Re-incarnation and Naming of a Child among the Karbis (Mikir) of Assam– by Morningkeey Phangcho
Concept of Re-incarnation
As Christoph Von Fϋrer-heimendorff has put it in one of his papers quoting a lecture of Sir James Frazer, “Men commonly believe that their conscious being will not end at death, but that it will be continued for an indefinite time or for ever, long after the frail corporeal envelope which lodged it for a time has moldered in the dust. This belief in the immortality of the soul, as we call it, is by no means confined to the adherents of the great historical religions . . .it is held with at least equal confidence by most, if not all, of those peoples of lower culture whom we call savages and barbarians, and there is every reason to think that among them the belief is native.” 
Man has never stopped wondering about the life after death since time immemorial. Like in many other advanced societies around the world, the Karbis in the Indian North East, who are approximately 500,000 in number according to the latest survey of the Census of India, have this concept of life after death and the journey of one’s karjòng (lit. spirit of a person) to the land of the dead (chom-ārong, lit. village of death). If the Karbis belief is followed, we shall not fail to find the mention of a legendary person named Thī-rèng-vāng-rèng (lit. dead-alive-come-alive), who for the first time had enlightened the Karbis about the life after death. It is believed that before the advent of this man among the Karbis, there was no concept of soul and also dead rituals were not performed in accordance with some rules.
The concept of re-incarnation or rebirth is also believed to have originated around that time among the Karbis. The concept of re-incarnation and descent however is fairly widespread. The Hindu and the Buddhist concepts on the subject are very well known. The Karbi religious belief as compared with the more popular Hindu or Buddhist concept is the focus of this article. The Karbis practice exogamous marriage and maintain purity of descent among the clans. A Karbi female retains the surname of her father’s clan even after her marriage to another clan and at her death, she must be cremated in the specifically assigned location (tipit in Karbi) for her clan in the cremation ground and nowhere else. The logic behind this seems to originate from the belief that a person after his/her death returns to his/her clan reborn as a child.
There is also this belief among the Karbis of Kamrup in Assam that such rebirth or reincarnation is possible within the same lineage outside the clan. Among the hill Karbis, such violation can never take place. A person’s rebirth is possible only within the same clan. A female, being the descendent of the member of the particular clan of her father, must also go back to her father’s family reborn as a daughter. But, among the Karbis of the plains, a person can be reborn to a family belonging to same lineage irrespective of the clan. For example, a rebirth of a father/mother can occur to a daughter married to another clan as they belong to the same lineage. Among the hill Karbis, a dead father cannot be reborn to his daughter as her husband belonged to another clan. It is believed that a reborn individual inherits some characteristics of the deceased and fulfils the announcement he made before his death. Just like the Haida of the Queen Charlotte Islands (British Columbia), South Eastern Alaska and the Pulangka community of Thailand, the features of a Karbi concept of re-incarnation (Men-Kachevāng) have predictions of rebirth in a family; ‘announcing dreams’, which indicates who is to be reborn; and correspondence of behaviors between a child and the deceased person.
The deep-rooted impact of the traditional beliefs in re-incarnation can be established by the fact that even a Karbi who is converted into Christianity continues to believe in re-incarnation according to the traditions of the tribe. Very similar to the Haidas, the Karbis also believe that a person can, before he/she dies, choose his parents for his re-incarnation by a verbal declaration. Moreover ‘announcing dream’ is also attached importance to in identifying the newborn’s identity. Such kind of ‘announcing dreams’ usually occurs during pregnancy. In such a situation, a Thékēré (lit. intellectual or knowledgeable is a Karbi shaman performing various many rituals) is approached who, by his paranormal power, would identify the sex of the child of an unborn baby. As regard to the phenomena of the ‘third sex’ (bisexuals) among the Karbis, it is believed that when an individual is not satisfied with his/her sexual orientation and declares before dying that he/she would be born as the member of the opposite sex in his/her next birth, he/she would be reborn with sexual deformities and hence is considered a taboo. However, according to some beliefs, a child born with sexual deformities is considered unnatural and evil and is therefore abandoned after birth to die in wilderness. The identity of the newborn is also established by correlating the behaviour of the child with a particular deceased in the family. As the child grows up and develops speaking skill, he may exhibit post-infantile behaviour, indicative of ‘imaged memories’ of previous personality.
