Perspectives on Religious Syncretism in India

Das, Dr. N. K.

(continued from Perspectives on Religious Syncretism in India in vol.2, issue 8 )

    Tribal religion is also seen in the regional context. Regional centres of Hinduism have emerged in Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, Guruvayur in Kerala, Kamakhya in Assam and Jagannath in Orissa, as symbols of cultural identity at the regional and national level in which local communities including tribes are involved. The relationship between tribal and Hinduism can also be seen in terms of the influence of Bhakti movements upon the tribal people. The spread of Vaishnav ideas started in the later middle age and penetrated deeper during the colonial period with the opening up of tribal areas and with the influx of Hinduised peasant Communities traders and moneylenders.

    Eschmann and other scholars (Eschmann 1986, Das 2003) have observed that Brahmanical incorporation of tribal deities and "Cults" occurred more frequently in post-Buddhist times. In fact no notable research is yet available about Buddhist-tribal culture contacts in Budhist era. Many western Orissa tribes exhibit remnants of Buddhism, assimilated within tribal religion. Ever since medieval times when bhakti cultscame to gain ground a process of Hinduization came to occupy centre-stage. Brahmans thus started creating Rajput myths for tribal chiefs. Slowly tribal royal deities were also being absorbed, transformed and rechristened as Hinduistic deities. According to Eschmann (1986) "High" Hinduism or great tradition and tribal religion or little tradition are not directly confronted. They are combined through several intermediary stages within regional tradition.

    According to Eschmann "Hindudization acts intelsely only on the level of Hindu village cults, that is in such village communities, where tribal groups constantly live together with caste Hindus. The next decisive stage of Hinduization is reached, when an aboriginal cult-either from the intermediate stage of a village cult, or directly from the tribal level – becomes incorporated into a Hindu temple. Such a "temple" is distinguished by three characteristics, daily performance of puja, recognition by all castes and more than local importance" (emphasis added).

    Eschmam further says, "the temple level may be adefinite stage of Hinduism, but not necessarily the end of the process of Hinduization …. one may identify the foci with the main stages of Hinduization – tribal cult, tribal cult with elements of Hinduization, Hindu village cults, temples of subregional importance, and great temples of regional importance". Eschmann has rightly observed that tribal goddesses are often identified with Durga, who continue to accept animal sacrifice and assures fertility and even though they retain their original tribal names. Second stage is calling a Brahmam to impart the prana pratistha –mantra. Mangala, Pitabali, Hindula, Baunthi and Stambhesvari are some such tribal goddess of Orissa. Stambhesvari has existed as a tribal goddess since about 500 AD. She was tutelary deity of the Sulki and Bhanja dynasties and widely worshipped in West Orissa (Kulke 1975). Stambhesvari or Khambhesvari (in Oriya) "lady of the post", is also represented and worshipped through stones. In the shrine at Bamur, Khambesvari is represented by a simple stone worshipped daily by a Dehuri priest of Suddha, a tribe.

    At village level, a deity of tribal origin is widely worshipped either as a gramapati or gramadevi. Cult is tribal. It is represented by a uniconical symbol,  worshipped by a non-Brahman priest. The Khond priestof Khambesvari, however, soon after worship, becomes Ubha (possessed). Thereafter the priest performs the sacrifice and cooks the bhoga to be offered to the goddess, whereas the bhoga which at the end of the festival is to be shared by all is cooked by a Brahman specially called in (Eschmann 1986). In yet another example Eschmann (1986) further explains involvement of "Harijan" (scheduled caste) for "the killing of the sacrificial animals and drumming" with the tribal Dehuri and Kalisi (1986). In many temples of Hindudized mother goddesses, stones or pebbles are worshipped along with the main image in the garbha griha. Infact, stones or wooden posts stand outside such temples (which are worshipped too) in front of whom the "sacrifice" is performed, and to them the blood is offered and not to "the main image" (emphasis added). While Eschmann describes this tendency "to separate the sacrifice from the main cult" as a case of "intensive Hinduization" we may conveniently call it a case of partial Hinduization at popular level hence a perfect case of syncretism. In the same area Buddhist elements in the cult of Tara-Tarini indicate incorporation of tribal cult into Buddhism. A small Bodhisattva image is worshipped together with the goddess in the garbha-griha. Tarini is also the name of a tribal or semi-tribal goddess worshipped in Keonjhar area (Eschmann 1986). This example further exhibits a strong tribal element intermingling with another major religion, i.e. Buddhism.

