Who is a Hindu
Koenraad Elst Updated: 15 April 2021 07:30 IST

Who is a Hindu : 9. Are Indian tribals Hindus?

Hindu Revivalist Views of Animism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Other Offshoots of Hinduism.

8. Are Sikhs Hindus?   10. Are Buddhists Hindus?

9. Are Indian tribals Hindus?

9.1. �Animism�

Hindu Revivalists, unlike Hindu traditionalists, agree that the so-called tribals of India are Hindus.  V.D. Savarkar wrote: �Every person is a Hindu who regards and owns this Bharat Bhumi, this land from the Indus to the seas, as his Fatherland as well as Holyland, i.e. the land of the origin of his religion (�) Consequently the so-called aboriginal or hill tribes also are Hindus: because India is their Fatherland as well as their Holyland of whatever form of religion or worship they follow.�1

Abhas Chatterjee, the Brahmin-born revivalist married to a lady from the Oraon tribe, writes: �This Sanatana Dharma has any number of branches and offshoots.  Within its fold, we have the Vaidika and the Tantrika, the Buddhist and the Jain; we have the Shaiva and the Vaishnava, the Shakta and the Sikh, the Arya Samaj and the Kabirpanth; we have in its fold the worshippers of Ayappa in Kerala, of Sarna in Chotanagpur and of Doni-pollo in Arunachal Pradesh. (�) through all these forms and variations flows an underlying current of shared spirituality which makes us all Hindus and gives us an intrinsic sense of harmony.�2

Before Independence, the census had a category �animist� or �tribal�, which contained ca. 2.5% of the population, much less than the present Scheduled Tribe population of nearly 8% (the difference is made up of tribals who declared themselves or were registered as Hindus or Christians).  The Constitution and the census in independent India do not recognize this broad category of �animism� any longer.  Depending on the context, they classify the non-Christian tribals as Hindus for legal purposes; or put them under the heading of each tribe�s own �religion� separately. In tribal areas tribal customary law is recognized and special protections for tribals (not as a religious but as a sociological category) exclude non-tribal Hindus along with non-tribal non-Hindus from ownership or habitation inside the tribal �inner line�.3

The ambiguity of the tribal position vis-à-vis Hinduism allows for terminological manipulation.  When Hindus say they feel besieged, this is laughed off with the argument that they are more than 80% of the population; which they are not if tribals are counted separately.  However, when Hindus mention the Muslim right to polygamy as a case of Muslim privilege, the secularist reply is that polygamy is actually higher among Hindus; which it is (in absolute though of course not in relative figures), if tribals are counted as Hindus.  Reports are quoted which �showed that whereas 5.07 per cent of Muslims in the country were polygamous, 5,08 per cent of Hindus, too, were polygamous.�4 Of polygynous marriages contracted in 1961-71, �4.31% of Muslim as compared to 5.06% of Hindu marriages were found to be polygynous�.5  This is claimed to show that �Hindus are slightly more polygamous than Muslims in India� (in absolute though by far not in relative figures), quod erat demonstrandum.6 However, the same source clarifies that within the broad Hindu category, �the highest frequency of polygyny was found among tribals, followed by Buddhists and Jains�, categories which are classified as legal Hindus but are otherwise claimed to be non-Hindu.7

So, when convenient, as in this case for polemical purposes, viz. to increase the incidence of �Hindu� polygamy, tribals (along with Buddhists and Jains) are counted as Hindus.  Otherwise they are not, and in that case, Hindu discourse treating tribals as Hindus is decried as �assimilative communalism� or �boa constrictor�.  This illustrates once more how religious categorization in India is politicized through and through.

9.2. Tribal-Hindu kinship: influence

Can the question whether tribals are Hindus be decided, or is this a matter of arbitrary definitions?  A distinction may first of all be made between:

1. cultural Hindu influence interiorized by the tribals in recent centuries;

2. typological or formal similarities setting both Hinduism and the tribal religions apart from the prophetic-monotheist religions;

3. cultural Hindu-tribal kinship since hoary antiquity.

To start with the first point: except for the far North-East, tribals all over India have been profoundly influenced by literate Hinduism, and a lot of their religious terminology is borrowed from it, e.g. the Oraons call their supreme deity Dharmesh or Bhagwan, reportedly replacing the Oraon term Biri-Belas, �sun-lord�.8 The Santals sometimes call Him Thakur, Hindi for �landlord�.9 The famous Marxist scholar S.K. Chatterjee understood that there had been not only a profound biological mixing between �Aryans� and �Aboriginals�, but also an �inevitable commingling of the legends and traditions of the two races united by one language, a commingling which has now become well-nigh inextricable�.10 Thus, about the Coorg tribals, Harold Gould writes: �What is there among the Coorgs that in not Hindu?  Nothing, because the Coorgs are Hindus.  And they are Hindus essentially because they adhere to Hindu values.�11

Except perhaps in Nagaland, Sanskritic-Hindu (or in some places Buddhist, equally �Aryan�) influence on tribal culture is in evidence throughout India, though in varying degrees.  This, however, is in itself not a sufficient ground for classifying tribal people as �Hindu�, anymore than the retention of some Hindu customs among Indian Muslims would be sufficient to classify them as Hindus.

9.3. Tribal-Hindu kinship: formal similarity

The most obvious similarity between Hinduism and every tribal religion described by observers (both in India and elsewhere) is typological: regardless of mutual influences or common origins, the fact is that they share an element of polytheism, even if sometimes philosophically transcended in a concept of a supreme or all-encompassing divine essence.  Polytheism is a basic pattern of religion which tribal and Hindu traditions have in common.  This polytheism was duly noted by European discoverers in all continents, but in the 19th century, European academics started developing a theory of Urmonotheismus, a primeval monotheism still existing just underneath the surface of many tribal religions.12 This scheme was also applied to Indian tribal religions.

