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					                             One Spirit – Many Tongues
                            Local Ecclesiologies in Dialogue

                          Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley
                                   May 28 – 31, 2009

        One Indian Church - Many local Churches of India
          An Emerging Vibrant Church of Adivasis in Chotanagpur

                                                                  Evelyn Monteiro, scc


Issues relating to „Local Ecclesiologies in Dialogue‟ have gained urgency and attention in
today‟s era of globalization and assertion of local identities. In the case of India,1 its
heritage of diversity and disparity offers greater opportunities for learning and also
challenges. The bewildering diversity of peoples, languages, cultures and religions
alongside the scandalous disparity in caste, class, ethnicity and gender calls for new ways
of incarnating local churches in India. It is a misnomer to speak of one Indian Church.
Strictly speaking, the Church in India has many faces for, “the singular thing about India
is that you can only speak of it in the plural. This pluralism emerged from the very
nature of the country, made inevitable by India‟s geography and affirmed by its history.”2

Unique and varied socio-cultural factors have shaped the Church of India, thus rendering
each local Church clearly distinct. Histories and traditions (Syrian, Padroado,
Propaganda Fide); castes and tribes, languages and cultures, geographies and
environments, status and economic conditions, etc. constitute factors that make for
distinct Churches of Kerala, Goa, Tamilnadu, Orissa, Gujarat. The Dalit Church, the
Adivasi Church of Chotanagpur and the Churches of the Khasis, Nagas, Garos in the
Northeast of India are no exceptions. Moreover, the presence of migrant Christian
settlers from various cultures, languages and rites in contemporary „Corinths‟ like
Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, besides raising issues of their insertion into ecclesial
communities, makes single local Churches examples of communion.

When the Word is enrooted in each local milieu, when the faithful hear “the marvels of
God” in their own tongue (Acts 2:11), then they begin to creatively respond to the Good
News as Syrian Christians, as Latin Christians of the Konkan (Western India), as Dalit
Christians, as Tribal Christians, or as migrant Christians. When the same tenet, “one
faith, one baptism, one Lord,” (Acts 2) remains foundational for ecclesiological dialogue,
then the language of love subsumes, not excludes, cultural, linguistic, caste and ritual
diversity. Each local Church can create communities that are koinonia centred, giving
space to Dalits, Tribals, rich and poor, Syrian and Latin-rite Christians to break bread
together in fellowship (Acts 2:42,46) and for prophetic mission because the Spirit of the
Pentecost cuts across all dividing barriers and accommodates all „tongues‟. The local

churches would also have credibility to invite dialogue with members of different faiths,
to embark on a common project of bridging divisions, discord and discrimination, and
usher in a culture of reconciliation and harmony.

India‟s unimaginable and contrasting pluralism at every level, perhaps justifies speaking
of One Indian Church with many faces. Historians have periodised the growth of the
Catholic Church in India in three stages: Thomas Christians (Kerala, S.India),3 Xavier
Christians (Western India)4 and Lievens Christians (Central India)5 because these three
groups have played a leading role in the expansion of Christianity. It is noteworthy to
underline the impact of evangelization on the Tribals in Chotanagpur in Central-East
India, in the North-East and other regions of India that has given birth to vibrant Christian
communities since the 19th century.6 This presentation focuses on the Church of
Adivasis7 of Chotanagpur, which incorporates five major tribes.8

1. Adivasi Church in Chotanagpur: Its history

Adivasis9 (original inhabitants), people with distinct historical, political and cultural
identities stand united by their history and language, customs and traditions, feasts and
celebrations, clan laws, and their unique spiritual and economic relationship with their
lands.10 The Moghul and British feudal laws of governance, the Hindu rulers and caste
landlords demanded forced and free labour from the Adivasis, thus enslaving and
impoverishing them economically and socially. Dire exploitation of the Adivasis
destroyed their self esteem, cultural heritage, their history and consciousness leaving
them to struggle for survival.11 The arrival of Lutheran (1845), Anglican (1868) and
Roman Catholic (1869) missionaries and the establishment of their respective Churches
in the region changed the plight of the Adivasis. Numerous tribes embraced Christianity
when the missionaries supported them in their struggle for freedom from ruthless

