Seminar on the theme “Intellectual History” on the 24-25 November 2010, at the North Eastern Hills University, Shillong Towards an Intellectual History of North East – pre to post colonial Periods.
Sub-theme: Rationalism and religious universalism: The Intellectual dimensions of religious reformism in north east India.
Hajom Kissor Singh Lyngdoh Nongbri, the founder of Unitarian movement in Khasi and Jaintia Hills District of Meghalaya and Karbi Anglong District of Assam remains a lesser known personality in the contemporary society of the North East. The fact is though HK Singh has started the Unitarian movement in the hills 123 years ago, being a non-proselytizing religion, the church remain a small minority, hence the popularity of its founder has not increased as it should. HK Singh was born on 15 June 1865 and started a formal worship of the Unitarian Church at Jowai on September 18, 1887.
He was converted to Christianity probably on the same day with his younger brother, u Nissor Singh who is famous for writing the first ever Khasi dictionary in the year 1885 1. He grew up in the era of the advent of Christianity. Later in his life he witnessed the resurgence of the Khasi Traditional religion. Perhaps these events have shaped his thoughts and philosophy.
The Unitarian Church that H.K. Singh established is unique in its own right. Maintaining its liberal outlook; the church in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills took roots in the soil of the land and adopted some of the thoughts and philosophy of the region. Its claim of being an indigenous religion is based not only in the fact that it was not started by any foreign missionary in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century; but it has also not received foreign assistance when it was first started. It is also unique because this liberal Christian denomination which was started by a Khasi absorbed and adopted the basic tenets of the Khasi traditional thoughts and philosophy. Hence the theology of the religion he started is original in that he blended the essence of the two faith traditions and formed his own philosophy.
H.K. Singh though a discipline diary keeper who made regular entry on his day to day life, was also a prolific writer of letters. Unfortunately he does not have any essay, dissertation or sermon to his credit. His only work that reflects his thoughts and belief are the hymns that he composed for the Unitarian Hymn Book. If H.K. Singh ever had any theological discourses with his follower, they were not preserved for posterity, neither did he enter in his diary his thoughts and philosophy. Fortunately H.K. Singh composed many hymns in the Unitarian hymnal and these hymns represent his thoughts and philosophy in the myriad themes under the sun.
His concept of oneness of God was based both on the traditional 2 belief and that of the Bible. He went further indigenizing the concept of God by using the Khasi word “Phi” (you) to address the almighty which is commonly used to address those in a position much higher and more respectable instead of the Khasi word “Me” (Thou). HK Singh’s use “Phi” to address the almighty was sometime misunderstood in the plural sense of the term. Hence he was thought to worshiping many gods. In fact his replacing of the Khasi word “Me” with “Phi” to address the Almighty is in itself landmark because it is a polite and a courteous term to use in the Khasi Pnar context. H.K. Singh’s concept of God is a synthesis of the “Yahweh” of the Old Testament, the father in heaven of Jesus and the ultimate God the Creator of the Khasi tradition.
U Blei Nongthaw Nongbuh is not the only name that the Khasi Pnar uses to call God. They also have another name for God and that is ‘U Trai kynrad.’ Whether ‘U Trai Kynrad’ is Khasi translation of English ‘Lord’ which again derived from Greek word “Kyrios” is a debatable matter. Certainly in the Christian context; the using of word ‘U Trai’ connotes the New Testament concept of Lord which many times refer to the second person in the holy trinity which means Jesus Christ. This is what Christian churches assumes and would like others to believe that the name Trai that Khasi gives to their God has a Christian origin and hence a Christian meaning.
U Trai is not a post Khasi-Christian period invention. In the Khasi parlance, the term has been in use since time immemorial. Apart from using the name God, the Khasi also use the word Kynrad or U Trai Kynrad in paying obeisance to God Almighty. Incidentally the word Trai in Khasi also has the same meaning with that of the English Lord, which means owner, foundation, foothold etc.
In the context of the Pnar or the indigenous people of Jaintia hills, they use two terms when refer to God. God the creator, ‘U Blai wabuh wathoo’ which is identical to Khasi U Blei Nongbuh Nongthaw and God in English and “Tre Kirot” which is equivalent to Lord. The word “Tre” in the Pnar parlance literarily means Owner, Lord, foundation, foothold or roots. “Kirot” means Caring and Compassionate and the other meaning of Kirot is bountiful and perfect. Tre Kirot literarily means bountiful Lord the caring and compassionate one.
