman Mahavira was a scion of the Jnatrikas. Both tribes were constituents of the famous Vrijji confederation of tribes that dominated the Vaishali region prior to the rise of the Mauryan Empire. The twenty-third Tirthankara, Parshvanatha, son of Benaras ruler Ashwasena from his wife Vama Devi, was found to have a blue complexion and snake-like forms all over his body immediately after his birth on the fourth day of the dark half of the month of Chaitra. He came to be known as Phanibhushan (adorned with snakes), which is also an epithet of Shiva.
Eastern India’s Manasa Devi panth (the term indicates both a group of devotees and the worship of a chosen deity, and is preferred to terms such as ‘sect’ and ‘cult’ that have negative connotations in Christian tradition and were used by missionaries and colonial administrators to belittle native gods) amalgamates the dominant traditions of naga and mother goddess worship. Widely worshipped in Bengal, Bihar and Assam, Manasa Devi’s tribal and folk ancestry is still discernible. Yet the worship of Devi and naga is so pervasive on a pan-India basis that it is hardly possible to demarcate specific aspects as tribal or classical (see Naga and Devi; and Jagannatha: tribal god par excellence).
For millennia, tribals and caste Hindus alike have worshipped the powers of the universe in the form of the sun or fire (Savitur, Agni), forest powers (Vandevi, elephant, lion, eagle), plants (tulsi), sacred trees (pipal), river waters and natural springs. The sacred tree (ficus religiosa), according to Ananda Coomaraswamy, symbolizes the archaic bond between vegetation and water. Mircea Eliade observes: “Sometimes the symbolism of water resists all mythological and scholastic reinterpretations and ends by forcing its way even into the sacred texts. The Devyupanishad relates that the gods, having asked the Great Goddess (Devi) who she was and when she came, received the answer, ‘The place of my birth is in the water within the sea: he who knows this, obtains the dwelling of Devi’.” N.M. Chaudhuri notes that since Vedic times, homage has been paid to the tree in its natural form, as well as a locus of a divinity, such as “Gods, Gandharvas, Apsarases, Yaksas, Nagas… pretas or ghosts.” The sacred tree has a “magical potency,” and is appealed to for physical security, health, wealth and progeny.
It is hardly possible to claim that such primordial symbols as trees and waters are alien to tribal consciousness and constitute an imposition of Brahminical belief systems. The evidence suggests that the tribal stratum of culture only ostensibly runs parallel to what scholars call the Hindu mainstream; in reality the two are deeply enmeshed through an unseen osmosis. It may thus be appropriate to recognize tribal dharma as an intrinsic component of the ancient sanatana dharma (civilization, way of life, culture, faith).
Shiva and Vishnu, two of the greatest gods of the Hindu pantheon, exhibit strong traces of tribal origin. K.S. Singh says Shiva was worshipped by forest-dwelling communities in large parts of the country. The tribal belt is to this day dotted with temples dedicated to Shiva and Shakti, both closely linked with tantra and magic that are widely practiced by tribal communities. Shiva’s tribal links were via tribal goddesses who were often worshipped in the form of a rock or a stone pole, which evolved into the shivlinga, which is also a uniconical murti. The linga is always encircled by shakti, the female principle. Orissa, however, has instances of a rock representing the goddess and yet being encircled by shakti, thus exactly resembling a svayambhu linga!
Tribal elements can thus be traced to the very core of Hindu dharma. Vishnu’s incarnations as Varaha (boar) and Narasimha (lion) bear the strong impress of the forest and reinforce tribal inputs into classical dharma. A.L. Basham believes Varaha probably came from the people of eastern Malwa. Throughout the tribal belt, Varaha and Narasimha are worshipped as uniconical symbols. In a temple near Vishakhapatnam, they are embodied in a stone linga covered with sandal paste.