    K.S.Singh (2003) has reported that the tribal world today particularly in middle India has become thecontrol over the tribals abundant resources and over their ways of life and religion.Both Christianity and "Sanatani" form of Hindus are locked in conflict which goes back to the colonial times when aided by the resources of traders and merchants from Hindu heartland, efforts were made to check the spread of Christianity supported by superior resources. Tribals are Hindus, they said, even as they tried to impose the Hinduism on the tribal people, whose religion though close to the local forms of Hinduism still had distinctive features going back to their separate, isolated and distant existence. In post-independence years, as Christianity has spread, the Hindu backlash has intensified. Hanuman cult has become more visible with his image installed at most unlikely places. The Oraons are being represented asthe devotees of Ram (O Ram). Political and commercial interests have continued with this form of penetration. The tribals have been influenced, First by the resurgent forms of both Hinduism and Christianity in their area. Second, there has been a going back to the roots, a revival of tribal's own traditional religion, which centered on the sacred grove (Sarna). New trends are also noted in the area.

    One, Christianity in tribal areas has indigenised itself by liberally borrowing from local traditions. Second, there has been a greater appreciation of the need to preserve the similarities with local forms of Hinduism.

    The processes of sectarianism and syncretism have variously affected the tribes of India in different historical phases. While studying the process of Christianization in tribal societies of Jharkhand at the inter-generation level, Sahay (1990) has brought, to light the process of combination, retroversion, and indigenization at work but he avoids to describe the situation from the vantage of syncretism which is inherent in the indigenization process. Some sections of the Christians seem to be apprehensive as they see the loss of vital elements of the Christian tradition in indigenization. In fact, "syncretism", the watering down of what is distinctive to Christianity by admixture with beliefs and practices from other religions, is regarded as "the most obvious danger" (Grant 1961 : 41-42).

    North-East India, earlier known as Kamarupa and Pragrjyotisha came to be called as Assam even though Manipur, Tripura and NEFA regions had their distinct tribal identities. Right from pre-colonial era, tribal religions had continued to flourish and the Hinduization process had been sluggish. Gait has elucidated this process succincity: "In the Brahmaputra valley large sections of population are still outside the pale of Hinduism at the beginning of this century,---in the lower stage of conversion where their adopted religion still sits lightly on them and they have not yet learnt to resist the temptation to indulge in pork,fowls and other articles regarded by the orthodex as impure. The reason seems to be that in the early days the Hindu settlers confined their attention to the king and his chief nobles. They wouldconvert them, admit the nobles to khastriya rank .

    They would not interfere with the tribal religious rites as to do so would call forth the active animosity of native priest; nor would they trouble about the beliefs of the common people who would continue to hold to their old religious notions. If the dynasty lasted long enough, the influence of Hindu ideas would gradually filter down-- as actually happened in the case of Ahoms"(1967). Hinduism came to be propagated in most parts of Brahmaputra valley gradually only after the advent of Shri Shankar Dev. More than a Hinduization process, the penetration of Buddhist religious tradition through pre-colonial era cultural contacts with Tibet appears to have greater impact among the hill tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. In fact Buddhist penetration from South-East Asian regions is observable in the Buddhist Traditions among the Tai-Khampti and Singpho tribes. The colonial rulers generally encouraged Christian in both plains and hills regions, except Arunachal Pradesh. Christianity not only introduced a new belief system but also a new cultural identity, which got politicised often (Das 1989).

