Clinging to ancient faith, India tribes seek religion status

Nov 22, 2022, 7:10 AM | Updated: Nov 23, 2022, 3:19 am
A tribes woman prays during a sit-in demonstration rally to demand of recognizing Sarna Dharma as a...

A tribes woman prays during a sit-in demonstration rally to demand of recognizing Sarna Dharma as a religion in Ranchi, capital of the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, Oct. 18, 2022. Tribal groups have held protests in support of giving Sarna Dharma official religion status in the run-up to the upcoming national census, which has citizens state their religious affiliation. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

(AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

GUDUTA, India (AP) — The ritual began with a thunderous roll of drums that echoed throughout the village. Women in colorful saris broke into an Indigenous folk dance, moving their feet to its galloping rhythm.

At the climax, 12 worshippers — proudly practicing a faith not officially recognized by the government — emerged from a mud house and marched toward a sacred grove believed to be the home of the village goddess. Led by village chieftain Gasia Maranda, they carried religious totems, including an earthen pitcher and a sacrificial ax.

Maranda and others in Guduta, a remote tribal village in India’s eastern Odisha state, are “Adivasis,” or Indigenous tribespeople, who adhere to Sarna Dharma, a belief system that shares common threads with many ancient nature-worshipping religions.

On that day inside the grove, worshippers displayed their reverence for the natural world, making circles around a Sal plant and three sacred stones, one each for the malevolent spirits they believe need pleased. They knelt as Maranda smeared the stones with vermillion paste, bowed to the sacred plant and laid down fresh leaves covered in a cow dung paste.

“Our Gods are everywhere. We see more in nature than others,” said Maranda.

But the government does not legally acknowledge their faith — a fact that is becoming a rallying point for change for some of the 5 million or so Indigenous tribespeople in India who follow Sarna Dharma. They say formal recognition would help preserve their culture and history in the wake of the slow erosion of Indigenous tribespeople’s rights.

Citizens are only allowed to align themselves with one of the six officially recognized religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Jainism and Sikhism. While they can select the “Others” category, many nature worshippers have felt compelled by the religious affiliation system to associate with one of the named faiths.

Tribal groups have held protests in support of giving Sarna Dharma official religion status ahead of the upcoming national census, which has citizens state their religious affiliation.

The protests have gained momentum after the recent election of Droupadi Murmu, the first tribal woman to serve as India’s president, raising hopes of favorable change for the Indigenous population. They number about 110 million, according to the census. They are scattered across India and fragmented into hundreds of clans, with different legends, languages and words for their gods — many, but not all follow Sarna Dharma.

Salkhan Murmu, a former lawmaker and community activist who adheres to Sarna Dharma, is at the center of the protests pushing for government recognition. His sit-in demonstrations in several states have drawn thousands.

At a recent protest in Ranchi, the capital of eastern Jharkhand state, demonstrators sat cross-legged on a highway blocking traffic as Murmu spoke from a nearby stage and explained how anxieties over losing their religious identity and culture are driving the demand for recognition.

“This is a fight for our identity,” Murmu told the crowd, who held their fists in the air and shouted: “Victory to Sarna Dharma.”

Murmu is taking his campaign into remote tribal villages. His message: If Sarna Dharma disappears, one of the country’s last links to its early inhabitants goes with it. It is a convincing argument evidenced by the increasing number of tribal members rallying behind him.

“If our religion will not get recognized by the government, I think we will wither away,” said Murmu, as a group of villagers huddled around him in Odisha’s Angarpada village.

Murmu’s efforts are just the latest push for official recognition.

In 2011, a government agency for Indigenous tribespeople asked the federal government to include Sarna Dharma as a separate religion code in that year’s census. In 2020, the Jharkhand state, where tribespeople make up nearly 27% of the population, passed a resolution with a similar objective.

The federal government did not respond to either request.

One argument for granting Sarna Dharma recognition is the size of the nature worshipper population, said Karma Oraon, an anthropologist who taught at Ranchi University and has studied Indigenous tribes for decades.

The 2011 census shows more than half — a number close to 4.9 million — of those who selected the “Others” religion option identified as Sarna Dharma adherents. Comparably, India’s Jain population — officially the country’s sixth largest faith group — is slightly more than 4.5 million people.

Decades ago, there were more options for Indigenous tribespeople.

The census, started in 1871 under British rule, once allowed for the selection of “Animists,” “Aboriginal,” and “Tribes.” The categories were removed in 1951 when the first census in independent India occurred.

Some hope giving Sarna Dharma official status could stem their faith’s existential threats, ranging from migration to religious conversions.

