Hegemony And Hindu Dharma In the West Indies – Part 6

Hindu Dharma was first practiced by the people living to the east of the river Indus – in Bharat. To its adherents, however, it was simply Sanaatan Dharma … that which sustains; a way of life and a view of life that always was, and would be. By the time the British reached Bharat in the 17th century, the Muslims had ruled for five hundred years, after over five thousand years of Hindu glory.

Thus, official British rule beginning in 1818, was simply a continuation of five hundred years of foreign domination of Bharat. When Hindu practices of the era are criticized, the background of domination against which they occurred must be factored in.

The British conquest of Bharat was complete by 1818, with the defeat of the Maratha Confederacy, and the conquest of the Bharatiya mind was set as the next goal. The Bharatiyas of Guyana cannot be understood unless one understands the history of Bharat during this period. In her pursuit of economic power, the British plundered the land to such an extent that the first Hindi word to enter the English language was the word “LOOT”. In fact, Bengal and the United Provinces [modern Bihar and Uttar Pradesh], the earliest conquest of the British, remain the most backward regions of Bharat – such was the magnitude of the plunder. The cotton and indigo industries, in which Bharat had reigned supreme for thousands of years, were destroyed, as the cotton mills of Lancastershire were established. The importation of all machinery to Bharat was forbidden until the pressures of World War 1 forced the British hand. Bharat’s industrial base was still-born as its factories were snuffed out. It is apposite to note the example of Japan, which was never conquered and whose samurai class [analogous to India’s Kshatriyas] modernised their country.

By introducing a direct tax on the land and refining the Moghul methods of collection, millions were uprooted from the land as they could not pay the onerous taxes. Cash crops for export were encouraged as the uprooted millions wandered across the land in search of food. Famines arrived in Bharat thanks to Britain. Before the British arrival in Bharat, even under the oppressive Moghul rule, the villages had remained self-sufficient … there were no famines. It is not mere fortuity that British rule and famines swept across Bharat simultaneously.

Famines during British Hegemony
25 major famines struck Bharat during British rule, from Tamil Nadu to Bengal to Bihar (more than in the preceding 1000 years)

It was against this background of devastation that the emigration of Bharatiyas occurred. So when one uses the word “voluntary” to describe emigration from Bharat, it is as if a man invades your home, destroys that home and all its contents, and then claims you “voluntarily” chose to live elsewhere. “Voluntary” implies a choice … there was no choice for most of the Bharatiya immigrants. Even some of the individual immigrant’s reasons, which may be termed ‘personal’, actually stemmed from the destruction of the value system of their society by the British invaders.

Another spur to Bharatiya emigration to the ‘colonies’ was provided by the first Battle for Bharat’s Independence [the so-called “Indian Mutiny”] of 1857. With the defeat of the Bharatiya forces, caused by internal dissension – brutal British retaliation on suspected and actual participants, forced many to flee for their lives. Many of the “sepoys” ended up in Guyana. In a random sample taken by anthropologist R.T. Smith, of the 238,934 Bharatiyas who arrived in Guyana between 1838 and 1917, 84% were Hindus, 16% Muslims, and only 0.1% Christians. Of the Hindus, 13.6% were high caste Brahmins and Kshatriyas, while the others were mainly from the agricultural castes. The percentage of high castes was higher than in North Bharat as a whole, in spite of the prejudice against them by the British, who branded them ‘trouble makers’. It is unquestioned that many of these individuals were literate in their own languages and were quite conversant with their shastras [scriptures], and chafed at being branded ‘illiterate heathens’ by the Planters.

