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Indica Symposium: Vanavasi Traditions Of India

With respect to Bharateeya Parampara – there are many views characterizing its flow over the centuries. One view is that it is an engagement between the classical and the folk, the urban and the rural, the indulgent civilization and the withdrawing forest life, the Marga and the Desi, the Vaidikas and the Shramanas. To various degrees, the traditionalists of Bharatavarsha agree with this. On the other hand, the modernists tend to view this as a conflict between the two in each category. An important dimension of this debate is the characterization of the Adivasi-s as the original inhibitors of this land, who were driven into the forests & exploited by the settlers who heralded the Vedic civilization and thereafter. The Tradition on the other hand views that the term Adivasi itself is wrong and the ones in the forest are Vanavasi-s and their life and autonomy was always respected. Of course, recent genetics research proves that those who we consider as Adivasis seem to have entered the Bharatavarsha only recently. But that still leaves the question of the nature of the engagement. Towards this, it is important for us to know the nature of life of these Vanavasi-s. Indica Org organized a meaningful symposium “Hindu Vanavasi Traditions” under the guidance of Shri. Nagaraj Paturi where scholars who are studying these matters came together and presented their views, creating clarity on this engagement.

 Summary of Presentation: Welcome Address & Introduction

Dr. Nagaraj gave a welcome address that placed the cultural and civilizational importance of the Symposium. He began by reflecting upon contemporary perspectives on the word ‘tribe’ in the academic world, its utility and limitation. It does not retain its universality to describe forest communities. While its use cannot be fully eliminated, he called upon the need to place it minimally. That reflects in the way this Symposium flowed. He further shed light on other problematic terminologies such as primitive and aboriginal, each containing questionable value propositions. There is a subtle looking down upon these forest dwelling cultures in these terminologies. Apart from this, in India this has taken a political term. The terms Adivasi and Vanavasi are pitted against each other. The latter is chosen to create divisions in society. The term Vanavasi, on the other hand, is a neutral term that merely recognizes a lived reality without making any value statement. It provides an opportunity to look at the forest dwelling communities without the biased anthropological and political lenses. It makes us understand the communities on their own terms and from lenses that emerge from within their life. He then narrated the developments of invasion, proselytization, modernity, industry and urbanization in Europe and Americas and their consequences on the culture and life of forest dwelling communities. On the other hand, in India forest dwelling communities have survived, rather thrived, because of the environmentalist worldview inherent in all communities, which is nothing but the Hindu culture. The city dwelling and the forest dwelling communities drew their world views from the same root-source which is nothing but the Hindu culture. That is how the world saw us too as can be seen in how travellers described India across centuries. Each community had an inherent respect for other cultures and hence sought not to override other communities. He then dwelled upon the role played by modern education itself in this context. Each community is inherently a knowledge system. Modern education seeks to uniformalise and flatten all knowledge systems into its own. As a consequence, it contains the roots of the destruction of all other cultures, in particular forest dwelling communities. In the process, he threw light on a key accusation thrown on traditional India that it did not spread education in the forest dwelling communities. From the pure stand-point of Knowledge Systems and diversity, leaving the forest dwelling communities to evolve themselves was probably the right thing as it provided them an opportunity to shape themselves on their own terms. Modern society on the contrary is trying to convert them into its own universe, which may merely turn out to be a disadvantageous place for the forest dwelling communities. It was a perfect pitch that covered all dimensions of the subject and set the ground ready for other presentations.

Summary of Presentation: Ancient Indian Religion and Tribals

The next talk was from Dr. Satyanarayana Dyavanapalli, the curator of Tribal Museums, Government of Telangana. His talk was titled on “Ancient Indian Religion and Tribals”. He raised the question if the forest dwelling communities contributed anything to Hinduism. He gave various references such as the evidence of very old Shivalinga-s belonging to certain forest communities, the relationship of Pashupati seal of Indus valleys and the religious culture of forest dwelling communities and so on. He also gave the example of a tribe called Heramba that worships Ganesha (with the same name). He is not a god with an elephant head for them. Heramba tribes are mentioned in Mahabharata and they fought against the Pandavas. Some tribes of central India have a story similar to Gajendra Moksha of Bhagavata. However, it is Rama who they refer to as Bhagavan who saves the elephant. He shed light on the culture of Dharma-Sthambha in many tribal communities of Central India. Their temples have a Dharma-Sthambha which they consider as representing the Sun god which they believe protects them as long as the Sun is there in the sky. He spoke of a particular tribal community called the Soura sect. This is very equivalent to what is seen in modern Hindu temples as Garudha-Sthambha. Forest dwellers workshop Krishna in different names. Jagannatha is a popular deity for all Odiya forest communities. The story of Savara is quite well known. His talk was replete with innumerable examples that threw light on how Hinduism of today consists of significant contribution from various forest dwelling communities and vice-versa.

