Tribal Theology

24/07/2011 19:10


Primal theology is the theology of any of the many primal religions. Thus, there is not just one primal theology but many primal theologies, though most of them have something in common between them. Also known as tribal theology, primal theology is considered to be primitive in nature and very unscientific. Animism, magic, manaism, fetishism, and magic are some of the chief ingredients of tribal theology in addition to the myths of creation and the many rituals and rites that belong to such religions.  The word ‘primal’ along with other words like ‘tribal,’ ‘small-scale,’ ‘elementary,’ and ‘non-technological’ have been selected to ward off the negative connotations of the world ‘primitive.’ Some had even used words like ‘savage’ to refer to the tribals in the past as if the primitive people were devoid of any civilization. A study of tribal culture, however, reveals that they do have marks of high cultural sense. The tribals, therefore, must not be considered as barbarians but as less civilized peoples. There has been varying amounts of development among the tribals, mostly found in North and South America, Australia, Africa, and Asia. The Mayans of America, for instance, had a written language based on glyphs as early as the sixth century B.C
In India, the tribals constitute about 8.2% of the Indian population.The fifty or more tribal groups of India are, with regards to the population size, next only to Africa. A study of the religion and belief systems of the tribals reveals a deep sense of the supernatural and reverence of nature.
Primitive cultures should not be considered to have been totally devoid of scientific knowledge. According to C. A. B. Tirkey, some of the attitudes and activities of the primitive people can be described as belonging to the realms of common sense and science.[ Though not thoroughly scientific as might be expected today, the tribal outlook was quite empirical and pro-technological; however, rudimentary in nature. While the realistic outlook of science is of representative realism according to which ideas represent and are copies of real things in knowledge but are not the same as the things themselves, the primal outlook resembles more that of naïve realism according to which the external world of plurality is not only true but also perceived as it is in experience] Scientific theories, on the other hand, are variously seen as instrumental, real, or conceptually coherent depending on the epistemology of science accepted.[9] However, by ‘science’ Tirkey more means the technological part of it and refers to it as the ‘rudiments of science’ found among the tribals. Their ‘chipping of flint to produce a cutting edge, or the tilling of the soil to make a garden,’ according to Tirkey, ‘exhibits to a degree the empirical basis and elaborated technique characteristic of scientific method.’[10] Such scientific tendencies are, according to Tirkey, a result of a common sense view of the universe that is based on experience.[11]
However, it would not be right to label the technology of the primitive groups as completely rudimentary. The igloo (Inuit for ‘house’) of the Native Americans, for instance, is considered to be quite sophisticated. Usually made of hide or sod over a wood or whalebone frame, it is a dome with a sunken entrance that traps heat indoors but allows ventilation.[12] Monoliths, dating as back as 2800 B.C., give evidence of a well developed knowledge of mathematics and geometry among the primal groups of America, Europe, and India.[13] The American Indian shamans could set broken bones and used several herbal remedies. The Inca are known to have used coca from which comes the cocaine drug. Modern doctors use the Curare arrow poison to treat hydrophobia and tetanus. The Indians also used quinine, now used to treat malaria. The Inca are known to have developed trephining, the removal of part of the skull to relieve pressure on the brain.[14] Obviously, the primitive tribes cannot be considered to be totally bereft of technology. Thus, the empirical and pragmatical approach is explicitly seen in tribal culture.
Following is an account of beliefs common to primal religions that evince experience as the source of theologizing among them:
i. Belief in Magic, Mana, and Supernatural Powers. ‘Magic,’ in primal religion, may be defined as ‘any art that invokes supernatural powers’ or the ‘art of influencing events supernaturally.’[15] At the core of most primal religions is the belief that man can force nature to conform to his will through use of spells and ceremonies.[16] Magic and religion are not always separable.[17] This, however, is not characteristic of only primal religions. Almost every religion has some sort of ‘science’ which it believes can influence nature in favor of man. Ranging from chanting to performing of certain ceremonies, this magical outlook has great influence on one’s religion.
