Friday, October 29, 2010

Where on Earth is the Khasi Jaintia Hills?

(sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Church Fairfax Virginia July 2009)
I came from the North East part of India and the state of Meghalaya where the Khasi lives is one of the 7 states in the region. To the south of Meghalaya is share its border with Bangladesh, so to locate Meghalaya it is kind of easy to locate Bangladesh first and then move northward.

Unitarianism in the Khasi hills an indigenous religion

Unitarian Church, Jowai Eastd. 18 Sept. 1887
Unlike other Christian denomination, Unitarianism in Khasi Jaintia hills and Karbi Anglong district of Assam was not started by the missionaries. It was started by our own son of the soil HKS along with three of his followers. Like in any other place HKS too was a disenchanted Christian looking for an alternative religion. He realized that the holy trinity was unscriptural and looks for a church which worships one God similar to what the ancestors had taught and practiced. He was introduced to an American Unitarian in Calcutta and through him managed to get the famous William Ellery Channing sermon Unitarian Christianity. After reading the tracks and scripture HKS found his spiritual home and held a first Unitarian worship on the 18 of September 1887 in Jowai.

Unitarianism in the Khasi Jaintia and Karbi Anglong claimed to be an indigenous religion is not based merely on the fact that it was started by a native person, but Unitarian church is an indigenous religion because the faith draws immense inspiration from the basic thoughts and philosophy of the tribal people.

Could you tell us a little about what it is like to be a Unitarian in Northeast India?

To understand the Khasi hills where the Unitarian lives, one must understand that from a religious point of view, there are two main divisions in the area, the Christians block and the non Christian block which comprises of the Khasi who still uphold the Khasi traditional animist religion. I use to say the Unitarian is a middle path of the two traditions. It it’s a liberal religion based on the liberal Christian tradition but with strong roots on the basic Khasi values, philosophy, belief and understanding.

After reading Channing and many other Unitarian scripture that CHA Dahl sends to HKS, he was convinced that Unitarianism is what he was looking for. So, on September 18, 1887, Singh held the first service for Unitarians in Northeast India in the town of Jowai. His genius in incorporating the best of the teachings of the missionaries with the indigenous faith of his people, including a belief in One Creative Power that is formless and manifest in nature and everywhere, continues to be the unique character Unitarianism in North East India.

In 1888 the Unitarians adopted a statement of faith. It read: We believe in the unity of God; the fatherhood and motherhood of God; in the brotherhood of Man; in love, union, worship, and faith; and in Immortality.

One may ask does this statement of faith still reflect Unitarianism as practiced in NE India. Could you tell us a little more about this faith?

This in fact it sums up the basic belief of the Unitarians in the North East India. The first hyms in the Khasi hymn book composed by Hajom Kissor Singh himslef is on this basic principle and we call it “Ki jor tynrai ka niam U Blei” The essence of the church of God. In the four stanza hymn, in the second stanza HKS described God as the Father and mother by which he mean as I was given to understand it, God in spirit or God beyond gender. God the creator and the lord of all things whom the Khasi has known from time immemorial. Though the Khasi has been using the word Lord, it does not necessarily connote the western concept of the meaning as in the Second person of God. For the Khasi since time immemorial whenever they invoke the name of God they tend to use the two names God and Lord simultaneously. The Unitarian does the same till these days.

In the third stanza he was talking about the brotherhood and sisterhood of human in spirit. Or in other words; in spirit, the entire human race is one big family.

The fourth stanza is interesting because here he was talking about the life of the spirit, that the spirit never dies, the spirit lives on. To understand this concept, one must also understand the Khasi tribe’s own understanding of life after dead and to understand that one must also know the genesis of the Khasi people. The Khasi Mythologies have it that originally there were a 16 huts in heaven, 7 came down to the earth to farm by day and return to heaven by night through a tree on hill called the navel of heaven. The devil was able to convice the 7 huts to cut the tree and cut their connection with God and the 9 huts above. To cut the long story short the 7 became the first settlers on earth and the 9 remain with God in heaven. When some one dies; the Khasi says that he will go eat bettlenut in the corridor of God’s house along with the 9 huts. To understand the important of bettlenut in the Khasi tradition one need to know another story, but I leave that to my friends who has been to the Khasi hills to do the needful. But from the many hymns that he had composed HKS define the place where the spirit will go after it parted ways with the body as the Kingdom of the spirit “Ka ri ki mynsiem.”

