Dinka Traditional Religion

The Dinka are one of the largest ethnic groups South Sudan. The essential features of Dinka religion fall under three headings, which may be regarded as its three principal dimensions – belief, worship and morality.

Considering the Dinka as a whole, the main objects of traditional religious belief are God, the divinities, spirits and the ancestors. Belief in God, conceived as one Supreme Personal Being, seems to be shared by the majority of Dinka culture. The deity is clearly conceived as one and supreme.

The Supreme Being in the traditional Dinka religion is personal, not an impersonal absolute principle. God has a will, emotions and, of course, intelligence. Among the major divine attributes in Dinka, the traditional religion are omnipotence, omniscience, goodness and justice, although these attributes are not expressed in mere abstract concepts. Sometimes he is thought of in masculine terms and even as a Father, at other times she is conceived in feminine terms and as a Mother. But in most cases, Dinka languages do not specify since gender categories are totally absent.

One can say that for the Dinka, God is the creator and sustainers of all that is, provided one allows that creation can have other meanings in religion than the one that Scholastic theology has given to it. God is manifested in some way in everything that exists and in every event in life. There is, anyhow, no risk of pantheism since the Supreme Being is thought of and approached as a Person.

Most traditional Dinka are so overwhelmed by the uniqueness, majesty and supremacy of God that they lack images for the Source-Being. Daily prayers are addressed to God in most parts of Dinka-land and some people have direct cult of the Supreme Being. In Dinka God is at the same time transcendent and immanent, but definitely neither absent nor even too distant.

Next to God are what one may call divinities, for lack of a better expression. These are spiritual beings who owe their origin to and are dependent on God. Some of them are personified attributes of the Supreme Being, like the thunder divinity, which usually represents God’s wrath. Others are God’s manifestation in some natural phenomena like the moon and outstanding ancestors. The divinities are God’s messengers or ministers, and some of them may be very prominent in some localities, but totally unknown in others, while God, as we have already mentioned, is believed to be known by all, albeit by different local names. The divinities, although usually dreaded for their uncompromising stance in some moral issues, are, nevertheless good and just.

Celebrations take place in autumn when the whole tribe is together. To honour their traditional spiritual and political leaders, the Dinka enact day-long ceremonies marked by large public gatherings and the sacrifice of many cattle. Religion embraces life as a whole and worship touches every aspect of their lives. Strictly speaking, only God and the divinities are worshipped and this is done through sacrifices, offerings, prayers, invocation, praises, music and dance. In many localities, there is no direct cult of the Supreme Being, yet God is the ultimate object of worship whom the people approach through intermediaries – religious functionaries, the ancestors and the divinities. There is no clear separation between the spiritual and the material, the sacred and the profane.

Nevertheless, there is an abundance of temples, shrines, groves and altars used for public and private worship. Some special trees, some rivers, forests, mountains, considered manifestations of the sacred, often serve as places of worship. This has led some scholars to imagine that it is these natural objects that are being worshipped – to the amusement of the traditional religionists.

Some of the good spirits and all the ancestors are venerated and constantly implored to intervene on behalf of humans. Evil spirits are never worshipped, even though some evil persons are believed to align themselves with the evil spirits in order to tap their powers and use them to harm others. The veneration of the ancestors, which usually takes the form of libations, offerings and prayers, sometimes also becomes more elaborate and intense leading to the blurring of the line which usually separates worship and veneration. But this is not peculiar to Dinka traditional religion, as Christians who also have the cult of the saints can testify to.

Morality – The practical aspect of belief in Dinka traditional religion is not only worship but also human conduct. Belief in God and in the other spiritual beings implies a certain type of conduct, conduct that respects the order established by God and is watched over by the divinities and the ancestors. At the centre of traditional morality is human life. The Dinka have a sacred reverence for life, for it is believed to be the greatest of God’s gifts to humans. To protect and nurture their lives, all human beings are inserted within a given community and it is within this community that one works out one’s destiny and every aspect of individual life.

The promotion of life is, therefore, the determinant principle of Dinka traditional morality and this promotion is guaranteed only in the community. Living harmoniously within a community is therefore a moral obligation ordained by God for the promotion of life. John Mbiti’s famous phrase, “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am”, captures this ethical principle well. The implication is that one has an obligation to maintain harmonious relationships with all the members of the community and to do what is necessary to repair every breach of harmony and to strengthen the community bonds, especially through justice and sharing.

This is not simply a social need but a religious obligation since God, the divinities and the ancestors, the guarantors of this order of things, are quick to punish defaulters. Any person who infringes a moral norm in traditional Dinka society has not only the members of the community to fear for reprisals, but also God and the spiritual beings. “In order to aid man in ethical living, God has put in him the ‘oracle of the heart’… the ‘inner oracle’…”. This ‘oracle of the heart’ is a person’s conscience, the law of God written in him. A person is at peace when he obeys his conscience.

On the contrary, when he disobeys this ‘inner oracle,’ he lives in constant fear, especially in fear of all natural manifestations of divine power. It has been noted earlier that thunder is believed by many Dinka to be a manifestation of divine power and is even sometimes regarded as a divinity. People often swear by this divinity, asking him to vent his wrath on them if what they say is not the truth.

Perhaps because of their strong attachment to the community, the Dinka have a very strong sense of justice. Without justice, life in the community would be impossible – there would be no harmony. A victim of injustice often makes a direct appeal to God. They believe that God is just, sees and knows everything, and hates injustice.

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