Adivasi traditions and practices pervade all aspects of Indian culture and civilization, yet this awareness is often lacking in popular consciousness, and the extent and import of Adivasi contributions to Indian philosophy, language and custom have often gone unrecognized, or been underrated by historians and social scientists.
Although popular myths about Buddhism have obscured the original source and inspiration for it’s humanist doctrine, it is to India’s ancient tribal (or Adivasi) societies that Gautam Buddha looked for a model for the kind of society he wished to advocate. Repulsed by how greed for private property was instrumental in causing poverty, social exploitation and unending warfare – he saw hope for human society in the tribal republics that had not yet come under the sway of authoritarian rule and caste discrimination. The early Buddhist Sanghas were modelled on the tribal pattern of social interaction that stressed gender equality, and respect for all members. Members of the Sanghas sought to emulate their egalitarian outlook and democratic functioning
At that time, the tribal republics retained many aspects of social equality that can still be found in some Adivasi societies that have somehow escaped the ill-effects of commercial plunder and exploitation. Adivasi society was built on a foundation of equality with respect for all life forms including plants and trees. There was a deep recognition of mutual dependence in nature and human society. People were given respect and status according to their contribution to social needs but only while they were performing that particular function. A priest could be treated with great respect during a religious ceremony or a doctor revered during a medical consultation, but once such duties had been performed, the priest or doctor became equal to everyone else. The possession of highly valued skills or knowledge did not lead to a permanent rise in status. This meant that no individual or small group could engage in overlordship of any kind, or enjoy hereditary rights.
Such a value-system was sustainable as long as the Adivasi community was non-acquisitive and all the products of society were shared. Although division of labor did take place, the work of society was performed on a cooperative and co-equal basis – without prejudice or disrespect for any form of work.
It was the simplicity, the love of nature, the absence of coveting the goods and wealth of others, and the social harmony of tribal society that attracted Gautam Buddha, and had a profound impact on the ethical core of his teachings.
(To this day, sharing is a vital and integral part of the philosophy of the Mullakurumba Adivasis of South India. When the Mullakurumbas go hunting a share is given to every family in the village, even those who may be absent, sick or cannot participate for any other reason. An extra portion is added for any guest in the village and even a non-tribal passersby will be offered a share. Not sharing is something they find difficult to comprehend.)
Nevertheless, tribal societies were under constant pressure as the money economy grew and made traditional forms of barter less difficult to sustain. In matters of trade, the Adivasis followed a highly evolved system of honour. All agreements that they entered into were honoured, often the entire tribe chipping in to honor an agreement made by an individual member of the tribe. Individual dishonesty or deceit were punished severely by the tribe. An individual who acted in a manner that violated the honor of the tribe faced potential banishment and family members lost the right to participate in community events during the period of punishment. But often, tribal integrity was undermined because the non-tribals who traded with the Adivasis reneged on their promises and took advantage of the sincerity and honesty of most members of the tribe.
Tribal societies came under stress due to several factors. The extension of commerce, military incursions on tribal land, and the resettling of Brahmins amidst tribal populations had an impact, as did ideological coercion or persuasion to attract key members of the tribe into “mainstream” Hindu society. This led to many tribal communities becoming integrated into Hindu society as jatis (or castes) while others who resisted were pushed into the hilly or forested areas, or remote tracks that had not yet been settled. In the worst case, defeated Adivasi tribes were pushed to the margins of settled society and became discriminated as outcastes and “untouchables”.
But spontaneous differentiation within tribal societies also took place over time, which propelled these now unequal tribal communities into integrating into Hindu society without external violence or coercion. In Central India, ruling dynasties emerged from within the ranks of tribal society.
In any case, the end result was that throughout India, tribal deities and customs, creation myths and a variety of religious rites and ceremonies came to absorbed into the broad stream of “Hindu” society. In the Adivasi traditions, ancestor worship, worship of fertility gods and goddesses (as well as male and female fertility symbols), totemic worship – all played a role. And they all found their way into the practice of what is now considered Hinduism. The widespread Indian practice of keeping ‘vratas’, i.e. fasting for wish-fulfillment or moral cleansing also has Adivasi origins
Mahashweta Devi has shown that both Shiva and Kali have tribal origins as do Krishna and Ganesh. In the 8th century, the tribal forest goddess or harvest goddess was absorbed and adapted as Siva’s wife. Ganesh owes it’s origins to a powerful tribe of elephant trainers whose incorporation into Hindu society was achieved through the deification of their elephant totem. In his study of Brahmin lineages in Maharashtra, Kosambi points to how many Brahmin gotras (such as Kashyapa) arose from tribal totems such as Kachhapa (tortoise). In Rajasthan, Rajput rulers recognised the Adivasi Bhil chiefs as allies and Bhils acquired a central role in some Rajput coronation ceremonies.