Summary of Presentation: Tribals of India and Their Dharmic Culture

The next speaker was Dr. Phirmi Bodo, Assistant Prof, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, at JNU. She is also associated with the Centre for Vanavasi Ashram. Her topic was “The Tribals and their Dharmic Culture”. She summarized the net impact of colonialism in India. The British policy of divide and conquer, segregation and the colonial ideas/ideologies emanating from European/urban supremacy resulted in the cultural and civilizational separation of forest dwelling communities from the plains of India. The British drove the idea of separation hard both intellectually and through their administrative policies and completely underplayed the cultural integration and oneness that existed in the past. The very word tribal had the connotation of looking down upon the forest dwelling communities and making them subjects to be transformed through colonial interventions. “The term Adivasi itself was coined in the early 20th Century in the context of race obsessed colonial ethnology” – said Dr. Phirmi Bodo. Their penchant to mark every tribe as either Aryan or Non-Aryan/Dravidian, irrespective of whether the categories actually described the ground reality, created many a distortion. That categorization enabled them to further establish the narrative that the tribals were not part of the Dharmic culture to begin with. On the contrary, the Jana Jatis of the North East had a flourishing civilization with cordial relations with their neighbours which is only possible with a good cultural mindset. The North East communities were a skilled, industrial and trading society with their own traditions. The colonials ignored their civilizational finesse while they described them. At the same time they referred to their traditions and customs as Khasi religion or Munda religion based on the name of the community itself in order to create a sense of separateness between them and the larger Hindu society, while fully knowing that the culture was one and the same with different expressions. There were academics who recognized this unity of culture that the Hinduism of the plains was the same as animism of the tribals with added philosophy and metaphysics. The seeming diversity emanated from the same root-source. However, the British colonialists ignored it. She provided a variety of examples to demonstrate this cultural unity and integrity. She made a thoughtful way-forward comment that we have all evidences, but we need our own gaze to connect all these dots and further demonstrate that integrity and oneness of this culture. She pointed out the greatest weakness of our times in India – the unwillingness to think originally and the curse of imitation.

Summary of Presentation: Tribal Revolts – Lessons to be Learnt and Followed in Empowering Tribes

The presentation on tribal culture was followed by a presentation on tribal revolts and armed uprisings over encroachment of their land by Dr. P. Sivaramakrishnan. Dr.Sivaramakrishnan completed his doctorate in tribal knowledge systems from Osmania University and is the founder of the NGO SAKTI, which is dedicated to the empowerment of tribal communities and conservation of natural resources.

Sivaramakrishnan begins his presentation by noting how tribal communities have been fighting against encroachment on their land for the past two hundred years, since the British colonial state was established in India along with their legal and administrative apparatus, the same apparatus which the post colonial Indian state adopted. The British Raj registered the forested land under their jurisdiction, and created reservation blocks out of the forest area. They then began to sell forest land to private actors and businesses. This system of forest administration and land records was alien to the tribal communities (and remains so to many Indians to this day), and they began to resist the encroachments upon their land the only way they knew how: through armed uprisings and revolt. For a period of two hundred years, since the time the British established their colonial rule in India up to independence, there were various incidents of armed rebellion in India by various tribal communities, one of the more famous incidents being the Rampa rebellion.

Sivaramakrishnan observed that the armed uprisings of the tribals continued after independence. After the suppression of the Telangana rebellion of 1946-51, some of the young people who participated in that struggle went into the dwelling areas of the tribal communities and recruited many of them into participating in armed struggles against the government. This led to the birth of various Naxalite terrorist organizations and their attacks against the government which continues to this day. Sivaramakrishnan brings up the example of the Srikakulam peasant uprising of 1967-70, in which Naxalite groups had gained the support of, and included many tribals among their ranks who opposed the government encroaching onto their land. But it was brutally suppressed and the government eventually settled the forest lands they controlled with non-tribal communities.

