Sunday, September 20, 2009

Forms of Life in the World of Mattar: Reflections on Tribal Cosmology By Baidyanath Saraswati

The following reflections are based on tribal myths of north-east India.1 Myth2 may be defined as a body of revelatory knowledge of the unseen reality that flows eternally in time and space. As a self-reflective and self-validating statement of the true nature of the phenomenal world, it is founded in faith that supports all knowledge. Myth, believed and lived from inside, expresses the believers’ conviction of truth. It is not an empirical description of the natural phenomena; it is a symbolic expression of the experience of the mystery of cosmic existence.
The Fivefold Order
Tribal cosmogony refers to a fivefold order that sets forth the timeless sequence of creation, preservation and dissolution of the world of matter. Let us discover its fundamental intuition.
First Order is set in ‘nothingness’: In the beginning there was nothing, nothing at all but water, or clouds and mist, or two eggs soft and shone like gold.3 In that state of ‘nothingness’, life was there above the primeval water, hidden deep in the clouds and mist, or in the two whirling eggs.
With such vibration of life, the beginning was not an absolute vacuity.
Second Order causes primary creation of elements from the element of the First Order.
The First creation was asexual: The golden eggs collided and both broke open. From the one came the earth, from the other the sky.4 Subsequently, creation became a male-female principle: When the sky made love to earth, every kind of tree, grass and all living creatures came into being.5
The world was created in phases by a number of vibrant bodies and not by a single creator: The order of creation began with the formless spirits,6 and then the sun-moon7 and all the rest. At first there were two or four or eight or nine suns of an unbearable brightness. The radiance of one of them was gradually reduced to the cool and gentle light of the moon.8
The early phases of creation were marked by total integration of all that exists; there was no difference between man and non-man.9
Every element has its own life. Elements of nature are interrelated.10
What activates or transforms matter is the transcendent life, but life itself is not matter.
Third Order causes natural identity and differentiation in terms of colour, direction and form. Smell is another element of the Third Order. It makes communication between the form and the formless possible.11
Fourth Order causes the return to primordial state: Water is the self-existing element from which all other elements originate and to which they all return.12
Dissolution is a process of regeneration or rejuvenation, not chaos or disorder.
Fifth Order is the order of all orders: It creates the scenario of the world in which everything has its proper place, and everything grows and allows others to grow. It is inviolable.
Cosmic Intelligence revealed itself: The universal knowability lay in the cosmic eggs. Priests of all creatures were born at the beginning of creation.13 Primordial knowledge came to man from birds and animals.14
Not a single event takes place without any cause. As there is a cause, so there is an effect or viceversa. Cause can be found, but not under ordinary condition. Through rituals one may return to the primordial conditions of life represented in such form as an egg (unmanifest), cowrie-shell (manifest water), hen (manifest earth) and rice (life-maintaining substance) to determine the cause.15
Consciousness is created by Cosmic Intelligence (Hiranyagarbha). Patterns of cultures are derivative expressions of cosmic forms.
The Pluriverse
This world of matter is continuous with the other world or worlds. There are also transition zones filled by primordial water.16
Life in this world is repeated in the other world, in a similar order.17 Worlds are communicable.18
Of the other worlds some are structured up in the sky, and others down below the earth.19 Earth is the axis mundi of the pluriverse.
The Same Life But Different Forms
Four operant ideas emerge from tribal cosmogony: (i) That life, as primal energy, manifests itself from ‘nothingness’ and is hence indestructible; (ii) that forms of the primordial elements such as water, fire, earth, sky and air are predetermined, and they in turn determine the form of the creatures of the Second Order; (iii) that life is the source of origin of all, but forms are different; and (iv) that the reality of the subtler plane is responsible for the grosser plane.
Transcendental creation is the primal process of bringing the form and the life together. Life is self-existent, and hence indestructible; forms are predetermined. Both are intrinsically related.
The predetermined forms of species are filled by matter, that is, primal elements of earth, water, sky, etc. Each form is thus a microcosm.