Though HKS statement of faith still hold good to this day in the Unitarian Union, the church also teaches me to be open and respect other belief. The Khasi traditional wisdom is a very rich, hence as a Unitarian I draw immense inspiration from our ancestral wisdom and it indeed enriches me spiritually.

The Khasi’s traditional wisdom and understanding of the nature is not only unique but it is also proves that the Khasi’s understanding of the nature is both profound and relevant. Before the world has even start talking about the equality of human being not to mention the interdependent web of existence, the Khasi’s already has it in their myths and legends that all creations are equal. The Khasi traditionally believed that in the day of the yore, the golden era of the Khasi or the virgin age, human and animals were not only talking to each other, but they even lived as one equal creation of God.

The Khasi belief that during the golden era the whole creation live as one big family, they talk to each other as they understand each other, they shop from a same market. One day in the market of chaos (Iew Lurilura), a Dog brought fermented beans to sell in the market. It has a foul smell and fellow animals condemned Dog of selling its excretion, they teased the Dog and kicked and trampled on the Dog’s fermented beans. Since then out of anger the Dog decide to stay with human and become human’s companion. But the market episode has given the dog a special ability. Because the whole animals has kick and tramapled on the dog’s fermented beans, the smells remain in their feet, so till now Dogs can smell animal scent where ever they are.