This brings Dr. Sivaramakrishnan to the impetus behind starting the NGO SAKTI. SAKTI was started to help tribals prevent encroachment onto their land through non-violent means. Namely, by educating tribals about the legal system and procedures governing land records, and the revenue and registration system. SAKTI also collaborates with government sectors that deal with tribal affairs, on how to register and distribute land records to the tribal communities so that they too have land rights.

Summary of Presentation: Vanvasi Traditions and Culture of India: Special Reference to Uraon Community

The symposium continued with Dr. Ram Shankar Uraon, an assistant professor in IIM Ahmedabad with a PhD in management from the department of management studies.

The goal of his presentation was to poke holes in the account (promoted by Christian missionaries and certain social science academics) that Tribals are not part of the Hindu community, which he was successful at.  Dr. Uraon himself comes from the Uraon tribal community.  He meticulously details a list of practices that the Tribal Uraon share with many communities in India, such as:

  • The gotra system: The Uraon wedding practices are also linked to gotra. Tribals don’t marry someone from the same gotra.
  • Weddings usually happen early in the morning.
  • They happen in a mandapa.
  • The use of mangalsutra in weddings.
  • Uraon communities have the equivalent of purohits drawn from within their own community to perform important rituals and ceremonies. (This is an important observation which I will come to later).
  • Tonsuring children when they reach certain age.
  • Go Pooja (ritual where cow is revered as the goddess Kamadhenu, for wealth and prosperity).
  • Uraon rituals directed towards the deceased or dead is similar or identical to many non-tribal communities such as bathing of the body.
  • Their primary deity called Dharmesh, is another name for Lord Shiva.

Dr. Uraon also mentioned the controversy over the practice of Sarna. Certain members of the tribal communities began demanding separate recognition of the Sampradaya of Sarna as a religion by the Indian government. However, Dr. Uraon notes that Sarna is the region where rituals/pooja is conducted in a sacred grove, where Shiva and Parvati, recognized as Hindu deities, are revered.

The presentation was followed by a Q and A session moderated by Professor Nagaraj Paturi. The question that was taken up during this session was one addressed to Professor Radhakrishnan: Was there documentation/land records of tribal lands during the colonial period? Dr. Paturi answered the question by clarifying that it wasn’t just tribals, and that most communities in India during the colonial period did not have land records, and the British government took over the land of those communities that did not have land records during the colonial period. The post colonial Indian government continued these policies.

Reflections and Thoughts on the Presentations ‘’Tribals of India and Their Dharmic Culture‘’ and ‘’Vanvasi Traditions and Culture of India: Special Reference to Uraon Community’’

Both these presentations raised a slew of questions for future research. What are the intellectual consequences that arise from the fact that many or most of tribal community practices are identical to or share the same structure as the practices of many Hindu non tribal groups? That is to say, how do the facts shown by the presenters about the tribal communities change the way we conceptualize and think about them? What makes a particular group Hindu anyways?

The irony of the culture and ideological war that has been going on between the left and the right in India is that both parties accept the categories of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’, but there is lack of clarity on what phenomena these terms refer to. Tracing the roots of these terms gives us insight into how Hinduism was a concept coined by Europeans to make sense of the various traditions they encountered within India. There was a systematicity to the way Europeans went about classifying traditions and peoples as Hindu or non-Hindu, which suggests they were utilizing a theoretical framework. This theoretical framework was Christian theology.

When the European missionaries and travellers first arrived on the shores of India, they saw different practices and traditions and needed some way to systematize and make sense of what they observed. The Christian theological framework brought internal order and coherence to their experience by allowing them to postulate a core structure that tied these various traditions together. Within the framework of the European theological understanding, texts such as the Manusmriti and Dharmasastras become religious laws, thus forming the core structure of the Hindu religion. The European travellers and missionaries observed that it was primarily Brahmins who were able to access the above mentioned Sanskrit texts and performed various rituals used these texts. Thus, Brahmins were conceived of as the religious clergy of Hinduism (similar to Catholic priests), and Sanskrit as the sacred language of Hinduism.  Any groups or communities whose practices didn’t fit into their model of Hinduism were considered non Hindu. That is to say, groups whose practices they couldn’t derive from Sanskrit texts or didn’t have Brahmins as priests, were branded as non Hindu by the Europeans.  For example, there were a group of tribals in Tamil Nadu known as Shanaras who did animal sacrifices to pisasu and bhooth, and did not revere the devatas found in the Sanskrit texts such as Shiva, Vishnu etc. The missionary Robert Caldwell described them as non Hindu aboriginals. As we all know, there are many groups in India, not just tribals, whose practices are not derived from Sanskrit texts, and do not use Brahmin purohits for their ceremonies and rituals.