    Since A.D. 1126, Buddhist Tantriks, Sahajiyas and Naths form Bengal and Mahayana Buddhists of Northern India had gradually penetrated into Assam. Shakti cult had established the ethos of indulgence in wine, meat and animal sacrifice and a variety of esoteric practises. Several branches of the Vjrayana and Sahajyana orders of the Buddhism mixed with magic and monistic philosophy had been merged. In such environment of the fifteenth century, Sri Sankar Dev (1449-1569) introduced a neo-Vaishnatvite sect. For both the tribal and non -tribal people of Assam, he was preacher,philosopher,poet and social reformer. Following the then prevailing Buddhist institutions, Sankara Dev designated his form of initiation as Sarana and divided it into three categories as Nama Sarana, Guru Sarana and Bhakta Sarana corresponding to the Budddhists' Dharma-sarana, Buddha-sarana and Sangha-sarana. His congregational prayer house came to be called Nama-ghar where he installed 'holy book' on a wooden pedestal and where the kirtan is held. Sri Sankar Deva preached the idea of salvation through faith and prayer rather than sacrifice. He discarded idol worship and established monotheism.The Namaghara /Kirtana ghara complex came to be known as Satra (Das 2003b). Many tribal communities became members of different Satras. For its survival however the neo-Vasihnavism sect in Assam compromised with many pre-conversion cultural traditions of tribal adherents in different phases. The growing number of the neo-Vaishnavite monasteries-satras-continued to provide an outlet to the people to become bhaktas (devotee – followers). Tribes of central and upper Assam, were generally fascinated by diverse offshoot sects which grew often under the influence of Eka Sarna-Nam-Dharma, such as Matak, Kalasmhati and Mayamara. These sects often advocated varied ideologies through their Nama Gharas. With the introduction of the institutions of Nam-ghar and Satra the 'temple culture' came to an end in Assam. While in Mayamara Satra (religious centre) a secular orientation is emphasized, the Matak followers of same sect came to reject the Brahman priesthood and Brahmanical ritualism (Das 2003b).

    Certain sections among the Ahoms continued to perform their tribal religious beliefs and practices (Das and Gupta 1982). There are villages in upper Assam inhabited by Ahom tribal priests (Mohans and Deodhais). With the adoption of Vaishnavism, the so called elite sections of the Ahoms lost their "tribal" identity and acquired a Hindu-caste like identity, though a viable occupation based jajmani centred caste system never grew in Assam, and some occupational/professional castes only minimally existed in Assam. There are family rituals like damak diya, which resembles Hindu sraddha ritual. There are some typical Ahom rituals such as Rik-Khvan (meant for Ahom god Leng dom) wherein several old deities are collectively worshipped. The Ahom priests use Tai language during worship (Das and Gupta 1982).

    Umpha-puja is a community festival. They also worship the apical tribal ancestor during me-dam-me-phi ceremony. The Ahoms celebrate janmashtami and tithi of Sri Sankardev in the namghar. This is more common among those Ahom sections such as Changmais, Bhuyans and Chetias. The Tai priestly sections of the Ahom are least Hinduized. They continue to have faith in supernatural powers whom they venerate and also sacrifice pigs and fowls in their honour. 

    The Bodo-Kacharis, whom Endle (1911) described as "animistic", constitute the largest tribal group of plains of Assam. Various cultural, linguistic, religious and political movements have been launched among them since the independence of India. A prime factor in development of cultural distinctiveness among the Bodo Kacharis has been the spread of "Brahma" sect among them. Kalicharan Mech, founder of Brahma sect, wrote a book Saraniya Kriya. The basic tenets of Brahmaism are contained in the phrase "chandrama surjya narayane jyoti" (May the sunlight dispel all darkness and lead us to Brahma). A basic mantra of new religion has been "Om sat guru". Some scholars have described Brahma religion as a cult (Saikia, 1982). According to the ethical dictums of the Brahma cult, neither idolatory nor sacrifice are permitted (Saikia, 1982). The followers of the Brahma religious tradition abstain from drinking rice beer and eating fish or meat. The impact of Brahma movement has since declined in many areas. The Rabhas are found in south Kamrup and south Goalpara districts of Assam and also in North Garo hills districts of Meghalaya, where they have five distnict ethnic segments, Rongdani, Maitori, Pati, och. The Rabhas are traditionally a matrilineal tribe but, prolonged contacts with the Hindu communities have ushered in cultural change and thus some of the Rabha sub-tribes have adopted Hindu kinship traditions, though inheritance and descent rules continue to be matrilineal. Thus the mother property is inherited by the daughter and father property by the son in many areas. The Pati and Dahor sub tribes of Rabhas are Hinduised sections, but they continue to worship tribal deities too. Majumdar observed different degrees of sanskritization among different sections of the Rabha (Majumdar, 1968). Thus, the Pati Rabhas belonged to the top and thengdani Rabhas to the bottom of ritual order. In Garo hills the Rongdani Rabha have retained their traditional tribal deities which are worshipped. These Rabhas have not been affected to any considerableent by neighbouring Hinduized tribes (Majumdar, 1968). However, the Kachari neighbours have adopted two deities of the Rongdani Rabhas. The Rongdanis did not adopt any deity from the Hindu pantheon (Majumdar, 1969). If we compare religious practices as well asthe social framework of the Rongdani with those of theKoch and the Hajong, we witness that there is a gradual infusion charactrized by absence of matrilineal clans and adoption of Indo-Aryan kinship system (for example, treating the mother's brother's daughter as a sister). Thus we find the Rongdani in their pure tribal form,while the Hajong emerging as a purely Hindu caste, albeit at the lower end of the hierarchy; and the Koch occupying an intermediate position, because in them we find good blending of Hinduism with forms of pre-sanskritized tribalized social framework represented by prevalence of matrilineal clan organization (though considerably weakened) combined with a matching kinship terminology. So, here is a tribe, which has aligned itself with the Hindus, though ,strictly speaking remains outside the sphere of the Hinduism. In conclusion it can be said that while Rongdani Rabhas are yet to enter the Hindu society the Hajong have drastically sanskritized their religion and between them are placed 'tribe' like Koch oscillating between two poles in a true syncretistic spirit. Here we witness the archetypal North east model of religious syncretism (Das 2003b). The Koch community of Kamarupa was originally a tribe, like the Ahom (Das 1994). The term Koch however became a common caste name for several "Hinduized" Assamese tribes. Guha (1991) observed that to become Koch meant more than mere religious conversion. It meant the adoption of plough in place of hoe and mud – plinth dwelling in place of pile-house dwelling. (Guha 1991:19). In one example of cultural change we notice that while the entire Chapra section of the Koch substantially engrossed the Hinduism, the Song Koch refused to set off the Chapra mode. Majumdar (1968) observed different stages of absorption of Hinduism among different sections of the Koch. Thus the Chapra section showed total transformation of tribal religion and adoption of Hinduism, while other sections showed varied adoption of only some deities from Hindu pantheon. Majumdar has rightly concluded that – "the song Koch are only half way in the adoption of Hinduism" (1968). 

