Cultural worries misplaced in India's northeast
Tribal communities have embraced Christianity and Western culture but remain masters of their own destiny.
Two Khasi girls in traditional dress at Shillong in Meghalaya state in northeast India. The Khasi tribe has discontinued youth dormitories
that were meant to be a common living space for youngsters to learn skills like hunting and crafts. (Photo from Wikipedia)
The relentless cry of some hard-line Hindu organizations that India’s northeastern states have lost their cultural moorings due to their acceptance of the Christian faith and Western culture is misplaced and unwarranted.
It is a fact that hundreds of tribal communities inhabit northeast India, enjoying their own distinct dialects, belief systems, social structures, traditions, rituals and economic systems. And for a long time they have stuck with their tribal ways of life, with minimal interaction with non-tribal societies.
No doubt such an exclusive social system gave them a certain identity of their own, and they have in the course of time developed their own social structures and value systems, some of which are on a par with more developed societies.
But British colonialism in the 18th century and the later arrival of European and American Christian missionaries initiated the process of social and cultural metamorphosis in those tribal cultures.
Several scholarly papers presented at a seminar last November in Nagaland explored the sociocultural transformation in this unique part of India.
The seminar, sponsored by the University Grand Commission and Indian Council of Philosophical Research, discussed the theme “India’s Northeast: A celebration of (Indigenous) Cultures: A Phenomenological Approach.”
The scholarly papers provided a kaleidoscope of northeastern cultures, which are predominantly tribal, from a variety of philosophical perspectives.
The vantage point of these papers was phenomenology, which focuses on the importance of one’s subjective experience and its structures. Accordingly, in the phenomenological tradition, we address the meaning things have in our experience, notably, the significance of objects, events, tools, the flow of time, the self and others, as these things arise and are experienced in our “life-world.”
The life context of these tribal communities underwent tremendous change as they encountered the Christian religion and Western cultures from early Christian missionaries who were mostly from the United States and Europe.
Christianity and its teachings found fertile ground among tribal communities whose communal lifestyle, fellowship and fraternity coalesced with that of the new religion.
Many tribes embraced Christianity en masse, bringing phenomenal growth of Christianity in the northeast. Christians are now a majority in Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram, three of the seven states in the region.
With the tribal communities accepting Christianity, they also began to absorb its worship patterns, moral code, social structuring and so on. These influencing factors have brought in cultural assimilation and transformation among these tribes.
Nagas abandon headhunting
Sociologists, anthropologists and archeologists have described this process of cultural change through cultural contact as “acculturation.” Such acculturation is evident from the fact that some tribal communities have absorbed some of the values, traditions and customs of Christianity and Western culture.
For example, various tribal communities are at home with English as their link language, Western dress patterns, music and dance and even cuisines. It goes to show that they have a tremendous potential to assimilate a new culture and its values.
Have the tribal communities lost their own culture and identity by this process of assimilation? Some seminar speakers opined that it has impacted some of their traditional practices while others suggested that it is a natural progression for communities exposed to modern education and employment outside their traditional domains.
The Nagas were known as headhunters but today these communities have abandoned this practice and moved forward. Similarly, they used to practice healing rituals to rid themselves of any physical ailments, but now they rely on the benefits of medical science.
While some tribal practices contrary to Christian beliefs and values have been abandoned, some social institutions and values that are well aligned with Christianity have been retained. For instance, a belief in the immortality of the soul synchronizes well with the Christian belief in life after death.
Similarly, a sense of community fellowship goes well with the Christian religious value of community worship and participation. This aspect of tribal life might have facilitated tribal communities’ acceptance of Christianity.
Another instance of assimilation among the Khasi tribe is the discontinuation of youth dormitories that were meant to be a common living space for youngsters to learn skills like hunting and crafting. In the same way, the practice of erecting megalithic structures and following rituals focused on them has declined. In their place modern schools and churches have become the locale for new social structuring.
While schools became the focal point for tribal youths to train themselves to be inducted into society as productive members, the rituals are now church-centered. The cross became the “neo-megalithic” structure and rituals around it on different occasions as per the Christian faith and practices.
This process of assimilation of religious and cultural dimensions is a continuous process in which new forms of cultural and religious expressions emerge. And the point here is to find whether the emerging forms are relevant to those who live with them.
More often than not, questions about cultures and their preservation are raised by those who are remotely connected with them, as we find some organizations in India that allege the decline and even destruction of northeastern cultures.
The people of the region are the masters of their own destiny, not some external agencies that want to push their sectarian ideologies into their lives. If they have embraced Christianity and have moved on in their life absorbing the finer elements of this religion as well as other cultures, it is solely their conscious choice for creating a more meaningful lifeand society.
Signs of their aspiration are visible everywhere in the northeast. They do not want to be prisoners of the past under the guise of culture, but they rather prefer to move on by taking advantage of modern education that opens many windows to the world.
Divine Word Father Babu Joseph Karakombil is a philosophy professor and former spokesman of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.