Such a case was observed with my cousin at Umrongso village, N.C. Hills district, Assam. He would often speak of driving a vehicle when he was able to speak and would shout at his mother to give him a particular vehicle. The parent believed that the boy’s previous personality was used to driving. Later on, it was established by the thékēré that he was the re-incarnation of a particular deceased. There was another case at Rongchējèng, Chirikēngding, West Karbi Anglong, of a child who acted as lame even if there seemed no medical or physical abnormality. Later on, it was established that he was the re-incarnation of a deceased who was lame. As soon as the Mēnchi (Previous Personality) of the child was identified and he was named after him, he (the child) became perfectly okay and started walking normally.Unlike beliefs in the more popular Hindu concept of re-incarnation, the transgression of rebirth into non-human form and vice versa is impossible among the Karbis. The Karbis believe that an individual has to be reborn as human only. Generally, an individual declares and chooses the family where he would be reborn in his next birth. But there are instances, though rare, when a person was reborn not in a human form but as a cat, according to the choice of the deceased. It appeared intriguing to me when my mother told me about the case. Once there was a man who was very dissatisfied with his family, and declared that he would be better reborn as a cat or a dog than to be reborn as a son among the uncaring and quarrelsome siblings. I was told that he was reborn as a cat in that family. Moreover, the family refrained from naming any male child after the poor deceased for one generation. After the cat’s demise only was a male child born to the family was named after ‘him’.
However it is considered to be a taboo to talk about getting reborn as an animal. It is believed that one will not live a human life even after being reborn as a human after the one generation gap. However, this kind of phenomenon cannot be taken as a common belief among the Karbis.There is also this belief among the Karbis that a person devoured by wild animals (particularly tiger) cannot be reborn at all. It is a taboo and such accidents are regarded as ‘long:lé kerèm’ (long:lé=earth, kerèm=defeat) or ‘pirthé kelāngnò’ (pirthé=earth, kelāngnò=unclean). There are cleansing or purification rituals for such unfortunate victims, but nevertheless, the person is taboo to be reborn.
Sometime more than one individual claims to have the same mēnchi (mēn=name, chi=die or previous personality). In other words, more than one person is believed to be the re-incarnation of the same person. This phenomenon is called mēn-phlak (shared personality). The logic behind this concept may probably be understood by the fact that the Karbis believe in having more than one soul, to be particular two souls, one being a source of life and the other being conscience. Karjòng is the deathless, immortal souI while the chamburuksò is the souls of the dead persons. I should call the later entity spirit. Soul (Karjòng) and Spirit (Chamburuksò) are considered to be an entity of the same personality. The difference between Karjòng and Chamburuksò would be discussed in detail in the later part of the article.
However, here at this point of time, I would like to bring into focus another term called mēn-chelàr (Personality Exchange).Sometime a child but before attaining adolescent stages, might start acting strangely and behave like another person. He may assume the behaviour and personality of another deceased. After the thékēré is called in and consulted whereby it is established as the case of mēn-chelar (Personality Exchange). It is believed that the child was re-incarnated as someone else but due to some paranormal reason, the person who would occupy the body of the child is changed. Now the child would be assumed as the re-incarnation of another deceased and renamed accordingly.
This case was reported in an Ingti family at Umrongso Village, N.C. Hills. A child was born to the family. He was named as the re-incarnation of the late father of the head of the family Mr. Ingti. However, after two years, Mr. Ingti also died. As soon as Mr. Ingti was cremated and all the rituals were performed, the child started acting strange. He began speaking about the occupation of the deceased Mr. Ingti. He began to talk like him, showed his expertise and also started abusing ‘his’ mother just the way his father would. He started exhibiting the likes and dislikes of the late Mr. Ingti. When a thékēré was called, it was established to be the case of mēn-chelar. The child was now a re-incarnation of the father instead of the grand father, which he was for two years and accordingly he was renamed.
A well-developed Karbi case of re-incarnation may therefore have four features.