According to some Christian authors, tribal religion differs radically from Hinduism because, in the words of George Soares-Prabhu: �All the tribals are monotheists and therefore they believe in one God.�13 Or: �Despite the inferences of the Niyogi Report, the Aborigines are capable of recognizing the inner harmony between their beliefs and the Christian faith.  It is their monotheistic faith, as we have noted, and their belief in reward and punishment for good and evil deeds, that have prepared them for a, natural assimilation to the Christian faith.�14 Or: �Sarna spirituality is marked by a strong belief in one God.�15

This assertion is completely at variance with almost every first-hand description of tribal religion in India.  According to the Christian social scientist Joseph Troisi, the Santals have no less than ten categories of deities, from ancestral spirits through village deities to the well-known Puranic Hindu deities and the traditional tribal gods associated with the elements.16 An NGO worker in Manipur reports that the Meitei natives worship, among others, the Goddess Panthoibi, �who connects all events with each other�, the Goddess Nongthang-Leima, �who mastered thunder and lightning in the chaos which preceded the world and predicted the first rain�, and the Goddess Leimaren of �justice and revenge�.17

Another NGO worker writes in support of a struggle of tribals in Karnataka for the right to stay in their traditional habitat, now part of the Nagarhole National Park, and quotes one of them as explaining why they want to stay there: �This is where our gods live.  Now we can go to them and ask them for support.  If we move, that will become impossible.�18 Can this honestly be called �monotheism�?

In the face of this well-attested god-pluralism among the tribals, the thesis of tribal monotheism could be saved by identifying different gods as one, e.g. the Santal sun-god Sing Bonga and the mountain-god Marang Buru, all faces of One God.19 It remains difficult, however, to fuse this Sun God with his polar opposite, the Earth Mother, whom most tribals including the Santals worship, and whose cult pervades popular Hinduism as well.20 At any rate, the alleged �unity behind the diversity� is not exactly un-Hindu.  On the contrary, Hindus have tried to prove Hindu monotheism with the very same argument of an �underlying� unity, and with good scriptural authority, viz. the Vedic verse: �The wise call the One Being by many names.�21 Every logic which can make the Santals monotheistic would make the Hindus monotheistic as well.

The typological similarity of tribal religion and (one layer of) Hinduism can be summed up thus: no matter how different the names and mythical personae of the Hindu and the tribal gods, both religions are equally Pagan.  Even if the Oraon deity Biri-belas, �sun-lord�, is in no way borrowed from Hinduism�s cult of Sûrya, fact remains that both traditions practise sun-worship, which the Abrahamic religions prohibit (Athahualpa the Inca was killed by the Spanish because he remained loyal to the Sun-God).  The Santals worship the sun as their supreme deity, Sing-Bonga, but even if he were their only god, his worship would still be �idolatry�, worshipping a creature instead of the Creator.22

Guru Golwalkar locates the formulation of the principle underlying the cosmic spirituality of Paganism in the Gita: �In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna, while denoting the forms in which the spirit is more manifest than in others (�) closes the series of manifestations with the declaration: �Every such element as is endowed with glory, brilliance and power, know that to be a manifestation of a Spark of My Divine Effulgence.��23

This text unites polytheism and monotheism, and instructs the neophyte how to select objects of worship for a polytheistic pantheon under the aegis of the one All-Pervader.24 For, the distinctive trait of Paganism as opposed to prophetic monotheism is not that Pagans fail to acknowledge a unique and unifying principle, but that they fail to see a conflict between this principle of unity and a principle of multiplicity.  In this respect at least, Hinduism and tribal �animism� are one.

9.4. Tribal-Hindu kinship: common roots

Now for the third possibility of Hindu-tribal similarity: apart from recent influence (which even exists between Hinduism and Indian Christianity) and formal similarity (which even exists between Hinduism and the tribal religions of Africa and America), is there not also an ancient kinship, which would make tribal and Hindu traditions branches of a single tree in a historical sense?

Pre-Harappan cave dwellings contain cultic elements which are still found in Hinduism today, e.g. in a Palaeolithic site in the Siddhi district of Madhya Pradesh (10,000 to 8,000 BC), a Mother Goddess shrine was found which contains the same symbols which Shaktic cults use till today,-squares, circles, swastikas and esp. triangles which are part of the iconography of Durga even in urban Hinduism.25 A Flemish expert on tribal culture told me of a similar finding in the Bastar area; when the painted triangular stone was dug up, the tribal (Gond) guide at once started to do puja before it.26 But the point is that the very same cultic object would fit in a Hindu temple in Varanasi just as well: living Hinduism continues many practices from hoary tribal antiquity.

Even authors assuming the tribal-separatist viewpoint admit to the peaceful interaction and intrinsic closeness of Hinduism and the tribal religion, i.c. of the Santals: �Unlike Christians the Hindus have made no effort to convert the Santals into Hindus.  This may be accounted for as the proximal similarity between the two religions.  On the basis of close observation on the Santals it has also been found that in stray cases when Hindu girls are married to Santals there is a good deal of change and in due course she is also following the Santal religion. (�) The Santals are trying to keep their religion almost unaltered.  This is also possible because there is hardly any conflict and contradiction between Hindu and Santal religions.�27

Nonetheless, the communis opinion is this: �The culture of the Adivasi differs strongly from that of most Indians: they are neither Hindus nor Muslims.  Their gods and ancestral spirits live in the mountains, the rivers and the trees.  Sacrificial places lie hidden in the forest, not in a stone temple built for the purpose.�28 If the tribals worship in the open air, this constitutes a practical though not a fundamental difference with modern mainstream Hinduism, which is largely based in temples; but ancient Vedic Hindus also worshipped in the open air.  As for the worship of ancestors and nature spirits, this definitely stamps the tribals as non-Muslims and non-Christians, but is it also non-Hindu?

