Tribal Culture and the Gospel

Tribal Culture and the Gospel

It is obvious that the Gospel is the gift of God to humankind. Even for the tribal in India, it brings lots of fortune in their history. M.M. Thomas has rightly said, “For the tribal people Christianity came as a liberator from spiritual and social demons”.

While, it is still debatable that weather the Gospel uprooted the tribal heritage or enriched it; either of it could be correct according to the perspective of persons.Thus, here we deal the interaction between tribal culture and the Gospel from different dimensions.

Parallelism of Tribal Culture and the Gospel

According to the tribal worldview the tribal people’s culture, identity, individuality, faith and ethos are foundation by the creation/land. The following are the perspective on how we can develop a tribal theology by exploring the resource of traditional tribal ethos.

Creation (Tribal Culture and the Gospel)

For the tribal’s, every creature is an active participant in the divine, and has a measure of sensitivity and enjoys a certain degree of autonomy, spontaneity and freedom. In several tribal myths, animals are considered as enfolders of universe into a reality.

According to the tribal tradition, without the help of the animals, human beings would have been in the dark, without having life and validity. Those myths symbolically explain a symbiotic relationship with other creatures.
In many tribal myths, animals are also personified not as person in the human sense, but with rights of their own.

Furthermore, the tribals perceive the whole of creation as living and dynamic. All knowledge, revelation and understanding come through observing the signs and listening to the voices of animals, trees, flowers, wind thunder and rain, sun and moon, the flow of the river and so on. These entire natural phenomenons are gifts endowed and symbols used by the Supreme Being to disclose or reveal his/her works to people.

Land (Tribal Culture and the Gospel)

In the tribal worldview the land is inhabitants place . The tribal people perceive the land as sacred and co-creator with God. It is also a temple in and through which people becomes one not only with the Supreme Being, but also with their ancestors, the spirits and other segment of creation.

The land is not mere a space; it is a place and a symbol of unity, which gives identity to the community. The land owns the people. The
Identity, Community and personhood are valueless without land. The misuse of the land implies chaos among creation. The misuse of the land is like killing own mother self.

The land is also sacred. People observe earth’s day and other religious observations to pay respect to the land. A human has no moral right to treat the land as mere object to be use and exploited. People own the land within the wider understanding that the land belongs to the Supreme Being. Thus the ownership of the land by the tribal’s is understood in terms of a mother-child relationship. The land is not a mere material object to be possessed or to be commercialised.

Supreme Being (Tribal Culture and the Gospel)

Most of the people of north east India belief in the Supreme Being or a High God is a distinctive feature. The Supreme Being is also understood and believes as the greet spirit. The creator and sustainer of humankind and of the whole universe, and is believe to be loving and benevolent in contrast to malevolent spirits.

The tribal’s blesses, works and reveals which are showed by the Supreme Being through the land. Thus creation declares the greatness of the Supreme Being.

Therefore, even from the above three points, it is clear that some major concept of the Gospel was part of the tribal culture and their belief. So, the gospel messages, especially in the ethical part are much in line with many of the tribal ethos.

Effect of Tribal Culture and the Gospel in the context of North East India

Let us look into two major dimensions how Christianity affects the cultural life of the tribals in this region.

Political Dimension

Christianity has brought a new world-view to the tribal people not only by exposing them to the Indian nation but also to the international community through missionaries with varied cultures of Europe and America. Under the British administration the tribal society faced two radical changes in their culture and society.

The first is that people were organized into districts and sub-districts, subject to the final authority of foreigners called commissioners and magistrates.

On the other hand there are certain decisions which were made concerning traditional practice that had a devastating effect upon their cultures. One such example is the inter-village warfare. They also put a stop to the traditional practice of head-hunting, which had an important place in the traditional cultures of Nagas, Kukis, Mizos and Garos.

Therefore, British administration brought to an end the isolation of the region and introduced new elements in its political, economic and social cultural composition.

Social Dimension

Downs has put forward five significant contributions of the Missionaries, one is the need to abstain from intoxicants like opium and liquor (traditional rice-beer).

Second, the abolition of slavery practiced in Naga and Mizo Society.

Third, the emphasis on personal cleanliness and hygienic living conditions.

Fourth, change of dress and hair style, and

Fifthly, the improvement of the status of women.

But when examined more carefully, some of the above contributions had indirect link with good characteristics of tribal culture. For instance, liquor in itself might not be good, but in those days, it was closely connected with feasts and festivals.

The Church encounter with the Mizo tribal culture in the form of Puma Tlânglâm Zai was so strong that it rejected out-rightly those religious practices or traditional socio cultural practices like the festivals. The Mizo traditional festivals were lately revived in 1973 in a Christianity manner.

Besides, whether or not the bond of Unity and strength in a community is stronger or weaker with the abolition of dormitories (institution), and in today’s Church becomes a puzzling question to answer quite satisfactorily.

A Mizo Theologian Lalsawma lamented that the foundations of Mizo Society has shaken because of the absence of the right alternatives in lieu of the rejection of social dames, various feasts and festivals, Zawlbuk etc.

Negative aspect of Tribal Culture and the Gospel

i. Christianity preached Personal salvation or salvation of personal soul; while that is also very much a part of the Gospel’s message. It gave way to self-centered or individualistic concept and way of life for the natives. The old-community centered understanding and pattern of life gradually began to lose its hold in the minds and action of the people.

The mind of socialism was replaced by individualism and started for their own benefits. The good culture of community sharing of meals, meat, vegetables and their things had almost vanished.

ii. Western Christianity regarded its own culture as the only valid expression of Christian culture. They considered everything as the product of depraved human being under the control of Satan. As a result, almost all the cultural elements of the natives (Good and bad or life affirming ones and the destructive ones); were made to be discarded and thus left to destroy with the passage of time.

Several tribal theologians have observed that “British administration, Christianity and the process of modernization are identified as the primary cause of detribalization.” Lalsawma a Mizo theologian observed and further comments: “It shakes the inspiration of society because it alienates tribals from their culture.”

iii. The change of Dress, hair style, behaviour, and other living conditions come about both; because of Christianisation and modernization.

However, all those things could turn into cultural assimilation. Horam feared that the imitating character of the Christians could result in the lack of belongingness. At the moment where Christianity did not take deep root among the tribal people; and in the meantime, modernization has already creep into our culture; that do corruption, injustices, inter-tribal conflicts etc; remain within our very lives. However, Kipgen that the tribal code of ethics though affected, still survive among the tribals.


It may be said that the tribal people, especially from the NEI easily involved the gospel because its teaching were not much different with their cultural ethos (except in the salvation concept).

Actually, the Gospel and the tribal culture were not contrasting each other. But the problem was when the Gospel was introduced to the tribal, consequently the imperialism and colonialism follows.

The western culture and ethos was portrait as the culture of Christianity.It can’t be easily differentiated the concept of Gospel and the ideology of the Colonialist.

The colonialist culture and ideology was imparted to the tribal culture; which gradually assimilated the cultural heritage of the tribal people. It is true that most of the cultural heritage of the tribal people were assimilated by the westernisation and modernization.

Thus, we may conclude that the Gospel itself was not a threat to tribal culture but the way how it was presented assimilated and endangered the rich cultural heritage of the tribal. It is to be note worthy that many of the cultural heritage of the tribal which were regarded as invalid by the colonizers were not contrast with the gospel but more valid for their own than many western ideology, which were regarded for a long time as the culture of Christianity.

Re-collecting the cultural heritage of the tribal, which are still valid in the circle of Christianity is a must, so that they could identify their culture and identity in the Christianity.