Hinduism is underdeveloped in Guyana. We must work with our youth for a positive future.
BY SWAMI AKSHARANANDA
When Swami, the head of Saraswati Vidya Niketan in the South American nation of Guyana, visited the offices of Hinduism Today, our editors interviewed him about the history and current state of Hinduism in his country.
INDIANS WERE FIRST BROUGHT TO THE BRITISH COLONY of Guyana in 1838 to replace the slaves who had just been freed. Most came from Northern India—primarily Bihar and Uttar Pradesh—and some from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. The originators of the scheme had proposed to the British government that in addition to profiting the plantation owners, this would benefit the Indians by exposing them to Christianity.
A strong emphasis was placed on conversion throughout the colonial period. The usual incentives were given to become Christian, such as teaching and other government jobs. Christian priests were brought from India to work on the local population, too. But during the colonial period conversion efforts met little success. At the end of his tenure of more than 20 years, Rev. H.V.P. Bronkhurst wrote of the refusal of the Hindus to convert, “Morally and spiritually they seem as hard as stones, and as cold as icicles.”
Fifty years after independence, Guyana is still a Christian state. The Pentecostal sect in particular has been very active in conversion. This is still going on, and it is an area of involvement for our organization, and for me personally, to try to combat these efforts at various levels. We know that conversion in this style has nothing to do with finding God. It is more of a cultural or political move. Nobody says, “I converted because I wanted to find God” or “I wanted to find the Truth.” It is always for some other reason, some pretext, excuse or dissatisfaction with one’s social position.
Many regard Christianity as an aspect of modernity rather than merely a faith. It has become part of the globalization movement. It is the modern thing, the cool thing for young people. And it comes from America, like so many other things, so it must be good, right?
We tend to compliment ourselves for holding on to Hinduism outside of India for 170 years, and we have. But to some extent we have been cut off from the evolution that has been taking place in the rest of the Hindu world. We are not aware of some of the major developments, including some of the modern-day gurus. Hinduism has not remained static in India. The Hinduism that we have maintained is to some degree what you will find in the rural part of India, or how it was there a century and a half ago. I have gone back and seen the changes for myself.
The primary way we identify ourselves to our fellow Hindus is by our various ritual practices. That’s the level we are at; we have not gone beyond that. The principal texts we refer to are the Ramacharitamanas and Bhagavad Gita. The more educated go with the Gita, but not many. If one were to seek a scholastic understanding of the Gita, studying all the commentaries, he will gain some understanding. But obviously Hinduism is more than the Bhagavad Gita. The sophisticated intellectual-philosophical discussions we find in the Saiva scriptures are not found in the Bhagavad Gita.
So, we are, in a sense raw, and the field is wide open in terms of how we can develop, what we can put into our society, what direction our society can be given as far as our religion is concerned.
There has been a large migration of Hindus from Guyana to North America, and among them have been our pandits. Fifty years ago it was felt—and now and again you will hear it, especially in Trinidad—that a pandit is supposed to be brahmin by birth. But that is no longer the case in Guyana. Perhaps 80 percent of our pandits are self-trained, but unsophisticated. Many of them are not connected to temples; they freelance, going into the community to serve whoever has a need for them, such as at weddings, funerals and the highly popular Hanuman puja. There are some fairly well-educated priests who will go a little beyond that, conducting regular discourses, but there are only a handful of these.
There are many aspiring priests who have set up organizations who probably hope to fill that role. But it has to be with the blessings of the dominant political party with which a group is affiliated. This is where politics have played a harmful role for us. As an example, during our anti-conversion outreach activities, politicians told us not to rock the boat. This is because our politics are divided. We succumb to race politics; there is a black component and there is an Indian component, and among the Indians are the Christians. This political influence is fairly strong. In a sense, Hindus in Guyana are prisoners in a political cage. We can’t get out of it because we are Indians; our voice must always be moderated according to the Indian political parties’ needs and demands. It causes tension, and it is a serious conflict for us.
Bringing teachers and spreading knowledge should not cause much of a problem because others are bringing their best scholars and teachers. There is a constant flow of Christian missionaries from North America. We have fallen behind, not reaching out to the international community for the best that we could summon.
The typical Hindu child in Guyana is not proud of himself or herself—I wouldn’t say self-loathing, but somewhat ashamed to be Hindu. He or she would not stand up and identify himself or herself as a Hindu with the same kind of commitment and assertion that a Christian kid would. I am not saying that we must adopt the Christian or Muslim style. The tragedy is that we always are so defensive and apologetic about ourselves.
Our school just outside Georgetown has 525 students now. One of the reasons for starting it was to change that, to give Hindus a sense of identity, to bring them up strong and assertive, to give them an understanding about Hinduism so they can be proud of their heritage. But this is where we are at a severe disadvantage, because we don’t have the material and human resources.
If our vision can be replicated in different parts of Guyana and we can work primarily with young people, who are willing and excited to learn, I think we can make a difference.
I think Guyana needs a special medicine because of the level of our development. A transformation in the sense of pride in being Hindu is the change that I see our society needs. The work has to be done.