Guru Golwalkar comments: �These protagonists of separatism argue that these �tribals� worship things like trees, stones and serpents.  Therefore they are �animists� and cannot be called �Hindus�.  Now this is something which only an ignoramus who does not know the ABC of Hinduism will say. (�) Do not the Hindus all over the country worship the tree?  Tulasi, bilva, ashwattha are all sacred to the Hindu. (�) The worship of Nâg, the cobra, is prevalent throughout our country. (�) Then, should we term all these devotees and worshippers as �animists� and declare them as non-Hindus?�29

Snake worship, for one, is a major common denominator of Hindu and tribal culture: �Animal deities have been closely associated with major Hindu Gods.  The Naga or serpent is an important powerful symbol in the iconography of both Shiva and Vishnu�.30 On the other hand, the ancient use of the term Nâga (�snake�, but also �naked one�) for �tribal, forest-dweller� (as in the names of the forest city Nagpur, the forest area Chhotanagpur and the tribal state Nagaland) indicates that Hindus anciently did see the tribals as a distinctive cultural entity.

A pamphlet presenting the work of the RSS tribal front, the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram (VKS), puts it this way: �Foreigners have propagated that Forest-Dwellers are not Hindus, that they are �Animists�.  In that case, all Hindus are �Animists�.  Trees, rivers, mountains: Hindus offer worship to them or circumambulate them. in the Vedas, there is Dawn-goddess, Storm-god, Sky-god, Wind-god and such deities.  If someone lives among the tribals, he will experience at once that they are good Hindus.�31

The logo of the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram shows a tribal with bow and arrow, which is indeed reminiscent of Rama, Drona and other heroes of the Vedic Age.  Vedic and Puranic Hinduism started as a form of tribal animism, and have never repudiated these roots altogether.

9.5. Hindu and Christian vs. tribal culture

Against the attempt to put tribal animism and Christianity in one camp (viz. monotheism) and Hindu polytheism in the other, Hindus have proposed ways of counting Hindus and animists as one camp (e.g. polytheism, or native) and Christianity (monotheism c.q. foreign) as the other.  It may be pointed out that in some respects, a third scheme applies: Christians and Hindus in one camp, tribal animists in the other.  Out of love for the tribals, Verrier Elwin, an ex-missionary who became Jawaharlal Nehru�s adviser on tribal affairs, opposed the encroachment on the tribal world by Christians and Hindus alike.

It is simply a fact that Hindus and Christians have a lot in common which separates them jointly from the tribals.  Among other things, both value sobriety and self-restraint.  So, urban upper-caste Hindus as well as Christian missionaries were simply appalled when they got to know the free sexual morality of the tribals, as exemplified by the youth dormitories, where teenagers of both sexes were lodged together to get to know the facts of life.32 While upsetting the Christian notion that tribals are almost-Christians, this cultural gap between tribal society and �civilization�, both Hindu and Christian, also emphasizes the separate identity of tribals as compared to the dominant classes of Hindu society who have interiorized Christian morbidity.  Indeed, many Hindus would not accept the tribals as good Hindus precisely for the same reasons why colonial Christians considered certain native populations as �savages�.

The Pagan character of tribal religion gives it a common basis with Hinduism and even makes it part of Hinduism if the latter is defined as �Indian Paganism�.  But this cannot explain away the really existing cleavage between mainstream Hindu society and tribal society.  The latter is a lot more �Pagan� in the stereotypical sense, more �natural� than both Sanskritic Hinduism and Christianity, as exemplified by Verrier Elwin�s �conversion� to tribal culture coinciding with his embarking on a life of sexual experimentation and improvisation.  This is of course why Western neo-Pagans, tired of Christian morality, would generally prefer tribal culture to the formalized and asceticism-minded Hinduism of medieval times.  Hinduism has grown away from those elements in its own history which resemble the wilder aspects of tribal culture.

9.6. �Adivasi�

Discussion of the religious status and political rights of the tribals is rendered more difficult by the term commonly used to designate them: âdivâsî.  Christian missionaries and secularists have popularized the belief that this is a hoary self-designation of the tribals (unmindful that this would prove their intimate familiarity with Sanskritic culture, as the term is a pure Sanskrit coinage), e.g.: �These peoples are called adivasis, which means �first inhabitants�.  Like the American continent, India has its Indians.�33

Contrary to a widespread belief, this term is not indigenous.  It is not listed in the 19th-century Sanskrit dictionary of M. Monier-Williams, a zealous Christian who would gladly have obliged the missionaries if only he had been aware of the term.  The Sanskrit classics attest the awareness of a separate category of forest-dwellers, but used descriptive terms for them, e.g. âtavika, from atavî, �forest�.

Christian authors feign indignation when such descriptive terms are preferred.  Thus, A.J. Philip: �In the lexicon of Hindutva, the word adivasi has disappeared.  The Sangh Parivar prefers to call them vanvasis (dwellers of forests or jungles). It is just a step away from calling them junglis (illiterate, uncouth and uncivilised).  Thus the fall in the status of a people who take pride in calling themselves the adi (original) people of the land is at once apparent. (.) It is all part of a grand project of rewriting history which the Parivar and its affiliates have ventured into.�34 No, the imposition of the term adivasi during the colonial period was itself an instance of replacing facts of history with an imaginative theory.

