Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Hajom Kissor Singh

Hajom Kissor Singh (June 15, 1865- November 13, 1923) was born and lived all his life in the Khasi Hills of the state of Meghalaya in North Eastern India. With no knowledge of the faith in other lands, he became a Unitarian through his own studies. After communication with America and other Unitarians, he founded a Unitarian Church in the town of Jowai, now the headquaters of the Indian Council of Unitarian Churches (ICUC). Singh led a growing movement in his state where there are now more than 30 churches having some 10,000 members.
Kissor was the older of two sons of Bor Singh, a police sergeant in Jowai, a town in the mountainous, Northeastern most corner of India where the Jaintia Hills and the Khasi Hills meet. The Khasi people, a tribe that had come to India from Southeast Asia, had their own non-Hindu religion featuring belief in a creator God, and whose shamanistic practice was based upon the propitiation of good, evil, and ancestor spirits. “In the Khasi religion at present,” Singh wrote in 1891, “there are thousand of demons and many rites and customs. I believe our forefathers had few demons, and I have heard from old people that at first our forefathers worshipped and offered sacrifices to God and not to demons.”
Until about 25 years Kissor’s birth, the Khasi language had no script. Welsh Calvinistic Methodist missionaries created the first Khasi text when they produced a Khasi translation of the Bible. Thereafter, they opened the first schools and printed primers and a book of grammar.
At age 15 Singh converted to the Reform faith of the Welsh missionaries. By the time he reached the age when he might have matriculated from college, he had acquired the means of self-education. He was a good student, especially of religion. This led him to become a “questioning member” of the Methodist Church, doubting orthodox Christianity. He recorded his difficultied, concerns and original thinking in a diary which demonstrates a keen mind, precocious wisdom, and compassion.
Singh observed that the Welsh missionaries had done away with fear of demons, only to replace it with fear of hell. He deplored their hostility to Catholic missionaries wishing to settle in the Khasi Hills, as well as their unfriendliness to himself when he concluded from his studies that he would have to leave their church to seek “the true religion of Jesus, the love of God.”
Margaret Barr, a British Unitarian, served the Khasi Unitarian Comminity after Singh’S time. She wrote of his religious outlook, “He felt and declared that the message of election, damnation and salvation-by going to a certain church and profession of a certain creed- was incompatible with the teachings of Jesus as he read for himself in the Gospels… He tried to persuade his fellow Christians that the essence of Christianity was to be found in Christ’s way of life and scale of values and not in any scheme of salvation by blood or faith… whether Pauline or Calvinistic.”
Young Singh had reached classic Unitarian convictions and had begun appealing to others to see their merit, without knowing that anyone else in the world thought as he did. When he was 25, he learned from a Brahmo convert (a member of the liberal Hindu Brahmo Samaj-or Society of Brahman) of Charles Henry Appleton Dall, an American Unitarian minister in Calcutta. Dall, Singh was told, thought as he did. There soon ensued an excited exchange of letters between the two men. Dall sent a volume of the writings of William Ellery Channing. Singh suddenly understood that many others, called Unitarians, shared his faith. Thereafter he called his faith “Ka Niam Unitarian” (The Unitarian Religion.)
Singh began gathering friends in his home for religious discussion. Dall continued to write to him, encouraging his efforts, and also sent more Unitarianism in the Khasi Hills but now that my helper has died it will be very diificult to do this alone.”
According to Singh’s biographer, before receiving Dall’s help he already had vision and faith, but he had lived in an intellectual vacuum and was much in need of links to a larger world of religious thought and history. Helen Tomkins took charge of the Unitarian Mission of the American Unitarian Association (AUA) after Dall’s death. She sent Singh copies of the Unitarian Magazine. He soon wrote to the magazine’s editor, Jabez T. Sunderland, who sent more literature.
On September 18, 1887, an anniversary date Khasi Unitarians celebrate, Singh led the first real church service in his home in Jowai. One woman and two men joined him as the first members of a new church. Around tjis same time u Heh Phlong, a man who lived about 20 miles away in the village of Nongtalang, received Channing’s writings and also broke from Calvinism. A little later a Khasi pastor, David Edwards, in the village of Raliang, became Unitarian and left his pastorate. These three joined their efforts to promote, “a religion which they could preach with conviction.” Of the three Kissor Singh was best educated, as well as a natural leader of great ability.
A statement of faith was adopted by the Khasi Unitarians, and reported in 1888 by Singh in the Unitarian” “We believe (1) in the unity of God; (2) in the Fatherhood and Motherhood of God; (3) in the Brotherhood of Man; (4) in Love, Union, Worship and Faith; and (5) in Immortality.”
Sunderland was a source of major assistance to the Khasi Unitarians. He solicited funds from Helen Bates and others of Waterville, Maine and used the money to publish 500 copies of Singh’s A Book of Services and Hymns in the Khasi Language, 1892. Funds from London were used for publication of several tracts in Khasi in 1893. By 1889 the Jowai congregation had gained 30 members who acquired a church building. They soon opened an elementary school, teaching in the Khasi language.