Form is natured by life; but life itself is formless. By entering into a form, life acquires qualitative distinctions in terms of species or form.20 The same life is called by different names.21
There are stages in the formless existence of life.22 What retains the breath of life in man, animal and other creatures is the same; it is often identified as soul or spirit.
The physical form, or the state of matter, can alone be seen growing, weathering and converting into new forms. But the behaviour of life during its transcendental transformation as a formless substance cannot be empirically verified. Transition in matter does not cause transition in life. What happens in the situation is the translocation of life from one form to another and from form to the formless or vice versa.23 The same life may concurrently be present in two forms.24
As a substance, life gives expressions to different forms of matter. In a formless state it performs wide ranging functions: Formation (creation), affirmation (preservation) and negation (dissolution) of elements.
The following may be taken as proper annotation for tribal viewpoint on forms of life in the world of matter.
A fivefold order governs the cosmos.
In the beginning there was nothing. The primal ‘nothingness’ was not an absolute vacuity: As thought comes from the unthought, the manifest comes from the unmanifest. The unmanifest encompasses the vibration of life.
The first principle of the cosmos is "one-two-and many". Creation was originally asexual, but subsequently it became a male-female principle. There is no single creator. A creature becomes creator of another creature. This interrelatedness of creature-creator makes the cosmos the one undifferentiated reality. The world came into existence in phases. The early phases were characterized by total integration of all elements. Creation causes differentiations; dissolution is the return to primordial state of undifferentiation. There is no intrinsic disorder in nature.
The world of matter is continuous with the other world or worlds. Earth is the axis mundi of the pluriverse. Source of life is not matter, but what activates, or transforms, matter is life. Life is self-existing and self-expressing; forms are predetermined and transitory. Both are intrinsically related. Transcendent life is the cause; form its effect. Matter fills the form but form itself is not matter. Life expresses the unity of all; but forms are different. The same life exists in a formless state as also in many different forms.
Tribal epistemological thought is characterized by the assumption that patterns of life and culture are derivative expressions of the cosmic forms.
1. Cosmogenic myths discussed in this presentation are taken from Elwin (1968).
2. Panikkar (1983) has set standard for hermeneutic interpretation of myth. My own initial understanding of myth has come largely from his works, but he is in no way responsible for any unclarity that one may find in the present formulation.
3. Cf. Elwin, op. cit. 9-24, see specially the myths of Bori, Hill Miri, Khampti, Nockte, Singpho, and Hrusso (Aka).
4. Ibid., 17, see Hrusso (Aka) myth.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid., 20, see Nocte myth.
7. Ibid., 40-63, see Dhammai (Miji), Idu Mishmi, Kawan Mishmi, Singpho myths.
8. Ibid., 48, 50, 59, 62.
9. There are many stories of marriage of human beings with gods, spirits, animals (real animals, not human beings in disguise or under enchantment) as well as leaves, trees and even fire. Ibid., 108-48. Thus in tribal perception, man is not unique in his origin.
10. The earth and sky are a divine couple and a universal parent. Fire and whirlwind are brothers just as water and mist are brothers. But water and fire have always been enemies. Wind is the friend of fire against water and he fights the rain and drives it before him. (Saraswati, 1992).
11. The medium of interaction between the Ongees and the spirit world is the smell, kept in the ancestral bone which the Ongees wear as an ornament. It is the smell that keeps the Ongees in the island and the spirits in the sky and the sea. (Pandya, 1991).
12. Cf. Elwin, op. cit. 15-22, see Gallong, Sherdukpen, Taraon Mishmi, Singpho.
13. The Dafla myth reveals that Tarangum Sung Sung was the ancestor of all priests. There are priests of men, priests of the earth, priests of god and spirits, and priests of tigers and all animals. Ibid., 76.
14. Ibid., 105 (Hill Miri), 213 (Wancho, Singpho, Bori). Tribal myths deny the uniqueness of man in the possession of knowledge.
15. When a Khasi suffers any affliction, he performs his rituals with the aid of Ka Shanam (cowries, rice grains, an egg, or a hen) to find out the cause of affliction (Mawrie, 1981: 32).
