Dr Tuisem Ngakang
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
Matt: 5: 17
Abstract: The following article is focused on how Christianity uses Nagas belief system as a ground for its own message. Similarities and differences between the two religions have been discussed here. The article will also make an attempt to show how Christianity builds on the foundation of Naga traditional religion.
The growing of Christianity is at a faster rate in Naga society than in any other community. The extraordinary growth prompts one to seek for reasons and specifically to ask whether the Christian conception of God may be an important factor in the acceptance of Christianity by so many Nagas.
The attempt made to saw the Christian faith among the Nagas in 1839 by Bronson, Barkers and Browns was come to an end as “not worth the trouble”. The missionaries resumed work only in 1871 by E.W Clark. Clark who arrived in Sibsagar in Assam on 30 May 1869 had a strong determination ‘to battle against the heathen rock’, so that the cross may “triumph” over “idolatry, had to abandon his plan in Assam in favor of Nagas. Since the response of the Assamese was very poor. (only hundred were converted to Christianity in 37 years!) However the conversion doubled in 1861 and 1871, and they were among the “aboriginal hill tribes”, which induced him to work in the Naga Hills.
In the initial stage the response of the Nagas to Christianity was slow. However the phenomenal rise in the number of Christian was seen in during 1920’s and 30’s
By 1920’s and 30’s the church had spread out into the Sema, Zeliangrongs and Chakhesangs. In 1922 when the Naga celebrated the 50th anniversary of Clarks arrival there were 5614 Christians in the Ao area alone with many thousand more among the other tribes. Though the Christianity came a bit later to the Sangtams, Konyaks , Changs, Phomes, Yimchunger and kheamungans ( these tribes got bible after India independence) the Christianity spread in a fast rate.
After 1920’s there were 2,000 Tangkhul Christians [F.S Down pp.33-34]. By 1950 the Tangkhul church, with more than 10’000 members was the largest and strongest in Manipur. [ibid] By 1950 there were over 1000 Mao Christians [ibid p.182] In the same year there were 1000 Zeliangrong Christians in Manipur [ibid.180]
In the light of above fact one is prompt too ask why the Nagas accepted the Christian faith without much resistant. Is it because of the similarities in the belief system between the Nagas and Christianity or the commonness in the conception of God the factor for the easily acceptance of alien religion by the Nagas?
Nagas Belief System: The Nagas indigenous religion is basically a communal religion. In this religion the force of nature are appeased and spirit-worshiping form an important part of religious rites. To make an appeasement with the evil and unpredictable spirit is practically the basic substance of their religion. The Nagas are deeply religious and their religion sentiments express themselves in worship. The worship of the tribes of Nagas involved two main elements- offerings or sacrifices and geena (taboo)
Nagas Concept of God: The Nagas believe in the existence of a Supreme God. The Nagas also believe in spiritism, that there are unseen beings, which can be termed as lesser spirits in order to distinguish from the Supreme Being who influences the lives of men. The Nagas paid great deal of attention to the lesser spirits while no attention or little is paid to the Supreme Being.
The Naga concept of god is negative in character. The Nagas are not comforted by the spirits but rather filled with fears, by the thought that god’s eyes may be upon them. Disaster waits around every corner and threatens even the most capable and intelligent. A wise man is one who seeks the help of the spirits which though unseen are clearly at work in all activities.
This does not mean to nullify that Nagas have lost complete contact with the supreme God. Hudson T.C writes, ” in general they (Nagas) believe that in the recesses of the earth or beneath its hills flung over him is stirred from time to like a blanket over a sleeper repose the deity , whose heart ids stirred from time to time with anxiety lest the race of men has perished utterly from the face of the earth. Therefore they all shout â?~we are alive’ whenever the earthquake happens” [The Naga Tribes of Manipur.]
The relationship of Supreme God to Nagas was not so clear other than regarding him as the creator and sustainer of life. It is a wonder that Nagas, instead of worshiping the Supreme God, worshipped the lesser spirits. It seems neither Nagas nor God have interest in each other after the creation of the universe! The strongest disinterestedness in God is seen in the fact that Nagas do not associated morality with their belief in God. For the Nagas, ” to be religious mean to be loyal to true to the traditions of the tribes!
It is clear that Nagas believe in Supreme God, but that belief plays only a small role. His role is limited to creating the universe and the life in it. The new faith deepens and broadens the role of the creator God. Now the Nagas realized that God is not only the creator, but sustainer and he is always at work, this new god does not sleep nor slumber but always remain awake and sees to the minutes needs of men (psalm 121:3,4)
In the Nagas’ view, Supreme God is pictured as being uninterested in man. Jesus came to bring a different view. God is near; He is in your heart. An important contribution of Christianity is the conviction that God is both good and loving.