Vishnu is generally held to have evolved out of several distinct deities. These include Vasudeva, supreme lord of the Vrishni/Satvata tribe, whose worship was recorded by the grammarian Panini as early as the fifth–sixth centuries BC; Krishna, deity of the Yadava clan; Gopala, god of the Abhira tribe; and Narayana, lord of the Hindukush mountains. Yet Vishnu also has a solar origin (Vishnu Divakara) and among Vedic deities personifies the light and the sun.
Vishnu has undergone strange vicissitudes over the ages. Popular in his Varaha incarnation during the Gupta period, he has since been recognized mainly in the forms of Rama and Krishna. At the same time, the Krishna sampradaya in the north has been energized by the entry of Radha, a cowherdess who was probably deified by the Abhira tribe in the post-Gupta period. Radha is not mentioned in the Bhagvata, Narad, Vishnu, or any major Purana. She was popularized by bhakti saints who rejected the warrior Krishna in preference for the baby and youthful Krishna and his pranks with the gopis (milkmaids). Unlike other gods, Krishna has never been linked with any of his wives, not even with Satyabhama or the devoted Rukmini. He is worshipped all over north India as Radha-vallabha (also a popular panth in Mathura, Rajasthan and Gujarat); as Radha-ramana (beloved of Radha); and as Radha-Krishna.
Hala’s Gatha Saptasati, a Prakrit compilation not later than 200 AD, contains the earliest literary reference to Krishna’s amorous relationship with Radha. The next reference is found in Bhatta Narayana’s drama, Venisamhara (plaiting of the braid), written not later than the eighth century AD. By the late twelfth century, the philosopher Nimbarka made Radha the deity who grants all desires. But it was the extraordinarily gifted poet Jayadeva (around 1200 AD) who ennobled and popularized the love of Radha and the gopis for Krishna in his immortal Gita Govinda. As the bhakti movement intensified and saints affirmed faith in a personalized deity, Radha was glorified as the perfect devotee. Vidyapati and Chandidasa (approx. 1375 – 1450 AD) promulgated the worship of Radha-Krishna in eastern India. Ghurye observes that Radha’s divinity was finally established when the great Chaitanya ‘Mahaprabhu’ who was worshipped as a divinity in his own lifetime (1485 – 1533 AD) declared her to be his ishta deva (personal god). However, Radha’s popularity is broadly confined to the north and she barely merits a mention in southern Vaishnava temples.
Tribals have from the dawn of civilization had close ties with neighboring village communities. Several totem deities sacred to tribals are acknowledged village deities. Grama devata (village goddess), worshipped in most villages in the shape of a stone placed under a tree, was originally a tribal goddess. Other village gods such as Bans-Mata (goddess of the bamboo grove) and Bagdeo (goddess of the tigers) are also of tribal origin.
Tribals worship the Seven Sisters, who have a huge following among village communities. Bishop Whitehead observed that in Masulipatam in Andhra Pradesh, the local fishermen worship seven very gentle and helpful goddesses: Mutyalamma (Pearl Goddess), Chinnintamma (Goddess who is head of the house), Challalamma (Goddess who presides over buttermilk), Ghantalamma (Goddess who wears bells), Yamparamma (Goddess who transacts business), Mamilamma (Goddess who sits under mango trees), and Gangamma (Goddess who protects against smallpox). Katherine Harper found that the Eravallar forest tribe in Cochin revered the Seven Virgins (Kannimar), who are benevolent goddesses and take care of the well-being of the family. Onishi points out that the chthonic characteristics of the Mothers (matrs) of the epics and Puranas show their tribal origins. The Mahabharata (Salya Parva) discloses that the mothers live in trees, crossroads, caves, and funeral grounds; are fearsome in battle; and can magically disappear and change forms at will. The epic recognizes the mothers as ‘both…the beautiful and terrible…as…opposites of the same form’ as Harper puts it. The mothers entered the classical pantheon along with Skanda-Murugan-Kartikeya, who was accepted as a son of Shiva along with Ganesh (see Murugan and Ganesh: Sons of Shiva).
