September 2016

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The Unique Peoples of Odisha

by Wesley Kawato

Odisha in eastern India is in some ways typical of India. Yet in other ways it is different. In this article we will explore how this came about.
The early history of human settlements in Odisha is shrouded in mystery. Archeologists have found stone-age tools in this Indian state by the Bay of Bengal. Hindu literature says much about the coming of the first people to Odisha. These stories mention clashes between those who were already there and newly arrived settlers. The accuracy of those stories is in question. Many of these myths involve the actions of Hindu gods such as Krishna.

A History Marked by Division and Conquest
Historians don’t know when the first Oriya speaking people groups settled in Odisha. What they do know is that there were many petty states in the region, and that these states clashed in frequent wars. The ruins of many Hindu temples dot the landscape of Odisha. Hinduism was the dominant religion of this region prior to 261 B.C.
By 261 B.C. Kalinga was the largest of the petty states that dotted the political landscape. That year Emperor Ashoka of the Mauran Empire conquered Kalinga. That war was very bloody, and the horror of the fighting sent Ashoka on a quest for spiritual truth. That quest led to his conversion to Buddhism.
Subsequently conversions became common in Odisha. But this changed after 150 A.D., when a northern army, led by Emperor Kharavela, conquered the Mauran Empire. The new rulers were Hindus, and the people of Odisha gradually converted back to Hinduism. Kharavela’s empire didn’t last long. It quickly fragmented into numerous petty states. Odisha would remain divided for many centuries after that.
During the 1500s the Sultanate of Bengal began conquering Odisha. In 1568 Kalinga became the last of these states to be conquered by neighboring Bengal to its north. Bengal was controlled by the Mughal Empire. The Mughal emperor divided the Oriya speaking regions among his various vassals.
During the 1800s the British took control of India. In 1912 the British redrew the state boundaries, and the states of Bihar and Orissa were formed that year. In 1936 the state of Orissa was split off from Bihar, giving the Oriya speaking people groups a state of their own.
In 1947 India became independent, and the new national government changed the boundaries of Orissa when several local princes agreed to merge their states into Orissa. In 2011 the national government would rename Orissa “Odisha.”

Odisha Today
In recent years Odisha has suffered from droughts and heat waves. In the summer of 2014, 2000 people died of heat stroke in Odisha.
Today Odisha has the highest percentage of Hindus in any Indian state. Odisha’s population is 92 percent Hindu. Christians make up less than two percent of that state’s population; this is common in India’s northern states. Christians are also the fastest growing minority in Odisha. Between 2001 and 2011 the Christian population grew by 478 percent, far faster than the other states of the north. What happens if the Christian population continues to grow in Odisha? Will religious tolerance continue to be the rule?
Despite the overwhelming Hindu majority, Odisha is known for religious tolerance. Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims often live in the same villages. Also, the caste system isn’t fully enforced in Odisha. People from different castes mingle more freely here than in most of the other Indian states.
This tolerance even extends to tourists. Each year thousands of Buddhists make pilgrimages to Odisha which has several Buddhist shrines dating back to the days when this state had a significant Buddhist population. The Hindu residents of Odisha have left these pilgrims alone.

Pray for Odisha!
• Pray for the gospel to continue to spread in Odisha without interference from militant adversaries.
• Pray for a disciple-making movement among every forward caste group in Odisha. The forward castes (or higher-status castes) are almost always the least likely to embrace the gospel for numerous reasons.
• Ask God to lead a mission agency to target every unreached people group in Odisha for outreach. Pray for faithful workers to take the message of salvation to these people groups.
• Ask God to break the hold that Hinduism has on this state. May the people of Odisha come to see Jesus Christ as being better than any Hindu god.

From the Editor

by Keith Carey

Dear Praying Friends,
Every year we devote August, September, and October to praying for the unreached peoples in South Asian countries such as India and those nations surrounding it except for Pakistan. There is a good reason for this: one-third of the world’s unreached peoples live in this area!
But there are things we need to remember. One is that the high, and so-called “forward” castes in this area are among the most unreached peoples in the world. Lower castes, often because of their lack of status or privilege, are much more likely to respond to the One who seeks those who recognize that they are spiritually poor and in need of a loving shepherd.
We last prayed for Odisha in 2009, when it was still called Orissa. This Indian state that borders West Bengal and Bihar is experiencing rapid church growth, thanks to efforts by Indian believers. You will want to read about that in the background article and in days four and five. We can thank God for His abundant mercy on the people of Odisha. Our Bible verses this month will help you to meditate on His mercy as you pray.
God is on the move in India, and it’s affecting what was previously hard soil against the seeds of the gospel in the northern states. Will you pray for the soil to soften, so that there will be a great harvest among the forward castes we intercede for this month?