Edward E. Dudek, M.A.
Last year, the writer had a conversation with Emmanuel Sudhir Isaiah and Vasanthi Isaiah regarding a possible ministry trip to Nagaland in Northeast India. As the time of departure for India approached, the writer discussed with Madasamy Thirumalai the possibility of writing a research paper on Northeast India.
Once the writer entered the protected area of Nagaland and later discussed the research paper with the faculty at the Missiological Research Centre at Dimapur, ideas began to form. With the permission of the course professor, the writer began this paper with interest in the religious beliefs of the tribal people in Northeast India, especially those of Nagaland, and also how Christianity was introduced into NE India and its beginning effects.
The paper will cover various tribal religious traditions and beliefs, three major reformers who contributed to socio-religious changes in the lives of the tribals, the introduction of the gospel into Nagaland and NE India, its effects on the region, and the challenge of missions in the area.
I. The People of Northeast India
The states which comprise Northeast India are: Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura (and now Sikkim is included). Nagaland, where the writer visited and ministered in November of 2007, is a state situated in the extreme northeast and is surrounded by Burma to the east, Arunachal Pradesh to the north, Manipur to the south and Assam to the west.
These states (excluding Sikkim) are referred to as the “Seven Sisters.” The region as a whole is surrounded by foreign countries on all sides – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Tibet, China and Myanmar. Hills and plains make up the terrain. A major section of the people of Assam, Tripura and Manipur live in the valleys and plains; Arunachal, Mizoram, Maghalaya and Nagaland are mainly hills. These states are further brought together under a political arrangement known as the North Eastern Council (NEC).
A large part of the population of this region of more than 26 million is made up of tribal people of the hills and plains. Though the tribal people of NE India differ among themselves in race, language, culture and religion, they also have in common many structural and cultural characteristics. There are sixteen tribes in North East India whose culture is basically identical. The religion which the majority professes is animism. There is the homogenous natural region of hills, valleys, plains and other geographical features. There are also significant elements of continuity in the biological, cultural and sociological factors between the hills and the plains.
The percentage of Christians in all of Northeast India is below 20%. Tripura and Andhra Pradesh are 1-2% Christian. Sikkim and Assam, 3%; Manipur at 43%; Meghalaya, 65%; Mizoram, 86% and Nagaland with 87% Christian.
Sino-Tibetan speaking people began to infiltrate into the region as early as the third millennium B.C. From the prehistoric stage NE India was predominantly Mongoloid in race. British rulers brought a large number of North Indian tribals to Assam to work in the Tea Estates. Now they have become an integral racial component of the region.
The social structure of NE India has emerged out of various integrations, for example, the Nagas among the Indo-Burmese; and the Khasis and Jaintias among the Austro-Asiatics. The indigenous people of the region make up these integrations. The Constitution of India categorizes them as Scheduled Tribes; they practice the traditional or primal religion. However, in the subsequent period, the Brahamaputra valley came under the influence of Hinduism on account of a large-scale immigration of Aryans. Today the majority of the people living in the plains of Assam, Manipur and Tripura are sanskritized. In recent years there are several movements among the sanskritized tribal to rediscover their tribal origin. For example, the Meitheis of Manipur, who were claiming themselves as high caste Hindu, are now affirming that their traditional roots are basically tribal in both culture and religion.
A significant feature which distinguishes the plains people of NE India from the rest of India is the absence of a rigid caste system. As shown above, the majority of the people in Mizoram, Maghalaya and Nagaland are Christians. Yet the majority of people in Arunachal Pradesh still practice the traditional tribal religion. The Mondas, Khambas, Khamtis and Singphos are mostly Buddhist and the Wangcho and NOctes have been very much sanskritized.
For centuries the tribal people of NE India lived in isolation from the outside world and they also had little inter-tribal contact. With the advent of British rule in at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the tribals were exposed to Christianity and a significant number embraced it. The Roman Catholic Church has been in the region forty to fifty years longer than the Protestant Churches.
The tribals have been described as the most exploited people in India. There history in India is a history of suffering. They remain at the lowest rung of the Indian social structure. At the same time, modernization has contributed to the emergence of a middle class in the tribal society at large, as well as an individualistic way of living among the tribals.
II. Characteristics of the Traditional (or Primal) Religion
Religion permeates all aspects of life in NE India. It is basically a community religion. To be truly human is to belong to the whole community, including the ancestors and creation. To do so involves the active participation in the beliefs, ceremonies, rituals and festivals of the community.
Another distinctive characteristic of tribal religion is that it doesn’t have sacred scripture or scriptures as other religions do. The religious ethos is contained in the people’s hearts, minds, oral history and rituals.
Tribal religion does not have an historical founder(s) or reformer(s). Their religion is instead centered on earth/creation.
In the tribal worldview, one cannot make a clear-cut distinction between the sacred and secular, between religious and non-religious, between the spiritual and material areas of life. There is a sense of cosmic oneness. In other words, all things are seen to fundamentally share the same nature and same interaction with each other-rocks and forest trees, beasts and serpents, the living, the dead and first ancestors are all one.
Edward E. Dudek, M.A.