2. Adivasi Worldview
2.1. Holistic and ordered unity of the world

The Adivasi worldview is holistic and operates through a human-nature-spirit (God)
configuration. Their ordered unity of the world consists of the Supreme Being, spirit-
ancestors, human beings, animals and other material creation. Their rootedness in the
land and their egalitarian social structure characterize the Adivasis‟ distinct identity.
Bosu Mullick succinctly comments on the Adivasi identity:
       The ideology of the indigenous peoples in India which has held them together till
       today has been based on their concept of regarding the earth as Mother, their
       symbiotic relationship with the environment and the animal kingdom; it has been
       rooted in their egalitarian principle of social system, and their sense of balance in
       man-woman relationship and their respective social rights.12

2.2. Concept of God and Salvation

The Adivasis of Chotanagpur believe and feel protected by one Supreme Being, their
Creator, Provider and Sustainer, all knowing and all powerful, Lord of the universe and
all its creatures (Mt 6:8-15; Lk 11:2-4). They address God either in relational terms - Old
One; Grandfather or Father - or in symbolic images – the Sun-Spirit; Great Mountain;
Great Master; Moon-Father, etc. Apparently, animistic practices permeate their religion,
yet tribals do not lose sight of the One God who is Almighty. For the tribals God is
everywhere. God, the Supreme Being is so organically related to the whole of creation
that He is an integral part of creation. Creation declares God‟s greatness and when
creation suffers, He too feels the pain.

Salvation consists in becoming one with the spirit-world of ancestors13 the ultimate
destiny of a person, synonymous with a life of eternal peace and happiness. Tribals attain
salvation by worshipping Dharmes, Supreme God, and by practicing virtues of antigreed
(acceptance of what is provided) and antipride (respect for others and things as
Dharmes/God-given gifts). Their religious rites and rituals point to a prophetic and
transcendent order and prepare them for communion with their departed in the world

2.3. Spirituality of creation-land-space

Adivasi religion does not rest on abstract dogmas and intellectual beliefs but rather on
realities that shape their land and communitarian life from birth to death. Space or
totality of creation features strongly in tribal religion, since harmony with space or
creation constitutes their foundational spirituality and final liberation. Co-existence with
nature, social order (dharma) and spirituality forms that triptych, on which lies the tribal
belief systems and references. In this unity of nature and life, of creation and spirituality,
there is no dichotomy between the sacred and secular, religion and non-religion.

Land and tribals are synonymous. Land conveys spiritual powers. In fact, tribals are
unable to experience God when contact with land is lost. Fire, water, winds, cyclones,
earth and its quakes, oceans, rivers, mountains and the forests merge into the mysterious
world of invisible powers that hold the cosmos in balance. The power of nature is
extension of the cosmic world.15 These powers, often personified as deities and spirits,
lead rationalists to dismiss them as primitive superstitions. Christianity may have
liberated Adivasi Christians from the dread of cosmic forces, but unwittingly it has also
deprived them from their traditional „natural‟ ways of communing with the Supreme One
and creation.

2.4. Adivasi Ethical Norms

Tribals grow up with a strong sense of justice, equality, love for the community and
freedom of expression. Honesty is an absolute value in tribal societies and keeping
promises is considered a sacred duty. Dignity of the human person and respect for every
person irrespective of gender or economic status are upheld.

2.4.1. Communitarian and egalitarian vision

Although community and egalitarian principles ordered around kinship form the hallmark
of Adivasi society, it endorses respect for individuality, not individualism. Unlike the
Indian mainstream caste-ridden Hindu society, the tribal society emphasizes on equality.
They are known for their tribe-village-community-family continuum.                 Their
communitarian and corporate identity is characterized by their culture of sharing and
collaboration.16 Community spirit emerges at its best at their rituals, festivals and
celebrations, and in their songs, dance and folktales which are always oriented to group
participation and cohesion.

