Sohra (Cherrapunjee): Khasi culture has been extensively written on by different Khasi authors and scholars both in the vernacular and the English language. Khasi culture and by extension, Khasi philosophy is an expression of the laws of nature. But it seems from common perception that the confusion among generic readers would still be prevailing. The reason for these misconceptions is that the “religion” aspect is mistaken for the philosophy of the culture”. But in reality, this religion is only one aspect of the philosophy of the culture which is primarily oral in nature. Once these two misconceptions have been dispelled, the veil of confusion automatically disappears into thin air.
KHASI CULTURE AND PHILOSOPHY:
Our philosophy can be summed thus – Life with all the values associated with it, is what is participated in by the Creator. Such is the sanctity of this life. Ngi wan longbriew na ka jingthrang-jingsliang jong ka Hok – which can be translated as we come to existence from the desire of the Ka Hok (objectively understood as “the creator”). As we delve deeper into this philosophy, we can come to this generalisation as well, that “life is the manifestation of the Ka Hok itself”.
Living it to the full, in perfect harmony with fellow men and all co-existents, peace and satisfaction with oneself or living graciously is the goal of life. Our institutions and traditions were established in line with this objective. This is the ground and the objective of our existence. Take an example – a Khasi indigenous man or woman would not pray to God, his creator, for the reason that there is nothing falling short from the creator from the beginning of creation! (except when the life sanctified seems to be under threat or is looking like this perfection would fall from its grace). Infinite perfection of man or the idea that “man is divine by nature” and that this life, as the existential value, is the foundation of all values, including ontological, social and other man-made values.
The other side of this life is that vicissitudes are its inseparable colours and are to be expected. Diseases, deaths that have mysterious causes or are supernatural in nature happen; at times (considering the nature of challenges in the earlier of human existence) they even posed a threat to the point of wiping out that which was divinely sanctioned and blessed. For sustaining this life, our ancestors came upon a philosophy, an idea that such events which cause unnatural disturbances to the divine design do not have His sanction, and subsequently, there must be a solution to them from the very source.
As an answer to these, religion evolved (but not prior to the philosophy mentioned above) This sentiment appears during divine healings in the words used by our shamans. In general, the philosophy is contained in this idea:
This above gives an idea that our ancestors did not seek anything that is beyond the divine plan, or to say seeking for miracles, or asking the Creator to bend his laws to suit the need of one person or group of persons. This is an approach to the Divine through the law of nature based on the traditional belief that what has an appeal to the Law, is that which corresponds with the Law.
The spirits/gods, biological existents, earth, waters who are the manifestations (not separate entities having a different source) of the Source are bound by the same authority. These co-existents are called ‘the witnesses’ of our rightful divine right to come to existence. Basing on these principles above, the communication of man is understood and taken as Law making them legally bound to listen to the communication of man (divine healing). What makes them understand and consequently respond to this communication?
This demands an elaboration. All these co-existents carry in their being different sets of existential ontological bases such as their roles in the nature as defined and assigned by the divine such as their physical powers, survival instincts, their spatial boundaries; for example: spirits have infinite powers, occupy definite space assigned by the Ka Hok and perform specific roles.
The water spirits living in water do not, really speaking (according to their ontology) exercise their authority over those that live on land where other spirits living there perform their roles. The same principle applies to other biological existents based on their ontological foundation. All these are faithful to their ontology they carry in their being eternally. This is the essential permanence. The apparent changes taking place in them do not essentially change their ontology. In other words, we can say that such changes, if there are any, are evolutionary in nature. We have seen above how the philosophy being the foundation of the religion of the ancestors becomes an offshoot of it.
THE DIVINE COUNCIL:
The Khasi knowledge system in its oral form can broadly be classified into two reflectors:
- The mundane day-to-day communication with fellow human beings known to only those involved.
- Those that transcend the mundane human-to-human communication extending to the spiritual realm.
