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Guest-Editorial – In the Shadow of the Larger Faiths: The Minor Faiths of South Asia

By Sipra Mukherjee

A Sufi fakir in a remote village of Bengal initiates a few Muslims and Hindus of the lowly castes into a new faith that incorporates features of Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. A group of Christians, inhabiting the green valleys in the north-east of India, successfully blends the scriptural teachings of Christianity with their belief in the sacredness of the forests. A Sikh gurudwara paints its walls with pictures that relate the Hindu god Krishna with Majnu, the romantic icon of the Arabic legends.

These seemingly startling facts are really commonplace and run of the mill to most South Asians, used to Hindu caretakers of Muslim mosques (Barasat, Bengal and the Bangali Babur Masjid, Marble Palace, Kolkata), Muslim caretakers of Jewish synagogues (Beth-El Synagogue, Maghen David Synagogue, Neveh Shalome Synagogue), and Muslim priests at Hindu Shiva temples (Mamalaka Temple, Kashmir). The stories are endless. Along with these are the literally innumerable syncretic shrines to Pirs, Sants, Matajis, Murshids, Naths, and Babas (of many religions and outside religion, too). As part of these shrines, or outside their reach, also exist many minor, but well-demarcated faiths that include beliefs and rituals that are syncretic in nature, writing into their one scriptural text ideologies taken from many. Other similarly small faiths reject the dominant religions to chart out a separate, distinct path.

These faiths have remained. Despite the increasing inclination to believe in uni-dimensional religious identities that have characterized the past decades, Kabir panthis are neither Hindus nor Muslims, and crowds of non-Muslims still flock to Moinuddin Chishti’s dargah at Ajmer Sharif. Popular piety among peoples of many religions at these shrines may be seen as the continuation of age-old traditions. These traditions have, over the years, acquired a vibrant life of their own, rendering the original religious identity of the shrine redundant to its worshippers. There are also the smaller faiths, consciously and deliberately constructed in opposition to existing powerful faiths. These are often born out of a rejection of the dominant religions, which were seen as narrow, misleading, and bigoted. The essays on the Ravidassaias, the Kartabahjas, the Mahima Dharma, and the Bauls show such minor faiths to have had shifting trajectories, sometimes moving close to a dominant religion, and perhaps running parallel to it for some time, or being appropriated by the hegemonic faith. At other times, they have retained their numbers, and their distinctiveness, holding out against threats, oppression and humiliation or have died out as a consequence of dwindling numbers and hegemonic suppression.

It remains a question whether the deaths of these ‘small’ faiths should be viewed as a triumph of the hegemony. Minor faiths appear to be born of the needs of the people at particular junctures of history. These moments of time may be found to be marked by the birth of not one, but of many such rebellious faiths. While most of these ‘rebellions’ fade into oblivion, one or two remain, drawing strength from the injustices and the wrongs that the ‘larger’ religion has been unable to address. Born out of a felt need of the community, they sometimes die consequent to those needs being addressed either by the state or the dominant religion, or when the needs themselves change following demographic changes brought on by displacement and migration. Given these diverse scenarios within which the minor faiths rise and fall, the answer to the triumph of hegemony question may perhaps be better answered by the counter-question – Are such faiths still possible? – a question that finds expression in the report on the Asura Week.

Another alternative answer to the question may be sought in the range of rituals and practices that are possible in the existing religions. The essays on Khasi religious practice and on the Koch-Rajbansi religion reveal the simultaneous existence of indigenous traditions pre-dating the understanding of religion in its modern form with the more institutionalized practices of Christianity and Hinduism. Yet another aspect of religion is revealed in the essay on the Bedes where, besides the difficulty of labelling people as either Hindus or Muslims, is the more significant revelation of the possibility to choose your tag, and the inextricable relation that a professed religion has with ‘ways of life’. The absence of institutionalized scriptures and conventions make it possible for these small faiths to have greater flexibility and to adapt to the changes in the community. Many of these sects rely on congregational prayers and songs, enabling a spirit of democracy to determine the trajectory of the faith. The changing nature of a faith may, therefore, not always be indicative of its appropriation or succumbing to the pressures of the hegemony. Changes may in reality reveal the sect’s conscious selective appropriation of ideas from the available discourses.

What makes people want to become devotees of small, unheard of, powerless faiths? Why do these small, powerless faiths arouse such volatile emotions and shows of power among the powerful? Why does religion, with its allegedly non-secular, un-worldly, spiritual philosophizing command such allegiance from human beings who appear otherwise to be quite caught up in the materiality and mortality of human life? These questions are closely aligned to the histories of both the major and the minor faiths. It is no coincidence that this issue on minor faiths includes a large number of faiths that have been engendered among people, who belong to those sections of society that are economically poor, socially vulnerable, and politically weak. The desire of the Bedes of Bangladesh for a Muslim identity, the Kartbahaja sect’s move towards Hinduism, the erasure of the audacious rebellious aspects from the history of Mahima dharma, and the threatened rise of Asura-worshippers testify to the secular realities that lie at the roots of these movements of faith.

Despite the apparent intricacies of these minor faiths that live on in the shadow of the more dominant religions, despite the complex multi-hued palette of faiths that flow into and beside each other, the researcher however usually finds, to her surprise, little confusion in the minds of the worshippers. The faiths themselves may defy definitive explanations, but the faith is strong and the practice of the faith, to the minds of the devotees, simple and coherent.

Photo: Painting on a mountain wall in Darjeeling, Bengal. (Courtesy: Sipra Mukherjee)

Dr. Sipra Mukherjee
is Professor at West Bengal State University. Her research interests are religion, caste, folklore and power.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Romit Chatterjee #

    Never really thought about this… Many thanks for such a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece :)!

    July 20, 2016
  2. rnmkr #

    Never really thought about this …. many thanks for bringing out this thoughtful and thought-provoking piece :)!

    July 20, 2016
  3. Suparna Bhattacharya #

    Such a focus on the apparent category of minority spaces is so significant.its d underlying syncretic culture in each that perhaps makes our society tick on.
    A reading of the essays prompted me to consider the manner in which similar minority culture is treated in popularly circulating folk literature n anthologized folk.
    Also would be interested to contribute to this thought-stirring e-journal.

    July 23, 2016
  4. Suparna Bhattacharya #

    Thanks for focussing on the spaces apparently labelled as minority-especially their syncretic associations.
    The orally circulating folk culture often contain these traces but anthologized versions are careful to purge such associations.i was thinking of lalmon keccha and hira o lal er katha.
    Would love to contrubute to this e-journal if the editor thinks of inviting writings

    July 23, 2016
  5. Hi Suparna, in case you are interested in writing, do email us:

    July 25, 2016

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