Evangelization of the Santals in Bangladesh

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2006 »Volume 43 2006 Number 3 »Evangelization Of The Santals In Bangladesh

By Joseph Marandy

Joseph Marandy, a Santal from Northern Bangladesh, studied theology at the Dhaka Notre Dame College, Dhaka, Bangladesh. He holds an LlB from Rajshahi University, Grajipur, an MA in Political Science from Bangladesh National University, and an MA in Pastoral Studies from the East Asian Pastoral Institute, Manila. For 22 years, he has served tribal communities, including Santals, in the diocese of Dinajpur, and for 10 years has served as chairperson of the Legal Assistance Program for the tribal peoples of Bangladesh. As national representative of the Santals, he has attended colloquia organized by the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences in India and Thailand.

Historical Background of the Santals

Exactly when the Santals landed in the territory of present Bangladesh, is not precisely known. Some believe that the Kherwars1 reached the land of Bengal immediately after the first clashes with the invading Aryan tribes (2500 B.C.). With every probability the Santals landed in Bangladesh with their actual ethnic identity at a much later date. It is probable that the Santals scattered throughout Bengal at the time of the Muslim invasion of this region during the last decades of the 12th century or at the beginning of the 13th century. In the words of Fr. Luizi Pussetto: "The Santals retired progressively toward more calm regions or where it was easier to defend [themselves] from the invaders..." (Pussetto 2003:2).

In later times, with the historic Santal Revolution in 1855 under the British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent, when 30,000 Santals are believed to have been killed (Hasdak 2002:107-11), it is beyond doubt that many of the Santals were dispersed into distant lands and geographically isolated territories. Many of them even crossed the river Ganges and ended up in the East, now present day Bangladesh. Many think that the early Santals came to North Bengal in search of job opportunities, especially when the railway tracks were under construction during the British rule in the second half of the 19th century. This may be one of the reasons that most Santals in Bangladesh are settled on both sides of the railway lines from North to South.

The Name "Santal"

Regarding the name Santal, opinions differ among the scholars. For L.O. Skrefsrud, Santal is a corruption of Saontar, and was adopted by the tribe after their sojourn for several generations in the country around Saont in Midnapur. W. B. Oldham, however, opined that Santal is an abbreviation of Samantawala, which has its etymology from Sanskrit Samanta, a name given to the country around Saont (cited in Murmu 2004). L.S.S. O’Malley is of the opinion that Santal is an English form adopted from Hindi which corresponds with the form Santal used by the Bengali speaking people (ibid.). Sir John Shore designates Santals as Soontars while McPherson calls them Saungtars. For P. O. Bodding it derives from Sant (Sat or Sar), a region of the district of Midnapur, in India. Bishop J. Obert, who had long experience working with the Santals, looked at this from a different perspective. According to him, Set would mean seven, a number which refers to the seven rivers of a region (Pussetto, 1).

Most anthropologists agree that Santal is a name given to this tribe by non-Santals. However, Santals prefer to call themselves Hoŗ meaning "human being or person." For the Santals the concept Hoŗ bears a rich connotation of a person with qualities of intellect, of knowledge, of wisdom; the Santals are proud of their identity which defines traits of solidarity and uniqueness as a group.

Origin, Race, and Language

As to the origin of the Santals, very little is known for certain. The Santals have no recorded history. Like other ancient societies, Santals have tried to explore the mysteries of creation, history, and life by means of myths and legends. Following the anthropological data, some authors classify Santals as Pre-Dravidian and others as Proto-Austroloids; and still others as aboriginals of the Northwest. Thus, the opinions of the authors in this respect are very discordant. The Santals do have their own mythology of creation, yet, many believe that they all have come from the same parents: Pilcu haram and Pilcu budhi, which is the same as Adam and Eve in the Bible.

Santali is the mother tongue spoken by the Santals. It is a Munda language of the Kherwar group that belongs to the munda-mon-Khmer or ‘Austro-Asiatic’2 sub-family but there are other opinions on this too. According to N. Prasad, "Santali is the richest dialect among all the tribal dialects of Bihar" (Prasad, 295).

Geographical Location

In Bangladesh, the Santals are found mostly in North Bengal (Northern part of Bangladesh) especially in the then greater districts of Dinajpur, Rangpur, Bogra, and Rajshahi. According to the census of 1881, the Santals were present in the district of Khulna, Pabna and Chittagong in the south. Many say that the Santals who are in Sylhet are the ones who migrated from the districts mentioned above and came here mainly to work in the tea gardens as laborers. In short, the Santals of Bangladesh originally emigrated from the Santal Pargana in India and nothing distinguishes them from those who are still living there, with the exception, perhaps of the use of Bangla (national language in Bangladesh) words that are santalized (Pussetto, 2). In recent times a small number of Bangladeshi Santals have started going abroad seeking employment opportunities. It may be noted that out of around 225,000 Santals, only about 50,000 (including the Protestants) have so far embraced Christianity in Bangladesh during the last century.

