Interrogating the Notion of Self, ‘Mind’ and Personhood in Tangkhul Naga Tradition

The article attempts to examine the conceptual foundation of the self, mind and personhood in the traditional thoughts of the Tangkhul Nagas and the social implications and cultural models that shaped these conceptualisations.

The article attempts to examine the conceptual foundation of the self, mind and personhood in the traditional thoughts of the Tangkhul Nagas and the social implications and cultural models that shaped these conceptualisations. Partly constrained by the scarcity of written accounts, I have closely looked at the language usage, etymology of words and cultural practices of the community. Ning (‘mind’) is the central concept. Rich embodied expressions associate thoughts and emotions with certain internal organs of human body. The soul resides in the liver, luck in the brain and feelings in the heart. Ning is said to be acquired. This raises the question of whether the acquisition of ‘mind’ strictly refers to an acquisition of the mental faculty or does it include social norms and other skills. Drawing from the philosophy of Mead, the central argument is that the self, mind and ‘significant symbols’ conflated in the idea of personhood.


In the writings of the two early educated and most prolific writers among the Tangkhuls,1 M. K. Miksha and S. Kanrei, the expression ‘to think with the belly’ often appears. Could it have sounded natural in a culture in which abdomen was believed to be the seat of thoughts? The phrase sounds derisive because it implies that someone is being driven by appetite, not by reason, and we know that the faculty of reasoning resides in the head, not in the abdomen. With respect to the traditional Tangkhul community, in a way, this conceptualisation makes sense. Not so long ago, most of their times were occupied with agricultural and food gathering activities. The chief means of accumulating social capital rested on display of generosity which primarily comprised of giving feasts. A year’s hard work provided them with foods not only for survival but also for performance of numerous festivals and rituals. The fruit of labour ended up, as it were, in the stomach, the gratification of which constituted an essential aspect of rituals and festivity. In fact, the Tangkhul word for happiness is wuk ringkapha meaning ‘happy belly’ and sadness is wuk kakhanang meaning ‘tired belly’.2 It is not surprising that a common form of greeting relates to food consumption: ‘Have you had your food?’ (Maphaza haira?). By locating the faculty of thought and the factory of energy (the rational and appetitive) at the same site, the belief also suggests the inseparability of mind and body or the inconceivability of mind prior to and independent from body in the conceptualisation of personhood.

Instead of the mind–body debate, Tangkhuls have body–soul dualism ( phasamangla): the soul is related to the body just as the mind is to the body in Cartesian dualism—immaterial, of different substance and conceivable of existing independently.3 That is, the soul is an immaterial substance not only different from but also conceivable of existing independently of the body. In the immaterialist tradition, ‘the soul is the seat of our mental life’ and minds are ‘immortal souls’. Rene Descartes is the first philosopher who systematically proposed that a person is a composite of both mind and body. By conceiving the mind (the essence of which is ‘thinking’) and the body (the essence of which is ‘extension’) as separate entities, Descartes divided up the territory between science and religion ‘giving the material world to the scientists and the mental world to the theologians’ (Searle, 2004, p. 14). The division of the world into two different kinds of substances—the physical and the mental—poses the problem of accounting for the causal connections between the two. Rejection of dualism, naturally, leads to monism or to the view that ‘there is only one kind of thing in the world’. When it comes to the question of the self, however, monists are faced with problems that dualists have a ready explanation: for dualists the self resides in the mind or in the soul, and since the mind can survive death of the body or is clearly conceivable without the body the essence of personal identity rests on the mind.

Tangkhuls believed in the two planes of existence—the physical and non- physical world. However, and despite their belief in the dual form of human existence, it is problematic to tackle the question of the notion of self and personal identity within the framework of Cartesian dualism. Put it simply, Tangkhul notion of soul is not identified with the mind. It is doubtful if there was body–soul formulation at all, because the conceptualisation of body–soul dualism is almost entirely understood in terms of Christian faith. In the traditional belief, soul was a medium through which the dead traversed between the realm of the living and the netherworld. Besides, soul was not accorded with any distinctive status in the constitution of personhood. On the contrary, one needed to acquire ning (roughly translated as ‘mind’) in order to be considered as a ‘person’.

The article attempts to examine the conceptual foundation of the self, mind and personhood in the traditional thoughts of the Tangkhul Nagas and the social implications and cultural models that shaped these conceptualisations. I also look at the deployment of appetitive vocabulary and embodied expressions to describe mental and rational faculties as indicative of the way Tangkhuls understand selfhood and mind. In a way, the approach is necessitated by the scarcity of written accounts, because of which I have built my arguments on the analysis of language usages, etymology of words (important tools of cognitive linguistics) and cultural practices of the community. Since the focus is on the ‘precolonial’ system of thoughts, the linguistic approach is particularly tricky. Therefore, the article is attentive to the semantic shifts and conceptual changes.

