Perspectives on Religious Syncretism in India

Dr. N. K. Das

(continued from Perspectives on Religious Syncretism in India in vol.1, issue 7 )


Cultural - Integration, and particularly inter-culturalism has been an ancient phenomenon. People visited sacred centres all over the country and thus a process of continuous interaction operated continually at the grassroots level in all historical phases. Regular exchange and sharing of cultural and religious traits, thoughts and ethos contributed to cultural synthesis. One scholar has perceived Indian society as a "honeycomb" in which communities are engaged in vibrant interaction, sharing space, ethos, and cultural traits (Singh 1992 (2002): 111). Between themselves the communities look more at commonalties than differences and they easily establish rapport. In the People of India (PoI) survey that includes 4635 communities from entire India a high correlation of traits is reported between different cultural regions. There is also a high correlation between Hindus and Buddhists at wider level. The data set of PoI project suggests that people in religious sphere share a high percentage of traits: Hindu-Muslim (97.7 %), Hindu-Buddhist (91 %), Hindu-Sikh (88.99 %) and Hindu-Jain (77.46 %). Other religious communities with a high percentage of sharing of religious traits are Muslim-Sikh (89.95 %) Muslim-Buddhist (91.18 %) and Jain-Buddhist (81.34 %). Other forms of traditional linkages are participation in each other's religious ceremonies and festivals. Such sharing, according to this survey includes performing actual roles in religious ceremonies. The proportion of such communities as Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains visiting 'other religious shrines' vary from 8O- 92 per cent while 6O-75 per cent of the communities following Islam, Christianity and other religions (mainly Tribal) visit other people' shrines. Similarly participation in each other' s festivals is common (81- 91 per cent) for all categories of population. About 15-22 per cent of people perform specific roles in festivals of other religions such as making image, dress, and ornaments for deities, organizing worship and processions (Singh 1992 (2002); 112-113 ). These facts explain that despite contradictions and diversities, there exists vibrant sharing of cultural and religious traits. A basic sense of harmony prevails which dissolves our animosity and ultimately contributes towards shaping our unique homogenization.

Many significant culture changes have taken place in India since independence. While on the one hand, ethnic and regional self-consciousness or identity of castes, tribes, and minorities and other groups is increasing, there is prevalence of many integrative - cultural processes. In India now there is 'increased inter-regional migration' which makes it possible for regional cultural traits, culinary products, cultural performances, ritual forms, styles of dress and ornamentation to flow to other parts and mix together. The PoI survey has identified 91 cultural regions all over India. According to this survey 'analysis of cultural values and practices of communities (caste/tribe) in terms of culture traits indicates significant commonalties' (Singh, K.S.1992, Yogendra Singh 2000:30). Communities in India share common culture traits irrespective of their distinctive religious traditions, even though the religious groups are themselves segmented (Muslims have 584 communities, Christians have 339 communities, Sikhs -130, Jains-100, Buddhists-93, Jews-7, Parsis-3 and tribals-411). According to PoI survey:"There is very high correlation of traits between SCs and STs, between STs and Hindus, between Hindus and Sikhs between Hindus and Buddhists and between Hindus and Muslims. There is a phenomenal growth in bilingualism in India during last two decades (1961 census - 9.7 percent, 1971 - 13.4 and according to PoI survey done in 1985 = 64.2 percent bilingualism). It signifies expansive syncretistic growth in cultural interaction. Y. Singh has reviewed the POI data. He says "the fact that the local cultures of castes, ethnicity and communities dispersed into over four thousand entities (4635 communities are identified and studied) lend itself to rationalization of culture zones into 91 configurations affirms the presence of linkage and interaction between the local and trans-local cultural manifestations (Y. Singh 2000: 46-47). In a major publication, Culture, Religion and Philosophy: Critical Studies in Syncretism and Inter-Faith Harmony, this author has compiled and presented over twenty case - studies examining thereby the varied manifestations of syncretism in religious experiences of diverse people of India. In this pioneering work syncretism emerges not only as a viable way of life but also as a vigorous theoretical category (Das, N.K. 2003 - 'Introduction: An outline of Syncretism).


