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Revival, Syncretism, and the anti-colonial discourse in the Kherwar Movement 1871-1910

Peter B. Andersen
University of Copenhagen

Syncretism has for a long time been a problematic term in the history of religion. This is due to the
fact that the terms present meaning of mingling of religious traditions definitely co notates negative
associations; and one may be tempted to do away with the term for scholarly use. On the other hand
it is practical with a term, which opens for analysis of how religious traditions influence each other.
In order to do that it is necessary to state how and when the term got its present negative co
notations, their essentialist background, and to what degree it is possible to move from an analysis
of mutual influence of religious traditions to an analysis of power hegemony.
The Greek noun synkretismós which must have meant something like mixing together is
first found by Plutarch (AD 45-125) who made a pun out of it when he stated that love among
brothers involved that they should help each others against foes, “imitating in this point, at least,
the practice of the Cretans, who, though they often quarrelled with and warred against each other,
made up their differences and united when outside enemies attacked; and this it was which they
called “syncretism”.” (Moralia 490b) (Helmbold’s translation quoted from Shaw and Stewart 1994,
3). Definitely a positive meaning which was also common when the word reappeared among
European Renaissance scholars like Erasmus of Rotherdam (1469-1536) who saw the classical non-
Christian philosophers as an achievement which strengthened Christianity. The negative
connotations of the term syncretism originated during the 17th Century when other Protestant
theologians refuted the Lutheran protestant George Calixtus’ (1586-1656) attempt to re-establish
the consensus in the early Christian church. A position which in his time was hailed as well as
condemned as syncretism (formally condemned 1645), and since his position lost the concept of
syncretism has carried a negative meaning in Church history as well as in common language1.
Instead of engaging in whether syncretism is to be evaluated as a positive integrative event
or a dissolution of the doctrines of a Christian church or another religious system, I shall turn the
attention to how new elements are continuously reworked into wholes when integrated in a cultural
or religious system. In this regard I follow some of the suggestions of specialists on syncretism in
general (Ringgren 1969, 13) and of Christian missions to India. Among them Frykenberg has
stressed that Christianity in India is the result of a long history of Indigenisation perhaps dating as
far back as the early centuries of the Christian era (Frykenberg 2002). Such long term changes in
religions has been described by Richard M. Eaton in his analysis of the rise of Islam in Bengal over
half a millennium from 1204 to 1760. He argues for the existence of three distinct aspects of the
each referring to a different relationship between Islamic and Indian superhuman agencies.
One of these I am calling inclusion; a second, identification; and a third, displacement. By
inclusion is meant the process by which Islamic superhuman agencies became accepted in
local Bengali cosmologies alongside local divinities already embedded therein. By
identification is meant the process by which Islamic superhuman agencies ceased merely to
coexist alongside Bengali agencies, but actually merged with them, and when the Arabic
name Allah was used interchangeably with the Sanskrit Niranjan. And finally by
displacement is meant the process by which the names of Islamic superhuman agencies
replaced those of other divinities in local cosmologies. The three terms inclusion,
identification, and displacement are of course only heuristic categories, proposed in an
attempt to organize and grasp intellectually what was on the ground a very complex and
fluid process.
(Eaton 1997, 269-270)
Eaton’s three aspects of the process of religious change could easily be utilized on the process of
Indigenisation of the Christian church in India, and his warning on the complex and fluid process
shall alert us that even his two first aspects which could be taken as different aspects of syncretism
may be divided into further aspects if one took a closer look at the processes. Nevertheless his
1 This para mostly follows Shaw and Stewart 1994.
systematisation of one process of religious change is illuminating and important for any study of
syncretism in India.
In the following analysis of syncretism the evidence is taken from the Kherwar movement,
an anti-colonial movement among the Santals and low caste Hindus in the last part of the 19th
century and the beginning of the 20th century. A number of reasons make the Kherwars fit for an
analysis of the limits and gains of the term syncretism. One of them is that it is possible to
investigate the changes of the strictly political element in the movement over time. Another
important reason is that the Kherwars appeared in a time of other religious mass movements and
may be compared to contemporary mass conversions to Christianity and Hinduism in India. And the
last point which make them so interesting for studies in syncretism is that they incorporated Hindu
as well as Christian elements in their belief system. This was an introduction of a combination of
“foreign” elements to Santal religion which has often been underestimated due to the fact that some
of the early descriptions of the Kherwars were made by missionaries who were against the
Kherwars in one way or the other. Either by fighting them as the well known specialist on the
Kherwars Rev. Skrefsrud did during the 1870s and early 1880s (Hodne 1966, 265-287) or like his
successor Rev. Bodding who underestimated the importance of the Christian elements in their
teaching and made it disappear by assessing them as representing perverted forms of Christianity (in
O’Malley 1910, 150).