India’s regional languages such as Oriya, Marathi or Bengali developed as a result of the fusion of tribal languages with Sanskrit or Pali and virtually all the Indian languages have incorporated words from the vocabulary of Adivasi languages.
Adivasis who developed an intimate knowledge of various plants and their medicinal uses played an invaluable role in the development of Ayurvedic medicines. In a recent study, the All India Coordinated Research Project credits Adivasi communities with the knowledge of 9000 plant species – 7500 used for human healing and veterinary health care. Dental care products like datun, roots and condiments like turmeric used in cooking and ointments are also Adivasi discoveries, as are many fruit trees and vines. Ayurvedic cures for arthritis and night blindness owe their origin to Adivasi knowledge.
Adivasis also played an important role in the development of agricultural practices – such as rotational cropping, fertility maintenance through alternating the cultivation of grains with leaving land fallow or using it for pasture. Adivasis of Orissa were instrumental in developing a variety of strains of rice.
Adivasi musical instruments such as the bansuri (flute) and dhol (drum), folk-tales, dances and seasonal celebrations also found their way into Indian traditions as did their art and metallurgical skills.
In India’s central belt, Adivasi communities rose to considerable prominence and developed their own ruling clans. The earliest Gond kingdom appears to date from the 10th C and the Gond Rajas were able to maintain a relatively independent existence until the 18th C., although they were compelled to offer nominal allegiance to the Mughal empire. The Garha-Mandla kingdom in the north extended control over most of the upper Narmada valley and the adjacent forest areas. The Deogarh-Nagpur kingdom dominated much of the upper Wainganga valley, while Chanda-Sirpur in the south consisted of territory around Wardha and the confluences of the Wainganga with the Penganga.
Jabalpur was one of the major centers of the Garha-Mandla kingdom and like other major dynastic capitals had a large fort and palace. Temples and palaces with extremely fine carvings and erotic sculptures came up throughout the Gond kingdoms. The Gond ruling clans enjoyed close ties with the Chandella ruling clans and both dynasties attempted to maintain their independence from Mughal rule through tactical alliances. Rani Durgavati of Jabalpur (of Chandella-Gond heritage) acquired a reputation of legendary proportions when she died in battle defending against Mughal incursions. The city of Nagpur was founded by a Gond Raja in the early 18th century.
Adivasis and the Freedom Movement
As soon as the British took over Eastern India tribal revolts broke out to challenge alien rule. In the early years of colonization, no other community in India offered such heroic resistance to British rule or faced such tragic consequences as did the numerous Adivasi communities of now Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh, Orissa and Bengal. In 1772, the Paharia revolt broke out which was followed by a five year uprising led by Tilka Manjhi who was hanged in Bhagalpur in 1785. The Tamar and Munda revolts followed. In the next two decades, revolts took place in Singhbhum, Gumla, Birbhum, Bankura, Manbhoom and Palamau, followed by the great Kol Risings of 1832 and the Khewar and Bhumij revolts (1832-34). In 1855, the Santhals waged war against the permanent settlement of Lord Cornwallis, and a year later, numerous adivasi leaders played key roles in the 1857 war of independence.
But the defeat of 1858 only intensified British exploitation of national wealth and resources. A forest regulation passed in 1865 empowered the British government to declare any land covered with trees or brushwood as government forest and to make rules to manage it under terms of it’s own choosing. The act made no provision regarding the rights of the Adivasi users. A more comprehensive Indian Forest Act was passed in 1878, which imposed severe restrictions upon Adivasi rights over forest land and produce in the protected and reserved forests. The act radically changed the nature of the traditional common property of the Adivasi communities and made it state property.
As punishment for Adivasi resistance to British rule, “The Criminal Tribes Act” was passed by the British Government in 1871 arbitrarily stigmatizing groups such as the Adivasis (who were perceived as most hostile to British interests) as congenital criminals.