The history-rewriting, in A.J.  Philip�s case, is also in the eye of the beholder.  While insisting on the use of the colonial-imposed term adivasi, he manages to give an anti-colonial twist to his story: �The adivasis, whom the anthropologist call the Fourth World or the indigenous people, suffered the first lexical assault when they were brought under the official term Scheduled Tribes�.35 But it was the British themselves, with their race theories, who had redefined the tribals as the �indigenous races�, and who had even introduced the concept of �tribe� as distinct from �caste� (after an initial period when they had used the term interchangealy, e.g. �the Brahmin tribe�).

The colonial term aboriginal, �pre-colonial native�, has been indigenized in India in the 19th century through its literal translation âdivâsî.  The term aboriginal had gained currency in the �New World�, where it made good sense from a European viewpoint: a white colonist (or an imported black slave) was a �new inhabitant�, and a Native American, Native Australian or Maori was an �original inhabitant�.  This term says one thing about its referent, viz. that he is not an immigrant, and another about its non-referent, viz. that he is an immigrant, a coloniser.

The excluded ones, the non-Adivasis, all the urban and advanced agricultural communities, suddenly found themselves labelled as immigrants who had colonized India and chased the aboriginals to the most inaccessible places.  The message of the colonial term Adivasi was that the urban elites who were waging a struggle for independence, could not claim to be the rightful owners of the country anymore than the British could.  Likewise, it served to present Hinduism, the religion named after India, as a foreign imposition.  The only non-tribals considered aboriginal were the Untouchables, supposedly the native dark-skinned proletariat in the Apartheid system imposed by the white Aryan invaders to preserve their race.

This racial view of history was nothing but a projection of 19th-century racist colonial perceptions onto ancient Indian history, but it was well-entrenched and put to good colonial use.  Thus, during the 1935 Parliament debates on the Government of India Act, Sir Winston Churchill opposed any policy tending towards decolonization on the following ground: �We have as much right to be in India as anyone there, except perhaps for the Depressed Classes [= the SC/ STs], who are the native stock.�36

Many NGO activists and other well-intentioned people in the West believe that their support to separatism and other political movements of the Indian �Aboriginals� is a bold move against oppressive intruders.  In fact, most so-called liberation movements in India are gravely tainted by their origin as instruments of oppression by the latest intruder, the European coloniser: in order to weaken the national freedom movement, minorities were sought out or even created to serve as allies of the new rulers and keep the national movement down.  The Muslim League, the Dravidian justice Party (forerunner of the Tamil-separatist Dravida Kazhagam), the Ambedkarite movement, they were all created with British help and nurtured by the British with a view to weakening the freedom movement.  Even the Communist Party was helped against nationalist forces.37 The imaginary division of the Indians in �natives� and �invaders�, though originally an innocent outgrowth of the then-fashionable race theories, was soon instrumentalized in the service of the same strategy of colonial control.

It may be recalled that when Hernan Cortes conquered Mexico, he first made an alliance with some of the �native� peoples �oppressed� by the imperial Aztecs, who had indeed �invaded� Mexico from the North a few centuries earlier.  This way, the destroyer of the native American polity and culture made his entry as a liberator of the natives from oppression by intruders.  The designation of the Indian tribals as �aboriginals� was a part of a similar strategy.  Can we blame Hindus when they don�t consider this nativist discourse all that innocent?  The fact that Cortes used true history while the British used at best speculative history, is relatively immaterial: nurturing and exploiting a psychology of grievances against the real or imagined �invaders� is what counted.

Many people use the term �Adivasi� quite innocently, but the term is political through and through.  Its great achievement is that it has firmly fixed the division of the Indians in �natives� and �invaders� in the collective consciousness, on a par with the division in natives or aboriginals and the immigrant population in America and Australia.  Thus, an indologist specializing in tribal culture said to me, off-hand: �The Âdivâsîs are the original people of India-well of course, that is precisely what the word âdivâsî means.� The parallel with the American and Australian situations is driven home, e.g. in the title of a booklet on India published by the Dutch and Belgian administrations for development cooperation: �Adivasi, Indianen van India� (Dutch: �India�s Indians�).38 As if the term were not a deliberate modem construction but an ancient witness to an ancient history of aboriginal dispossession by Dravidian and Aryan �invaders�.

Anglicized Hindus, too, have interiorized the parallel White/Amerindian = Hindu/Adivasi.39 However, no conscious Hindu now accepts the ideologically weighted term Adivasi, much to the dismay of those who espouse the ideological agenda implied in the term, viz. the detachment of the tribals from Hindu society and the delegitimation of Hinduism as India�s native religion.  Thus, the Times of India complains: �In the Indian context, it is sad to note that, despite the affirmative action promised by the Constitution for the Scheduled Tribes and despite the appellation of adivasi (original inhabitants) being used for them, the government still does not accept that tribals are the indigenous peoples of India.  In fact, it is not without significance that the BJP (�) prefers to refer patronisingly to tribal peoples as vanvasis (forest dwellers) rather than adivasis.�40

The assumption that the term �forest-dweller� is condescending is simply not correct from the viewpoint of the forest-dwellers themselves, who hold their forests and the concomitant life-style in high esteem, just as the Vedic people did.41 Likewise, Mahatma Gandhi�s indigenous term for the tribals, Girijan or �hill people�, far from being a condescending exonym, is actually the self-designation of many communities in India.  Many Dravidian-speaking tribes have names derived from ku- or malai-, meaning �hill, mountain�, e.g. Kurukh, Malto, and of course the non-tribal Malayali.