It is important to realize that European missionaries and orientalists were not giving an objective, scientific description of Indian culture, but were instead describing their experience of Indian culture filtered through the lens of Christian theology. Although, the core foundation for the various Hindu traditions postulated by Europeans (religious laws and Brahmin priesthood) is wrong, we as Hindus do perceive an affinity between the tribal traditions and our everyday practices and traditions, from the ghotra system, to temple rituals, to marriage ceremonies. This leads to the bigger question: What is the fundamental structure that provides the foundation for the myriad Hindu traditions? What is Sanathana Dharma? This is a multigenerational research question that will be the task of future intellectuals.

Summary of Presentation: Adaptations, Appropriations and the Creative Passion for a Unique Identity in Some Telangana Adivasis

The penultimate presentation of the day was done by Sri Sumanaspati Reddy. He is assistant director of All India Radio. He is an ethnographer, radio broadcaster, and documentary filmmaker, who has done extensive research through fieldwork on the Advisai community of Adilabad, the Gonds. In his presentation, he shares with the audience what he has learnt about the Gond community’s culture and traditions, drawing from his experience of having lived and worked with them.

Sumanaspati Reddy begins his presentation by noting how the forest in ancient India was a continuum of the overall system in which people lived. Forest dwellers were in touch with city and village dwellers on a continual basis.  Renowned acharyas and munis who had their ashrams in the forest imparted their wisdom to the tribal groups too. In the itihasas Mahabharata and Ramayana, the beauty of forest and forest dwellers were appreciated. Despite the occasional conflicts that occurred between forest dwelling communities and others, it is evident that a syncretic culture developed between these communities. The Gonds even have deities linked to other regions such as Marathi deities and Andhra deities. Sumanaspati Reddy is describing an organic system in which different communities were interdependent on one another, had some shared traditions and practices, but at the same time respected each other’s distinctness. For example, he notes that there is an overlap in the traditions and deities of different tribal groups, but at the same time they are distinct from each other. In other words, they are a microcosm of Indian culture.

Like the previous presenter, Dr. Uraon, Sumanaspati Reddy  discusses at length about the similarity between Gond traditions and the traditions of other Hindu communities. He showed us a diagram of mnemonic system, through which the Gonds narrate the story of creation as well as their origins as a community.  All the nature personalities and rishis are represented in the mnemonic chart. The story is narrated as a song by a bard within the Gonds.  The Gonds build this mnemonic diagram using pebbles, and it becomes a useful three dimensional way of remembering the characters and events.

It is important to note that many of the Gond deities are identical or similar to Hindu deities. Their creation stories also mirror many of the stories found in Sanskrit texts. Gond traditions place importance on ancestor reverence. They believe they are surrounded by their ancestors. The deities Shambu and Girija Parvati, who are thought to be the progenitors of the Gond community, are counterparts of Shiva and Parvati. Itihasas and Puranas that are popular among many Hindu communities are also popular among the Gonds, but they are modified to suit their traditions and way of life. For example, the Mahabharata is popular among the Gonds, but in the Gond Mahabharata, Bheema becomes the one who teaches agriculture to the Gond community.

Gonds also have a complex ghotra system. There are twelve ghotras within which there are many different clans. The ghotra system lays out the Gond rules of marriage as well. For example, members belonging to the same ghotra don’t marry each other; a rule followed by many groups and communities within India. Furthermore, the members of each ghotra have their own ghotra tradition. It determines their social relationships as well. Gonds with identical ghotras treat each other like siblings. If they are of different ghotras, they treat each other like in-laws or distant relatives.

Sumanaspati Reddy ends the presentation by discussing how the colonial political and legal system severed the syncretic and interconnected relationship that existed between the tribals and other communities. The way the British classified and conceptualized the different communities within India as Hindu and non-Hindu/tribals became part of their legal and political system and destroyed the social ecosystem that connected the Gonds with the other Hindu communities. Under the colonial system, they became oppressed minorities, victims of the majority Hindus asking for benefits from the government.