Though looking quite unscientific to the modern scientific mind, the experience with magic and supernatural powers is something quite ubiquitous. The attempt to explain away these events as unscientific does not rule out the factuality of the experience itself. In the end, it is one’s own personal subjective experience that highly matters in religious matters, and it is indubitably established that the belief in magic is not without empirical supplement of results. A specialist in the study of the occult, Dr. Kurt E. Koch, in his book Between Christ and Satan, gives record of about 78 cases in which magic was involved.[18] Likewise, W. Lyod Warner, in his A Black Civilization: A Study of an Australian Tribe, mentions several cases of magic and medicine among the Murngin that could not be scientifically explained.[19] Even if such instances are rejected as naïve interpretations of scientifically explainable events, the fact of the universality of magic still is undeniable. According to R. R. Marette in England, H. Hubert and Marcel Mauss in France, mana was the basis of magical belief and practice.[20] In the Murngin tribe, for instance, the medicine man is supposed to derive his mana from the clan, and uses this power as sorcery and magic to destroy some enemy power.[21]
The concept of ‘mana’ seems to be deeply connected with the primal view of reality and even divine reality. The word ‘mana’ is a Melanesian word meaning ‘power,’ ‘potence’ or the like.[22] Common among the primal religions is the belief that men, spirits, and gods possess some mysterious power that enables them to accomplish unusual things. This mana is believed to be transferable to animals and objects. The Oreada of the American Indian, the Kami of the Japanese,[23] the Chi of the Chinese, and the Prana of the Hindus[24] are other words similar to mana. The islanders of Pacific Islands considered mana as an impersonal, supernatural force that flowed through objects, persons, and places. They believed that certain animals, persons, and religious objects had such high levels of mana that touching them would only incur injury; therefore, they declared all such mana-filled beings and objects as taboo (forbidden to touch).[25] The belief in mana is also the basis of fetishism, the veneration and use of objects that are believed to contain mana.[26] Manaism, then, is the belief that things are pervaded by or possess some powers that are relatively negative or positive and could either cause good or evil to others. Thus, plurality and immanence are ready characteristics of mana, which is believed to be individually found in different objects in different proportions.
There are various ways in which people have tried to explain this belief in mana. Sociologically, a description in terms of mana often appears to be a symbolic way of accounting for the authority and status of certain people in society.[27] Manaism, then, may have been a mythical (intended or inferred) construct that ensured and explained authoritative positions and relations within the tribe. Such a theory, however, does not explain why different tribes disconnected from each other are parallel in their theories of mana. Many possibilities exist: manaism may have originated among humans when they were only a single, homogenous unit or it may have spread from one tribe to another or it parallelly arose in the tribal experiences and was modified by inter-tribal connections through war, trade, marriages, etc. However, since a historical appraisal of the problem is not without difficulties, an existential analysis may be somewhat proper in this direction.
Based on Rudolf Otto’s (1869-1937), The Idea of the Holy (1917), manaism may be seen as a belief originating from a sense of awe and dread about a mysterious something ‘other’ that lurks behind the face of nature. At the core of the belief in mana, then, might have been the view that all being is pervaded by mysterious powers. Eventually, these ‘mysterious’ powers were assumed to aid or curtail the prospects of man.
The origins of the belief in mana may be traced to the human psychology of the religious experience. According to Rudolf Otto, humans have a particular sense of awe or dread about a mysterious something, which he calls the numinous.[28] Otto traces the origin of primitive religions to this sense of a mysterium tremendum, the numinous dread or ‘the dread inspired by the numinous,’[29] which in primitive people appears as daemonic dread.[30] According to Otto, this daemonic dread is nothing but a misapprehension of the numinous.[31] Out of such dread has come the belief in demons and deities. In Otto’s own words:
…Whatever has loomed upon the world of his [man’s] ordinary concerns as something terrifying and baffling to the intellect; whatever among natural occurrences or events in the human, animal, or vegetable kingdoms has set him astare in wonder and astonishment – such things have ever aroused in man, and become endued with, the ‘daemonic dread’ and numinous feeling, so as to become ‘portents’, ‘prodigies’, and ‘marvels’. Thus and only thus is it that ‘the miraculous’ rose.[32]
The eight phenomena of primitive religion, viz., ‘magic, worship of the dead, ideas regarding souls and spirits, belief that natural objects have powers that can be manipulated by spells etc, belief that natural objects like mountains and the sun and the moon are actually alive, fairy stories (and myths),’[33] are, accordingly, the earliest expressions of the human predisposition for religious experience. Thus, all such mystical assumptions developed in the early evolutionary stage of humans.
