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The spread of the Hindu mosaic
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 essentially Hindus.

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 religious festivals.

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.



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