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Roots: Saint Lucia's Hindu Legacy
Category : October/November/December 2012


Saint Lucia's Hindu Legacy

How my family reclaimed our cultural and religious heritage

I am a Saint Lucian citizen. i was born in the US Virgin Islands and lived briefly on the mainland (USA), but for the better part of 23 years I was raised on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia. I am roughly two-quarters Indian and two-quarters Negro--meaning both my parents were themselves of mixed heritage. This is common in Saint Lucia. We are called dougla--which comes from doogala ("two necks"), a demeaning label meaning mixed race or half-caste in Bhojpuri and Hindi. In Saint Lucia, the term is sometimes used affectionately, sometimes not so affectionately.

Though many on the island are of Indian heritage, I am one of the very few Hindus. I have a Hindu name, perform daily puja to Lord Ganesha and consider the cow a sacred creature. I believe in karma, dharma, reincarnation, the divinity of the Vedas and in the need for a satguru to guide my spiritual journey. Of all the Indian families who came to Saint Lucia from Kolkata as indentured workers in the 19th century, mine is one of the few to reclaim our Hindu heritage. In being Hindu, I am almost unique among the fifth generation of Indian immigrants. Even among my close relatives, almost all are Christians.

How did I come to be a Hindu in a land where Christianity reigns supreme, even among Indians? I attribute my discovery of this beautiful religion to the interplay of my soul's natural calling and God's blessing of being born to parents who are ardent seekers of spiritual truth. Indeed, my growth from non-religious, Christian-influenced spiritual confusion can only be credited to the marvelous journey of my parents.

It was really my mother, Toshadevi (Mangal) Nataraj, who never gave up her search for her spiritual roots and who eventually led my entire family back to the Sanatana Dharma. She is half Indian, in the fourth generation; her Hindu ancestors came to the island in 1862 on the second ship of indentured laborers. Raised by her Indian father, Reese Mangal, she was exposed to those few Indian traditions that were still practiced on the island in the 1960s. She remembers her grandfather, Gaillard Mangal, as tall and dark, always singing bhajans, even though he had a Christian name. Most Indians of the time were at least nominal Christians, a result of coercive strategies by the churches [see sidebar opposite].

Gaillard spoke the local French Creole, but also spoke some Hindi, as his parents were first-generation Indians. His wife, my great-grandmother, was given the Christian name Charlotte. She is remembered as a strict, light-skinned woman, quite serious about following tradition, especially the funeral rites. On the one-year anniversary of a relative's transition, she would make sure the family did the shraddha ceremony. A shrine was set up to the departed, their favorite foods cooked and left for them. Separately, the family would have food served on banana leaves on the floor, eating with the fingers--apparently the only time they would eat in this Indian fashion. My mother says the locals of African descent would sometimes mock these Hindu rituals.

One of my mother's vivid memories about her grandmother was the shrine she kept on the family land, with an oil lamp, a statue of the Virgin Mary and a small murti of Ganesha. My great-grandparents may have been devotees of the Goddess Durga, worshiping the Divine Mother through the image of Mary--an eclectic blend of Hindu religion and the imposed practices of Christianity. Every family member had an Indian name, my mother says, but these could not be used in school. Consequently the European names, such as Gaillard and Charlotte, stuck with them.

At age 11, my mother had to be baptized as a Catholic to enter the only all-girls secondary school on the island--the top performing academic institution, not only then but to this day. She says she never felt any connection to the Christian teachings. She often asked herself, "Why was I born half Indian--in a sort of limbo between the quite-different cultures of St. Lucian's Indians and Africans?" She committed herself to finding the root of her Indian heritage. She was encouraged by the example of my grandfather's sister "Joyce," who had returned to India, settled and raised a family, and was living as a Hindu.

My mother left home at age seventeen to live in the US Virgin Islands with her mother, a strong woman of African descent. Even though a Christian, her mother had many books on yoga and Indian philosophy. Reading those tomes, my mother slowly gained a new perspective and began to realize the beauty of the culture that her people in Saint Lucia had virtually lost. But it was difficult to find a path back to pure Hinduism. Again and again she was told the myth--even by some Hindus--that "you have to be born a Hindu to be a Hindu." She eventually joined a universalist religious group, attracted by their worship--albeit Christian in nature--of Lord Ganesha, Krishna, Siva and the Divine Mother. Their core teachings included karma, reincarnation and yoga.

Meanwhile, my father, whose background had more influence from the African side, was on his own spiritual journey. In his search for truth, he joined a raja yoga group in Trinidad where he learned more about Hinduism. He and my mother eventually ended up in the same universalist movement, where their paths merged. Several years after they got married, they left the group and continued their spiritual search on their own.

Because of my parents' continuing quest, my two sisters and I were raised with an inherent acceptance of the basic Hindu beliefs, such as the laws of karma and reincarnation, as well as an understanding of the Supreme God's ability to manifest in multiple forms. Therefore, we were never limited by the Abrahamic concept of "only one way" that pervades Saint Lucian society, in particular the education system.

In 2002, my mother discovered the teachings of Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami through his book Loving Ganesha. The truths of Saivite Hinduism appealed to us all and were easily understood and accepted. We had found our spiritual path, Hinduism, the Eternal Faith.

Satguru Subramuniyaswami had attained Mahasamadhi in 2001, but we contacted his monastic order at Kauai's Hindu Monastery (home of Hinduism Today) and sought the advice of his successor, Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami. We then began formal study under his guidance.

In 2010 Bodhinatha briefly visited Saint Lucia and came to our home. The local Hindu community turned out in large numbers to greet him. Consisting primarily of Indians who had come to the island in the last thirty to fifty years, the Hindu community has always been welcoming and supportive of my family. They have assisted with our home ceremonies, including my youngest sister's coming-of-age ceremony, the ritu kala samskara.

In 2011, after several years of study, I formally entered Hinduism through the namakarana samskara, the name-giving rite, on Kauai island in Hawaii.

In 2012, I came back to Kauai for the monastery's six-month Task Force program, which includes helping the staff of Hinduism Today. That is how I came to be writing this article, with the blessings of Lord Ganesha, to shed some light on the status of Hinduism in Saint Lucia and possibly many other Caribbean Islands.

Today I continue my studies of Saiva Siddhanta. I am working hard to become a formal shishya of Satguru Bodhinatha. My family practices Hinduism, and we adhere as best we can to all of the traditions.

Richard Cheddie said it well: "Imagine that the last shipload to arrive was only 112 years ago. There are still St. Lucians alive today whose parents came from India. There are a few that still speak some Hindi (Oudh/Bhojpuri dialects), some that still sing the old songs and some that still have knowledge to pass on. In my visits to Africa, the Middle East, Europe and North America I have seen much of the strength of many people who have held on to their culture, some for thousands of years, despite what conquerors have tried to do to strip them of their beliefs."

My name is Gajanan Nataraj, and I am proud to be a Hindu. I am proud to be Saint Lucian. And I am exceedingly grateful to be a Hindu man in Saint Lucia, with profound truths of culture, faith, philosophy and selfless devotion to pass on to the next generation of Saint Lucian Hindus.