Indian society is characterized by the caste system. This system operates also in Muslim, Christian and Tribal societies to a considerable extent. The Hindu caste system is a system of social hierarchy in which social groups are arranged in rude order of ritual purity and pollution. Hence there prevailed immense space for dissent and reform within the society. Reformist groups and protesting sects as a result emerged from time to time. Quests for equality, salvation and social recognition remained integral parts of such movements. Most of these movements that aimed at reorganizing the society in India were couched in religious terms. Social pressure had often encouraged adoption of new religious denomination and formation of sectarian and dissident religious orders in India. Religious orders such as the Sikhism and Vira Saivaism, according to Gnanambal (1970) have emerged as deviants from the orthodox Hindu religion. But they were indeed provoked by social concerns and they expressed disagreement with prevailing order. Sectarian-cultist orders and sects had occurred as challenge to established doctrinal positions. New sects proliferate when the pre-existing religions fail to satisfy the need for meaningful interpretation of life problems. Dumont and Renou agree that the pattern of sect development in India is unique in character (McCormack 1963:61). A sect is a religious group that rejects the social environment in which it exists (Johnson, 1963). While a sect is characterized by the elective principle, the cult is a private personal religion of mystic type (Becker and Weise, 1932, Sinha 1970). Religious sects indeed promote integration, homogenization and egalitarianism by calling attention to needs unmet by established religions. Sects also help to cope up with problems of identity and meaning.

Led by their defiant Gurus, reformist congregations emerged within the Hindu society from time to time. These rebellious saints were products of processes of dissent and reform. They reformed the rituals, e-emphasized the supremacy of the Brahman priests and preached egalitarianism. The leaders of several reform movements belonged to the lower economic classes and Dalit castes. Reformist leaders emerged among the Muslims and Tribals also. They significantly advanced the egalitarian process in their localities. It is observed that the original inspiration of social reform and religious transformation came from charismatic mentor who drew devotees to his "knowledge", his revelation of the true path – to eternal salvation. The mentor, either male or female, introduced reforms of religious practices in the shape of fresh vision of eternal truths. New religious sects also arose to bring emotional satisfaction in the lives of marginalized and disadvantaged sections of society, sections not adequately served by established cultural institutions. In order to gain honour and privilege certain disadvantaged people such as the Dalit often sought alteration of their pre-existing societal status and thus embraced new religious-sectarian order. Such people however could hardly ever give up entirely their primeval religious beliefs and practices. It would be a travesty in the name of objectivity if we seek to subordinate these actualities and forms of consciousness to certain inflexible and shortened western theoretical formulations such as acculturation. The spiritual concerns of these people remained tucked under multiple religious domains (Das 2003a).