The first time the Santals are mentioned in history dates from British reports from the 1790s. At that
time the Santals lived in the jungles covering the lower part of the Chota Nagpur Plateau.
They were depicted as a people without caste, and it was generally stated that Hindus of
higher caste did not allow them to stay in their villages, but placed them between the village and the
jungle. The reason that the Santals moved out of the jungle to stay among the Hindus was the
agrarian policy of the East India Company. The Company acquired the function of collector of land
rent - as Divani under the Moghul in Delhi - in major parts of Eastern India in 1765, and from the
1790s it initiated a change in the collection of land rent. The reform was called The Permanent
Settlement, and it made the job of collectors of the land rent inheritable, and freezed the land rent at
a not changeable amount of money. The reform was based on the rather naive idea that the
zamindars (whom the Company subcommitted the collection of the land rent to) as soon as they
knew that they could not be evicted from the soil would invest in it, and hereby lead to an increase of the Company’s revenue from other sources. But just to be sure of the immediate income the
Company settled the land rent at an amount that was many times greater than any land rent from
before the reform, and afterwards the land rent was increased at irregular intervals as well.
That meant that the zamindars had to bring virgin soil under cultivation and in the interior
parts of the country they employed Santals. They were employed as a group under the leadership of
a headman (manjhi) who negotiated the payment on behalf of all of them. The most common end
was that the headman and the zamindar or more properly his sub collectors settled on a land rent
which the headman had to collect from the rest of the group and settle on their behalf. After the
Santals had cleared the jungle they laid out fields where they grew millet and in a minor degree
paddy. From a formal point the Santals were allowed to grow the fields and they could claim the
soil at a later point. But they were given no support for the first year, so they had to borrow on the
soil or the crop to get through the long period from when they planted the first beds of paddy until
they could harvest the first paddy some four or six months later. And moneylenders moved into the
land as well. This bound the Santals by mortgage in a situation very much like slaves as the son
inherited the mortgage of the father, but when construction work on a railway began in 1854 it
seemed to improve the lot of the Santals as the wage work allowed them to pay their debts. But the
moneylenders would not let them leave to earn money so that they could pay back their debts and
this led to intensified conflicts between Santals and moneylenders as well as landlords. After the
authorities had swept aside protests from the traditional headmen in 1854 an insurrection, the Santal
Hul broke out in 1855. It started as attacks on the moneylenders and landlords and by burning down
of their archives, but it soon developed from local protests to a regular insurrection, which in the
end was severely crushed by army of the East India Company. On their escape many Santals moved
further towards the East and settled in parts of the present West Bengal where there had not before
been any Santal settlement.
At the local level, however, one could say, that the insurrection led to improvements for
the Santals. A so-called non-regulation district, the Santal Parganas was created by the Act
XXXVII of 1855. It covered parts of an old non-regulation area the Damin-I-Koh designated for
tribals round Rajmahal, Pakur, Godda and Dumka. It was exempt from most of the Bengal laws and
the Santals got the opportunity to take their cases directly to the British authorities without any local
court in between. An improvement indeed as the local courts had often sided with the moneylenders
and collectors. Moreover the headmen were given a formal position as they were nominated and
paid by the Company that they could act as kind of local police authority arbitrator. Finally it was prohibited to hand over farmland to non-tribals. That should prevent a development from mortgage
of the land to slavery. Yet in 1867, the Bengal legal system was again applied, leading to
widespread protest. Reforms were introduced again from 1871, but while they were intended to
ameliorate the situation of the Santal cultivators by giving them full rights as ryots of the land, this
imposition of the concept of private property probably accelerated alienation of their land to nontribals.
New Bengal laws introduced after India became a Colony under the (British) Crown in
1858 were intended to protect the rights of the peasants and copyholders against the collectors and
moneylenders. But those laws had only a minor impact, as the collectors successfully argued that
The Permanent Settlement was based on the logic of land rent, and that it would become impossible
to collect it, if they could not seize the land and bind the cultivators to it. That the agreements
between the collectors and the Santals normally were informal and not based on written legal
documents only added to the problems. That meant that Santals could be evicted from a welldefined
farm they had cultivated for many years, just at the wish of the collector if he wished to
increase the land rent.
