Summary of the Vedic Friends Association Northeast India Mission of 2003
by Stephen Knapp
From Hyderabad Jeffrey Armstrong went on his own tour, which has already been circulated on the VFA newslist. But S.D.Youngwolf, Parama Karuna and I went to Khammam where we had lunch with Jeeara Swami, who is the head of the Ramanuja sect in the area. He is quite popular and is also working in many areas for the benefit of the people, including the local tribals. So we had a nice conversation with him, and then lunch. Later in the evening we also gave talks at a local organization. Thereafter we took an overnight train to Kolkatta, wherein we met up with Vrindavana Parker. Parama Karuna was returning to Puri, while the rest of us were going up into India’s northeast. After spending a night in Kolkatta, S.D., Vrin and I took a plane to Guahati, Assam. Vrin spent two weeks touring Arunachal Pradesh, while S.D. and I went first to Nagaland. We were supposed to fly to Dimapur, but the weather was bad and our plane was diverted to Guahati, after which we took a night train to Dimapur.
WHY BOTHER WITH THE NORTHEAST?
Furthermore, Krishna married Rukmini in Arunachal Pradesh. The area of Agninagar is where the story of Usha and Anirudha took place. Anirudha is the grandson of Krishna and son of Pradyumna. This is also where the huge battle happened between Anirudha and the army of Usha’s father. Landmarks in the area can be seen of this episode of Vedic history. This is described in the Srimad-Bhagavatam. So there is much of India’s ancient tradition that connects the area. So to help keep it as a part of India and preserve it’s tradition is important, rather than letting it become another chip taken away from the country, like the militants have tried to do with Kashmir on the other side of northern India. So this was our purpose for going into the area. To do this the Vedic Friends Association works with other organizations in the area that share the same concern.
THE WORK WE DID IN THE NORTHEAST
We were going to the Janjati Vikas Samiti to give talks on encouraging people to preserve their culture and resist the pressure from Christian groups to give up their own traditions and convert to Christianity. S.D. Youngwolf , THE Vice President of the Indigenous Voices International, is a member of the Southern Cherokee tribe and gave talks on the dangers of giving up one’s culture, and what happened when the Christians came to America and forced their doctrine on the natives and what were their strategies in doing so. He also told stories of the Cherokee traditions, as well as performed Cherokee songs as well as a few of his own composition.
Then I, as President of the Vedic Friends Association, would talk on the means of saving one’s tradition, the reasons for it, why it had value, and how the people of the West are increasingly looking for deeper levels of spiritual development, often by researching and adding the ways of Eastern culture to their lives. For this reason, in parts of America and Europe, especially France and England, Christianity is on the decline. This is quite the contrary to what the people are told by the Christian groups, who often tell the tribal people that they are all backwards, worshiping devils, and if they want to advance and keep up with the rest of the world, then they have to be like America, which consists of all Christian people. Yet I countered this by explaining that other religions in America are on the rise, and many people from India come to America with no expectation of converting from their religion to another, but often join a temple and participate in the ways of their own culture, while contributing to the economic and technological growth of America in general. This news often had a big impact on the views of the people who heard us. With both of us giving our talks, it was like a one-two punch, countering the propaganda that the people there had heard and are often given, and providing them more reason to have pride in their own culture. They were also impressed that two Westerners had enough respect for them to participate and interact with them and their culture. [More information on the techniques of the Christian groups and militants in the area are written elsewhere, as in my article “Preaching in Northeast India for Cultural Preservation” on my website at www.stephen-knapp.com.]
In Dimapur, we did two days of seminars, lectures, and press conferences. We had much coverage in the newspapers, even though they did get some of the things we were saying wrong. But it nonetheless created reactions and planted many seeds amongst the people to question the reasoning as to why they are losing their culture, and to understand the need to preserve it and stay a part of the motherland of India.
You have to understand that the Christian missionaries and militants have been working for years to bring most of the states of the northeast to secede from India to become a separate Christian country, even if it means by force and brutality. For example, few people seem to be aware that in the small state of Tripura alone, over 10,000 people have been killed in the past 20 years by Christian militants through what you could call ethnic cleansing. The killing is done to instill fear in those who are not Christian, or who do not want to separate from India. And these militants are often supported by the Christian groups who provide money and reasoning for what they do. But we in the VFA are not anti-Christian, yet this sort of Christian indoctrination is the single biggest factor for losing the basic traditions of the people in the northeast region.
