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Clinging to the ancient faith, Indian tribes seek religious status


GUDUTA, India — The ritual began with a thunderous drum roll that echoed throughout the village. Women in colorful saris embarked on an indigenous folk dance, moving their feet to the galloping rhythm.

At the climax, 12 worshipers—proudly professing a faith not officially recognized by the government—emerged from a mud house and marched to a sacred grove believed to be the home of the village goddess. Led by village chief Gasia Maranda, they carried religious totems, including an earthen jar and a sacrificial axe.

Maranda and others in Guduta, a remote tribal village in India’s eastern state of Odisha, are “Adivasis,” or indigenous tribesmen, who adhere to Sarna Dharma, a belief system that shares common features with many ancient nature-worshipping 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,” says Maranda.

But the government does not legally recognize their faith – a fact that is becoming a rallying point for change for some of India’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.

Citizens are only allowed to join one of the 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 religious system to associate with one of the listed religions.

Tribal groups have been protesting to give Sarna Dharma official religious status ahead of the upcoming national census, which will see citizens declare their religious affiliation.

The protests have gained momentum following the recent election of Droupadi Murmu, the first tribal woman to serve as president of India, raising hopes for beneficial changes for the indigenous people. According to the census, there are about 110 million. They are spread across India and divided 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 adheres to Sarna Dharma, is at the center of the protests pushing for government recognition. His sit-in demonstrations in several states have drawn thousands.

At a recent protest in Ranchi, the capital of the eastern state of Jharkhand, protesters sat cross-legged on a highway blocking traffic, while Murmu spoke from a nearby podium, explaining how the fear of losing their religious identity and culture is driving demand for promotes recognition.

“This is a fight for our identity,” Murmu told the crowd, who raised their fists and shouted, “Victory for Sarna Dharma.”

Murmu takes his campaign 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 argument, evidenced by the growing number of tribesmen rallying behind him.

“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.

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 recognition is the size of the wildlife worshiper population, said Karma Oraon, an anthropologist who taught at Ranchi University and has studied indigenous tribes for decades.

The 2011 census shows that more than half – a figure of nearly 4.9 million – of those who selected the “Others” religion option identified as followers of Sarna Dharma. Similarly, India’s Jain population – officially the country’s sixth largest faith group – is just over 4.5 million people.

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 took place.

Some hope that granting official status to Sarna Dharma could stop existential threats to their faith ranging from migration to religious conversions.

“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. 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 missionaries also cheated in their numbers.

Most Christian missionaries today meet with resistance, but conversions can still take place. However, for Sukhram Munda, a man in his late 80s, much 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 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 conversions in his ancestral Ulihatu village in Jharkhand. Half of his descendants became Christians, Sukhram said. Now the first thing visitors see is a church, a large white building that stands out against the greenery of the surrounding woods.

“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.”

The Associated Press’ coverage of religion is supported by the AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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