The Worldview

The Santals are simple and unsophisticated people. Like any other people, they have developed their own worldview, a system suited to deal with the basic problems of life and its meaning. They have perceived the enigma and the basic dichotomy of human existence—life and death, good and evil—from their own perspective. For the Santals, life, health, wealth, prosperity, happiness, tribal solidarity, religious beliefs, mores, etc., are "good"; while death, illness, poverty, misfortune, injury, etc. are "evil." Their religious experiences are mediated through their culture and are expressed in terms of symbols, metaphors, myths, legends, folklore, songs, cult, rituals, and so on (Lakra 1992:159-70). They consider Thạkur Jiu (Life Giver) or Cando Baba (Sun Father) or Marang Buru (Great Mountain) the source of all "good." For them, it is the "evil eye," the "evil mouth" and the BạrićBonga3 (malevolent spirits) who cause harm in human life. Therefore, while acknowledging the Supreme Being, they also propitiate the bonga spirits in an attempt to solve the problems of suffering, sickness, and other crises. All these often lead them to superstitious beliefs and give rise to prominence of the fear ofbonga.

For the Santal, every newborn child coming from the invisible and shadowy world needs to be purified, identified, and introduced to the Santal society. Most of these realities are expressed through the ritual ceremonies performed after a child is born. The ritual of the janam chạtiạr (birth purification and name-giving) is one example where these aspects are enacted through bathing, shaving the head of the baby, divining of arwa rice (unboiled rice) grains, and welcoming of the baby into the community.

The death purification ceremonies like funeral rites of Bhandan, or Mora Karam(after-death celebration) provide further details of the Santal belief system that the dead person goes back to the same spirit-world of life from where he/she has come as a baby and remains defiled and defiling. For which reason not only the family needs purification, but the very return of the deceased person to the shadowy world is already defiling because it is a tribeless and sinful state, which has been created for the punishment of the sins of greed and pride. Hence, the deceased person needs to be brought back spiritually to his/her own family and is installed as an invisible member as hapŗam (ancestor). The deceased members are remembered and respected during family occasions. Moreover, the Santals believe that when a human being becomes perfectly free from all greed and pride this state will be removed and that will be the New Creation (Kullu 2003:65-79), which in Christianity may be compared with the state of salvation.

However, for the Santals, there is no clear distinction between the sacred and the profane, religious and non-religious, spiritual and material areas of life. Animals and the material world are at the disposal of human beings for their self-preservation and well-being. Santal life is closely related to nature and to the whole of creation. Land and forest remain united with Santal identity and are very much reflected in their love, poetry, songs, dance, and music. The Santals, for example, address the "supreme being" as Cando Baba (Sun Father) and the stars too have different names. According to Archer, "Although fields, houses, men and women seem to constitute a Santal village, Santals regard these as, at most, a portion of their total world" (Archer 1974:25-26).

Santal Religious Beliefs and Ritual Practices

No human person is without religion nor can a human society live without being drawn to some kind of transcending reality, which we call supernatural reality, that gives meaning and provides answers to the deeper and fundamental questions people ask about life: Why are we here at all in this world? Is there something beyond appearances? What is our final destiny? It is religion that unites these questions and it is concerned with ultimate truth, absolute beauty, and final goodness. Religion does this work by binding human to human and human to the transcendent and human to the whole of creation.

However, there is no single or universally accepted definition of religion. In fact, recalling the history of religion, it is quite clear that multiple attempts have been made to define religion by all kinds of people such as philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, poets, as well as theologians. But because of their diversity, approaches to the definition of religion also differs in the sense that most of them are either too exclusive, particularistic, and narrow or too inclusive, broad, and general. Yet, all definitions are products of human decision, they are rules laid down by people for the purpose of establishing clear and precise meaning (Mees 2003:38).