Historian and anti-Hindutva activist Gyanendra Pandey writes: �A special number of the RSS journal Panchjanya, devoted to the �tribal� peoples of India and published in, March 1982, is significantly titled �Veer vanvasi ank�.  The use of the term �vanvasi� (forest- or jungle-dwellers) in place of the designation �adivasi�, which had come to be the most commonly used term among social scientists and political activists talking about tribal groups in India, is not an accident Adivasi means original inhabitants, a status that the Hindu spokespersons of today are loath to accord to the tribal population of India.�42

Gyanendra Pandey builds on the accomplished fact of the widespread use of the ideological term Adivasi,-which is �not an accident� either, witness its �common use� by �political activists�.  In fact, not just �Hindu spokespersons� but everyone who cultivates the scientific temper would reject a term which carries the load of an entirely unproven, politically motivated theory, viz. that the tribals are �the� (i.e. the only) original inhabitants of India.  Nobody is �loath to accord to the tribal population the status of original inhabitants�, certainly not the Hindu nationalists.43 But every objective observer would reject the effective implication of the term Adivasi, viz. that the non-tribals are not original inhabitants, on a par with the white colonisers who decimated the Native Americans.

9.7 International voices on tribal aboriginality

In this debate, the Indian Government (any Indian Government) has always upheld the oneness of the Indian population, and rejected divisive concepts like �Aboriginal� as opposed to �Invader�.  The UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations in Geneva has been looking into the claim that the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes of India are the indigenous population of India, for indeed, some tribal spokesmen have been pushing for recognition by the United Nations as �the original inhabitants of India�.  Foremost among them was Prof. A.K. Kisku, secretary-general of the Indian Council of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (ICITP), which called itself a �non-political, non-communal, nongovernmental human rights umbrella organization to campaign for the protection of the âdivâsîs-i.e. indigenous population-covering the entire subcontinent�, and told the world that �with its 60 million indigenous and tribal people, India has the largest indigenous population in the world (200 million)�.44

Both the Indian Government and the Hindu nationalist movement consequently watch any assertion of tribal separateness with some concern, because the road from cultural to political and territorial separatism may be a short one; and also because they know that the outside world tends to sympathize with the demands of �aboriginals�.  Of course, since states and not communities are the units constituting the UNO, India can always block UNO steps demanded by tribal spokesmen, but it could lose at least the intellectual debate, so it presented a solid argumentation.  On 31 July 1991 (and similarly on several other occasions) the India delegate at the Working Groups session, Prabhu Dayal, refuted the claims made on behalf of the tribals by Prof. Kisku.45

However, when we look into Prof. Kisku�s argumentation, we find that he is not even trying to prove his crucial point, viz. that the tribals are indigenous while the rest are not.  The claim is made that �the Tribals are the autochtonous people of the land�, but no argument is given except that they �are believed to be the earliest settlers in the Indian peninsula� and that they �are generally called the adivasis, implying original inhabitants�.46 He fails to prove that all non-tribals are non-aboriginals, but uses the term which encapsulates that theory as proof of the selfsame theory.  All by itself, the neologism âdivâsî constitutes one of the most successful disinformation campaigns in modern history.

Against Kisku�s claim, Government spokesman Mr. Dayal argued that the term �indigenous peoples� cannot be equated with Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes.  He concentrated on showing that today there is no clear-cut separation between tribal and non-tribal segments of the population, quoting the eminent sociologist Prof. André Béteille: �In this country, groups which correspond closely to the anthropologists� conception of tribes have lived in long association with communities of an entirely different type.  Except in a few areas, it is very difficult to come across communities which retain all their pristine tribal character.  In fact, most such tribal groups show in varying degrees elements of continuity with the larger society of India (�) In India hardly any of the tribes exists as a separate society and they have all been absorbed, in varying degrees, into the wider society of India.  The on-going process of absorption is not recent but dates back to the most ancient times�47

Prof. Béteille had found that �ethnically speaking, most of the tribes in present-day India share their origins with the neighbouring non-tribal population.  India has been a melting-pot of races and ethnic groups, and historians and anthropologists find it difficult to arrange the various distinct cultural, ethnic and linguistic groups in the chronological sequence of their appearance in the sub-continent.�48

Concluding his argumentation, Mr. Dayal said: �In case the various criteria of indigenous populations were to be selectively applied to the Indian context, at least 300 or 400 million people could come within its ambit. I would therefore reiterate my government�s view that tribals in India do not constitute what is understood by the term �indigenous populations�.�49 So far, the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations has always accepted the Indian Government�s view, which of course is also the Hindu view.

In my opinion, the issue is clinched by Prof. Béteille in another article.  He contrasts the category of caste, slightly reinforced and rigidified under colonial rule but otherwise thoroughly familiar to the Indian population since millennia, with the very new concept of tribe: �Every Hindu knew not only that he belonged to a particular caste but also that others belonged to other castes of whose respective places in a broader scheme of things he had some idea, whether vague or stereotyped.  Hardly anything corresponding to this exited in the case of those we know today as tribes.  The consciousness of the distinct and separate identity of all the tribes of India taken as a whole is a modem consciousness, brought into being by the colonial state and confirmed by its successor after independence.�50

To traditional Hinduism, tribes are simply forest-based castes or communities (with both �caste� and �tribe� rendering the same Sanskrit term jâti), in closer or more tenuous contact with the Great Tradition.  There never was a clear cleavage between Hindu castes and animist tribes, there only were communities geographically and culturally closer or less close to the Vedic backbone of Hindu civilization.  Some were less Vedic yet socially integrated, viz. the low castes, others were less Vedic and socially more isolated, viz. the castes now labelled �tribes�.

But even the latter never had the consciousness of belonging to a separate �tribal� type of population. just as the Ahir caste or the Kayasth caste or the Chamar caste was aware of it distinctive caste identity, �the Santhal had a sense their own identity as Santhals; the Garos of theirs as Garos; and the Todas of their as Todas�,-but none was aware of a collective �tribal� identity, much less of an �aboriginal� identity.51

Not one of the Indian tribes was entirely untouched by the influence of the Vedic-Puranic Great Tradition.  This is one of the reasons why the relationship between Hinduism and any Indian �tribe� is different from the relationship between Hinduism and tribal cultures in other continents.  Even the tribal cultures genetically unrelated to Vedic civilization were dimly integrated in the Hindu world which spanned the whole of India.