    The Karbis, like most tribes of Assam are pantheists. The religion of the Karbis may be described as "ancestor worship" oriented. Guru Lakhimon's discourse popular among the Karbis is a variation of Vaishnavism. He allowed followers to eat fish. He says through proper teaching, food and synchronized habit one can acquire satvik quality. Guru Lakhimon's initiation mantra is – Hare Hemphu. It should be noted that Hemphu is original tribal god of the Karbis. They don't worship any image nor do they follow any rituals (Parampanthi 1978). The Mishing religion today is not a unified system based on tribal beliefs. After migration and coming in contact with other religions of the plains, the Mishings have adopted the Bhakatiya panth, which refers to performing religious functions through the help of the Bhakatas. Despite great influence of Bhakatiya religion, the Mishings continue to venerate some tribal deities and celebrate tribal religious festivals such as Dobiurvie.

    The Mataks are followers of the Mayamara sect. They form a religious sect which consists of different tribes. Thus the Kachari, Moran, Ahom, Chutiya, Barahis, Britias and Kaibarta are all followers of same Matak sect. Mayamara Satra is the main religious centre of the Mataks. Though the Mayamara satra is based on the tenets of Sri Sankardev's eka sarna-nam-dharma, but the Mataks subscribe to Kalasamhati philosophy. According to this religious philosophy the Guru himself occupies an exalted position as that of God. Hence, no idol worship is done in Mayamara satra.