Against great odds, and under great privation, these Bharatiyas tried to preserve the institutions of their culture. The first official Mandir [temple] in Guyana was built in 1870 on Leguan Island in the Essequibo River and up the Berbice River. By the turn of the century, they had spread exponentially and almost every village had a Mandir. After their long days work the more educated Hindus would gather and sit under a tree near the ‘logees’ [ranges of barracks], and surrounded by the other Hindus they would expound and debate the teachings of their shastras. In the earliest days the favourite texts were the Bhagvat Puran and Shiva Puran. Gradually these were supplanted by the Ramcharitmanas, of Goswamy Tulsidas, which was written in the more accessible Avadhi [dialect of Hindi] and recounted the exploits of the ever popular Northern Bharat Hero – Sri Rama.

Hindu Dharma In West Indies
Immigrants from Bharat in the 19th century celebrating their culture in West Indies through dance and music

With the focus on the Puranas as authority, many of the religious and cultural practices were outmoded in the times, for Puranas are secondary authorities written at various times, in order to make the Vedas, the ultimate authority, meaningful to the particular age in question. By the 1920’s, the reformist Arya Samaj movement, with its slogan of “Back to the Vedas” had arrived in Guyana. Its work really took root after the arrival of Swami Bhashkaranand in 1937 and in the following decade that he resided in Guyana. Never very large, the Arya Samaj movement, was very dynamic as it railed against what they considered to be archaic, outworn, and misunderstood Puranic customs of the traditional Hindus, called Sanaatanists.

Hegemony And Hindu Lifestyle In Guyana  

Before the War of Independence in 1857, the British had debated on whether to use “native” languages and texts or English and British books in the educational programmes they might initiate amongst the conquered people. However, the position of the Anglicans, [against indigenous education], led by Macaulay, won the day in 1835. When the precariousness of their situation was driven home by the widespread support the rebellious Sepoys had mustered in the 1857 War of Independence, the British Government took over direct Governance from the East India Company, and immediately opened three universities in the major cities of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. The creation of the intellectual and cultural hegemony had begun: the model was the “Bengali Babu”.

By this time [1857], the British had encountered the great spectrum of Bharat’s people – the cultivated Brahmins, the fierce Rajputs, Pathans, Sikhs, the industrious traders and agriculturalists, as well as the other classes. But the Bharatiya stereotype they chose to emphasize in their programs was that of “the effete, effeminate, vaporous, swooning Bengali.” Trained to be, at best, a clerk to the rawest recruit from “home”, the Bengalis became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Even enlightened families such as the Calcutta Thakurs never protested, for instance, the misspelling of their names as “Tagore”. They accepted the civilizing premise of British rule, as did Ranade of Bombay, Iyer of Madras and thousands of the best and brightest of Bharat who passed through the British mill. They accepted the stereotype that Hindus were a non-violent, docile, superstitious, caste ridden society. These are still the premises of the English educated elite in Bharat.

This was the image of Bharatiyas, which the British passed on to the inhabitants of British Guiana when they decided to dump Bharatiyas into that benighted colony to rescue their sugar industry. It continues to be the dominant image of Bharatiyas notwithstanding evidence to the contrary. For instance, in the modern period, with the sugar plantations continuing to be the site of the most brutal exploitation, Bharatiyas single-handedly waged the struggle for human rights and dignity in Guyana.

Starting from 1870 at Devonshire Castle, in Essequibo, 1896 Pln. Friends, 1913 Rose Hall, 1924 Ruimveldt, 1939 Leonora, 1948 Enmore, and continuing to the present, Bharatiyas fought by the thousands and died by the dozens. Yet the stereotype continues because it suited the purposes of the British overlords and their African successors.

The educational institutions in Guyana such as Queen’s College, were in the mould of those in Bharat. The Bharatiyas who passed through the mill also bought the hegemonic ideas lock stock and barrel. The first Bharatiya families to rise up in “society”, the Luckhoos, Ruhoman, and Adams were Christianised, Westernised, and proper “Brown Sahibs”. Never mind, as Edgar Mittleholzer recounts in his autobiography, the coloured Mittleholzer children were forbidden to play with their coolie neighbours, the Luckhoos. Even those more enlightened Bharatiyas, such as Dr. J.B. Singh, a bastion of the Maha Sabha and the East Indian Association, confined their activities to demonstrate that they were just as good as the coloureds.

