By H H Mohrmen
Unitarianism in Khasi Jaintia hills and Karbi Anglong district of Assam unlike other Christian denominations was not started by the missionaries. The Church was first established in the hills by the son of the soil u Hajom Kissor Singh along with three of his followers. September 18 is significant for the fact that the church was first established in the hills on this day in the year 1887.
But if one were to ask about the origin of the Unitarian Church, then one usually refers to the first schism in Christianity in the early Christian period as the foundation on which the it was established. The incident in history which culminated in the Council of Nicaea in 325 Common Era was like a spark which later became a light in the post protestant reformation period when a full-fledged Unitarian church was established in Romania.
During the Arian debate a prominent member of the group whose views were contrary to that of Arius was Athanasius. History also has it that on the May 22 325 AD when the bishops gathered at Nicaea the majority of bishops held a view midway between that of Athanasius and that held by Arius. But the debate was finally closed with Athanasius getting the support of the emperor and only Arius and two of his companions refusing to sign the Apostles Creed. The Creed says: ‘We believe in one God… and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God… and we believe in the Holy Spirit.’ (Armstrong Karen, ‘A History of God’ pp-110). Though the creed signed was adopted in Nicaea but is not the Nicene Creed per-se; the Nicene Creed was only adopted in the year 381 AD at the Council in Constantinople.
In a nutshell Unitarians also trace their origin to Michael Servetus (1510-53) who wrote the book “Errors of the Trinity in 1531. Servetus was burnt at the stake in Geneva, ironically by the reformers in Geneva in 1553. But it was a preacher in Transylvania what is now part of Romania who first used the word ‘Unitaria’ to describe the people who rejected the Trinity and believe in one God. In 1566 Francis David preached against the doctrine of Trinity and was able to convince the king of Transylvania, John Sigismund to adopt Unitarianism. John Sigismund was also the first king to adopt a kind of religious toleration when he proclaimed a law allowing freedom of religious belief in his country in 1568 which is known as ‘Diet of Torda’. To cut the long history short, Unitarianism churches then began to emerge in countries like England and then USA.
In India the first Unitarian Church was started by a low caste Tamil Hindu Moodelliar Vellagha who on becoming Unitarian changed his name to William Robert. He came in contact with the British Unitarian in 1816 but it was in December 19, 1813 that he started the Unitarian Christian Church in Madras. In the Khasi Jaiñtia Hills and Karbi Anglong, the Unitarian Church was started by Hajom Kissor Sing who was dissatisfied with the Christian church he was brought up in and was in search of a spiritual home. Hajom Kissor Singh who has probably converted to Christianity along with his famous brother Nissor Singh in 1885 (Syiem, R.S. Ka Jingim u Nissor Singh Lyngdoh Nongbri, Ka Thiar ki Nongthoh Khasi) was an avid reader. Like many of his predecessors in the many Unitarian movements across the globe he too soon realized that the doctrine of the holy trinity was not adopted by the Church till the reign of emperor Constantine more than 325 years after the death of Jesus Christ. He concluded for himself that the holy trinity was not only a complex proposition but also unscriptural. In his own understanding the core teaching of Jesus is to worship the one and only God whom he called father and to love God and love one’s neighbor as oneself (Mk 12/28-31 and Mt 22/40).
H.K. Singh 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 tracts and literature, he found his spiritual home and held a first Unitarian worship on the September 18, 1887 in Jowai. Unitarianism in the Khasi Jaintia and Karbi Anglong which claims to be an indigenous religion is not based merely on the fact that it was started by a native person, but the Unitarian church is an indigenous religion because the faith draws immense inspiration from the basic thoughts and philosophies of the tribal people.
To understand the Khasi Jaiñtia hills region during HK Singh’s lifetime, one must understand that from a religious point of view, there are two main divisions in the area – the Christians on one hand and the indigenous religion which comprises of the Khasi Pnar who still uphold their traditional religion as practiced by our ancestors, on the other. Unitarian is a middle path of the two traditions. It’s a liberal religion based on the liberal Christian tradition but with strong roots on the basic Khasi values, philosophy, beliefs and understanding.
After reading Channing and many other Unitarian scriptures, H K Singh was convinced that Unitarianism is what he was looking for. So, 132 years ago on September 18, Singh held the first Unitarians service in the town of Jowai. His wisdom is 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 manifests in nature and everywhere. This continues to be the unique character of Unitarianism in North East India.
The concept of God worshipped by the Unitarians in the Hills is the Khasi Pnar’s own concept of God the Creator (U Blei Nongbuh Nongthaw) who is formless. The concept of God is contrary to the western concept inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition of God in an “Anthromorphical form.” This is the God in whose image man was created or to be precise God in a human shape. God in Khasi Pnar concept is not only of a formless God but also contrary to other tribal God or gods, the Khasi Pnar concept of God is that of a Universal God. He is neither a God who has a territory, nor God, who belongs to and recognizes only his own tribe. HK Singh preaches of a formless God and a Universal God and he even went a step further by preaching a dual identity of God ‘the motherhood and fatherhood’ concept of God. Unitarians therefore worship the Khasi Pnar original idea of God- a formless God, a Universal God, a Divine Power and a benevolent Benefactor which is a very universal concept of God.
The other principle of Unitarianism which is universal is the belief in the brotherhood and sisterhood of humans or the spiritual brotherhood and sisterhood of all humankind. In other words it teaches that in spirit, the entire human race is one big family. The other universal aspect of the principle of Unitarianism is that it respects all the prophets and religious teachers of different faith groups and it also respect all the Holy Scriptures. They also learn and take inspiration from the wisdom in the scriptures and traditions of the religions of the world.
The belief in the eternal life of the spirit or that the spirit is everlasting and does not die is another universal aspect of this religion. To understand this concept, one must also understand the Khasi Pnar’s own understanding of life after death and also know the genesis of the Khasi people. In the Khasi Pnar concept of the after-life, the spirit of the dead goes to reside and to eat betel nut in the abode of God. The spirit also lives on as ‘ki sangia ki saret’ or the spirits of the dead. The Unitarian in the hills believe that the spirit of the dead returns to the realm of the spiritual because God is also a spirit.
The Unitarian church in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills is therefore a liberal church which historically has its origins in the Judeo-Christian tradition but which is rooted in the Khasi Pnar value systems while it is also all encompassing and universal in its approach.