Justice in the Khasi Pnar Tribal Context

The Khasis- Pnar is one of the many tribal groups of the North Eastern Part of India and majority of the tribe live in the state of Meghalaya which is adjacent to Assam. Like any tribe; the Khasi-Pnar has a unique culture, tradition and language. The Khasi way of life is still govern to some extend by a Tribal way of life.

The Khasi word for Justice is “Ka Hok.” Ka hok also means Truth and Righteousness. So when the Khasi use the word Ka Hok it means Justice, Truth and Righteousness. The Khasi Justice system is based on truth and nothing but the truth and it also means delivering Justice Righteously. Even before any battle or a duel, the Khasi people will always swear by Ka Hok. Ka Hok in the Khasi-Pnar context is a sacred word; it is something that one will keep in a high esteem. Ka Hok governs the day to day life of the Khasi people and they try to live by it. One of the cardinal rules of the Khasi Pnar is known as “Kamai ia ka hok”, which literarily means to earn righteousness, so a Khasi Pnar is expects to try live righteously throughout one’s life.

The Unitarian Union North East India or the Khasi Unitarian as it is commonly known, is a church which has it roots in the Khasi-Pnar thoughts and culture and also being a liberal a religion it spread it wings to absorb truth and meaning from the wider world.

(Rev. H.H. Mohrmen is a minister in the Unitarian Union North East India; he is currently the General Secretary of the Unitarian Union. He was trained at the Unitarian college Manchester and he is also currently studying through distance education mode MA in Christian Studies from Madras University. Mohrmen also has his own Blog at hhmohrmen.blogspot.com his email ID is hh_mohrmen@yahoo.com. )

Concept of God in the Khasi Unitarian Context

H.H. Mohrmen

Concept of God in the Khasi Pnar Society

Traditionally the Khasi Pnar, the naitve of the Khasi and Jaintia hills of Meghalaya are monotheistic in their belief, the most common term or name by which the Khasi Pnar use to call God is ‘U Blei Nongbuh Nongthaw,’ God the Creator. Even though the Khasi Pnar believe in One God, they also pay obeisance to other deities like the hundreds of Nature gods and protectors (30 Ryngkaw Basa) and family deities (Blei iing), in their pantheon of Gods.
In his article KHASI CONCEPT OF RELIGION (Late) Dr. R.S. Lyngdoh Professor and Head, Khasi Department, North-Eastern Hills University , which was published in Centenary Souvenir of the Seng Khasi (1899-1999) defines as follows:
“They believe that at the beginning, they were the children of God in heaven as members of the Khadhynriew Trep Khadhynriew Skum- the sixteen huts the sixteen roots…From time immemorial, through the ageless unrecorded history, the Khasi have developed a definite idea about God and Man; about the existence of heaven, earth and hell; about the existence of the body and the soul; about the subjective and objective values; about sin and external truth; about the existence of evil spirits; and about the relationship between man and man, man and all values and man God. They have their own belief in the beginning and the end of all things and their belief in the beginning of creation.”

