by Donna Strom
Having studied philosophical Hinduism before coming to India years ago, I was astonished to hear my first Hindu friend, Jetti, in Darjeeling say, “We worship evil spirits.”
Having studied philosophical Hinduism before coming to India years ago, I was astonished to hear my first Hindu friend, Jetti, in Darjeeling say, "We worship evil spirits."
"But why would anyone want to worship evil spirits?" I asked.
"Because we fear them." Her logical answer reflected surprise at my ignorance. Jetti represented the majority of Hindus, who retain many preliterate animistic beliefs. Thus a study of animism helps us understand both popular Hinduism and indigenous tribal religions.
Animism is not a specific religion, but a mass of primitive beliefs and practices found in various parts of the world and now generally referred to as preliterate or indigenous religions. (However, in this article I shall retain the simpler terms "animism" and "animist.")
"Animism"’ comes from the Latin anima, meaning "soul." While many religions hold belief in spirits separable from bodies, animists also attribute conscious life to nature or natural objects. Because even many major religionists believe in ghosts, charms, witches, and goodluck or bad-luck signs, some assume magic to be the basis of all religions. But the Bible shows such beliefs to be a departure from God’s original revelation of himself.
Animists worship ancestors, spirits, and nature. At death, they believe, the soul leaves the body and disturbs the living, who must take elaborate precautions to avoid its evil influence. I Thus, in some primitive tribes of India, a baby was buried with its dead mother, lest her spirit haunt a foster parent.
According to animists, other spirits and powers inhabiting animals, trees, rocks, rivers, and caves must be manipulated by magic, taboos, and fetishism. "White magic" produces benefits, such as success in a hunt or war. "Black magic" causes harm to an enemy. Taboos, often associated with birth and death, or women and children, protect from invisible attacks of enemies. Fetishes such as charms, amulets, or talismans possess power to protect against evil spirits.
A sorcerer decides who or what causes an illness and how to counteract the evil. A witch can help or harm others by psychological means. A witch doctor identifies the witch and concocts magic to overcome his spell or get rid of him. For instance, primitive Indian villagers killed a witch and drank his blood to prevent spread of disease.
Animists also worship the sun, moon, stars, and gods of seed-time and harvest. Histories of all continents record practice of human sacrifice to ensure good crops, to produce a son, or to counteract disease, and Indian newspapers still report occasional instances. Animists make little difference between good and evil on moral grounds; sin is offending tribal customs and taboos.
From ancient times animists have recognized a supreme God (an argument against evolution of religions). However, this Being, they feel-, has little concern for people on earth, who thus must deal directly with spirits around them. I Not knowing the God of love, they live under a cloud of all-pervading fear. They must placate the spirits of earth, air, water, mountains, and sky, which cause all sickness, misfortune, and death. Animists greatly fear not only spirits of the dead, but death itself -passing into unknown darkness. Because they cannot ultimately control all spirits, hopelessness and fatalism dominate their lives.
Since Hinduism can absorb all ways to God, the popular or folk variety of the majority retains much primitive animism. Both bhakti marga ("way of devotion" evolved from ancient Dravidian religions4) and karma marga ("way of works") contain many animistic practices, though considered lower than gnana marga ("way of knowledge") of philosophical Hinduism.
Many use rituals, purifications, charms, and amulets to escape the 11 evil eye," to manipulate spirits, to counteract curses, witchcraft, and disease, and to persuade godlings to give children, good harvests and success. Millions follow astrology, horoscopy, divination, and auspicious omens and moments-often formalizing a wedding at two a.m.5
Idol-worship holds various meanings. Some consider the idol alive, while others think a spirit resides in it. To some the idol possesses mana (inherent power or dynamism),6 while the more educated and philosophical view the image as a symbol of the reality behind it.7
Each community develops its own set of beliefs regarding its guardian spirit, whom all must propitiate. Some practice ancestor worship. Mountain deities are represented by piles of stones or branches, to which passers-by contribute offerings.
During the harvest season the great goddess, Mother Earth, must be propitiated with wild orgies. In central India Mother Death (Kali) demands appeasement, sometimes human sacrifice, to avoid fatal disease. Snake-worship in western India prevents bites and brings rain and fertility. In some places rats are worshipped. No animal nor insect should be killed, as all life is one. Evil spirits must be placated or exorcised by devil dances, self-torture, chants, drums, or sacrifices.
As in all faiths, inconsistencies appear, whose original purposes have been forgotten. But belief that inanimate things, animals, gods, persons, or spirits possess supernatural power to help or harm indicates the synthesis of animism and Hinduism.
0utside the mainstream of Hinduism, forty million tribal peoples of India have retained their distinctive cultures and animistic beliefs. Presumably they descended from original inhabitants who, during the Aryan invasions of 1500 B.C., fled to hills and forests, not integrating with other Indian peoples.
Though slowly changing, large tribal groups remain: the Santals (1,800,000) and Oraons (880,000) in Bihar, the Bhils (800,000) and Gonds (4,000,000) in central India, and millions of Mongolian descent in the northeast. Scores of smaller tribes are scattered throughout the land. Some have incorporated Hindu tenets with animism, such as puja to a household deity and belief in reincarnation. So the government census classifies them as Hindus, listing animists as only five-tenths percent of the total population, though all tribals constitute about five percent.