Even if the development in Santal Parganas and the surrounding districts gradually came to
follow the same lines it is important to keep the divisions in mind when one considers the Santals in
the last part of the 19th century.
Religion as a denominator
As mentioned the high castes kept the Santals out of their villages but there are good reasons to
doubt that “religion” in the sense of “religious community” was a denominator as such during most
of the 19th century. This is strongly indicated by Rev. Bodding’s Santali Dictionary2. The entry on
the word dhorom which now can be used to designate a religious community could probably not
been used in that sense at that time. Besides the possible meaning of “religion” indicating a type of
religion, but not a “religious community”, the meanings aggregate around religious observances,
righteousness, and piety. When it comes to the meaning of “religion” the examples given often
indicate that a more literate translation would be to “perform rituals towards some god”. For
instance Dibi sewa dhorom means “a religion with worship of Durga”; bonga sewa dhorom means
“a religion with worship of spirits” (ie. Bodding’s Christian flavoured translation of the bongas, that
2 The collections underlying this dictionary were initiated by Rev. Skrefsrud’s in 1869 and continued by Rev. Bodding
up to about 1930.
is the central deities among the Santals); and Christianity may be designated kiristan dhorom or Isor
sewa dhorom ie. “a worship of God religion” (Bodding 1934: II, 183-184).
In Bodding’s time, as today, there is no common denominator for Hindus and Hinduism in
Santali. High caste Hindus are termed deko, and they may be termed Hindu cats (deko pusi) due to
the fact that they are so fond of milk and fish. But perhaps also due to the fact that they are seen as
devious as stated in the proverb, “You may deceive a Santal, but never a Hindu cat” (Bodding 1934:
II, 69). Besides deko is as much a term for a Bengali as a Hindu, and low-caste Hindus are not
included by the term. Bodding’s examples of not included Hindu castes are Doms, Bauris, and
Hadis, but the term is still not fixed in this regard.
When present day Santals distinguish between Hindus, including low caste Hindus, and
Christians which may be Santals or belong to any specified caste, they tend to turn to an Anglicized
vocabulary which bears evidence to the fact that it is a product of the big classificatory endeavour
of the Census operations since 1871. Here the colonial Government of India tried to account for its
inhabitants in accordance with the scientific vocabulary of those days. For our present theme it is
evident that H.H. Risley faced great difficulties in fitting the religions of the different castes and
tribes into mutually exclusive categories when he published The Tribes and Castes of Bengal in
1891 in accordance with the systematic rules set up by a conference on the Ethnography of
Northern India 16 years earlier (Risley 1891/1981, II: Appendix II). In his article on the Santals
Risley stressed that Skrefsrud, who was one of his correspondents on Santal Parganas, identified the
supreme deity of the Santals as Thakur. A position which Risley objected to as “I am myself
inclined to doubt whether a god bearing the Hindu name Thakur, and exercising supreme powers
which mark a comparatively late stage of theological development, can really have formed part of
the original system of the Santals.” (Risley 1891/1981, II: 232).
Regarding groups that later anthropology have come to consider as low caste Hindus the
classificatory situation in the late 19th century was not better. Risley was not in doubt that the
above-mentioned Bauri were of non-Aryan descent and they “profess to be Hindus of the Sakta
sect, but in Western Bengal, at any rate, their connexion with Hindusim is of the slenderest kind
…”. They also sacrifice “fowls to Barpahari, which is merely another name for the “great
mountain” (Maran Buru) of the Santals” (Risley, 1891/1981, I: 80).
It is evident that Risley struggled with the fact that he saw Hinduism proper as the essence
of the Hinduism of the higher castes primary presented by the Brahmins as it is evident in his
impressive article on the Brahmins of Bengal (Risley 1891/1981, I: 141-162). They are initially described with the full historical references to the Laws of Manu, the Mahabharata and the Puranas
and the actual Brahmins of his own present are diligently classified in accordance with different
groups of decent, but the content of their religion and much of their religious practices are left to
our imagination of the essence of the holy scriptures.