16. The Ao Nagas believe that there is the world of the dead souls (Asuyim). In between the world of the dead and the world of the living there is a boundary line. The boundary line is a river called Longritzu (bitter water). (Ao, 1980: 64). Miris also believe that their world is not the only one. Other worlds are known to exist and their limits are determined (Hamilton, 1912: 87). Hindu scriptures mention the pluriverse. There are five worlds (Loka) up in the sky with Brahmaloka as the highest, earth in the middle, and seven netherworlds inhabited by demons and serpent-spirits.
17. According to the Ao Nagas, life in the village of the dead is like life on the earth, except that in the village of the dead there is no sexual intercourse and no social organization (Ao, op. cit., 65). The Apa Tanis make the two worlds similar, even in conjugal and occupational contexts. In the world of the dead called Neli, every woman returns to her first husband, but those who died unmarried may there marry and beget children. Life in Neli is similar to life on this earth: people cultivate and work, and ultimately they die once more and go to another land of the dead. (Furer-Haimendorf, 1953: 37). Tribal eschatology reveals that the ontological experience of life and death is the same. Death brings to man only a new existence. The errant soul moves on in the cosmos from one abode to another.
18. Khasis believe that in the days when righteousness prevailed there was a tree which served as ladder to the original sixteen families for their communication between heaven and earth. This tree grew on top of U Lum Sohpetbneng (the navel peak of the heaven) which is the centre of the world. This tree formed the golden bridge ensuring physical contact between man and god till the time when transgression became the order of the day and this bridge gave way. Thus destroying the communication link between heaven and earth (Mawrie, op. cit., 33-34).
19. Among the Nagas there is a belief that if one leads a good and worthy life upon the earth after his death his soul (Mangla) fly away into the realms above, to a higher place of life and becomes a star (Horam, 1980: 60). There is a common belief all over India that the hell is located beneath the earth.
20. The Nagas believe that the soul does not die with the death of his body. If a man has led a bad life he has to pass through seven stages of spirit-life and ultimately transformed into insects like bees, locusts and butterflies (Ibid.). The same life but different forms and formless stages.
21. What retains the breath of life in man and other creatures is called by various names (Yalo, Aith, Lumpu, Mangla) which may be placed in the category of soul.
22. According to the Hill Miri, when a man dies his ‘soul’, the Yalo, is carried away by the Wiyu, (spirit) who has caused his death. The Yalo retains, or resumes, the human shape of a different order after it has left the Wiyu’s house and made its way to the land of the Dead when it becomes an Orum or ghost. (Elwin, op. cit., 303).
23. After death, man’s life may assume the form of animal or birds or insects. In a formless state, the same life may exist as soul or spirit of various kinds.
24. In the Naga villages some men are believed to have the soul of a tiger. If the tiger is wounded the man who possesses the soul of that tiger also gets wounded instantly and no sooner the tiger dies the soul of that man departs. Whatever happens to man also happens to the tiger with a common soul. (Personal communication from my Naga students).
Ao, P.J., (1980). "The ‘Here-After’; Traditional Ao Nagas", In Religion and Society of North-East India, (ed.). Sujata Miri, New Delhi.
Elwin, Verrier, (1968). Myths of the North-East Frontier of India, Shillong.
Furer-Haimendorf, C. von, (1953). "The after-life in Indian Belief". In Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, LXXIII: 37.
Hamilton, Angus, (1912). In Abor Jungles.
Horam, M., (1980). "Naga Religion: a Case Study", In Religion and Society of North East India, (ed.) Sujata Miri, New Delhi.
Mawrie, H.O., (1981). The Khasi Milieu, New Delhi.
Pandya, Vishvajit, (1991). "Tribal Cosmology: Displacing and Replacing Process in Andamanese Places", In Tribal Thought and Culture: Essays in Honour of Shri Surajit Chandra Sinha, (ed.) Baidyanath Saraswati, New Delhi.
Panikkar, R., (1983). Myth, Faith and Hermeneutics: Cross-Cultural Studies, Bangalore.
Saraswati, Baidyanath, (1992). "Cosmogenic Myths and the Forces of Nature", Paper presented at the seminar on Perception of Bhutas (Elements) in Oral Tradition. IGNCA, New Delhi.
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