Tsüngrem is referred to as ‘spirit’ by J. P. Mills in his book “The Ao Naga”, but the Ao Christians use the word ‘Tsüngrem’ to refer to Christian ‘God.’ The question of how that shift happened is intriguing because of the pre-Christian connotation that it carries as well as the new Christian meaning ascribed to it.
By Tiatemsu Longkumer
Christianity: The Religion of Language
During the early part, Christianity was dominated by the language of Hebrew and Greco-Roman Civilization. The translation of the Bible was even seen as a heresy by many. John Wycliffe was one of the foremost voices against such a view of the Bible. Later, during the protestant reformation (started by Martin Luther) in the 16th century, the scenario changed drastically. There was an increase in the translation of the Bible into different languages – every section of the society could read, understand, and interpret the Bible independently. Such change in understanding the Bible came about due to the exploration and use of the Greek concept of ‘evangelion’ (good news), which in Christianity referred to the ‘Gospels’; though ‘evangelicals’ (particular Christian camp) and the method of ‘evangelism’ was an offshoot of the concept of ‘evangelion’. Evangelion was an all-encompassing concept cutting across political, economic, and cultural issues. That is why many Christians believed that their method of ‘evangelism’ was not only to do with ‘salvation’ but also to bring about positive changes to all aspects of society.
Historically, such changes in Christianity came due to the philosophical and cultural soil it grew. The understanding that ‘God’ is a ‘creator’ and language is not only the byproduct but a gift of that creativity of ‘God’ to human beings- made language an integral part of Christianity. It invariably led to the discernment by many Christians that God meets (that God will communicate or reveal) people in their conceptual frame/the language that they speak. Thus, missionaries became the linguistic agents of God.
Clark: More Than a Christian Missionary
E. W. Clark and his wife Mary Mead Clark were the first American Baptist missionaries to write the Ao dictionary and translate the Bible into Ao dialect (New Testament). Ao’s have two commonly used dialects, ‘Jungli’ and ‘Mongsen,’ Mrs. Clark suggested that jungli is the most dominant dialect in her book “Ao Naga Grammar.” Due to such understanding by the Clarks’, they learned the jungli dialect and used it in all their writings.
Mr. and Mrs. Clark were the one who translated the word tsüngrem as ‘God’ (referring to Christian God). A look at their grammar book and dictionary suggests that they knew the different usages of the word tsüngrem and that it doesn’t equate with the concept of God. This is where the ingenuity of the Clarks’ and Christianity’s view of language plays its role. Clark did not bother to give a detailed analysis on the concept of tsüngrem compared to the Christian concept of God because he also believed God would meet the Aos through their language/conceptual frame. Looking at Clark through his writings and evangelism method, he seems to have understood that the Ao Christians will develop the concept of tsüngrem in their own terms.
Christian Concept of ‘God’ and the Ao Concept of ‘Tsüngrem’
Christianity’s understanding of ‘God’ comes from Greek philosophy influenced by different forms of Platonism and Aristotelian methodology. In his book ‘When Athens Met Jerusalem’, John Mark Reynolds suggests that“…Christianity was born at a time when Greek and Roman thoughts dominated the ancient world and influenced everyone and everything – including the Jews and Judaism. Christendom, the culture of Christians after Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, was the product of Christians making sense of both Greek and Jewish heritage.”
Plato’s concept of ‘forms’ (Real, perfect, intelligible, and changeless entities in the metaphysical realm distinct from ‘sensible particulars’) was the foundation of the Christian understanding of God. The deliberation on the concept of ‘forms’ by Plato and the later Christian adaptation gave rise to the concept of ‘divine aseity.’ In his book ‘God Over All: Divine Aseity and the Challenge of Platonism’, William Lane Craig suggests that “Central to the Judeo-Christian concept of God is the notion that God is a self-existing being… God is not dependent upon any other being for His existence… Were everything else magically to disappear, God would still exist. God has the property or attribute of self-existence…”
Christianity elevated Plato’s concept of ‘forms’ and his deliberation of God and created another category of reality called ‘ultimate reality’. Thus, for Christians, God is that which is the sole ‘ultimate reality’.
In Ao pre-Christian thought, the concept of a sole ‘ultimate reality’ is absent. Aos do not create multiple metaphysical realities. For Aos, there is only one reality that encompasses all physical and non-physical entities, including life after death.Tsüngrem can be understood as a non-physical personal entity that is immanent and manifests itself through temporal reality. The ontological status of tsüngrem differs according to the power it possesses and the objects it manifests. Consequently, Aos have tsüngrem for every aspect of reality (tsüngrem for the house, sky, mountain, land of the dead, and so on). The Aos lived by recognizing tsüngrem as an integral part of reality and lived in tandem with the nature of each tsüngrem.
Ao Christian Understanding of Tsüngrem
There is no Ao word equivalent to the Christian concepts of ‘God,’ ‘Trinity,’ and ‘Christ’ (Christos in Greek, and Meshiah in Hebrew, which means ‘the anointed one’). The way Ao understands Tsüngrem (God), Yisu Khrista (Jesus Christ), and Tanüla temeshi (Holy Spirit) is multifaceted. Ao Christian uses the word Kibuba (Master/owner) before the word Tsüngrem to avoid thinking that all these three are Tsüngrem. To give a Christian blend, Ao Christians also use the word Oba (Father) before Tsüngrem. Since both Kibuba and Oba refer to headship titles in Ao, Tsüngrem also indicates such headship among Yisu Khrista and Tanüla temeshi. Tanüla temeshi is understood as the tanüla (Spirit-soul complex in Ao pre-Christian understanding. Another article will explore this concept) of Tsüngrem, and Yisu Khrista is understood as the son of Tsüngrem by virtue of Tsüngrem being Oba. Since Tsüngrem is the Oba of Yisu Khrista most Aos believe that Yisu Khrista is not an ordinary human being but does not conceive Yisu Khrista as God (Trinity suggests that Jesus Christ is also God).
Consequently, in Ao Christian usage, Tsüngrem is understood as Kibuba (Master/owner) and creator of everything who transcends the material reality. Aos believe that both Tsüngrem and tanüla of Tsüngrem, i.e., Tanüla temeshi intervenes in the human affair but depending on their theological stand, some Aos give more to one or the other (In Ao pre-Christian belief, every being has tanüla which has an independent persona of its own). Ao Christians do not have a problem with the triad understanding of God, Son, and Holy Spirit because their pre-Christian social reality already had the idea of tsüngrem, tanüla, and Lijaba (see my previous article). Though it does not equate with the concept of ‘Trinity,’ the Ao Christians have creatively adopted both the Christian and pre-Christian understanding asserting their way of being a Christian. Thus, the Ao usage of Tsüngrem is a creative syncretism of both Ao pre-Christian and Christian concepts.
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A PhD. Scholar in the Dept. of Anthropology at the North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, Tiatemsu Longkumar, is currently working on The Anthropology of Religion. Anthropology, Philosophy, and Religious Studies excite him immensely, leading to podcasting on them. Tiatemsu is an esteemed host in the “New Books Network” — a podcast on Anthropology and Religion. He is passionate about reading and writing too.