Tribes from the Kafirs of Afghanistan to the Gonds of South-Central India have taken starring roles in the resistance of the native society against the Muslim onslaught.  If the Bhil boy Ekalavya of Mahabharata (I.31-54) fame could seek out the princely martial arts trainer Drona as his archery teacher, even the terrible treatment he received from Drona (for reasons unrelated to Ekalavya�s social origins) cannot nullify the implication that the Bhil tribe habitually interacted with the Vedic Bharata clan.  Those who use the Eklavya story against Hinduism do not know or ignore the fact that Eklavya is mentioned twice (II.37.47; II.44.21) as one of the great kings who was invited and given great hospitality in Yudhisthara�s Rajasusya Yajna at Indraprastha.  Kautilya mentions tribal (atvî) battalions in Hindu royal armies.52 Rama, of course, relied on his Vânara (forest-dweller) allies to fight Ravana.  The tribals may have lived on the periphery, but it was still within the horizon of Hindu society.

9.8. But are they really aboriginal?

Given the Hindutva priority of uniting all �Hindus� and not offending the sensibilities of any of the targeted groups, a hard question which the above controversy ought to raise, is never asked: but are the �Adivasis� really aboriginal?  Given the racial mixing, they would be as indigenous as anyone, at least biologically (and the same is true for the speakers of Indo-Aryan), but what about their distinctive identities, starting with their languages?  Tribal activism and separatism is strongest in Jharkhand and the North-East, but about the origins of the tribals predominant in these two areas, leading anthropologists have a sobering message:

�Whereas the now Dravidian-speaking tribals of Central and South India can be considered to be descendents of the original inhabitants of India, who gave up their original languages in favour of Dravidian, Tibeto-Chinese speaking tribals (Northeast India) and Austro-Asiatic speaking ones (East India) immigrated into India since ancient historical times.  Most likely they came in several waves from Southern China (Tibeto-Chinese speakers) and from Southeast Asia (Austro-Asiatic speakers) respectively.  Without doubt these immigrating groups met with ancient Indian populations, which were living already on their migration routes, and thus one cannot exclude some cultural and also genetic contacts between immigrants and original inhabitants of India, at least at some places.�53

The Oraons of Chhotanagpur have a tradition describing their wanderings from the western coast along the Narmada river to their present habitat on the Ranchi plateau, where they pushed the Mundari-speaking tribes to the eastern part of the plateau.54 This fits in with the theory that the Dravidian language family as a whole entered India from Baluchistan and further West.55 Likewise, Bastar in Central India �was probably populated by Kolari-speaking Austro-Asiatic tribes (�) It is surmised that the Gonds who now live there immigrated from South India and chased out the said Austro-Asiatic groups.�56

As for the Austro-Asiatic tribes themselves (Ho, Santal, Munda), pushed out from some areas by Dravidian-speaking Gonds and Oraons, they too have a history of immigration.  Their languages, along with Nicobarese, belong to the Austro-Asiatic language family, of which the dominant members are Khmer and Vietnamese.  Its original heartland was probably the Bronze age culture of the 3rd millennium BC in Thailand, but it stretched as far as central China.57 There are archaeologically attested connections between these cultures, as pointed out by Prof. H.D. Sankalia: �The Eastern Neolithic Culture of India was partly received from the Far East.�58 Indeed: �The general assumption is still that the Munda languages came to India from the east via Assam and Burma.�59 The most recent findings in both linguistics and anthropology confirm the East-Asian origin of the Munda family of tribes.60

André Béteille confirms this: �Taking India as a whole, it would be absurd to designate as indigenous only the tribal population, leaving out all the others.  As a matter of historical fact, several of the contemporary tribes of India moved into the country across its northeastern frontier long after the areas into which they had moved had been settled by peasants who are not now designated as tribals.  The Mizos certainly are not more indigenous to the areas they inhabit than the Gujaratis are to Guiarat.�61

By all accounts, the Tibeto-Burmese �Adivasis� in the North-East are among India�s most recent ethnic immigrants, whose presence in India may not go back more than a thousand years.  Not important in itself, but the question whether the tribals themselves are truly �original inhabitants� is the logical outcome of their own (admittedly tutored) choice to classify India�s inhabitants as �aboriginals� and �invaders�.  The question may sound sacrilegious to those who champion the Adivasi label, but it is their own stand that makes it pertinent.  At any rate, the historical data do not support the division of India�s population in �aboriginal tribals� and �non-tribal invaders�.  This finding ought to help bring the over-dramatized question of the tribals� religious identity back to its real proportions.

9.9. Hinduism, a �pre-Aryan� religion

There is one Hindu Revivalist author who has methodically argued against the view (implied in the term âdivâsî) that the tribals have one religion, which is indigenous, and non-tribals another, the Vedic religion, which was imported.  Shrikant Talageri puts it in the context of the Aryan Invasion Theory, the cornerstone of the division of Indians into �natives� and �invaders�.62 A discussion of the rightness or wrongness of this theory (rejected by many Hindu nationalists) would take us too far here, but Talageri�s point is precisely that even if we accept the theory, most elements in Hinduism are commonly assumed (by scholars accepting the theory) to have been borrowed from the natives.