The War Jaintia, which is a sub tribe of the Khasi people who live in the southern slopes of Jaintia Hills, speaks a Khasi language which is quite different from the other dialect use by the other Khasi sub tribe. In fact scholars believe that the Amwi dialect spoken by the people of War Jaintia is the foundation of the whole Khasi language. And in the War Jaintia dialect there is only one word for God and that is “Prai”. There is no other word equivalent to Lord in the war Jaintia, but just “Prai u ae thia” which literarily means “U Blei Nongthaw” in Khasi and its English translation is God the Creator. Whether ‘Prai’ means both God and Lord is another question, but base on the evidence use by the War Jaintia people, ‘Prai’ which incidentally similar to both ‘Trai and Blai” in the Pnar language, connotes the same meaning 3.
It is obvious from the hymns that he composed; Hajom Kissor Singh’s concept of God is that of a traditional Khasi Pnar concept, God the Creator who is both God and Lord at the same time. Like the traditional concept, he does not differentiate one from the other, but his concept of God is much more than the God our fore father understands.
In his Statement of belief, H.K. Singh in the stanza 2 4 of hymn number 1 in the Khasi Unitarian hymnbook describes his idea of God as /The living God is one only God/ He is our real father-mother/He is filled with love and compassion/ And forgive those who repent/ (U Blei Ba im U long Blei Tang Ma-U-Hi/ U long u Kpa-ka-Kmie ba shisha jong ngi/ U long Uba dap da jingieid jingisnei/.)
By ascribing God of being both “Father and Mother” entity; HK Singh went a step further the traditional concept of God’s male gender 5. His God is genderless. This is the uniqueness of Khasi Unitarian theology that although generally God is referred to as a male even in the Khasi matrilineal society, yet God is beyond gender. Although Khasi Pnar tend to use the prefix ‘U’ before the word God, which represents the male gender of God, Khasi Pnar have no image of God and their concept of God is more of a spirit which pervades. Singh’s concept of God beyond gender and more of a formless spirit in nature is a step ahead of the traditional Khasi concept of God.
HK Singh further elaborate his idea of God in the hymn number 61 6 when he said/ Sing God’s praise; Lord of heaven and earth/ His wisdom unfathomable/ All creation on earth and in heaven/ Is living proof of his greatness over all / Sing God’s praise, Lord of stars and moon/ He is filled with glory, righteousness and lights/ All things that we see/ He made thus to teach us/. Sing God’s praise, he is our mother and father/Giver of spiritual light, He blesses us too/ He is loving, forgiving and wishes that/ We love our neighbors, do good and live courteously/. Sing God’s praise, Lord of lords, King of kings/ Lord of life and death Lord of the spirit/ Lord of times is also Lord of seasons/ Peace be unto us who worship him eternally/. (To rwai ia U Blei, Trai ki bneng bad khyndew/ Ia jingstad bakhraw jong U ym lah ban thew/ Ki jingthaw baroh ha pyrthei ne ha bneng/ Ki pynpaw ia ka Burom jong U kylleng/ To rwai ia U Blei, Trai ki khlur bad ki bnai/ Ha u dap tang burom, ka Hok bad jingshisha/ Kiei kiei baroh kiba ngi iohi-i/ U la buh khnang ban ai jinghikai ia ngi/ To rwai ia U Blei, Pa Mei long Ma U hi/ U ai jingshai mynsiem, U Kyrkhu ia ngi/ U ieit, U map ei kumjuh U kwah ia ngi/ Ban ieit ia ki lok, ban lehbha leh tipsngi/ To rwai ia U Blei, Trai ki trai, Syiem ki syiem/ Trai ka jingim jingiap, Trai jong ki mynsiem/Trai jong ki por U long Trai ruh ki aiom/ Suk ia ngi long ban ai nguh ia U junom/) In the hymn number 5 7, HK Singh says: One God/ One truth/ One true religion/. (Uwei U Blei, kawei ka hok/ Kawei ka niam shisha/ Ieit ia Blei, ieit ia ki lok/ Kylleng ngin ia pyrta/) In the second paragraph of hymn no 22 8 of the Unitarian hymnal, he says, One God, one church/ One people, one mission/ Love God love friends/ Live a blessed life/. The Khasi version of the hymn says: (/Uwei U Blei, kawei ka Seng, ka kam/ Ieit ia U Blei bad ia ki lok/ Ka jingim kan syrtok/)