Coming back to our question: Do the Santals have a religion? The author’s experience in this regard is that the early missionaries regarded Santals as "pagan" (bedin people with no religion, or worshippers of idols), or their religion was regarded as devilish. Such an attitude toward Santal religion has been propagated throughout the last century that it not only created a division between Christian and non-Christian Santals but also caused a vacuum in their belief system as well as many guilt feelings. Thus, to say that the Santals have a religion is rather surprising for many in the ecclesial community. It would be surprising too for the Santals themselves and particularly for the Christian Santals who already rejected their traditional beliefs long ago. Yet, it is worthwhile to reassume the assumption made by the Second Vatican Council that "Truth and grace are found among the nations as a sort of secret presence of God" (Vatican II 1975: n.9). They contain "contemplative traditions whose seeds were planted by God in ancient cultures prior to the proclamation of the Gospel" (Vatican II, n.18) because God has entered into a dialogical relationship with all humanity, religion, and culture.

The Santal Conception of Religion

The religion of the Santals primarily refers to their belief and relationship with the supreme being, the ultimate destiny of all and everything. However, the application of the name of "God" which is transliterated into foreign terms—like Ishwar or Bhagwan used by the Hindus, or the term Allah used by Muslims, or "God" by Christians—does not seem to be suited to the Santals. For the Santals, the concept of a powerful God who conquers and wins all the time, just as imperial power, does not appeal to their hearts. Santals prefer to think of a God who is fatherly or a God who is tender or motherly. Therefore, the use of terms like, Thạkur Jiu (Life Giver) or Cando Baba (Sun Father), finds some resonance with their own traditional expression.

As has been mentioned above, the Santals also believe in the bonga (spirits) who take care of and deal with human needs. This implies Santals’ religious experience of how human beings relate and share in a greater degree with the invisible world of the Thạkur Jiu. Thus, the bonga (benevolent spirits) act is spiritual force to achieve this goal. They remain as intermediaries to create a link between God and humankind whereas the presence of the malevolent bonga represents the sinfulness of this world. In short, for the Santals, religion:

is an integral part of socio-cultural living;

permeates all aspects of life—customs, social behavior, individual and group identity of Santal-nationality;

c) lives in the spontaneous awareness of the bonga (spirits) as intermediaries between noa puri (visible world) and the hana puri(the invisible reality of the world of the "supreme being," the Creator); and

d) moves as a force and a great contributing factor in binding the society through ritual practices and cultural celebrations.

The Belief in One Supreme Being

As has already been mentioned earlier, Santals do believe in one "supreme being" whom they call Thạkur Jiu (Life Giver) or Marang buru (Great mountain) who is considered to be the "supreme" among all the "religious beings." The most common term used for the Supreme Being these days is Cando Baba (Sun Father). According to the experience of the researcher the Santals here do not refer literally to the Sun itself. It is an expression of a divine activity and expression of divine love in relation to human beings. For the Santals, Cando Baba is a benevolent deity4 who organizes the days and nights and is responsible for heat and cold, rain and sunshine and from a dwelling "somewhere in the sky." The deity allots each Santal a term of life here on earth but stays far away, far above the sky and cannot be reached by anybody else. It is underneath the sun, beneath the clouds, that Santal life is challenged. Here the bonga roam around and only by coming to terms with them can Santals be happy (Archer, 26).

The Belief in Bonga (Spirits)

The Santals also believe in the existence of the spirits who are called bonga. Thebonga have much influence on daily living of the Santals. To ensure their continuing care, beside annual sacrifices, the bonga are also remembered on a daily basis. Whenever a meal is taken, a small portion of the food is dropped on the floor for the bonga, or at the time whenever rice-beer is drunk, a little is spilt on the ground for Marang Buru. Thus, the Santals live not only in their tribal society but in a greater society consisting of supernatural beings as well (Datt-Majumdar 2004:24).

According to the Santal religious beliefs there are two types of bonga—the malevolent and the benevolent ones.5 The bonga-worship is primarily to please and to invoke the powers of the benevolent bonga and to avert the ill will of the malevolent bonga. In the worship of bonga we can distinguish analytically two interrelated aspects:

a) The  objective aspect of the religious rites is to have an alliance with the benevolent bonga and thereby control or even defeat the powers of the malevolent bonga;

b) The expressive aspectof the worship is manifested through various seasonal and religious rites, festivals, and rites associated with various social rituals.

The Santals have an innate relationship with their bonga and consider themselves living with them. This relationship is mostly of dependence, submission, propitiation, and reverential fear. They offer supplications—rice-beer and animal sacrifices—in the name of the bonga. It is worth mentioning that there are instances among the Santals in the rural villages where persons even in time of serious sickness would not look for medical help but instead turn to the bonga to be cured.6

Belief in Witchcraft

The Santal belief system also includes the existence of witches. They believe that there are certain people, especially women, who possess special powers and techniques to harm people, cattle, and crops. These so-called witches are involved in doing harmful activities like poisoning, taking out human livers, sending troublesome spirits to certain families, and changing themselves into black cats. Because of such belief in witchcraft practices, the Santals easily suspect one another, and are often led to fight. It is presumed essential to have such a belief especially in the pagan world (Archer, 290-304).