Dissent has a long history in India. In remote past intensive religious activity had taken place, which aimed to overthrow the predominance of Buddhism and Jainism in Peninsular India. In this period we witness even "breaking of barriers of social group" by admitting devotees even from "untouchable" castes into the order of Bhaktas, thereby sowing the seed of Bhakti movement (Gnanambal 1970). During medieval period (Thirteenth to Seventeenth century) Hinduism underwent a drastic transformation. Focus was now on one god. The religious sect founded by Ramanuja (1017 - 1137 AD) was intended to propagate Vishistadvaita school of Philosophy. The followers of Ramanuja styled themselves as Shri Vaishnavas. Ramanuja propagated the doctrine of qualified Monism in which self-surrender and grace (prapatti) formed the central theme (Gnanambal, 1970). While Sankara and Ramanuja had pan-India impact, the movement of Madhava (14th century AD) was confined to south India. Sankara, a metaphysician was not interested in the proselytizing of Hinduism or adding adherents. Ramanuja understood that to engage in a three cornered fight against Buddhism, Jainism and the Pure Monism of Sankara; he had to simplify and liberalize the recruitment procedure. While the essentials of Advaita and Dvaita of Sankara and Madhava did not reach the masses, the Bhakti principle of Ramanuja appealed to all (Gnanambal, 1970). Ramananda (1400-70), a follower of Ramanuja, having settled down in Varanasi, established his own sect, Ramanandi. Ramananda strongly opposed the injustices of the caste system and opened his sect for all, and his twelve personal disciples are said to have included women, an outcaste Dalit, and even a Muslim. The Ramanandi sect has great historical importance as it created the conditions for growth of innumerable sects from within the Ramanandi sect. The Ramanandis paved the way for later sects like the Sikhism, which has grown as a distinct religious order, and Kabirpanth. Kabir (1440-1518) started out as a disciple of Ramananda, but later developed his own characteristic eclecticism. Having brought up in a Muslim home, Kabir pursued the occupation of a low caste weaver. According to Kabir, only the personal bhakti could lead one to god. Vaishnavism, Hatha Yoga, Vedantic Monism, and Sufism influenced Kabir's theology (Jordan 1975). Among the Saivites, the sect of the Lingayats was one whose influence reached several north Indian saints (Jordan 1975). The Vira Saiva sect led by Basava (14th century AD) came to be known as "Lingayata", in common parlance, since the adherents wear a Linga (Phallus) suspended on a string round their neck. Theoretically, the Lingayats cannot be called Hindus since they do not accept the differentiation of castes, the pollution of birth, death, menstruation, contact or look. The Lingayat women have equal ritual status with men (Gnanambal, 1970).

The religious sects and indigenous religious orders of India, such as Vira Shaivism, Jainism, Sikhism and other orders began with a founder Guru who preached a new faith. In fulfilling the new precepts the devotees separated themselves from established orders. The 1931 census of Punjab thus noted that a good many Hindus of "lower jatis" were becoming "Sikhs" because they considered that "they gained status as soon as they ceased to be Hindus" (Mandelbaum 1972:524). The founder Gurus generally emphasized the "way of devotion" over "scriptural knowledge", and propagated the dogmas which were generally based on egalitarian principles. The Jain devotees have practiced their faith for more than twenty-five centuries. Mahavira and other sages stressed that personal act, and not ascribed status, determined all that was important for soul. Despite long existence of their distinct religious order, the Jains continue to worship Hindu deities and celebrate Hindu festivals in lesser or greater degree, in different parts of India. Like Kabir, Nanak identified himself with the most deprived sections in the society. Like Kabir, Nanak also denounced attachment to rituals (like prayer, fasting, bathing, image worship) and forgetting true faith in god. According to main philosophy of the Sikh religion there is only one god. Guru Nanak taught that the Hindu, Muslim and people of all religious denominations are children of the same god. Influenced by the school of "devotion" (bhakti) of Ramananda, Kabir, Namdev and having assimilated the philosophy of Sufism and Islam, Guru Nanak gave a true syncretistic form to Sikh religion (Das 2003).