In Hymn number 59 9 he further said / Praise the Lord vociferously / Our Creator / Care giver, Keeper and Benefactor/ He is the greatest Lord/ With God’s support/ Heaven and earth last forever / by divine love and grace/ He showed us the way of life /He bestowed wisdom on us/ Lights, Spiritual consolation too/ Understanding and overall progress/ And sow love inside us /That we may attain perfection/ Peace in him we’ll find/ In love we’ll flourish forever/ We’ll all live in peace with God/. (To rwai jamsawa I’U Trai/ Jong ngi baroh U Nongthaw/Nongsumar, Nongri, Nongai/ Long jong ngi U Trai bakhraw/Da jingkyrshan jong U Blei/ Ki neh ki bneng bad khyndew/Da jingieit da jingaiei/ Lad jingim ia ngi U kdew/ Jingstad ia ngi U la ai/ Jingshai, jingtngen mynsiem ruh/Jingsngewthuh jingroi kyrhai/ Bad jingieit ha ngi la buh/ Kumta jingjanai ngin poi/Ka jinghun ha U ngin ioh/ Ha jingieid junom ngin roi/ Ngin im suk ha U baroh/.)
Hymn number 70 10 when translated says /Sing sweet praise for God/ Spirit filled with joy/ We only trust his benevolence / That flows and fill forever / In his benevolent, / We live and were blessed/ Only he can quench the thirst/ Of a dry and eager soul. / There is no other like God/ In heaven and earth/ Fill with love and forgiveness/ For us to give and fill. /Let us sing to the Lord/ Kneeling we’ll pray/ Our souls will be enlightened/ with perfect peace/. (Rwai iaroh thiang I’U Blei/ Da ka mynsiem ba thesei/ Ngi shaniah tang ha jingisnei/ Jong u ba tuid bashlei/ Ha jingisnei jong U/ Ngi ioh im ioh kyrkhu/ Tang Ma U hi ba lah ban pynjah sliang/ Ia mynsiem ngi ba rkhiang/ Kum U Blei ym don shuh/ Ha bneng ha khyndew ruh/ Ba dap da jingieit jingmap-ei/ Ia ngi ban ai bashlei/ To ngin rwai ha U Trai/ Da dem khohsiew duwai/ Mynsiem jong ngi kin ioh jingshai/ Bad jingsuk hun janai/.)
In the stanza 1 of hymn number 137 11 he says, /Oh God who is eternally wise / Creator and everlasting provider/ Heaven and earth cannot/ encompass all your riches/. (Ko Blei ba stad bymjukut/ Nongthaw, Nongai bym jukut/ Ki bneng bad pyrthei kim lah/ Ban kynthup jong phi ka spah/)
The two only original readings H.K. Singh wrote are reading number 10 and 11 in the Khasi Unitarian Hymnbook 12, both these reading were dated 1891 and reading number 10 is another piece that describes his concept of God. “…who is our creator and our foundation and sources of everything else; Who is eternal, Everlasting, Perfect in all respect, Who love us most, Who is eternally good, the Wisest, who is presence around us and inside us and who pervades everywhere and permeates in everything”. (… Uba long U Nongthaw bad Tynrai jong ngi bad jong kiei kiei baroh; U Bymjukut, U Baiaineh, U Bajanai ha kiei kiei baroh; U Baieijtam, U Babhatam, U Bastadtam, U Badap hapoh bad habar jong ngi, ha kylleng bad ha kiei kiei baroh.)
Two Khasi stalwart Radhon Singh Berry and Job Solomon were contemporary of HK Singh. They were also known for their contribution to the literary world of the nascent Khasi language. RS Berry and Job Solomon had also immensely contributed to the growth of the Unitarian movement by composing hymns for the Church. Radhon Singh Berry of Seng Khasi who composed more than 30 hymns in the Unitarian hymnbook later became Unitarian and Job Solomon remained in his faith till he breathes his last. Both these men of letters emphasized in the hymns they composed in the Unitarian hymnbook the truth that Khasi Unitarian’s God is God in the traditional Khasi Pnar context.
