Unitarian in Khasi Jaintia Hills: An indigenous religion with a liberal outlook
The Unitarian in the Khasi Jaintia and Karbi Anglong District of Assam, celebrates the 18th of September every year as the Church Anniversary Day, the church was started in these hills by Hajom Kissor Singh Lyngdoh Nongbri in the year 1887.
Dr. D.R. Syiemlieh in the book “Indigenous roots: Hajom Kissor Singh and the Founding of Unitarianism in the Khasi-Jaintia Hills,” wrote that “the advent of Unitarianism in the Khasi-Jaintia was a low-tone breakaway from Welsh Calvinistic Methodist (Presbyterian) Church. He further add that the “The foundation therefore should be examined in the broader context of the religious, cultural, social and intellectual ferment that the Khasi community was experiencing in the last quarter of the 19 century and in the early years of the present millennium.“
Hajom Kissor Singh, the founder of Unitarian movement in the region was born on the 15 June 1865 and he remains a lesser known personality in the Khasi Pnar society of Meghalaya. The fact is though Singh has started the Unitarian Church in the hills 124 years ago, being a non-proselytizing religion, the church remain a small minority hence the popularity of its founder.
He was converted to Christianity probably in the same year (1885) with his brother u Nissor Singh famous for writing the first ever Khasi dictionary. He grew up in the cradle of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist at Saitsohpen, Sohra and later in his life he witnessed the resurgence of the Khasi Traditional religion.
The Unitarian Church that H.K. Singh established is unique in its own right by maintaining its liberal outlook as well as took roots in the soil of the land and adopted some of the thoughts and philosophy of the region. Its claim of being and indigenous religion is base not only on fact that it was not started by any foreign missionary in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century; neither was it started with any foreign monetary assistance. It is also unique because this liberal Christian denomination which was started by a Khasi absorbed and adopted the basic tenets of the Khasi traditional thoughts and philosophy and hence the theology of the religion Singh started is original by blending the essence of the two faith traditions.
His concept of oneness of God who is 'both the mother and the father' was based both on the traditional belief and that of the Bible. He went further indigenizing the concept of God by using the Khasi word “Phi” to address the almighty which is commonly used to address those in a position much higher and more respectable instead of the Khasi word “Me.” HK Singh’s uses “Phi” to address the almighty was sometime misunderstood in the plural sense of the term, hence he was mistook for worshiping many Gods or gods.
It is believed that originally before the Khasi Pnar learned to pay obeisance to the smaller deities, they only worship U Blei Nongthaw Nongbuh. Hence till now; no ceremonial sacrifices are ever offered to God. The Unitarians in the hills worship God who requires no sacrifices.
Two Khasi stalwart Radhon Singh Berry and Job Solomon were contemporary of HK Singh. They were also known for their contribution to the literary development of the nascent Khasi language. The duo had also contributed to the growth of the Unitarian Church by composing hymns for the Church. In fact any study on Radhon Singh Berry will remain incomplete if his work on the Khasi Pnar Unitarian hymnbook is not taken into consideration. Both these men of letters emphasized in the hymns they composed the truth that the Khasi Pnar 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.” 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.”
H.K. Singh was against superstitious belief which was prevalent among the natives then, he was against the belief in ghosts and nature deities, the gods of rivers and mountains and the like. He composed many hymns which reflect this idea and in one hymn he wrote “it is the power that liberates us from worshiping ghost and demons.” In the first stanza of the hymn number 35 he said, “You have liberated us from darkness, we thank you Lord, from the bondage of superstitious belief, we thank you Lord, from the demons of the houses and the hills, -we thank you Lord.”
It may be mentioned that in the Khasi Jaintia thoughts and understanding; there is only one word for the two English words the spirit and the soul -“ka mynsiem.” “Mynsiem” could either mean the soul or the spirit. To the Khasi Pnar the human soul is the same with the all-pervading spirit. The Khasi does not differentiate between the two. Hence the other principle of belief of the Unitarian Church in Khasi Jaintia is that of the brotherhood and sisterhood of human in spirit and it can be understood in this context that the spirit permeates in all creation. To the Khasi, ‘ka mynsiem’ is that which connects one soul to another and that which encompass the entire universe and also that which transcend all creation. The universe and the entire creation is link by the spirit or filled with the spirit.
H.K. Singh’s concept of the everlasting live of the soul also bears the truth that he was inspired by the indigenous Khasi thoughts and philosophy of life after death. The Khasi concept live after dead is that the soul departed from the body will go eat bettlenuts in the corridor of God’s house, so traditionally the Khasi too belief that the soul lives eternally. The immortality of the soul also prove that spirit even transcends the realm of mortality.
Salvation to the Khasi is by deeds and character, the Khasi lays a great emphasis on the other cardinal principle of life of the Khasi which is known as ‘Kamai ia ka hok’ to earn righteousness. In the Khasi way of life, one’s entire life is governed by this principle alone. There are two traditional schools of thoughts with regard to salvation, one is of the opinion that, whatever wrong one does in one’s life will befall on one’s descendant and others are of the opinion that he who does not earn righteousness in his life will go to the nurok ka ksew (hell). Perhaps the later was an influence of Christian theology because the common believe is that after dead one shall go to eat bettlenuts in the corridor of the God’s dwelling. The Unitarian also shares a similar belief that salvation is by one’s own deeds and character and not by faith alone. In the hymn number 277 he wrote: “He who have gave one’s soul, to serve the Lord untiringly, those who have spend their lives, to help fellow human without regret. Blessings they will receive, Before the Lord of honour.”
His idea of after life is that the spirit departed will return to the Kingdom of the Spirit. There is no concept of the saved and the damned, hence salvation is universal according to HK Singh’s thoughts and philosophy. Hymn number 1 which is the statement of faith of the Unitarians in the hills is a testimony of his belief in immortality of the spirit. Stanza number 4 of the hymn says: God has created us to be immortal, to have an everlasting life and to progress forever.
H.K.Singh concept of life after dead is that the spirit departed from the soul will journey to the Kingdom of the Spirits. He described the Kingdom of the Spirit thus: “We cannot compare the Kingdom of the spirit with this earthly shelter, if for this earthly body, God has provided so much, which will be buried under the ground, tomorrow or so, so much is in store in the Kingdom of the Spirit”.
In the third stanza of the same hymn, the poet sings: “In the Kingdom of the Spirit, there will be no more trouble; there’s only wellsprings of life, which flows eternally. Further more in the next stanza of the hymn he says “In the land of the Spirit, in love we will grow forever.”
One can conclude that HK Singh’s thoughts and philosophy are original and though he started Unitarianism in the region he did not merely copy the theology of other Unitarian groups in different parts of the World; but rather developed it by blending it with his own understanding of it from the Khasi Pnar context and propagate the same among his folks.