Exploring the Naga life of dreams

Exploring the Naga life of dreams
Dr. Michael Heneise, Director of Kohima Institute, delivered the 4th Church and Society Annual Lecture at Oriental Theological Seminary in Bade, Dimapur on Saturday, December 1. (Morung Photo)


Dr. Michael Heneise delivers 4th Church and Society Annual Lecture


Morung Express News
Dimapur | December 2


Dreams and dreaming are intrinsic to life. For a community with the ability and will to interpret them, dreams present the blurry lines between the old and the new, the static and the subversive, the blessing and the curse, the domestic and the public.


Thoughts revolving around these lines, Dr. Michael Heneise, Director of the Kohima Institute, delivered the fourth Church and Society Annual Lecture at the Oriental Theological Seminary (OTS) in Bade village on December 1. Titled ‘Contending with Charisma: Dreams, Christianity and Authoritative Knowledge among the Angami in Nagaland,’ the Lecture threw light on how dreams manifest in Naga society, particularly among the Angami.


“In my research I found that very often dreams were interpreted in hindsight as affecting the future,” noted Heneise, deploying Maurice Merleau Ponty’s concept of ‘reversibility,’ bringing in the interaction between dreams and waking states. “Dreams as authoritative knowledge inform daily life, and figure in the negotiation of day-to-day domestic and public contingencies,” he sketched in his paper.


Heneise’s research among the Meya clan of Lhisemia khel of Kohima village has led to the recent publication of his book, ‘Agency and Knowledge in Northeast India – The Life and Landscapes of Dreams.’


The work of dream interpreters among the clan, in Heneise’s research, presented the tension between ‘charisma’—“a strong personality or someone channeling something from the hidden world”—and the traditional knowledge system.


“Clan systems are focused on maintaining lineage into the infinite future. With interlinked concepts of land and patrilineality, the clan and the land become one. New ideas are a potential threat to this system,” he contended. His interest in the relationship between Charisma and Patrilineality took him to the local Baptist Revival church with daily morning and evening services where people often shared dreams, spoke in tongues, prophesied, thereby “bringing new knowledge and interpretation at this church located in the midst of a clan space that has been there for 500 years.”


New forms of knowledge
“The old and new forms of knowledge were located in two spaces—the vertical public clan structures occupied by the male and the horizontal domestic (birth, housework, kitchen) structures organized essentially by the female—and at this particular Baptist Revival church, these two spaces worked in tandem with each other,” observed Heneise.


But, there was tension between the traditional church that followed the patrilineal system and the charismatic church that ushered in “new forms of knowledge.”


“In the 1960-70s, many young men left to participate in the political struggle. The women were left to take up leadership roles—they managed the food, rations, churches and meetings. Within the void left by men, there was a significant growth in women’s leadership during the revivals,” he noted.


Traveling evangelists of the time found groups of women leading church services. These services were strikingly different, in Heneise’s finding, from those modeled by the American Baptists. “There was a broader vocabulary of worship experiences in those early revival churches run by the women,” the anthropologist noted.


“The old recipes, folktales, songs, weaving, the dreams were preserved in the domestic sphere while log drums in the public sphere were being thrown down the mountains. It was the women who preserved the domestic sphere, who wove, sang songs and interpreted dreams.”


When women took over the public sphere, they brought their worldviews—essentially the Naga worldview—to the revival movements, solidifying the space for dreams and prophecies in Naga Christianity, bringing “new forms of knowledge” and new perspectives to Naga public life.


Interpreting dreams
Dreams and visions often “help us navigate the unpredictability of our times” but it needs an “interpretive community” that can interpret and understand what a dream means in one’s cultural context.


“The work of theology is to balance new forms of knowledge and that passed on by our forebears. A Naga theology thus produced can be transformative for theology everywhere,” affirmed Heneise during a discussion session that saw the Lecture participants raise challenging questions on theology that is influenced by dreams, dreaming and prophesying—is it a new form of knowledge or does it simply assert the status quo?


Giving a critical response to the paper, Zavi-i Nisa, Assistant Professor at OTS, maintained that “Heneise’s scholarly work is undeniably a remarkable contribution towards the science of dreams and dreaming, its functions as ‘indicators’ in the Angami life.”


Indeed, 80% of practices among Christians in Naga churches are traditional, stated Dr. Pangernungba Kechu on a parting note, providing the “indigenous ontological basis that must be taken into context for the church to remain relevant.”


The Church and Society Annual Lecture is an undertaking of the Foundation for Church and Society, an initiative of the OTS. This year’s lecture was chaired by Dr. M Sashi Jamir.