However, there is also a counter-belief among them, that there are certain people,Ojha-janguru (specialists), mainly men, who possess special powers and techniques for detecting witches and nullifying their spells. Thus, whenever Santals get into trouble, they seek the help of these people who, more often, exploit the society.

Referring to the sickness and other problems, the Santals believe that they are caused by the evil spirits when they become dissatisfied with the sacrifices of the people or when they think that they are being manipulated by some evil-minded people (witches). Therefore, the Santals try to identify the agents of the trouble through the help of ojha–janguru, and try to pacify each agent through various sacrifices.

The Ancestors

From the rites and rituals as practiced by the Santals, it is quite evident that ancestor-worship is a common feature among them. The dead ancestors are the real benefactors of the families or groups to which they belonged and they are easily approachable by their living kinspeople. Hence, at all important occasions of birth, of marriage, or of death the deceased ancestors are remembered and offered sacrifices.

The Jaherthan (Sacred Grove)

The sacred grove or Jaherthan, is an essential part of a Santal village. It is a sacred place of special worship for the Santals. After a village has been set up, aJaherthan is installed through special ritualistic ceremony at the outskirt of the village. The main deity of the Jaherthan is known as Jaher Era (the lady of the grove). According to the Santals, she resides there beside other important deities such as the Moŗẽko-Turuiko7 (literally means "Five-Six"). The Jaher Era presides over the sacred grove, tends over other bonga in the Jherthan, and looks after the interests of the villagers especially their physical needs. The spirits of theJaherthan are worshipped during the principal festivals, like Sohorae (Harvest festival), Baha (Flower festival), Erok’ (Sowing festival), and so on for the general welfare of the village, particularly for obtaining good crops and for the health of the villagers and their livestock (Troisi 1979:80-83).

The Mạńjhithan (Altar of the Headman)

The altar of the headman is placed alongside the kulhi (village road) or often at the central place of the village, or in front of the house of the Mańjhi (the headman). It is believed that the Mạńjhi bonga (spirit of the headman) resides in this altar and acts as the spiritual adviser of the headman. Here the Mạńjhi offers sacrifice for the benefit of himself, his family, and for the whole village.

The "House-altar"

In the inner side of a Santal house, there remains the bhitạr, a tiny compartment, which is the darkest space of the house. It is the abode of the Oŗak’ bonga (house spirits) [Archer, 26], which are often known as abge bonga—the bonga of the sub-clan. The head of the family does the worship. On special occasions of the family and social festivals, food offering is made on this altar. The names of the Oŗak’bonga are not revealed to outsiders nor to the female members of the house, they are rather handed down from father to son. Usually the eldest son receives the name from his father (Prasad, 70). The bhitạr is also used as a secret place to germinate and to store hạndi (rice beer), which is not only used as normal drink but its use is significant and is extended to socio-cultural ritualistic celebrations and is offered to satisfy the bonga.

The After-life

It is the continuation of life that is lived in this world. The Santals believe that the spirit of the deceased goes to a shadowy world where the person requires the materials of this world. This is well expressed by the ritualistic practices done at the burial and during the bhandan, the last ceremony that is done in honor of the dead. In the past, such ceremony was performed immediately after all the ritualistic requirements had been fulfilled for the deceased person, but presently such ceremony, in a rich family, is done within two or three months from the death, and in a poor family, it is within one year or two. For the Santals, the more numerous the animal-victims offered in honor of the dead during the bhandan, the more animals the ancestor will have in the other world. Most animal-victims to be offered are donated by the relatives of the deceased and none of them are to be spared for future use by the family concerned.

Traditionally every Santal, male and female, is supposed to bear undeletable scars on the body. For the male, it is the sikạ.8 Usually there must be at least three scars representing the meaning jion (life), moron (death), and jion (life). The Santal women, however, do not practice sikạ but to escape being devoured by the worms in the after-life, they have their chest tattooed; this is called khoda. Fr. Pussetto with his vast working experience among the Santals, testifies:

I have not only seen Santal women tattooed on the chest but also on the back, on the face, on the arms and on the legs; the tattoo is a very complicated design, it is also ornamental… The tattoo will help the women to be recognized by the respective husbands in the other life (22).