However, a universal belief in mana, as seen in many cultures, cannot be fully accounted by a theory that sees all such beliefs as primitive expressions of religious inclination or awe. Though it is not improbable that induction based on the sense of the numinous, parallelly led to manaism in the different cultures, the conclusion is not feasible since the reason considered supportive, viz. the mere sense of awe, does not necessarily lead to such a complicated theory of manaism as found in primitive cultures. Secondly, it is even debatable whether the history of primal religion has been of evolution or devolution: some anthropologists have suggested that tribes are not animistic because they have continued unchanged since the dawn of history; rather, evidence indicates their degeneration from a monotheistic perspective.[34] Tribal studies bear witness to such a theory.[35] Some scholars have seen in mana and allied notions not a single evolutionary stage or prior component in religious thought but a set of complex, vaguely defined metaphysical concepts expressing the view that human efficacy is not explicable in physical terms alone.[36] Accordingly, it may be assumed that the dreadful and mysterious sense of the numinous, together with some pre-understanding of the supernatural through experience in the occult (magic, witchcraft, magical ritualism, etc.) or religion, and the necessity of a cultic establishment of   authority may have contributed to the development of manaism. Thus, subjective (sense of the numinous) and objective (occultic or religious) experience can be accounted as sources of manaism in primitive cultures.
Manaism, evidently, then is an empirical construct. The rational epistemics of ultimate reality would have vouched for a transcendent, prime mover, or power beyond the universe. However, in a setting where the rational concept is either rejected or unthought of, reliance on the empirical epistemic method, naturally, would yield a belief in some sort of power or powers that pervaded (was immanent to) all being and thus accounted for the evil or good of things. Consequently, the empirical characteristics of plurality (differences of mana), immanence (indwelling), and mutability (transferability) are observable in manaism.
ii. Animism and the Belief in Spirits. The word ‘animism’ comes from the Latin word ‘anima’ meaning breath or soul.[37] Sir E. B. Tylor used the term ‘animism’ in his book Primitive Culture (1871) to mean a ‘belief in spirits.’[38] Animism is popularly known as the belief that all nature, including rocks and trees, is replete with spirits or spiritual beings. In some primal cultures, humans are considered to possess more than one spirit each separable from the other and yet one with the person. For example, the Dakota believed that believed that each person possessed four souls: One animated the body and required food; a second watched over the body, somewhat like a guardian spirit; a third hovered around the village.[39] Communication with the spirits through mediums as a spiritualistic practice and other occultic phenomena is common among the primitives, thus establishing the empirical grounds for such belief.[40]
E. B. Tylor, Herbert Spencer, and Andrew Lang saw different phenomena that might have been the sources of animism. They are trance, unconsciousness, sickness, death, clairvoyance, dreams, apparitions of the dead, wraiths, hallucinations, echoes, shadows, and reflections.[41] Etymology and semantics demonstrate the plausibility of the notion that the belief in spirits might have originated out of an observation of phenomena as listed above. For instance, the Basutus regard the life of man as linked to his shadow. Similarly, in America and classical Europe, the soul was considered to be identical with the shadow of a person.