“We are going through an identity crisis,” said Oraon.

His concerns have heightened after Hindu nationalist groups, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party, have sought to bring nature worshippers into the Hindu fold. These efforts stem from a long-held belief that India’s Indigenous tribespeople are originally Hindus, but adherents of Sarna Dharma say their faith is different from monotheistic and polytheistic ones.

Sarna Dharma has no temples and scriptures. Its adherents don’t believe in heaven or hell and don’t have images of gods and goddesses. Unlike Hinduism, there is no caste system nor rebirth belief.

“Tribespeople might share some cultural ties with Hindus, but we have not assimilated into their religion,” said Oraon.

The gradual embrace of Hindu and Christian values by some Indigenous tribal groups has exacerbated his concerns.

In the late 19th century, many tribespeople in Jharkhand, Odisha and other states renounced nature worship — some voluntarily and others coaxed by money, food and free education — and converted to Christianity. Hindu and Muslim missionaries also chipped away at their numbers.

Most Christian missionaries are met with resistance these days, but conversions can still happen. However, for Sukhram Munda, a man in his late 80s, much is already gone.

He is the great-grandson of Birsa Munda, a 19th-century charismatic Indigenous leader who led his forest-bound community in revolt against British colonialists. Munda’s legend grew after his death and statues of him appeared in almost every tribal village in the state. Soon, a man who worshipped nature was worshipped by his own people.

But Munda’s religion barely survived conversions in his ancestral Ulihatu village in Jharkhand. Half of his descendants became Christians, Sukhram said. Now, the first thing visitors see is a church, a large white building that stands out against the green of the surrounding forests.

“This used to be the village where we worshipped nature,” said Sukhram. “Now half of the people don’t even remember the religion their ancestors followed.”

___

Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Hideji Suzuki, former president of the Japan China youth exchange association, speaks at a news con...
Associated Press

Freed Japan-China friendship group head says charges false

TOKYO (AP) — The former head of a Japan-China friendship group who recently returned to Japan from six years in a Beijing prison for what he said were false spying charges said he still hopes to see China become a global leader but with better treatment of human rights. Hideji Suzuki, former president of the […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

US revises up last quarter’s economic growth to 2.9% rate

WASHINGTON (AP) — Despite high interest rates and chronic inflation, the U.S. economy grew at a 2.9% annual rate from July through September, the government said Wednesday in an upgrade from its initial estimate. Last quarter’s rise in the U.S. gross domestic product — the economy’s total output of goods and services — followed two […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Venezuelan publisher receives award from US book association

NEW YORK (AP) — One of Venezuela’s few remaining independent publishers is being honored by the Association of American Publishers, the trade association announced Wednesday. Editorial Dahbar, which publishes books that include interviews with political prisoners and critiques of the country’s criminal justice system, has been given the AAP’s International Freedom to Publish/Jeri Laber Award. […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Germany quits energy treaty, says it hampers climate goals

Germany has formally decided to abandon an international energy accord that fossil fuel companies had used to oppose measures against climate change, the country’s energy minister said Wednesday. The move follows similar decisions by Italy, France, Spain and other European countries to leave the 1998 Energy Charter Treaty, which includes provisions designed to protect foreign […]
1 day ago
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan speaks at an annual leadership meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition...
Associated Press

Hogan to gather with supporters amid White House speculation

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Term-limited Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan was holding fundraisers for future political activity Wednesday at events where the Republican is expected to talk about his eight years as governor, as well as plans for the future. Hogan, who leaves office in January, has positioned himself to run as a legitimate alternative to […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

McConaughey, Kunis among People mag’s ‘People of the Year’

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Matthew McConaughey, Mila Kunis, Jennifer Hudson and “Abbott Elementary” creator and star Quinta Brunson have been named People magazine’s 2022 “People of the Year.” The magazine unveiled its annual list Wednesday, with Editor in Chief Wendy Naugle explaining this year’s honorees were selected because of their efforts to help others. McConaughey […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

SHIBA WA...

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
Lake Washington Windows...

Choosing Best Windows for Your Home

Lake Washington Windows and Doors is a local window dealer offering the exclusive Leak Armor installation.
Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
Work at Zum Services...

Seattle Public Schools announces three-year contract with Zum

Seattle Public Schools just announced a three-year contract with a brand-new company to the Pacific Northwest to assist with their student transportation: Zum.
Swedish Cyberknife 900x506...

June is Men’s Health Month: Here’s Why It’s Important To Speak About Your Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men in the United States, on average, die five years earlier than women.
Clinging to ancient faith, India tribes seek religion status