The egalitarian order of tribal society is founded on basic values, which Paulus Kullu has
identified as „antigreed‟ and „antipride‟.17 These values stand in sharp contrast to the
„pride‟ of caste and the „greed‟ of consumerism which are largely responsible for the
social oppression and economic exploitation plaguing the Indian society today. We can
infer, therefore, that the Adivasi worldview in the Chotanagpur plateau possesses certain
distinctiveness by fostering a balance between nature and culture, egalitarianism in social
structure, accommodative history, equal sharing of economy, secularism in religious
pursuits and democratic principles.

3. Incarnating the Adivasi Church at Chotanagpur

When Christianity came into contact with Adivasi culture and their holistic perception of
life, the Church upheld the positive elements and welcomed them into its teachings and
life. Catholic missionaries, under the charismatic leadership of the young Jesuit,
Constant Lievens dared to proclaim Jesus‟ reign of justice into the deep jungles of the
Chotanagpur Plateau in 1885. They lived among the Adivasis and immersed themselves
in their life situations. They became Adivasis among the Adivasis and preached Christ to
them in their own language, categories, symbols and myths.18

Addressing the unfounded fears, social concerns and economic struggles of the Adivasis,
the missionaries announced a Christ who was able to restore their land and offer them
dignity, a Christ who could free them from the fears of the evil spirits, and consequently
from all fears of landlords, money lenders and police terror. The missionaries adapted the
Christian message to the socio-cultural life of the Adivasis.

Lievens appointed catechists in villages, studied the agrarian laws and took to legal aid to
restore land to the Adivasis.19 Moreover, he introduced systematic education offering
them modern and scientific outlook to life that helped them to dispel ignorance and
superstitution and face challenges.20 Proclamation of the Good News in tandem with their
social involvement and legal protection of tribal land resulted in mass conversion
movement of Adivasis.21 By taking the side of the exploited Adivasis, just as Yahweh
did to the enslaved Israelites, the missionaries contributed to the renaissance of the tribal

The Adivasis who embraced Christianity entered a new social structure without, however
losing their traditionally community-based social and religious institutions. Village
panchayat (council), confederation of village panchayats, traditional local leaderships,
tribal unity and loyalty to the community found space in the new Christian community.22

In about 100 years the Christian presence in Chotanagpur transformed its Adivasi
community, and today this young, dynamic and fast growing Church offers an increasing
number of vocations to the Church. The laity is emerging as vibrant and creative agent of
social and political change. Now the Adivasi Church plays the role of „Evangelizing
Community‟, for wherever the faithful migrate, they live their faith in small
communities.23 By embracing Christianity with its own cultural and spiritual practices,
the Adivasi Church could contribute to the life of the Indian and universal Church in
unique ways. .

4. Adivasi Church Today: Changed and Challenged

Tribal heritage and values have undergone considerable change in recent years due to
effects of globalization, migration and modern means of communication. A growing
secular mentality is alienating the Adivasis from their ethos, so much so that tribal
society may not exist as before.
External and internal forces are disintegrating Adivasi life and weakening the Adivasi
community. The human evils of greed and pride are threatening to destroy the
harmonious cosmotheandric structure of Adivasi society. Today Adivasi society suffers
greatly from fragmentation. Corporates and individuals own resources, and social
stratification and competition have taken over the society. „We‟ culture for which the
tribals are known is being replaced by „I‟ culture and with it individualism, the bane of
tribal ethos.

Since the last decade, Hindu fundamentalist forces began spreading hatred and communal
and ethnic intolerance through the twin process of assimilation and hinduisation of the
tribes. Claiming Christianity to be foreign to India and therefore alienating the Adivasis
and replacing the term „vanvasis‟ (inhabitants of the forest) for Adivasis, the
fundamentalists strive to re-write Adivasi history, with the aim of erasing their original
consciousness and identity and dividing the tribals of traditional religions and Christian
tribals who are considered as non tribals.

