A culture reflects the way of life of a particular community. A culture originating from the experiences, customs, tradition and beliefs of a particular community can be referred to as ‘folk culture’.
The word ‘community’ has a significant meaning attached to it. The Oxford Dictionary of Sociology says: “The concept of community concerns a particularly constituted set of social relationship based on something which the participants have in common – usually a common sense of identity.” According to sociologist Talcott Parsons, ‘community’ denotes a ‘wide-ranging relationship of solidarity over a rather undefined area of life and interests’.
The folk culture of many communities reflect the close bond between humans and nature. This bond is nurtured through the ideas, values and the philosophy of religious practice in the communities. In fact, the ethos and ethics of folk cultural practices eventually frame religious practices among many communities.
The Bodo community, which is scattered across northeastern India, is one of the most significant communities in Assam. They belong to the greater Mongolian stocks, who are considered to be the inhabitants of a country north of the Himalayas and to the west of China.
The Bathou religion is their traditional religion. It is one of the oldest religions in the world. The community worships Bwrai Bathou as the supreme god. In the Bodo language, the word ‘Bwrai‘ refers to the ‘eldest’ man concerning power or knowledge. In other words, it indicates the supreme one.
Therefore, Bwrai Bathou represents the supreme soul, who is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. For them, the Sijou tree (Euphorbia Splendens being its scientific name) symbolises the Bwrai Bathou. Thus, they also worship this tree. In fact, the religion defines the socio-cultural life of the Bodo community. Consequently, it incorporates the rites, rituals, social norms, culture, traditions, ethics and philosophy of the Bodo community.
The holy word Bathou is composed of two words, ‘Ba‘ (meaning five) and ‘Thou‘ (meaning deep). Taken together, Bathou means ‘deep thought’. The Bathou religion is based on the ‘philosophy of five’ or the ‘five principles’.
The five spiritual elements are ong (sky), hring (earth), khling (water), fwt (fire) and che (air). These are the ‘sounds’ of the Bwari Bathou. Therefore, it can be stated that these five deep elements represent the five vital elements of nature. In this regard, Bihuram Boro, the former general secretary of Bodo Sahitya Sabha in his book “Gibi Bithai” mentions that bar (air), dwi (water), hah (earth), orr (fire) and ukhrang (sky) are the five powers of the Bwrai Bathou.
Apart from this, the philosophy of Bathou religion uniquely expresses its philosophical views, by mentioning the five holy sermons of the Bathou Borai, or the five sacraments for all the Bodos, which are:
1. Prayers to god
2. Conversing religious and spiritual matters
3. Being charitable to the poor
4. Loving the people of the community
5. Being united.
At the same time, Bathouism also has the elements of compassion and humanity, which is reflected through their five ‘prescribed loves’:
1. Love for god
2. Love for fellow beings, wife and children
3. Love for animals and nature
4. Love for the motherland
5. Love for the world
Moreover, the overall welfare of the society is the primary basis of Bathouism. To this end, they perform many rituals praying for everyone’s welfare. For example, kherai puja, lakhi garja puja, Borai Raja garja and Gaon Raja are performed publicly for the welfare of individual families and the villages.
Bathouism has a different worldview compared to other religions. Bathouism’s philosophical interpretations and rituals reflect an ‘oriental worldview’. Here, nature is considered to be ‘supreme’, and the belief system emphasises on major ecological components.
Thus, the presence of five ‘deep thoughts’, namely earth, air, sky, water and fire, is relatable to the presence of the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere. At its core, Bathouism pleads for maintaining harmony between man and nature.
Essentially, the human-nature harmony is ‘pleaded for’ along the lines of respect for nature and ecological harmony. Thus, a ‘system’ is created by rational human thoughts and actions concerning the lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere.
While this ancient worldview and philosophy informs the religion, it has also evolved with time. Bhaben Narzary, an advocate in Guwahati High Court and a maker of cultural documentaries, by profession, states that with time, Bathouism has dynamically changed its form. For instance, he cites that erstwhile followers of the Brahmo Samaj (and their beliefs) have also taken up Bathouism. The people in this group are now called the Brahmo-Bathou followers.
According to Narzary, the revival of ethnic identification among these communities, who once feared the loss of these identities, may have been brought about by cultural pluralism in the wake of globalisation. According to him, an ‘institutional approach’ to religion is gaining ground. For example, temples are coming up in many villages, which are then organising the followers under the temple’s banner.
Detsung Basumatry, a conservation educationist in Chirang district, states, “Bathou religion helps people to rethink about conservation of nature from religious perspectives. Over the years, with the variation of people’s experiences and views, different sub-systems have evolved in Bathou religion. Now there are about four distinct sub-groups with different sub-systems. The main differences evolved around the issue of sacrificing animals in rituals. There are groups who sacrifice animals in rituals and there are some other groups who only offer flowers in rituals.”
Moreover, ‘community places’ for the organisation of community festivals have shrunk. Thus, the construction of Bathou temples can be seen as a new phenomenon, which provides a permanent space for prayers and religious discussion.
At the same time, the Bathou Mahasabha, formed long back, has recently undertaken many initiatives for the followers of Bathouism and for the systematic interpretation of its philosophy. This emphasises the process of institutionalisation of Bathouism. Moreover, the Mahasabha organizes the Bathau Sanmilan (conclave) every year, where thousands of devotees participate in different religious and cultural events. It is also a reflection of the cultural revivalism and transformation of religious institutions.
Religions contain philosophical interpretations and thoughts which helps human beings shape their beliefs and way of life. Bathousim provides a philosophical path for the Bodo community to respect nature and conserve it. It also guides its followers on maintaining peace and harmony through its ‘five principles’ and ‘five forms of love’.
At the same time, in the contemporary context, Bathouism has created a new social distinctiveness for the Bodo community through its cultural practices. Gradually, it is evolving into a system for cultural identitification and ethnic revivalism. In this context, it is appreciable that the UN Declaration of Human Rights talks about the right of indigenous communities to protect or revive their ethnic, religious identities and ideologies.
Moreover, the philosophy of Bathouism concerning the conservation of ecology is unique and needs further exploration.