The ‘sacred’ has been defined and redefined in the individual’s faith and religion, in time and space, in nature and ecology, in tradition and temple. A new wave of sacrality and sacred politics in Indian environmentalism, characterized by ethnic, indigenous and religious assertions, has produced multiple and contradictory outcomes in rural, social and political realms. There is a need to decipher the determinants of this new sacrality and its social and political surroundings.
Examining a ‘sacred’ community and notions of ‘sacredness’ through Sarna, the tribal religion of the Jharkhand state in India, and sacred groves, the prime symbol of that religion, my talk questions a singular glorified narrative of sacrality. Based on extensive fieldwork, I underline how sacred forests are confronted with time wraps of conflict and change, and critical issues of power, authority, ownership, and caste. They are a dynamic space of competing for political powers and changing socio-religious beliefs and practices. Sarnaism and sacred groves of today are sculpturing a particular religious identity and political posturing, that can lead to further religious and social schism. Their politics and practices, including cultures of difference and privileges of hierarchy, are often de-segregating, rather than integrating people in the village, and transforming the grammar of relationships within and outside the tribal community. There was a ‘return to the sacred groves’ in the 1980s. Today, Sarnaism and sacrality need another reinvention, where it can hold the promise of a religion, politics, and place for all.
Mukul Sharma is a Professor at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi. He is an award-winning journalist, researcher, and development professional, specializing in environmental politics, development, human rights, and media issues. He has published fourteen books and booklets in English and Hindi, the latest being Caste and Nature: Dalits and Indian Environmental Politics (Oxford University Press, 2017) and Green and Saffron: Hindu Nationalism and Indian Environmental Politics (Permanent Black, 2012). He is presently working on eco-religion, sacrality and politics in South Asia.