"We're Doing Survival Work!"
Trinidad's Maharaj Combats Invasion of TV Values With His Hindu Academy
It's lunchtime in Chaguanas. At a small public school, Hindu teachers quickly slip into a faculty lounge, flip on the TV and hungrily snatch a few morsels of the "The Young and the Restless" - a steamy soap opera satellite-dished out of America. Then a bite to eat and back to class.
This peek-a-boo look into the human side of Hindu life in Trinidad is real and, though hardly unique to this quiet island-nation, it concerns Pandit Khamraj Maharaj, general secretary of the Trinidad Academy of Hinduism. He feels their once balanced way of life is now dangerously listing to one side as Western ideas fill their sails and threaten to send their 150-year-old voyage in Trinidad off course. Too many are pursuing artha and kama (wealth and pleasure) to the exclusion of dharma and moksha (spiritual life and liberation). "They fill the belly first and then think of God," the Pandit told HINDUISM TODAY with a gutsy license only his position and popularity permit. And, though the problem is serious, it doesn't depress this muscular, five-foot-seven, 220 lb. father of four. He converts "problem" to "challenge" in one mental stroke and then stokes the engines of his 9-year-old volunteer-staffed organization with a few more projects and plans from a giant coalbin of ideas.
AN INSIDE LOOK AT THE ACADEMY:
The central pistons of the Academy's machinery are its three-cylindered education programs - spiritual, consultancy and charity. Young men are professionally trained as astrologer/priests; an extensive, loose-knit staff of university, government and Academy individuals conduct special and weekly courses in Hinduism overseen by the Academy's Department of Theology; and the public is fed philosophy from a feast of freely circulated literature. In fact, all their services are free. Funding to cover expenses comes not by magic but in dollar-by-dollar donations from their pandit services and from unsolicited gifts from their roughly 54,000 members.
Government auditor by day and pandit by dawn, dusk and weekends, Pandit Maharaj has learned to never tire. A close friend says, "Any time you see him he's on his way to perform a marriage of a puja or returning from a yagna." Deceivingly quiet and unassuming, the pandit camouflages a force of mind that makes the gears of his organization mesh rather than grind. And like a good doctor, he believes an honest diagnosis is the start of any cure. For example, "We have a little problem in the youth area" he understates. "The 16 to 30 age group have gone all for food, clothes, shelter and security. They are bombarded by values from the American TV. Music is another influence. Even in our Hindu churches we have incorporated English language music to attract the youth. Many pandits are now using these "Casios" (computerized organ synthesizers) in the mandirs. They program everything on them - Ramayana, the Gita, bhajan, kirtan, everything." And since the Academy itself operates no major programs for the youth (other than some trade classes), they send their teenagers to the big-scale youth camps staged by a sister organization, the Hindu Seva Sangh. But Pandit Maharaj concludes, "Still, we are failing in this youth area."
However, an area where they shine spectacularly is at the children level. Fifty-four volunteers teach and run the Academy's 14 pre-schools. The classrooms are austere - bare walls, cement floors, a few books and no audiovisual lab. But that's no handicap. Oceans of religious and cultural knowledge joyously pour through these homely cement blocks every day as children absorb spiritual ideas that will last a lifetime. They learn song, dance and drama and memorize through sits and plays every twist and turn of the Ramayana yarn - the undisputed religious anchor for these island Hindus where "Sita/Ram," and not "Namaste" - is how you say Hello.
FOR WOMEN: A NEW ERA OF CARE
Like many other Hindu organizations world-wide, the Academy is now facing up to its responsibility to address women's needs and problems - an area chronically neglected to date. Under the umbrella of their social service wing, Academy Board members are now brainstorming how to best establish a women's counseling service and provide creative activities and duties that harness the untapped power of women in dharmic but modern-thinking ways. "There is a great need for work among women," Maharaj confirms, "especially among those who have been driven from broken homes, battered, rejected or forced out of their families for any reason." Clearly, the Academy is determined to point the torch light in some dim corners of domestic life that husbands have fought to hide. The Academy is fed up with men who abuse the idea of the "subservient wife" to smokescreen and excuse abject insensitivity and cruelty to women in the Hindu home. Pandit Maharaja's wife Balamatti will ably steer the Board's final plans into fruition.
Though now a priest, Maharaj was once a first-class wrestler - "strong for small," he modestly quips. "But I gave that up 12 years ago. My family didn't like it."
So today he exerts his strength full-force toward inspiring and maintaining the spirit of Hindu dharma during a turbulent time of unprecedented social and religious change. And for real relaxation? "I compose classical Hindi bhajans," he replies, just starting to unwind at 10 PM as the last of 50 visitors leave his home on another typical, non-stop Sunday.
Article copyright Himalayan Academy.
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