The British were still the standards of culture; Mrs. J.B. Singh’s receipt of the MBE [Member of the British Empire] was her proudest moment – it validated her charitable and cultural activities. The point is, when their activities were simply to prove their worth, they were still controlled by the hegemony. Whether Mrs. Singh staged a grand production of Shakuntala, or Joseph Ruhoman wrote laudable verses, they were still playing by rules where they would always remain second class. Much of Hindu cultural expression remains fixated at this imitative stage. If they have a Beauty Queen, we must have a Divali Queen. If they have Dancehall Backballing, we must have Chutney Winedown. As to whether these expressions are within the Hindu ethos, is ignored. And the fact that in imitating another one implicitly accepts the superiority of the imitated is brushed aside from one’s consciousness.

How to Destroy a Culture in 5 Easy steps

In Hindu lore we say there are five “Bhas” which undergird popular culture and we can gauge the survival of a culture by their retention or rejection. These are Bhesh [clothes], Bhaasha [language], Bhajan [songs/music], Bhojan [food] and Bhakti [spiritual devotion]. In the imposition of a hegemony, these are obviously the points were the hegemony will seek to attack. What was the experience of the Hindu in Guyana? From the moment the Hindu stepped into the depot from Calcutta or Madras, he/she was given western clothing. In Guyana, Bharatiya Garb was derided … it soon disappeared. Today, the Sari, Shalwar-Kameez, or the Kurta is rare in Guyana – especially the latter. However when the Dhoti pants becomes the fad of the Manhattan crowd then it is acceptable.

It is a trite, but nevertheless valid, truism that when you take away a people’s language, you take away their very soul. A word and its meaning cannot be separated as cannot the ocean and its waves. The experiences of a people are bound up with their words, their language. To speak another’s language is to try to live their lives. How many of us knew that “white” was to be “as snow”, but knew not what was snow.

More insidiously, from birth we knew that to be “white” was to be “good” and from birth we knew that we would never be “white”. So we prided ourselves to be “brown” not “black” for wasn’t the latter the colour of evil? Hindi was always supposed to be on the curriculum in the schools of Guyana [to this day]. It speaks of the purpose of the power holder that it has never been a viable proposition. Very few Hindus are conversant in Hindi today and English subtitles are a must even for the most avid Hindi filmgoer.

Songs and music exemplify the popular culture of a people. Poetry, for instance was always an integral part of the lives of even the most “backward” Hindu peasant. Practically all his books were written in poetic meters, which could be chanted or sung. Today in Guyana the popular plays, the Ram Lila’s, the Krishna Lila’s and the Harichandras are a thing of the past. They never received the support that western plays did.

Today most Bharatiyas are losing their appreciation of Bharatiya music and it is no wonder – it is almost never heard. Arguments that Bharatiyas do not understand Hindi are beside the point and are based on ignorance of Bharatiya music. Bharatiya music is based on ragas, which evoke specific moods regardless of ones understanding of the language. It is part of the hegemony to convince the Bharatiya that his music is second rate … for it becomes easier to convince him that he is also second rate. And this every mini bus driver knows.

It is said that food is the most resilient cultural baggage; and that may very well be, but even that has come under siege. In the aforementioned Divali Beauty Contests it has become customary to ask the “beauties” as to their favourite foods. I am yet to hear one say “I like saa-ney dhall and rice with bhagee”, even though the law of averages hasn’t been overturned. [I know I’m not the only Hindu whose favourite meal is dhall and rice and bhagee]. Most Hindus have come to accept that it’s better to say they like “fried rice” than “dhall and rice”. Incidentally, another sign of the hegemonic dominance is the affectation of saying “dholl” rather than “dhall” as being more “cultured”. There is no such thing as “dholl” – only bad pronunciation.

(Other parts of this series – 1, 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.