Historical sources for the Kherwars
The Kherwars existed as a distinct group with a large Santal element over a long period of time
since the first Census in 1871 and well organised forms of the movement could still be found in
collaboration with the independence movement in the 1930s and even if it is mostly assumed that
the Jharkhand movement took over from the Kherwar movement since the 1930s and especially
since Independence they were still reported as an existing group in 1966 (Olav Hodne 1966, 275),
and the Census of 1991 reports the presence of 2261 Kherwars among the Santals in Bihar. For the
present argument which mostly considers the history of the movement until the first decennia of the
20th century it is important that the scholarly systematisation of the Kherwar movement and the
teaching of the early Kherwar leaders were systematised by Rev. Bodding in his correspondence to
L.S.S. O’Malley which the later included in the District Gazetteer of Santal Parganas published in
1910. Bodding also dealt wih the later development of the movement in a paper of his own
published in 1921. At a later point of time Aditya Prasad Jha (1960, 103-113) added important
elements in his historical study based on the materials in the State Central Records Office in Bihar.
Olav Hodne (1966, 265-287) has studied the relations between the Kherwars and one of the
missionaries to Santal Parganas, Rev. L.O. Skrefsrud; and Joseph Troisi (1979) has described them
on the background of other social movments among the Santals.
Besides these sources which look upon the Kherwars from different outsiders’ points of
view, one of the sources underlying Bodding’s description of the Kherwars exists as well. It is a
narrative of a Santal written down in Santali and kept in together with Bodding’s collections of
Santal folklore in the Oslo University Library. As this source enables us to get a Santal point of
view on the Kherwars, it deserves some consideration. The narrator of ”The Story of the Babajius”
is most probably Bodding’s main collector, Sagram Murmu or Baharur Sagram Murmu. He settled
in Mohulpahari in Santal Parganas where Bodding was missionary in 1892 and continued to work
for Bodding at least until 1927. But the present story can be dated more precisely, as Bodding
quotes from it and rewrote parts of it into the anthropological vocabulary of his days it in his correspondance to the District Gazetter of 1910. A specific point is the way the babajis cured
women from spirits.
Briefly, the woman confesses to having had sexual intercourse with a great number of
bongas (in one case, it is said, the woman mentioned as many as 127 male bongas,
each separately by name) during the confession the babaji, as a preliminary measure,
draws figures on the ground, muttering mantras, spitting on the figures and wiping
them out; after a night’s preparation, he gives the woman a twig with which she draws
figures on the ground according to his instructions, one to represent each of the
bongas with whom she has lived; finally the babaji makes the woman break off her
connexion with each bonga, and she repeats after him a long list of abusive epithets
for each and every bonga, winding up with spitting and trampling on the figures.
(O’Malley 1919, 149)
This is really the narration of cures against bongas such as the Jogon Bonga called, ”the big-bellied,
the undersized with protuberant stomach, the stout and plumb like a taro root, the dirty one, the
broad-footed, the deformed one, the nose-less, the one with sunken cheeks, the big-toothed (etc.)”
(Paragraph 66). But it is possible to date the manuscript more specificly as one of the last events
which is described is a visit of the narrator to a named guru on the date 28/1/1906.
If the narrator is really Sagram Murmu the story in itself throws some light on a case of
personal syncretism as he had Christian leanings as can be seen from a letter he wrote to Bodding
sometime around 1907 (J. Gausdal 1960, 9), but in his presentation of the Kherwars he still gives
evidence of his respect for and belief in the powers of the leaders, Babajis.
The narration begins, ”I am going to tell you the story of the babajis whom I have seen with
my own eyes and about whom I have heard with my own ears” and he gives an extensive
description of the first of them, Bhagrit babaji who appeared as a babaji in 1871 and the narrator
seems to have continued to visit different babajis on his own behalf up to the time he wrote down
the story. Whoever the narrator was, he saw clear parallels between the teaching of the Kherwars
and that of the Christian church which he knew as a regular churchgoer as he stated that Bhagrit
Manjhi, spoke “about the Ten Commandments about which we all hear daily in the church.”
(Paragraph 7).
In the following I will try to confront the well known outsiders’ descriptions to the early
history of the Kherwar movement and its implications with regard to syncretism with the statements
in “The Story of the Babajis”. My argument will be that there are to be found a number of instances
of syncretism between Santal religion and culture and Hinduism as well as Christianity, but that the
meaning of the variations in religion were dependant on a time specific political programme for the
empowerment of the Santals.
