Updated: Mar 4, 2021
On February 22, Hemant Soren, the Chief Minister of Jharkhand underlined the fact that the tribals of India were never Hindus but were worshippers of nature. Addressing the India Conference at Harvard 2021, organised by students of Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School, Soren advocated for a separate religious code for tribal people in the country as they are neither Hindu, Muslim, or any other organized religion. He is quoted as saying, “There is no confusion on it. Tribal was never a Hindu, nor are they Hindus now. Tribals are worshippers of nature and have a separate set of customs and practices. And that is the reason why they are classified as tribals and indigenous people.” Soren has come under heavy criticism for his statements.
As an adivasi from Jharkhand, I can attest to the fact that unlike communities of organized religions, adivasis of India have never been at war over their religious views as they do not have a figure of God as an omnipotent being. They are neither Hindus nor Muslims. Instead, they believe in things which are visible and practical, and provide them with the means to live in harmony with nature. Therefore, adivasis believe in Nature itself. From nature springs the river that quenches thirst, the grains that feed, the trees that provide shade, and the materials to sustain life. Adivasis also believe in the spirit of their ancestors who are supposed to look over them and provide them with prosperity.
On the other hand, organized religion believes that an almighty God created all humans on Earth. No two followers of two different religions agree to the nature of who this almighty God may be. Christians believe they were first created by Jehovah, the father, son, and, the holy spirit. Muslims believe they were all created by Allah, whereas Hindus believe that the god Brahma made them out of clay. Many wars and deaths have been caused by these diversity of beliefs.
Why Adivasis need their own Religious Code
There is a mistaken assumption by non-adivasis that adivasis are Hindus. This misconception emerged over the past few decades as adivasis began to get admitted to the colonial education system. Girls and boys started going to schools and colleges where they were tasked with filling up forms. Generally, admission forms, entrance forms, and job application forms carry a column of boxes in which one of the information sought is that of “Religion”. Since adivasis had no name for their religion, there was no separate option for them to tick. Under such a circumstance, they began to tick on the category of “Hindu”. This continued for decades which led to two situations—first, more and more adivasis began to be co-opted to Hindu religion, and second, this demography became part of mainstream politics as it raised the overall number of people registered as Hindus in the country. The politics of religion played on these numbers and projected Hindus as a dominant majority in the nation. The adivasis later learnt that the agenda of Hinduism is to erase the identity of adivasis and permanently make them Hindus. This led to a wave of awareness in the early 70s when adivasis realized that they needed to give a name to their religion as their belief, culture, and traditions were different from Hinduism. It was then that the name of Adivasi religion was termed as "Sarna". The Adivasis never believed in giving name to their belief and customs but there was a need to save their identity from being lost in the crowd of so many religions in the country. Adivasi worship systems also needed to be protected from getting mixed and dissolved with Hinduism.
Adivasis follow Sarna religion
Sarna religion or Sarnaism is all about worshipping nature. Adivasis consider the mountains, the rivers, the trees, the air as their gods because these are what sustains the community. During the beginning of humankind, when people were still nomadic and travelled from one place to another in search of food and shelter, nature provided them with all necessary things: trees provided a place to rest, forests provided fruits to eat, the sun provided warmth, and the flowing streams provided clean drinking water. Earlier there was no proper name to define this specific form of worship but in recent times, there has been a demand to call it “Sarna”. Sarjom trees are of great significance to the community and the word Sarna has emerged from this tree name. According to Sarna beliefs, people don't worship in temples, churches, mosques, and gurudwara. Instead, they pray at Jaherthan which is a sacred grove. Every Adivasi village in Jharkhand has one such grove. This sacred space is called Jaherthan in Santhali language and Desauli in Ho Adivasi language.
Recently, the Jharkhand Legislative Assembly passed a resolution to seek the inclusion of Sarna as a religion in the Census 2021. The resolution has been forwarded to the centre for approval. The Indian government should pay heed to the demands of the adivasis and recognize Sarna as the their true religion.