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I. 5.6.1 Religion


Religion is a supernaturalism that consists of a system of belief, thought and action. It lies in the core of all primitive and civilized cultures. It acts as an internal controlling force for the society and provides the people with morality. A religion can neither be defined in terms of a particular faith, or in terms of a particular god. In fact there are a variety of religions and religious ideas.

The first and foremost necessity is to examine the nature of supernaturalism. All religions essentially exhibit a mental attitude towards super nature, which is manifested in beliefs and rituals. The belief is considered as the static part of the religion while ritual is the dynamic part.

Ritual comprises of of different actions that aim to establish a connection between the performing individual and the supernatural power. Belief, on the other hand has no direct impact; it stands as a charter for the rituals and provides a rationale for the same. However, religious attitude are universal in all known cultures, primitive and modern. They have been associated with the Homo sapiens.

Origin of religious belief

General philosophy of the people admits two kinds of ideas- nature and superior to nature i.e. super nature. The concept of nature and super nature is relative in a culture at a particular moment. With the growth of the knowledge and some of the supernatural events may seem to be natural. In fact, the difference between the nature and super nature lies in the attitude and realization of people perceived by the help of sense organs.

Anthropologists have considered religion as a product of the evolutionary development of human brain. The capacity of the brain in other animal is so low that it does not permit them to think like man. They never perceive that vastness of universe as they lack sensitive mind and emotional feelings. Therefore, the first religious belief probably came into existence with the original first man in early Paleolithic and since then the mystic thought ha control much of human life until Aristotle, Plato and other Greek philosophers built the foundation of modern scientific outlook, anthropological enquiry in religion extends as far back as nineteenth century when anthropology emerged as a academic discipline. There are different theories regarding the origin of religious believes. The earliest one was forwarded by EB Tailor (1871), where he express the view that religion had stemmed from the intellectual speculation about the events like dreams, trances and death. His proposition was three fold ‘

  1. Religion has been developed out of fear.
  2. Though there are great diversity in the forms of religion in the world, the core matter of all religions are same.
  1. All religion acknowledge supernatural power.

Herbert Spencer(1822-1903) thought that religion arose out of ancestral worship. Sir James Frazer(1854- 1941) held magic as a source for the development of religion. Most of the scholars of that early period believed that religion evolved by the interplay of the emotions like awe, fear and wonder under the explorer of the nature. Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) regarded religion as the most primitive of the whole social phenomena. He found two distinct compartments in supernatural field, which he designated as sacred part and profane part. According to him the sacred part of the religion refers to gods and deities and also the sacred performances and profane part refers to beliefs and practices. Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown have given functional explanation of primitive religion. Malinowski found religion as associated intimately with various kinds of emotional  esponses, so he described religion as an adaptation, which dilutes all stress and strain of the individuals. To Radcliffe Brown survival of a group was more important than that of an individual. Therefore, he suggested social survival of a group was more important than that of an individual. Therefore, he suggested social survival by the aid of religion.

In non – literate society religion is the chief factor that binds the people together. The bond of relatedness is so pervasive that it is manifested in collective activity like law, morality, art, science, political forms etc.


Anthropologists tried to trace the evolution of religion from simple to complex forms. Edward Burnett Tylor in his book ‘Primitive religion’ (1871) showed this evolution from animism to monotheism, through polytheism.


Animism is the earliest concept towards the religion forwarded by Tylor himself. It is a belief in the existence of spiritual beings. Spirits are the ethereal embodiment without real flesh and blood.

Although they are non-material, but real enough for those who believes in it. Primitive use different names to refer those spirits- ghost, goblin, genii, trolls, fairy, witch, demon, devil, angel and even god. A spirit does not obey the laws of nature and can transcend matter , time and space.

This makes the spirits wonderful and mysterious, and therefore, they have been regarded as supernatural.


It is an earliest form of religion consisted of the worship of various objects in nature. An attitude of awe and reverence worked in the mind of the people regarding the diversified natural objects and phenomena. Being perplexed, they ascribed life to the lifeless things and correlated the unseen source of power with god. Specialised form of animistic theory is called Manaism. Mana is a Melanesian term meaning power. According to professor Merett, the primitive people through world believe in the existence of an impersonal non-material supernatural power which belongs to all objects- Animate and inanimate. The power of mana is sometimes referred as “Fetish”. A fetish is an object like stone, shell necklace or a piece of carved stone , which is believed to have power, capable of helping its possessor. The fetish is therefore, adored, placated, insulted or illtreated according to its behavior whether it fulfills or does not fulfill its possessors wish.

Components of primitive religion

All supernatural beings can be categorized into two broad groups:

(i) Those are of non-human origin i.e. the nature gods and spirits.

(ii) Those are of human origin i.e. the departed souls like ancestral spirits and ghosts.

The supernatural beings of both the categories can induce good and evil for men. They have been the causes behind many successes and failures. Diseases, drought, storm, heavy rain, famine, epidemics are also created by them. Gods and Goddesses occupy an important position in primitive life. The entire universe is departmentalized among gods. These gods and goddesses are usually the self creators.

Nature of religious practices

Religion as a body of belief and practices show a wide variation in religious ideas. The religious practices are also varied. These practices are nothing but the techniques to communicate with the supernatural. But they are imperative for the believers who act in accordance with their beliefs. Such practices strengthen the social bonds in a primitive group and denote an added authority towards the customs. The practices can be classified into two sections: religious rite and rites of passage.

(a) Religious rites

Religious rites aim to appease a god by worship which can be performed either privately in the home or publicly in the temple. The forms may be different as prayers, offerings, vow celebration or sacrificial performances. Prayer is the simplest of all religious rites where reverence is shown by means of spoken words. It may be a request or a demand or just thanks..

(b) Rites of passage

Rites of passage are completely different from religious rites that comprise of the worship of the nature gods and different spirits. These special rites are significantly associate with the life cycle of the people in each and every society. They mark the passing of one phase of life and the entry to another. E.g., birth, puberty, marriage, initiation to priest-hood, death etc. They are known in English by French equivalent rites-de-passage, and popularly known as ‘life-crisis’ rituals

(c) Significance of religion

The rites and ceremonies create an atmosphere of benevolence and fellowship. All motives for quarrel and disagreement get eliminated. People are united together and the rejoicing activities energize them; the social sentiments of an organized community are renewed. Religious experiences create such an atmosphere and attitude that human beings are able to regulate their own conduct. Everywhere people have evolved religious system in which religious behavior aims to secure similar ends. It bears the testimony to the unity of mankind.

It binds the inter-familial relations, and governs on the economic and political structure of the society. It may include a variety of cults and specialized religious personnel. People try to unload their acute mental pressure under the banner of religion. They seek support and stamina from super-nature in the way to struggle for existence.

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