We also have to understand that Jesus gave primarily two basic commandments, and one was to love God with all your heart, soul and mind, which is the essence of devotion, bhakti. The other was to love your neighbor as yourself. But how can you love your neighbor if you hate everything about him and his tradition simply because he is not a Christian? This is not helpful or uplifting. Religion should unite one with God and each other, and not be the cause of such divisiveness and quarrel.
So the papers were saying that when white Westerners first came to the northeast, they came to bring Christianity, and now, with our visit, they are coming to the region to say that the indigenous culture of the people of the region has value and to not give it up. This certainly provided the people with much food for thought.
The next place we visited, after traveling through the hills of Nagaland, was the hilltop city of Kohima. They were celebrating Christmas, so songs of the season were heard throughout the town. About 85% of Nagaland is Christian. We were ready for a press conference and meetings with local groups, Christian and tribals, but no one seemed interested. Yet the next day, when we were scheduled to leave for the next town, calls started coming in from groups of people who were interested in having meetings with us. But by that time it was too late. We did, however, have a quick meeting with some of the local Hindus, who said that the next time we visit they will arrange a much bigger meeting.
We then stopped at a Naga Heritage Village, where there were traditional houses made by the various Naga tribes. It was a special little town made for the Heritage festival, which took place a few weeks earlier, in which people came to celebrate their old traditions and dress, dances, rituals, etc. So it was deserted while we visited. But it was quite fascinating to see and photograph the different traditional buildings made from local materials.
After that we stopped at the small hilltop village of Viswema to meet and interact with the Naga people of the Angami tribe. We had a vegetarian lunch, spoke with them about cultural preservation and also observed their traditional songs and dances. It was one of those arrangements that we never would have seen if we were only traveling through as mere tourists. Everywhere we went we were treated with great respect and given gifts, usually colorful and traditional scarves or shawls.
We then made our way to Imphal, Manipur. There we had a great reception and we also had a big impact on the area. Many people wanted to have us as their guests or treat us to the Manipur vegetarian food, some of which was quite hot and spicy. On Christmas day we went to the Tingkao Ragwang Chap-Riak temple, which is in the village of Chingmei Rong of the Rongmei tribe. It is also the place of the Zeliangrong Religious Council of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland. There we participated in the Gaan Ngai holiday, which included traditional dances and songs from the boys and girls chorus groups, along with lectures from S.D., myself and Professor Gangmumei Kamei, another prominent member of the community. Our talks were naturally on the ways to preserve their culture, and the importance of the traditions in connection with the Indian and Vedic traditions. They are a tribe who has resisted the conversion tactics of the Christians, and they still worship the Sun and Moon as their primary deities. In fact the name Ragwang is pronounced in the same way one says Bhagwan but beginning with an “R”. So they are a tributary of the great river of Sanatana-dharma that flows through the universe.
They were very happy to see and meet with us, gave offerings of books and shawls, and were inspired by our lectures. They also performed a special blessing in which they offered a very colorful red rooster to the gods on our behalf. It is not a blood offering, but they offer the rooster to the gods with special prayers, and then set it down with grains in front of it. If it freely eats the grains, then the prayers have been accepted. However, there have been times when the rooster does not eat the grains and walks away, which means the ritual is not successful. In our case, the rooster could not get enough and ate as fast as it could. The crowd then cheered at this sign.
The celebration was followed by a vegetarian dinner and another meeting with the elders of the community dealing with some of the issues they face in continuing their own traditions. Many people loved the event and said our lectures would have a great impact on the people of the area. The talks were also recorded and would be distributed to others later. The whole event was so nice that I would be glad to observe Christmas in this way anytime.
That night, as with every night, we were invited to a vegetarian dinner, which started as conversation and exchanges with the local participants, all of whom expressed their appreciation for us to be there with them, and for the presentations we gave.
The next day on the 26th, we visited the old Govindaji Mandir for the morning arati. This temple is near the new palace of the King of Manipur. The temple has one altar for Deities of Krishna Balarama, another for Radha-Krishna and Their maidservants of Lalita & Vishakha, and another altar for Lord Jagannatha, Balarama and Subhadra. We also went to a famous Hanuman temple. Manipur has a large Vaishnava Hindu population, so many people, especially the women, walk around wearing Vaishnava tilak with a bindi on their foreheads.