Most of our stories are woven around the mystery of life as encountered by our ancestors, so we have stories like the one I told earlier, which answer to our ancestor understanding, the question where does human come from? And where do they go after they die? And we a story provide an answer to a question why did the rooster crow in the morning? What are the marks on the moon?
The Mythology of the moon, the sun and the rooster is one example. The story have it that long long time ago; it came to pass one day, that the moon who is the younger brother of the sun, fell in love with his own beautiful sister, this is not only an incest but by Khasi culture and tradition; it is a taboo. The angered sun shower ashes on the moon and then out of embarrassment went to hid herself in the pitch dark cave known as ‘krem lamet, krem latang.’ The world was in complete darkness because the sun rises no more and there was complete chaos everywhere because the whole creation was literarily left in the dark. A grand council of the whole creation was summoned to find out ways and means to request the sun to comeback again. The council send the ryngkoh-kit-knor; the hornbill to woo the sun back, instead the sun hit him on his beak because he too was trying to seduce this beautiful damsel. Finally the grand council of all creation agreed to send the rooster a humble animal who humbly agreed to the proposal of the council. The rooster was able to convince the sun to come shine again on the earth but with one condition, that the rooster will have to crow three times every day for the sun to come back again. Since then the rooster has earned itself the right to be the mediator, the interlocutor for the people not only with the sun but even with the creator.
The inter-dependent web of existence in the Khasi context is not only among earthly creation namely animals; but it is even inter-planetary. The other folk story of the Khasi with a similar inter-planetary connection is the tragic love story of the sun and the peacock and how the tear drops of the sun crying for her loved one became the beautiful mark and patterns in the peacock’s feather. The story of how the thunder was attracted by the glittering sword of one animal a Lynx (Kui) in the warrior dance organized by both human and animals that he came down and asked kui to let him hold and sword and dance with it for few moment, but the Thunder while dancing and holding the dazzling sword upright like any warrior dancer, he flew to the sky and took along the Kui sword with him to the sky. So the lightning and the thunder that follows is the Thunder performing his warrior dance in the sky.
The two major Khasi Pnar Royal families also has a divine origin, the story of the Jaintia monarch begin with Lo Ryndi caught a fish from the river Waikhyrwi, by divine intervention he forgot to cook the fish and left it on the tier over his hearth where people traditionally dried their food so that it won’t get spoiled. As time goes the fish became a beautiful woman to whom he married and the children of the fish-turned-human became the first royal family of Jaintia Kingdom. The royal family of the Khyriem and Mylliem state of the Khasi hills is also believed to have a divine origin, the legends have it that u Lei Shillong or Shillong god has three children, ka Ngot, ka Iew and ka Pahsyntiew, the two elder sister become river and are known as Umngot and Umiew, while the youngest sister became a beautiful girl and lived all by herself in the Marai cave and she is known as ka Pahsyntiew. Pahsyntiew or court by using flowers became the great grand mother of the Royal family of Shillong. The Khasi believed that the rivers are not mere rivers but they too have a persona, the story of the Lukha river, the Lunar and the Lynju river that they were sisters like any human being is one example of this fundamental believe. The Passah of Jaintia hills till now would not cross the Kupli without giving the river some offering because the Kupli is the great great grandmother of the Passah clan and Yale Kupli’s husband who was represented by a beautiful waterfall that was lost forever in the Kupli hydro project is their great great grand father. In the Jaintia hills, the Myntdu and Myntang river not only have personality but in the case of Myntdu which flow around Jowai, the river was worship as the guardian angel and sacrifice was offered to the goddess every now and then and it is a taboo for anybody to defecate or pass urine in the river. The Khasi also believe that water is divine (umksiar um rupa) which is God’s gift and all the rivers are sacred.
Sacred groves, is another illustration of the Khasi Pnar’s respect and reverence for the nature, sacred forest as the name implies are considered sacred in the sense that the entire area is protected and the forest is kept untouched by any human hands. The sacred groves in many cases are believed to be the places where the god u Ryngkew u Basa dwells. Traditionally the Khasi Pnar would not cut any tree at random or at one’s own whims and fancy, before cutting a tree Khasi Pnar use to pray paying obeisance to God and asking forgiveness for cutting the tree for his own needs.
I’m proud of my roots and like I say Unitarianism in the Khasi hills is the middle path of the two traditions, hence it is like taking the good things from both the tradition to grow spiritually as an individual and as a denomination. There is another story from Khasi Folklore which is related to the situation that we are; it is the story of the Bat. Once a battle erupted between the winged creatures and the wingless or land creature and the battle went on for a long time without any clear winner. But the one creature that does not seems to belong to either side of the divide was the Bat. As time battle went on, the Bat think that the winged creature are going to win; so it went to the winged creature and said, ‘look I’m one of you, I have wings.’ And when it looks like land animals are going to win, it went to them and said ‘though I have wings I am not a bird you know.’ I think anywhere we are in the World, we are in what I call a bat situation.

What is your hope for Unitarianism in NE India in the next ten years?

As a Minister my observation is that, the old lay leadership system that the Unitarian Union follows since its inception is not going to help the church to grow. We need to professionalize our minister. Some of us has some training but still many are leading the church without any training whatsoever on church leadership. Therefore the need of the hour for the church is to professionalized ministry and we are moving on that direction. Few of us registered on a distance course called MA in Christian studies offer by the Madras University. For the leaders in the village who cannot read English, we have started conducting our own weekly leadership class every Saturday. We are building our own resources for that and we welcome any contribution in the form of books on Unitarian Universalist and other related subject. We hope to have atleast a center if not a seminary of our own.
I personally don’t see any problem on this. Our Seminaries in the US like the Starr King is already offering online theological course and even CLF have some. We only need to get access to these courses to equip ourselves.

I strongly believe that this the way forward for Unitarian Union as a religious organization.

Before I conclude please allow me to say that I am extremely gratefull to you all for supporting my trip to the US and I enjoy every bit of it. Thank you so much. May I also on behalf of the Unitarian Union, invite you all to visit your partner church in the Unitarian Union.

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