The wild natural environment in which tribals live possibly accounts for the uniconical forms of their deities, and their frequently fierce disposition. Durga’s awesome power, K.S. Singh observes, is well known. Shiva also had an ugra form, as did Vishnu in his Varaha and Narasimha avatars. Legend states that Narasimha burst forth from a pillar to kill the demon Hiranyakasipu. As the pillar is a uniconical image widely worshipped in tribal areas to this day, this cannot be explained as the permeation of Brahminical influence. Orissa abounds with instances of Narasimha depicted on wooden pillars symbolizing goddess Khambheshvari (Goddess of the Pillar). Narasimha is believed to derive his power from the shakti residing in the pillar. The pillar motif became so popular in Hindu tradition that Shiva as Bhairava was said to have emerged from a pillar. Similarly, tantrism bears a strong tribal impress. The worship of the female counterparts of Varaha and Narasimha – Varahi and Narsimhi – common in tantrism, is widespread among Orissa tribals.
Narasimha’s girija (hill-born) aspect belies the colonial view that Hindu dharma is a unilateral imposition by caste Hindus. An aboriginal god in the form of the head of a lion or tiger was worshipped in the caves and mountains of Orissa and Andhra. Eschmann states that nearly seventy percent of Narasimha shrines in Andhra have a uniconical murti (mostly a stone) of the god. Orissa has instances of Narasimha being worshipped as a salagrama stone.
Kulke, Rothermund and other scholars have observed a close relationship between the Kurumba, Lambadi, Yenadi, Yerukula and Chenchu tribes and Shri Venkateshwar of Tirupathi. Lord Ayyappam in Kerala and Mata Vaishno Devi in Jammu also appear to have tribal links. All these gods and temples, as also that of Jagannatha in Puri, enjoy preeminent status in the classical Hindu pantheon. These centres in fact represent the sustained interaction between tribal and non-tribal society through the ages. The Adi Shankaracharya, a renowned scholar of Vedanta, established his peeth at Puri, while Acharya Ramanuja, founder of the Vishistadvaita school of Vedanta and guru of the bhakti saint Ramanand, did much to spread the fame and reputation of Tirupathi.
The political ascendancy of several tribal families in the middle India belt in the medieval period also shatters the stereotype that tribals have always been at the receiving end of caste Hindu political, economic or cultural supremacy. These states witnessed the rise of tribal gods and tribal rulers, who extended patronage to Shakti, Vaishnava and Shaiva panths and commissioned grand temples. Hindu kings ruling over tribal tracts embraced tribal gods as kulaswamin, tutelary deities (see Tribal state formation and evolution of dharma).
Jagannatha’s tribal origins are undeniable, though the god is today inseparable from the ‘high’ Hindu panorama and is a key constituent of Orissa’s regional identity. By all accounts the deity was first worshipped by the Sabara (Savara, Saora) tribe and made a ‘miraculous’ appearance in Puri much later. To this day, a special group of priests known as Daitas or Daityas (descendants of the original tribal worshippers) are entrusted with the task of dressing the god and moving him, besides regularly renovating his wooden image. Orissa abounds with such instances of tribal–high Hindu linkages. Its most famous svayambhu linga, the Lingaraj in Bhuvaneshwar, has a class of tribal priests, Badus, who alone are allowed to bathe and adorn the Lingaraj. The state also has a plethora of important tribal goddesses (see Naga and Devi).
Critics have sought to brush away the evidence of such powerful cultural dynamics under the charge of the hegemonic nature of Hindu dharma, which absorbs everything in its way. Yet this raises some pertinent questions. Given the copious and continuous spiritual-cultural exchange between tribals and non-tribals, we may legitimately ask if the two groups can be considered to belong to different cultural stratas? Tribal gods have always been readily embraced by adjacent Hindu communities. But if the Hindu pantheon absorbed tribal and folk deities merely to extend its dominion, why were incoming deities not restricted to the level and form in which they entered the ‘Great’ Tradition? Why did the ‘Great’ Tradition facilitate the ascent of tribal gods into dominant figures in the pantheon? As this happened on a pan-India basis, it seems reasonable to deduce that tribals were not culturally subordinate in their interaction with non-tribal communities and were rather the fountainhead of Hindu cultural evolution.