R.S. Berry in the hymn number 43 stanza 3 13, says: /This is not a foreign God / God of our own he is/ He created you the way you are/ Now he come to awake you/. The Khasi version says: (Une Um long U Blei nongwei/ U Blei la jong U dei/ U ba thaw ia phi ka long briew/ Mynta U wan kyrsiew/) Then Job Solomon in the hymn number 6 14 he again stress on the idea in the stanza 5 which says, /This is our God/ God of our ancestors too/ God of the Pnars and the Khasi/ He is also Lord of the Lords/. ( Une U long U Blei jong ngi/ Blei ruh ki Ba-hyndai/ U Blei ki Pnar bad ki Khasi/ Uba U Trai ki trai/).
The concept of God in the Khasi Unitarian context is a unique concept of a Universal and formless God, it is not God in the Judeo-Christian context -the father in heaven, God in an ‘anthromorphical’ form or God in human image. The Khasi God is God in spirit and all pervading God. Hence Unitarianism in the Khasi Jaintia hills is an indigenous religion precisely because it sprang up from its own soil.
H.K. Singh has to his credit composed 63 hymns in the Khasi hymn book of the Unitarian Union North East India. This is by no mean small feat 15. H.K.Singh’s contribution which the Khasi literary world failed to notice is that, apart from composing the 63 hymns, translating several English hymns and responsive readings in the Khasi hymn book of the Unitarian Church. H.K. Singh has also served as a member of the committee along with his brother Nissor Singh to co-produce the first English Khasi dictionary 16. Later along with Babu Jeebon Roy, he helped R.S. Berry in bring-out the famous book on Khasi Etiquette 17. Again H.K. Singh major contributions are the hymns he composed; the hymns are also illustration of his thoughts and philosophy on various aspects.
H.K. Singh is vehemently against superstitious belief which was prevalent among the native then. He was against the belief in ghosts and nature deities like the gods of rivers and mountains. The hymns he composed which illustrate this are the second stanza of hymn number 5, paragraphs 3 of hymn no 7 and paragraphs 1 of hymn no 35 18. Stanza 2 of hymn number 5 19, says; /We are joyful to preach the holy church of God/ It is the power that liberate us from worship ghost and demons/. (Ngi sngewbha ban ialap ia ka/Dhorom bakhuid U Blei/ ka long ka bor ban pynduh ia/ jingmane ksuid ne khrei/). In the stanza three of the hymn number 7 20, H.K.Singh says /False worshiping and superstition/God, bring all that to an end/ (Jingmane bieit bad jingngeit bieit/ Baroh pyndam a Blei/.) Lastly in the first stanza of the hymn number 35 21 he said, /Thou has liberate us from darkness/ we thank thee Lord/ from the bondage of superstitious belief/ we thank thee Lord/ from the demons of the houses and the hills/ we thank thee Lord. (Phi la pynlait na jingdum/ ngi ainguh Trai/ Na ka jingngeit beit bakhum/ ngi ainguh Trai/ na ki suid iing bad suid lum/ ngi ainguh Trai/.)