The Kherwar movement
The word Kherwar is a term usually assumed to be derived from the designation of the Santals in
their own language Santali, as it was reported to Rev. Skrefsrud by the Santal, Kolean guru in 1869
(Bodding 1942, 10 & 12). This may, however, be a result of the Kherwar movement as the term is
not recorded anywhere before the this movement which can be dated to the Santal Bhagrit Manjhi’s
agitation up to the first Census which was conducted in 1871. He was then already a known
political leader as he had been imprisoned in 1868 for his participation in agrarian unrest, but it was
seemingly not before 1871 that he appeared as a baba or proper babaji which was the honorific title
of the religious leaders in the Kherwar movement. He forwarded demands for Santal raj (self rule)
and demanded that the Santal should return to worship the (Sun) god Chando or Rama and clean
themselves from their sins instead of worshipping their traditional godheads, the Bongas, whom he
considered as evil. After a famine in 1874 he expanded his teachings as well as the level of his
political actions. A shrine build according to Hindu principles was constructed under his
supervision and a Santal was appointed as panda (a priest) (A.P. Jha 1960, 198). Theologically,
Bhagrit explained that the Hul had failed due to the fact that Santals had had intercourse with non-
Santal women, and politically he had himself anointed as raja and started to levy land rent. He was
then arrested together with his brothers and the panda. Bhagrit was sentenced to imprisonment for
two years. In the district Sultanabad another leader, Gyan, ordered the Santals to cleanse themselves
and stop paying rent to the government, for which he was sentenced to seven years of
imprisonment. Nevertheless the Kherwar agitation continued in 1875 and from 1874 to 1877 there
were extra troops stationed at Dumka, the main town of Santal Parganas. Bhagrit Manjhi died in
The Kherwar movement continued, however, and the preparations for the Census of 1881
led to new outbreaks. There was by then Kherwars many places in Santal Parganas, and a new leader, the Hindu Dubia Gossain toured Santal Parganas before he settled in Hazaribagh District. He
smoked ganja, smeared his body with ashes and let his hair grow, all in accordance with Hindu
babajis. In Santal Parganas the house of the magistrate in Jamtara was burned down and prisoners
were freed from in Khatikund and the magistrate was forced to cancel the Census operations (O.
Hodne 1966, 272).
In retrospect it is difficult to know exactly which Kherwar groups that stood for what
activities and what the relations between Santals and low castes were, but there is no doubt that
40.960 people registered themselves as Kherwars during the 1881 Census (O. Hodne 1966, 273).
Even more telling is the fact that there were recorded 825.889 Santals at the Census in 1871, but
only 202.752 in 1881. In some districts there were what could be considered a natural increase of
the Santal population but in many other districts lots of Santals evidently recorded themselves as
something else, or refused to be recorded at all. In Santal Parganas alone the change was from
455.513 in 1871 to 9.148 in 1881 (H.H. Risley 1891/1981, 234). These figures are serious
indicators of social unrest and extra troops were stationed in Dumka 1881-1882.
As stated the Kherwar movement continued in different forms and there are great
differences in the estimation of it as a political or a religious movement. There is little doubt that
many administrators and missionaries estimated the early phase of the Kherwar movement in the
the 1870s and early 1880s as a dangerous political movement. This is stated in administrative
reports, and letters from the Missionaires to the authorities and the newspapers.
In 1874 the Kherwars were strongly opposing the Christian missions and the CMS
missionary Rev. A Stark stressed that the Government should found Christian schools to fight the
opposition (A.P. Jha 1960, 108-109) and in the autumn 1880 Rev. Skrefsrud observed that the
Kherwars propagated “a rabid, socialistic, political agitation, the religion being only a means
towards an end” (Skrefsrud 1880). When one considers the situation of the Census operations at that
time it is understandable that he considered the movement as political. Other observers had,
however, alleready pointed to the fact that parts of the movement had turned its focus towards more
mild aspects of religious life. In the Administration Report of Bhagalpur Division for 1877-78 it is
stated that,
He (Bhagirath) and his new sect, have been orderly and quiet; they have formed themselves
into a separate community, they wont eat, drink or intermarry with the other Santals; they call themselves Kherwars, and in their religious and domestic practices are more and more
approximating to the Hindoos and may almost be regarded as belonging to that religion.
(Quoted from A.P. Jha 1960, 111)
As far as Hindu influences are concerned the Kherwars have often been seen as divided in three
branches, Sapha Hor, Samra and Babaji (Troisi 1079, 135) out of which the Kherwars are usually
seen as the original group which the others have split away from. The Kherwars have already been
introduced. The Sapha Hor or Clean Santals, should be specially strict in regard to avoid eating
together with non-Sapha Hor and to exclude them from ceremonies and life cycle events. It was
also especially the Sapha Hor who kept away from eating fowls and pigs and drinking of rice-beer.