It is to be noted that Khasis do not view this cosmos from a physical aspect only; instead they infer from the physical and once the essence or the noumenon is arrived at, there they rest their mind. This is the shamanic, the mystical plane where the Khasi philosophy lies in its active state. Here below is the foundation, the soul of the philosophy:
Others have used it to suit their proselytising agendas. In so doing, the essentials were either systematically ignored or misinterpreted. The present writer has these to say as an alternative. In his long journey of experiences with divine healers, he has found it impossible to write anything specific on the Divine Council. No two persons would express the evolution story of one existent in the same way, yet the underlying principle is the same, that is, not straying away from the larger reference being the Divine Council or the creation story. What then can be said about this?
For clearer understanding, here is a gist of this ideate. The creation council is roughly divided into these layers just for the sake of clarity. Further, this is a result of the critical analysis of the argumentations of the divine healing practitioners, the practice which is ubiquitous in our hills.
- The desire of the creator to manifest the nature where man is one of its units. This was made to happen out of which nature was born.
- The Council – before all creatures were to occupy their assigned spaces, the Council was to be convened where all of these would have to be present without fail. Then the proceedings started. All existents, according the wishes of the Council (Dorbar) were given a fair share of opportunities, time to voice their desires, to argue. Some of such desires voiced were detrimental to the very existence of others. In this way, the Council went on for days, weeks and months. Finally, the creator intervened as he saw that such whims if allowed to go unchecked would threaten the fabric of co-existence, which was his plan. This led to the creator trimming their powers, intelligence, spatial boundary and everything pertaining to values that sustain their life, individually and in the cosmos as a larger ecosystem (including potentials to evolve and adapt, procreate, propagate their own kinds). On this intervention of the almighty, all creatures conceded and agreed to co-exist in harmony.
- To ensure that all keep their words, the Creator asked them to swear to everyone before Him and the Council that they would abide by it, carry it in their being for eternity. Any attempt to transgress their own ontological boundary, their covenant would be tantamount to breaking their own words, their own honour (Ka Burom). (Our shamans say – baroh ki soi ki sain ia la ka juban hakhmat Ka Hok ba kin Im ha la u pud u sam, ban ym iuh-ym thom ia la ka juban lak; hynrei ba kin kit kin kynmaw ia ka ha la ka longrynieng-manrynieng ha baroh shi lynter ka jingim jong ki. Uba pynkhein ia la ka juban, u pynkhein hi ia ka Hukum Blei).
- These conditions having been fulfilled, the creator himself became what is known till date as Ka Hukum (the law that is within them and governing them from within. In this way he was able to govern and sustain the nature. He sent all the creatures back to their realms, their spatial boundaries, to continue their life according to the plan.
- In a nutshell, this Council and its tasks can be termed as the act of assigning ontological values or ontological boundaries to all existents in the cosmos for sustained coexistence. In Khasi: ka dorbar blei ka rei ka dorbar buh pud-buh sam, sam bor-sam iktiar, dorbar hikai-hinot, ka nongsynshar -nongbishar.
- From that time on, the moons, stars, stayed in their positions performing the tasks assigned to them; the hills and mountains gave out rivers that flow from their bases; The rivers continued giving life to organisms, to shelter and nurse the creatures living in them. Animals continued living in their realms and manifest their potentials which they had been endowed with; to mate and give birth to their offspring for continuation of their kinds.
- Winds started blowing their ways and bring rain to the earth. Some animals lived in communities and work together. The leopard manifests lower speed in running but was blessed with strength and patience in order to have a share of food for survival. Trees drew sustenance from the soil, bloom in their seasons to produce fruits for feeding others in need and simultaneously propagating and sustaining their kinds.
- Birds, animals and winds served as agents of propagation. The spirits living on land stay contented living in their boundaries and looking after creatures including human beings living in their realm. They would by the law they carry in their being, not harm humans intentionally lest they should break the covenant of coexistence. Such violations are unacceptable to their kith and kins, to the others coexistent with them who are the co-holders of the swearing in the covenant and the creator who is in fact the sum total of all in the nature.
