Religious Beliefs. The Bhils have traditionally been classified as animists; this classification is reflected in the 1901 census, wherein 97.25 percent were labeled as animists and the remainder were associated with the Hindu faith. The process of Hinduization has, however, been a long-term process, and the lower level of Hindu belief integrates much animistic belief for which the Bhils would have found much affinity. There are localized deities, such as Wagh deo, the tiger god. Nandervo, the god of agriculture, is paid homage to after the rains have brought a new growth of grass. Shrines to lesser gods are built on slightly elevated and secluded land that is believed to preserve their sanctity by keeping them away from the pollution of the lower regions. Images of deities are also kept near their agricultural fields, to be propitiated with offerings to ensure the safety and quality of the crops. Today Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism are the major faiths that the Bhils adhere to, with the latter two having had the most impact on the belief systems. Among the Ratanmal Bhils, Hinduism is widespread, with four main elements predominating. (1) The few Hindu gods that they have adopted are powerful but benevolent rather than malevolent. (2) They believe in the existence of an afterlife where one's senior relatives maintain authority and control over events in this life, even in death. (3) There are many spirits of the earth, some that unite in bands with maleficent intentions and require personal devotion and regular propitiation. (4) There are malicious individuals among them that wield supernatural powers in the form of witchcraft and sorcery that must be neutralized. Bhagwan is the predominant name for the supreme deity among the Bhils, although in Ratanmal he is also referred to as Mahaveda. Kalika, the "earth mother," is another deity who evokes reverence and fear. Holi, an important postharvest festival, is celebrated for her. A person who did not die of natural causes—a murder or a suicide, for example—is believed to become a malevolent spirit who will consume People. Twins and babies with unusual features or deformities are believed to be manifestations of an evil spirit that must be destroyed immediately lest they be a source of danger to their kin (the practise is now illegal). Two Muslim sections of the Bhils are the Tadvi of Madhya Pradesh and the Nirle or Nilde in Maharashtra. They maintain, apart from the main body of Islamic faith, a belief in a pir or guardian spirit of the village for whom a shrine ( mazar ) is built, and this is the focal point for the annual urs or jatra festivals that celebrate the death anniversary of the spirit.
Religious Practitioners. A priest ( badava ) among the Ratanmal Bhils plays the role of medium, diviner, and healer as well as worshiper. Only males may become priests as women are considered to be ritually impure and also believed to have insufficient strength of character. A person is born a priest but requires a long period of training under a master who imparts the wisdom and technical intricacies of the priesthood. The culmination of the rigorous period of discipline is a trial by ordeal. He may then undergo possession or induce possession in others. In essence, he officiates in functions that involve the gods. Below him are the more numerous priests who do not possess the spiritual strength to undergo the ordeal and as such are competent only in rituals that involve malignant ghosts. Lowest in rank are those who only possess powers that allow them to divine the causes of illness, heal certain diseases, or offer sacrifices and worship. Priests are generally no match for witches and are immune to witches' powers only if they are under the possession of a deity. To deal with these dangerous and formidable persons, villagers call on the aid of a witch doctor ( kajalio badava ) who has developed the power of divining the witches and sorcerers, neutralizing their powers, and, on occasion, destroying them. Sorcerers are believed to be persons who have trained for priesthood but, lacking the moral fortitude to resist, have succumbed to temptations to use their skills for personal gain (either monetary or in terms of power over others). Witches are believed to be Persons (usually women) with low moral integrity who, lacking Spiritual strength, have become agents of evil spirits in Exchange for the occult powers of flight and transformation.
Ceremonies. Apart from the main festivals of Holi and urs mentioned above, as well as rituals associated with childrearing, other festivals celebrated by the Ratanmal Bhils include the Akhatrij, when offerings are made to Mahadeva, the god of destruction; Indraj, the sky god; and Hadarjo Kuvar, the guardian spirit of fertility of the earth and women. These are joyous occasions marked by feasts, singing, and dancing. An anabolkham or ghost ritual, in contrast, is marked by tension, performed as a gesture of appeasement or propitiation to a spirit and is prompted by a series of unfortunate events. Gundaru kadvanu (exorcism of the cattle shed) is one major ghost ritual that takes place in a clearing in the jungle, during which offerings are made to all punitive and malignant spirits. In such rituals, active participation is limited to the headman, a ritual specialist, and a priest, while others attending maintain distance and silence. Women of all ages are barred from being present or anywhere near the site. In the Panch Mahals, the Bhils observe Gol Gadhedo six days after Holi. In a central place in the village, a pole is raised at the top of which some jaggery (crude sugar, or gur ) is tied. Men attempt to climb the pole and reach the gur even as the women, drunk and armed with sticks, try to deny them access to the pole. He who succeeds in reaching the gur is considered clever and throws the prize down to the crowd. The Muslim Tadvi Bhils continue to observe local and regional festivals such as Adhujee, Holi, Dassara, and Divali (the lamp festival) but have minimized their religious significance.
Arts. There is very little representational art among the Bhils. Rough wooden posts of carved human figures are sometimes used as memorials to the deceased. Some Bhils sport tattoos, many in the form of crescent moons, stars, and flowers. Music is perhaps the area of greatest artistic elaboration, with songs playing a central role in the celebration of festivals and in such ceremonies as weddings.
Medicine. In Gujarat most diseases have an associated god who must be appeased to relieve illness. For epidemics, Bhils may resort to building a toy cart that they consecrate and take to another village, whose people in turn take it to the outskirts of another, and so on, until the cart has reached a remote portion of the forest. By doing so they hope to drive out the plague. Since Bhils believe that illness is caused by the displeasure of the spirits, they are indifferent to practitioners of modern medicine.
Death and Afterlife. The traditional method of disposing of the body was by burial, but Hindu influence has made Cremation much more prevalent with a secondary burial of the charred remains. People raise memorial markers made of either stone or wood, with heroic figures often carved into the material. Ceremonies are performed three and twelve days after cremation, and food is set out for the deceased up to a year after death. All the dead of a house are offered food during important occasions. The Ratanmal Bhils believe in an afterlife where the spirits, endowed with human attributes that correspond to those of their past life, hover about the area that they lived in and maintain interest in their surviving kin. Thus, "good" persons who died of natural causes are believed to become benevolent spirits. Those who were mean or spiteful, practiced witchcraft, or died violently are believed to become malevolent spirits that cause misfortune among the living.