The propitiation made by the Nagas to the spirit who always harms them is both the product and a cause of the belief in God. But the cycle was broken by a new action of God in the gift of Jesus Christ, which shows God to be a living Father. The greatest contribution is the elevation of theism to the apex of concern for the man of faith.
Appeal of Christianity: Christianity has made remarkable contribution to Nagas life, especially to thought and belief regarding God. There is no denying the fact that Christianity has appeal to the Nagas. No doubt the political power of the colonial invaders was a factor, but one cannot explain the Nagas adoption of the Christian faith simply as a political imposition.
There is something in the deep need in the Nagas soul. The Nagas’ belief God is not interested to his people. They worshipped gods out of fear not love. But the Nagas longs for a God who is loving and caring. The deepest yearning of his heart is brought to them by Christianity and pushes Him into the center of Nagas consciousness.
The Nagas know that in the deepest recesses of his heart that there must be a God who is present, who loves and cares. When the Christians proclaim their message of God’s loves as seen by His coming to men in Jesus, the Nagas eagerly accept that message.
It is not difficult for the Nagas to accept new teaching since the Christianity is not quit different from the belief system of the Nagas, may it be a concept of God, the concept of revelation or belief in the life after death. With regards to the concept of revelation, the Nagas had means to predict the future; they seek the light from the unseen world for revelation, through divination and dreams and make known the mysteries, which are veiled to the mortal being.
The Nagas believes that gods reveal themselves to human being through sign, dreams, noises and chirping of certain birds. The way god reveals himself to his people is always the same. In most cases the dreams and omens through which the Nagas predicted their future were true.
As far as the concept of revelation to the traditional Nagas and Christian Nagas concern the difference is degree no kind! Christianity does not represent wholly different concept. The old technique was good, but incomplete. God reveals himself to Nagas through other men, who are themselves mortal beings.
The revelation made to Nagas become more complete when they were introduced by Christianity to Jesus Christ. Revelation is an evolution. Me are led step by step into their understanding of the mysteries of God. Though there are some aspects of Nagas life and through which cannot be harmonized with the mind of Christ, the Nags have true knowledge of God.
Weakness of Christianity: Missionaries work reflects by and large the ambivalence of the sacred-secular dichotomy of western culture, while in practice missionaries address themselves to the needs of this world through education, agriculture, medical and social services, their message is principally oriented in an other-worldly direction.
It is true that at some points the message and practice tend toward convergence. Missionaries do in fact call for prayer in time of need and the religious emotion generated in Christian revivals is a profound significance for the daily lives of many Nagas. No doubt the combination of prayer to God and medical service impress the Nagas as important in his situation.
However it is not exaggeration to suggest that this worldly emphasis is in general too divorced from the spiritual concerns of Nagas’ thought and that Christian.
When the concept of taboo is destroyed due to the impact of western culture, the same kind of taboo is placed in observing Sabbath or Sunday. The introduction of many dos and donts by the Christianity make the Nagas more Christianity and not godly.
The Christianity failed to create an inner compulsion for morality to take the place of the old taboo system. One of the greatest disasters created by the Christianity to the Nagas is that he is forced to receive only a secular, scientific education, because he become educated is necessary. He learns science is important. But he needs also a new motive for morality.
The experience of education and contact with the world is a necessity challenge, but it must not be allowed to destroy Nagas life. Christianity should be a bridge between the old morality and that, which is required for this new day. There must be a rule of conduct if people are to live together in harmony, at the same time society cannot rest entirely on the sanction of external law.
There must be inner controls if life is to be bearable. The most ideal society is where members are governed not by fear of the consequences of wrong actions but a love of the right and good.
Conclusion: The Nagas even before the coming of the Christianity worshipped the true God. The Nagas were and are deeply religious people. Christianity did not make the Nagas religious, nor did Christianity bring god to Nagas. God was there before the arrival of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Christianity did not even identify God for the Nagas. The Nagas had already identified Him. What Christianity did was to clarify the Nagas view of God and this was done by making known to Naga, Gods own self-revelation in Jesus Christ.
The action of the Christian God has its origin in the traditional beliefs of the Nagas. Almost all the Christian missionaries never tired of saying that the Christianity is the light against Naga darkness. This would be wrong.
It would be more appropriate to term Naga belief as ‘twilight’ or dawn (from which the midday light originated) It is a light but not perfect one. Christianity dispels the obscurity of the Nagas belief.
Christianity liberates the Nagas from the fears which nature and various gods imposed upon them. It convinced the Nagas that man could befriend nature and the various gods and the universe to his own benefit. Therefore the gospel of love brought by Christianity is also the gospel of freedom.
The coming of Christianity to Nagas is nothing but the fulfillment of Jesus affirmation that he did not come to destroy the law or the prophets but to fulfill them (Matt.5:17), it is clear in the statement of Jesus that the old Nagas laws had a value but was incomplete. Jesus comes to give full effect to that which had gone or before.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org