Amongst the 68 teeming million citizens of India who belong to tribal groups, Indian tribal religious concepts, terminologies and practices are as wide-ranging as the hundreds of tribes. However, members of these groups possess one thing in common: they believe in the constant insistency to remain united under religious faiths and customs. Most of the insistency, however, comes from the process of consolidation within a national political and economic system that brings tribes into increasing reach with other groups and uncountable prestigious belief systems. On the whole, those tribes that remain geographically separated in desert, hill, and forest regions or on islands are able to retain their traditional cultures and religions for a longer period of time.
The tribes that make a changeover, moving ahead from hunting and gathering and towards a sedentary agriculture are generally low-status labourers. These men always encounter their ancient religious forms in disintegration and their place being filled by practices of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, or Buddhism. Whatever be the cases or worries, religious life amongst Indian tribes is an exemplary situation, wherein everybody follows by the essential norms.
One of the most studied tribal religions is that of the Santhals of Orissa, Bihar and West Bengal. They are one of the largest tribes in India, with a population estimated at 4.2 million. They, quite evidently make a religious point over every other tribe in every religious aspect amongst Indian tribals.
Religious life in Indian tribes first begins with the Santhal religion, according to whom, the supreme deity is Thakurji, who ultimately commands over the complete universe. However, the primary reverence of belief falls on a court of spirits (bonga), who address different aspects of the world. These spirits must be appeased with prayers and oblations in order to ward-off evil influences. These spirits operate at the village, household, ancestor and sub-clan levels, along with evil spirits that induce disease. Going by religious beliefs in Indian tribal life, such evil spirits have possibilities to inhabit village boundaries, mountains, waters and the forest. A distinctive feature of the Santhal village is a sanctified grove on the perimeter of the settlement, where numerous spirits live and a series of annual festivals go on.
The most important spirit residing amongst Santhals is Maran Buru (Great Mountain), who is conjured up whenever offerings are made. Religious beliefs in this Indian tribe instructs that the Maran Buru first dictates the Santhals in sex and brewing of rice beer. Maran Buru`s consort is the benevolent Jaher Era (Lady of the Grove).
An annual round of rituals linked with the agricultural cycle, along with life-cycle rituals for birth, marriage and burial at death, calls for petitions to the spirits and offerings that include sacrificing of animals, usually birds. Religious life in this Indian tribe is dictated by the religious leaders, who are male specialists in medical cures. They like to practice soothsaying and witchcraft. Similar beliefs are common among other tribes of north-east and central India like the Kharia, Munda, and Oraon. Smaller and more isolated tribes often manifest less articulated classification systems of spiritual hierarchy, delineated as animism or a widespread worship of spiritual energies associated with locations, activities and social groups.
Indian religions tribal concepts are intricately interlaced with ideas regarding nature and dealings with local ecological systems. As in Santhal religion, religious specialists are drawn from the village or family and serve a vast range of spiritual functions focussing on appeasing potentially dangerous spirits and coordinating rituals.
The Naga tribes live in the mountains of north-east India. They believe in a specific earthquake god who created the earth out of the waters by earthquakes. The sons of this God now watch over mankind and punish those who perform wrong deeds. Religious life in this Indian tribe is quite quaint and secretive, compared to the others. Other deities without name or form reside in the mountains, forests, rivers and lakes, who need mollifying, for their hostile attitude to men. Omens and dreams are also generally believed in. Witchcraft is wide practised and some men are also believed to have the capability to turn into tigers. Some tribal groups sacrifice dogs or pigs when making a wood carving; otherwise the carver will soon fall ill or die. This most likely belongs to the older tradition of only allowing a man to carve a human figure in a morung (bachelors` dormitory) when he had taken a head. Head-hunting was a significant practice, since fertile crops depended on a sprinkling of blood from a stranger over the fields. Reincarnation is believed by many Naga tribes and the dead are buried in the direction from which their ancestors have arrived. The doctrine of genna (tabu) involves the entire social groups: villages, clans, households, age groups, sex groups, in a series of rituals that are regularly practised; this genna ritual is also the result of an emergency such as an earthquake.
The Bhils are one of the largest tribes of western India, living in parts of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra. Many Bhils are Hinduised. Religious life amongst this Indian tribe is known to be much varied and curious. There exists a myth of descent from a tiger ancestor. The Jhabua Bhil and others believe in Bhagavan or Bholo Iswor, who is a personal supreme God. They also believe in minor deities who have shrines on hills or underneath the trees. Worship of Bhagavan is generally performed at the settlement`s central sanctuary. There lies a human-oriented cult of the dead amongst the Bhils, whose main ritual is named Nukto and is practised in front of a dead person`s house. Nukto purifies the spirit of the dead and merges it with Bhagavan. Gothriz Purvez is the collective ancestor. The perception of a spirit-rider is crucial in Nukto and Gothriz Purvez accompanies the spirit on part of its journey to the after-world.
The Todas are a tiny pastoral community living on the 7000 Nilgiri Hills in South India. Religious belief in this Indian tribe is in the 1600 or 1800 superior godlike beings, the two most important being On and Teikirzi. On is the male god of Amnodr, the kingdom of the dead and he had procreated the Todas and their buffaloes. He was himself a dairyman. Teikirzi is a female deity and more imperative to the people. She once ruled when she lived in the Nilgiris and is known to have established Toda social and ceremonial laws. Most other deities are hill-gods, each linked to a particular hill. There are also two river-gods belonging to the two main rivers. Toda religion is based primarily upon the buffaloes and their milk. The temples are the dairies.
Many tribes in India demonstrate considerable syncretism with Hinduism, like the Kadugollas of Karnataka, who worship gods such as Junjappa, Yattappa, Patappa, and Cittappa. In reality they are more devoted to Shiva, who dominates their festivals and religious observances. Local deities are still of significance, though, the Bedanayakas of Karnataka worship Papanayaka. This deity is supposed to have lived 300-400 years ago as a holy man among them and who performed miracles.