Maranda and others in Guduta, a remote tribal village in India’s eastern state of Odisha, set in a seemingly endless forest landscape, are “Adivasis,” or indigenous tribesmen, who adhere to Sarna Dharma. It is a belief system that has common ground with the world’s many ancient nature-worshiping religions.
On that day, worshipers in the forest showed their reverence for the natural world by making circles around a Sal plant and three sacred stones, one each for the evil spirits they believe must be appeased. They knelt as Maranda smeared the stones with vermilion paste, bowed to the sacred plant, and laid out fresh leaves covered with cow dung paste.
“Our Gods are everywhere. We see more in nature than others,’ Maranda said as he led the men back to their homes.
But the government does not legally recognize their faith – a fact that is increasingly becoming a rallying point for change for some of the country’s approximately 5 million indigenous tribesmen who follow Sarna Dharma. They say formal recognition would help preserve their culture and history in the wake of the slow erosion of indigenous tribal rights in India.
Citizens are only allowed to join one of India’s six officially recognized religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Jainism and Sikhism. While they can select the “Others” category, many nature worshipers have felt compelled by the country’s religious system to associate with one of the six religions listed.
Tribal groups have protested to give Sarna Dharma official religious status ahead of the upcoming national census, which will see citizens declare their religious affiliation.
Protests have gained momentum following the recent election of Droupadi Murmu, the first tribal woman to serve as India’s president, raising hopes that her historic victory will draw attention to the needs of the country’s indigenous people , which by law has about 110 million people. national census. They are scattered across several states and fragmented into hundreds of clans, with different legends, languages and words for their gods – many, but not all, follow Sarna Dharma.
Salkhan Murmu, a former legislator and community activist who also adheres to Sarna Dharma, has been at the center of protests calling for recognition of his religion by the government. His sit-in demonstrations in several Indian states drew thousands of people.
At a recent protest in Ranchi, the capital of the eastern state of Jharkhand, men and women sat cross-legged on a highway blocking traffic as Murmu spoke from a nearby podium. Dressed in a traditional cotton tunic and trousers, Murmu explained how the fear of losing their religious identity and culture is driving demand for formal recognition.
“This is a fight for our identity,” Murmu told the crowd, who raised their fists and shouted, “Victory for Sarna Dharma.” A thunderous round of applause went through the hall.
Murmu is also campaigning for recognition of religion outside city centers and to remote tribal villages. His message: When Sarna Dharma disappears, one of the country’s last ties to its early inhabitants goes with it. It’s a compelling case, evidenced by the growing number of tribesmen rallying behind Murmu, helping fuel the campaign’s slow transformation into a social movement.
“If our religion is not recognized by the government, I think we will wither,” Murmu said, as a group of villagers huddled around him in Odisha’s Angarpada village. “The moment we get into another religion by force, pressure or gratification, we lose our whole history, our way of life.”
Murmu’s efforts are just the final push for official recognition.
In 2011, a state agency for indigenous tribesmen asked the federal government to include Sarna Dharma as a separate religion code in that year’s census. In 2020, the state of Jharkhand, where tribal members make up nearly 27% of the population, passed a resolution with a similar goal.
The federal government did not respond to either request.
One argument for granting Sarna Dharma official recognition is the sheer number of wildlife worshipers in India, said Karma Oraon, an anthropologist who taught at Ranchi University and has studied the lives of indigenous tribes for decades.
The 2011 national census shows that the number of Sarna Dharma adherents in India exceeds Jains, who are officially the sixth largest faith group in the country. Hindus are number 1 and make up almost 80% of India’s 1.4 billion people.
More than half – a figure of nearly 4.9 million – of those who chose the ‘Others’ religion option in the 2011 national census further identified as followers of Sarna Dharma. In comparison, the Jain population of India is just over 4.5 million people.
“Our population is more than the registered believers who follow Jainism. So why can’t our faith be recognized as a separate religion?” Oron said.
Decades ago, there were more options for native tribesmen.
The census, begun in 1871 under British rule, once allowed the selection of “Animists”, “Aborigines” and “Tribes”. The categories were removed in 1951 when the first census in independent India was conducted.
Any hope that Sarna Dharma would gain official status could stop the various existential threats to the faith.
The natural environment is integral to worshiper identity, but rapidly disappearing ancient forests and encroachment from mining companies have led many to abandon tribal villages, creating a generation gap among followers, Oraon said. In addition, many of younger generations are abandoning their age-old religious customs for city life.
“We’re going through an identity crisis,” Oraon said.
His concerns have increased after Hindu nationalist groups, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party, have attempted to involve nature worshipers with the Hindus. They are motivated by potential electoral gains, but also want to support their agenda to transform a secular India into a distinctly Hindu state.
These efforts stem from a long-held belief that India’s indigenous tribesmen are originally Hindus, but Sarna Dharma followers say their beliefs differ from monotheistic and polytheistic.
Sarna Dharma has no temples and scriptures. Its followers do not believe in heaven or hell and have no images of gods and goddesses. Unlike Hinduism, there is no caste system or belief in rebirth.
“Tribal people may have some cultural ties to Hindus, but we haven’t been assimilated into their religion,” Oraon said.
The gradual embrace of Hindu and Christian values by some indigenous tribal groups has exacerbated his concerns.
In the late 19th century, many tribesmen in Jharkhand, Odisha and other states renounced the worship of nature—some voluntarily and others persuaded by money, food and free education—and converted to Christianity. Hindu and Muslim groups also encouraged conversion, further reducing the number of nature worshippers.
In some cases, the conversions were thwarted, said Bandhan Tigga, a Sarna Dharma religious leader. When Hindu groups showed up, some of the tribesmen sacrificed cows, a sacred animal to Hindus. They also slaughtered pigs, considered unclean in Islam, when Muslim missionaries arrived.
“In any case, the women used to put pig or cow fat on their foreheads so that no Hindu or Muslim man could marry them,” said Tigga, wearing a white and red striped cotton towel around his neck, a design that is also good in front of the Sarna Dharma flag flying atop his house in Murma, a village in Jharkhand.
Most Christian missionaries today meet with resistance, but conversions can still happen, said Tigga, who travels to remote parts of eastern India to persuade converts to return to their old faith.
For Sukhram Munda, a man in his late 80s, a lot is already gone.
He is the great-grandson of Birsa Munda, a 19th-century charismatic indigenous leader who led his forest community in revolt against the British colonialists. Munda’s legend grew after his death and bronze statues of him appeared in almost every tribal village in the state. Soon a man who worshiped nature was worshiped by his own people.
But Munda’s religion barely survived the onslaught of converts in his ancestral Ulihatu village in Jharkhand. Half of his descendants converted to Christianity, Sukhram said. Now the first thing visitors to Ulihatu see is a church, a large white building that stands out against the greenery of the surrounding forests.
“This used to be the village where we used to worship nature,” Sukhram said. “Now half of the people don’t even remember the religion their ancestors followed.”
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