The Self: ‘I’, Sha (Personal Spirit) and Mangla (Soul)

While recognising the cogency of Hume’s scepticism about the self, John Searle drew attention to the need of postulating ‘a rational self or agent that is capable of acting freely and capable of assuming responsibility for actions’ in addition to the body and the sequence of experiences so that ‘free, rational actions’ may be accounted for (2004, pp. 294–295). In other words, the notion of a free, rational agent is a necessary condition for the accountability of one’s action. This idea has both ethical and legal import in the modern Western philosophy. For instance, the framework for assessing criminal liability requires the fulfilment of both the actus reus and the mens rea. That is, one is criminally held liable only if she/he intentionally committed the criminal act. In a justice system based on the principle of individual autonomy, it is illogical to knowingly prosecute someone who does not commit the crime.

In the traditional Tangkhul society, however, an individual could be prosecuted for a crime she/he had not committed. For a crime of a man, his whole family may be banished, or for a crime of a son his father may be punished. Therefore, the customary law provides a legal code called shakham kahai whereby a family may pre-empt the punishment from falling upon them for a crime of its member (Luikham, 1961, p. 192). In short, the customary law sanctioned collective responsibility for the actions of an individual. In the traditional community, there was nothing unethical about covering a father’s crime. In fact, filial duty demanded that the sons protected their father. Therefore, from the ethical and legal perspective, the need for postulation of a rational self or agent, as Searle postulated, does not seem to arise.

Indeed, Tangkhuls have no words for the terms ‘self’ and ‘consciousness’ or ‘self-consciousness’. The first dictionary, Tangkhul Naga Grammar and Dictionary (1918), has no entry for the words. The closest word that pertains to an idea of individuality, ‘a centre of awareness, judgement and action’, is i, which is, incidentally, identical with the English word ‘I’. First person pronouns are formed with this root word: me (ili), my and mine (iwui), myself (ikhalatta), we (ithum) and us (ithumli). Likewise, third person pronouns are formed with the root word a, which means ‘someone’: they (athum) and them (athumli). These words, unlike the first person pronouns, connote a sense of suspicion and threat. In the articulation of communal identity, ishi (us) stands in opposition to ashi (them or the other). Nashi (your kind) is a neutral term oppositional to the word ishi, but it does not carry the overtone of suspicion that the word ashi connotes. In the actual speech, i is usually omitted as though it is redundant or even eliminable. In sentence constructions, it is mostly embedded in words and suffixes. For instance, nominative case is formed by suffixing a free morpheme na. ‘I see’ can be expressed in Tangkhul as I thei or Ina thei. When ‘I’ stands alone it draws attention to the predicate, and when it is used with a suffix it draws attention to the subject or ‘the referent of the use of I’ (Pettigrew, 1979 [1918], p. 10). Likewise, genitive cases formed with a bound morpheme wui can be shortened by embedding with the nouns: ‘my hand’ (iwui pang is shortened to ipang). Whereas, using ‘I’ in conversation is socially considered as a sign of arrogance, identification of particular that the speaker identifies with or makes reference to in the plural forms or the third person pronouns needed to be spelled out. This seems contradictory: ‘I’ is central to articulation of identity, a root word in the representation of belongingness, yet it is unmentionable in social discourse. Put differently, ‘self’ is an organising principle in the structuring of relationship, yet it is socially subdued.

Words formation and social usage of ‘I’ hardly explain the concept of the self. It is even arguable as to if ‘I’ refers at all. For instance, the German philosopher Georg Christoph Lichtenberg thought that instead of saying ‘I think’ one ought to say ‘It think’ where ‘I’ is used in the expletive sense of ‘it’ as in ‘It’s snowing’. Echoing Lichtenberg’s anti-Cartesianism, Elizabeth Anscombe denied the first-person singular pronoun the category of ‘a device of reference’. It is, however, not my intention to define the self, much less to enquire into the debates on reference, but to make sense of how the first-person singular acquires the significance of becoming an expression of self-consciousness.

Having said that, in a ‘primary oral culture’, to use Walter J. Ong’s term, the meaning of ‘I’ is adequately, if not practically, explained by what Gaynesford called ‘simple rule’. Gaynesford listed twelve definitions, out of which I have chosen two representative definitions: ‘[I] refers to the person who uses it’ and ‘Any token of I refers to whoever produced it’ (Gaynesford, 2006, p. 37). The primary problem with the ‘simple rule’, he contended, is the lack of a precise and consistent sense of the ‘user’ or ‘producer’ as in sign-writing case, deferred utterances and proxy uses of ‘I’ (ibid, p. 50). Consider the following classic example,

I am here now.

It consists of the paradigmatic examples of what David Kaplan called ‘Pure Indexicals’—‘words which do not require an associated demonstration’—I, here and now. The sentence, according to Kaplan (1989), is analytically true ‘only with respect to those indices (wxpt) which are such that in the world history wx is located at p at the time t’ (p. 509). If the semantics of the indexicals ensure the truth of the sentence, they falsify any utterance of ‘I am not here now’; yet when someone hears the sentence on the other end of an answering machine, it is undeniably true. Alan Sidelle (1991) called this puzzle ‘an answering machine paradox’ (p. 526). The problem is that the machine is the producer of the message ‘I am not here now’, whereas ‘I-user’ is indeed absent (Gaynesford, 2006, p. 45).