Reflections and Thoughts on the Presentation:

When Sumanaspati Reddy was discussing the interconnected social ecosystem that existed between the tribal communities and those living in the village and cities, including shared traditions and deities, it struck me that this interconnectedness between these communities developed organically, without any kind of state or other institutional interference or engineering. How did such a complex social system develop without state or institutional involvement? This question by itself is a multigenerational research question for Indian intellectuals.

Sumanaspati Reddy’s account of the British colonial policies’ disruption and displacement of the relationship that existed between the tribals and other communities was a tragic story. In retrospect, it is obvious why the colonial policies would result in the fracturing of the social ecosystem between tribal and other communities.

As discussed, the British came from a Christian culture. They mapped the various traditions of India onto the Abrahamic model of religion. That was the only way they could make sense and give some structure to the bewildering diversity of traditions and peoples they encountered. As a result, they saw the various sampradayas as competing doctrines and belief systems, instead of ancestral traditions passed on from generation to generation. Under this framework, different communities are pitted against each other as religious rivals. This framework of understanding and classifying different communities within India became incorporated into the colonial political and legal system. Under this framework, the Hindus become the religious majority, and the tribals and Adivasis become non-Hindu minorities. Since these communities are religious rivals, each with opposing claims of doctrinal truth, the majority becomes a threat to the minority because of their numerical superiority, and the minority needs to be protected from the majority not only imposing their religion on them, but also excluding them from their institutions. The British colonial government officially practiced a policy of tolerance towards all communities. Thus, they started making concessions towards the so called minority groups in India, through reservations and other forms of financial and resource based support. Under this system, the tribals are compelled to see the so called Hindu majority as oppressors and see themselves as an oppressed minority needing support from the government.

Finally, the Gond mnemonic method of storytelling that Sumanaspati Reddy presented to the audience is an interesting example of a visual method and tool of storytelling.

Summary of Presentation: Interface Between Vanavasi and other Hindu Traditions

Dr. Nagaraj Paturi concluded the symposium with his presentation on the connection between Vanavasi and other Hindu traditions. Dr. Paturi recounts his experiences and fieldwork with tribal communities, in order to show the cultural affinity between the tribals and other Hindu groups, specifically focusing on his observations about tribal astrologers. For example, Dr. Paturi notes that a method of astrology used by the tribals involves making use of bundles of palm leaves. Each of the leaves contains a drawing of a particular deity, which are variants of deities usually classified as Hindu, such as Hanuman or Venkateswara. The astrologer asks his or her client to put a metal stylus between the bundles, which divides the bundle in two. The two leaves the stylus touches are taken out. The tribal astrologer then uses the qualities and features of the deity found on the leaves to make predictions about the client’s future. E.g. If the client selects a leaf containing the drawing of the deity Venkateswara, it means he will have multiple wives, partners, relationships, because Venkateswara has two wives.

The Astrologer also conveys to the client the reason for his or her suffering. The reason usually takes the form of a tradition they failed to adhere to or perform. The striking feature of this tribal astrology is that there is an understanding between the tribal astrologer and the non tribal clientele, since the tribal shares many of the deities as well as the traditions of the client and hence he is able to communicate to the client the traditions he failed to perform and the remedies.

Dr. Paturi further drives home the above point of a shared culture between tribal and non-tribal communities by pointing out that tribal languages (classified as Dravidian languages) have technical Sanskrit conceptual vocabulary, which indicates shared traditions and practices with the non-tribal communities. For example, the tribal astrologers talk about deities commonly classified as Hindu devatas, as well as concepts such as Swarga and Naraka which are found in multiple Sanskrit texts and commonly held and understood by multiple communities in India.

Dr Nagaraj Paturi ends the conference by mentioning how archaeological evidence shows that interaction between tribal forest dwelling communities and other communities go back to Megalithic times.


Overall, the symposium provided an interesting window into the details and nuances of the tribal traditions that most of the general public aren’t aware of. The most interesting part of the symposium was learning about the relationship and interaction between the tribal and non tribal traditions of Bharat. It is evident that they grew, developed, and flourished together, borrowing practices from one another. The end result is a syncretic Bharatiya culture that emerged out of these interactions. Studying the differences between tribal and non-tribal traditions as well as the common cultural framework shared between these traditions, is a huge research area that will keep scholars of Indian culture occupied for many generations.

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