The Concept of Sobaliba—From the Outside Looking In

Vikiyeto Noel Jimomi
Kohima, Nagaland

Culture is defined as the sum total of the original solutions that a group of human beings invent to adapt to their natural and social environment [Thierry G. Verhelst, No Life Without Roots: Culture and Development. London: Zed Books Ltd., 1990, p.3]. It develops out of human beings’ encounter with the nature and the environment, when they adapt certain features in order to meet their needs and to solve their problems and to live within the demands, restrains and the potentials of the environment [K. Thanzauva, Theology of Community: Tribal Theology in the Making. Aizawl: Mizo Theological Conference, 1997, p. 43]. Thus, culture depends on the conditions of the people’s environment and may change as the environment changes. As development progress in any society, new cultural values seep into the existing traditional cultures, making the old values die off eventually as it becomes weaker in contrast to the dominant new culture.


In my many years of association with esteemed Ao Naga friends, the concept of Sobaliba has come into many a discussion when referring to manners, etiquettes, behaviour and attitude of a person towards others. Often, I have heard someone say, “That fellow does not possess Sobaliba; so he is acting thus” or “That fellow possesses Sobaliba; his/her parents must have been very good persons”. This led me into a search of what this concept of Sobaliba is all about, and just how important a role it plays in the social life of the Ao Nagas.


As the title of this short article clearly suggests, this is written “From the Outside Looking In” perspective. Here I am, a non-Ao, trying to understand what Sobaliba is. In doing so, I believe some of you will agree with whatever presentation I have. However, there will surely be points where your concept would actually differ from what I understood. In such points, I would welcome inputs, corrections and suggestions.


Sobaliba is derived from the Mongsen dialect of the Ao Nagas. Like many other words in the Naga tribal dialects, Sobaliba is a compound word made up of two words. The first word is “Soba” which means “Being Born/the act of being born/Giving a New Life/a bringing into life”. It is basically a word which refers to the whole act of giving birth to a new life. The second word is “Liba” which means “The Lifestyle/act of living/character/behavior/attitude”. Therefore, to start off with, Sobaliba would basically mean an ethics of living with regards to the society, culture, tradition, environment, nature, etc which is required in the day to day living of an individual’s life, be it to self or to the community.


The Ao Naga society is governed and sustained as a community by the principle of self-sacrifice. This principle is characterized by the traditional etiquette, social manner, honesty, integrity, virtues and much more. It is a socio-ethical principle that forces a person to deny oneself or one’s own wishes for the sake of the community; or lose oneself for the common cause. This socio-ethical principle is known as the Sobaliba among the Aos.


It finds its equivalent in the socio-ethical principle of the Mizos of Mizoram, called the principle of Tlawmngaihna. The Mizo code of ethics or dharma is governed by Tlawmngaihna, an untranslatable term meaning, on the part of everyone to be hospitable, kind, unselfish and helpful to others. Tlawmngaihna to a Mizo stands for selfless service for others. Tlawmngaihna to a Mizo is more than just a word; it is what defines a Mizo and differentiates him from the other people of the same Tibeto-Burman origin. Tlawmngaihna is never enforced by others. It is something which binds every individual without any outside pressure. It is a given that one must be tlawmngai in all walks of life. Tlawmngaihna to Mizo stands for the compelling moral force which finds expression in self-sacrifice for the service of the others. [http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Tlawmngaihna].


The historical concept of tlawmngaihna in Mizo culture persists largely intact to this day. While having no exact English equivalent, tlawmngaihna is essentially the Mizo code of morals and good form. One cannot be regarded as tlawmngai unless one is courteous, considerate, helpful, unselfish, courageous, and ready to help others even at considerable inconvenience to him or herself. Selflessness for the needs of others is the spontaneous outcome. In the past, tlawmngaihna might mean letting another on the hunting party take the shot when a barking deer came into view, even if you spotted it first. It might mean and still does mean helping rebuild your neighbor’s house at your own considerable expense if it were to burn down. [Kyle Jackson, Mizoram Spring 2006, SFU International: A Report, p. 9].


Returning to Sobaliba, in every matter, the Ao rhetoric says, “community first then comes the individual”. [A. Wati Longchar, “Interaction Between Gospel and Culture among the Nagas” in Encounter Between Gospel and Tribal Culture, ed. A. Wati Longchar, Jorhat: ETC, 1999, p. 33]. The community welfare comes first and foremost. Sobaliba makes this vision a reality. In short, it means a total surrender of one’s life to the cause of the society.


