Khasi epistemology

By Barnes Mawrie

“The Khasi people as a tribal community, do not have a scientifically and philosophically formulated epistemology.”

What distinguishes humans from animals is their brain structure. Humans have highly developed brains which are capable of thinking, reasoning and learning. We are endowed with the power to conceptualize and formulate ideas and systems of knowledge.
Every group of people in this world has its own method and approach towards learning. The science of learning as a branch of philosophy is known as epistemology. Epistemology is defined as “the theory of knowledge.” It is concerned with the mind’s relation to reality. What is it for this relation to be one of knowledge? Do we know things? And if we do, how and when do we know things? Western philosophical schools which have their origin in ancient Greek Philosophy, have a well formulated epistemology. It is characterized by a scientific approach to our understanding of the reality around us.
The Khasi people as a tribal community, do not have a scientifically and philosophically formulated epistemology. However, this does not mean that they do not have their own credible system of knowledge. In fact, in spite of its limitations in comparison to western epistemology, Khasi epistemology has many other aspects which surpass its western counterpart. If epistemology deals with the mind’s relation with reality and how this leads to knowledge and understanding of that reality, then we can apply this same principle to the Khasi’s perception of reality (visible and invisible, material and spiritual, concrete and abstract).
1) With regard to the relation of the mind with the invisible or spiritual reality, namely, God, spirits, devils, evil forces, ancestors etc, the Khasis perceive these realities from a perspective of otherworldly power that these realities possess. The mind perceives them as ultrahuman and supernatural entities who wield tremendous influence on humans and on the universe itself. The ancient Khasis employed their reason to conceive of such realities. Thus they formulated their ideas about God as U Blei and ascribe to him many titles which indicate his nature and power like U Blei u balah baïai (almighty), U Blei nongbuh nongthaw (Creator), u Blei uba pyndap pynbiang (sustainer) etc. The Khasis’ knowledge about the good nature spirits (ki blei) is derived from their perception of nature as the abode of God himself. Thus to simplify the idea of the omnipresence of God, they speak of spirits who inhabit their natural environment in the form of Leilum leiwah (spirits of mountains and rivers), Leikhlaw-leibtap (spirits of forests), Leishnong-leikhyrdop (spirits of villages) etc. Simultaneously, the Khasis perceive evil forces as co-existing with good beings. Their idea of evil is expressed by their belief in the existence of khyndai pateng ñiamra (nine layers below or hell) where ki ksuid ki khrei (devils) exist. Similarly, along with the good spirits (Lei) there exist side by side evil spirits (Suid) in our natural environment. While the good spirits bring blessing, the evil spirits cause sicknesses and suffering. Thus they speak of Suidlum-suidwah (evil spirits of mountains and forests), suidkhlaw-suidbtap (evil spirits of forests), Suidkrem-suidkroh (evil spirits of caves and crevices) etc.
2)There is a common belief that a weak and unfortunate person can be easily affected by such spirits and they call this “ngat lyngkhuh pakhuh.” For this reason, the Khasis would often appease these evil spirits more than they would do to the good spirits, for fear of being tormented by them.
3) With respect to the relation of the mind with the visible or concrete realities, the Khasis definitely have a deeper understanding of the visible reality around them
4) even more than the western people do.
a) With regard to the universe around them, namely, the visible heavenly bodies like the Sun, the Moon and the stars, the ancient Khasis perceive these as part and parcel of the human family. It is interesting to note that the Khasis never consider either the Sun or the Moon as gods unlike many other civilizations who tend to deify them. The Khasis have always correctly considered these realities as created beings and personified but not deified them in their myths and legends. Thus the Sun is spoken of as sister and the moon as Brother. It is interesting to note that much before NASA scientists prove the existence of ashy soil on the moon’s surface, the ancient Khasis have already known that, as evident in their folktale. This indicates the power of observation of the Khasis which helped them to identify realties around them even the distant ones.
b) With respect to their knowledge of the natural world, the Khasis have a much deeper and realistic perception of their natural environment. Unlike the western perception of the natural world which is basically peripheral, the Khasis’ knowledge of their natural environment is holistic and profound. Their intimate knowledge of Mother Nature springs from their close relationship with her. It is a knowledge that arises from a relationship of intimacy wherein they are able to communicate with her like humans do. If close relationship and intimacy is what leads to a deeper knowledge and understanding, then the Khasis’ knowledge of Mother Nature is deep and authentic. The fact that they are able to forecast natural events like storms, rain, good weather, bad weather, or to indicate what season would be best to cut down trees and bamboo, vindicates their scientific acumen and power of observation. Another important proof of their authentic understanding of nature, is their extensive knowledge of medicinal herbs which they very effectively use in treating various diseases and ailments or their knowledge of edible wild plants and fruits.
c) When it comes to their perception of the animal world, the Khasis’ knowledge and perception of these, go beyond the normal. The Khasis relate with the animal world just like they do with their fellow humans. They look upon the animals, birds and all living beings as part of the big family and they have the ability to communicate with these. The legend of a common market for humans and animals known as Iewluri-lura and the ancient belief that a common language existed between men and animals, prove the supernormal knowledge and perception of Khasis about the animal world which the western civilization had lost long ago. Many folktales and idioms relating to the animal world, clearly prove that the Khasis possess a credible knowledge of animal psychology.
d) With respect to knowledge and perception of human beings, the ancient Khasis’ understanding of human nature and psyche is clearly seen in their folktales, legends and idioms. However, what is more unique about their perception of human attitudes and behaviour, is closely intertwined with their perception of other living creatures. The Khasis observe human behavioral patterns and are able to categorize them accordingly. Thus we have idioms like “sew bnalad” (street dog) which refers to a particular shameless behaviour of a person. Take another idiom which says “miaw bamkhun” (cat devouring its offspring) which indicates a peculiar behaviour of parents who spoil their own children and ruin their future. Another popular idiom says “dong shimat” (one close-ended tube) signifying a typical behaviour of a person who cannot keep any secret. Yet another idiom says “khun jynreiñ” (flea child) signifying a perverse behaviour of children who bankrupt their own parents through their lavishness. There are so many such idioms which prove that the Khasis possess the ability to observe and understand different categories of human behaviour. However, what is unique and significant about Khasi behavioral psychology is its relationship to the natural world, thereby proving the interconnectedness of all species on this planet.
Perhaps we can discuss more extensively on Khasi epistemology based on further research and study. Nevertheless my intention here is to draw attention to the richness of our Khasi culture and tradition. I wish that soon we will be able to formulate our own Khasi Philosophy just like Indian Philosophy, Greek Philosophy or Chinese Philosophy etc.
In today’s world where people all over the world are seeking to reestablish their connectedness with the natural environment on account of the adverse impact of climate change, Khasi epistemology which is so linked to nature could serve as a model towards a holistic understanding and perception of the realities around us. This perhaps would liberate us from the grip of western epistemology which definitely has revealed many loopholes in it especially with regard to man’s relationship with his natural environment.

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