Dalit and tribal (Adivasi) cultures in relation to a theology of PLAY as the basis for WORK.
During the eighties and nineties there was a growing interest in the Indian Church concerning Tribal and Dalit cultures. What was not clearly understood, however, was how these cultures might differ in their understanding of a spirituality that related to their historical experiences. What was clear was that the fabric of Indian culture represented a diversity of cultures, which had arisen out of the way in which Indian polity had developed over the centuries. Tribal and Dalit cultures represent marginalized expressions both in terms of life style, and myths that give meaning to life. The tribal communities were pushed into forested and mountainous areas, and they depended on the products of the forest, as well as their own type of shifting agriculture for their survival. They had a strong sense that the earth was their Mother. They did not feel that they could possess this Maternal provider, but that they belonged to nature. The myths that emerged from their nomadic life style have given an underlying meaning to their lives.
The Dalit communities on the other hand lived much more on the fringes of the settled Hindu way of life. They were understood in relation to the prevailing caste system. Their identity was defined by a sense that their functions were impure in relation to the purity of the high caste. This gave them a deep sense of alienation. However, as craftspeople, they were also necessary for the providing of various services to the community. They were potters, blacksmiths, weavers, wood and leather workers, and carvers of stone, and landless labourers. They were engaged in the hard manual work on which the community depended. They also emerged as a kind of link between the civilization of the settled and to some extent urbanized Hindu community of the plains, and the forest dwellers. This was because of their link to the bazaar, where goods were bought and sold. The tribal communities also depended on the Dalits, though they also tended to look down on them, believing that the true dignity of a human being is only found through direct involvement in hunting and herding animals, and cultivating the land.
In a way the tribal communities, and the Dalits had a different attitude to the land. For the tribal communities, the bond with the land was a profoundly sacramental one. The Dalits worked with materials, but their attitude to the land itself was based on their knowledge of technologies, rather than on a system of beliefs that celebrated the land as an all-providing giver of nature’s plenty. In a way, one could distinguish these two approaches by saying that for the Tribals, their link to the land was one in which play, in the form of dance, and ritual provided a vital link, whereas for the Dalits, it was their work that was all important, and also gave them a deep sense of the suffering of human existence, as work also meant enslaving labour.
In terms of emerging theologies, the tribal contribution to Indian theology has been based on a Creation theology, where the re-enactment of Creation myths, through ritual and story telling, has been fundamental to their sense of corporate identity. For the Dalits on the other hand, their identity was based on their particular craft-work, which prevented any kind of social mobility. Born a weaver, a person of that caste, must remain always a weaver—and the same was true of any other craft based social identity. The work itself became their identity. From the Dalit communities we find the emergence of what might be called a uniquely Indian approach to a Liberation theology.
The relation of a Creation theology to a Liberation approach to the human condition, is a very complex one. In the Biblical tradition, the Creation accounts of Genesis were a development out of what was the fundamental experience of the Hebrew peoples, whom Moses led out of captivity as described in Exodus. In other words, Creation stories were used to explain how human beings lost their original innocence. The concept of an “original sin” became paramount over what one might call an “original blessing”. This difference has also given rise to certain ecological questions. What is the purpose of Nature in relation to Culture ? Is Culture only a way of controlling and exploiting Nature ? or is Culture our way of relating and bonding with nature around us ? The ecological movement has looked back to the myths and legends of tribal communities to find there a radically different approach to the human in relation to the natural environment.
As the natural environment has been increasingly depleted and destroyed by the culture of what we call “civilization”, the tribal people have found that their primordial life style has become increasingly impossible to continue in the modern nation state. India which at the beginning of the twentieth century had more or less sixty percent of its land forested, is now down to having only seven percent of its land covered by forests. The rivers too, which played such an important part in the whole eco-system, are increasingly polluted, and exploited to provide hydro electric power for the big urban settlements. The world bank has proposed that in our modern global economy, those who live close to the land, and who subsist on agricultural or other natural products, must not exceed thirty percent of the population. But at the time of independence, more than ninety percent of the Indian populace lived in rural, village economies. Now something like thirty percent of India’s population live in the big cities. This dramatic shift of the population has taken place in the last sixty years.
The dream of progress is an increasingly technology-based economy. It is ironical in this context, that those who were the practitioners of an ancient system of technology, were predominantly Dalit communities. This gives the Dalit cultures a new significance in the context of increasing urbanization. However, both Dalits and tribal Adivasis, are simply becoming the urban poor. The economy is still controlled by an educated elite, who represent only a tenth of the population. Meanwhile, ecological degradation is taking its own toll. India faces shifts brought about by climate change on a scale much more threatening than in the countries of the West, which have already developed a city culture, where few depend on the land for their economic survival.
The issue of the relation between Work and Play, culture and leisure, have become essential features of our modern globalized economy. Even entertainment has become an industry, like tourism, which has a powerful hold on the economy. It is issues like this that have a very vital part to play in our whole understanding of the social significance of art in the modern world.
Is art only for entertainment, or leisure ? Does art have a prophetic part to play in our approach to the future of what we understand by human civilization ? Can art again remind us of deeper values, and give voice to a counter-cultural world view ? Here we are also faced by the relationship between the actual and the virtual. Information technology, as also the whole economy of the world in which we live, is increasingly based on a virtual reality. We live in a world driven by our own unconscious desires, or dreams. The real, elemental world which is the world that God created, means less and less to the technocrat.
This alternative, counter-cultural vision that art offers to our modern work obsessed world, draws more from the dreams of tribal communities, than from the labour-intensive domain of the technologist or craftsperson. A vision for a different kind of future, seems to lie as a seed of hope in the creation myths of primal peoples. What we might understand as an eschatological hope for a very different future from the one that science and technology have to offer, is hidden in the wisdom of those who were nomadic peoples, whose carbon foot print was very light, and who approached nature in a non-exploitative way which ultimately speaking was far more sustainable for the future, than our present consumer society.
Here the concept of the Dream is not just escapism—getting away from the hard reality of our technological world. Rather, it is a longing for a more true understanding not only concerning the relation of the human community to its environment, but also the human spirit to the Divine. Creation theology tries to see the world as the Creator intended it to be.