The UUCUV is a member of the UUA’s Partner Church Program. Our partner chuch in Mukhap, India exchanges mail and photos with us, and they’ve recently dedicated a beautiful new church building! We are privileged to join our friends in Mukhap by sponsoring the educations of some of the village children. Come to church and ask how to join in!
Principles of the Unitarian Faith of the Khasi People: Unitarians of Northeast India For over 100 years
•In ONE GOD who is FATHER and MOTHER of all our humankind and in the brotherhood/sisterhood of us all.
•In the forgiveness and in the love of GOD.
•That man is not a wretched and failed creature, but is a son of GOD, and that man keeps progressing in good and respectful life.
•In eternal life and progress of the soul.
•That Jesus was a Great Teacher (not God, but “Son of God” as all humans are children of God); and in the two main commandments: “To love God and to love fellow humans.”
•In the great Leaders of other Religions too. (With the understanding that God expresses His own truth in other Prophets or Religious Leaders as He did in Jesus.)
•That the Bible is the writing of God-searching people which has truths in it, and at the same time, because it was written by people from memories of legends, it also contains errors in it. Therefore, we accept the truths that we find in it, and reject those things that are untrue [and also] present in it.
•That the books of other Religions are also good and helpful to us towards better knowledge about God.
And here’s more information about the Khasi Unitarian churches of India (pdf).
A Brief History of the Unitarian Church in Mukhap: (please click) church history 1-2010a
February 25, 2018: Homily on Our Partner Church and the Unitarians of the Khasi Hills in India, by Claudia Kern and Polly Gould
It is 7AM on Sunday morning in the small village of Mukhap in the Jaintia Hills of Northeast India. The roosters are crowing, pigs are rooting for some leftover bits, the sun is gleaming on the water in the green rice paddies, and the wind is blowing through the Khasi pines on the hills surrounding the village. The Unitarian children have made their way on foot through the village to their church that sits on a small hill. For the next hour it is time for the Children’s Service, which includes everyone between 3 and 13 years old. The children lead the service, taking turns standing in the raised pulpit. Our good friend and contact person Rangdajied helps the children plan each service. Roll is taken and then each September prizes for attendance are given at the Annual Unitarian Anniversary celebration.
10 AM, it is time for Sunday School! This is for everyone – children and adults. There are 8 classes and 18 teachers who lead these classes. For example, last week, Rangdajied led a lesson on some readings from the New Testament. Often the Bible is used for text because it is the most familiar and available to the members.
The general service begins at 1:30 and goes until 3PM. There is no minister except for one who travels to Mukhap to conduct life rites, so on a typical Sunday members of the church lead readings, hymns, the Lord’s Prayer, and one of the church leaders gives a message about Unitarian beliefs. When this service ends, members walk through the village, visiting members in their homes. Often, they sing together in each other’s homes.
Now it is evening, and the day ends with the Youth Service for those 14 years and above. Rangdajied reports something that we share in common; it is sometimes difficult to get Youth to attend. Probably this motivated their fundraising a couple of years ago to buy an electronic keyboard. Music, like that you heard in the opening prelude, seems to be a big draw.
Mukhap is a relatively large village for this region of India with a population of about 2800 people and 414 households. Of these, 60 households are Unitarians. Their beautiful new church has 505 members including 111 women, 89 men, 100 youth, and 205 children!
How in the world did there come to be over 10,000 Unitarians in this far-flung corner of India? It is fascinating story, and this morning I will only be able to touch on a few of the highlights. Prehistorically, the Khasi/Jaintia (or Pnar) people are genetically related to the first wave of migration out of Africa. Today, the Khasi Pnar people are an indigenous ethnic group of Assam and Meghalaya and ancestors to the peoples of Southeast Asia. These tribal people had a religion featuring belief in one creator God, Ublei, as well as shamanistic practices based upon the propitiation of good, evil, and ancestor spirits and demons. Ublei was omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient and who should not be symbolized or pictured in any shape or form. There were no temples or images, no holy texts, no priests. Beliefs were passed on in the home through complex traditional system of family, clan, and tribal organization and a society which was matrilineal in nature. To these early people religion was inseparable from all that happened in their lives and was deeply interconnected with the natural world around them.