Indeed, the universality of theme, motif, belief and custom at the level of tribe, village and classical dharma supports the view that the populace (tribal or otherwise) and the tradition were an integrated whole. Tribals have no significant differences with Hindu tradition on spiritual matters. Some of the greatest Hindu temples were built by tribal rulers who also patronized Durga Pujas, rath yatras and Dussehra festivities. The Ramayana and Mahabharata permeated tribal consciousness and tribal contributions to the myths and legends of the great epics enriched the cultural matrix (see Tribal – Hindu continuum).
Tribals perceived themselves as part of the larger society and aspired for rank and status within it, often metamorphosing into castes, whenever opportunity knocked. D.D. Kosambi observed that: “the fusion of tribal element into caste is always a great basic fact of Indian history.” Brahmins were key facilitators in this process. Interestingly, as we shall see later, even caste – long regarded as the keynote of Hindu society – may well have had a tribal origin. In fact, as B.B. Kumar points out, the word ‘jat’ or ‘jati’ is used equally for caste and tribe in most Indian languages and tribal dialects. Kumar points out that not only does the colonial definition of tribe lack precision, but that the so-called defining characteristics of tribes apply equally to castes, such as claims of common descent from a common ancestor, common language, endogamy and clan exogamy, caste/tribal councils, certain taboos in matters of diet and marriage alliances, presence of hierarchy within groups, and limited self-sufficiency (inter-dependence and division of labour). He contends that most tribes are like middle-ranging castes and conform to the idiom of caste.
Be that as it may be, tribal leaders sought Rajput-Kshatriya status as part of a wider community consciousness, prompting scholars like K.S. Singh and Surajit Sinha to describe the process of state formation in tribal areas as a story of ‘Rajputization’ of tribes. The burning ambition for Rajput status led tribal leaders to invite Brahmins to settle in their domains to perform ritual and related services and discover (concoct) appropriate genealogies to validate their demand for Kshatriya status. The tribal Ahoms of Assam patronized the Shaiva, Shakti and Vaishnava sampradayas in the Brahmaputra valley, and promoted translation of the epics and Puranas in local dialects. This was witnessed in many parts of the tribal belt.
Stephen Fuchs studied the rise of politico-spiritual leaders and movements in tribal regions in the late nineteenth–early twentieth centuries, and discovered that most tribes were adopting the classic ‘sanskritization’ route to higher social status within Hindu society by following ‘pure’ lifestyles. Fuchs observed that the stress caused by the intrusive economic policies of the colonial state and its cultural policies had triggered violent resistance on the one hand, and on the other reform movements which promoted vegetarianism, teetotalism, and devotion to a personal god. Cow slaughter was strictly prohibited.
In Bihar, the feeling of being betrayed by missionaries led to the rise of Birsa Munda around 1895. Birsa made significant changes in Munda dharma, modeling it closely on Hindu ideals of ritual purity and asceticism. His followers wore the sacred thread and abstained from flesh and liquor. Birsaite prayers saluted Brahma, Mother Goddess, Vishnu, Kali, Durga, Lord of Sita, Govind, Tulsidas, and ‘the One without quality (nirguna) and the One with quality.’
The Oraons of Chotanagpur produced several spiritual leaders (bhagats) at the turn of the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth century. Seeking relief from an oppressive revenue system and exploitation by landlords and government officials, they resisted conversions and desired equality with caste Hindus. Jatra Bhagat directed them to renounced exorcism, worship of the spirits, animal sacrifices, animal food and liquor, and desist from ploughing their fields with cows and bullocks. Balram Bhagat stressed the worship of the cow; his followers were known as Gau Rakshini Bhagats. The influential Tana Bhagat movement swept Chotanagpur and called for abstinence from meat and liquor.