In a primary oral culture, an utterance of ‘I am not here now’ is not even a possibility, because validity of the utterance demands that the utterer exists at the same place and time of the utterance. Folk tales depict imagination of such situations by dramatising events which cannot happen in reality. Two tales are found particularly illustrative. Two friends went hunting and both were very hungry. One of them was a therianthrope and he began to show signs of transforming himself into a man-eating tiger. Recognising the signs and fearing for his life, his companion excused himself on the pretext of answering to the call of nature. He left a louse and fled away. When the therianthrope yelled impatiently, ‘Are you still there?’ The louse replied, ‘Yes, I am still here.’ In another tale, a wildcat suspecting that a wolf was lying in wait in his nest called out, ‘Oh my hut, is the wolf hiding there?’ Hearing nothing, he muttered to himself, ‘My hut is not answering me today.’ So he called out again, ‘Oh my hut! Is the wolf hiding there?’ Thinking that the nest indeed responded, the wolf replied, ‘No, he is not here today.’ The humour lies in the displacement of referents or the confusion between the user and the producer of the indexical ‘I’ and ‘he’, respectively.

The simple rule does not cover all aspects of the meaning of ‘I’, an obvious example of which is ‘how “I” operates in fictional and indirect contexts’. However, in the context of primary oral culture, the user and producer conflate in a person as the referent of a use of ‘I’. Following the traditional first-person account, all uses of ‘I’ refer not to some Cartesian immaterial souls but to corporeal subjects. As P. F. Strawson enunciated it, ‘the very understanding of “I” requires the understanding of it as a subject which is also a corporeal being among others in an objective world’(1959; p. 148); ‘For there could never be any question of assigning an experience, as such, to any subject other than oneself…’ (ibid, p. 102). In brief, the subject of experiences, instead of designating some immaterial ‘pure consciousness’, signifies an idea of person in which the claim of subject cannot exist separated from the content of experiences.

In Western philosophical tradition, the self-ascription of perceptual experiences follows the mode of inward gaze. In a well-known passage from A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume (2009 [1740]) claimed that when he turned his attention inward, he found nothing more than ‘a bundle or collection of different perceptions’:

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception. (ibid., p. 395)

Similarly, in the Third Meditation, Descartes, so as to arrive at the certainty that he was a ‘thinking thing’, turned his attention inward:

I shall try, by conversing only with myself and looking deep within myself, to make myself gradually better known and more familiar to myself … I perceive or imagine outside myself do not perhaps exist, yet I am certain that the modes of thinking that I call sensations and imaginations, considered purely and simply as modes of thinking, do exist inside me. (2008 [1641], p. 25)

Introspection has been a privileged method of gaining access to one’s mental states. Hume did not find ‘self or personal identity beyond the sequence of our actual experiences’ (Searle, 2004, p. 291); whereas, Descartes was presented with the essence of mind or consciousness, which he called ‘thinking’.

In the traditional Tangkhul philosophy, self-reflective activity was often relational rather than directional: to evaluate one’s feelings and thoughts was to put the content of one’s mental states in relation to external stimuli or affairs. Thus, when one reflected upon oneself, one was confronted with a thing called sha, a ‘personal spirit’ that everybody possessed from birth.4 When an infant cried or smiled, she/he was said to be threatened or entertained by the spirit. It may have a bad or a good influence on a person. So, if a stingy person behaved munificently, people would say that it was his or her spirit that prompted the act. What could have been easily attributed to absent-mindedness like unconscious acts were believed to be the tricks of the spirit. Fortune tellers and shamans were believed to have special relation with their spirits, which enabled them to foresee things or heal the sick. Madness was believed to be the consequence of being consumed with one’s spirit. When crazy people were actually conversing with their spirits, to normal people it appeared as though they were talking to themselves.

The concept of ‘personal spirit’ helped explain irregularities and eccentricities of human behaviours. However, it is not the spirit per se that imparted distinctive character; rather it was the degree of one’s relation with it. The more self-absorbed one became, the closer was the tie with one’s spirit and the stronger was its power over the person. Madness was the result of solipsism and so was the power of shamans. To actively interact with one’s spirit was to take a dangerous and lonely path, which few people like shamans were able to do. The difference between shamans and madmen, however, lies in how well the shamans were able to maintain a boundary between their selves and their spirits. This control is ritualised and manifested in shamans through sacrifice of animals and replanting of boundary stones: they alone could perform the rituals so that anger of the spirits might fall upon them. To be a shaman was therefore not an enviable position. People feared them and avoided their company.