[42] The Greek word pneuma and the Hebrew word ruach, used to mean spirit or soul, carry the meanings of ‘breath,’ or ‘air’. Thus, the phrases ‘yield his last breath’ and ‘give up the ghost’ in the Semitic and Indian languages means ‘to die’. Likewise, sickness is often referred to as the feebleness or weakness of the spirit. Phrases such as ‘spirit got tired,’ ‘spirit was gone from his face,’ ‘spirit became weak,’ express the sickening phenomena. Dreams, in animist cultures, are considered to be spiritual events experienced by the spirit of the person in sleep. Occultic experiences might have provided additional grounds for the belief in the spirit-world. The possibility of deception by evil spirits, as maintained by some, or the chimerical play of imagination also cannot be rejected. Several cases of OBEs (Out of Body Experiences), spiritualistic séances, near-death experiences and the like have been reported attesting the fact that some sort of extra-sensory experience is possible to man; thus, evincing possibilities of empirical animism. The subjective and unverifiable nature of such experiences, however, invites more doubt than belief, philosophically speaking.[43] Yet, the overwhelming evidences supporting such experiences cannot be callously denounced. In his article, “The Concept of Survival of Bodily Death and the Development of Parapsychology(1),”[44] Carlos S. Alvarado gives an elaborate account of psychical research and evidences of spirits indwelling bodies and surviving the death. One significant event of popularity was the spiritualistic séances of Bishop Pike with, allegedly, the spirit of his dead son.[45] Bishop Pike, eventually, abandoned his clerical office to pursue a study of the spirit-realm. As early as 1906, it was noticed that the body of evidence regarding psychical events being accumulated was so massive and strong that it could no longer be easily rejected.[46] Especially, when such evidence comes from scientifically oriented people, the denial of it becomes even more difficult. For instance, in his book Caught Up into Paradise,[47] Dr. Richard E. Eby, an obstetrician and gynecologist, relates his experience with death and after life. The American Society of Psychical Research (ASPR; founded in 1885)[48] has documented several cases of psychical experiences, analyzing them and investigating in order to explain such psychical phenomena. According to ASPR Newsletter, as early as July, 1976:
Six out-of-body (OBE) projects have been conducted. An OBE “fly-in” and an attempt to correlate OBE’s and apparitions both supported the OBE hypothesis, but other interpretations (e.g. ESP) are possible. Perceptual experiments with OBEs and psychophysiological studies of subjects gave similar results: evidence in harmony with OBE hypothesis but other explanations possible. Instrumental recordings (i.e. photos) and a test of mediums gave negative results.
Deathbed studies of apparitions, visions, hallucinations, etc. (reported by attending doctors and nurses) supported the conclusion that “some of the dying patients indeed appeared to be already experiencing glimpses of ecsomatic existence.” But again, other interpretations can’t be ruled out; so these results “should not be taken as a final balance of evidence for or against survival.” Masses of data are still being processed.[49]
Though explainable in other ways, psychical phenomena do serve as an empirical ground for belief in the spirit-world to many people. Further, as Ducasse noted, such evidences did show that ‘we need to revise rather radically in some respects our ordinary ideas of what is and what is not possible in nature.[50] And though attempts were made to explain away phenomena such as telepathy, yet some of the most critical and best-documented investigators still hold that it has not yet been absolutely excluded.[51] Such empirical evidence, if not acceptable to materialist scientists, provides strong evidence for the common man to place a belief in the spirit world. Evidently, then, such experiences must have contributed a lot towards the development of animism and spiritism in primitive cultures.
iii. Belief in a Supreme Creator God. The belief in a Supreme Spirit or High God is a phenomenon so common among many tribes, if not all, that it can be considered a major component of tribal theology. It is not very clear as to how the tribes came to have such a belief. The Biblical theory based on Genesis 10 and Acts 17: 26 & 27 is that God made all the races of mankind out of one man, Adam, to inhabit the whole world; thus, the belief in the Supreme God is not a mere result of reasoning or experience but has roots in the original conception of the Deity as the One God as given by revelation and communicate to posterity through tradition, to the extent that though the concept of such a God may have blurred in some cultures by extreme enslavement to spiritism, yet the concept has not been totally lost.