Until the 1800’s these hill people lived relatively untouched by the modern world and without a written language. When the British invaders came in the early 1800’s they were excited to find a people who had their own traditional monotheistic religion and immediately began to send Christian missionaries, predominately Welsh Calvinists, to this remote area of India. By the 1840’s these missionaries had developed a written Khasi Language and translated the Bible into Khasi. Now, with a written language tied to the imposition of colonial government, for the first time education became available in missionary schools whose curriculums included heavy doses of proselytizing. This missionary effort was amazingly successful, and today nearly 90% of the Indian state of Meghalaya is Christian!
Many were eager for education, and because at least Christianity was monotheistic, as opposed to the multi-gods-and goddesses of Hinduism, which was also encroaching on the region, many indigenous people were baptized, many while simultaneously continuing to follow their traditional practices.
Now our story turns to a single young man, the son of a policeman who was educated in one such school. His name was Hajom Kissor Singh. At the age 15 Singh, like so many, converted to the 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, most especially the idea of the Trinity for which he could find no evidence in the Bible. Singh observed that the Welsh missionaries had done away with fear of demons, only to replace it with fear of hell. He deplored the Calvinists hostility to Catholic missionaries who were also wishing to settle in the Khasi Hills – He asked, “If the Bible teaches love your neighbor, weren’t the Catholics also God’s children?” When he concluded from his studies that he would have to leave their church, the Calvinists told him that he sounded like the heretic Unitarians back in Wales! He was immediately intrigued and managed to make a connection with an American Unitarian in southern India. Over a period of years, he built strong relationships, corresponding with and being visited by several Unitarians in America and Britain. This part of the story is fascinating, but must wait for another time. The amazing part of today’s story is that with no knowledge of faiths in other lands, Singh became a Unitarian through his own effort and studies. His genius was in incorporating the best of the teachings of the missionaries with the indigenous faith of his people. Although he moderated the traditional Khasi religion by adding many Christian elements such as churches, liturgy, Sunday services, and even ministers, Singh’s new religion maintained the core of the traditional belief system at a time when Christian missionaries were making enormous inroads into traditional Khasi culture. He did omit reading of omens and animal sacrifice, but he also set the precedent for lay-led churches, which continues even today. The main principles of the Unitarian church in the Khasi Jaintia hills as propounded by Hajom Kissor Singh himself are:
- God is Oneness, formless and both Father and Mother of humans and all creation
- All humankind are brothers and sisters in Spirit. To the Khasi Pnar, ‘ka mynsiem’ means both spirit and soul and is seen as that which connects all beings and the entire universe. Doesn’t this sound a bit like our Seventh Principle regarding the interdependent web of all existence?
- Singh also submitted that the soul and spirit live eternally. This was inspired by the indigenous Khasi belief that after death the soul departed from the body to go and eat bettle nuts forever in the corridor of God’s house. The Khasi Pnar of Singh’s time believed that during conception, the mother conceived only the body which is mortal. The soul or the spirit was divinely instilled in the body in the womb. Upon death soul/spirit was then returned back to God, the everlasting source of the spirit.
Singh also gave his new religion a motto, which is the title of today’s service: To Nangroi. This motto still resonates with today’s Unitarians in Meghalaya. It means “Keep on Progressing” and is closely related to their understanding that “salvation” is obtained by one’s deeds and character. Kamai ia ka hok is the guiding principle of life among the Khasi Pnar. As I understand it, it means to “earn righteousness”, and it is very similar to our own UU understanding that our spiritual wholeness or our goodness is determined by our own actions. Like the Khasi Pnar we believe that in our personal lives and in our faith community we are always striving to keep on progressing towards a life lived according to our UU Principles. To Nangroi!
On September 18, 1887, Singh led the first real church service in his home in Jowai. Today this date is an official state holiday honoring the anniversary of Unitarianism. In Mukhap and the other 30+ Unitarian churches in Meghalaya and Assam, the month leading up to September 18 is filled with visits and singing in all of the Unitarian homes. There are special church services and nighttime processions with singing and lights and torches. But at that first service, there were only one woman and two men who joined Singh as the first members of a new church. Around this same time U. Heh Pohong, a man who lived about 20 miles away in the village of Nongetalong, somehow got a hold of Channing’s writings, and he also broke from Calvinism. A little later a Khasi pastor, David Edwards _ I need to stop here to explain that many native Khasi Pnar have English or partially English names, a result no doubt of Christian baptisms – became Unitarian and left his Methodist pastorate. These three joined their efforts to promote, “a religion which they could preach with conviction,” one that was consistent with the teachings found in the Bible. A year later, a statement of faith was adopted by a small group of Khasi Unitarians.