‘Personal spirit’ was an entity that one encountered in introspection, but it was distinct from and external to the person. If the self is the special referent of ‘I’, the user, it is not to personal spirit that is referred to. It would sound absurd to ask, ‘Are you referring to me or my spirit?’ If the self can be reduced to mental state or state of consciousness like Cartesian mind, Tangkhuls seem to have no sense of the self; if it posits ‘human being as the locus of experience’, its significance lies in the relations with other humans rather than in self-reflective exercise, and if it refers to ‘a responsible subject, capable of a rational choice’, an individual attains selfhood only when one attains personhood. If the self is ‘the centre of consciousness’, the concept of soul is crucial to its understanding.

Although soul had hardly anything to do with people’s character, yet it was their animating essence. When a person suffered a horrifying experience such that she/he became ill or looked and acted stupefied, her/his soul is said to have departed from the body. By way of treatment, a healer had to ‘call back’ the soul into the body. The first missionary among the hill peoples of Manipur, William Pettigrew wrote that the soul left the body after death and turned into a kind of honeybee. A hole was therefore made on the roof so that it could fly away if it so wished to take to wings. If a person died far from home, his body was buried nearby but the head was taken home. While crossing a river, a bridge was made with a thread for the soul to navigate (Pettigrew, 1909, p. 37). Souls were believed to remain stuck in the world of the living till they were sent off in the festival called Thisham, which means ‘farewell to the dead’. Towards the end of the festival, the souls of the dead were sent off at a place called zeiphar where four or five young men hurled pine torches towards the east. After coming back to their houses, each family performed a ritual of calling back the souls of the living lest they follow the souls of the dead. If somebody stumbled on the way back, a fowl was made to caw and then it was sacrificed so that the soul of the one who had tripped might be reunited with his or her body (Kanrei, 1974Luikham, 1961). Luikham described an event or a belief that many elderly persons still attested to:

After having hurled the pine torches, everyone returned to the village and three or four hours later the dead would be seen wending their ways over the hills with their torches. Those women who woke up before the daybreak could still see them beyond the hills. (1961, p. 78)

The belief that soul could hear the call of humans and the caw of a fowl or be detached from the body to follow the dead suggests that the soul has consciousness. Without the soul, a person is said to fall ill and die (Hutton, 1921b, p. 200; Mills, 1937, p. 170). If a person’s illness had been attributed to the captivity of his or her soul by the dead, a healer was employed who, having assumed dead, purportedly travelled to the land of the dead so as to negotiate for the release of the soul.

Many Naga tribes believed in the transmigration of human soul into animals, especially leopards and tigers. When the soul entered into a leopard, the human body is said to become lethargic without losing consciousness. ‘When the leopard is wounded, corresponding wounds appear upon the human body of the were-leopard, and when the leopard is killed the human body dies also’ (Hutton 1921b, pp. 202–203; refer also to Mills, 1922Furer-Haimendorf, 1939). Tangkhuls also believed that the soul of a person who ‘carries’ an evil spirit called rai could possess another person. Like the ‘were-leopard’, body of the possessor is said to become woozy during the time of possession. A concrete manifestation of the soul on earth, as Luikham vividly described, is the departure of the souls to the land of the dead where they assumed human body to lead the same lives as they had lived on the earth.

If the soul enabled an embodied return of the same person in the afterlife, its implications are far from clear. It seems the idea of ‘embodied return’ had to do more with status and material aspect than with individuality—‘The rich remain rich, the poor, poor’ (Hodson, 1911, p. 162; refer also to Hutton, 1921aPettigrew, 1909). Besides the material condition and social status, did the dead return as exactly the same person? I find this problematic. Clearly, the soul is the bearer of consciousness; are we thereby to conclude that it is also the bearer of experiences and memories or the self that integrates the whole personality? Was consciousness equated with an awareness of surrounding, or did it also include ‘subjective states of perceiving, feeling and thinking’? As Furer Haimendorf wrote, some Naga sceptics rebuffed the claims of the ‘were-leopards’ that their souls could possess a leopard or that they had consciousness of their experience as leopards (1939, p. 230). Consider the term ‘to lose consciousness’, which is expressed as thiva kahai (to go to die), and the term for ‘to regain consciousness’ is ringung kahai (to come back to life). In traditional Tangkhul thought, abstract concepts are often grounded in the sublunary plane of existence, yet they are not compartmentalised in precise categories amenable to a logical closure.

On the whole, it appears that the soul was an animating essence and the foundation of awareness. It made humans a sentient being, yet it did not impart mentality: for mentality is more than sentience. What distinguished humans from animals is humans’ possession of mentality. Therefore, the soul may be conceived as the source of the ‘subjective, first-person ontology’. Although each person has a soul, the soul was not the bearer of unique identity. In fact, besides living things, stones, rivers and mountains were believed to be animated with souls. ‘Were-leopards’ and healers did not have a different soul, but their souls had the gift (rather the curse) of the ability to possess. The idea that each individual has a unique soul is a Christian influence.