The Santhals were mercilessly exploited as a result of the Bengal Permanent Settlement of 1793, and took to violent resistance to British rule. They worshipped Shiva of Gadi. Their most important movement was the Kherwar Movement, whose leaders condemned the worship of spirits (bongas) and propagated the sole worship of the Supreme God, Thakar Jiu. In 1871, Bhagrit (Bhagirath) of Taldhia preached ritualistic purity by bathing daily prior to cooking food. One of their leaders popularized the worship of Lord Rama. In 1880, Dubia Gosain directed his followers to slaughter their pigs and fowls and conform to Hindu customs. In 1930, Bangam Manjhi of Borobera asked his followers to abstain from flesh and liquor, and to wear only khadi. This drew the attention of the Congress Party, and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Dr. Rajendra Prasad attended their meetings. The same year, 210 Santhals were invested with the sacred thread. The Santhals played a violent role in the freedom movement.
The Hos of Singhbhum district joined the Mundas of Chotanagpur in the revolt of 1831. They were anxious to preserve their ancient ways and to worship their tribal gods. The Bhumij of Barabhum in Chotanagpur, spoke Hindi and were ruled by petty chieftains (rajas) who claimed to be Rajputs. They revolted against the British in the 1930s also. Bhagat-style movements saw the peaceful extension of Hindu influence in their lives. The Bhumij were particularly keen to attain Kshatriya status.
The Lodhas of Midnapur, Bengal, declared a ‘criminal tribe’ by the British, came under the influence of a Vaishnava sadhu, Rajendra Nath Das Brahma Abadhut in the 1930s. He coaxed them to renounce eating pork.
Around 1929, among the Gonds of central India, Bhausingh Rajnegi of Balaghat district, started a reform movement claiming that Bara Deo, the God Supreme God, was identical with Shiva. He asserted that the Gonds were once pure Kshatriyas and great warriors. He pointed out that in the sixteenth century, their prince Dalpat Shah had married a Rajput princess, Devi Durgavati, who had resisted the Moghuls bravely. Gonds, he said, had fallen because they had become depraved, ate meat and used cows to plough the land. Bhausingh advocated orthodox Hindu ritual purity, a ban on beef, pork, fowls, and drinking liquor.
Assam tribes (Syntengs, Garos, Lushais and Kukis) revolted against the British through much of the nineteenth century. Deeply influenced by Hindu dharma for centuries, the region was particularly influenced by the Vaishnava saint, Shankara Deva (born approx. 1449 in Nowgong). Shankara Deva preached love and devotion to god and insisted on the equality of all human beings in the eyes of god: “The Chandala who only sings the name of Hari will properly execute the function of a sacrifice.” His followers included Nagas, Miris and Garos.
Tribal aspirations for high rank in Hindu society continued throughout the colonial period, until the post-independence reservation policy arrested the process by making tribal status attractive. As noted, in the 1920s and 1930s, the Santhals of Bihar began to wear the sacred thread and claim Kshatriya rank. In 1931, the Mahtos of Chotanagpur got themselves de-scheduled as a tribe and sought a pan-Indian identity by claiming ties with Kurmis in Bihar and Kunbis in Maharashtra. In the 1930s, a Gond chief formally requested the Rajput Mahasabha for Kshatriya status. The Raj-Gonds of Khairagarh adopted the traditional method of having their genealogical chart re-cast (re-invented) to establish themselves as Nagbansis (who were recognized as Kshatriyas in central India), while marrying into lesser Rajput families. The Cheros of Morung used similar strategies to metamorphose into Chyavanvansi Rajputs.