    The hills of north east India also present vibrant examples of Syncretistic religious traditions. The development of Christianity in the Khasi hills was seen as challenge by certain Khasis who organised themselves initially under the banner of an young mens association in 1899. During the same period Khasi elders like Babu Jiban Roy and Radhon Singh Berry formed a cultural organization called Seng Khasi. By 1909, Seng Khasi movement had crystallized its objective as : "to revive the true faith of forefathers". D.Sun has discussed the aspects of Syncretism in Khasi culture (Sun 2003). The Nagas are highly conservative, traditionalist and orthodox. At the same time Nagas represent a model of synthesis of tradition and modernity. (Das 1982, 1983, 1985, 1987, 1993 & 1994). Despite large scale adoption of the Christinity the Nagas continue to celebrate host of tribal festivals and adhere to old cultural values. In his book The Angami Nagas, J.H.Hutton (1921) has fittingly described the Christian members of the Nagas as "pseudo-Christians". Most Naga tribes even after acceptance of Christianity continue to observe scores of tribal rites and rituals. Among the Zounuo-Keyhonuo Naga the Christian and non-Christian sections equally associate themselves with the agriculture related rituals conducted during "first sowing" and "first reaping". They also collectively celebrate Sekrenyie, the major tribal festival, which is performed on behalf of the whole village in the month of February. The Zeliangrong movement among the Zemi, Liangmei and Rongmei of Manipur and Nagaland has passed through several stages. The initial religious programme of this movement was aimed at abolition of irrational custom and superstitions. Gaidinliu led the religious cult Heraka established by Jadonang. Jadonang preached that there is only one high god in place of many tribal gods. He prescribed ceremonies, which resembled the Hindu tantrik cult practices (Singh 1972). Synthesis of Hinduism and tribal religion may be witnessed here. Manipur has three major cultural groups-Meitei, Kuki, Naga. The Meitei, Manipuri, are divided into two major religious sections, the Gouriya (the Vaishnavite) and Sanamahi (the adherents of tribal faith). Followers and non-followers of Vaishnavism came to be identified as Asengba (pure) and Amangaba (polluted). Many elements of Meitei tribal religion were, however, retained by the Meiteis. In fact the tribal religion, as observed by Saha (1982)' existed side by side with Vaishnavism'. The religion of the Gouriyas indeed displays syncretistic religious features. The rulers of Tripura originally belonged to the tribal Tripuri community. The original tribes of Tripura are the Tripuri, Riang, Noatia, Jamatia and Halam with their sub-tribes. They profess tribal religions, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. Hinduism has immense influence on the tribes of Tripura on account of impact of Hindu refugees who came from then East Pakistan and later migrants, even though tribal religious practices survive. The whole population of Arunachal Pradesh may be divided into three cultural groups on the basis of their social and religious affinities. The first group consists of Buddhists such as Monpas, Khamtis etc. The second group consists of the Adis, Bangnis, Tagins etc. They practice tribal religions. In the third group the Wanchus and Noctes are included among whom we witness the spread of Vaishnavism to a partial extent. The Monpas follow the Mahayana Buddhism which centres around Tawang monastery. They also continue to follow old Bon religion. The Sherdukpen religion is blend of Mahayana Buddhism and tribal magical – religious beliefs. The Mijis have also come under the influence of Buddhism, though tribal religion survives among them (Das 2003b).

    Northeast India's cultural landscape, its regional cultures and tribal religions, with their local variants, stand out distinctly. We have noted that on account of multi-pronged culture contact, the regional cultures and tribal religions were considerably influenced, but the tribal religious beliefs and cultures of North East India are too strong to be obliterated easily. The fact remains that varied and differential spread of Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity in the region never led to complete abandonment of native tribal religious convictions and practices. In fact, as reported elsewhere by this author (Das 2003) a certain degree of cultural oscillation always existed between opposed sets of religious traditions, and which shaped the unique syncretistic culture of the region, which remains vibrant.


    The Dalits, the ex-untouchable communities of India, have often contested the religious oppression and rigid religious authoritarianism in different parts of India. In order to seek spiritual democracy in different historical phases, they often adopted several regional sects and religious orders including the Sikhism and Buddhism. There are Dalit castes such as Mahar and Balahi (Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh) who have adopted Buddhism and Jainism respectively. The Balai (Rajasthan) have adopted Dadu Panthi sect.

    The sect shuns idolatry a d believes in the unity of god. The Balmikis of Delhi are divided into several endogamous religious groups, such as Hindu Balmiki, Sikh Majhabi, and Muslim Mussali (Singh, 1995 : 101-109). The Bazigars (Punjab) have adopted Sikhism.