Person and Ning

Tangkhuls conceived a person to be made up of four elements—phasa (body), sha (personal spirit), mangla (soul) and ning (mind). Whereas the body is physical, the rest are immaterial. In a sense, they were dualists in discriminating between physical substance and immaterial substance, but, unlike the Cartesian dualism, the split here is between the human and the spirit and not between the body and the mind. The question of whether the body is merely an ‘extended thing’ or ‘a container of a certain human subject’ does not seem to arise in the traditional thoughts. The body, mind and social processes exist on the same plane in continuous and dynamic interaction. And their relationships are informed by embodied experience. Different ‘ways of feeling, thinking and knowing’ have been conceptualised in terms of states of internal body organs among the Tangkhuls. Whereas the heart has been the locus of emotions, the seat of both emotion and thought was the abdomen. Consider an expression: when a person is sad, he is said to have a ‘tired abdomen’ (wuk kakhanang). Many emotions were seen as correlation of certain conditions of heart: to ‘have a heart’ is to be courageous (malung kazang); to be ‘angry’ is to have a swelling heart (malung khawor); to have ‘a live heart’ is to be anxious (malung kharing) and to have ‘one’s heart burst’ is to be in wrath (malung khavat).

With respect to the expressions of the faculty of thoughts, ning is the primary root word: Pettigrew listed more than 100 words and terms pertaining to thought, feeling and memory. Actually a polysemous word, ning has been reduced to a single definition to mean ‘mind’. As a morpheme, however, it is found in words carrying the meanings of ‘to stand’ (khanganing), ‘to spin’ (khanganing), ‘to become blackened’ (kashining) and ‘to think’ (kaphaning). (Ka and kha are nominalisers added before voiceless and voiced phonemes, respectively.) What is common among the words formed with the derived verb ‘phaning’ is that they carry a connotation of embodiment: kaphara (birth), kapharon (appendant), kapharik (sting or prick) and kaphaning (thinking). The word ‘kaphaning’ may be broken into three morphemes: ka (a nominaliser), pha (body) and ning (to think). The etymology of the word indicates how cognitive processing has been essentially conceived as embodied. This idea may be further explored by examining the relationship between mind and memory.

It is striking that Pettigrew, Luikham and N. K. Paul did not provide an entry for the term ‘memory’ in their dictionaries. Surprisingly, D. N. Shankara Bhat’s Tangkhur Naga vocabulary (1969) includes ningphun, translated as ‘memory’, as a derivative of the root word ning. Y. K. Shimray (2007) followed Bhatt’s translation, and it has now become the accepted definition. In fact, the meaning of ningphun is closer to ‘memorisation’ than to ‘memory’. It has the meaning of retention, but not of the event of the past and the instance of recalling, the sense that such phrases as ‘childhood memories’ and ‘in memory of’ convey. ‘To memorise’ is ‘to carry with the mind’ (ning eina kaphung) and ‘to remember’ is ‘to have the mind back’ ( phaningkhaung), which seems to be another way of saying that thinking is an act of remembering. Perhaps, mind was originally conceived as a faculty of memory. Maurice Halbwachs reminded us that the act of remembering was always social (and among the Tangkhuls it was the social practice of remembrance that was given importance to). The accumulated knowledge was located external to individuals, as it were, in the collective memory: ‘I do not mean that the remembrance or some part of it has to continue to exist as such in us’ (Halbwachs, 1980, p. 25). Founded on ‘scattered, indistinct bits of the past’, for Halbwachs (1980), remembrance may be an inaccurate reproduction of the past. So what is significant is the act of reconstructing in the present:

The fact that I have witnessed or participated in an episode at which others were spectators or participants is never sufficient reason that later on, when they evoke that event for me and reconstitute its image bit by bit, this artificial construction suddenly takes life and becomes transformed into a remembrance. (ibid., p. 25)

The ideas that memories are not stored inside us and that remembrance is an act of reconstructing the past have implications on the nature of mind.

The concept of a person may be looked at by asking two questions. First, what kind of elements is a person composed of? Second, what are the conditions that one needs to fulfil to be a person? The concept of ning is crucial to the second question. Pettigrew (1921) gave the following as its meaning: ‘mind, will, the seat of thought, sentiment, disposition’ (p. 394). Luikham (1974) translated it as ‘mind, motive, opinion’ (p. 349). If ning is ‘the seat of thought’ as Pettigrew defined, one wonders, why the early educated Tangkhuls wrote ‘thinking with the belly’ instead of ‘thinking with the mind’. Both phrases appear in M. K. Shimray’s poem Kakharar (Quarrel):5

In quarrel whatever was thought of in the mind,

Having vented out everything, one is saddened in the belly.

