‘We are Tribal first and Christians next. We are nature worshippers. We worship rivers, mountains and forests’.
This is a statement we get to hear very often from Scheduled Tribes who have converted to Christianity. Is it possible to practice tribal faith and Christianity at the same time? Is it compatible with theology of monolithic Christian religion?
To start with, let us examine the most common elements of tribal faiths which are practiced across the Indian sub-continent stretching from Ladakh in the north to all the way in south and north-east corners of India. Irrespective of the tribe or region, the common elements in tribal faith are:
1) Worship of nature
2) Worship of Mother Goddess
3) Idol worship
4) Worshiping Ancestors
None of the above tribal beliefs are acceptable to Christianity. As inhabitants of forests and river valleys, Tribals are true children of mother nature. They are the closest to mother nature and have co-existed with nature for thousands of years. Worship of nature finds a very important place in almost all Tribal cultures. For instance, in every Santal village there is a sacred grove on the edge of the settlement where many spirits live and where a series of annual festivals take place. The most important spirit is Maran Buru (Great Mountain), who is invoked whenever offerings are made and who instructed the first Santals in sex and brewing of rice beer. Maran Buru’s consort is the benevolent Jaher Era (Lady of the Grove). Similar concepts exist in many Tribal faiths.
What is the stand of Christianity regarding worship of nature? The Holy Bible has quite a few references to nature worship and they are unanimous in their view – worship the creator and not the creation. In other words, nature is not to be worshiped. In fact, nature worship is to be punished with ‘stoning to death’..!
‘.. who has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, either the sun or moon or any of the hosts of heaven, which I have not commanded, 4 and it is told you, and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently. And if it is indeed true and certain that such an abomination has been committed in Israel, 5 then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has committed that wicked thing, and shall stone to death that man or woman with stones. 6 Whoever is deserving of death shall be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses’
–Deuteronomy 17- 3-6
MOTHER GODDESS WORSHIP:
Mother Goddess worship is prevalent in most Tribal faiths. The oldest shrine to Mother Goddess was found in Madhya Pradesh. In 1980, Indo-US archaeology team stumbled upon evidence of prehistoric ‘Shakti’ worship in Son Valley, Sidhi District of the state. The small shrine is estimated to be 11,000 years old, making it one of the oldest shrines built by humans. The Kol and Baiga tribes of the area still worship similar shaped stones as manifestation of female energy or ‘Shakti’. This is proof of importance of women in ancient societies and continuity of worship of mother goddess as a core, continuous belief for thousands of years by tribals of Indian sub-continent.
On the contrary, Mother Goddess worship finds no place or little place in Christianity. While major sects like Protestants firmly disallow worship of anyone other than Jesus Christ, other sects like Catholics, orthodox and Anglican Christians today regard Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus, as the Theotokos or ‘Mother of The God’ and not ‘The God’. Christianity does not accept the most ancient and core belief of Tribal – worship of mother.
As shown above, idol worship is an integral part of tribal faith, though not all tribes necessarily practice idol worship. The idol or object of worship could be a simple stone as above, or a simple piece of wood or images drawn on the walls of the place of worship.
Christianity comes down heavily on idol worship. Several verses from the Holy Bible explicitly prohibit idol worship. Few verses go as far as calling for destruction of idols and altars.
Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image, neither rear you up a standing image, neither shall ye set up [any] image of stone in your land, to bow down unto it: for I [am] the LORD your God.
And I will destroy your high places, and cut down your images, and cast your carcases upon the carcases of your idols, and my soul shall abhor you.
And your altars shall be desolate, and your images shall be broken: and I will cast down your slain [men] before your idols.
And I will lay the dead carcases of the children of Israel before their idols; and I will scatter your bones round about your altars.
Wherefore, my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry.
CHRISTIAN EXCLUSIVITY AND RIGIDITY :
Christianity with its exclusivity, rigid insistence on worship of a single God and acceptance of Jesus Christ as the sole saviour who can save sinful mankind from eternal hell fire, can never be at peace with native tribal faiths. If you do not accept the ‘salvation theology’, eternal hell fire awaits you..! Tribal faiths have a wide variety of underlying philosophy, beliefs and worship practices. These beliefs are very inclusive and can accommodate any new philosophy without any sort of conflict. The same cannot be said of Christianity. The Holy Bible clearly commands Christians to keep away from non-Christians, not to partake in their rituals, offerings and discourages normal social contact with non-Christians.
2 John 1:9-11 ESV
Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.
2 Corinthians 4:4 ESV
In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
2 Corinthians 6:14-15 ESV
Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?
Tribal society and their religious practices have a harmonious relationship not only with nature but also amongst different tribes. Inter-tribe conflicts are rare and, in many cases, different tribes have common deities. In Chattisgarh, Danteshwari is one of the most revered goddesses known for bestowing wishes on her devotees and protector against evil. In Telangana, the Sammakka-Sarakka Jaathara attracts lakhs of tribal devotees cutting across tribes, states and languages. Sacrificial offerings are shared freely amongst the entire community through common feasts.
But what is the stand of Christianity on food offered to idols? Can a Christian accept food (Prasad) offered to non-Christian gods and idols ? Holy Bible explicitly forbids partaking of food offered to idols.
As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol [is] nothing in the world, and that [there is] none other God but one.
But if any man say unto you, This is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake that showed it, and for conscience sake: for the earth [is] the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof:
Thus the very word ‘tribal Christian’ is an oxymoron. Conversion of Tribal into Christianity brings about deep divide in tribal societies and splits society into believers and non-believers. With its exclusivist ideology, Christianity creates unrest and chaos in tribal societies which otherwise have lived peacefully and harmoniously for thousands of years.