At present the younger generation of Santals in Bangladesh does not practice sikạor khoda; these have become voluntary. However, every Santal child bears needle-eye holes in his/her two ears for earings when they grow up and especially at the time of his/her marriage.

The Santals in Search of New Identity

Every ethnic group or society has its own unique characteristics, value systems, language, religious belief, mores, life-attitudes, culture, customs, and traditions. It has its own approach to life and death, disease and sickness, individuals and community, and above all, a sense of identity. Anyone visiting a Santal village or an area with a vast majority of Santal inhabitants will easily realize the difference and the identity that applies to the Santals. This sense of identity or cultural self-image defines the traits of solidarity and uniqueness, as well as seeks differences with other groups in the larger society around (Murmu 2004:2).

However, in many ways, the Santals of Bangladesh today can be seen going through an identity crisis for a variety of reasons. They have not been able to make concerted efforts to face the rapid changing situation. Whatever changes seem to have taken place due to outside pressure, promotion of education, and some initiatives taken by the Church, they do not reach out to the bulk of the Santal population, living in the rural villages scattered around the countryside. As the time passes on, Santals are becoming more and more marginalized—struggling for mere survival without having any proper direction to move forward or improve their life situation. Yet, it is worth mentioning that until now there are no beggars to be found among the Santals. Rather than beg, they would prefer to go to the jungle as a last resort to collect wild potatoes, fruits, and roots of young shoots, flowers, mushrooms, etc. or find other options like, hunting or fishing.

There is clearly a confrontation between the ritual-based sense of traditional culture and the forces of change and modernization, represented by the socio-political changes and socio-economic factors allied to these changes. In fact, the Santals are badly caught between the mythological past of glorious traditions and the present, with its ever degrading and desperate poverty, caused by ignorance, exploitation, and oppression by their neighbors of other religions. Moreover, Santals are now more divided than united due to the fact that there are Santals who have already embraced the Christian faith and belong to different church denominations, while the vast majority still follow the old traditional pattern of culture and religious practices. The gap among these groups has been widening in the course of history. According to Professor Kazi Tobarak Hossain, "The social solidarity and homogeneity of the ethnic minority of Santals are weakening and disintegrating. In effect, culturally, they are in a transitional state."9 The Santals today face transition from the sovereignty of the isolated village to the complexities of modern polity, bureaucracy, and money economy.

At the time of the Liberation War in 1971 and in the post-war period, both Christian and non-Christian Santals felt closely affiliated to the Catholic Church. Fr. Giacomelli, a Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) missionary who worked among the Santals during this period, reported that he distributed thousands of medals and crucifixes to non-Christian Santals, for security reasons as many were approaching him. But he was not a missionary to take advantage to convert them. He never discriminated against anybody in serving people on the grounds of religion. The same could be said of other missionaries who were engaged in other parishes in different districts in Bangladesh.

Presently, a little change has been noticed, mostly among the Christian Santals because of their contact with the local mission stations. The Legal Aid activities for the Tribals supported by Caritas-Bangladesh during the post-war period,Mạńjhi-dupuŗup’ (village leaders’ meeting), the sidạ-kạnu maha martyr’s day annual celebration, the diocesan credit union movement, educational and health care facilities and services, pilgrimage to religious shrines, priestly ordination, and bishops’ pastoral visits to local parishes created a tremendous impact on the non-Christian Santals so they wanted to know Christ. Yet, many of them remain closely attached to their old traditional beliefs and cultural heritage, and many are afraid of the societal excommunication or fear any harmful consequence that might follow by displeasing the bonga.

Until now the Santals have not been converted to Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism, only to Christianity. This issue is very important for one wonders whether the Santals in the near future would be ready to accept Islam, or to be converted to other religions as it happened in the past, when some lower caste Hindus were converted to Islam in East Bengal and other low caste Hindus were converted to Christianity (Timm 1994:72). The example of Europe and North America, where many people were converted to Islam during the last century, can also be recalled.

The fact that the Santals remain artificially divided into two camps—a small number of Christians and the majority remaining out of reach—certainly cannot be a good sign for the Santal society and for its future. The prayer of Jesus for his disciples echoed in the Gospel of St. John (17:21-22), is something that draws our attention here: That they may all be one, as you Father, are in me and I in You, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. Evangelization of the Santals in the proper sense, therefore, would mean a new hope and a new beginning toward the realization of a dream that will bring the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth, the Savior and the Mediator between God and all humankind. "The harvest is plentiful" (Mt. 9:37-38) and Bangladesh remains fertile ground for the mission of evangelization. The local churches in Bangladesh have a great role to play in the field of evangelization of the Santals. For "God has called us to be Christians not only so that we may be saved but that we may collaborate in the work of the world’s salvation, and invite those whom God draws to the Church to share in our faith" (Rosales and Arevalo 1992:280).