There is no medicine for quarrelsome people;

While quarreling, take a step back,

How to behave in times of quarrel

Think of it carefully in your belly. (translation and emphasis mine; 1976, pp. 11–12)

It appears that both mind (ning) and abdomen (wuk) are seats of thoughts, although they designate different categories of thoughts. Differences seem to reside in the nature of thought: ‘Thinking with the belly’ is characterised by abstract thought (rational in nature) and ‘thinking with the mind’ is mediated by experience (empirical in nature). The point may be made clearer by looking at two words for ‘sadness’: wuk kakhanang (tired belly) and ning kachot (tired mind). The former connotes sadness due to an event which is incomprehensible and mysterious, whereas the latter implies sadness due to material loss, the cause of which is easily perceptible. For instance, news of somebody’s death saddens the belly and not the mind, whereas news of somebody’s misfortune, say substantial loss in gambling, saddens the mind and not the belly. In the phrase wukli chukkhamaja (to think with the belly), the case marker li indicates that the noun (the belly) is in the locative case not in the instrumental case. (Therefore, it must be actually transliterated as ‘the belly in think’.) By implication, it is not the belly that performs the act of reasoning, but a faculty of reasoning that resides in it. When a group of elderly persons were asked about the seat of the soul, one of them said, ‘The soul resides in the wuklung (centre of the abdomen)’. They all agreed that the liver must be that centre. Among the physical organs, the liver played crucial role in rituals such as oath-taking and forging of ritualised friendship, and it was central to food taboo. Tangkhuls shared with the Southeast Asian and Polynesian cultures in conceptualising the abdomen region, particularly the liver, as the seat of deep thoughts and emotions.

Some metaphorical expressions pertaining to ning correspond with metaphors in English based on the heart. For instance, what is ‘heartbroken’ in English, it is ‘broken mind’ (ning kakai) in Tangkhul. Similarly, ‘big-hearted’ is expressed as ‘big mind’ (ning kahak) and ‘with all one’s heart’ or ‘wholeheartedly’ as ‘with all one’s mind’ (ning tongda). The mind can be engrossed with self-reflection totally cut-off from the world. (In fact, it is this possibility that led Descartes to the conclusion that he could be absolutely sure that ‘he thinks’.) On the contrary, what the heart feels may be intrinsic, but it is characterised by an ‘intentionality’ that is always directed towards the world, unless one is a narcissist. The states of the heart, so to speak, pertain to something in the world other than itself. So the difference between ‘thinking with the belly’ and ‘thinking with the mind’ may be put in this way: the referential significance of the former is metaphysical and the latter social. Therefore, the meaning of ning as ‘opinion’ by Luikham or as ‘sentiment’ by Pettigrew makes sense, because opinion is by definition social. One of the meanings of opinion, according to Cambridge Dictionary, is ‘the thoughts or beliefs that a group of people have’. In this sense, ning is something that is acquired or learned and not inborn or innate.

In the context of an individual or personal growth, ning is the faculty that one acquires through socialisation and experience in the course of one’s life. Examining the usage of the word may clarify the point. Ning makazang (having no mind) means ‘having no manners or not knowing one’s responsibility’. When ‘mind is not latched onto a child’ (ning makaka nao), the child acts irresponsibly. One who has internalised the social norm, general beliefs, ideas and moral attitudes is referred to as ‘a person who has taken the mind’ (ning khui khahaiya mi). And a person ‘who has taken the mind’ is socially considered as someone ‘who has become a person’ (mi ngasa haira). A common expression of approval that parents love to share among themselves is:

Nashinao mi ngasa haira (Your son has become a man).

Literally, it should be translated as ‘Your child has become a person’, but here ‘child’ refers to son and not to daughter. To say that a girl looks grown up, the expression is:

Nashinao ngala phahaira (Your daughter has become a woman).

The expression implies that she has attained a marriageable age. The traditional Tangkhul culture seems to deny women of full personhood, as the expressions suggest that a girl who has attained ‘mind’ becomes a woman and not a person (mi). For women, so it appears, marriage is a sign of an attainment of personhood as though marriage is itself an achievement.

If ning is ‘the seat of thought’ as Pettigrew defined it, where does it reside? If it is part of a person, which part of the body is it identified with or attributed to? The soul resides in the liver. The heart is the seat of emotions, abdomen that of both thinking and emotions and the brain that of luck or, if the colonial writers are to be believed, of fertility. The notions that ning is attained and that it must be ‘taken’ in order to ‘possess’ it indicate that it is external to the body. Consider the etymology of two components of cultural heritage: story called khararchan literally means ‘words of the ancestors’ and proverb called chancham literally means ‘words of conduct’. Both come from the free morpheme chan meaning ‘words’. As Lord John Russell said, ‘Proverbs are the wit of one, and the wisdom of many’. The same may be said of stories. They both constituted the primary repository of knowledge.6 Like the lexicon of a language, the mind is ‘out there’ that individuals need to acquire ‘in here’.

