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RELIGIONS OF KERALA
Kerala is a pluralistic society where no one ethnic community or religious group dominates the scene. They are all minorities, and all minorities have their place. All are Keralites first; then they are Brahmins, Nairs, Ezhavas, Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The extinct religious communities of Jainism and Buddhism also have made their contributions to Kerala's culture.
The Cheras, the ancestors of present-day Keralites, were at one time Indian Mundas and later Indian Dravidians, but not Hindus. They worshipped many gods and goddesses, among whom the most important one was Lord Shiva, the Supreme God, who was specifically adored as the Sun God. They did not have idols and icons; they worshipped lingam-shaped stones as abodes of the divine presence; they believed that some of these self-grown stone pillars, as opposed to man-made structures, were physical transformations of invisible gods. Besides praying in front of these stones located usually under the sacred Pepal tree, they used to anoint vh with water, alcohol, oil, and colored powder. Occasionally they would sacrifice a chicken and pour the blood on the stone. This form of worship is still practiced in many villages in Kerala. The Hindu temples also have taken over this form of worship and per-fected it with elaborate rituals and Sanskrit hymns and prayers.
The early people also worshipped the Mother-Goddess and various manifesta-tions of her, besides a number of minor gods and ancestors. The reason for all this worship-ritual is their belief that the universe is inhabited by super-natural beings and powers. All the rituals and prayers are designed for coping with this religious world which is not always consistent, but arbitrary; the gods control the destiny of man and the universe. Therefore, it is necessary to propitiate these deities and spirits so that they may be benevolent to the living or that they may not at least bring harm to the people.
The remarkable thing about the early religion is that it was never a static institution. It constantly evolved by the addition of new gods and new rituals and by the dropping of some old gods and old rituals. The early Indians gradually absorbed many Vedic gods or identified their own gods with the Vedic gods; for instance,the Shiva of the primitive religion was identified with the Vedic Rudra and was absorbed into Brahminical Hinduism; Murugan became identical with Subramonya/Kartikeya and Madura Meenakshi with Parvati, and so on. As a result of this contact with the Brahmins and their religion, a new pan-Indian religion called "Hinduism" evolved in India. It was neither purely Aryan/Vedic nor purely Munda/Dravidian; it was a healthy synthesis of the early religion and Vedic Hinduism; the brilliant Brahmin theologians created new mythologies and rituals to fit the needs of this new religion; they did not destroy the old, pagan, primitive religion, but rather baptized it, enriched it, and found a place for it in the new religious universe of Hindu India.
The best way to study the primitive religion is to study the religions of the tribals who still retain the basic beliefs and basic rituals of the early religion in spite of their exposure to Hinduism. The few remarks on early religion made above are the result of my fieldwork among the various tribes in India and particularly of Kerala; one of my current research projects is the study of the religion of the Kadar of Kerala.