Tribal peoples are often receptive to the gospel of Christ, which delivers them from oppressive fears. In northeast India the Mizo and Hmar tribes claim to be 100 percent Christian, the Nagas 67 percent, the Khasis 50 percent, and the Garos 35 percent.8 The fascinating story of their conversion in this country from head-hunting, sorcery, infanticide, and spirit-worship inspires all Indian Christians.
Unfortunately, tribal response has caused some states to pass laws hindering conversion. In Arunachal Pradesh opponents to Christianity have burned homes and churches and withdrawn educational subsidies from Christians. Still the Holy Spirit continues His work, using converted tribesmen to reach their own people.
The Bible clearly speaks to the hearts of animistic peoples, proclaiming Christ as victor over the devil and his spirits. The Christian message-that our sovereign God is far more powerful than the forces of evil-must be preached and practiced among Hindus and animists alike. Christians must not only recognize the deep-seated fears of unbelievers, but also demonstrate faith in God’s power to deliver from satanic oppression.
During my first year in Darjeeling, Jetti one night called me to pray for her daughter-in-law, Pawitra, ill with tuberculosis. Nearing her house, Jetti explained the loud chants and throbbing drums within: "My son also called exorcists, because Pawitra is demon-possessed."
With pounding heart, I clutched my Bible and entered the dim, incense-filled room, to face glares of four priests seated around the wall. Pawitra sat cross-legged on the floor, staring into space, motionless except for constant twiddling of thumbs. "I’ve come to pray for you," I said. No response-only twiddling. Perhaps hysteria, I thought, due to fear of death.
Not knowing what to do (mission courses don’t cover this) and stalling for time, I turned to John’s Gospel, chapter three-the only part I knew in Hindi. Praying for help, I stumbled through the entire chapter, as eerie silence fell. Then I said to Pawitra, "If you accept Christ as your Saviour, he will heal you."’ No response. So I prayed, repeatedly over and over the few Hindi phrases I knew. When I opened my eyes, Pawitra’s thumbs were still. She turned and looked at me. As I repeated my presumptuous promise of healing, her wooden expression relaxed. The priests picked up their drums, took their pay, and left.
Through medication and prayer, God healed Pawitra, opening the way for a response to the gospel in her family. Experiencing God’s special grace to a novice, at that critical time, I learned that Christians need not fear evil spirits-real or imagined. "Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world" (I John 4:4).
However, many Christians in India do have considerable fear of evil spirits, due to proximity in both time and place to animistic beliefs and practices. Emotional disturbances, serious illness, convulsions, mental aberrations, accidents, and death are sometimes attributed to the work of evil spirits. It is not my purpose to discuss the validity of such beliefs, but whatever one’s theology, the Christian worker must recognize the reality of people’s fears and deal sympathetically with them. While suggesting more likely reasons for problems, we must also teach from Scripture the greater reality of God’s almighty power controlling his world and protecting his children.
When our seminary students feared to sleep in a room where they said an evil spirit dwelt, we made it into a prayer room-and found God’s presence there. When a student complained of an evil spirit choking him at night, we prayed for God’s deliverance and gave him David’s words in Psalm 4:8: "In peace I will both lie down and sleep, for Thou alone,, 0 Lord, dost make me to dwell in safety." When peculiar fears arise, we read Psalm 91. Recently one of our professors feared that a witch’s curse was causing his mysterious paralysis. Both with persistent prayer and pursuit of further medical help, he was diagnosed and properly treated.
Certainly God expects us to use his gifts of medicine, counseling, psychotherapy, and Scripture-guided common sense-but all must be covered by the prayer of faith which recognizes God alone as the ultimate healer and deliverer (James 5:15-16).
Since Satan is the source of all evil, his oppression may seem stronger where he is worshipped and where fewer Christians provide the indwelling restraining influence of the Holy Spirit. But even the loneliest, weakest Christian must remember that God himself does dwell within, as Christ said, "I in them, and Thou in me" (John 17:23). The Christian has working within him that incomparable power that raised Christ from the dead and forever defeated Satan and his cohorts (Eph. 1:19-22). We dare not confront satanic powers or oppression in our human strength, but like the archangel, Michael, in Jude 9, we must say, "’The Lord rebuke you." It is in this area that Christianity speaks most clearly to the needs of animistic peoples.
Today primitive religions are breaking down under the influence of science, materialism, and changes in village life., When animistic youth leave home for education or work, their faith is challenged by the well-organized beliefs of Muslims, Hindus, Communists-or Christians. Are we offering them Christ?
1. A.T. Houghton, "Animism," in The World’s Religions, ed. J.N.D. Anderson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), p.12.
2. Eugene A. Nida and Wm. A. Smalley, Introducing Animism (New York: Friendship Press, 1959), p. 41.
3. John B. Noss, Man’s Religions, 3d ed. (NewYork: Macmillan Co., 1963), p. 19.
4. Kshiti Mohan Sen, Hinduism (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1961), p. 91.
5. Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed., s.v. "Hinduism."
6. Nida and Smalley, op. cit., p. 27.
7. John B. Noss, op. cit., p. 17.
8. Roger E. Hedlund, ed., World Christianity: South Asia (Monrovia, Cal.: MARC, 1980).
9. Nida and Smalley, op., cit., p. 10.
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