Once again as in pre-Christian period in the region, the ruling classes and the so-called
majority Hindu community are subtly but systematically destroying the Adivasi identity
and exploiting them. Adivasis are being displaced and dispossessed of their land due to
Government-acquired-land schemes all in the name of „national interest‟ and
„development‟ of the country.24 Most Adivasi Christian leaders are unable to understand
the implications of the complex Indian politics and economic schemes. The dividing
game promoted by vested political parties in the name of representative democracy
through a multi-party system is diametrically opposed to the Adivasi democratic polity
based on consensus.25

The local clergy seems to prefer the status quo of the Adivasi situation, which benefits
the ruling class and increases socio-economic disparity. The Church needs more Lievens
to raise political consciousness along the genus of Adivasi political thought and life.
While attempting to minimize the pain resulting from displacement and migration, the
Church also needs to champion the task of strengthening the Adivasi identity in their own
land. “The Church is still far from fully incarnated in the Adivasi world so as to become
fully the Adivasi Church,” says Raphael Kujur.26 The Adivasi Church will have to
reshape itself in a genuine Adivasi community as it listens to the promptings of the Spirit
anew and to the cry of the Adivasi people.

5. Reshaping the Adivasi Church: Vision and Hopes

The seed of the Word has been sown on good Adivasi soil. This is seen in the strength of
the community which is growing and in their capacity to live and share their life together.
Tribal Churches have become flourishing and vibrant churches in the country. Yet much
ought to be done to bring economic justice, social equity and cultural liberty to the
tribals. Their tribal past and the Christian tribal present often pose a dilemma. The
solution lies in the integration of the Tribal and Christian life, both individual and societal
by facilitating a change, a transformation, a „new creation‟.

A true Adivasi Church will emerge only if it is baptized in the confluence of two streams:
immersion in the life situation and worldview of the Adivasi and the biblical vision of the
Church as Sacrament of the Kingdom of God. We need to identify those presuppositions
in each tradition which create enslaving structures and relationships and cleanse them
with the water drawn from the confluence of Adivasi and Christian traditions. This

      A review of the understanding of communion where the human, the earth (nature)
       and the divine are ontologically interrelated and interdependent. This will restore
       the self understanding of the Adivasi Church as cosmotheandric communion with
       a hope of fullness of life in history and in the eschaton.27
      The understanding of the Church as People of God (LG 9-17) will retrieve the
       community dimension of the Tribal ethos which is based on a natural bond of
       kinship with a strong sense of belonging to a common ancestor and tribe.
      A shift from the dualistic understanding of all aspects of reality – this world-next
       world, spiritual-material, body-soul, light-darkness to a holistic understanding of
      The divine is experienced not merely as a Supreme Being but also as a Personal
       Being, who is the ultimate ground of every being and directs the course of
       everyday life.
      Institutionalized sacramental, liturgical and spiritual life needs to be enriched by
       appropriating communitarian and cosmic dimensions of life as manifested in
       Adivasi spirituality and life. The tribal songs and dance are their poetic heritage
       through which they express their dreams, hopes, aspirations and struggles in life.

       These, if integrated in their religious celebrations which are participatory and
       communitarian will help enrich and enliven Christian liturgy.28
      Hierarchical structure and hierarchical communion of the Church must open itself
       to an egalitarian structure of mutual service, charismatic leadership and collective
       decision-making. This will enhance mutual relationship and service of all
       believers (LG 9-17 cf. 1Pet 2:9-10)
      Various aspects of the Adivasi traditional beliefs will have to be reinterpreted,
       especially belief in the „spirit‟ world, understanding of communion that is limited
       in the taboos of commensality and marriage, witchcraft and the problem of evil
       and suffering.
      In the Adivasi worldview, salvation is experienced in belonging to the community
       and in communion with the ancestors. This understanding must be reinforced
       with Vatican II‟s theology that defines the Church as the “universal sacrament of
       salvation (LG 1 cf. GS 45) and emphasizes that “it has pleased God to make men
       holy and save them not merely as individuals without any mutual bonds, but by
       making them into a single people” (LG 9 cf. GS 32; AG 1).

