Sentinelese Can Teach Us A Lot


The Sentinelese, who rarely make news owing to their ultra-primitive and fiercely reclusive nature, made headlines after they killed a missionary. The missionary, as per the reports, was planning to establish contact with the tribe and learn their language with an intention to proselytize them.

After reading the news, many of us might have felt, “how insane… by refusing to mingle with the outside world they lost an opportunity to work in plush offices, enjoy pizzas and burgers, wear branded garments, live in bungalows, drive around in cars and indulge in selfies and social media clicks”. True, they missed out on all these things. But to this primitive tribe, these things have barely any value. In fact, some expeditions were even made to establish contact with them by luring them with material things, but they did not accept any of them.

For them a life lived in harmony with nature is paramount. The aerial view of their island, which looks pristine with lush greenery, is a testimony to the fact that they are the true children of mother nature. They are at least able to breath fresh air, eat natural food and lead a stress-free life that spares them from frequenting hospitals they don’t have. The way they are confronting the outsiders makes it abundantly clear that they are healthy and agile.

And the missionary who lost his life was trying to take religion to a place, where there is absolutely no need of it. The entire episode makes me recollect the book I read “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes”, written by Daniel Everette, a missionary linguist who undertook an expedition to the Amazonian rainforest to convert a primitive tribe called, Piraha. He went there to learn their language and translate scriptural literature into it to convert the tribe. One day, Daniel, to persuade the tribesmen to convert, shared an emotion-laden personal story with them. He told them that his step mother’s suicide made him move towards God. Then, the tribesmen, instead of expressing sympathy with him, said, “She killed herself?  Ha ha ha. How stupid. Pirahas don’t kill themselves.” That made Daniel realize the futility of his mission and slowly turn into an atheist.

These tribes, who are primitive, don’t worry about death and afterlife. As they don’t even worry about their souls, they don’t seek them to be saved. Normally primitive tribes are more rational than the so-called civilized people. They usually believe in those things which they can perceive with their sense organs and don’t waste their time in speculative theology. As the tribal societies are mostly egalitarian, they neither produce powerful ruling classes nor do they follow organized religions with powerful clergy, who aspire to control the society through deception to serve their narrow self-interests.

We, the so-called civilized people, until some decades ago, identified each other as belonging to a certain religion, caste, race or nationality. Now, in this 21st century, with the advent of disruptive technologies and globalization, our identities have been further reduced to that of a consumer, a laborer, a devotee, a patient or a voter. As a consumer, you need to go on a spending spree on various occasions such as Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Big Billion Days sale etc. to keep the consumer demand up to promote growth even at the expense of getting trapped in debt. As laborers, we need to labor under the constant and continuous threat of cost-cutting, automation and offshoring. As devotees, we are supposed to stay pious and remain loyal followers of religions selling our souls to the clergy. As patients, we need to wait outside a physician’s chamber to find an elusive cure for the lifestyle diseases we get after using gadgets that promote sedentary life and consuming gourmet junk food that makes us obese. And, as voters, we need to stand in serpentine queues with an infinite patience and unceasing optimism that one day our politicos will dissociate themselves from their ultra-rich cronies and think about the poor and the ordinary.

The primitive tribal people need not worry about all these things as their identity always stays constant and they always remain humans. They don’t need to enter into a class struggle to oppose exploiters, they need not endure consumerism-induced relative deprivation, they don’t have to torment themselves with the feeling that their religion is in danger, and they need not have to live under the shadow of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. Their lives, though under constant threat from various natural forces, are mostly blissful.

Therefore, the rest of humanity must let them live the way they are living. As they continue to exist, they will keep reminding us of the things we lost by enslaving ourselves to the very things we created such as money, religion and technology.

This does not mean the humanity should set aside all its achievements and get back to its primitiveness. Things, however, can’t continue moving at the same hectic pace as they are now, due to its non-sustainability. No amount of denial can conceal the truth that the threat of climate change is looming large and the prevalence of lifestyle diseases has reached epidemic proportions. So, humanity, one day, must give up its greed and adapt itself to sustainable living practices. These reclusive tribal people, with their frugal and eco-friendly lives, will keep inspiring us to realize these hard truths.

This article first appeared in the author’s personal blog:

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I'm a news junkie and a compulsive blogger. I learn as if I was destined to live forever. My ideas always keep evolving. I got published in The Hindu, The New Indian Express and Telangana Today.
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