    Earlier they venerated the Pirkhana. They visit gurudwara and at the same time they also celebrate  Holi, Diwali, Dashahra and Lohri (Singh 1995:200). The Banjaras (Himachal Pradesh) are divided into the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. The Hindus and Sikhs inter-marry, hence there has been a great deal of admixture between their religious life and practices (Singh, 1995:130). The Beda Jangams are the Lingayats of Karnataka. They have five divisions based on different religious gurus. The disciples of these gurus (pithas or seats) avoid marital relations (Singh : 1995:205). The census enumerators, during 2001 operation, faced a piquant situation as all Lingayats insisted to be categorized as members of a separate religion "Lingayat dharma". Some Lingayats chose to be identified as Lingayat Hindu or Veera Shaiva Hindu (Times of India, Bangalore, February, 16, 2001). TheBedia (Orissa), called Bedia Kudmi, profess both the traditional religion and Hinduism. They were participants of Medi movement of Orissa. (Singh : 1995:211). The Bhangis of Gujarat consider Balmiki Muni as their god. They are also followers of Kabir, Ramananda and Nanak. The Chamar profess different religions and sects. In Himachal Pradesh, they are Ravidasis and also Nirankari Sikhs (Singh : 1995:311). In Haryana the Julaha are the followers of Kabir though some Julaha have adopted Buddhism, and some follow Sikhism and even Christianity. In Punjab they are Ramdaasi Sikhs (Singh, 1995:315). The Jatav are one of the foremost of the Dalit castes whose struggle for emancipation continues through varied movements. They refuse to be called Chamar. Most of them have dopted Buddhism. A common blend of beliefs and practices of Hinduism, Buddhism and "Ambedakarism" shapes their cultural life (Singh 1995:328). It has brought about a unique consciousness in every Jatav notwithstanding an individual's formal affiliation to a particular faith. The Dhanak of Delhi profess Hinduism and Satnam dharma. They are also followers of Arya Samaj, Radha Soam i and Kabir panth sects. The Satnamis of Chhattisgarh state also refuse to be called Chamar and they re gard Satnam-p nth as a distinct religion even though they continue to celebrate Diwali, Dashara and Holi festival without involvement of Brahman priests (Das 2000). The Bhagat movement in south Rajasthan propagated vegetarianism and cleanliness and considerably influenced the Gavaria. It has also prompted them to give up bride-price, alcoholism and polygyny (Singh, 1995;535). The Dhanak of Delhi profess Hinduism and Satnam dharma. They are also followers of Arya Samaj, Radha Soami sect, and Kabir panth etc. The Dom and Dombara of Karnataka are followers of Hinduism, but the Lingayat Jangams are their sacred specialists. The Doom of Punjab are either Sikhs or Hindus. There are also Arya Samajis among them (Singh, 1995;430-490). The Julaha of Delhi and Chandigarh are divided into two groups, Kabirpanthi and Julaha. The Kabirpanthi Julahas derive their name from Kabir. The Hindu Julahas also follow Kabir teachings. There are both Hindu and Sikh Julahas among them. In Jammu and Kashmir, the Kabirpanthi are also known as Bhagats. 

    The Khatik of Himachal Pradesh are divided into Hindu and Muslim, but in Haryana, they are also Sikhs. The Koli of Rajasthan follow Hinduism, Buddhism and Kabirpanth. The Christian Madigas of Tamil Nadu observe pre-conversion Hindu life cycle rituals and share water sources and burial grounds with other (Hindu) Dalits. The Mazhabi (Majhabi/Mazabi/Mazbi) of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh follow Sikhism. Some of them have become Nihangs (Singh, 1995 : 923). The Hindu religious customs are also observed by the Mazhabis in Rajasthan. During the nineteenth century, the Matu Sanga, on the one hand,and the Brahmo Samaj on the other hand, played important roles in uniting and uplifting the Namasudra of West Bengal. In Assam they are followers of Damodardeo Sect and Vaishnavism (Singh, 1995:980). The Koch in West Bengal, Assam and Tripura are Hindus. Many among them have become Muslims (Singh, 1995:740). They are also known as Rajbanshi. The Rajabanshis of North Bengal have spread into the Brahmaputra valley of Assam. The Rajbanshi took part in the Tebhaga movement of 1946, and now they are involved in a regional Kamatapur ethnic-separatist movement, mostly concentrated in North Bengal. The Mahars of Maharashtra call themselves Neo-Buddhists, after their adoption of Buddhism in 1956, under the leadership of Dr. B.R.Ambedakar, but elements of Hindu religion and caste system persists among them in entirety. The Neo-Buddhists are also referred to as Nav Buddhist. They are found in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab. They celebrate festivals connected with Buddhism and birth anniversary of Dr. B.R.Ambedkar. In Karnataka they have converted from Mahar, Holeya and Madiga communities. But in Karnataka the Neo-Buddhists celebrate most of the Hindu festivals and venerate Hindu deities (Singh, 1995:999). The Panchama, the Fifth One, have beenarnas" and "untouchables", hence they are placed outside the four varna scheme, and hence they declare themselves the fifth Varna. Panchama is a generic term. It includes many endogamous groups. In Andhra Pradesh many Panchamas have embraced Buddhism (1995 : 1045). The Rehar of Himachal Pradesh are followers of a Shaiva sect, but they believe in supernatural powers residing in forest, high hills and water sources. They employ sacred specialists from the Brahman and Sipi communities respectively (Singh, 1995:1117). The Sarera (or Sarde/Sorehara) of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh are mainly Hindus but Sorehara are Muslims. Again while some Sarera profess Hinduism, others are Sikhs. But they celebrate each other's festivals. The Sarera at Bungal worship Dadhani Baba and assemble there once a year. All religious communities of the region venerate the Baba (Singh, 1995 : 1167). The Thathiar of Himachal Pradesh are followers of Hinduism and Sikhism. Both the religious groups venerate Baba Achlecher Sahib and Kartik Rishi.

