Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Myth and the Mizo World View

-Cherrie Lalnunziri Chhangte, Mizoram University.
(Paper presented at International Seminar on History of Religions, JNU, October 8-10, 2007)

When one looks at the various myths found among the Mizo, one may discern areas in which Mercier Eliade’s concepts of myth and religion are vastly applicable. In the realm of religion, in keeping with Eliade’s conception of a High God (Deus Oteosis) found in many pre-agricultural societies, Mizos, too, believed in the existence of a benevolent God called Pathian or poetically, Khuanu, who was the Creator. However, they also believed in numerous spirits called Huais, who were ill-disposed towards humans. These Huais were believed to reside in high precipices, large rocks, caves, large trees, holes in the earth, water springs, waterfalls, and underwater. Living in poor hygienic conditions and without the benefits of modern medicine, the people of those days suffered from many diseases ranging from ulcerous sores to tuberculosis and mental disorders. They were convinced that all their illnesses were caused by angry spirits.1 When misfortune struck, they would try to appease the spirits they had presumably displeased. The exorcist (Bawlpu) or the priest (Puithiam) would determine which spirit had been offended, and what sacrifices must be offered. Much time and effort, therefore, was expended in seeking cures or reversing misfortune, so much so that many earlier scholars presumed that the religion of the Mizos consisted basically in the worship of these evil spirits.
Contemporary scholars like Mankhosat Kipgen2 contest this opinion, and offer instances to substantiate the view that it was to the beneficient Pathian (also referred to as Khuanu), or God, to whom the Mizos directed their true worship, in contrast to the sacrificial offerings made to the Huais for appeasement. John Shakespear, in 1912, had observed thus:
Practically all divisions of the Lushai-Kuki family believe in a spirit called Pathian, who is supposed to be the creator of everything and is a beneficient being, but has, however, little concern with men.3
Again, when one looks at the origin myth of the Mizos4, one finds a period that corresponds to Eliade’s conception of a “paradise” in mythical times, where contraries exist side by side without conflict, which represents a mysterious unity. In the Mizo origin myth, there is an account of a time, perhaps a “sacred time” when all living beings, flora, fauna and humans coexisted harmoniously and could communicate with one another.
Eliade focuses on the importance of the Sacred and its value, stating that Myth is the first appearance of the Sacred; therefore, mythical time is Sacred Time, the only time of value. Traditional man performs myths and rituals, and by recounting or reenacting mythical events, myths and rituals “re-actualize” those events. Religious behavior does not only commemorate, but participates in sacred events. Man enters “sacred time” by imitation, through the performance of rituals and ceremonies, a belief that is central to his theory of the Eternal Return, man’s existential longing to return to this sacred, mythological time.
Interestingly, though a majority of the pre-Christian beliefs of the Mizos were abandoned with the advent of Christianity, certain elements have been retained by Mizo Christians, especially in the area of songs. Since many of the traditional songs of old were intertwined with the pagan practices of the Mizos, the British missionaries discouraged their continued use in the church, along with other practices such as drinking liquor (zu), which had constituted a crucial part of their social gatherings. The traditional drum (khuang) itself, which always accompanied the songs and chants, was considered unsuitable for church even up to as late as the 1930s. However, with the passage of time, there has been a return to cultural roots within the church in recent times. The melody of typical Mizo songs (lengkhawm zai) such as the one sung by the revelers in the Mizo origin myth (the chai) have been adopted to religious lyrics and sung to the accompaniment of the khuang in the church as well as in other social gatherings. The khuang, the very instrument played by the mole in the origin myth, seems to have been restored to its former glory; in contemporary times, it plays a pivotal role not only in the church but also in the homes of bereaved families, where the community gathers to give solace to the family members by singing. Church revivals in Mizo churches gain momentum through the singing, which, again, is incomplete without the presence of a khuang, or even two khuangs, and despite the adaptation of western hymns and musical influences, the congregation tends to revert to traditional tunes when it is truly in the midst of an intense spiritual experience. Again, the Christian God is referred to as “Pathian”, the same name given to the pre-Christian God. Hence there is an ingenious intertwining of mythical practices and beliefs with Christianity in the Mizo context.
“Every ritual and every important human action gain their effectiveness by repeating a mythical archetype, and thus share in the potency and the sacredness that still inhere in that primeval happening.”5 The man who imitates a mythological model, whether in ritual or a private undertaking, is enabled thereby to transcend and abolish profane time and enter again the mythical, eternal time. Eliade further notes that the main function of myth is “to determine the exemplar models of all ritual, and all significant human acts.”6 The importance of the events related in myth is that they form a model or paradigm for all human undertakings thereafter. Thus, even in practical matters, there have been viable models in myth for modern man to follow. The communal work seen in the origin myth is a practice carried on even in contemporary times. To this day, in Mizo society, the entire community, regardless of social and professional status, participates in community activities such as the cleaning of the locality, the digging of graves, helping widows and the poor, and contributing time and expertise in all community and church feasts. The basic structure of the typical Mizo house built on stilts is retained especially in the villages, the presence of this kind of structure having been first seen in the origin myth. Time limitations prevent too comprehensive a study of all Mizo myths and their symbolic significances. On a closing note, mention may be made of Eliade’s concept of modern man’s “terror of history”, an anxiety that might be observed in contemporary Mizo society. There exists only as scattering of ancient practices surviving in Mizo culture today, a loss that might largely be attributed to the mass conversion to Christianity; however, this has been compounded by other forces of modernism and globalization. Eliade’s suggestion that the abandonment of mythical thought and the full acceptance of linear, historical time with its “terror” as one of the reasons for modern man’s anxiety7 may be a relevant warning to contemporary society in general. Modern man, according to him, has denied the Sacred and must therefore invent value and purpose on his own. Without the Sacred to confer an absolute, objective value upon historical events, modern man is left with a “relative nihilistic view of history” and a “resulting spiritual aridity”8, an aridity that is perhaps at the heart of much of the angst witnessed in the society.