Christianity among the Santals

According to G. Beckers, a Jesuit missionary who worked many years in India, the date of the first Santal-conversion to Christianity goes back to the mid-19th century (Beckers 1995). It took place in a small village in the heart of the dense jungle on the borders of Bengal and Orissa, in the then undivided India, where the first contact between Christianity and the Santals is said to have happened. It was Jeremiah Phillips, a "Free Will’ American Baptist missionary who settled at Jaleswar in 1840 and who pioneered the actual evangelization work among the Santals. In 1845 he opened the first primary school for Santal children and printed the first Santali primer (elementary text book). In 1847, the first Santals, two young men from the school, were baptized. However, before baptism, Phillips wanted to test the firmness of their intention. In his own words:

I called Daniel and Elias and after conversing with them for some time proposed that they should take some bread and eat before us…this startled (start led) them and they drew back…. This bread was brought, but Daniel’s heart almost failed him. Poor Daniel sat with the bread in his hand, swelled up, and seemed in an awful trial, and so for half an hour or more, it seemed doubtful whether they would taste the morsel which was to be the signal of afinal separation from all their former connections…. Daniel and Elias now appear very happy together and now occupy a separate apartment and cook for themselves (Beckers 1995).

The Catholic missionaries, initiated Christianity among the Santals in the present Bangladesh, later in the beginning of 20th century. Fr. Francesco Rocca, a PIME missionary, can be called the pioneer and apostle of the Santals. In 1906 he arrived in Dhanjuri at the request of Fagu Mistri Soren, paid a second visit in February 1909 and baptized Phudon Marandi and his eldest son Pitor Marandi. Fr. Luigi Pinos (1994:10) wrote:

During one of his travels by train, railway chaplain Fr. Rocca was approached by a Santal who was on his way to court for a long drawn out case. He was Fagu Mistri Soren, the village chief of Dhanjuri. The man was a no-good; he was always in trouble because of his weakness for women…So he said, "Sahib, I am from Dhanjuri. Why don’t you come to visit us?" Fr. Rocca accepted the invitation and one day in 1906 he arrived in Dhanjuri…Phudon took the arrival of the Father as an answer to his own letter. He was exultant in seeing the priest and gave him hospitality. Fr. Rocca, who was a very engaging personality, was invited to come again. He obliged, and on 21 February 1909 baptized Phudon and his eldest son Peter.

The story of Pitt Moore, an evangelical missionary to whom, after he had made his evangelical presentation in a village, a man (probably a Santal) came up with a question, "Where," he asked, "are my relatives and fellow villagers who have died?" Pitt Moore replied that they were in hell. "Then," said the man, "that is where I want to go when I die." Moore decided that, thereafter, he was not going to mention heaven or hell in his preaching, only the love of Christ (Downs 1999:116-26). Certainly this is one of the many examples of early missionary approaches without differentiating the initiative taken by Catholic and Protestant churches alike.

Without undermining the hardships and the good works done by the early missionaries, I intend to further initiate brief reflections on the past missionary endeavors among the Santals. From a historical perspective we observe:

First, the early missionaries considered Santals animists, heathen, idolators, or people without religion;

Second, proclamation of the gospel message was used as the chief means of evangelization because it was more directly geared to conversion: "Preaching [proclamation] touched the heart and effected the listener’s conversion then and there" (Thomssen 1978:19);

Third, education was considered secondary rather than primary and many missionaries could not place it on equal footing with proclamation (Thomssen 1978a:19). Therefore, there has always been tension between those who engage themselves in direct proclamation of the gospel message and those who are involved in other secular activities like education or health care services.

We may recall that for the Santals to become Christian was a hard option. They made such an option even at the cost of being abandoned by their villagers, families, and friends, and often suffered for their decision by being deprived of their inheritance of property and rights. Thus, it is not true to say that the Santals have rejected Christ. What is important is how Christianity is being presented to them. Further, to say that the Santals become Christian because of the promise of heaven or to save their soul is not a persuasive argument. After all, within their traditional religion they also have the promise of heaven. Thus, the question is: Why has Christianity not made greater headway in the evangelization of the Santals? The best answer perhaps is the one given by J. Troisi: "The most deep-rooted objection is the fact that the Christian method of evangelization often tended to draw the Santals out of their own milieu, consequently posing a serious problem of tribal solidarity, and causing converts to feel insecure" (226).

