Hegemony and Hindu Dharma in the West Indies: Part 1

“The strongest man is never so strong enough to be master all the time, unless he transforms force into right and obedience into duty.” – Jean Jacques Rousseau

The introduction of large numbers of people from Bharat in the Southern West Indies (Guyana, Trinidad and Suriname ) between 1838-1917, helped to create plural societies that have been wracked by competition amongst the several groups, including Bharatiyas, that remained there. The struggle, focused on securing political power upon the departure of the European Imperialists, has transmuted the question of “culture” and “religion” into contestatory sites, since the political mobilization in each territory has centred on groups that define themselves ethnically (thereby, incorporating group origins, culture and religion).

The “national question” is therefore quite unsettled even though for most of the colonial and post-colonial periods the goal of integration was posited as to be achieved through assimilation. One premise is that there was a “persistence” of Bharatiya culture in the Caribbean that had to be eradicated and that they should accept “Creole Culture”.

It is the contention of this paper that the Bharatiyas of the Caribbean, especially the Hindu segment, do not have the pristine culture that is assumed by other groups in the West Indies. The changes induced in their cultural practices were not only the innocuous or randomized inevitable adaptations to new environments but also the result of a conscious process labelled “hegemony”/”social maya” that has fundamentally affected them and their identity.

This process was a project of the British Imperial power. While all West Indian groups have been hegemonised, each brought different cultural attributes into the hegemonising situation and since they were also introduced at different times, the hegemonising apparatus – in both the procedures and substance – would have varied, ensuring that the groups ended up with different cultural attributes and responses to the power structure.

The Hegemonisation of Hindu Dharma in Guyana will be located within the overall power relations of the society it finds itself, as by definition it is within the context of these relations that the Hindus were hegemonised. We are contending that, unlike the situation with the other groups, the hegemonising process on Hindus started back in Bharat from which they were brought as indentured servants.

We will therefore also look at the process historically and examine the situation in Bharat where the British had completed the conquest of Bharat by 1818 with the defeat of the Sikhs, and before the introduction of indentureship.

The struggle against the debilitating effects of the hegemony – labeled the formation of a “counter-hegemony” – by the Hindus in Bharat and in Guyana will also be examined from a normative standpoint. The Hindu counter-hegemony, obviously, will have implications, if not lessons, for the wider society to throw off the shackles of the hegemony as it suppresses them.

Hegemony/Social Maya in Bharat

It is still a source of amazement to many that the British, a nation of twenty five million at the beginning of the nineteenth century, from an inconsequential eighty-nine thousand square mile island, was able not only to conquer but hold a country such as Bharat with ten times its population – and an Empire on which, they boasted, “the sun never set”. At no time during their one hundred and fifty years of rule over Bharat, did the British have more than 150,000 troops (and as low as 15,000) in a captive population of 250 million.

The Empire was supposed to have been established on the foundation of superior technological advances in military hardware achieved by the Europeans and tactics that the technology opened up and made possible. There was also the technology of production that they improved on as they destroyed the existing industrial base of Bharat and held back the introduction of the new technology and so contributed to the latter’s underdevelopment.

But with all of that, the extended British rule is astounding when that rule is considered against a background of the rapacious looting of the wealth of Bharat, the contemptuous, second-class treatment of the colonized in their own country, and the luxurious lifestyle of the conquerors juxtaposed against the abject poverty of the conquered. Much of it had to do with the technology of communication.


One method of maintaining dominance over a conquered people is to utilize the same type of force and violence by which they were conquered – garrisons, executions, torture, prisons etc. to keep them in line. This has been the tried and tested method used by all conquerors of the past- and quite a few of the present. This method however, has proven to be quite costly – especially in terms of manpower and material, since the oppressed has a visible reminder – even a red flag – of his oppression, against which he can be aroused to rebel. Spartacus and his slave rebellion against the Romans were echoed in many African slave rebellions against the British in their West Indian colonies during the eighteenth century.

The British, however, perfected an alternative, which had always been around – but in bits and pieces. From time immemorial, victors had attempted to lighten their burden of conquest by eradicating perceived differences: Aristotle, for instance, that paragon of rationality, had suggested that the enslaved barbarians might be “educated” to accept their condition. The British took the process to higher levels, refining and perfecting techniques and institutions successful in the past and creating completely new ones. What the British did was to exchange the metal chains holding the colonized people with mental chains for which the people clamoured: they introduced a hegemony or social maya over the people of Bharat.

Hegemony or Social Maya

In the 1920’s the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, was confronted with the anomalous phenomenon of the lower classes of Italy being attracted to Fascism, even though objectively he concluded that the masses were oppressed by that regime. He introduced the concept of “hegemony” to explain the passivity of the masses to their oppression. Hegemony, he proposed, was the seizure of the moral and philosophical leadership by one group in society through their creation and imposition of a new and complete world view or paradigm in such a thorough fashion that the remainder of society (or at least, the overwhelming majority) accepts as “common sense” or givens, the ideas, social structures and systems that just happen to privilege the hegemony.

These ideas form a coherent, internalized word view which creates in the mind of the hegemonised group, the feeling that their oppression and inferiority to the hegemon as “just the way things are” or “that’s life”. There appears to be an inevitability and eternality to their subjugation: the latter becomes a plight – part of the unchangeable, universal order, and not a problem; as against part of the man-made order, which can be changed by man.

The term “world view” or paradigm is used rather than “ideology” to emphasise the pervasiveness or all-encompassing nature of the hegemony/social maya which, when incorporated into the individual’s consciousness, provides an “explanation” in terms of a vocabulary and conceptual framework, for everything within the subject’s experience.

Maya and Social Maya

In Hindu Dharma, “maya” was a concept introduced by Adi Shankaracharya to explain the difference between the “real” or Absolute (that which is unchanging) and that which we experience in the phenomenal life, which he defined as “unreal” (and is always in a state of flux). He posited that Maya, in reference to us, was an integral aspect of the Absolute and acts to conceal that Absolute but simultaneously to project that which we perceive through our sense organs and mind and believe to be real. Most of us go through life without realizing that there are levels of reality behind the familiar, everyday, common sense ones. Hindu Dharma is actually a way of life with number of paths to apprehend the “Real”.

In an analogous similar fashion, in human communities, during the socialization of individuals from birth onwards, there is a social construction of reality located in the words and concepts transmitted to all who are part of families (and societies) – especially as they relate to social institutions which objectively have no existence outside of the stipulated socially defined one. While maybe more mundane than the original maya, this social construction of reality is also a form of maya, which has no less a profound effect on the lives and actions of the subjects. The rupture of a social institution – marriage vows, say, can be as devastating to some persons as being hit by a rock. Which is more real? The ideas and concepts of this social maya can obviously be shaped and directed by groups that are in control over the institutions that “create” knowledge and this brings us back to Gramsci and his concept of hegemony.

(Other parts of this series – 2, 3, 4, 5)

About the Author

Ravi Dev
Shri Ravi Dev is the Sanghachalak of Hindu Swamyamsevak Sangh (Guyana). He has been a Hindu activist for the past 27 years in Guyana, after 21 years in New York where he was a corporate executive and a member of the New York Bar.