Talageri proposes: �Let us examine whether, as per the Aryan Invasion Theory itself, Hinduism is an �Aryan� religion. (�) Suniti Kumar Chatterji has listed some of the features of Hinduism, which are supposed to be of �pre-Aryan� origin (�) As a study of the material presented therein will show, almost every aspect of Hinduism as we know it today, certainly every feature central to the religion, is supposed to be of �pre-Aryan� origin.�63 The criterion applied, not by Talageri but by established scholars like S.K. Chatterji, whom he quotes, is mostly whether a motif or practice is attested in the Rigveda and in related Indo-European traditions, esp. the Avesta, the Germanic, Celtic and Slavic cultures, pre-Classical Rome and Greece, and even the reviving Paganism of the Baltic peoples (the Latvian Dievturiba and the Lithuanian Romuva religion).64 Anything not attested in these Indo-European traditions is supposed to be �pre-Aryan�, or to summarize Talageri�s detailed enumeration:

1. The entire system of idol-worship, whether of the lingam, of �rude blocks of stone� with eyes painted on them, or of sculptured images of stone, metal or wood; including the procedure of worship, viz. treating the idols as living beings (washing them, feeding them etc.), offering them flowers and fruits, waving lamps and incense before them, performing music and dance before them; and the construction of permanent houses for them, temples with sacred tanks, chariots for annual processions, pilgrimages etc.

2. The application of coloured pastes on the idols and on the skin of the worshipper, including the saffron colour and the forehead-mark (tilak), two of the most basic symbols of Hinduism.

3. The concept of transmigration of souls.

4. The enumeration of the days by moon phases (tithi), on which the ritualistic calendar (Panchâga) is based.

5. Zoomorphic aspects of Hinduism: sacredness of animals, worship of elephant-God Ganesha and monkey-God Hanuman, concept of Lord Vishnu incarnating in the form of a fish, tortoise, boar, lion; the animal vehicles of the gods (Shiva�s bull, Vishnu�s eagle, Durga�s lion etc.).

6. Most Gods actually worshipped are considered �pre-Aryan� (certified Aryan Gods like Indra, corresponding to Zeus/Jupiter/Thor/Perkunas, are hardly worshipped).65

7. Many Puranic myths are considered Sanskrit adaptations of �indigenous� myths.

8. It is obvious that all the sacred places of India could not have been imported by the �Aryans�.

9. All the typically Indian materials used in Hindu rituals have obviously been employed in emulation of native usage.

Talageri concludes: �After all this, how much remains of Hinduism which can be classified as �Aryan�?  According to the Aryan invasion theory itself, Hinduism is practically a �pre-Aryan� (�) religion adopted by the �Aryans�.�66 This point is also conceded by the more enlightened among the Aryan invasion theorists, e.g.: �Hinduism has not been �imported� by the Aryans�, in the sense that the latter�s religion differed considerably from what is now known as Hinduism.67

In general outline, this is hard to refute.  But of course, the established proponents of the Aryan Invasion Theory may be wrong in their tracing of cultural motifs to Aryan or non-Aryan sources.  Many religious themes assumed to have been borrowed from the �pre-Aryan natives� are now recognized by a new generation of Indo-Europeanists as part of the common �Aryan� heritage.  Thus, Bernard Sergent presents fresh evidence to equate Vishnu with the Germanic god Vîdharr and Shiva with the Greek god Dionysos.68 Even so, that still leaves a large part of Hindu lore to be traced to aboriginal sources.

9.10. Tribal belief in reincarnation

For an instance of a Hindu doctrine claimed as indigenous, consider the belief in reincarnation.  Though apparently attested among the ancient Celts, among the Pythagoreans (who acknowledged Oriental influence) and in Virgil�s Aeneis, it is not in evidence in the Vedas (thought it may be implied in some episodes or mantras), and is therefore considered a pre-Aryan import into Hinduism.  Among the Indo-Europeans including the Vedic Aryans, different beliefs about the afterlife may have co-existed, but the communis opinio is that the Vedic Aryans adopted the belief in reincarnation from Indian �natives�.  According to anti-Brahmin authors, the wily Aryan Brahmins then forged this borrowed belief into a weapon to suppress the natives by means of the caste system.69 It is, at any rate, widely believed that �the caste system in India has always been officially justified and legitimized by the doctrine of karma.  Someone�s birth in a higher or a lower caste or as an outcaste was the consequence of the law of karma.�70

Fact is that the belief in reincarnation, considered by some as a defining characteristic of Hinduism, is also found among Indian tribals, though with philosophical variations and coexisting with other beliefs.  Thus, Robert Parkin writes that the Munda tribals believe in reincarnation, but with an �absence of an ethical component�, so that �it is the manner of one�s death, not the worth of one�s life, that is the qualification for rebirth�.71 For the Mundas, �reincarnation is of course an object of desire here, not of dread�.72 Clearly, then, they did not borrow it from Buddhism or Puranic Hinduism, which impose a moralistic and negative view of rebirth on this basic belief.

There is no reason to attribute the belief in reincarnation among tribals to Brahminical influence. In his survey of reincarnation beliefs around the world, the Dutch scholar Hans Ten Dam reports that in all continents, people have believed in reincarnation, e.g. more than a hundred Black African nations.73  Many of these peoples were unrelated, and stumbled upon the notion of reincarnation independently, without needing the pre-Aryan Indians to tell them about it.  As Ram Swarup argues, the belief in reincarnation �is found among people who are called �primitive� as well as those who are called �civilized� (�) among the Eskimos, Australians, Melanesians, the Poso Alfur of Celebes in Indonesia, among Algonquians, Bantus, (�) the Pythagoreans and the teachers of Orphic mystery (�) In short, the doctrine has the support of the spiritual intuition of most mankind, ancient or modern.�74 