Further Reflection and Recommendations

I believe that much of the work of evangelization among the Santals could be done:

a) When the evangelizers themselves are first familiar with the socio-religious-cultural context of the people. With due respect to their cultural values and religious freedom, it is imperative for the Church community "to help them to help themselves, so that they can work to improve their situation and become the evangelizers of their own culture and society" (John Paul II 1999:n.34).

b) When Christianity is presented in its totality without being fragmented into pieces, relying on doctrinal issues or taking refuge in a vague, absolute spirituality, which is unrelated to the world and to the reality of life. Historical revelation, which culminated in Jesus Christ, can provide a fundamental orientation that takes into account the earthly values and a person’s vocation for the fullness of life. Here dialogue/Christian encounter and local catechism could be important steps toward such an effect.10

c) When in the process of evangelization the Santals will not be asked to forget their past or are forbidden to take part in any traditional ritual practices because all these were seen as "pagan." As a result, the new Santal converts, whose hearts are so deeply rooted in the traditional ancestral practices, are often found to be drawn back to such practices. It is not by avoiding the past, that Santals can be helped to build up their future.

d) When errors are critiqued, but only after a sympathetic study. In other words, the way is not to attack or to destroy the erroneous views, or point to mere superstitious observances11 that may be found in the belief system and ritual practices of other religions, but to search out the commonalities shared by Christianity with other religions, in this case with the Santal religion.

e) When evangelization is integral, total, and holistic. Separating social and pastoral ministry is no doubt the most effective way of remaining indifferent in the face of the dire needs, poverty, injustice, and sufferings. Fr. R. W. Timm, a devoted Holy Cross missionary in Bangladesh, writes:

The social ministry and the pastoral ministry need not and should not be separated from each other, because both are needed for fulfilling the Church’s role in the world. Both were present and skillfully blended in the life and work of Jesus. He was both a religious reformer and a social reformer. Therefore, in his Church an integrated approach is also necessary (77).


The task of evangelization among the Santals is not proselytism, or bringing new converts for the extension of the Church, or multiplying the Christian population, but, the task here would be to make the Santal society a progressive community without cutting them off from their tribal roots. The Santals must know both the strengths and weaknesses of their culture. The Gospel must be brought to the Santals to challenge and to transform them from within like the yeast and the salt, so that the Santals in Bangladesh may promote communion and integral human development in the process of being evangelized where "all the people are united in the way God wants them to be united" (Vatican II 1975:n.42).

The local churches of Bangladesh as entities of the communion of service must work towards such a world where people can grow in goodness and love, even outside the circle of the Church. Thus, initiative can be taken in the aspects of promotion of justice, peace, and human rights, poverty alleviation, restoration of family and tribal values, health care, and so on. For "No community is a true community if within its needs are ignored."12 Therefore, the mission of service is to be taken in its totality; it is not so much doing things for people, but rather, striving to create a society in which human dignity is respected and where the voice of the poor and the marginalized is heard.

Finally, thanks to the Second Vatican Council and the change in attitude, particularly because of the recognition that God has entered into dialogical relationship with other religions, culture and traditions (AG 9, 18) many people are now reluctant to say that tribal religions or Santal traditional religion is devilish, pagan, devoid of rationality, of morality, of truth, and uncivilized.13 Yet, much needs to be done to improve the situation at the grassroots level where the mission of evangelization is carried out among the Santals without prejudice to dialogue, encounter, and reconciliation.


1. The word Kherwar (or Kharwar) has multiple usages. It also refers to revivalist religious groups among the Santals but for all practical purposes they belong and form part and parcel of the Santal community. Cf. Prasad and associates 1961:123.

2. "Austro-Asiatic" and "Austro-Nesian" are the two sub-families of the Austric Language Family. The Austro-Nesian includes the languages of Madagascar, some parts of Indonesia, and the islands of the Pacific. Austro-Asiatic on the other hand is divided into two language groups—Mon-Khmer and the Munda languages. The Mon-Khmer branch is spoken in Myanmar, Indo-China, Malacca, Sekoi, Semang, Khasi, and Nicobar island. Munda languages are spoken in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and in Mewar. Moreover, the Munda languages are sub-grouped into two: Kherwarian and Kharian Juang. Santali, Mundari, Ho, Bhumij, Korwa, etc., fall under the category of Kherwarian, whereas Kharia, Savara, etc., fall under the second category (cf. Prasad, 295).