The idea of the externality of mind and memory may be posed in a radical sense by way of a question: Can we imagine a world in which the cognitive processes take place external to human body without reducing the person into an automaton? In a thought-provoking article called ‘The Extended Mind’, Andy Clark and David J. Chalmers proposed that cognitive and mental processes are extended beyond ‘the demarcation of brain and skull’. They advocated a different kind of externalism called ‘an active externalism’ in which features of the environment are conceived as not merely causally contributory to but constitutive of cognitive processing (Menary, 2010, p. 2). They employed a thought experiment to substantiate their extended argument that ‘the mind extends into the world’: Inga and Otto go to a museum; Inga consults her memory and Otto (an Alzheimer patient) consults his notebook to find the way to the museum (Clark & David, 2010 [1998]). The notebook, they argued, plays the same role for Otto as biological memory plays for Inga. The only difference is the location.

Their thought experiment may be indigenised so as to situate it to the specific culture and do away with problems like Otto’s dispositional belief meanwhile inviting new problems like first-person authority over ‘external’ resources: a woman spots a bee nest on the way from the field. She divulges the exact location of the nest to her daughter, Ingala (la is a common suffix of female names). Ingala tells Ottongam (ngam is a common suffix of male names) about the nest. Larvae being an expensive delicacy, Ottongam is filled with excitement. When he asks Ingala to give him the location, she insists on personally taking him to the spot, which he agrees to. She thinks for a moment and recalls what her mother said that the nest hangs on a bough of an ash tree, which grows, about a hundred steps behind the hut, on a slope of a ridge that overlooks a place where two brooks meet. She knows where the slope of the ridge is even before her mother tells her; she knows the place so well that she could visualise the nest hanging on a bough before setting eyes on it. Ottongam absolutely believes in Ingala’s knowledge of the place.

For Ottongam, Ingala’s biological memory plays the same function as Otto’s notebook in Clark and Chalmers’ example. But there are differences: first, the content of Ottongam’s belief is external to him but internal to Ingala; second, the epistemic relation is interpersonal. That is, the causal coupling, in Clark and Chalmers’ example, primarily includes Otto (the cognitive agent) and his notebook (an environmental feature). In the case of the indigenised version, the structural coupling incorporates another mind or minds. By laying out the hierarchy of the knowledge system (in which the empirical cognitive process was prioritised over rational-cognitive process) and the norms that governed the system, my point is to draw attention to the power relations between the human components in the system.

Tangkhul’s concept of personhood may be summarised in the words of Menkiti: ‘personhood is the sort of thing which has to be achieved, the sort of thing at which individuals could fail’ (2004, p. 326). That is to say, one may attain ning to become a ‘person’ or fail to attain it and be a kind of ‘lesser human’. Personhood is therefore a kind of accomplishment that an individual achieves by virtue of the possession of certain faculty and characteristics and not something that is innate. Since personhood is above all a social confirmation, the state of ‘acquisition of ning’ refers to an acquisition of ability to meaningfully coordinate the perceptual cognition in socially significant and acceptable ways by drawing from the fund of knowledge that one has learnt. For Menkiti, as Bernard Matolino put it, ‘Moral progression is the key element to understanding personhood’ (2011, p. 25). ‘Moral progression’ is a key term here insofar as it suggests temporality towards the fulfilment of personhood. Agedness and maturity embodied an important ethical principle (which is self-control) and the height of personhood (which is experience). Although agedness was not a guarantee to ‘big mind’, one’s ning became bigger as time goes by. Therefore, the older one became the more respectable he or she became. The long and short of it is that one must acquire ning to become a ‘person’ and cultivate it to become a respectable person.


The idea of externality of the mind and memory is a way of thinking and of ordering forms of knowledge. Prioritisation of empirical knowledge is a way of privileging the source over the recipient of knowledge or the cognitive agent. As illustrated by the thought experiment, whereas, in Clark and Chalmer’s example ‘the mind extends into the world’, in the indigenised version, ‘the world flows into the mind’, as it were, whereby the mind of the cognitive agent is posited more like a container than a faculty that processes ‘the world’ or ‘knowledge’. The process of learning amounts to a form of ‘indoctrination’, for what one acquired is the traditional knowledge gleaned from external sources through an authoritative figure by means of instruction, testimony and memory. It raises a fundamental question on children’s education: were children merely regarded as a passive receptacle, perhaps, like M’Choakumchild’s ‘empty vessels’ in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times? In a way, it is true. Their worldview was present oriented, and the moral philosophy was guided by the utilitarian principle of the ‘greatest good of the greatest number’ or the (greatest) well-being of the whole community. Children were seen from a utilitarian perspective of how they would best fit into the society. Besides, as a patriarch, the father ruled over his family like a monarch over his kingdom. The customary law cannot intervene unless village prohibition called kaphani (genna) or serious taboo was violated. Nevertheless, children enjoyed immense freedom. By the age of about 9 years, children joined the longshim (dormitory) where they slept and engaged themselves with the activities of the village, tang (locality or khel ), and dormitory. Besides, most of the important activities were carried out by each yarnao (age set) collectively.