The process of inculturation is important for the Adivasis and the Church in the
Chotanagpur plateau. In the context of the fast social changes, the Adivasis are searching
for a more inclusive and collective tribal identity with a strong sense of common
adivasiness (tribalness) that must be supported and strengthened by the Church.29

Authentic inculturation comes from an inculturated Christology. Lack of an adequate
Adivasi Christology affects the very life, mission and evangelization of the Church. A
Christology founded on Jesus who fully immersed himself in the life situation of people,
listening to them, empowering them, healing and exorcising the fear of evil powers
appeals to the Adivasis. A Christology that proclaims the reign of antigreed and antipride
and liberation of the people will go a long way in restoring the Adivasis to their original
identity with the Supreme and Personal Being.


In the modern world, established institutional religions are losing hold over their
adherents. Since these religions have distanced themselves from life and people are
becoming more and more secularized, the Adivasi way of being Christian with its
spirituality can present itself as corrective examples for us today.

The Adivasi ways of mutual service, equality and kinship will reinforce the Church‟s
vision of ecclesiology that seeks communion. The Adivasi Church has great potential of
projecting itself as paradigm of „communion of communities‟ which is radically open to
each other in agapeic love while remaining a local Church and which celebrates harmony
in plurality without destroying variety and difference. An openness and attentiveness to
that same Spirit of the Pentecost would enable „Local Ecclesiologies in Dialgoue‟ to raise
relevant issues relating to communion, pluralism, cultures, tribes, identities and to „One
Indian Church, Many local Churches of India‟.

   The Indian population of one billion originated from six distinct races. 18 official languages, including
English and 1652 dialects in some sense create a veritable tower of Babel. The geographical and linguistic
isolation of innumerable communities with hereditary occupations, was the origin of the present day, nearly
4,635 castes and 460 tribal communities. Such a chaotic situation was gradually legitimized by the priestly
authors of the Hindu sacred Scriptures. Minority religious communities (40%) like Muslims, Christians
(2.4%), Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Jews, Parsis and animists co-exist with the dominant Hindu community
(60%). A. Kanjamala, “Seven Images of the Church in India,” in The Church in India in the Emerging
Third Millenium, p. 1.
  Quoted by Nandi, P. in Robinson, 2004, 10, in A. Kanjamala, Seven Images, p. 1.
   The Syrian Catholics of the first century Christian era are little more than one third of the 2.4 % of the
Catholic population of India today.
   Today the Catholics of the Padroado mission (16c) constitute around 10% of the Indian Catholic
  This Church is often identified as the Tribal or Adivasi Church.
  It is to be noted that till the 18th century missionary efforts were directed to the elite of Indian society and
it is only in the 19th & 20th centuries that evangelization work began among the tribals with much success.
   Tribals or indigenous people are commonly known as „Adivasis‟, a conjunction in Sanskrit language of
two words „Adi‟ (original) and ‟Vasi‟ (inhabitants), literally meaning “the first of aboriginal dwellers.”
Officially, they are called “Scheduled Tribes.” The Hindu fundamentalists have re-baptized them as
Vanvasi (inhabitants of the forest). The Adivasis constitute about 8.5% of the Indian population and 25%
of the total Christian population. John B. Mundu, “Tribal and Indigenous Peoples in India,” Responding to
Indian’s Social Challenge, a NBCLC Series on Current Issues, p. 9.
  They are the Mundas, Uraons, Kharias, Santals and Hos.
   India has the highest number of tribal population in the world. They are distributed into nearly 500 tribes
and sub-tribes. They originate from three races: the Mongoloids in the North East; Austroloids in Central
and South India and Indo-Aryan in Western India. The term Adivasi was coined in the 1930s and carries
with it the experience of loss of forests, alienation of lands, displacements by dominant and powerful
   Tribals have no written or sacred literature but they firmly believe in traditional myths, which reveal the
mystery of their origin.
   A detailed description of Adivasi situation is found in Fidelis de Sa, Crisis in Chota Nagpur, Bangalore:
Redemptorist Publications, 1975.
    S.Bosu Mullick, Edwin Jaydas and others, Indigenous Identity: Crisis and Reawakening, Delhi, ISPCK,
1993, 8-9.
    A strong belief in the continued protective and caring presence of their ancestors is an intimate part of
tribal religion.
   Justin Tirkey, SJ, “Tribal Values and the Principle and Foundation,” Sevartham, 32(2007), p. 40
     J. Patmury, “Tribal Spirituality and Christian Mission,” in Christ Among the Tribals, Edit. F.
Hrangkhuma & Joy Thomas, FOIM, XI, Bangalore, 2007.
   Excommunication from the community as a means of reformation is the greatest punishment inflicted on
the convicted. Repentance and reconciliation is concluded by an agape.
    Paulus Kullu, “Tribal Culture and Religion,” Jeevadhara 24 (1994), 89-109. See also George M. Soares-
Prabhu, “Antigreed and Antipride: Mark 10:17-27 and 10:35-45 in the Light of Tribal Values,” in Biblical
Themes for a Contextual Theology Today, Collected Writings of George M. Soares-Prabhu, SJ, Vol. I,
edited by Isaac Padinjarekuttu, Pune, 1999.
    Many of the tribal feasts such as hunting, sowing and harvesting have been adapted to Christian
celebrations and some have been integrated into the catholic annual liturgical cycle
    J.B. Hoffman, the German Jesuit, was the architect of the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (1908) and due to
which the Adivasi identity is still alive. However, it replaced the traditional collective ownership of the
land with private ownership. On the principle of inherent Adivasi value of cooperation, Hoffman also

