The Church and the Secular-Legal Community
By Fabian Lyngdoh
This article concerns the social situations in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya today. The terms “church” and “church denominations” in this context, would apply to all Christian denominations as well as to the reformed indigenous religious faith called Niam Khasi or Niam Tre under the leadership of the Seng Khasi and Seiñ Raj. The nomenclature “Church” is used here simply because today, the majority of Khasis are Christians.
In the past, before the advent of British Rule, the Khasis lived in numerous clan-based traditional political communities called the Raid(s). Traditional politics and religion in these communities were interwoven as political proceedings were always accompanied and sealed by religious rituals. Social norms and traditions were at the same time religious norms and traditions. Social affairs were also at the same time religious affairs, and the political authority was also the religious authority. Hence, there was no idea of separation between the Church and the State.
Religion which entailed the rites of passage of each person from birth to death, and the departure of the soul into the spiritual abode, was mainly the concern of the clan. Religion at the community level had no concern with the spiritual abode of the dead in heaven or hell, but was concerned only with the welfare of the living in all aspects of their social and economic affairs, as well as for the socio-political order of the community as a whole. Each clan had a clan religion, and each political community had a community religion; but there was no religious organization covering the whole Khasi Tribe. The social, political, and religious life of the people took place only within the jurisdiction of each clan, and within each political community. Every political community had a community graveyard where the bones of the dead were interred in the religious stone cairn of each clan. In this way, the physical welfare and the honour and dignity of each individual in the community was guaranteed within this traditional social structure.
This traditional socio-religious structure of the Khasi society is no longer extant anywhere in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills today. With the emergence of the new political and economic order, and the conversion to the Christian faith, a new social set up emerged where the individuals and the nuclear families took centre stage, and the clan receded to the background. The church took over the religious roles and functions of the clan, and the modern village with a village council called the dorbar shnong took over the roles and functions of the Raid (traditional political community). But unlike the Raid, the modern village with its dorbar shnong is secular in nature and based on membership of the individuals and the nuclear families, where the clan has no assigned role at all to play. Hence, this new village community is a modern replica of the Raid, operating in new social situations, and has constitutional recognition as a traditional institution by the District Council under the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution of India.
In this new social situation, common community religion and common community graveyard are no longer in existence. Social, spiritual and natural resources which had been under the control of the community’s traditional authority are transferred by default, to the hands of the church denominations. There arose as many graveyards, cremation grounds and worship centres as there are church denominations within the same village. The Khasi society today stands divided to a great extent by numerous religious affiliations among the people that generally discourage or even forbid marriage between members of different church denominations. It is not the question of faith and doctrine that bred disputes and conflicts in the community, but it is the control over material and social resources. “Social resources”, in this context means social support, human honour and dignity of individuals and families that arise from collective recognition of the society. Even though the secular-legal community under the authority of the dorbar shnong is still there in the background, each church denomination has strong psychological and social control over all aspects of moral, spiritual and social life of its own members. Hence, each village or local community is a secular-legal entity, as well as a cluster of independent church denominations that give rise to distinct subcultures within the village or locality.
Through weekly religious meetings and worship services, the people’s relationship, commitment and allegiance, are much more to their own church denominations than to the secular-legal community. But this allegiance is not so much based on consideration of the spiritual destiny of life and death, but it is because the burial and cremation grounds, psychological support and social resources are owned not by the secular-legal community, but by the church denominations. The rites of passage of the people from birth to death is under the control of these church denominations; and whoever is not a worthy member of any of these church denominations is like a spiritual outcast regardless of the position or status he/she holds as a member of the secular-legal community.
Every human person has an inherent need for material, psychological, and spiritual support from his/her family and the society at large for a respectable human existence and personal dignity all through his/her lifetime. The greatest of all these needs is ironically, not during his/her lifetime, but at his/her death; how to honourably dispose off the dead body, and assist the soul in a happy journey to the spiritual abode. It is in this death ritual which the church denominations are in complete psychological control over their members. From the moment a person expires, to his/her burial or cremation, the secular-legal community is involved with the material aspect of things, but it is the particular church denomination which takes the centre stage. In some villages, even at the burial ceremony of a person who has been declared unworthy to receive the church’s liturgical burial rite, an array of church leaders would still congregate at the important seats of the ceremony to throw stones at the deceased and his/her family members by making public announcement to the multitude who came from far and near that liturgical burial ceremony cannot be performed since the deceased had not been living the doctrinal, sacramental and liturgical discipline of the church. Then followed by long sermons on how to live to be worthy of an honourable liturgical burial rite. This rubbish has to be done away with! No person will go to heaven merely because a liturgical burial rite has been performed by the church, and no one will go to hell by not performing it. Jesus did not teach his disciples that coins should be put in the mouth of the deceased to pay the boatman so that he would ferry the departed soul across the river Styx.
The liturgical ceremony is merely a social honour given to the deceased for being a diligent and disciplined member of the church, but it has nothing to do with the final journey of the soul to heaven or to hell. But, since in the Khasi traditions, the performance of cremation rites and the final deposition of the bones of the deceased into the stone cairn of the clan was the most important religious requirement in the life of every man and woman, the Khasis take this matter seriously even as Christians. Hence, what binds most of the believers to the Church is not the question of sin and righteousness in life, but it is the fear of being denied the honourable liturgical burial ceremony at death. It is on this ground that there is a saying among the village folk, “Khristan lumjingtep” (Christians for the graveyard). This is to show to what extent the Church has taken control of the lives of the people even as members of a secular-legal community.
We cannot deny the fact that in the absence of traditional agencies of socialization and social control, the Christians denominations and the Seng Khasi/Seiñ Raj organizations in the villages, play a big role in guiding the society in the moral and spiritual path. However, it is also a fact that when any of the church denominations in a village is in big majority, there is tendency for the secular-legal community to be identified with the dominant religious denomination, and subject all the rest to various forms of discrimination whether of the Christian faith or the Niam Khasi/Niam Tre.
The physical security, honour and dignity of every human person from birth to death are primarily matters of universal human rights guaranteed by the Law of the State. Therefore, they are also the concerns of the secular-legal community at the village or local community level which no religious organization has the right to hijack and appropriate by default. Every inhabitant should have equal rights to the material and social resources of the community regardless of belief, faith or religion. All inhabitants, whether theists or atheists are equal members of the secular-legal community, and religious organizations should not make public declaration or pronouncement of distinctions between them on the basis of belief, faith, or religion. If there is a need to do so for their own members, let the church denominations do that privately in their own circles, but not in the public platform which belongs to all, believers and nonbelievers alike.
There is a need to reinforce the authority of the secular-legal community over the material and social resources so that oneness of the people as equal members can be safeguarded, and to stop fragmentation of the community into antagonistic groups and conflicting subcultures by multiplicity of religious beliefs. Hence, there is a need for the government of the State to make laws and regulations that every village or local community should have common infrastructures and facilities like public graveyards, cremation grounds, and social resources which are not under the control of any church denomination, but directly under the control of the secular-legal community.