Instead of doing what common Santals do they had to bathe in the morning before they could take
any food (Troisi 1979, 135). The Samra’s sacrifices consisted of sugar and sweetmeats and they met
regularly on one evening a week (Roy Choudhury 1965, 935). Definitely a new practice which
could be seen as a step towards parochial organisation of religious life.
In retrospect there is general agreement on the existence of these three groups and some of
their characteristics among the scholars. It is, however, difficult to know when they originated, and
whether they can be seen as the product of schisms in one movement or as different developments
in an open network of religious leaders which Santals and non-Santals could attend according to
their choice. Troisi (1979, 135) who follows a chronological frame as to when the different
branches appeared stress that the division in the three branches took place after the Kherwar
movement went underground after their activities in 1897. Hodne (1966, 278) stresses that the three
different branches already had been described in 1880 by Rev. Skrefsrud who described them with
some of the same characteristics as they were later known for. About 1906 Bodding’s Santal
informant used Kherwar as a designation for the people who joined the babajis (para 13, vide infra),
but he named the story after the leaders, the babas.
In our context the most relevant question is how far they showed indicators of non-Santal
religious influence and on that there is general agreement. The killing and the subsequent taboo
against eating the meat of fowls and pigs is one indicator of Hindu influence. Others are the ritual
practices, the names of the gods adorated, and the institution itself, which is usually considered as
taken over from Hindu babajis.3
3 Of course this are kinds of low caste religion which Risley would rather consider as tribal than as Hinduism, but later
researchers who have written after Hinduism had become a communal identity have not seen any problems in
designating religious practices as being Hindu or non-Hindu.

It is seemingly only Rev. Bodding who have argued that “several of the babajis had been
pervert Christians, and the first, Bhagrit, either had been a Christian or at any rate had been in a
Christian school” (quoted from O’Malley 1910, 150, Bodding forwarded a like position in his own
name 1921, 231).
This argument was strongly refuted by Hodne (1966, 281) who stressed that the CMS
missionaries on whose field Bhagrid lived never mentioned any thing on Bhagrit’s connection with
Christianity in their reports to the Government.
Instead Hodne inscribed the Kherwars in a general movement of the Santals towards
Hinduism. A position which he argued from the general Census figures as the Kherwars had only
been counted in 1881. In 1901 11 percent of the 663,000 Santals in Santal Parganas were returned
as Hindus, a figure which in 1931 had grown to about 50 percent of the 754,004 Santals in Santal
Parganas and 796,656 in Bengal . The Bihar Census of 1931 only recorded that the Santals “are
being gradually ‘Hinduized’ and the further this process is carried, the more they are in danger of
becoming identified with the depressed classes.” (Hodne 1966, 279).
Even if those figures in later periods have developed even further to the Hindu inclination, I
will try to return to Bodding’s main source for his description of the early Kherwar movement and
if it offers us some hints for Bodding’s observation of the Christian influences among the Kherwars
and consider what it may mean for our understanding religious communities and syncretism in the
late part of the 19th century.
The Kherwars in the Santal source
In “The Story of the Babajis” we meet Bhagrit Baba as a teacher of repentence in the time of the
famine in 1874. The Burmese rice which the Government brought for relief is was, in the words of
Bhagrit Baba, a gift from the past,
The rice the Europeans have brought now is the same which we gave in the olden days, it is
the same which they bring back to us. It is the rice we offered during our worship by giving
a handful of it, which they now bring back to us; it is meant for maintaining our life. Take
this rice when you have done proper rituals, fowls and pigs shall not tread on it. And,
prepare your food everyday after taking a bath in order they you do not make adultery; hold
on to rituals and religious duties. Now, I have said everything to you, go and act
accordingly. (Para 12)
When the people of the country returned [to their villages], they began to slaughter
fowls and pigs; they said, “If there are hungry fowls, they will probably eat the rice.” Saying
this, they killed and ate each one of the fowls, and they called themselves Kherwars. (Para
The reason for the demand for repentance was that God, the Sun God Cando, had wanted to give the
Santals the country in the time of the Hul, but that the leaders Sido and Kanhu had not been able to,
carry out their office. They could not control their greed and began to snatch away daughters
and daughters-in-law of others. They did unjust acts in the eyes of Cando, and therefore, he
in turn did not give the country to them; And, as he did not approve of their misdeeds, they
could not win their fight. (Para 11)
But now, when the Santals took repentance in 1874,
The Europeans are trembling in fear, they bring the rice and deliver it to us and they will
shortly run away, it is because of this reason that they have made [roads and railways] for
themselves like the tracks and passages of the field rats. They know it very well that one day
the “black” sons of this land will get the country, they know it definitely. (Para 11)
The known story of the arrest of Bhagrit Baba comes later, and even if it is more set in the frame of
fraud than that of political demands (Para 15) the modern reader is not in doubt that he lost his case,
but the narrator describes him and the some further 18 specified and a number of unspecified
leaders all through the country as convincing men of God, and perhaps as victorious. The implicit
reason is that they all had the power to heal, and that they predicted that the effect of their acts
would vanish after three (Para 19) or five years (Para 30) when they would also die, which the
narrator states that they did. This seems to have convinced the narrator who on his own behalf had
continued to visit the various babajis when they came forward even if he from some point of time,
must have attended the Christian church as well. In this regard his evidence on the Kherwars
preaching of repentance becomes important, because he seemingly saw it as just another
formulation of the Christian message of repentance.