Don Richardson, in Eternity in their Hearts,[52] gives an account of the concept of a Supreme God in some primitive cultures. He tells the story of how Pachacuti (Pachacutec), the builder of the majestic Machu Picchu and ruler of the Inca Empire from A. D. 1438 to 1471, revisited such an antique concept of the One God Viracocha, after discovering that the Sun-God Inti, long regarded as divinity, could not be God. Pachacuti called the Council of Coricancha to discuss this theological discovery. In that council he presented his doubts about the Sun-God Inti in “the three sentences”:
  1. Inti cannot be universal if, while giving light to some, he withholds it from others.
  2. He cannot be perfect if he can never remain at ease, resting.
  3. Nor can he be all powerful when the smallest cloud may cover him.[53]
Pachacuti didn’t stop here but went on to revive his upper-class subjects’ faint memory of omnipotent Viracocha by listing his awesome attributes. Viracocha was described in the following words:
He is ancient, remote, supreme, and uncreated. Nor does he need the gross satisfaction of a consort. He manifests himself as a trinity when he wishes,…otherwise only heavenly warriors and archangels surround his loneliness. He created all peoples by his ‘word’…as well as all huacas [spirits]. He is man’s Fortunus, ordaining his years and nourishing him. He is indeed the very principle of life, for he warms the folk through his created son, Punchao [the sun disk, which was somehow distinct from Inti]. He is a bringer of peace and an orderer. He is in his own being blessed and has pity on men’s wretchedness. He alone judges and absolves them and enables them to combat their evil tendencies.[54]
This knowledge of the Supreme, however, was considered to be not the pure result of rational or empirical discovery but a gift of revelation. It is said that Pachacuti’s father, Hatun Tupac, once claimed to receive counsel in a dream from Viracocha. Viracocha reminded Hatun Tupac in that dream that He was truly the Creator of all things. On knowing this true God, Hatun Tupac promptly renamed himself Viracocha.[55]
Evidently, then the concept of the one God was not derived from experience alone but by God’s revelation of himself to Hatun Tupac through a dream, in which he was reminded that Viracocha was the true God. Viracocha, however, was already known to Pachacuti’s ancestors as evidenced by the shrine called Quishuarcancha, located in the upper Vilcanota Valley.[56] Hatun Tupac did not newly discover but only rediscovered this ancient, yet ‘basic and genuine’ truth. Thus, the concept of the Supreme God among the Inca could not have been the product of either reason or experience but of tradition and revelation.
The same can be said of the Santals in India. The belief in the Supreme God Thakur Jiu (‘Thakur’ means ‘genuine’ and ‘Jiu’ means ‘God’) was original to the Santals.[57] The departure from Thakur Jiu was prompted by the needs of appeasing spirits in order to ensure survival of the tribe. Thus, the Santals were left with only faint memories of the genuine God. Interestingly, even to the extent of confirming the Biblical theory, the Santal traditional accounts of creation, temptation, and the flood have many similarities with the Biblical account itself.[58] This amounts to, at least, strengthening the view that all humanity had originally one religion and culture, which underwent change as groups divided from each other. Thus, the concept of the One True God is not the product of reason or experience but of traditional testimony, revelation and faith.
The Khasis of Meghalaya have also retained the original concept of the One Supreme God whom they call U Blei. ‘U’ refers to masculine gender in Khasi; however, since God is considered to be above gender and form, ‘Ka’ (feminine) and ‘Ki’ (majestic plural) may also be prefixed to the noun ‘Blei’ when referring to God.[59] The Khasis believe that U Blei can manifest himself in any form, though He is above form. According to Khasi theology, U Blei has the following attributes:
  1. U Blei Nongthaw Nongbuh - God Creator of our bodies and the creation (Nongthaw), and God who fills up and fills the universe with life.
  2. U Blei Trai Kynrad - The Lord God and Master.
  3. U Blei Shihajar Nguh - God to whom all obeisance is due
  4. U Blei na jrong na tbian - God who fills the heavens and the earth (the universe), God who is immanent and transcendent.
