A quaint old colonial building complex stands in the midst of the political and administrative power center in Ranchi, the bustling capital city of Jharkhand. This is the Audrey House Campus, built in 1854 under the instructions of the then British Deputy Commissioner of Chhotanagpur. Since its foundation, this heritage site has witnessed many momentous occasions and historical developments, not the least of it being the creation of Jharkhand as a tribal majority state in 2000. From 17th to 19th January 2020, this historical venue hosted several scholars, activists and philosophers from India and abroad who had gathered to debate and discuss the many meanings and manifestations of ‘Adi Darshan’ or tribal philosophy. This important international conference was organised by Dr. Ram Dayal Munda Tribal Welfare Research Institute in Ranchi which has been at the forefront of research and intellectual conversations around tribal issues in Jharkhand and in India.
The conversations ranged from the epistemological and ontological foundations of tribal philosophy to the nature and characteristics of tribal deities, forms of worship, rituals associated with major life events, concepts of soul, death, spirits, afterlife and the significance of sacred spaces. Presenters from various parts of India, representing many different tribes, illuminated the audience about their spiritual worldviews and practices.
Currently based in Sweden and having lived in Australia, it seemed entirely appropriate for me to recount the Sámi experiences of spirituality and resistance in the Nordic countries and the Aboriginal experiences of Australia. The Sámi parliaments in the Nordic countries and the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions set up by the governments in Norway, Finland and Sweden, have been significant ways to resist ‘mainstreaming’ and ‘assimilation’, highlight and accept the historical injustices and work towards protection and conservation of Sámi culture and beliefs. Australia has made some efforts in this regard (including public apologies by the Australian Government) but not much has happened to alter the existing structural inequalities and institutional marginalisation of the Aboriginal people and their beliefs. It took several decades of struggle by the Australian Aboriginal communities to stop tourists from climbing their sacred Uluru Rock in the Northern Territory. The Anangu tribe, an Aboriginal people of Australia, have considered the Uluru, a sacred site for 10,000 years or more and the climbing ban came into effect in October 2019. This is only a small victory in the big history of erasing Aboriginal culture in Australia, through past genocides and ‘mainstreaming’ policies, including the stolen generation.
In India, the Adivasi communities have also long struggled against systematic encroachment and theft of their resources. There is no doubt that their spiritual beliefs and philosophical traditions mired in hope, oneness and forgiveness have guided them in their timeless encounters with other communities and with the challenges of modernity. The conversations at the conference also suggested a prevailing anxiety about whether a codified tribal religion could be the possible antidote to their exploitation and to preserve their way of life and identity. How might such a religious code incorporate the diverse and eclectic traditions of the myriad tribal communities who have conserved valuable knowledge of their ancestors through oral narratives and artistic expressions passed on from one generation to another?
Oft heard (and patronsing) comments refer to external influences on tribal philosophy, religious practices, and rituals. It is not uncommon to hear that major religions of India, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam have drawn tribal communities into their fold and heavily influenced tribal life and philosophy. Several research publications have looked at these influences in detail, treating tribals as passive recipients of mainstream cultural practices. However, it was evident in that splendid gathering of mostly tribal intellectuals and activists that we need to look at the world through tribal perspectives and not the other way round. If tribal lifestyles, traditions and philosophical understandings have existed since time itself, might it not be natural to expect that these have influenced the evolution of other cultures, philosophies and religious traditions? Neither Hinduism nor Christianity in Jharkhand are untouched by tribal influences, rituals, modes of worship and worldviews.
An event like this should serve as an inspiration to seriously engage with tribal/indigenous philosophies, worldviews and ways of living, and what they can teach us as we struggle against the onslaught of global capital and consumerism, and the steady destruction and depletion of our planet and its resources. The answers to the challenges we face, not just in finding solutions to environmental issues, but also in coping with disruptive political and social changes, lie with indigenous peoples whose lives and philosophical traditions are closely intertwined with nature in mutual coexistence and nurturing. The New York Times recently published a report on how Aboriginal Australians had important knowledge about preventing bushfires that have caused the gravest destruction recently. Murrandoo Yanner, a Gangalidda leader runs the Jigija Indigenous Fire Training Program which ‘educates pastoralists, volunteer firefighters, indigenous rangers and the mining industry on how to fight fire with fire — as our ancestors did.’ Yanner refers to the mosaic cool-fire burning technique where small patches of low-intensity fires are lit during cooler months to burn off the bush undergrowth, reducing the amount of flammable materials.
There are other such indigenous methods of surviving nature’s fury and manmade disasters, which could be a boon in these times. Dr. Ram Dayal Munda, iconic Indian intellectual and Adivasi scholar from Jharkhand, had highlighted the dangers of treating global warming and its consequential fear of rain-fire and deluge as imagined and not real. Humans should not consider an arrogant and unlimited right over nature. Instead, they should envision a bountiful nurturing relationship. They should reorient their philosophical thinking towards collectivity, gratitude and humility towards nature and their co-inhabitants. Dr. Munda and several other Adivasi thinkers have left wisdom galore in their works. The question is whether we are ready to embrace that wisdom, those words of caution, and the philosophy of nurturing and hope that our Adivasi communities have upheld since the advent of time and creation.
Our survival will depend on whether we are able to abandon our mainstreaming impulses and learn from our Adivasi communities, with genuine humility and in the spirit of reconciliation. ‘Adi Darshan’, as was evident from the rich presentations during the conference, more than anything else, is a universal philosophy that not only captures our intimate oneness with nature but also restores dignity, humanity and collective conscience to the human race.
May we live happily
May we live well
May we always live….
May the water be clear
Seasons be timely
May wellness be with
Paddy Mother and Millet Mother I
Herbs and medicines be healthy
Grasses and shrubs be healthy
Good health be bestowed
Upon kin and relatives II
(From Sosobonga, the ‘Creation Story’ translated from Mundari by Ram Dayal Munda and Ratan Singh Manki)
Swati Parashar is an Associate Professor at the School of Global Studies, Gothenburg University, Sweden.
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