According to the narrator the babajis claimed that it was God who had given them the power
to heal, but that they could only contact God in prayer and act as intermediary between the ailing
and God, but that healing was the decision of God, and depended on the repentance of the ailing.
Generally the babaji received visitors in the evening and promised to contact God during the
night and in the morning he could tell them,
“Sirs, The Supreme Being descended at the middle of the night; did you hear or not what we
were conversing together?” They answered: “Where! When! We did not hear the
conversation.” He said to them: “Then sirs, maybe you did doze a little. Isn’t it?” They
answered: “Yes, maybe we slept right away.” (Para 6)
In the story of Pero guru who healed the sick, could single out witches and celebrated Karam, one
of the famous social rituals in Santal society, the guru stressed that the powers were not his, but
only belonged to God,
“Sirs, my folks, you say: “If we go to Pero guru, then he will heal us.” “But, my folks, I say
to you: “I do not heal, it is the Cando who heals; have faith on him, and he will heal you. He
has given me a blessing in order to tell you these words. …” (Para 19)
As it has been stated the Ten Commandments were stressed by the babajis, and even if it is difficult,
nay impossible, to recognise the Commandments as they are listed in the Bible, the context often
indicates a general moral pretext which has a Christian mark. The babaji known as Bariar guru
taught that the things forbidden to eat were “these that we hear about in the Ten Commandments”
(Para 30). But when he continues to give rules for what dances that are allowed to dance he
introduces new rules as to whom who are allowed to touch each other and stress that adultery is
forbidden. (Para 30). This is necessary due to the fact that “Cando is (…) throwing against us all the
sorrows because he is angry with us” – A moral God indeed, and a moral which had not been part
of the traditional rules of the Santals. Here adultery was forbidden by God indeed, but he never
became angry and send sorrows on the Santals because of it.
Christian or Hindu influence on Santal religion
Bodding’s narrator of the “Story on the Babajis” was situated in Santal Parganas, and most of those
placenames which can be recognised are in the surroundings of Dumka, and his informations are in
many regards limited to that area. For instance Dubia Gosain is not mentioned at all, neither are the
temples set up and their pandits, not even the one which is known in connection with Bhagrit baba.
When the narrator stressed the Christian elements one may of course doubt if it is because he made
what could be termed an interpretatio Christiana; but I think Bodding is right in considering the
narration on the repentance and the Ten Commandmends reflects historical fact; but it is his own
theology which leads to the term “perverted Christians”. In this regard he was a missionary of his
own time with his specific Lutheran approach to Christianity. In retrospect it is more fruitful to see
the Kherwars as one of many modernising movements in the colonial period, and in this regard they
are drawing on much the same lines as the missionaries. The preaching of moral is one of them, and
the glorification of God as the one who allow healing when people do repentance is another.
In retrospect the Santals Christian missions and the Kherwars were different ways into
modernity, both ways intended to reform the Santal community, and both had to come to grips with
traditional elements in the Santal culture and religion as well as with each other and the introduction
of new traits in contemporary Hindu culture, which was by then gradually being turned into a
carrier of community as the identity of Christians, Kherwars and Santals themselves.
One might ask oneself if this was syncretism? Yes, it was, though not syncretism in a way which
destroyed the society, but inclusion of new gods and ideas accompanied by new forms of belief
suitable for the social changes Santal society underwent at that time. At the end of the 19th century
the social changes were new forms of rent and agrarian exploitation of farmers, copyholders and
workers, and the response was mass movements which combined demands for social reconstruction
with stress on individual repentance. In this way the Kherwars and the Christian missions agreed on
the answer with only a disagreement as to the name of God. For the missionaries this was a serious
disagreement, but for the Santals demand for repentance might have been more important. For the
narrator of the “Story of the Babajis” it was evidently the common denominator which he might
have deemed as more important than the name of the God, as documented by the fact that he visited
the babajis also after he had started to frequent the Christian church.