It may be mentioned that in the Khasi Jaintia thoughts and understanding; there is only one word for the two English words the spirit and the soul -“ka mynsiem.” So when one says “Mynsiem” it could either mean the soul or the spirit. To the Khasi Pnar the human soul is the same with the all-pervading spirit. The Khasi does not differentiate between the two. To the Khasi, ‘ka mynsiem’ is that which connects one soul to another and that which encompass the entire universe and also that which transcend all creation. The universe and the entire creation is link by the spirit or filled with the spirit. H.K. Singh’s concept of the everlasting live of the soul also bears the truth that his thought was inspired by the indigenous Khasi thoughts and philosophy of life after death. The Khasi concept of life after death is that the soul departed from the body will go eat bettlenuts in the corridor of God’s house, so traditionally the Khasi too belief that the soul lives eternally. The immortality of the soul also prove that spirit even transcends the realm of mortality. The Khasi Pnar believe that during conception, the mother conceive only the body that which is mortal, the soul or the spirit was divinely instilled in the body in the womb. The Khasi Unitarians belief that the spirit in the human body which was divinely placed in the mother’s womb lives and grows in the human body and on its death return back to God who is the everlasting source of all spirits. 22
Salvation to the Khasis is by deeds and character. The Khasis lay great emphasis on the other cardinal principle of life which is known as ‘Kamai ia ka hok’ to earn righteousness. In the Khasi way of life, one’s entire life is governed by this principle alone. There are two schools of thoughts with regard to salvation, one is of the opinion that he who does not earn righteousness in his life will go to the nurok ka ksew, or the Khasi hell, and the other are of the opinion that whatever wrong one does in his life will befall on his own descendant. One who lives in the path of righteousness shall go to eat bettlenuts in the corridor of the God’s dwelling. In the Christian context it is the challenge that Jesus calls upon everyone to bear one’s own cross and to do the will of God. The Unitarian also shares a similar belief that salvation is by one’s own deeds and character and not by faith alone. 23 Stanza 2 of hymn number 277 24 says: /He who have given one’s soul/ To serve the Lord ceaselessly/ Those who have spend their lives/ To help fellow human without regret/ Blessings they will receive/ Before the Lord of honour/. (Kiba la aiti la mynsiem/ Ban shakri i’U Trai khlem pud/ Kiba la pynlut la jingim/ Ban iarap briew khlem bynnud/ Jingkyrkhu katno kin ioh/ Ha khmat Trai ka burom/). The last four lines of the last paragraph of this same hymn says: /While living in this world/ How we may serve/ The Lord God/ The keeper of our soul/. (Katba dang im ha pyrthei/ Katno dei ngin iai shakri/ Ia U Trai Kynrad U Blei/ Ba ri ia mynsiem jong ngi/).
His idea of after life is that the spirit departed will return to the Kingdom of the Spirit. There is no concept of the saved and the damned, hence salvation is universal according to HK Singh’s thoughts and philosophy. One can conclude that HK Singh’s thoughts and philosophy are original and though he started Unitarianism in the region he did not merely copy the theology of other Unitarian groups in different parts of the World; but rather developed his own understanding of it and propagate the same among his folks.
Hymn number 1 25 which is the statement of faith of the Unitarians in the hills is a testimony of his belief in immortality or the everlasting life of the spirit. Stanza number 4 of the hymn says: /God has created us to be immortal/to have an everlasting life and to grow forever/ (U Blei ula thaw ban ym iap shuh/ hynrei ban im junom bad nangiairoi ruh/) This also resembles the Khasi understanding of the soul and the body which is like a bird and the cage.
H.K.Singh concept of life after death is that the spirit departed from the soul will journey to the Kingdom of the Spirits. He described the Kingdom of the Spirit in the hymn number 250 26 and if we would freely translate the stanza number 2 of the hymn it would thus read: “We cannot compare the Kingdom of the spirit with this earthly shelter.” / If for this earthly body/ God has provided so much/ which will be buried under the ground/ tomorrow or in the future/ so much so the Kingdom of the Spirit/. (Haba ia ka met khyndew/ U Blei u ai katne/ Kaban leit shapoh ramew/ Lashai la shisngi ne/).
In the third stanza of the same hymn, the poet sings: /In the Kingdom of the Spirit/ there will be no more trouble/ There are only wellsprings of life/which surge eternally/ (Hangta ha Ri ka Mynsiem/ Ym don jingjynjar shuh/ don ki um ka jingpynim/ Kiba kyrsoi khlem duh/) Further more in the next stanza of the hymn he says / In the land of the Spirit/ In love we will grow forever/ (Hangta ha ri ka mynsiem/ha ieit ngin roi junom/) The last two lines of the last stanza of this hymn, he said: /Those who have departed before us/ We will meet again in joy/we will be cleansed and continue to love/ we will live in perfect peace/ (Kiba laleit myshuwa/ ngin ia shem lang kyrhai/ ngin nangkhuid nangieid hangta/ ngin ia im suk janai/).