- Man, who was blessed with language and intellect to communicate (as one aspect of his ontological bases) with co-inhabitants in their language in order to be understood and duty-bound to speak with respect and honour, shall abide by that specific sense of honour. They in turn, would listen to him or her (appealing to the ontological foundation is the only language understood and acceptable to co-inhabitants). A woman shall carry her child for nine or ten months in the womb before snapping the umbilical cord.
- As mentioned earlier, the Council is said to be the fountain spring of all communications to the spirit realm (elaborate religious rites and rituals pertaining to invocation, propitiation, pacification which are formal parts of established religion, and other needs cannot be named here).
- Another example of this subtle communication is during childbirth. Childbirth is a natural phenomenon happening to all animals. Here the religion and its symbolic details are not needed. The father, midwife or anyone involved in the process are only facilitators of birth. The prayer in this case is a reminder of the covenant in the Council.
A philosophy like ours which lives in its orality, also derives its strength and validity from the Honour or Ka Burom – In essence, mocking the spirits, creatures, storms, fire, etc. that chance to cause harm or injury, is against “honour”. For examples -a snake doesn’t bite humans intentionally or to destroy, to break its covenant of coexistence except by mistake, self-defense or some other misunderstandings. Fire burns: till date these are cured through prayers, more meaningfully, through communication. Blaming the fire is against the honour when it is man who is potential of making mistakes while handling it.
This has its base in the knowledge that the ontological value of fire is not to kill life, but to serve it. What happens if one mocks the spirit that chance to cause illness? The answer is “that is the point of no return” as the philosophical and sentimental conflicts have been fanned. Striving to prove one’s point will only flare up the problem. How about invoking other gods for exorcising them? This too is never thought of as a working alternative. The Honour!
The spirit also would ask – “since when have you known me as one who is virulent, malignant, who does not listen to the word of honour, not listening to the covenant that you should not speak to me? (This has its base in the traditional knowledge system that we are equal in the eyes of the creator who is the source of existence. In this manner, Honour itself is an involved co-existential principle, a mutuality, not a man-made construct. This “honour” is the medium, the essence of communication with co-inhabitants of which language and knowledge of ontology are its building blocks.
It has been mentioned that after the completion of the proceedings of the Council, all created beings were sent to their realms. The knowledge and practices prevalent have this to say- “every creature right from the time it landed into the womb of the mother, fights its own battle”. Or we say that “it undergoes those procedures of the Council where it has to swear before the creator and all co-inhabitants that it will uphold the covenant signed by it in the first council”.
After it has sworn to abide by the modalities that it will be faithful to its ontology and got the agreement of all co-inhabitants who are the witnesses of its right to existence, it was able to be born, to manifest itself through the process of birth or other forms of manifestations of continuation of life cycle.
The battle of the human being inside the womb: here are some of the many ontological bases, such as senses that support and sustain life of humans. Inside the womb, the child is to promise that it shall earn their living by using their hands, feet, and other sense organs. After having fulfilled the swearing, the child is said to have done the ground work and won their battle and as a result all existents (the witnesses, sustainers of life) welcome the human person to the world to live life to its full and in glory. Some divine healers go on to say – “when a person was born, all present in the nature, right from the moons and the stars, gloried in the birth of the man, and praised the in-dwelling perfection of the new being. This explains the eternality of interaction (communication) among inhabitants in the nature.
What if natural birth gets hampered? Such phenomena are not accepted as natural as they are not germane to the consummation of the law of nature or the Divine plan. In such a case, resorting to the Council entails. As mentioned, reminding the creator (who is the very essence of the nature and its law) who the essence of the council, is the option.
Of late, Khasi culture has seen many changes. The reasons are known to everyone. Some of these reasons can be broadly classified under the following heads:
- Historical factors: Change is the law of nature
- Internal factors: Besides these historical factors, there are the fault lines. Khasi culture as a philosophical culture, is not within the grasp of every member of the community. Neither has it ever been democratised to encompass the new generations, even the nephews, nieces or other members of the clan, by our uncles who once were the poets, philosophers and priests of the clan.