Being so engaged with social activities and spending much time in the company of others, the self is available to the third-person perspective of what is socially observable. George Herbert Mead’s postulation of the social nature of the self and mind provides a clear perspective. The self, he maintained, ‘arises in the process of social experience and activity, that is, develops in the given individual as a result of his relations to that process as a whole and to other individuals within that process’ (1962, p. 135). And so does mind emerge out of the ‘conversation of significant gestures’, that is, ‘through the participation in the social act of communication that the individual realizes her (physiological and neurological) potential for significant symbolic behaviour (that is, thought)’ (Aboulafia, 2008). Meaningful communication is achieved through the participants’ competence in ‘taking the roles of others’, the point that Mead illustrated with the analyses of play and game. However, the self that arises out of the ‘conversion of significant symbols’, which includes stimuli and responses, is amenable to continuous fashioning and refashioning as conversation unfolds. An individual attained a sense of unity of self through what Mead called ‘the generalised other’: ‘The organized community or social group which gives to the individual his unity of self may be called “the generalized other”. The attitude of the generalised other is the attitude of the whole community’ (1962, p. 154). An individual can develop a self in the fullest sense ‘only by taking the attitudes of the generalized other toward himself’ and ‘toward one another within the human social process’. In the ‘Introduction’ to Mead’s seminal work Mind, self, and society, Charles W. Morris noted:

Indeed, the self, mind, ‘consciousness of’, and the significant symbol are in a sense precipitated together. Mead finds the distinguishing trait of selfhood to reside in the capacity of the minded organism to be an object to itself. (1962, p. xxiii)

Mead attempted to show how humans acquired mental capabilities in the course of human evolution and as a socio-psychologist how the self arises in the life of an infant; Tangkhuls were more concerned with the social acceptance of the state of an individual’s acquisition of mental capabilities. As discussed, the attainment of ning signals personhood. A question comes to mind: what does one acquire when he or she is said to have attained ‘mind’? Following Mead, one acquires the social competence of taking the attitudes of the generalised other. In the traditional thoughts of the Tangkhuls, the self, mind and significant symbols conflated in the idea of personhood. It is at these points of intersection that personal identity assumes significant social meanings through the internalisation of social obligations and personal responsibilities in response to various forms of expectations. These points of entry are dramatised in what is called rites of passage or initiation of an individual into the society. Social discourse and practices produce a person whose personhood is inscribed in expectations, roles and obligations. Even as the self is necessarily a reflective process, the reflective genesis of the self is not available in the traditional discourse. The self that dwells on itself as an object of the reflective process is no longer in a reflexive exercise but in conversation with one’s ‘personal spirit’. Unlike the Western epistemology, the self is not located at the centre of epistemic system. Lack of vocabulary for the self in Tangkhul indicates a deficit in the formulation of ‘discriminable unit of subjective experiences’. It is only in the 20th century that new ‘language of the self’ set in and the new self-forming practices, which Foucault called ‘Technologies of the self’, began with the spread of Christianity and the emergence of educated class. The introduction of modern education and ‘print culture’ made possible such practices as keeping of diaries and correspondences through personal letters and these practices enabled the newly literate converts to take to reflexive project of examining their own lives.


1.The Tangkhuls constituted a Naga tribe inhabiting the northeast hills in the state of Manipur in India and part of the Somra tracts in Myanmar. The 2011 census put the total population of Ukhrul district, where Tangkhuls concentrated, at 183,998. There are more than 10,000 Tangkhuls in Myanmar.

2.In this article, all the Tangkhul words and terms have been literally translated unless otherwise indicated.

3.I have profusely referred to and drawn from the examples and concepts of Western philosophy of mind, because, as I see it, anything that can be thought of has been suggested, if not articulated, in the course of the immensely rich mind–body debate.

4.J. H. Hutton (1921a, p. 193) noted that the Sema’s aghua, comparable to the Angami’s ropfu, was a spirit attached to individuals and houses. Although it was indefinite if every individual possessed aghua or not, he said, ‘in some aspect [aghua] appears almost as a soul’.

5.The poem features in the collection of poems called Yurkha eina Kata, written by M. K. Shimray in 1915 and first printed in 1920 (Shimray, 1976). It is the first book written by a native of the hills of Manipur. Designed as a textbook, the poems are mainly didactic infused with Christian teachings and values but set in the background of tribal culture. Its influence is immense. It sets the tone for all Tangkhul textbooks.

6.The notion of collective thoughts, ideas and emotions is found in Durkheim’s concept of ‘common consciousness’, Halbwachs’ ‘collective memory’, Jung’s ‘collective unconscious’ and Plato’s Forms or Ideas.

Disclaimer: The Arek do not claim ownership of this article. This article is written by Yuimirin Kapai, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Rajdhani College, University of Delhi, E:

Kapai, Yuimirin. (2010). Interrogating the Notion of Self, ‘Mind’ and Personhood in Tangkhul Naga Tradition. Sociological Bulletin, 68(1), 60-75,