Thereafter we had a meeting with some of the local leaders and girls who volunteer as teachers and work in passing down their traditions to youngsters of the area. We heard the issues involved in such activities and gave suggestions on how to make it easier and more interesting. In the afternoon and early evening was the Golden Jubilee Celebration of the Kalyan Ashram in Manipur. This included an impressive array of local leaders, a series of lectures on the importance of keeping the indigenous traditions and resist the tactics for conversion to the western forms of religion, featuring myself and S.D., followed by some excellent examples of traditional dance and songs. These included a display of a couple of fierce girl martial artists, drum dances by twirling musicians, some other traditional dances, ending with a fantastic Manipur style rasa-lila dance of Krishna and His gopi maidservants, centering around Srimati Radharani. The dance, the outfits, the moves, and the expressions were enough to melt the heart of anyone.
Later we made a brief stop to speak at the local Rotary club and then to the local tribal Chief’s apartment for a delightful vegetarian dinner. There Professor Kamei expressed his great appreciation for the work of Iskcon and what Svarupa Damodar Swami was doing in Manipur with the United Religious Initiative, which is working to help unify all the religions and cultures of the country. I was surprised at his enthusiasm since I had no idea they had such respect for us. Being a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, I was glad to hear it. That night we saw ourselves on the television news coverage and got a better idea on how our presence was impacting people.
The next day we had a press conference, and several people from the newspapers, radio and television networks showed up to ask questions. We were rather direct in our answers and received support for what we were saying. Although we were leaving for Assam that afternoon, we learned that newspapers, radio and television all gave us good coverage. Some of the press coverage we got was broadcast all the way to northern Assam, and newspaper articles covering our presence in Northeast India even reached all the way to Delhi. So our message obviously reached many thousands of people.
In Assam we visited Hojai and on to Tumpreng for a Dimasi tribal cultural program where we interacted with numerous people, and gave lectures with others at the program, which really enlivened many of the participants. Afterwards, many people came up to us and asked for our autographs and express their appreciation for us attending and participating in the program. This was the first time for most of the people to see westerners interact with them and participate in their culture and encourage them in the way we did. Then we had been invited for dinner with a family who was extremely friendly and hospitable, and who took several photographs of us. This was one of the best parts of our tour, we were almost professional guests being invited to meet and visit people wherever we went.
Back in Guahati we visited the Kali Ma (Karunamayee) temple, where we met Prapananda Swami. In a talk to a roomful of his followers he said he was proud that us westerners were so boldly lecturing on the importance of keeping the Vedic culture. Then he gave us blessings for our activities. We also visited the Balaji Mandir which is styled after the temples in Tirupati. Amongst other things, we also visited the Vashishta Ganga where the sage Vashistha lived for 15 years and then left his body. So it is considered a special holy place. Guahati has a number of other temples worth visiting, but we had seen most of the other places on our previous visit a year earlier.
Another few places we visited in northern Assam were Udalgiri and Harisingha, only 6 miles from Bhutan. This was to attend the meetings of the All Assam Brahma Dharma at the Bagariguru Brahmadharma Mandir and Bathou Mandir. At each place we met many people and attended the cultural programs for the local people. We were greeted in the customary way with beautiful village girls wearing traditional and colorful dresses, honoring us with incense and throwing flowers on us as they danced in front of us as we walked to the stage. In these villages they follow the Vedic tradition and performed Vedic fire yajnas and recited prayers before the program. The programs again included lectures by important local dignitaries, and featured the talks we gave on the importance of the indigenous Vedic religion, interspersed with traditional dances. Afterwards, many people again expressed their happiness that we were interested enough to visit them and give our talks, and also took plenty of photographs of themselves with us.
Our next visit on the tour was Siliguri where we held a press conference in the morning with other members of the Kalyan Ashrama. The press, however, seemed a little irritable with the answers that were being given until I stood up and began to carefully explain my views. Then the press began to give more attention to what was being said and turned much more agreeable to our purpose, nodding their heads in approval as I spoke. This seemed to turn the press conference into a much more positive event, and the papers carried news of it the next day. Later in the afternoon we attended another meeting where we met representatives of the Kalyan Ashrama and gave talks on the need of the hour.