- Another and more profound problem of passing down the knowledge system, is that there is no institutionalisation of knowledge or there was no school of thought for the purpose.
- The oral nature of the culture, learning of the law of nature is another reason. Those who are observant and have mystical elements in them, we can say, have an insight into the subtle workings of nature which in later stages can be organised into a set of general laws. This is understood from the manner how the same knowledge was acquired and established. Our ancestors express it in a structure or metaphor leaving to their successors to connect the dots on their own. Those who can achieve an insight and can establish it into a knowledge, the knowledge belongs to them only and practise it – ka shong eh ha la ka sap. Those who cannot, humbly accept that they are not made for it and are content to remain part of the diverse human ecosystem.
- We always hear this statement commonly voiced by evangelists of Christianity –u Khasi u la sah khynnah sah khunlung (U khasi is no more a man of his mental stature and thus has become a child, he has fallen short of the knowledge possessed by his ancestors, and also has lost the communion with god). But these words were subtly devised by evangelists to create a flaw in the philosophy and thereby opening the door for Jesus, the new god to become the medium between man and the Godhead, the Param-atman. But as mentioned above, the Khasis’ idea of the Godhead is not as it is portrayed by the western theologians. In fact, our god can be summed up as “the nature in its physical and essential form is God”. So, there is no duality of existence between the creator and the created.
- To a certain extent the ancestors were successful. Why? Because Khasi religion (as an offshoot of Khasi philosophy) is an interplay of man with the gods or the personal gods. Terms and conditions in the communication, when badly framed, give more edge to these gods. Later these gods, (when not systematically bounded by the covenant made between them and humans) plug in those pitfalls and come in to “communicate to humans through the forms of diseases” (from being good servants), at times to the point of wiping out the members of the clan, village, one by one.
- Pacification is hard and even trickier though the answer lies within the problem itself. It is equally impossible to do away with by mocking them out as it is us who in the first place invoked them.
- As if to give acceleration to the woes, the indigenous missionaries who saw this flaw, took the opportunity and came up with good results, besides other subtle means to win them over to the new fold.
- Another internal factor is the deterioration of the maternal uncle-ship which played all major religious roles, the knowledge system also goes alongside them to the funeral pyres. Not all shamans from outside the clan are as wise or equally responsible, especially when there is no one left who understands the intricacies of the task.
- A majority of Khasis themselves look at the culture from its material aspect only, be it the festivals, institutions, customs, mores. The metaphysical undertone that these are mere colours of the culture, are overlooked. More examples of these snags lie in how we branded the social values of kamai ia ka Hok (earn righteousness), im tip briew – tip Blei (know man to know God) and ka tip kur-tip kha (know the cognate and agnates) as the three pillars of our philosophy which centres on Life as its core. In fact, of all these three, only this last pillar is nearer to our philosophy by virtue of ancestors being one manifestation of that heritage from which we come.
- The word “tip” (know) is only one outer layer of the Life, not life per se. Since these three pillars have deeply impacted the knowledge system of the Khasis, they deserve the same degree of critical observation and analysis. For the present, this is summed up only in this question: “If one appeals to creator for restoration of lost balance (effected by diseases) on the promise to “earn righteousness… “, will such a communication be accepted by creator who is impersonal?”. The answer is no. The creator of the Khasis is the one who is beyond the ephemerals – beyond life and death. He is the existence of which life and death are mere phenomena. Such is the ramification of the internal cause.
- External factors play a role in that they only speed up the adulteration of the culture. I use the word “adulteration”, not “annihilation”. They cannot annihilate it because it is metaphysical. The creator is the author, the nature the book, and the pen.
The phenomenal layers will be subjected to changes, there is no going back. This is what everyone would correctly predict. But what outlives these is that which the “knowledge and the tongue cannot touch, even with the noblest of intentions”. Otherwise, the museums would have been the only saviours of this culture.