Both the Bhakti and Sufi saints had helped to recast and reorient the prevalent value system of the time. These saints propagated the fundamental equality of mankind These saints patronized the nirguna theological stance, based on a notion that the divine is formless, without qualities. A directness and unorthodoxy that was to give form to the priorities of new- sprung religious thought and practice typified the wave of Bhakti. Much as Bhakti did, the Sufism deemphasized the role of the clergy and elevated the love between a devotee and his god to ecstasy. Studies have revealed that the Pir and Darvez in different periods played a positive role in bringing about synthesis between the Hindu and Muslim cultures. The Fakir Darvez, Qualandar, and Baul are all known wandering medicants of India. The Baul sect arose in Bengal with the coming of the Turks and then the lslam which was established in the thirteenth century (Sarkar 1990). The Sufi movement had considerably coloured the Bengal Vaishnavism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Islamic spirit of mystic songs has been deeply ingrained in the songs of Bauls and Marfati. The Marfati songs are significant in relation to Islamic spiritual heritage for the whole of humanity. They exemplify the syncretistic tradition in a unique manner. The Baul songs too are associated with the sects of both the Hindus and Muslims. A Baul is a wanderer. Spiritualism is his philosophy, he dances in ecstasy and sings in joy, longing for mystical union with the divine. Among the Bauls of Bengal we also find the continuity of the Sahajiya movement, a more systematized form of which is found in the Buddhist form of Sahajiya school (Sarkar 1990). The Bhakti consciousness was more prominent in the impressive versus and songs of the saints, whose monism found no room for Brahminical orthodoxy or the traditional stratification of Hindu society. Vernacular poetry found a new role in expressing sentiments and theologies of Bhakti. This saint tradition is most fully represented by the great mystic poet Kabir. He dismissed the dogma and external observances of both Hinduism and Islam, insisting that the true search for god must be an inner one, accompanied by contemplation on the divine name. Kabir found easy method of spreading his ideas. Since his audience consisted of illiterates and Kabir was illiterate himself, his message could be spread only by the word of mouth. Kabir's ideas were sought to be carried forward by Raidas (b. 1415), a cobbler by profession. Following Kabir, Raidas and Nanak, all saint-poets emphasized the concept of human equality. Dadu Dayal (1603) similarly asserted that all human beings had the same spirit derived from god and differences of religion are meaningless just as the water of a flowing river in different pots is the same (Das 2003a).

Regional Bhakti literary traditions help us to understand the growth and spread of humanitarian philosophies. Several elements of Bhakti tradition continue to survive even today in Indian consciousness, such as anti-clergy doctrine, humanism and human equality, human brotherhood, secularism and non-discrimination between castes and sects. By the 1920s the immutable and extensive spirit of Indian religious and social reform movements had slowly weakened mainly on account of the advent of Mahatma Gandhi in Indian landscape.


We have already discussed those concepts of "spread of Hinduism", "Sanskritization", "Hindu mode of (tribal) absorption", "Hinduism's inclusivism" as also acculturation theory, and many other notions have been applied to elucidate empirical situation in tribal areas of peninsular India. Several contemporary works dealing with tribe-caste interaction have further emphasized that there are multiple "models" of Hinduization and which need to be seen as "a continuum" and that tribal tradition may be summed up as "regional tradition of Hinduism" (Eschmann 1986). The fact remains that there has been a incessant tendency amongst social scientists to see the process of "change" in most tribal areas exclusively from the Hinduistic perspective ignoring the pervasive and observable syncretistic coexistence of multiple religious traditions.

The supposed "assimilation" of tribal groups has gone on reportedly for a very long time. The tribes of Gangetic Plains, according to D.D.Kosambi, were "conquered by and assimilated into" the kingdoms of Koshala and Magadha beginning in the sixth century B.C. (Kosambi 1965:120). From the third century B.C. there are references to tribes in the edict of Ashoka (Basham 1954 : 53). H.H.Risley noted in 1873 that the tribes all over India are gradually being transformed into castes. On account of various levels of culture-contact, adoption and absorption, the tribes of India had often borrowed material - cultural traits and religious practices of various sects and major religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. However, the tribespeople perpetually adhered to many aspects of original religion even after their adoption of new faith. Pre-conversion native religious specialists also continued to operate in such societies. Indeed several reformist Bhagat movements and sects such as Mahima among the tribes people also could not erode the native religious beliefs of the tribals.

In tribal societies religion does not emerge as an independent phenomenon. In tribal societies religion is closely tied with social structure. The tribal and headmen thus contain priestly functions and the political, economic and religious ties reinforce one another (Das, 1993 : 128-132,2002). The chief ensures the mystical welfare of tribe. Through access to spirits and/or medicine the chiefs emerge as rain maker or medicine man. Belief in a high god or a Supreme Being is present in all tribal societies. Moral issues are not inherent in tribal societies, though moral behaviour is mandatory. There is hardly any temple of tribal god and no formal worship. Shrines are few and priesthood is informal. The spirits are distinguished according to domains such as earth, sky, water and forest. There are many systems of divination and oracles that are consulted. Ancestor cults occupy important place in tribal religions life. Great attention is given to funeral. At family, lineage and clan level congregations, elders function as religious specialists. In Naga society the will of the ancestors is made known through dreams and misfortunes.