3. Beside the Santals, the term bonga is widely used by some other tribes like Asur, Birhoŗ, Ho, Karmali, and Munda. Cf. N. Prasad, ibid., pp. 102, 107, 201, 220, and 222.

4. Referring to the remarks of Kolean Haram (old Santal guru), P.O. Bodding (1925:1) writes thatbeing a benevolent deity, the Santals do not worry much about him (Cando Baba) and there is no specific worship to appease him. However, he is remembered with the deepest honor and humility, during the important ceremonies associated with marriage and death; he is also called upon as a witness to the solemn oath-takings and is invoked during natural calamities like drought and famines; on these occasions a white fowl is sacrificed to appease him. Some Santals think that the Supreme Being is not a bonga but he stands above. Ibid. (1932: 324).

5. Gausdal (1960) classified Santal bonga into several broad categories depending upon their nature and functions. They are: a) Village tutelary spirits comprising Marang Buru, Moŗẽko-turuiko, Jaher Era, Gosae Era, Pargana bonga, and Mańjhi Haŗam bonga; b) The sub-clan spirits—Abge bonga; c) House hold spirits—Orak’ bonga; d) Spirit of ancestors—Hapramko bonga; e) The Jom-Sim bonga; f) Tutelary spirits of Santal Ojhas—Saket bonga; g) Hindu deities—deko boga; h) Boundary Spirits—Simạ bonga; i) Mountain and hillspirits—Rongo Ruji bonga; j) Village outskirts spirits—bahre bonga; k) Water Spirits—baghut bonga; and l) Spirit exorcised by Santal Ojhas to ward off mischief—nạihạr bonga, Kisạr bonga, thapna bonga. The mischievous spirits that have to be scared away through exorcism are not worshipped.

6. It is said that in the primeval period the Santals had no bonga; the concept of bonga and their worship entered into Santal religion during the later period of the Santal-ancestors. They were wandering and encountered difficulty and critical situations like the tyranny of Mandho-Siń (son of Kisku Raja who believed to have been ostracized by the Santals for his immoral conduct). TheSiń duạr and Bạhi duạr (the stone gates) could not forcefully be opened and it was hard for them to cross the rivers and mountains. During this critical situation they acknowledged and invoked various powers, which they believed would have enabled them to overcome such difficulties. Thus, bonga worshipwas a necessary condition for them. This mythological story of tragic "history" is well known among the older generation of the Santals in Bangladesh.

7. Moŗẽko-Turuiko (Five-Six): There are varieties of stories related to these bonga. For some, it refers to the five Santal brothers and the lovely Kamar girl (Gosae Era), who was not of their caste. She is the lonely figure who is a member of the company but is kept slightly apart (cf. Archer, 240); for C. L. Mukherjea, it is a single entity but addressed in the plural; cf. ibid. pp. 28-29). For Archer the Five-Six are either five brothers with Jaher Era [Lady of the Grove] as their mother; or, five brothers plus Gosae Era, a girl making six, and finally "five or six brothers" (ibid.,p. 29); for others more (five in Santali) means, those who were wedded to six sisters (turui in Santali) named: Dangi, Pungi, Hisi, Dumni, Chitạ and Kạprạ (cf. Ibid.).

8. Sikạ is the result of a scorching produced with an ignited rag that is applied on the arm of a Santal boy. Santals believe that sika is essential to have success in life and to ensure the entrance into the kingdom of the ancestors (cf. Pussetto, 22).

9. Kazi Tobarak Hossain, "The Santals of Bangladesh: An Ethnic Minority in Transition." Source:http:www.bath.ac.uk/cds/ enbspaperspdfs/hossain.pdf+Of+Identity…, accessed in July 2004. To be noted, this paper was presented by the author at the Sixth Workshop of the European Network of Bangladesh Studies (ENBS) held in Oslo, Norway during 14-16 May 2000.

10. The aim of catechesis is not merely to put people in touch, but in communion, intimacy, with Jesus Christ; for "only he can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity." Cf. John Paul II 1979:n. 5. The author in another article presents "Christian Encounter" as a preferential option to deal with Primal Religions, which is also applicable to the Santal traditional religion.

11. The principle, for example, that the veneration of ancestors is not religious is in total contradiction with what can be seen every single day. For the Santals, the ancestors continue to be part of the family and the cult rendered to them is purely religious.

12. South African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Community Serving Humanity: Pastoral Plan of the Catholic Church in Southern Africa (Delmenville: Lumko Institute, 1989), n. 20.

13. Wati, A. Longchar, ed., Encounter Between Gospel and Tribal Cultureibid., pp. 109-10.


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