The principle of Sobaliba contains in it a wide range of implications for both the individual and community life. Some of the examples are:

  1. To extend help, or to be sensitive to the needy, poor, old people or strangers
  2. Willingness to share one’s belongings with friends, neighbors and needy people
  3. To respect the elders and parents
  4. To be unselfish while eating, drinking or collecting materials
  5. To speak the truth
  6. To avoid false witness, stealing, cheating or robbing
  7. Not to commit adultery
  8. Not to seek position, power or self-glory in the community
  9. To respect and obey the clan and village leaders
  10. Willingness to protect the village from enemies by sacrificing oneself
  11. To bring up children in the right path
  12. To be sociable and cheerful
  13. To be hardworking and have a dignity of labor
  14. To observe the norms and laws of the community
  15. To be hospitable
  16. To abstain from cutting of trees without reason
  17. To abstain from killing of living beings
  18. Participation in community works
  19. Willingness to share one’s land with the landless
  20. To be serious in everything
  21. All the examples given above shows that Sobaliba is an ethical principle which includes self-sacrifice, self-emptying, total self-denial, preservation, co-operation, honesty, truthfulness, industriousness, vicariousness, tactfulness, sociability, dedication, commitment, frugality, simplicity and sustainable use of resources. This could probably be the reason why Renthy Keitzar, a famous theologian, says that “we cannot explain such traditional code of morals, but these can be understood to some extend in the Christian concept of agape as in John 13:34”. [Rethy Keitzar, “Tribal Theology in the Making” in New Horizons in Ecumenism: Essays in Honor of Bishop Samuel Amrithan, ed. K. C. Abraham, Bangalore: BTESSC, 1993, p. 48].
    Sobaliba is a highly prized virtue and a wonderful philosophy of life which is so rich in meaning and so wide in scope. It is a principle –
    a) to be self-sacrificing, unselfish, self-emptying and self-denying, persevering, brave, firm and independent;
    b) to put one’s inclination on one side and do a thing for helping another person or society;
    c) to do whatever the occasion demands no matter how distasteful or inconvenient it may be to one’s own inclination/wishes.
    The essence of human beings is Sobaliba and it makes a human distinct from other animals. The Ao society cannot be sustained without Sobaliba because the moral percepts of this principle make the people to act selflessly in times of calamities and dangers to the society. In Sobaliba, the ultimate goal of life becomes living for others.
    This ethical value of self-sacrifice produced many selfless people among the Ao Nagas in the past. A person who practices Sobaliba is one who has a love and respect for the community and at the same time is sure of where he/she comes from and does not suffer from an identity crisis. [Vikiyeto Noel Jimomi, Identity Crisis Among the Sumi Naga Youths: An Ethical Overview, Serampore: Serampore College, 2000]. If a person practices Sobaliba, he/she can always be proud of his/her roots, wherever he/she maybe and under whatever situation or circumstance.

All the examples given above shows that Sobaliba is an ethical principle which includes self-sacrifice, self-emptying, total self-denial, preservation, co-operation, honesty, truthfulness, industriousness, vicariousness, tactfulness, sociability, dedication, commitment, frugality, simplicity and sustainable use of resources. This could probably be the reason why Renthy Keitzar, a famous theologian, says that “we cannot explain such traditional code of morals, but these can be understood to some extend in the Christian concept of agape as in John 13:34”. [Rethy Keitzar, “Tribal Theology in the Making” in New Horizons in Ecumenism: Essays in Honor of Bishop Samuel Amrithan, ed. K. C. Abraham, Bangalore: BTESSC, 1993, p. 48].


Sobaliba is a highly prized virtue and a wonderful philosophy of life which is so rich in meaning and so wide in scope. It is a principle –

a) to be self-sacrificing, unselfish, self-emptying and self-denying, persevering, brave, firm and independent;
b) to put one’s inclination on one side and do a thing for helping another person or society;
c) to do whatever the occasion demands no matter how distasteful or inconvenient it may be to one’s own inclination/wishes.


The essence of human beings is Sobaliba and it makes a human distinct from other animals. The Ao society cannot be sustained without Sobaliba because the moral percepts of this principle make the people to act selflessly in times of calamities and dangers to the society. In Sobaliba, the ultimate goal of life becomes living for others.


This ethical value of self-sacrifice produced many selfless people among the Ao Nagas in the past. A person who practices Sobaliba is one who has a love and respect for the community and at the same time is sure of where he/she comes from and does not suffer from an identity crisis. [Vikiyeto Noel Jimomi, Identity Crisis Among the Sumi Naga Youths: An Ethical Overview, Serampore: Serampore College, 2000]. If a person practices Sobaliba, he/she can always be proud of his/her roots, wherever he/she maybe and under whatever situation or circumstance.