The increasing entry of tribes into the caste system bestowed Brahmin status upon tribal priests. The names of several ‘mixed castes’ indicate their tribal origins. Yet, from the sociological perspective there is little difference between tribe and caste and scholars are veering around to the view that the genesis of caste lies in the tribal clan/gotra. In any case, there is no geographical, linguistic, cultural or economic basis for a distinction between tribe and caste, which is why modern sociologists are beginning to accept the concept of a continuum. As F.G. Bailey noted, “We must see tribe and caste as opposite ends of a single line. Some near to the segmentary tribal model, others close to the model of organic society.”
A panoramic view of society through the ages thus shows that notwithstanding foreign invasions and domination, Hindu society retained a unique connectivity with the past to a degree not found elsewhere, as well as an unbroken continuity in beliefs, thoughts and practices. Amita Baviskar recorded that a western academic studying the agnicayana rite in the 1970s discovered to his astonishment that Namboodiri Brahmins in Kerala had been meticulously conducting the rituals from the time of the Srauta Sutras, that is, more than two thousand years ago! Similarly, in the Deccan, anthropologists have found unmistakable traces of the Vedic agnicayana and aswamedha sacrifices in the rituals of the tribal god, Khandoba, whose worship has fused with that of several local deities and acquired a formidable regional presence over the centuries (see Khandoba: a tribal deity in the Deccan).
The discovery of Indal puja in the Narmada valley is equally amazing. The most important ritual of the tribal Bhilalas, this involves worship of the union of rain and earth, which produces grain. Scholars interpret the Indal puja as a survival of the ancient Vedic and Puranic veneration of Indra (god of rain), which has been preserved almost intact in a remote tribal niche even though the worship of Indra has virtually died out in mainstream society (see Tribal – Hindu continuum). But F.R. Allchin’s unravelling of the belief systems of pastoral tribes to expose the origins and antiquity of the worship of cow-dung and sacred ash in the eternally popular festivals of Holi, Diwali and Pongal is perhaps unrivalled as an instance of the intermingling of tribal and Hindu religious practices (see Gobar Ganesh and the cow tribes).
This abiding affinity between tribal and ‘high’ Hindu religious traditions raises the question whether Hindu dharma can reasonably be viewed as a grand elaboration of Adivasi beliefs. Mahatma Gandhi roundly condemned the British classification of tribals as “aborigines” and “animists” on the ground that such categories were alien to Hindu thought; indeed, they do not exist in any native language. The term ‘aboriginal’ simply means ‘indigenous or pertaining to the original population of a given region,’ but was first used as a derogative against the native people of Australia by British colonialists. The whites designated as ‘tribes’ about five hundred territorially-anchored groups on that continent, each of which had its own language or dialect. ‘Animism’ is said to denote a belief that natural phenomena are endowed with ‘life’ or ‘spirit,’ and that plants, geological features and climatic phenomena have supernatural or spiritual characteristics. But this belief is by no means confined to Adivasi belief systems and permeates the entire native Indian ethos. The highly evolved Jaina philosophy attributes soul or atma to all animate and inanimate objects in the universe.
Little wonder then that Gandhi bemoaned: “We were strangers to this sort of classification – animists, aborigines, etc., but we have learnt it from the English rulers.” When the missionary Dr Chesterman queried if this objection applied to the ‘animist’ aboriginal races of the Kond hills, Gandhi insisted, “Yes, it does apply, because I know that in spite of being described as animists these tribes have from time immemorial been absorbed in Hinduism. They are, like the indigenous medicine, of the soil, and their roots lie deep there.”
Tribals and ‘elite’ castes have alike honoured and preserved India’s autochthonous traditions, though the tribal contribution towards her cultural and spiritual heritage remains largely unacknowledged. This is truly remarkable, given the fact that decades of painstaking fieldwork by anthropologists and ethnographers clearly establishes the ceaseless interplay between these seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum. This study collates the findings of reputed national and international scholars to bring out in a composite form what many of us have always known, namely, that tribal society constitutes the keynote and the bedrock of Hindu civilization.
~ Sandhya Jain, excerpted with permission from the book Adi Deo Arya Devata. A Panoramic View of Tribal-Hindu Cultural Interface, Rupa, 2004.