began the Chotanagpur Catholic Cooperative Credit Society to face the challenge of money-market
economy and destitution. John B. Mundu, SJ, Mission of the Church Among the Adivasis of Chotanagpur,
p. 4. (Paper presented at the 9th Colloquium of Bishops and Theologians, NBCLC, Bangalore, 2004)
   Fidelis de Sa, Crisis in Chota Nagpur, pp. 122-131. The great works of the missionaries undoubtedly
brought immediate relief to issues within the existing system which served the status quo rather than
restored the rightful place to Adivasi identity
   Within a span of seven years about 73,000 Adivasis accepted the Catholic faith as an expression of
gratitude to their new saviour-missionaries. Moreover, the pre-existent worldview of the Adivasis is not
dissimilar to the Biblical worldview which make the transition to Christianity easier
   Agapit Tirkey, SJ, “Inculturation Among Tribals,” in Christ Among Tribals, p. 82.
   Fr Linus Kujur, SJ, “Tribals and the Church in India Today,” in Chriat Among Tribals, p. 71.
   The Indian Government has even denied in the international forum that there are no indigenous people in
India. The Scheduled Tribes who are Adivasis run the risk of being „descheduled‟ at the will of the Indian
   Mundu, The Mission of the Church, p. 11.
   “Tribal Church in Chotanagpur: Identity and Mission,” Sevartham 23 (1998), pp. 46-53.
   The theology of communion as envisaged at Vatican II is inadequate because it is limited to communion
of divine and human spheres. It undermines the ontologicaland organic interrelationship between the
human sphere and the earth. The earth is understood merely as a thing to be used by human beings (GS
   Tribal religiosity and spiritual awareness are important for the Churches in India as they constitute the
bulk of the Christian population. Much has been done by the Churches in India to draw on the spiritual
riches of Sanskritized Hinduism into their liturgy and theology, but not of the Tribals and Dalits who
together form 80% of the Indian Christianity.
   Agapit. Tirkey, SJ Lievens Mission in Chotanagpur, p. 6. (Unpublished).