Friday, November 14, 2008

Forest Folk

A word that occurs occasionally in the Tipitaka is milakkha or its variants milakkhu and milaca. This word’s Sanskrit equivalent is mleccha which comes from the root mlecch which is an onomatopoeia for the babbling of an incomprehensible language. It’s almost exact equivalent is the Greek barbarus meaning ‘stammering’, a name given by the Greeks to express the sound of foreign languages and from which our words barbarous and barbarian come. For the Buddha and his contemporaries milakkha referred to the tribal people who lived in the forests which were still quite extensive in the Ganges valley at that time. The Buddha said that it was a distinct advantage not to be reborn in the border areas (paccantimesu janapadesu) where the unintelligent tribal people (avinnataresu milakkhesu) lived (A.IV,226; S.V,466). This probably refers to the those places where farm land met forest and where settled Aryans came into contact with the hunter-gatherer forest dwellers. The Buddha also mentioned that one of the fears a mother might have for her son was that she might not be able to reach her son during a raid by forest dwellers (atavi sankopa, A.I,178). The Jatakas mention these tribal people hunting birds and worshiping water (Ja.IV,291; VI,207).
Today these tribal people are called Adivasi in Hindi, meaning ‘aborigines’, from the Sanskrit atavika, ‘forest dweller.’ One of the Pali words for forest is also atavi. Astonishingly, some of them still live in the southern forested edges of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, that part of northern India where the Buddha lived. The largest tribe in this area are called the Santals. The fate of aboriginal peoples all over the world is pretty much the same - divested of their lands, treated with contempt by their ‘civilized’ encroachers, decimated by alcohol and then either driven to extinction or absorbed into the lowest rungs of the mainstream. The story is similar one in India. Forest protection laws often shut them out of their traditional homes, Hindu money lenders exploit their lack of sophistication and more recently, evangelical missionaries are aggressively targeting them as easy converts. This last problem has recently led to violence in some of the tribal areas of Orissa. Nonetheless, despite centuries of exploitation, many Adivisi tribes continue to hold out and live according to their ancient traditions. It is amazing to think that in a land as crowded as India, a nuclear power that recently launched its own lunar probe, there are still people who hunt with bows and arrows and live pretty as much as they did at the time of the Buddha. The Adivisis of Chorta Nagpur (southern Bihar) fought a long series of battles with the British and although they could not possibly win they put up a very good fight. Recently, after decades of lobbing, they finally got their own state called Jharkhand carved out of Bihar. The Indian constitution calls Adivasis Scheduled Tribes and gives them special privileges, although this has not worked very much to their advantage so far.


Anandajoti said...

Dear Venerable,

You write: "these tribal people are called Adivasi in Hindi, meaning ‘aborigines’, from the Sanskrit atavika, ‘forest dweller.’"

Etymologically this is impossible. The word adivasi means "one who dwells (vaasii) from the beginning (aadi)", a semantic equivalent of aboriginal.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

My source must be wrong. I'll get back to you.