NEW YORK, NEW YORK, October 9, 2013 (A Journey Through NYC Religions): Anantanand Rambachan is professor of religion at St. Olaf College, Minnesota. This article is taken from his keynote address to the Hindu Caribbean Conference of America in New York on October 6, 2012.
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. 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.
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.
Much more of the lengthy and informative address is available at 'source' above.