    The Shenva of Gujarat are Hindus, but many non-Hindu elements shape their religious life. The clan-deities are still worshipped during life cycle rituals. They are also followers of Ram Dev Pir. The Sillekyathas of Karnataka are also affiliated to Muslim Pirs, though they remain Hindus (Singh, 1995:1223). They even accept water and cooked food from the Lingayat, Brahman, Kurumba and the Muslim. The Adi Andhra of Tamil Nadu are also known as Thoti. They have been Hindus traditionally and they venerate Hindu god Murugan. However a large section of Thoti have become Christian converts. But the Hindu and the Christian converts continue to marry each other and the Christian converts continue to observe the Hindu festivals (Singh, 1995:22). The Arunthatiyar of Tamil Nadu are Hindus. A section among them has adopted Christianity, but pre-change religious practices survive among the converts (Singh, 1995 : 47). The Badaik are also called Chik or Chik Badaik. The Badaik priests are called Pahan. These priests are drawn from the Munda and Bhuiyan tribes. The Badaiks, as observed in the field by this author in Orissa, draw elements from both Hindu as well as local tribal religious practices (Das 1998).

    The above critique suggests that religious syncretism persists in an inconceivably vast number of Tribal and Dalit communities of India, in lesser or greater degrees. It is also noticed that mutual harmony exists between adherents of different religious dogmas and schools of thought and a definite process of syncretism is encompassing different ethnic and religious communities in all parts of India.


    In the study of religion in India, the major emphasis has been on descriptive account of religious customs and their association with ethnic groups, the themes of purity/pollution in relation to caste system, descriptive concepts relating to religious phenomena and the modernization processes. The more recent trend shows a departure from narrative recording to reflective analysis of the western discourse on Indian concepts used in Hinduism (Saraswati 2000). In a review of literature, Saraswati refers to nationalist phase and intellectual phase in the quest for indigenization or Indianization of anthropology. Theter phase developed in close alliance with Indology (Saraswati 2000). He further argues that there should not be a single system of classifying information on cultures. Notwithstanding the difference in material culture and intellectual power, tribal and non-tribal share the same ideas and experiences of existence.

    Anthropologists in India and elsewhere in developing countries have been doing pale imitation of their western masters. What is imperative is to throw new light on the many aspects of indigenous cultures of Asia and Africa. A new cultural anthropology has to incline strongly towards cross-cultural perspectives in which the knowledge system, in a wider context, has to be examined and compared. No living culture is to be viewed as static.


    India's epic and Puranic traditions have diffused throughout India and beyond and have been readapted, recreated and re-interpreted by tribal groups in local milieu in terms of local ethos. Even when the Mundas, Gonds, and Korkus have not become full Hindus they have internalized aspects of Ramayan/Ram-Katha in their folk tales. Centuries ago they imbibed these tales through the teachings of the mendicants called Gossains who travelled through tribal land (Singh 1993 :3). Some tribes also identify themselves with anti-heroes, such as Ravana. Elwin was first scholar who described the aboriginal Purana. Jesuit scholar Fr. Camil Bulcke collected not only tribal (Indo-Aryan and Dravidian) versions of Ram-Katha, but also Buddhist and Jain versions of Rama Katha. Right from Rajasthan and Nimad region of Madhya Pradesh, Western Orissa, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Assam and some parts of northeast we witness unique versions of Rama Katha adopted, spread and recreated. The Munda tribe offers an indigenous etymological explanation of Sita-'found under (ta) the plough (si)'. Ravana is described as a noble hero who belonged to a clan of the Munda tribe. The Pradhan, an occupational group belonging to the Gonds, have an account of Lakshmana which is different from the ideal younger brother protrayed in the classic Ramayana. The Mech tribals in Assam trace the Hindu-Muslim conflict to their version of Rama-Katha, according to which Lakshmana ate beef, became a Muslim and begot two sons, Hasan and Hussian, who were killed by Lava and Kusha (Roy Burman 1958).Singh (1993) says the spread of Rama Katha and its readaptation illustrates yet another facet of India's cultural formation – the interaction of homogenizing influences with vibrant local cultural systems, which makes our pluralism a living and ongoing process.

