Exhaustive study of Munda tribal society

THE MUNDA OF CENTRAL INDIA - AN ACCOUNT OF THEIR SOCIAL ORGANIZATION Robert Parkin Publisher: Oxford University Press, Delhi Price not stated

By K S Singh
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

THE BOOK under review is an exhaustive, intensely researched, painstaking study of the social organisation of the Munda of Central India. This area is not the same as the historical or the political region, and is being increasingly referred to now as middle India. The author disarmingly admits he was unable to carry out conventional fieldwork for reasons of health and therefore he could not check facts on the ground. Instead, he has drawn on those published works that he considers "sufficiently comprehensive".

There has been a remarkable awakening among the young Munda. The Ramayana has been translated into their language Mundari and the Munda have begun writing in their own language, delving into fiction, poetry, history, their own society and ethnography.

Like many others, the author questions Dumont's model of Indian society as essentially a Hindu one, based on the spread of Hindu and caste values through all the various communities. This model has tended to undermine the alternative view -- that India has many cultural systems, each with a great deal of autonomy, and even though there has been a great deal of interaction among them, there has been neither total submergence nor loss of autonomy.

The author has identified almost all of the Munda communities and their subgroups, except probably the Paharias. Among his listings, the Kol Lohar in Orissa are bilingual in the Kol language; the Lodhas speak Lodha, an Austro-Asiatic tongue; the Cheros are no longer considered Munda, and, in fact, Munda communities are tribes and not "castes".

The social organisation of the Munda communities like the Gonds and Bhils, or for that matter of any other large group, is spread over a wide territory. As scholars have noted, many elements of social organisation such as kinship, have been territorial rather than ethnic in nature. Again, like the Bhil and Gond, the Munda community appears to be split geographically along a north and south axis, but also between what is called the northern and the southern kinship system, in which kinship is the dominant principle. As the author puts it succinctly, "At all three levels of Munda territorial organisation -- tribe, federation and village -- kinship appears to be a truer expression of identity" (p 99). Marriage, as he notes, is also linked to territorial identity.

The author has done well to draw attention to the differences in the notion of reincarnation of the Hindus and the Munda. Superficially, there is a great deal of resemblance as both speak of the inter-dependence of the living and the dead and of links with ancestors, reinforced through rituals of remembrance and homage.

The author sums up the characteristics of Munda social organisation in terms of equivalence of alternative generation and of the ideology of repeated, symmetric, affinal alliance. These have parallel elsewere in the aboriginal societies of Latin America and Australia and even some non-Munda Indian communities. When I was preparing geneological charts among the Hos, I found that the grandson's name often duplicated his grandfather's name. This practice can be traced to the belief that grandson and grandfather are "sprititually" linked.

The author's assertion that the Karmic doctrine most probably originated in tribal or Munda theories of rebirth and recirculation of souls, should be discussed further. The Munda, according to the author, provide an example of a prescriptive kinship system that in some cases is moving to a non-prescriptive system. Thus, he concludes, the theory of reincarnation and the prescriptive system of India cannot be derived from high-caste ideology, even though it has modified them (p 226). One cannot agree more.

However, the author would have done well to use the material from two authoritative texts, Archer's Tribal Law and Justice, A Report on the Santals and Von Exem's The Religious System of the Munda.

K S Singh is the director-general of the Anthropological Survey of India

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