Now our story turns to focus on another of these three founders of Unitarianism in Northeast India, David Edwards. When he left his Methodist ministry, he moved with his family to Mukhap, and there he founded the Mukhap church in 1894. This means that in 2019 our Partner Church will be celebrating their 125th anniversary, and already they are saying to us, please, please will some of us come to celebrate with them? We truly hope a few among you will say YES!
David Edwards was an admired member of the village and is well remembered for many things including hand digging a drinking well which is still in use. He was farsighted and bought a big property, which was converted to a forest reserve and cemetery, and this property still belongs to the Mukhap church. He served as the Secretary of the Unitarian Union from1897 until 1904 and even composed one of the hymns in the Khasi hymnal. The elementary school run by the Mukhap church is named in his honor.
When David Edwards came to Mukhap with his wife and three children, his niece, Stein Lapasam, also accompanied him. Stein is the grandmother of Rangdajied Lapasam.
And this brings us to the third Khasi Pnar man in our story. Now, three generations later, Rangdajied Lapasam, like Hasom Kissor Singh, thanks to the student sponsorship of this congregation has been given the opportunity for education. And now, Rangdajied feels a deep calling to follow in the footsteps of his great uncle, David Edwards, and become a Unitarian minister. With the blessing of the UUCUV Board and Rev. Patience, UUCUV is currently in deep conversation with Rangdajied, the Mukhap Church, and the Unitarian Union of Northeast India about how we can play a significant role in making it possible for Rangdajied to become a professional Unitarian minister in India. As you can imagine, the details are taking awhile to make happen, but we are very happy to think that we can help the Unitarians of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills of Northeast to “keep on progressing” by helping this fine young man toward ministry.
Yes, it will be a ministry in a religion both similar and dissimilar to our own. No doubt you have seen from this brief history that our congregation, and most likely, many of our personal beliefs, differ from those of our fellow Unitarians in Mukhap. I invite us to think of this as Forrest Church would, to see our Partnership in terms of light shining through two different windows in the Cathedral of the World and intersecting on the floor of that Cathedral.
I would invite us to ask ourselves what does our partnership with the Unitarians of India tell us about ourselves? Does their religion seem very God-centered and Christian to you? How does this challenge the notions of pluralism that we UU’s hold so dear? I know, for myself that preparing these remarks, I have been reminded that our principles ask us to make room for the language of theism and Christianity as much as we do for non-theistic language
Perhaps our Partnership is a reminder to American UUs that historically, we first argued that we were Unitarian Christians, even though many other Christians wouldn’t accept us as Christians without a trinity. Then we argued that we didn’t have to be Christians to be Unitarians. And then we argued we didn’t have to believe in a God—at least in a God defined by other people. In some form or other American Unitarians and Universalists have been struggling with these ideas for literally centuries. And as our recent church survey indicated, we fall all along a spectrum, and thus we strive to make room for all—the Christians, the theists and the humanists, the pagans, and more.
The hill people of Meghalaya who have chosen the Unitarian path over the past 129 years have found a way that allowed them to hang on to some of their tribal beliefs and to let go of those tribal beliefs about demons and lack of self worth and to take on the teachings of Jesus about the poor, about justice and about peace. It allowed them to honor their spiritual calling to be present in their world—to educate their children and to continue to lift up the importance of women in their society.
Let us be inspired by the Unitarians of the Khasi Hills. Let us celebrate our 10 years of Partnership and commit ourselves more deeply to this wonderful friendship for the next ten years. To Nangroi – may we always be progressing – as partners, as individuals and as a global religious community.
Main sources of information for this talk:
Khasi Unitarians of India, Rev. John Rex
Assorted Blog posts on the Unitarians of Northeast India by Rev. H. Helpme Mohrmen : http://unitarianchurchnortheastindia.blogspot.com/
Brief History of the Unitarian Church Mukhap
By Hehbok Son Roy Shadap, Mukhap, India