    Rama-Katha has rich tradition of spread in parts of Assam and beyond. In order to suite their own cultural milieu, the Bodo Kacharis have rearranged , reconstituted and reconstructed the Ramayana. The Bodo Kacharis were influenced by the Assames version of Rama Katha which had been expounded by the Kathakas into a simple rendition for the unlettered masses.

    Rama Katha was carried outside India by the 2nd and 3rd century and was readily accepted by Mons, Khmers, Khotanese and Mongolians giving rise to newer versions of the epic incorporating local traditions. The Ramayana travelled to South East Asia and other remote areas through a band of intrepid missionaries like Matanga, Kashyapa, Kaundinya as also through sailors, traders and settlers who travelled overland through Assam to South East Asia. The local versions that have developed in Sri Lanka, Siam, Laos, Burma, Tibet, (even though they maintained the basic structure of the story), introduce slight variations by adopting and mixing strains from their local cultural milieu (Swami Bangovinda Parampanthi, 1993).

    The Khamti Ramayana is of Buddhist religious affiliation. The Khamtis are a Buddhist tribe living in the Lakhimpur district of Assam and the Lohit district of Arunachal Pradesh. In religious matter their links with the Burmese Buddhist centres are still very strong. The Khamti Ramayana has a tribal character a clear deviation from the Hindu tradition.

    The Rama of Khamti Ramayana is a Bodhisattva who manifests himself in this form to punish and subdue the sinful and tyrannical Ravana (B.Datta 1993). There are large numbers of old manuscripts among the people belonging to the Tai stock. The first Ahom king Sukapha (12th century) brought many manuscripts on religion and culture to Assam. The manuscripts had continued to be written in the Tai language even after the Ahoms conquered Assam. The Tai people who migrated later such as Tai-Khamptis, Khamyanas, Aitons, Tai-Phakes and the Turungs also brought many manuscripts, mostly related to Buddhism. LamaMang, The Tai Ramayana, was one such manuscript brought by these people with them (Shyam 1993). In these examples we witness a process of blending of elements of Hinduism and Buddhism, particularly observable in adoptions and reinterpretation of Rama-Katha.


    This paper is an attempt to comprehend the elusive and synthesized structure of Indian civilization through the vantage point of syncretistic religious and cultural traditions of India. The case studies and empirical evidences presented have shown how religious ideas, rituals and cultural traits mediate between diverse ethnic communities, religious communities, sects, and cultural regions and give rise to a complex unity. The complex cultural unity of India is built up through protracted inter-relationship of the diverse cultural traditions, both literate and pre-literate. An attempt was made here to provide meaning to and draw certain conceptual linkages by focusing attention on empirical situations that reflect the phenomenon of religious and cultural syncretism in varied degrees. This paper has tried to establish, on the one hand, the falsity of the presupposed singleness of religious allegiance of the adherents, and highlights, on the other hand, the multiplicity of religious suppositions and confessional observances forged by amalgamation of distinct religious customs and beliefs, which ultimately sustain and maintain syncretistic religious cosmos of Indian civilization. This paper has thus tried to provide a fresh perspective by challenging many popularly held beliefs about the rigidities of the faith and by highlighting the glowing sphere of inter - faith harmony, which is the need of the era. It has endeavored to present syncretism not only as a viable way of life, but also as a vigorous theoretical category.

This article is largely based on this author's 'introduction' to Culture, Religion and Philosophy: Critical Studies in Syncretism and Inter-Faith Harmony. Editor N.K.Das. Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2003. A pre-revised version of this paper was presented in IAHR Regional Conference on "Religions in the Indic Civilisation" held at India International Centre, New Delhi from December 18 - December 21, 2003.The views expressed in the paper are those of author alone.

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