In conclusion, this paper deals only on the three subjects that manifest in H.K. Singh’s hymns. Other than his concept of God and after life and his disagreement with superstitions which is prevalent in his contemporary society, his other hymns deal with many other subjects. From the above deliberation; we can conclude that HK Singh by blending the essence of the two faith traditions he was then exposed to, was able to start his own religion. He is indeed in his own right a religious reformer par excellence. It was also to his advantage that the new religion he started is liberal in its outlook and approach; hence it is open to accommodate new thoughts and philosophy. Being a founder of a liberal religion, HK Singh understood that it is only natural for the religion to adopt and absorb all the good thoughts and teachings from other traditions. Before any religious tradition even thinks of the idea of ‘Inculturation,’ he has already done it, In fact ‘Inculturation,’ is only natural for a progressive church like Unitarian. In his efforts to maintain the liberal outlook of the church he coined the motto “To Nangroi” which literarily translates to ‘keep on progressing’ that the church is not to remain idle but to move on with the changing times.
1. Syiem R.S., Ka Jingim u Nissor Singh Lyngdoh Nongbri, Ka Thiar ki Nongthoh Khasi.
2. Singh H.K., to Jabez T. Sunderland, in the Unitarian, April 1891, p 172,
3. Mohrmen H.H. http://hhmohrmen.blogspot.com/2009/10/concept-of-god-in-khasi-unitarian_27.html
4. Singh H.K., Ki Jor Tynrai ka Niam U Blei, Hymn Book of the Unitarian Union North East India. 1982 edition p.1
5. Mohrmen H.H., http://hhmohrmen.blogspot.com/2009/10/concept-of-god-in-khasi-unitarian_27.html
6. Singh H.K. To Rwai ia U Blei, Hymn Book of the Unitarian Union North East India, 1982 edition p. 51-52
7. Singh H.K. Uwei U Blei, Kawei ka Niam, Hymn Book of the Unitarian Union North East India, 1982 edition p. 4
8. Singh H.K., Rwai ia ka Niam U Blei, Hymn Book of the Unitarian Union North East India, 1982 edition p. 19
9. Singh H.K., Ki Jingai U Blei ia ngi, Hymn Book of the Unitarian Union North East India, 1982 edition p.50
10. Singh H.K., Rwai iaroh thiang ia U Blei, Hymn Book of the Unitarian Union North East India, 1982 edition p. 59-60.
11. Singh H.K., Ka jingshlei ka jingaiei U Blei Hymn Book of the Unitarian Union North East India, 1982 edition p. 119-120
12. Jingpule 10 bad 11, Hymn Book of the Unitarian Union North East India, 1982 edition p. 5-6.
13. Berry R.S., Ka Jingkhot sha Jingiaseng, Hymn Book of the Unitarian Union North East India, 1982 edition p. 37
14. Solomon J., Ha ri lum jong ngi la nangroi, Hymn Book of the Unitarian Union North East India, 1982 edition p.5.
15. Mohrmen H.H, Hajom Kissor Singh: U Riewkhraw ba ka jaitbynriew ka leh klet, Mawphor September 15, 2007.
16. Singh Nissor., Preface of the Dictionary
17. Berry R.S., Ka Jingsneng Tymmen, Ka Lamphrang December 1902.
18. Mohrmen H.H, Hajom Kissor Singh: U Riewkhraw ba ka jaitbynriew ka leh klet, Mawphor September 15, 2007.
19. Singh H.K., Uwei U Blei, Kawei ka Niam, Hymn Book of the Unitarian Union North East India, 1982 edition p. 4.
20. Singh H.K., Ka Jingrwai Anniveersary, Hymn Book of the Unitarian Union North East India, 1982 edition p. 7
21. Singh H.K., Ai nguh ba la ioh lait, Hymn Book of the Unitarian Union North East India, 1982 edition p. 30.
22. Mohrmen H.H. http://hhmohrmen.blogspot.com/2010/09/core-belief-of-unitarians-in-khasi-and.html
24. Singh H.K., Ka jingleitnoh ki baieit ia U Blei, Hymn Book of the Unitarian Union North East India, 1982 edition p. 237-238.
25. Singh H.K., Ki Jor Tynrai ka Niam U Blei, Hymn Book of the Unitarian Union North East India, 1982 edition p.1
26. Singh H.K., Ka ri ka Mynsiem, Hymn Book of the Unitarian Union North East India, 1982 edition p 216-217.