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II.8.1 Impact of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and other religions on tribal societies.

Previous Questions:

  • Islam and Matriliny. (10Marks 2015)
  • Discuss the impact of Hinduism on the status of Tribal women in Central India (15Marks 2015)
  • Impact of Christianity on tribes (10Marks 2014)
  • Using ethnographic examples highlight the processes of religious conversions in Tribal India. (20Marks – 2012)
  • Discus the impact of Hindu Society on tribal population in India. (30Marks – 2011)
  • Analyze the impact of Christianity on tribal communities with special reference to North-East India (60 Marks — 2009)
  • Buddhism, Christianity and Scheduled Castes (S.N – 2004)
  • Bases of tribal religion (S.N – 2002)
  • Impact of Christianity on tribal societies (S.N – 2000)
  • Define religion in anthropological perspective. Bring out the impact of Christianity on the converted and non-converted tribal group of India. (L.Q -1996)

India is the home of the followers of all the major religions of the world. This religious pluralism has added to the rich and colourful mosaic of cultural pluralism. Tribal India too, is not a monolith in terms of religion. Though the over whelming majority of tribal population still maintains its separate existance. Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Buddhism have brought about changes among tribals. As a result of interaction with other religion communities, not only tribal religion have undergone changes but also other spheres of life have be affected. It is found that surrounding religious communities have impacted the tribal ways of life.

The exclusive beliefs and practices, more than ninety percent of them are oriented towards Hinduism and passing through different stages of Hinduization. More than 95% of tribal populations of western India, Middle India (MadhyaPradesh), Eastern India (Bihar, Orissa, West Bengal) are Hinduized, while other Hinduized tribal populations are scattered all over the country. On a rough estimate around 5% of the tribal population are adherents of Christianity and are largely concentrated in Assam, Meghalya, Nagaland, Manipur & Mizoram. In astray pockets Christianized tribal populations are also found in Kerala, Andaman & Nicobar, Islands, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Orissa. As for as Islam and Buddhism are concerned, followers of these faiths are around half a percent (0.21% to 0.89%) each of total tribal population of India. Other religious faiths hardly figure in tribal India and their followers may be there in insignificant and inconsiderable numbers. The Siddi of Gujarat, Gujars of the north-western Himalayan regions Bakrewal of Jammu & Kashmir, some Bhils, Kotis and Dhankasi of Rajasthan are the examples of muslim tribes. Almost the entire tribal population of Lakshdweep is muslim and this is the only place where they have any significant presence. The impact at Buddhism may be seen on the Bhots of north-west Himalaya. The Bhutias, Lepchas, Chakmas and Nagas are noticed in the north-east Himalyan region and some of the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh.

Some of the geographically isolated tribes, social organizations and cultures of almost all the tribes of India exhibit the impact of Hiduism. Establishment of British rule hastened the process of culture contact with the outside world as a consequence of increased communication. Many of the tribal areas hitherto closed were thrown open. The so called iron curtain over the tribal areas was removed. But this is also significant that, despite the adoption of many values of Hinduism. Buddhism, Islam and Christianity the distinctive Features of tribalism and tribal ethos remained.

But there may be yet another category of tribes who has been totally assimilated with the Hindu society. This is the level where a tribe has taken the form of caste. (Specially of scheduled castes) Tribes have adopted the elements of Hinduism but have retained several elements of tribal values and ethos. Here religion and magic have assimilated into each other and the forms of gotra is more totemistic than vedic.

Recent ethnographic studies suggest that Hinduization led tribal people to assimilation with different caste at different level in the caste system in north, west and middle India.

Example – Tharus (Srinivas), Khasas (Majumdar) have either became Kshatriya or Brahmin in Central Himalayan region.

In middle region, Chero, Paharias of the part of Chota Nagpur, Gond, Bhumiya of West Bengal have declared themselves as Kshatriya. Mundas and Oraon of chotanagpur started following vaishnavism.

Hinduisation of Oraon was studied by S C Roy in all detail in 1928. Sachidanand in 1964 had given elaborate account of Hinduization among the Oraon. They perform Swami Puja in Sawan month offering a Goat at the Devi Mandap. The Pahan leads worship, some youth learn mantras and worship Hindu deities and sing Bhajan. The family also observe Deothan – a private Hindu Puja’.

Tribals have been assimilated in the Hindu fold in varying degrees. Thant and Khasa are the Himalayan tribes who are referred to as Hinduised tribes. They have adopted Hindu caste names, wear sacred thread and have been assimilated with the Hindus. The Bauri of West Bengal claim to belong to Brahmin caste with the observation of number of days prescribed for mourning, wearing sacred thread, following Vaisnavism. Similarly, with the belief in the concepts of Karma, pollution, merit (Punya) and observing Hindu rituals, the Mahali of West Bengal have been assimilated into the Hindu fold.

It has been also observed that the tribal beliefs and practices too impacted Hinduism which results in the process of tribalization. In the Bastar region of Madhya Pradesh there is an acceptance of the tribal morals, rituals and beliefs among the high caste Hindus. Sociologist Hutton observes that Hindus and tribal religions share a common base. Apart from Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, has affected the tribals e.g. Blot tribals are Buddhists, Bhils of Rajasthan have close contacts with Muslim.

While Hinduism has been unobtrusively making an impact on tribal life and culture, Christianity began making deep dents in it from the 19th century. Church has been one of the most important agencies of social change. The religion of any primitive people inevitably reflects the social structure of the community in which it develops. So is the case with the Indian tribes. Christianity reflects another type of social system which introduces new concepts with changes in the material culture, outlook on life, worldview etc.

There is a change in dress, increased devotion to education, acceptance of the new system of medicine as well as loss of faith in magic and witchcraft. For political affiliation, the converts turn to the purest for guidance., Change of this nature may easily be discerned in Meghalaya, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland.

Of the total Christian population in India, at least one-sixth belong to tribal groups. According to Sahay (1963) the Oraon of Chainpur in Ranchi district, Bihar gave up their faith in the traditional Sarna religion and adopted Christian faith. With this there were considerable changes in the festival celebrations, village organization, economic life etc. Thus, according to some scholars tribal religions disintegrated due to the impact of Christianity.

Buddhism in India Most other Buddhists in India follow Theravada Buddhism, the “Doctrine of the Elders,” which traces its origin through Sri Lankan and Burmese traditions to scriptures in the Pali language, a Sanskritic dialect in eastern India. Although replete with miraculous events and legends, these scriptures stress a more human Buddha and a democratic path toward enlightenment for everyone. Ambedkar’s plan for the expanding Buddhist congregation in India visualized Buddhist monks and nuns developing themselves through service to others. Convert communities, by embracing Buddhism, have embarked on social transformations, including a decline in alcoholism, a simplification of marriage ceremonies and abolition of ruinous marriage expenses, a greater emphasis on education, and a heightened sense of identity and self-worth. A number of avowedly Hindu monastic communities have grown up over time and adopted some of the characteristics associated with early Buddhism and Jainism, while remaining dedicated to the Hindu philosophical traditions.


An important fact to be noted is that perhaps no tribal community has adopted a new faith in toto. In every such tribe the converted and the non –converted members live together. If we take up the case of Arunachal Pradesh we find that the tribal population can be divided into Buddhists and those who continue to abide by their beliefs in spirits. The tribes of western Arunachal Pradesh inhabiting the high hills of kamang and subansiri and siang districts are the followers of Mahayana or Tibetan Buddhism.

In brief there is a great impact of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam upon Tribal society in India. Each community has its own special impact upon Tribal community which reflects throughout India.

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