The long wait for the Sarna tribes of Jharkhand to gain special religious status in India

Geeta, 19, slowly hummed the song “he yo sarna yayyo” cooking for us. I approached her to listen to the song. She continued the song happily. The song sounded as melodious as her. It was time for Sarhul’s party. The feast of the worship of ancestors, nature, flowers, colors. And Geeta would be with her family wearing her favorite “sada” (white) saree and dancing the night away.

Geeta was our housekeeper in Ranchi while she was studying at a government college. They were a Sarna, an Oroan tribe, who belonged to the district of Khunti. Like Geeta, there are thousands of followers of the Sarna religion.

Tribals form 27% of the population of Jharkhand. The Sarna believers were aborigines of the land long before the establishment of the states of Bihar or Jharkhand. Their history is as old as the Mahabharata. I have always been in awe of this beautiful religious practice.

I first came across the Sarna creed during my sociology and anthropology classes at school. Whenever my favorite teacher talked about the beautiful tribes of India, I found his eyes lit up with excitement.

She always said that we have to learn a lot from our tribal community. And rightly so. But all this was only in theory.

I discovered this beautiful religion thanks to my friends when I was doing my master’s degree in Ranchi. I must confess that, like most Indians, I did not have much interaction with our native population. Indian films have painted all the false and hopeless images of Asian and African tribes. And like others, I too got carried away.

It took me a few days to understand the ethnic composition of Jharkhand. While some of my friends spoke the Mundari language, others spoke the beautiful Santhali language. We had summer camps in our management institute where we could spend 10 days in a row in our assigned villages. And these camps turned out to be a turning point in my life. I was actually living with the Jharkhand tribe, eating their food and learning every day. My stay in Khunti district brought me closer to the Munda tribe. Their culture, their religious practice, their eating habits were very similar to most Indian households. But what set them apart was their innocence, frank conversation and respect for elders.

Hadia (local fermented rice drink) had always been part of their ritual. So much so that it is openly offered to customers upon arrival. They too regard their guests as God. Their closeness to nature, worshiping the earth as their deity, worshiping mountains and forests, and protecting trees and all things natural is part of tribal life. Their fetish for cleanliness is something everyone appreciates. They eat and depend on everything local and locally produced.

Practitioners of the Sarna creed are neither Hindus nor Christians. While some tribes continue to practice the Sarna religion, most of them either converted to Christianity or practiced Hinduism. The reason is that the Sarna belief has no religious code. They have always claimed recognition as a separate religion. At present, a person who practices this religion must identify themselves as one of the six religions identified by the constitution or as “others”. Despite their regular demand for a separate religious code for the practice of Sarna, the constitution has the current Chief Minister of
Jharkhand, which also follows Sarna, like many others, has wanted a special religious status for the people of Sarna.

As I write this article and am transported to the world of greenery in the absolutely beautiful plateau of Chota Nagpur region with thatched roof houses and Hadia, I pray and hope that Sarna will get her due and Geeta, who is now a mother of two, does not have to confuse her children with their identity.