February 23, 2007

Christianity in Nagaland

Nagaland is as you can see from the map right in the northern eastern corner of India, next to Myanamar- amongst the more remote areas of India, it is still a predominately rural region but it has one odd characteristic, unlike most of the sub-continent it is majority Christian- the census of 2001 estimated that Nagaland was 90% Christian. This Christianisation proceeded over the last century- at the end of the 19th Century there were according to census data an insignificantly small number of Christians living within Nagaland. It has been over the 20th Century that this conversion has occurred. Richard Eaton though has discovered and discussed this conversion- because of the features that it exhibits and particularly because the conversion of Nagaland has not been even, different groups have converted to Christianity at different rates.

Eaton, a University of Arizona academic, produced in 2000 a collection of essays on Islam and Indian History including a study of the conversion of the Nagaland province to Christianity in the twentieth century. Eaton argued on the basis of data about three of the major groups of Naga peoples- the Angami, Ao and Sema who he argued provided the historian with a sensible basis of comparrison allowing us to understand why religious conversion worked. Firstly its worth saying that the political history of the three groups is almost identical- separate tribes within the linguistic groupings thrived up until the period of colonisation. In the thirty years between 1870 and 1900 the British annexed Nagaland and from 1900 various Baptist missionaries were invited to prosletise in the region. They were aided by an effort to educate the local population in schools and universities. In 1914 4,000 Nagas were called up to fight in World War One and that symbolised a larger change- the gradual economic integration of the Nagas into India. Trade for instance grew exponentially as did British legal influence upon the Naga tribes. But as Eaton noticed that doesn't explain the differing rates of conversion between the linguistic groups- it doesn't explain why two of those groups the Sema and Ao converted swiftly whereas the Angami were much more reluctant. One of the other variables one might expect to impact on conversion- the presence of missionaries- also didn't have much of an impact. Missionaries early on came to the Angami and Ao with differing effects- but didn't really make it to the Sema- when they did, they were surprised to find Christianity already strong.

Basically Eaton suggests that the variables which distinguished the various groups of Naga were not about colonisation but lay in other areas. Its worth pointing out at this point that Eaton adopts an anthropological theory formulated from observation of African conversion to Christianity and Islam which posits that as most pagan communities exist with a pantheon of lower spirits who deal largely with nature, local deities if you like, and then with an ascending scale of divinity up to a single high God at the top who is normally rather remote. What the theory states is that at a period of time when the world becomes more complicated and more vast- ie when the groups cease to be tribes and become traders with others then they become more interested in the less local gods and even in the high God- hence the creation of monotheisms. When surrounded by a monotheistic religion, they often fuse their high God with its God- hence they convert to that Monotheistic religion. If we use this theory as a tool, the conversion of the Naga becomes much more explicable as do the varying rates of conversion.

Using that theory its simple to explain why the Naga converted- but again its not so simple to explain why some converted easily and some didn't. Eaton argued that the difference in conversion between the three groups came from two factors-

1. The first factor explaining the different rates of conversion was the way that the earliest Christians transalated the whole concept of God in the bible. In the Aos language the word God or god in the Bible was transalated using the Ao concept of tsungrem or spirit. Basically the concept God became in Ao identifiable with the idea of spirituality and consequently the shift from their old high God to a Christian God was reasonably easy. All that they did was asign everything over the tsungrem boundary to the new all embracing tsungrem. If we look at the Sema- we can see exactly the same pattern emerge- the first transalations of the Bible into the Sema language used the name of the Sema high God for the Christian God. Therefore for the Sema the Christian God merely received the attributes of their preexisting God Alhou. Both the Sema and the Ao converted quickly but the Angami did not. The story of transalation there was much more complicated- with the Angami transalation of the scripture using two concepts both Jehovah (a European word) and a local Angami word for their high goddess Ukepenopfu for God. That created all kinds of theological difficulties within the Angami prospective converts- though even till today amongst the Angami who did convert the word for the Christian God is still Ukepenopfu.

2. The second aspect that Eaton identifies as explaining the reasons why the Naga groups converted in different ways is his description of their social organisation. Basically put the Sema were the most migratory of the groups- they had the clearest idea of a high God even before the British arrived. Next to them came the Ao who migrated a bit and also were ready to receive the idea of a high God. However the Angami were mostly sedentary farmers- they didn't practice slash and burn agriculture but managed very complex systems of irrigation and terracing. Consequently they were the least interested in acquiring a new high God as they had the least need for him.

Eaton therefore within the parameters of the theory developed by Horton from African evidence develops a quite convincing case about why particular groups within Nagaland converted to Christianity and why others did not. I can't attest to the accuracy of what he says- but he does have a large number of impressive primary sources to back up his conceptions- the idea does seem impressive to me, in the sense that it marries say with the way that in Anglo Saxon England churches were built near Yew trees and old festivals were taken over by the new Church. Similarly a Naga convert told an interviewer than he had adopted a Naga version of Christianity just as Europeans had a European version of Christianity. Whatever else this tells us, it makes for an interesting account of why a set of people convert to a monotheistic religion and how they do so. It may not be and probably isn't a perfect theory of how this process happens- but what it represents as a theory has some degree of plausibility.


holi wishes said...

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james higham said...

