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Need to cultivate respect for tribal religions

Tribal religions may not always have systematised theology but they have unique frameworks of meaning that deserve respect, writes Mrinal Miri.

ht view Updated: Jan 19, 2015 23:46 IST


In the debate about religious conversions, the religions that are the prime objects of attention are Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. Occasionally Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism are favoured with a mention, but religions which do not even get a mention are the religions of the tribes of India.

This is perhaps because, most contestants in the debate, including people who call themselves “scientific” and, therefore, “non-religious”, would like to believe that tribes do not have religions of their own. Occasionally, the term “animism” is used to refer to “tribal beliefs and rituals” and this carries the suggestion that tribesmen are caught up in the morass of their infantile mental make-up, and, one sure way of lifting them from this morass is to persuade them to accept one or the other of the “great” faiths of the world. Proponents of conversion argue that since tribes do not have religions at all, there is no conversion (from one religion to another) involved in the tribesman’s acceptance of a “genuine” faith, such as Christianity, Islam or Hinduism.

Another, in a way even more demeaning, view of the religions of the tribes is that although tribes do have something resembling religion, it is no more than a prehistoric, fossilised version of the great religions of the world. Apart from being ethically insensitive, and shrouded in self-deception, such a view is demonstrably untrue. Religions of the tribes, when they are left to their own devices by their powerful and power-seeking brethren, have a unique vitality and contemporaneity that conclusively falsify the claim that they are prehistoric vestiges of forms of life that have “evolved” into their modern, sophisticated and subtle versions.

It is often suggested that tribal faiths, even if they are allowed to be religions, suffer from the following vital inadequacies when compared to their “evolved” counterparts. And they are: (i) tribal religions are community- and culture-bound, whereas the great religions of the world transcend both; (ii) tribal religions are not amenable to sustained theological interpretation; whereas, the so-called world religions thrive on sophisticated interpretations; and (iii) tribal religions have no room for spirituality, while the great depths of spirituality constitute, as it were, the soul of the others.

While it is true that tribal religions are inalienably linked to community and culture, all religions have their origin and primary sustenance in community and culture. The urge to transcend community and culture is also the urge to reach out to people transculturally, and this requires the use of a weapon that is transculturally available; which is none other than “reason” or “rationality”. Hence the rise of theology: rationality-driven justification of faith which generates religious doctrines.

But the use of reason in this way is a double-edged weapon; reason can justify as well as throw doubt and eventually lead to the destruction of the very edifice that it had helped to build. To make theology a part of religion is to make it vulnerable to doubt and uncertainty, which is quite contrary to the heart of religion. Amenability to theological interpretation cannot, therefore, count as a strength of any particular religion. The rationality that religions perforce seek is what might be called universal rationality: rationality with, if you like, a capital’ ‘R’; but rationality is not a unitary notion; and in recent times very searching questions have been asked about the idea of ‘Rationality’ with a capital ‘R’. There are rationalities which are conditioned by cultures, and such rationalities are neither reducible to universal rationality, nor can they be denied the status of rationality for that reason alone. In fact what is distinctive of a specific culture is its own way of distinguishing its right and wrong, good and bad and, yes, true and false.

Undoubtedly, spirituality — difficult as it is to articulate the idea — is a truly enriching aspect of religions. But to suggest that tribal religions are devoid of spirituality is mistaken. One of the ideas in our received view of spirituality is that it demands a disjunction between a disengaged self or soul and the mundane or samsaric world. Spirituality, on this view, consists in a deepening awareness of the self through a sustained disjunction of this kind. For the tribesman the disjunction between the disengaged self and the mundane does not exist, and spirituality for him consists in an ever-sharper awareness of the seamless continuity between the inanimate, the animate and the human. The spiritual for the tribesman is bound by the contingencies of time and space just as he, his whole being, is bound by these contingencies.

It is sometimes said that even if we allow tribal faiths the status of religion, they can be no more than polytheistic; but monotheistic religions are, so it is claimed, superior. Therefore, giving tribes the benefit of a superior religion is no more than an act of generosity. But whoever has proved that monotheism is superior to polytheism? It can be justifiably argued (David Hume, Dialogue Concerning Natural Religion) that if we must have religion then polytheism is a much better proposition than monotheism; think of the magical, and yet unknown diversity in our universe.

We are told that the spirit of our Constitution is equal respect for all religions. Let us therefore cultivate respect for all religions and treat none, including a tribal religion, as inferior — and, therefore deserving of less respect, than our own!

(Mrinal Miri is MP, Rajya Sabha, and chairman, Indian Council for Philosophical Research. The views expressed by the author are personal.)