1. F.W. Savidge, “Religion Without Scriptures II: The Religion of the Lushai Hillmen”, The
Missionary Herald, Vol. 89, No. 7, July 1907, p. 206.
2. Mangkhosat Kipgen, Christianity and Mizo Culture, Jorhat: Mizo Theological Conference, 1996,
p. 206.
3. John Shakespear, The Lushai-Kuki Clans (1912), repr., Aizawl: Tribal Research Institute, 1975,
p. 61.
4. See appendix for a review of the Mizo origin myth.
5. Robert Luyster, “The Study of Myth: Two Approaches”, Journal of Bible and Religion, Vol. 34, No. 3, July 1996, p. 236.
6. Mercier Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, , trans. Rosemary Sheed, London: Sheed and Ward, 1958, p. 410.
7. Mercier Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History, trans. Willard R. Trask, Princetown U Press, 1954, pp. 231-245.
8. Mercier Eliade, Myth and Reality, Willard R. Trask, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1964, p. 65.

Appendix
The Mizo Origin Myth.
Eons ago, in time immemorial, a goddess named Khuazingnu created the earth. To make it cool and habitable, she created all sorts of vegetation, and to nurture these, she periodically opened the windows of heaven and poured water upon the earth. She created humans and other living beings to devour the foods and fruits produced by the plants. All living beings could talk and communicate with one another.
Time went by, and these living creatures reproduced and multiplied, co-existing harmoniously. They never harmed each other, and they were never in want of food. With the increase in population, beings of different natures and temperaments emerged, and they decided that they needed a ruler to protect them and rule over them. So, they chose one among them to be their king.
One night, after having had his supper, this king took a nap. It was the night of the full moon, and all creatures made merry dancing and singing, celebrating the moonlight. In the midst of their revelry, the moonlight suddenly began to fade and disappear even as they were looking on. The creatures became frantic with worry, and proceeded to make a loud commotion by banging on whatever object that could produce sound. After a while, the moon reappeared, and this made them very happy. In the meantime, the king had awoken at the tremendous noise that his subjects had made. In response to his query, the elders narrated what had transcribed. The king said, “Listen, while I was asleep, I dreamt that I had swallowed the moon; then, I heard a terrific noise, and I became scared, so I spat out the moon again with great difficulty.” The elders then noticed that the king’s mouth indeed had deep gashes and bloodstains at the sides, and they believed that the king had truly swallowed the moon.
Not long after, the king died, went to Heaven and was transformed into a Creature who could, and often did, swallow the moon. Once, he swallowed the moon for such a long time that the whole earth was plunged into darkness from morning till night. With total darkness enveloping the earth, there was complete chaos and nobody could do any work because they could not see anything. During this time, there were sudden transformations among the creatures of the earth; some humans became monkeys, while young boys and girls became birds. The village elders were transformed into a flock of birds, and the bravest hunter became a tiger, and so on. Their Creator, the goddess Khuazingnu, became anxious and sad that her creations were changed into lesser beings. Before they could all be transformed, she decided to put a couple from each human clan, as well as representatives of each animal species, into a deep pit, and sealed the pit with a huge rock called Chhinlung.
After four or five generations had been born, the goddess decided that enough living beings existed to sustain life on earth. She gingerly lifted the rock, Chhinlung. There was a loud buzz from within, and when she opened the covering fully, droves of humans emerged from behind the rock, like locusts. After many humans had emerged, the Ralte clan came out in a great multitude, noisier than the other clans, and full of arrogance. At this juncture, the goddess decided that there were enough people, and she closed the Chhinlung again.