1) Pre-mortem expression of wishes concerning Re-incarnation— Such as, I would be like this and like that in my next birth, calling a person and declaring that he would be his son in his next birth and so on and so forth.
2) ‘Dreams announcing’ the re-incarnation of a deceased person— Eg: My younger brother is believed to be the re-incarnation of my grand father, whom my father had never seen. An unknown person came to the dream of my father and introduced himself and told him that he is coming to our house. The next month my younger brother was born.
3) ‘Imaged memories’ on the parts of the subject.
4) Unusual behaviours that correspond to identified previous personality.According to the popular Karbi believe, when a person dies, his soul would go to chom:ārong (Village of Death). Chom:ārong is believed to be exactly the mirror image of this world of the living, here nights will be days there, here left would be right there and so on. The soul would perform all its duties as it does in this world and then comes back into this world by taking the form of another human being. It however, can be reborn only within the same lineage and family (as among the Karbis of the plains) and the same clan (among the hill Karbis). The Karbis also believe that a male can be reborn only as a male and a female as only a female or else there might be sexual deformities as explained earlier. All the five clans of the Karbis have different assigned places in chom:ārong as well as here in this world. All the five clans have different Anōksōng or Nōk:hum (clans).
The Karbis believe that it is the Karjòng (soul) which plays the roles in re-incarnation, which goes to only its assigned ānōksong in chom:ārong after the person dies and it is this karjòng which comes back for rebirth. When a married couple dies, their Karjòng get separated and would have to go to their separated ānōksong in chom:ārong. However, their chamburuksòs (spirits) are not separated and they stay on together. The chamburuksò of the woman would keep on staying with the ānōksong of the husband as she was part of the ānōksong of the husband by their marital association.
The ‘conscience’ of the deceased wife would remain with the husband’s. Karjòng is the soul and the source of life of a person where as chamburuksò is the conscience of the individual.The karjòng and chamburuksò are also important in Karbi concept and there are elaborate rituals. In case of a person being very sick, there is a ritual of Karjòng Kekur (Lit. Soul Calling). Karjòng of the person is believed to have strayed from the body of the suffering individual. And hence to make the individual strong and fine again, his soul is called back. However, the chamburuksò will come into picture only after the individual is dead. It is however the chamburuksòs, which are propitiated with offerings of rice liquor, meat, fish etc. on any special occasions in the family praying for their blessings. It is believed that if such propitiation is not done, a living member of the family may be afflicted by a sudden and unexplained illness. If such phenomenon strikes the family, it is seen as a sign of the chamburuksòs dissatisfaction who are demanding attention by way of such propitiation.
This very brief propitiation ritual is known as ‘chamburuksò hor-kepi’ (hor=wine, kepi=to give) and is done symbolically to ‘remind’ them that ‘they’ are not forgotten. But, a more elaborate ritual, known as ‘chamburksò kachingduk’ (kachingduk=propitiation, praying for blessings), is also performed by the family.
Naming of a child
Naming of a child is inter-related with the concept of re-incarnation among the Karbis. The name of the child is given in accordance with the mēnchi (previous personality). The occupation, characteristics, location etc. play a great role in naming of a Karbi child. A chilld may be named as Hemai (Blacksmith) if the mēnchi’s occupation was that of blacksmith. My aunt is named as Sikurpi (Christian lady) since her previous personality was a Christian. Even my middle name, “Keey” signifies the name of my father’s cousin who is believed to be my mēnchi. There are various examples of naming a child after the mēnchi. In fact it was the only significant practice of naming a child among the Karbis before established religions influenced them in a big way.
A child is named as Kangbura, Sarthé, Basapi, Klengsarpò etc signifying the roles they played in their previous births. Whereas some of the children maybe named according to the characteristics of their previous births like Horjun (Drunkard), Kania (Morphine addicted), and Kehai (angry) etc.
At the conclusion, I would like to thank Mr. Pascal Bouchery, Lecturer in Anthropolgy, University of Poiters, France and Mr. Philippe Ramirez of CNRS, Paris, France for their comments on my previous paper and also helping me out in improving the presentation of my paper. Moreover I am greatly indebted to especially Mr. Philippe Ramirez for giving me access to the online library.
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