Conversely, some scholars claim that the notion of karma and of reincarnation has not been attested among the early Dravidian populations of India: �Before the coming of the Aryan ideas, the Tamils did not believe in reincarnation.  Rather, like many archaic peoples, they had shadowy and inconsistent ideas of what happens to the spirits of the dead.�75 Till today, karma and reincarnation are not as pervasive in Hindu culture as textbooks suggest, e.g. the late A.K. Ramanujan testifies: �But when I looked at hundreds of Kannada tales, I couldn�t find a single tale that used karma as a motif or motive.�76 Among Tamil villagers, karma was found to alternate with talaividi (�headwriting�), one�s fate imprinted at birth, unrelated with past lives and not logically compatible with karma.77

So, both in Hindu and in tribal cultures, we have a variety of opinions about the afterlife, including several versions of the doctrine of reincarnation.  Certain ideas are so general that trying to identify them with ethnic groups is unconvincing when not downright funny.  Thus, I once heard an Indologist of feminist persuasion argue that Samkhya philosophy, which divides the universe into a multiplicity of spirits (Purusha, masculine) and a single �nature� or material world (Prakriti, feminine), must have been thought up by a �pre-Aryan� culture because it betrays a matriarchal polyandrous viewpoint.

Likewise, Heinrich Zimmer, an exponent of this ethnic division of Indian thought, is described by Frits Staal as �the author of an original but one-sided description of Indian philosophies-based on an interpretation not free of racial prejudice: according to Zimmer, there is in Indian thought an opposition between the monist Vedanta philosophy which stems from the Vedic Aryans and the realistic dualism of Jainism and Buddhism which he links with the �original� Dravidian India.�78 Staal dismisses this as �romantic ideas not verified in reality�.

Within the ethnically fairly homogeneous Greek world, we see a wealth of different philosophies spring up in just a matter of centuries, from Anaximander to Zeno; it stands to reason that the much larger Hindu society also produced different world-views and different religious practices without having to borrow them from non-Hindu cultures.  Both in Hindu and in tribal culture, several views of afterlife and reincarnation coexist, and the two sets partially overlap.  So far, the distribution of different views of reincarnation in Hindu society and in tribal-animist society is not such as to indicate a clean religious cleavage between those two.

9.11. Do tribals have caste?

As we have seen, numerous observers take caste division to be a defining trait of Hinduism.  Shrikant Talageri accepts the historical (i.e. non-essentialist) entanglement of Hinduism in the caste system: �The caste system (�) is, in its nastier aspects, the bane of Hinduism and Indian society.  This system, however, is a social system, and is not really a central aspect of Hinduism, although vested interests down the centuries have strived, with great success, to identify it with Hinduism.�79

Until recently, Hindu upper-caste interests were most insistent on justifying caste observance as a Hindu religious duty.  But now, the situation is just the reverse: �It is a feature of Hindu society which every genuine Hindu and Hindu nationalist organisation (like the RSS) has sought to wipe out or at least to neutralise; and which every Leftist and secularist politician and intellectual, and Muslim and Christian force, has tried to strengthen and perpetuate�.80 Now, every anti-Hindu author tries his utmost best to pin Hinduism down on the caste system, and conversely, every other religion competing with Hinduism for prestige and for souls describes itself as anti-caste and egalitarian.

To maximize the difference between Hindus and tribals, it is routinely said that �the tribals, unlike the Hindus, have equality and no caste system�.  This fits in with the trend that Aboriginals all over the world are redefining their own cultural heritage in terms of the �noble savage�, the idealized views which Romantic Westerners had projected onto them.  Thus, the Gaia Atlas of First Peoples quotes one �Pat Dodson, aborigine�, as saying: �In traditional Aboriginal society, no one person was more important than another-all were parts of a whole.  Growth and stature were measured by contribution, participation and accountability.�81 This may, in his case, be the truth, but the apologetic element in this trend is hard to miss.

Some tribes (especially the most primitive ones, with little functional differentiation) may have come closer to this egalitarian ideal than others, but in general, we can question this assertion on several counts.  Equality is a very modem concept, and we may doubt that there exists a norm of �equality� even within a tribe, within a clan, within a family.  Moreover, even without hierarchical ranking there can be a division in endogamous groups, i.e. castes; or in Indian terms, endogamous jâtis though without varna ranks.

The world over, tribal populations observe various kinds of caste distinctions.  Thus, concerning tribals on the Pacific islands: �In the Mariami group it was the common belief that only the nobles were endowed with an immortal soul, and a nobleman who married a girl of the people was punished with death.  In Polynesia the commoners were looked upon by the nobility as a different species of beings.  Hence in the higher ranks the marriage was concluded only with persons of corresponding positions; and if in Tahiti, a woman of [rank] chose an inferior person as a husband, the children he had by her were killed.�82 Among the natives of Fiji, too, �a strict hierarchy, a kind of caste system, regulates all of village life�.83 So, these Polynesian tribals had endogamous groups in a hierarchical relation (�nobility� and �commoners�).  The relation between them was neither more egalitarian nor more flexible than that between Hindu castes, on the contrary: marriage outside the caste was not punished with mere expulsion, as happens among Brahmins, but with death.

For another example, we may turn to Congo, where the Batwa or Pygmees coexist with the Baoto, who settled in their land about two thousand years ago: �From this violent clash resulted a modus vivendi which persists till today.  The division of roles is contained in unwritten laws.  While the Baoto live in the village centre, the Batwa live in the periphery (�) The Batwa used to serve as village guardsmen (�) All kinds of taboos colour the relations between the communities.  Batwa and Baoto cannot use the same washing-place, Baoto don�t touch food prepared by Batwa, mixed marriages are absolutely prohibited.  It has nothing to do with social justice, but these relations certainly are stable.�84 Unequal ranking, endogamy and untouchability: all the elements allegedly typical of Hindu society have sprung up in the heart of tribal Africa without any �Aryan� influence.

Endogamy was once a world-wide practice, and there is no reason to assume that Indian tribes a

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