While under the Rock, humans and sprites had cohabited freely, and produced offspring. Among these was an exceptionally strong and powerful man named Thlanrawkpa, born of a liaison between a human and a sprite. He became the king, and planned to host a great feast, later known as Thlanrawkpa Khuangchawi to show off his might and splendor. Unfortunately, he forgot to invite Sabereka, his father-in-law. Sabereka was furious, and caused a thunderstorm to rain for the entire night on the eve of the feast. The rain washed away all the earth of the village, leaving behind only the rocky layer underneath. It became impossible for the villagers to dig through the rocks to mount the pillar on which was hoisted the mithun’s head, a crucial part of the feast.
There was a fertile expanse of earth on the other side of a perilous body of water; the otter and the badger volunteered to make trips across the water to bring back the earth to their village. The earthworms volunteered to eat the earth once it had been transported so that it would be multiplied through their excreta. The legendary Chhurbura offered to beat the earth so that the level would remain even on the ground. In this way, all beings of the village cooperated with one another, contributing to the community work until the earth became habitable again, and the glorious feast could be held.
All creatures made merry during this feast, laughing, playing and dancing. The mole played the drum and in his enthusiasm, he donned a flower on his head. It was not a pretty sight, and the other creatures laughed at him. He became angry and retreated into his hole with the drum (khuang) and would not be mollified. Since the feast could not go on without the drum, they tried various means to cajole him out of his hole. Eventually they poured water down one end of the burrow, and he emerged, still sulking, with the khuang and threw it out. It landed just at the knee joints of the hen, who was nearby, and to this day, the hen’s knee joints are bent backwards as a result of this incident.
It was at this feast, which went on for several days, that many creatures were given their names, based on their performances and feats, and they retain their given names to this day. Also, as a result of this, the typical Mizo house built on stilts replaced the former homesteads of the Mizos, whose mud floors had been washed away by the torrential rain. In order to avoid such calamities again, it was decided that all houses would henceforth stand on stilts, well away from the ground.
During this prolonged feast, there was a great battle between the creatures of flight and the beasts of the earth due to a misunderstanding. The conflict resulted in a victory for the earth-bound creatures. They decided to celebrate their victory, which would also mark the culmination of the great feast hosted by Thlanrawkpa. However, the domesticated animals refused to bow under the dictates of their human masters any longer, claiming that they should have a more exalted position because of their contributions to the victory. They raised a great protest when some of them were to be slaughtered for the feast. The situation became critical until Sabereka, Thlanrawkpa’s father-in-law decreed that, henceforth, neither animals, plants nor humans should be able to speak the same language. Thus, with communication cut off between them, other creatures could no longer make protests, and order was restored with humans continuing to be masters over other living beings.

Source:
Mizo Thawnthu. Tribal Research Institute, Directorate of Art and Culture, Mizoram, 1992.
Translated into English by Cherrie Lalnunziri Chhangte.

2 comments:

  1. Eh...sap hming te nei vel,nuam awm bik.
    TB hi khang hunlai kha chuan'ngawr' an ti(naupang deuh hrelo anlo awm takin).i ril thei riau mai, ruih ruih in.

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