The Journey of Caribbean Hindus
The abolition of the slave trade created a labor shortage that threatened the survival of the Caribbean plantation economy, particularly in the larger European colonies like Trinidad and Guyana. Africans were not willing to subject themselves voluntarily to the oppressive conditions of life on the plantations, and experiments with workers from Madeira and China were unsuccessful. India proved to be the most reliable source of willing laborers with the required skills. It provided a steady stream of immigrants from 1838, the year the first group of 396 Indians arrived in Guyana, until 1917 when indentured Indian immigration was finally abolished. By that time, 238,909 Indians had migrated to Guyana and 143,939 to Trinidad. Most of them came from districts in the North Indian states of Bihar and the United Province. A significant proportion of these immigrants chose to return to India after completing the terms of their contracts. Seventy-one percent of those who made the arduous journey around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Atlantic chose to make their homes in the Caribbean. Their choice is the reason for our presence in New York City today.
Along with their physical skills and knowledge of sugar cultivation, Hindu immigrants introduced to the Caribbean the essential elements of one of the world's most ancient, culturally rich and philosophically sophisticated cultures. The insights and achievements of India found expression in the songs, dances, myths, stories and religious texts transported in the memories and meager belongings of the immigrants. Immigrants to the Caribbean, and specifically immigrants to Guyana, were the first to sow in the soil of the western world the seeds of Hindu consciousness and way of life that had evolved in Asia. Fifty-five years before Swami Vivekananda spoke at the Parliament of World Religions in 1893 in Chicago, Hinduism was being practiced in the Caribbean.
This remarkable story of the survival of the Hindu tradition remains to be narrated properly. It is the story of religious survival in the midst of abject poverty and no official support for their religious and cultural wellbeing. The broader community viewed them with suspicious and schizophrenic eyes. While they were required for their physical skills on the sugar plantations, their beliefs, ceremonies of worship, life-cycle rituals and sacred narratives were denounced as superstitious and unenlightened. The reasons for the perception and treatment of Hindu religion and culture as inferior and backward are many. The principal reason will be found in the fact that the dominant values of the Caribbean were those of western Christian Europe. Those who judged Hinduism by these values proclaimed it to be different and inferior.
They were correct about the fact that the Hindu traditions are different, but wrong in denouncing it as inferior because of being different. There are several important ways in which Hindu traditions differed from dominant religion of Christianity.
In contrast to most forms of Christianity, which are very exclusive in their understanding of revelation and salvation, the Hindu tradition understood revelation in pluralistic ways. Hinduism affirms the oneness of the divine, but does not limit divine revelation to one historical moment or person. It portrays the one divine in many forms and describes it with many names.
While introducing new sacred texts to the Caribbean, like the Vedas and the Ramayana, Hindu immigrants also brought with them ancient murti or iconographic representations of God. The use of these in rituals and festivals brought forth charges of idolatry and polytheism from a Christian-influenced culture that was hostile to the imaging of the divine in material forms.
In addition, the understanding of God as immanent in all things led to a reverence for nature that was wrongly perceived as pantheistic. All of these contrasts were accentuated further by differences in language, dress, and diet. In the midst of hostility and pressures to convert, the Hindu tradition endured and, in many cases, even flourished.
The Journey to America
In the mid-1960's Hindus from the Caribbean, embarked on another significant historical journey. Driven by political fears and economic uncertainties Hindus, especially from Guyana, migrated in significant numbers to North America. It is story of migration with empty pockets, long years of separation from family, relentless efforts to gain an education and untold hours of hard work. These Hindus from the Caribbean are among the first to construct places of Hindu worship and to establish the tradition on the soil of the United States and Canada.
The migration of Hindus from the Caribbean to North America brought new challenges and some old ones persisted. Many of these challenges are shared with Hindus whose roots are in other parts of the world, including India, Africa, Fiji, Mauritius and Afghanistan.
Three challenges for Hindus in America
Being a Religious Minority
While the number of Hindus in North America has been increasing, Hindus still constitute a small percentage of the total population of the United States and Canada. The preservation and transmission of religious values become increasingly difficult when these have to be done in a context where the norms of the dominant culture are different and in some instances in conflict with Hindu ideals. Our children are exposed to a variety of religious and cultural choices. Minorities wrestle, more than others, with issues of identity and carry a greater burden of self-explanation. The children of minorities often seek the acceptance and approval of the majority community and, for this reason, may be more willing to accept the values of this community, even when these contradict their own. Americans still know very little about Hinduism and many of the predominant images are negative.
The separation of religion and culture in America
Our historical context is also unique for another important reason. Historically, Hinduism has embraced both religion and culture and the disentanglement of one from the other is quite difficult. It is significant that there is no Sanskrit equivalent for the word, "religion," and the term, dharma, which is sometimes equated with "religion", is far more inclusive. The detachment of religion and culture, however, is rapidly becoming a reality in the experience of a new generation of Hindus born in the western world. The unity of religion and culture is being severed and the traditionally pervasive influence of Hinduism is relegated to fewer areas of life. Musical tastes, cuisine, recreational activities, and dress are increasingly influenced by sources outside of the Hindu tradition. This separation of religion and culture, presents us with challenges and questions. How will the Hindu tradition develop and thrive in a context in which it does not exert a pervasive cultural influence? What forms will it assume and what would it mean to be a Hindu? Will it be limited to ritualistic practices in the home and temple? What will be its public character, if any? This problem of the separation of religion and culture was less acute in the Caribbean.
