Following the example set by our forebearers, we can ensure that our Hindu traditions continue
BY SHIVA E. SEEJORE
MY FRIEND, WHO WAS BORN AND raised in India, recently attended a Ramayan Yajna at a mandir founded by West Indian Hindus. She was amazed that everything was performed in the exact same manner as in India. “Imagine,” she said, “indentured Indians were able to preserve their culture and pass it along from generation to generation without any communication with the Motherland.”
Imagine, indeed: no mail, no phone, no Internet and no freedom to practice your religion in a new land. Indentured Indians would sign a contract for five or ten years of labor, after which they expected to return to their families. Unfortunately, at the end of their contracts, few were able to return. Many were beaten and jailed and some killed. In the Caribbean they remained isolated, and it must have taken such a great effort to preserve their traditions, living in European colonies rampant with forced religious conversion and cultural oppression.
Many Hindus sought to preserve their religion by walking from village to village playing instruments and reciting passages from poems and sacred texts. This was the only way such things could be done, because in many colonies the law forbade the building of temples. Our ancestors could work the land and turn a profit for plantation owners, but could not own land, return to India or build their own houses of worship.
Children of my mother’s generation had to show proof of affiliation with a Christian church in order to attend school. She and other Hindu students were forced to go by Christian names. My uncle had to adopt a Christian name in order to even be considered for a job in government.
But try as they might, the Europeans could not erase who they really were. Despite these and other hardships, our forefathers persisted, successfully preserving our culture and keeping our traditions alive. They were wise and inspired enough to pass down that legacy to the next generation so we could enjoy the rich tapestry of cultural values that we still have today.
Now it is incumbent upon us—reflecting on the efforts of generations past—to ask ourselves, what are we doing to preserve our culture in the US? At this time, all types of Hindus are Anglicizing their names, trading Rachna for Rachel or Gaurav for Garth. It’s easy to let go of your culture and assimilate. After all, Indo-Caribbean Hindus in the US are now twice removed from their heritage after two immigrations. But shouldn’t it be easier today to preserve our culture, while living in a society that emphasizes personal freedoms? After all, there are entire days of sacred text readings, pujas, bhajans and havanas accessible at the click of a button via online video. So, why aren’t we closer to our culture now than our forefathers were?
This cultural dilution is evident even in children of immigrants from India. Despite being just one generation removed from the birthplace of Hinduism, they relinquish their cultural roots just to blend in.
How do we honor the efforts and sacrifices of our parents and grandparents? We should do for the next generation what our forbears did for us. We should tell our story; we should teach the next generation the importance of our history and our culture and not let it fall by the wayside. Many Indo-Caribbean immigrants living here work day and night to build a future and provide for our children; but what legacy and values will we leave to them? Will they know where they came from and what struggles it took to get here? Are we leaving them to adopt someone else’s values, or should we instill the Hindu values our forefathers fought to preserve? It would be shameful if we let our cultural identity die in the next generation. Let us make our grandparents and great-grandparents proud; for it is only when you know your history and culture that you will know your own greatness and worth.