Thereafter they wanted to take us to the local Iskcon temple. I was certainly agreeable to that but had no idea that it turned out to be the biggest temple in all of the northeast. It was a large and beautiful temple with lovely fountains and landscape. In the temple it had one alter of with the Deities of Lord Caitanya in the Pancha-Tattva, and another of Sri Sri Radha-Madhava. So we had some fun getting darshan and taking photographs there, and meeting a few of the devotees in the office.
Our final visit on this mission was to go to Gangtok, Sikhim to engage in a few more meetings and give talks. We were also invited as guests to dinners at a few more homes of the local people who were eager to meet and interact with us. It was also interesting to tour Gangtok and see a number of nearby places of importance, such as Hanuman Tok, Ganesh Tok, the Royal Chapel, Rumtek Monastery, etc.
After a few days in Gangtok, S.D. went back to Assam to give a talk to students at another function. Meanwhile, I used the rest of my time heading back toward Delhi. I went on to Darjeeling to photograph the Kachenjunga mountains, then to Kathmandu, Pokhara, Lumbini which is known as Buddha’s birthplace, then Kushinagara where Buddha left his body, Naimisaranya which is known for being the place of the Chakra Tirtha and where Suta Gosvami spoke the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Then I went on to the holy place of Vrindavana for a few days before going to Delhi to catch my return flight to America.
So all in all, the trip was quite successful in several ways. We met many people who really appreciated what we said and that we were interested in their culture, and who were inspired and encouraged by what we had to say. It was also very successful in receiving much coverage by the press to plant the seeds of questioning why people should believe that the only way to progress is to leave their own culture and convert to something else. Everyone said how much they wanted us to come back again, and I am sure that we will be back for another tour in the next year or so.
Preventing Loss of Culture in Nagaland
By Stephen Knapp
This is a short description of my experience in Nagaland during December of 2003. I have written this due to my concern for the Naga people who have a lively and colorful culture. However, there is a danger that their culture is disappearing. Now some people may say that Naga culture is not under some kind of threat, but actually it is. For example, when we did a “Naga Identity” seminar in Dimapur, one of the young girls from a Naga tribe who attended admitted she knew none of the Naga songs and few legends. This ignorance of local traditions always increases with each generation if something is not done to help preserve it. So the culture will disappear at an increasing rate with every generation. But why is it disappearing? It is not necessarily from what some people would call a natural progression of a society. It is from a more deliberate plan started by outsiders. Let me explain just a few points of consideration...
The fact is that the primary reason why the indigenous cultures of Northeast India are threatened is because of the conversion tactics that are engaged in by the western forms of monotheistic religions that have entered the area. This is primarily done by the Christian missionaries and groups that have taken up their cause. Even though the Christians profess the desire for doing humanitarian activities, their real goal is conversion. For example, in one Christian hospital that offers free care, which would be a good plug for the Christians, a pregnant woman registered herself for care in delivering her baby during childbirth. However, she was expected to sign papers that said she was converting to Christianity. When she refused to sign the papers, she was notified that the hospital would not take care of her without the signed papers. So, as she was nearing childbirth and hardly able to walk, she was forced to leave the hospital.
In the west, Christian organizations raise money for humanitarian work with the idea of sending it to countries and people in need of it. But much of that money actually goes for conversion tactics, even to militant groups such as those in India’s northeast, and for “Christian” education in the third world countries. But what is the real purpose of such education? While I was in India I read in the newspaper of how two young Indian children in a Catholic school were beaten until they were bleeding and needed medical attention. Why? Because of merely speaking Hindi in a conversation with other Indian students on the Catholic school grounds. This is the way “Christian” education forces the students to give up their native ways and forget their previous culture and language.
Furthermore, Christianity, in the name of progress and western values, has brought the increased use of drugs and alcohol, where it had previously been limited. While I was there, I personally saw a “Christian” Christmas party at the Sabarimata Hotel where we were staying. At this party, which was for Christians only, the teenagers and young adults were charged an entrance fee to attend. Therein they would dance, smoke, drink and then easily associate with those of the opposite sex. Being in a hotel, they could also “follow their path of salvation” in private rooms upstairs for more intimate affairs. So, although Nagaland is a dry country and alcohol is not allowed, I saw that for Christians liquor was easily flowing. In fact, although Christian pastors have banned local alcohol, it is common knowledge that no pastor is without his liquor.
