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Need to reevaluate Christianity

By Margeret Lyngdoh

This write-up is a response to Fabian Lyngdoh’s article where he blatantly points out, and I quote, ” I would like to point out that the traditional religion of the Khasis as established by the ancestors is no more in existence, and today all the Khasis have adopted various new religious faiths to keep spiritual relation with God and fellow human beings.” Let me first address the basic premise of the author i.e. an assumption of an earlier pure, traditional belief system of the community collective known as Khasi. At any given point of time, belief, tradition and cultural practice are in a state of flux. Therefore, the Khasi “religion” as it existed and continues to exist is ever evolving – and that includes Christianity. But a statement like the one made by Fabian Lyngdoh, undermines the right of the practitioners of the Khasi Religion to practice their faith with dignity.

In order to respond to the massive influence of Christianity, it is rightly pointed out by the author, that Khasis professing the Khasi belief system, have adopted “Christian” practices – going to the Seng on Sundays, the singing of devotional songs and the practice of prayer before meals. A community will ape or imitate the practices of the dominant group, only if it feels “othered” and then it becomes necessary to “fit in”. It may then be inferred that Khasis belonging to the Original Religion are discriminated against either overtly, or through other subtle means. I am speaking from nine years of field work experience researching Khasi traditions in the Khasi Hills.

Let me take a closer look at some of the points that Fabian has raised. He contends that the writings of the Khasi intellectuals of the 19th and 20th century need not be looked at as “gospel truth” – as if, “truth” is a prerogative only of the Bible. Further, what the Khasi intellectuals were desperately trying to do in the 20th century was to write down on paper, a wisdom that until the introduction of the tyranny of the script, was experienced and felt by each and every member of the Khasi communities. Until today, the Khasis are a primarily an oral tradition culture and the Khasi encounter with Christianity has led to an upheaval which is felt in the level of every life and the various nuances of social reality. Writers in the 19th and 20th Century wrote about the Khasi religion, frantically trying to figure out a way to clarify and even valorize the tenets of a tradition transmitted hitherto only through the oral medium. .

Fabian Lyngdoh points out, rather condescendingly, the various strategies that practitioners of the indigenous religion perform in imitation of Christian tradition. This seems to me so shallow that only someone who is ignorant of what actually supports Christianity in the Khasi Hills can actually make these claims. Fabian is only able to take the position he takes because he does not have an insight that it is Khasi culture and Khasi belief which supports and sustains Khasi Christianity. Let me qualify my claim.

In the introduction to the Anthropology of Christianity, Fennella Cannell states that Christianity as a religion is not an arbitrary construct, but a complex one. It differs according to the context to which it adapts itself (2006: 22). There are certain inherent traits that remain in Christianity wherever it moves, which Cannell states as, “Incarnation [by which God became human flesh in Christ] and the Resurrection [by which, following Christ’s redemptive death on the Cross, all Christians are promised physical resurrection at the Last Judgment]” (Cannell 2006: 23). Within the dominant anthropological view of Christianity, at the heart of the religion is transcendence. This approach suggests that Christianity is a religion of “radical discontinuity”. Christianity, rather than being a uniform entity, is has multiple dimensions. Modernity as a transformational category is also a part of the topics that the anthropology of Christianity seeks to address. The relevance of these theoretical categories of the anthropology of Christianities is felt keenly among the Khasi subcommunities simply because the strategies that this approach incorporates within itself are also the ideas of discontinuity. This is represented as a transformation from the Khasi indigenous worldview to the new Christianities in which a different way of associating with the spiritual and physical realities are focused on, from the traditional one.

I may again allude to the complex relationship that Khasi Christianities have with the traditional cultures they encounter. On the one hand Christianity demonises the indigenous beliefs in order to validate Christian values, but by doing this, it also unwittingly maintains and preserves the indigenous ontology. Referring once more to the ideas of Fanella Cannell in which she emphasizes the conditions under which it becomes impossible to ignore the circumstances brought about by the missionary influence of Christianity, the “colonial agency” and the “compulsory imposition of modernity” becomes part of the interpretation of the cultural phenomenon among the Khasis. Furthermore, the subtle nuances of change within the Khasi Christian theology itself enables the interpretation of the Khasi folklore in discursive ways, which in turn allows for the multiplicity of meaning.

I would like to end this rebuttal to the article by Fabian Lyngdoh, not by condemning or valorizing any religious faith. Instead I ask for a re-evaluation of the Christianity we have embraced and look at how much it has had to adapt, in order to become relevant to the Khasi community. By doing so perhaps we may realize with compassion the salient features of a tradition we now seek to obliterate. Think about the radical assimilative stances taken by the Catholic Church, or the complete discontinuity with Khasi traditions advocated by the Presbyterian Church. Think about how Khasi people find ways and means to negotiate belief between these two approaches. Fabian Lyngdoh should think about your use of the term “invented traditions” because all traditions are invented. Please be thorough in your research when you write, because as you very well know, even though you write from a Christian standpoint, words have power. (The writer is from Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore, University of Tartu)

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