  5. U Blei U Nongsei - God who causes to be and to grow.
  6. U Blei Uba iohi Uba tip - God who sees and who knows - to whom nothing is hidden or unknown. [60]
Khasi theology seems to have a mixture of revelatory and empirical conceptions of God. Though God is seen as the One Supreme Being, yet empirical notions are not unattached from Him. Roy’s interpretation of ‘na jrong’ and ‘na tbian’ as transcendent and immanent are theological and philosophical. The word ‘transcendent’ in philosophy refers to the realm beyond the boundary of possible knowledge, and ‘immanent’ refers to this physical world. However, in popular parlance, ‘na jrong’ and ‘na tbian’ are used in relation to this earth. ‘Na jrong’ means ‘up’, i.e., heaven; ‘na tbian’ means ‘down’, i.e., earth. Therefore, U Blei na jrong na tbian refers to the God who is not just in heaven but also on earth. The heaven, however, as in popular religion, is not a trans-spatio-temporal realm, but a place as earth. According to Khasi mythology, the Diengiei tree is the Golden Ladder that connects heaven and earth at Sohpetbneng peak, mythically regarded as the navel point of the earth.[61] The mythology, evidently, has strong empirical elements and no attempt is made in Khasi tribal theology to separate the empirical from the notion of God; such a need or possibility also doesn’t seem to have been felt at any time. However, the possibility of ‘na jrong’ as ‘up there’ meaning the transcendent may indicate some cultural and historical connection with the revelation-history. Obviously, however, if it means just ‘up there’ and ‘down here’, then it is nothing but empirical.
Among the Ao Nagas, the High God Lijaba is considered to be an old man who is so interested in the things of the family and willing to meet all needs that he comes, lives and stays with the people providing all their needs and, thus, becoming one of the family members.[62]
In his book Revelation and Religion (1954), Herbert H. Farmer suggests that monotheistic tendencies in primitive religions may have their basis in the nature of religious consciousness and the concentrative tendency in prayer. According to him, religious awareness by its very nature is closely bound up with, what he calls, ‘the sense of unity’. Religion is closely linked to the unifying nature of self-consciousness; therefore, it is not found in animals. Self-conscious experience is not possible without some sense of the unity of the self and of the unity of the world apprehended by the self and these two unities are inseparable from each other. This, eventually, gives rise to the concept of the Supreme High God.Secondly, the fact that the act of prayer and worship has an inherent tendency towards concentration, ultimately, not on many gods but one God, shows that monotheistic faith may have been a natural outcome of such an act.[64] Thus, according to Farmer, the internal ground of consciousness as a sense of unity and the tendency towards a singular focus of concentration may have led to the primitive belief in one God.
Farmer, however, seems to introduce some problems. First of all, it is not clear how the ‘sense of unity’ may lead to the conception of a singular entity, God, when most primitive religions find no difficulty in believing that each human person can have more than two spirits or souls. Secondly, concentration in prayer need not lead to belief in only one God; for, in the same manner that one may appeal to different people at different times for different needs and yet be concentrative on each instance, likewise, one may appeal to different ‘gods’ at different times for different needs and not lose the concentrative element in the appeal. Thus, Farmer’s attempt to trace the primitive notion of the Supreme God to some sort of innate tendencies does not appear to be plausible at all.
In conclusion, research shows that experience is at the core of the epistemic method employed in knowing reality and super-reality in tribal theology. In most tribal cultures, it is the phenomena of magic and spirit-worship that is the more practical aspect of religious life. As already seen, both the beliefs in supernatural power and the spirit-world have continuing empirical foundations and not just static traditional endorsement. The reality of magic and the spirit-world, though cynically viewed by anti-supernaturalists, is hard to deny. The author himself has witnessed several cases of spirit-possession and phenomena that cannot all be denounced as psychological illusions. Even if the reality of such phenomena were rejected, the experience itself, claimed as real in several cultures, as (at least, subjectively true) cannot be rejected. Thus, at least subjectively, if not objectively, experience accounts for the origin and development of tribal animism, manaism, and spiritism. As far as the belief in the One Supreme God is concerned, the concept itself seems to have foundations in some ancient tradition or ‘revelation’. However, even if the traditional aspect or the possibility of revelation was rejected, it cannot be denied that the notion of God in primal theology possesses strong empirical elements which seem to be devoid of any serious rational treatment similar to that as related in the former chapter.

Empirical characteristics like plurality (of spirits, etc.), immanence (mana, and divine visitation), and changeability (transference of mana, God as Creator, Actor) are readily observable in primal theology. Thus, primal theology has experience at its epistemic foundations.