This is a great post, Tiberius. You always do good ones but this is truly fascinating. I'll have to download it and go through it later. Initial thoughts are that local influences can be very local indeed and do affect conversion - e.g. the Druze [although those guys have a very strange world view].

When you wrote: 'most pagan communities exist with a pantheon of lower spirits who deal largely with nature, local deities if you like, and then with an ascending scale of divinity up to a single high God at the top who is normally rather remote', I was certain you were referring to the Scots.

Now they really are a study in themselves.

Ian said...

I echo James, this is fascinating. I see some very intriguing ramifications arising from the importance of translation in abetting conversion; so much seems to depend on the skill of the translator, which seems a startlingly arbitrary factor.

Anonymous said...

Nice work Gracchi. Yes it is true that the Angamis believed the existance of a supreme God and called "Ukepenuopfu". The Angamis also have a somewhat synonyms of sin called "Kenyu" impose by Ukepenopfu. The difference is that in kenyu; there is no forgiveness where as in sin there are forgiveness (70 times 7). This preaching of Jehovah and forgiveness seems to have made the Angamis suspicious.

Mike Holliday said...

The Nagas almost bring a new meaning to Christianity. They've certainly accepted Christ, but are yet to give up their "pantheon of lower spirits who deal largely with nature, local deities."

I suspect that part of the appeal towards Christianity for the Nagas was that it taught peace and brotherhood towards all mankind. Prior to Christianity, the Naga Hills where made up of Village states and were continually suspicious and afraid of neighboring tribes. As headhunters, they often preyed upon lone travelers. They were warriors who fought by stealth rather than might. This made the hills extremely dangerous. Christianity offered them an escape from that constant fear.

Anonymous said...

I am saddened to read how Christians are preying on poor native peoples of the world. Not content with destroying the civilisation of native Americans and Africans they now bring destruction to India.
As the Christian religion is failing in the West the dwindling yet fanatical members is now exploiting the poor third world countries in the guise of "salvation". Give the rest of us a break.
The Abrahamical (desert) religions have brought untold misery to Europe (inquisition, witch burning etc)and Islam to Middle East/ Far East and India. The world would be a safer and happier place without you guys wrecking it with your sanctimonious "my god is best" nonsense.

Indeed tolerance is essential only to monotheism; an only God is by nature a jealous God who will not allow another to live. On the other hand, polytheistic gods are naturally tolerant; they live and let live. In the first place, they gladly tolerate their colleagues, the gods of the same religion, and this tolerance is afterwards extended even to foreign gods who are accordingly, hospitably received and later admitted, in some cases, even to an equality of rights. An instance of this is seen in the Romans who willingly admitted and respected Phrygia, Egyptian and other foreign gods. Thus it is only the monotheistic religions that furnish us with spectacle of religious wars, religious persecutions, courts for trying heretics, and also with that of iconaoclasm, the destruction of the images of foreign gods, demolition of Indian temples and Egyptian colossi that looked at the sun for three thousand years; all this because their jealous God had said : " Thou shalt make no graven image" and so on.

The tolerating spirit of idolators both in ancient and modern times, is very obvious to any one, who is the least conversant with writings of historians or travelers....The intolerance of almost all religions, which have maintained the unity of god, is as remarkable as the contrary principle in polytheists. The implacable, narrow spirit of the Jews is well- known. Mahometanism set out with still more bloody principles, and even to this day, deals out damnation, tho' not fire and faggot, to all other sects

It would not surprise me that you guys cannot tolerate any other world veiwpoint and will delete my comment.

Gracchi said...

Anonymous I don't think you have read the post- I'm not discussing whether Christianity ipso facto is a good or bad idea but why it seemed attractive to people in Nagaland in the 20th Century. I am not a Christian myself so I can't answer your points though I would say you have a jaundiced view of the religion- Christians have done plenty of ugly things, but they have also done good things- like the abolition of slavery which in the UK was led by Christians. Pagans have done plenty of good things and bad things in the past- as have Muslims and Hindus- I'm not sure there is much else to say on this.

Incidentally I do not delete comments unless they are obviously spam or deliberately offensive. I don't see your comment as either but I do think it is greivously mistaken.

edmund said...

i fell compelled to point out that overall Christianity is growing insofar as it's something that can be mesasured( baptisms etc) and does the "west" not include Korea?

Grachi as a proselytising christian flying pigs suddenly seem a sensible idea.

Gracchi said...

One just went past my window

Anonymous said...

Just like everything in the world....there should be a competition including the faith. When you submit to the crap of one God.....which actually in todays world forms an identity for ones existence....you are practically a slave to whatever it says and the interpreter.

Why can't people just find the God within selves, the truth is every human has the potential to become God as per the Buddhism is how the world behaves. You find godly acts every time. Get freedom from somebody will take care of us....instead raise to the potential of becoming one. The theories that world is flat was so wrong and Asians knew centuries ago of its universe and planet.....that most Asian Kingdoms never sought world domination proves the way living here might very hard but not self destructive.the western philosophy that all things are made by God for his existence is so wrong. Protect your animals, your rivers and ecology from these monsters. They will make you feel that we are most important and deserve every minute of consumerist happness. We have no right to happiness over another living beings existence. We can partner but not destroy.