The Traditional Religion of the Khasis


By Fabian Lyngdoh

     The fundamental purpose of ‘religion’ is spiritual realization and the transition of the departed souls into a spiritual abode of eternal happiness which may be called heaven. It is also concerned with guiding the life of the faithful so as to prevent their souls from entering into a horrible spiritual existence which may be called hell. The fundamental basis of all religions is the relationship between human beings and God through the intercession of intermediate spirits with personal names. There is no religion in the proper sense where human beings can have direct communion with God without the intercession of intermediate spirits with personal names. The institutionalised relationship between human beings and the spiritual world through the intercession of intermediate spirits, whether it is for good or for evil, may be called a ‘cult’. The secret formula of a cult is the knowledge and remembrance of the personal names of the spirits related to the cult, and the respect and reverence given to them by human beings.

     The basic difference between religions lies not on the difference of rites and ceremonies, or difference in philosophy, theology or moral guidelines, but lies deeply in the difference of the intermediate spirits with personal names involved in the intercession between God and the faithful. Christianity is a cult establishing an intercession between human beings and God the Father through the personal name of Jesus Christ. The Christians also believe in the communion of Saints whose names are invoked for intercession through the ‘Litany of Saints’. In Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism etc., the intercession may be established in the names of Prophets, Gurus or Saints. Even in the so called satanic religion, its adherers might need the intercession of condemned souls to provide for the intercession to Satan.

     According to the Khasi thought there is no being more worthy to intercede between man and God other than the spirit of the mother. That was the principle on which the Khasi kur religious cult was instituted in the personal names of ‘ka Iawbei’ (ancestral mother) along with ‘u Suidnia’ (ancestral uncle) as interceding spirits between the living members of the kur and God. The living members of the kur who may be called the ‘visible-kur’ and the spirits of the departed members who may be called the ‘invisible-kur’ are the inseparable constituents of ka longkur (clan as a religion). The Khasis believe in the intimate relationship between these two realms ka longkur which is a religion pure and holy because it concerns with man’s relationship not with ‘ki blei-ki dken’ (gods and goddesses), but with God Almighty. In the Khasi kur-religion, the community of Gurus or communion of Saints consisted in the invisible-kur. Therefore, the true religion of the Khasis is an institutionalised relationship between the living members of the clan with God through the intercession of the spirits of the departed members of the clan. The Khasis never worshipped the spirits of ancestors, but reverently respected them as elders, Gurus or Saints, on whose intercession they relied upon.

     Many writers speak of a ‘Khasi religion’. But in reality there is no ‘Khasi religion’ with common godhead or godheads for the whole tribe, and in which all the Khasis are the members. The religion of the Khasis exists only in each and every kur uniquely and independently. According to some authors there is only one niam (religion) among the Khasis though there are various rukom (religious rites). But in reality, ki rukom (rites) and ka jingngeit (belief) are more or less the same throughout the Khasi society, but ka niam (religious cult) is not the same. It is different from one kur to another because the intermediate spirits with personal names involved in the intercession process are different. A person from one kur cannot partake in the religious cult of another kur. Not even the father of a family can partake in the religion of his children’s kur. It has also been interpreted that the egg and the rooster are the common interceding beings between man and God in the Khasi religion. But in reality the egg and the cock are only the common living beings used by all the Khasis in divinations as intervening media of communication between the visible-kur and the invisible-kur, but it is the invisible-kur and not the egg or the rooster which intercedes between the visible-kur and God.

     The Khasi kur religion consists of ‘ka niam-im’ (rites of the living) and ‘ka niam-iap’ (rites of the dead). The niam-im is concerned with the peaceful life of the living members under the protection of the invisible-kur and with guiding the members to live in the right direction so as to be able to enter eternal life after death into the fold of the invisible-kur. The niam-iap is concerned with the transition rites of each departed member until he or she is safely conducted into the fold of the invisible-kur. The bones of all the departed members were deposited in the mawbah (religious repository stone of the dead) which is a visible sign of their entrance into membership with the invisible-kur. The ritual of the deposition of bones in the mawbah is the most important part of the kur-religion that it was believed that the soul of a clan member whose bones have not been deposited in the mawbah would not find rest because he cannot meet his ancestral mother in the spiritual world. Today, the kur-religion is no more in existence in all the clans; even among members of the Seng Khasi many traditional rites and rituals have been modified and even discarded to suit the needs of the times and the prevailing circumstances. Even the rites of the deposition of bones which was the most important rite of the Khasi traditional niam-iap has gradually fallen into disuse.

     The Khasis also have community cults of various gods and goddesses (mostly adopted from Hinduism). These cults are not the same for the whole tribe, but different from one raid or hima to the other, and they are linked with cultural festivals just to keep the raid or the hima alive and kicking, and to maintain its own cohesion and distinct identity. These community cults have nothing to do for the eternal life of the souls, but concern purely with temporal affairs of the polity, the economy and other societal needs.

     Towards the end of the nineteenth century there was an apprehension on the part of some educated Khasi leaders that the culture and identity of the tribe would be overwhelmed by modern influences, especially by the spread of the Christian faith. An association called ‘Ka Seng Khasi Association’ was founded by sixteen leading men in Shillong on the 23rd November 1899. In all fairness, the Seng Khasi Association was founded not as a religion, but only to preserve the Khasi socio-cultural structure in the midst of emerging modern influences. But in the later period the name was changed to ‘Ka Seng Khasi’, and there had also been a shift of emphasis from that of a socio-cultural organisation to that of a religious institution. This happened because of the wrong interpretation that a Khasi is a Khasi because of his religion. The Seng Khasi may become a rightful institution for the moral and spiritual guidance of the Khasis who have not adopted any new religion, but it cannot claim to be the spiritual and cultural custodian of the Khasi tribe as a whole. The Seng Khasi is established not clan-wise according to tradition, but it is an association of individual believers irrespective of clan affiliations, and professing to worship God Almighty directly without the intercession of any god-head, or spirits of clan ancestors.

     If any organisation wants to be a new religion, it has to install the spirits of its founders as ‘gurus’ and institute ‘ka nguh ka dem’ (sacrifice and worship) to God through ‘ka noh dkhot-noh dkhai’ (sacrificial offerings) to the spirits of the founders by calling upon their personal names to intercede for the faithful of the new religion. It is only then that spiritual mystery shall be instituted. But such a religion cannot be a traditional religion of the Khasis. If members of the Seng Khasi want special minority rights as a religion, it is good if the Government can provide that, but, that should not affect the right of every other Khasi as a member of the tribe.

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