The matter of identity

Monday Musing

[ Karyir Riba ]

Have you ever been in a situation where all you wanted to do was have fun and chill with your friends with good food and drinks, and quite unexpectedly, you are told by one of your invited friends that he/she does not eat non-veg on that particular day? What an awkward situation, because you haven’t prepared any ‘vegetarian food without onion and garlic’ because that’s not what we normally eat as tribal people. What an annoying friend, right?

Well, I am that friend.

I am that person who loves her onion, garlic and meat, but turns pure vegetarian during certain days of the week.

Now that I have proved that the writer of this piece is not an atheist, let me begin with what I really wanted to bring to your attention today.

You see, as a tribal society, we are fortunate to be very rich in tradition, values and culture. Our traditional attires, ornaments, teachings and preaching are all so unique and cannot be found anywhere else in the world. This also means that we are the only persons who can preserve and promote our respective cultures and traditions. More so because in the absence of a script and any recorded ancient scriptures, it is important that we learn as much as we can about our identity from our elders and carry it forward, passing it along the way on to the next generation and beyond.

If we speak about religion, our ancestors did not worship any supreme power or idol or prophet. What they worshipped was nature – the sun, the moon, the rivers, the mountains – which gave life to the human race and all other living beings since the very beginning of life.

Now, adapting to globalization and modernization, our tribal society has come very far on the social ladder. There has been an overwhelming social change in every context, and changes in terms of our religion have also not been left behind.

As citizens of a democratic nation, we have every right to pick any religion of our choice and follow it with all our heart and mind.

Having said that, the most horrendous crime that we are committing as a society today is mixing up religion with our tradition and culture. It’s important that we understand that these are two entirely different aspects. In the simplest words, religion is what we believe in, while our traditions and cultures are what we have been born into – our identity.

We can follow any religion that we like, and in case we no longer feel compatible with that religion, we can always opt to shift to another one. On the contrary, we do not have the option of doing that with our traditions and cultures. We cannot change our cultural identity. Right from the time we are born, we automatically inherit our cultural identity, which remains with us till death and beyond.

Arunachal’s population in 2020 is estimated to be 15 lakhs, according to Unique Identification Aadhaar India, updated on 31 May, 2020. This number could be less or equal to the population of a single housing society in our Indian cities.

It is evident from history that many ethnic groups and any signs of their existence have either gone extinct or are on the verge of extinction. With merely a handful of indigenous people, if we do not start preserving and promoting our cultures, languages, traditions and traditional values, the death of our identity is inevitable.

One of the most awe-inspiring parts of our rich cultures and heritage are our shamans.

Each tribe has its own shamans who perform customary rituals. They chant hymns in a dialect not perceivable by all, and in these chantings are folklores of our ancestors.

Sadly, shamanism is a dying art today. If not preserved now, our folklores will vanish with the few remaining shamans. After all, they are humans and not immortals.

Since cultural heritage is all about carrying it forward to generations to come, the question here is, what are we teaching our children if in the name of religion we are eluding our tradition and culture?

Children learn from how they are brought up and what they see around them. For instance, while growing up, my siblings and I learnt that, as a family, we were not supposed to eat non-veg on a certain day of the week. So now, even after becoming an adult, I cannot fathom eating anything containing meat on that particular day. Religious or not, it was in my conditioning and so it has stayed with me. At the same time, we were always included in any traditional festivities, which taught us the importance of respecting our cultural identity.

In the name of embracing a religion, one should not shirk their own traditional values. One should not treat their culture with despise and scorn what our ancestors toiled to protect. Adjustments and modifications can be made to sober up overtly rigid customs, but altogether rubbishing our own culture is uncalled for.

The best way to keep children connected to their roots is to teach them how to respect their identity. Keep them close to their customs, food, attire, dialect. Tell them stories and folklores. Tell them about the festivals that we celebrate as a tribe, and take them to such celebrations. Allow them to witness customary rituals being performed by shamans. Teach them how to respect their own as well as others’ cultures.

Teach them not to differentiate between religions. God is one and he is everywhere, known to people of different areas by different names. Take them to church, temple, monastery, gurudwara, masjid, everywhere to see and learn that all these places exist for the same reason.

Teach them that the most important thing in life is to be a good human being. To help others who are in need and not cause harm to any person. If we do good deeds, only good things will happen with us. What goes around comes around and each one of us has to pay for his/her doings in this life itself. And in today’s fast paced life, even karma comes to bite super fast.

Nobody has seen heaven or hell. But if life after death does exist, remember that we will meet our ancestors on the other side. And when they ask us what we have done to preserve our identity, we should be able to make them proud.

When the blood in your veins returns to the sea, and the earth in your bones return to the ground, perhaps then you will remember that this land does not belong to you, it is you who belong to this land. – Native American proverb