The tribal religions tend to be less systematized and less specialized than the Hinduism, Christianity or Islam. The religion of the tribes people is generally defined in terms of animatism or animism. It is conceived that everything in this world has life and is animate whether plants, minerals, animals or the natural phenomena or there are a number of souls sneaking around which are intangible and non-material spiritual beings which can influence and interfere in the life of the living persons.

It was J.H.Hutton, the British administrator turned anthropologist who understood the analytic significance of 'tribal religion' and liberated it by segregating it from the label of animism. Probably the earliest and one of the most influential formulation on the relationship of Hindu and tribal religion came from Sir Alfred Lyall (1849), in a series of papers. Brahmanism, according to him, was basically a proselytizing religion particularly in relation to the tribal people. He wrote: "... If by Brahmanism we understand that religion of the Hindus which refer for its orthodoxy to Brahmanic scriptures and traditions, which adores the Brahamanic gods and their incarnations, .... and which regards the Brahman's presence as necessary to all essential rites, then this religion can hardly be called non-missionary in the sense of stagnation and exclusive immobility, because it still proselytizes in two very effective modes. The first of these modes is the gradual Brahmanising of the aboriginal, non-Aryan, or casteless tribes. The clans and races, which inhabit the hill tracts, the outlying uplands, and the uncleared jungle, are melting into Hinduism all over India.... This process has been working for centuries; though it is likely to have been much more rapid than ever under British rule.... But the complete process does necessitate a considerable change of worship and ways of life" (Lyall 1849).

K.S.Singh (2003) argues that Sir Alfred's polemics against Brahmanism was part of a debate whether or not Brahmanism was a proselytizing religion which in turn would justify a similar role for Christianity in India. It also represented a typical 19th century oriental view of the processes of assimilation then described as Brahmanisation or Hinduisation. Lyall wrote about the tribal Kadars thus : "The Kadars, if questioned about their religion will reply that they are Hindus and will talk vaguely about their Hindu gods (Parameswar, Vishnu) as if they live in the very odor of orthodoxy, instead of being in fact wholly outside the sphere of the Brahmanical system. To talk about the Hindu gods is usually the first step towards that insensible adoption of the externals of Hinduism which takes the place of formal and open conversion which sterner and less adoptive creeds demand".

J.H.Hutton was the first to have reconstructed tribal religion as an integrated whole. He is credited rightly with having rescued tribal religion from the waste paper basket of animism, identified the parameters of its autonomy and the range of its linkages with Hinduism (Singh : 2003). However, like other census officials he too was prone to describe tribal religion as the "surplus material not yet built into the temple of Hinduism". In 1931, of the total number of tribes estimated at 24.6 million about one third was returned as adhering to tribal religions. According to Singh (2003) Hinduisation of tribes was ascribed to three factors namely (a) the energetic propaganda by the Hindu Mahasabha to return as Hindu every person whose religion could not be found to have originated outside India, that is practically everyone except Muslims, Christians, Parsis and Jews, (b) agitations by such tribes as Gonds and Oraons to be returned as Hindu and (c) action of the overzealous census enumerators mostly Hindus. W.G.Archer also blamed the Hindu enumerators for returning tribals as Hindus. Tribal religion has not lost its distinct identity in spite of its long years of interaction with Hinduism and Christianity. It has maintained its system of beliefs and practices including propitiation of spirits, and reliance on magic and witchcraft, its priesthood and its calendar of fairs and festivals which reinforce the tribals' sense of solidarity. Studies conducted during last three decades even suggest the revival of many of pristine elements of tribal religion by those who have gone out of its fold (Singh 2003, Das 1989).

(Continued ...........)

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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