The growing separation between religion and culture highlights a third feature and challenge of our new context. The unity of religion and culture, to which I have already referred, minimized the need for special agencies for the transmission of the tradition. It was correctly assumed that a child would receive the necessary religious exposure by the mere fact of growing up in a particular community where Hindu traditions were embedded in the culture. When I was a child attending an Arya Samaj primary school, we used to recite a series of questions and answers about Hinduism from a small text. One of the questions was, "Why are you a Hindu?" and the answer following was, "Because I was born a Hindu." It may have been a good answer in that time, but I am not sure that it will work for a new generation today. For the first time, increasing numbers of Hindus will be Hindus by choice and will have to be reconverted or converted to Hinduism.
Ten needs of Hindus in America
One of the imperatives for confronting our contemporary challenges is Hindu unity. Religious divisions that would hardly cause a ripple in a population of 800 million in India become major fractures when that population is a minority. There is an urgent need for a coming to together of the different traditions of Hinduism to reflect on and to affirm the common aspects of our Hindu heritage. This unity about which I speak is not one that requires the overlooking or elimination of differences of doctrine and practice that exist among us. Hindu unity, however, will certainly enable us to better utilize our limited resources and speak with a common voice on matters of shared concern.
The traditional feud between Sanatanists and Arya Samajists has taken its toll on Caribbean Hinduism. Hindu unity requires that these two traditions (sampradayas) be in dialogue with each other. It is sad that Hindus often find it easier to engage in dialogue with persons of other faiths than with fellow Hindus. Certainly our Arya Samaj brothers and sisters can appreciate the positive nature of many post-Vedic developments in Hinduism and the profound theology of grace that underlies the use of murtis (icons) in puja (worship). At the same time, Sanatanist Hindus can see Swami Dayananda Saraswati as one of the great reformers of our tradition who renewed the significance of the Vedas and sought to rejuvenate Hinduism. 19th century issues should not continue to divide us today, but a generosity of heart on both sides is necessary along with a renewed emphasis on what we share.
Greater focus on jñana (wisdom)
We must have a deeper focus on and appreciation for the wisdom or jñana dimension of our tradition. It is accurate to say that in the transmission of the tradition the emphasis, historically, has been on orthopraxis, with a focus on ritual worship. In the western world, however, Hindus are increasingly challenged to articulate and transmit their tradition in a manner that places more emphasis on its fundamental teachings. If we desire young Hindus to commit themselves to this tradition, we will have to convince them of its worth by a reasonable explanation of its teachings in relation to other competing views.
The number of dedicated Hindu educators are too few.
Traditionally, Hinduism distinguished between the function of the ritual specialist and the religious teacher or educator. The ritual specialist is the purohita or pujari who officiated in home and temple rituals and whose training consisted primarily in the recitation of mantras and the performance of ritual. The pujari did not function as a teacher.
Rambachan leading a Diwali (Festival of Lights" service. Photo illustration by A Journey through NYC religions/Khant Khant Kyaw
The guru or acharya is the teacher of wisdom. These teachers were, in many cases, though not all, monks (sannyasins) and their training was entirely different. They were trained in the authoritative Hindu texts such as the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita.
During the migration of Hindus from India to the Caribbean, many purohitas came, but few acharyas. Caribbean purohitas have done a remarkable job in developing the skills to be both ritual specialists and teachers and deserve much commendation. In many cases such skills were developed through individual initiative; in others cases by discipleship and study with a guru. The field of human knowledge, however, has grown and the wisdom and skills required to be an effective Hindu teacher are more than anyone can develop on his or her own initiative or through study with a single teacher. The Hindu teachers and educators who are needed today must be well-versed, not only in the traditions of Hinduism but also in the major trends of contemporary intellectual discourse in the various branches of human knowledge so that they could provide coherent, rational and articulate interpretations of Hinduism, We will need to work to establish institutions and design curricula where such training is afforded to students with the proper religious and intellectual aptitudes.
An expanded temple role
The new context and challenges require an expanded role for the traditional Hindu temple. The traditional Hindu temple is primarily a place of worship where the sacred murti is housed. We visit our temples for darshana (to see the murti), and to offer ritual worship (puja). Preserving this central purpose, our temples must increasingly become centers of teaching and learning about the Hindu tradition, ensuring the successful transmission of the tradition from one generation to another.
Since we cannot guarantee that a Hindu child will be Hindu by the fact of birth alone, temples must become the centers where age appropriate teaching is conducted. This is already happening in many temples and resources must be shared. The temple as a center of teaching must now complement the temple as a center of worship. Caribbean Hindus have strengthened the congregational forms of temple worship and these forms continue to serve the community well.