The spread of the Hindu
By Vivekanand Ojha
In the wake of the controversy regarding conversions by Christian missionaries
in the country, it has been suggested by a few commentators in the media that
the Dalits and tribals are not Hindus.
This assertion, however, is not only erroneous but also presumes a narrow and
medieval Brahmin-centric definition of Hinduism. Besides, it appears to be an
attempt to twist the ongoing debate on conversions.
To begin with, the word Hindu was not coined by Hindus
themselves but was given by the people living on the eastern side of the river
Indus. By this definition alone, all Dalits and tribals who have been living
here since the beginning of civilisation come within the ambit of Hinduism. This
apart, unlike the followers of monotheistic religions like Islam, Christianity
or Buddhism, Hindus, as one entity, never followed the teachings of any one
prophet or a single book. So it is difficult to have a precise, all-inclusive
and concise definition of Hinduism. Though the Vedic society can be considered
to be the origin of Hinduism, Vedic culture was composite in nature, based as it
was on the collective wisdom of sages down the ages, rather than on the
teachings of a single prophet or seer.
Hinduism allows considerable intellectual freedom to its adherents, giving it a
certain dynamism. Over the ages, saints and holy men have interpreted the
religious texts differently, resulting in many overlapping sects, numerous
deities and countless festivals within Hinduism. So, just because the tribal
culture and their methods of worship are different from the Brahminical concept,
it cannot be concluded that tribals are not Hindus. In fact, tribals also follow
a wide spectrum of beliefs and customs, each one of which differs markedly from
one tribe to another.
Worship of more than one deity is one of the main characteristics of the Hindu
religion; one that distinguishes it from other religions. Hinduism professes
that God, essentially One, can be worshiped in any form as desired by the
individual. In fact, this freedom is at the root of the composite nature of
Hinduism as they worship many deities.
Moreover, Hinduism believes in the concept of noble soul or devta. This means
that any individual, through his karma, can be regarded as a noble soul, worthy
of worship by a group of his followers. That is why Hindu scriptures claim that
there is not one but 84 lakh devtas. This has further resulted in the concept of
kuldevatas where every clan has its own deity. This is a kind of ancestor
worship. A more direct form of ancestor-worship is the pinda-daan performed by
Hindus during a particular period.
Nature-worship is also a unique feature of Hinduism. From the Sun, the Moon, the
Earth, mountains, rivers, seas to even rain, every element of nature is
worshiped by Hindus. Even different species of flora and fauna find a place of
reverence. Similarly idol-worship is another practice followed only by Hindus.
Thus all these features of Hinduism, namely worship of multiple deities, idol
worship, ancestor worship and nature worship are found to varying degrees among
all the tribal groups in the country. Moreover, many of
the tribal s seemingly eccentric practices are rooted in the great epics of the
Ramayana and Mahabharata. This establishes beyond doubt that tribals are
Further, it has to be noted that Hinduism is the only religion which does not
impose any uniform way of worship on its adherents, so those within the Hindu
fold can follow their indigenous culture. But once tribals convert to, say,
Christianity, they have to give up their original practices and ways of worship
in favour of those
followed by Christians. This leads to a marked changed in their way of life,
resulting in confrontation between neo-converts and tribals.
The case of Dalits is no different either. They are even more closely related to
mainstream Hinduism than are tribals. Although the Dalits were for centuries
placed outside the varna-system, and subjected to various discriminations like
being denied entry to temples, the fact that they tried to enter temples proves
that they considered themselves as Hindus. Of course, there were numerous
instances of mass conversions to Buddhism but that was mostly as a protest
against the Brahminical stranglehold over Hinduism. Today this stranglehold is
no longer what it was and most religious and social institutions are open to
all, including the Dalits. Incidentally, the Dalits celebrate almost all Hindu
It would also be incorrect to say that the Dalits and tribals find no mention in
the Hindu tradition. In Ramayana, during Rama s foray into the forest, his
interaction with various tribes is described in detail. In Mahabharata, Bhima,
the second of the Pandavas, married a tribal woman, Hidimba, and their child
grew up to be a great warrior. Even in some modern traditional
festivals, the Dalits find a place. For example, in the Chhath puja, which is
the most important festival of Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, it is considered
necessary to buy a bamboo-stick bowl (in which offerings are made to the Sun)
from the lowest of the outcastes , the Doms, who are engaged in the profession
of cremating bodies.
It is true that the Dalits and tribals have been discriminated against in the
past. However, thanks to the efforts of numerous religious and social reformers,
the situation has changed and, notwithstanding the motivated campaign to prove
otherwise, the Dalits and tribals are very much a part of the composite Hindu
culture as opposed to the Brahmin-centric Hinduism propagated by Brahmins during
the medieval period.