Religion of The Munda: Tradition Meets the Modern World

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The Munda gather together to worship a village deity, whom they believe to be the protector of their tribe during the festival of Sarhul

 Since the very beginning of time, the Munda tribe has practiced their traditional religion of Sarna (Elst). Sarna is a unique type of polytheism which, at times, mirrors the major monotheistic religions of the world today (Elst). For example, Singbonga, or the sun god, is the “Great God of His Munda People”, and is very similar to the God of the Old Testament (Elst). Omniscient, omnipotent, and eternal, the sun god is independent of the material world and rules over the entire universe (Elst). His purity requires offerings of all things white, the sacred color of most indigenous Indian tribes (Elst). These sacrifices can include, but are not limited to, sugar, milk, white cloth, goats, birds, and gulainchi flowers (Elst). Singbonga may punish the Munda people for various offenses, such as breaking the taboo of endogamy, by causing illness or misfortune to befall them (Elst). His relationship with the people mirrors that of Yahweh, as he does not demonstrate affections on an individual basis, but favors the tribe as a whole (Elst). Because of this, pahans, or priests, possess no status differences from the typical person (Elst).

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Singbonga, the Sun God


Singbonga is the supreme god at the top of a hierarchy of spirits, which include other, lesser beings. These ‘spirits’ may include celestial beings, nature spirits, and the souls of departed ancestors (Elst). Good spirits, also known as Manitabongas, are praised, while Banitabongas, or malevolent beings, are simply appeased through prayer and small-scale offerings (Elst). These lesser spirits are arranged in a hierarchy of importance, with the first being Burubonga, or the ‘mountain god’, as represented by the highest hill in the neighborhood (Elst). Subsequent to the mountain god comes the Hatu Bongako, or the village spirits, who are celebrated by the village pahan in a sacred grove at designated times (Elst). The ancestral spirits, also referred to as the Ora Bongako or ‘house spirits’ are the final link in the chain (Elst). These ‘house spirits’ are thought to be deceased family members, and are worshipped by the head of the household in a private sanctuary called the adling (Elst). After death, the popular belief is that a person’s spirit roams the land near its grave until a ceremony called Umbul-ader, which literally means ‘homebringing of the shade’, is performed, reintroducing the deceased to the tribe and giving it a place to reside (Elst). The Ora Bonga are believed to be the true benefactors of the family to which they belong (Elst).
Although this polytheistic chain seems stereotypically pagan, these lesser beings actually function as intermediaries between the people and their ultimate creator, much like the Roman Catholic saints. Because of this, the Sarna religion provided a good starting point for Christianity, which took hold in the community and has become the only other major religion of the Munda people (Elst). Missionaries saw the Munda as ‘almost-Christians’ who only needed to be enlightened about the life of Jesus (Elst). The Mundas worship of the sun was excused on the premise that the ‘sun’ was not literally a god being worshipped, but an icon used to represent an immaterial, divine reality that otherwise could not be fully grasped (Elst).
In spite of the effects of modern Christianity on the Munda people, their ancient religious traditions still hold true in many aspects of life. An ethnocentric people, the tribe itself is the sacred center of their religion, for it is believed that the tribe is the gateway to salvation (Elst). Because of this, the Munda have no written moral code; rather, their ideas of right and wrong stem from tradition (Elst). They believe in two different types of wrong doing, which are categorized as either ethical or tribal (Elst). Ethical offenses are decisions, words, and actions which consciously result in harm to another (Elst). Tribal offenses are considered to be the most atrocious due to the sacred aspect of the tribe, and usually result in excommunication (Elst). Marriage between the Munda and members of any other clan is strictly prohibited, as the integrity of the tribe must be preserved at any and all costs (Elst).


Elst, Koenraad. Sarna: A Case Study in Natural Religion. Retrieved April 2, 2011, from http://koenraadelst.bharatvani.org/articles/chr/sarna.html

(2008). Munda Tribe. Retrieved April 2, 2011, from http://www.ecoindia.com/tribes/munda.html