Conversion to Christianity among the Nagas

For all those obsessed with the ‘indigenous’ converting to ‘foreign’ faiths, Richard Eaton’s classic historical work on Islam in Bengal and Christianity in Nagaland is a necessary antidote. Raiot is pleased to offer for ‘public interest’ his essay, Conversion to Christianity Among the Nagas : 1876-1971 for a read and download. We begin with a short summary by Prof. Eaton of his argument, followed by the pdf of the essay.

Richard Eaton on Christianity in Nagaland – extracted from his interview  with Ajaz Ashraf

Photo by Patrick Rogers taken from
Photo by Patrick Rogers taken from

We are accustomed to explaining religious change as a product of the exertions of agents, such as missionaries, rather than considering the total environment of those who actually experienced such change. Robert Ricard’s Spiritual Conquest of Mexico, for example, attempts to explain the growth of Christianity in Mexico mainly in terms of the preaching of Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries, without considering the needs or the world-views of the native Americans themselves.

The decennial census data for the Naga Hills (later, Nagaland) between 1881 and 1981 shows that the most dramatic religious change occurred after 1947, when foreign missionaries had left the field. Moreover, some communities of Nagas who were least exposed to foreign missionaries were among the earliest to convert to Christianity.  (I should add that discovering this made me question the facile assumption that Sufis were the principal agents of conversion to Islam in India.)

By reading studies of religious change among the Yoruba of West Africa, I realised how the theories of anthropologist Robin Horton could help explain what was happening in the Naga Hills. The Yoruba were a preliterate society with a two-tiered religious cosmology: a lower tier composed of a host of lesser spirits that were near-at-hand, clearly-defined, and required regular interaction; and an upper tier composed of a single high god that was distant, vaguely defined, and seldom approached.  As Yoruba communities became progressively integrated into a wider, global reality with the advent of colonial rule, their attention shifted from the lower to the upper tier of their cosmology, since their high god was understood as controlling the larger universe that they were now experiencing.  Moreover, since the deity of both Muslims and Christians was a high god ruling their entire cosmos, the Yoruba began to identify their own high god with that deity – a process that Christian missionaries called “conversion”, but which one could also call “identification”.

The Nagas in colonial India had a similar experience. They, too, had been a pre-literate people with a two-tiered cosmology, and they also experienced external shocks in the 20th century brought on by colonial rule, together with the disruptions caused by the Japanese invasions in World War II.  Like the Yoruba, these disruptions disposed Naga communities to shift attention from the lower to the upper tier of their cosmology at the very time that ideas of the Christian deity had been elaborated in terms of indigenous terminologies and cosmologies.  Contributing to these changes was the revolution of literacy among largely pre-literate communities, the fact that Christian scripture was often the first writing in their own languages that Nagas had ever seen, and the decisive role played by Naga youths who had been educated in mission schools.  Most of these factors did not come fully into play until after 1947.


  Conversion to Christianity Among the Nagas


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Richard M. Eaton Written by:

Richard M Eaton is a professor of history at University of Arizona and has authored several books, and is widely regarded as an authority on pre-modern India.

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