A Panoramic View of Tribal-Hindu Cultural Interface
Copyright Sandhya Jain, Rupa 2004
Are tribals Hindus? Today some people argue that one of the reasons why tribals cannot be Hindus is because they do not worship idols/icons. Interesting! But these people do not know that idol worship was first started the followers of Buddha, not when he lived but nearly five hundred years after he gave up his body. Whom we call Hindus today were then & today nature worshippers. Let me share a simple example. India’s most popular mantra, the Gayatri Mantra means, ‘Om. In each of the three planes of existence (i.e. plane of the five elements; matter, plane of the life force; prana, plane of the mind). We recollect in ourselves and meditate upon that wondrous Spirit (the spirit dwelling within the sun, the light of knowledge that removes fear & ignorance) of the divine Solar Being; may he guide our inner version (we meditate upon, contemplate, recollect, call to mind, thoughts, intellect, inner version, who our may he guide, lead, direct)’.
Unfortunately I had never came across a book that comprehensively explained the tribal – Hindu cultural interface. Luckily I bumped into the author Sandhya a couple of years ago. She was nice enough to share excerpts from her book with esamskriti. If you like to buy the book contact any leading bookshop within India. You can email feedback to the author at [email protected] This piece has two chapters i.e. introduction two and introduction to the book titled Tribal Stereotype. Content is verbatim from the book.
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.