“The Khasi believe in one God called “Blei” who can manifest Himself in all forms and values. Mr. David Roy, in his celebrated article entitled “Khasi Religion” gives the following description of God Almighty: - U Blei Nongthaw Nongbuh – God the Creator of our bodies and the creation (Nongthaw), and God who fills up and fills the universe with life. U Blei Trai Kynrad – The Lord God and Master, U Blei Shihajar Nguh – God to whom all obeisance is due, U Blei na jrong na tbian – God who fills the heavens and the earth (the universe), God who is immanent and transcendent, U Blei U Nongsei – God who causes to be and to grow, U Blei Uba iohi Uba tip – God who sees and who knows – to whom nothing is hidden or unknown.”

Dr. H. Kelian Synrem again in the same souvenir in her article RELIGION OF THE KHASIS said, “The Khasi believes that U Blei the Creator is the Universal God who created everything living and non-living, big and small to be multiplied and to prosper in this beautiful wide world. According to the Khasi belief, U Blei created different races of mankind and in each race he gave different cultures and religions, different traditions and customs to be followed and in their own way of life.”

U Blei Nongthaw Nongbuh is not the only name that the Khasi Pnar uses to call God, they also have another name for God and that is ‘U Trai kynrad.’ Whether ‘U Trai Kynrad’ is Khasi translation of English ‘Lord’ which again derived from Greek word “Kyrios” is a matter of debate. Certainly in the Christian context; the using of word ‘U Trai’ connotes the New Testament concept of Lord which many times refer to the second person in the holy trinity which means Jesus Christ. This is what Christian churches assumes and would like others to believe that the name Trai that Khasi gives to their God has a Christian origin and hence a Christian meaning.

U Trai is not a post Khasi-Christian period invention, in the Khasi parlance, the term has been in use since time immemorial. Apart from using the name God, the Khasi also use the word Kynrad or U Trai Kynrad in paying obeisance to God Almighty. Incidentally the word Trai in Khasi also has the same meaning with that of the English Lord, which means owner, foundation, foothold etc.

In the context of the Pnar or the indigenous people of Jaintia hills, they use two terms when refer to God. God the creator, ‘U Blai wabuh wathoo’ which is identical to Khasi Blei Nongbuh Nongthaw and God in English and “Tre Kirot” which is equivalent to Lord. The word “Tre” in the Pnar parlance literarily means Owner, Lord, foundation, foothold or roots. “Kirot” means Caring and Compassionate and the other meaning of Kirot is bountiful and perfect. Tre Kirot literarily means bountiful Lord the caring and compassionate one.

The War Jaintia, which is a sub tribe of the Khasi, people who live in the southern slopes of Jaintia Hills, speaks a Khasi language which is quite different from the other dialect use by the other Khasi sub tribe. Infact scholars believe that the Amwi dialect spoken by the people of War Jaintia is the foundation of the whole Khasi language. And in the War Jaintia dialect there is only one word for God and that is “Prai”. There is no one word equivalent to Lord in the war Jaintia, but just “Prai u ae thia” which literarily means “U Blei Nongthaw” in Khasi and its English translation is God the Creator. Whether ‘Prai’ means both God and Lord is another question, but base on the evidence use by the War Jaintia people, ‘Prai’ which incidentally similar to both ‘Trai and Blai” in the Pnar language, connotes the same meaning.

H.K. Singh’s concept of God as appeared in the Unitarian Hymnal.

It is obvious from the hymns that he composed; Hamjom Kissor Singh’s concept of God is that of a traditional Khasi Pnar concept, God the Creator and who is both God and Lord at the same time. Like the traditional concept, he does not differentiate one from the other.

In his Statement of belief, of H.K. Singh in the stanza 2 of the hymn number 1 in the Khasi Unitarian hymnbook describes his idea of God as ‘The living God is one only God/ He is our real father-mother/He is filled with love and compassion/ And forgive those who repent.’

By calling God of being both “Father and Mother” entity; HK Singh went a step ahead the traditional concept of a male creator God, his concept of God is God beyond gender. This is the uniqueness of Khasi Unitarian theology that although generally God is referred to as male even in the Khasi matrilineal society, yet God is beyond gender. Although Khasi Pnar tend to use the prefix ‘U’ before the word God which represents the male gender of God, Khasi Pnar have no image of God and their concept of God is more of a spirit which pervades. Singh’s concept of God beyond gender and more of a formless spirit in nature is Khasi’s own concept of God.