Adivasi uprisings in the Jharkhand belt were quelled by the British through massive deployment of troops across the region. The Kherwar uprising and the Birsa Munda movement were the most important of the late-18th century struggles against British rule and their local agents. The long struggle led by Birsa Munda was directed at British policies that allowed the zamindars (landowners) and money-lenders to harshly exploit the Adivasis. In 1914 Jatra Oraon started what is called the Tana Movement (which drew the participation of over 25,500 Adivasis). The Tana movement joined the nation-wide Satyagrah Movement in 1920 and stopped the payment of land-taxes to the colonial Government.
During British rule, several revolts also took place in Orissa which naturally drew participation from the Adivasis. The significant ones included the Paik Rebellion of 1817, the Ghumsar uprisings of 1836-1856, and the Sambhalpur revolt of 1857-1864.
In the hill tribal tracts of Andhra Pradesh a revolt broke out in August 1922. Led by Alluri Ramachandra Raju (better known as Sitarama Raju), the Adivasis of the Andhra hills succeeded in drawing the British into a full-scale guerrilla war. Unable to cope, the British brought in the Malabar Special Force to crush it and only prevailed when Alluri Raju died.
As the freedom movement widened, it drew Adivasis into all aspects of the struggle. Many landless and deeply oppressed Adivasis joined in with upper-caste freedom fighters expecting that the defeat of the British would usher in a new democratic era.
Unfortunately, even fifty years after independence, Dalits and Adivasis have benefited least from the advent of freedom. Although independence has brought widespread gains for the vast majority of the Indian population, Dalits and Adivasis have often been left out, and new problems have arisen for the nation’s Adivasi populations. With the tripling of the population since 1947, pressures on land resources, especially demands on forested tracks, mines and water resources have played havoc on the lives of the Adivasis. A disproportionate number of Adivasis have been displaced from their traditional lands while many have seen access to traditional resources undercut by forest mafias and corrupt officials who have signed irregular commercial leases that conflict with rights granted to the Adivasis by the Indian constitution.
It remains to be seen if the the grant of statehood for Jharkhand and Chhatisgarh ameliorates the conditions for India’s Adivasis. However, it is imperative that all Adivasi districts receive special attention from the Central government in terms of investment in schools, research institutes, participatory forest management and preservation schemes, non-polluting industries, and opportunities for the Adivasi communities to document and preserve their rich heritage. Adivasis must have special access to educational, cultural and economic opportunities so as to reverse the effects of colonization and earlier injustices experienced by the Adivasi communities.
At the same time, the country can learn much from the beauty of Adivasi social practices, their culture of sharing and respect for all – their deep humility and love of nature – and most of all – their deep devotion to social equality and civic harmony.
Abhishek Sheetal from the Munda tribe in Jharkhand wrote to us emphasizing how traditionally tribal societies valued gender equality, respect for nature and equality of all trades. This Munda fable is particularly illustrative:
There was a king who lost a war with Munda tribals. He sent a messenger to the king of Mundas. The messenger looked around but could not find the king or his palace. He asked one farmer as to where to find the king. The farmer replied, “He was here a while ago, let me see (he looks around)….Oh there he is (pointing to a man plowing his fields with his bullocks)… He is working there.”
1. What is Living and What is Dead in Indian Philosophy – Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya
1b. Stcherbasky: Buddhist Logic (New York, 1962), Papers of Stcherbasky – (Calcutta – 1969,71)
2. The Indian Historical Review, Vol. 16:1,2 Baidyanath Saraswati’s review of P.K Maity, Folk-Rituals of Eastern India
3. Bulletins of the ICHR (Indian Council of Historical Research)
4. Studies in the History of Science in India (Edited by Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya)
5. Adivasi: A symbiotic Bond – Mari and Stan Thekaekara (Hindu Folio, July 16, 2000)
Note: The term Adivasi has been used broadly to represent those classified as Scheduled Tribe under the Indian constitution. Roughly speaking, the term translates as aboriginal or native people (or native dwellers).
Some Dalit activists now prefer to also be characterized as Adivasis. Others seek to bring all of India’s oppressed groupings under the ‘Bahujan Samaj’ umbrella. While the term Harijan is largely out of favour, there are some who simply identify with the government designated terms ST (scheduled tribe) and SC (scheduled caste).
Although, districts with large Adivasi populations are to be found almost throughout India, the majority of India’s Adivasis hail from Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh and Orissa. Tripura, Arunachal, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland also have large Adivasi populations. There are also districts in Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra and Tamil Nadu with sizeable Adivasi populations.