It will be possible to make an argument as to whether the Kherwars represent forms of
inclusion, identification or displacement of elements of Santal religion with non-Santal religion,
Hindu or Christian, but I think that the important lesson from the story is that the names of the Gods
and the religion is of minor importance to religious message. A religious message fitting to the time
and the social situation of individuals has appeal to them and they may listen to the message and
accept the gods in accordance with the importance of the message.
That the Kherwars has been on the decline at least since the 1930s is evidence that new
forms of religious and political organisations have taken over. The Jharkhand movement is only one
of them, and the political and religious excitement in present Santal society is evidence that a new
social situation has appeared and that the Santals are in search for fitting answers within the modern
Indian society.
* * *
This paper is one of the results of a joint project with MS Santosh Soren, Copenhagen and Marine
Carrin, Toulouse where we work on a publication of selections of the late P.O. Bodding’s
folkloristic collections; we hope to include “The Story of the Babajis” in the publication and the text
under this article has utilized the text edition prepared by Santosh Soren and the draft translation
prepared by him and myself.
My work in India has benefited from collaboration with the late Prof. Ashok K. Ghosh,
Calcutta University who introduced me to fielswork in 1982 and support from Dr. Ranjit
Bhattacharya, former director of the AnSI, Joint Dir. Jayankar Sarkar and Dr. Das, AnSI, Ranjhi.
At the Department of History of Religions Ass. Prof. Tove Tybjerg and Ass. Prof. Morten
Warmind has offered their advice and comments to parts of this paper.
* * *
Oslo University Library, MS. 8vo 1448-Y & MS 4to 1686-III-5, Santalia No. 0684 & 2203.
“The Story of the Babaji”, Babajuiko reak’ katha, (perhaps authored by Sagram Murmu).
Printed sources:
Bodding, P.O. 1921.
“The Kherwar Movement among the Santals”, Man in India, 1 (3), September, 222-232.
Bodding, P.O. 1934.
A Santal Dictionary, Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi i Oslo, Oslo: I kommisjon hos Jacob
Bodding, P.O. 1942.
Traditions and Institutions of the Santals
Eaton, Richard M., 1997.
The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760, Delhi: Oxford University Press, (© 1993).
Hodne, Olav. 1966.
L. O. Skrefsrud Missionary and Social Reformer among the Santals of Santal Parganas. With
Special Reference to the Perios Between 1867 and 1881, (Studies of the Egede Institute), Oslo:
Egede Instituttet, Hovedkommisjon Forlaget Land og Kirke.
Jha, Aditya Prasad. 1960.
“Nature of the Santhal unrest of 1871-1875 and origin of the Sapha Hor movement”, Indian
Historical Records Comission, Proceedings, Volume XXXV, Part II (February).
O’Malley, L.S.S. 1910
Bengal District Gazetteer, Santal Parganas, Calcutta: The Bengal Secretariat Book Depot.
Risley, H.H., 1981
The Tribes & Castes of Benga. Ethnographic Glossary, Calcutta: Firma Mukhopadhyay, I-II,
(original published 1891).
Roy Chaudhury, P.C., 1965.
Bihar District Gazetteers. Santal Parganas, Patna: Secretariat Press, Bihar.
Santalia, 1999.
Catalogue of Santalia. Manuscripts in Oslo, Sagram Santosh Kumar Soren, (comp.), Copenhagen:
Nordic Institute for Asian Studies. Report Series, no. 41
Shaw, Rosalind & Charles Stewart, 1994.
“Introduction: problematizing syncretism”, Syncretisn/Anti-Syncretism. The Politics of Religious
Synthesis. (European Association of Social Anthropologists), London & New York: Routledge, 1-
Skrefsrud, L.O., 1880.
Statesman and Friend of India, 8 November 1880.
Troisi, Joseph, 1979.
“Social Movements among the Santals”, Social Movements in India, Vol. 2, Sectarian, Tribal and
Women’s Movements, (edited by M.S.A. Rao), Delhi: Manohar, 123-148.

Address for communication:
Ass. Prof. Peter B. Andersen, Ph.D.
Department for History of Religion
University of Copenhagen
Artillerivej 86
DK-2300 Copenhagen S
Tel. +45-35 32 89 57
Fax +45-35 32 89 56

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