HK Singh further elaborate his idea of God in hymn no 61 when he said, Sing God’s praise; Lord of heaven and earth,/ His wisdom unfathomable,/ All creation on earth and in heaven,/ Is living proof of his greatness all over./Sing God’s praise, Lord of stars and moon,/ He is filled with glory, righteousness and lights;/ All things that we see,/ He made thus to teach us. Sing God’s praise, he is our mother and father;/Giver of spiritual light, He blesses us too./ He is loving, forgiving and wishes that,/We love our neighbors, do good and live courteously.

Sing God’s praise, Lord of lords, King of kings/Lord of life and death Lord of the spirit/ Lord of times is also Lord of seasons,/ Peace be unto us who worship him eternally. In the hymn number 5, HK Singh says: One God/ One truth/ One true religion. In the hymn no 22 of the Unitarian hymnal, he says, One God, one church/ One people, one mission/ Love God love friends/Live a blessed life.

In Hymn number 59 he further said, Praise the Lord vociferously, / Our Creator, / Care giver, Keeper and benefactor/ He is the greatest Lord. /With God support/ Heaven and earth last forever;/ by divine love and grace,/ He showed us way of life. /He bestowed wisdom on us,/ Lights, Spiritual consolation too;/ Understanding and overall progress,/ And plant love inside us. /That we may attain perfection/ Peace in him we’ll find;/ In love we’ll flourish forever/ We’ll all live in peace with God.

Hymn number 70 when translated says /Sing sweet praise for God,/ Spirit filled with joy,/ We only trust his benevolent / That flows and flood forever. /In his benevolent, / We live and were blessed;/ Only he can quench the thirst,/Of a dry and thirsty soul. /There is no other like God,/ In heaven and earth;/ Fill with love and forgiveness/ For us to give and fill. /Let us sing to the Lord,/ Kneeling we’ll pray;/ Our souls will be enlightened,/ With perfect peace.

In the stanza 1of hymn number 137 he says, /Oh God who is eternally wise / Creator and everlasting provider/ Heaven and earth cannot/ encompass all your riches.

Two Khasi stalwart Radhon Singh Berry and Job Solomon were contemporary of HK Singh. They were also known for their contribution to the literary field of the nascent Khasi language. RS Berry and J. Solomon had also immensely contributed to the growth of the Unitarian movement by composing hymns for the Church. Radhon Singh Berry , a Seng Khasi man who composed more than 30 hymns in the Unitarian hymnbook later became Unitarian and Job Solomon remain a Presbyterian deacon till his breath his last. Both these men of letters emphasized in the hymns they composed in the Unitarian hymnbook the truth that Khasi Unitarian’s God is God in the traditional Khasi Pnar context.

R.S. Berry in the hymn number 43 stanza 3, says: /This is not a foreign God; / God of our own he is,/ He created you the way you are;/ Now he come to awake you. Then Job Solomon in the hymn number 6 he again stress on the idea in the stanza 5 which says, This is our God;/ God of our ancestor too,/ God of the Pnars and the Khasi;/ He is also Lord of the Lords.

The concept of God in the Khasi Unitarian context is God in the traditional Khasi concept a Universal and formless God. Khasi Unitarian concept of God is not God in the Judeo-Christian context -the father in heaven, God in an anthromorphical form or God in human image. The Khasi God is God in spirit and all pervading God. Hence Unitarianism in the Khasi Jaintia hills is an indigenous religion precisely because unlike other faith organization; it was not brought to these hills by a missionary, but it sprung up from its own soil. It was on the September 18, 1887 that a Khasi Christian whose search for the ultimate truth found solace in the faith in one God. Hajom Kissor Singh Nongbri faith in one God found a home in Unitarianism. The basic belief of Unitarian Church in the Khasi Jaintia hills is based on the Khasi Pnars own beliefs. Hence, Unitarian in the Khasi Jaintia hills is a like a tree which grows and spread its branches and leaves and the same time draw strength from its roots.