It is also interesting to note that abortion rates, which never used to be an issue, increase by 3 or 4 times in the months of January and February. Obviously, those Christmas parties produce some unwanted results. Is this the sign of the type of progress that adopting a new western form of religion can bring? In former times the punishment for illicit sex was quite strict and severe with Nagas, even up to being banished from the village. Or at least having the boy and girl being made to marry each other. But now they are invited to join the Christians through conversion who say their local laws will no longer apply to them once they convert. Then if they do these things they will not be forced to face the consequences of the local standards. Now many illegal elements have joined Christianity on this idea of avoiding local or traditional forms of punishments.
In this way they have a double standard, depending on what they want to accomplish. In another example, the Christian churches, including the pastors and their wives, had been doing a double your money pyramid scheme, encouraging other members of the congregation to participate. But when the pyramid ran out of participants and people started losing money, there were so many complaints that the government stopped it. The Church was then subject to the anger of the people who lost money. They were asking what business does the church have in engaging in such duplicitous activities. But then the church put out a statement in the press merely saying that we should all simply forgive and forget. Of course, that doesn’t help return the money to those who lost it.
Another example is that in Nagaland they have also started beauty contests to expose or exploit many girls’ beauty, all in the name of progress, where modesty had been previously honored. Because of the increase in promiscuity, HIV/AIDS has risen dramatically amongst the Nagas where it was unheard of before. Plus, the incidents of Naga boys raping Naga girls is on the rise where previously it rarely happened. With the idea of accepting Christianity also comes the idea of adopting western forms of lifestyle and habits.
Christianity itself may not be the entire cause for such changes, but it is certainly being propagated by Christians that it is the main means of bringing progress to the Naga people. It is also the main factor in the local people losing their own indigenous culture, which once did not have all the problems that have now entered their homeland.
There has also been a continuous rise in crimes based on religious differences. Some of the Nagas may go to church with the Bible in one hand but after hearing the sermons can be ready to fight over religion when they come out later. A friend of mine was threatened four times at his house by men with rifles because he is not a Christian. This is an example of the fear tactics used by militant Christians. In fact, there are 23 major terrorist or militant organizations in the northeast, all of which get funds from Christian organizations. Even while we were there, there was a bandh or national strike based on political and ideological reasons by the militant Christians. So where is there peace in such a divisive means of so-called religion?
We have to understand that conversion is not the simple means for social or spiritual progress. One’s own culture may have more to offer than we realize. We have to take a good look at the history of the religion we are adopting before making such a decision, and Christianity has a track record of ethnic cleansing and manipulation of local people and cultures wherever it has entered, not to mention years of quarrel within its own ranks. We have a very substantiated history of that right here in America regarding the way they treated the natives when the Christians first arrived. Yet, it is often the case that you do not know what you have until you’ve lost it, and you find the new culture or religion is not all it was propped up to be.
The real means of progress is mostly a matter of expanding your education. This does not mean to give up your tried and true traditions or cultural values, but it means to add to your education the means of learning the modern technological advancements that you can use to assist you in your own lives, whether it be in advancing your communications, power supplies, medical systems, methods of agriculture, your roads or transportation, economic development, and so on. To do this does not mean that you have to give up your own culture and customs and convert to something else, and then lose all you had before. You keep what you have but merely add to it what is the best for your own usefulness.
All the above mentioned problems do not have to be a part of society. And if they are entering into the area, you should ask why and realize that maybe you were better off before you started letting in a new and different form of religion and way of life. Often times we have seen that the loss of one’s religion is the loss of identity. And that a new form of religion, especially when it promises materialistic improvement at the expense of losing your previous culture, does not provide what it had promised. In many ways it turns out to be more of a form of social manipulation and control, demanding that everyone follow one doctrine, rather than a means of giving respect to individual development and choices.
So look around and ask whether these new changes in your society are what you really want. You may find that the culture you were born with, that’s part of a far older tradition, along with merely expanding your education, may actually be all that you need.