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Monday, July 22, 2024

Hegemony And Hindu Dharma In the West Indies – Part 7

Hegemony And Hindu Beliefs  

Every Sunday morning, across Guyana, thousands of Hindus stream into their village mandirs to participate in Satsanghs (congregational worship). Not many realize that this practice is an acceptance of the Christian method of worship, foisted on us during the plantation period when Sunday was the only day “Off.” Hindu Dharma, which accepts the infinite variety of the human condition, would never specify the same ten minutes of chanting, two minutes of meditation etc, for everyone. Now there is no question that all institutions, including religion must adapt to changing circumstances if they are to survive. What I am pointing out is the need for a consciousness of the adaptations and a concomitant questioning as to whether the adaptations are consistent with the overarching belief system.

The hegemonisation of Hindu beliefs begin with the words Hindus now use to conceptualize their practices. Having been stripped of their language in Guyana, most Hindus are forced to use English to both study and preach their faith. Two problems arise out of this. Firstly, and sadly, most of the translations of Hindu Shastras (sacred texts), and compilations of dictionaries were done by Christian missionaries, or those imbued by the ethos of Christianity. Consciously or unconsciously, their biases infuse their works. Secondly, as we have mentioned before, all languages, including English, have their own history and their words reflect and project that history.

We can begin by looking at the word “religion” which is substituted for Hindu “Dharma”. In the history of the West, religion has come to encompass only a limited sphere of man’s existence. They speak proudly of the separation of Church and State as if man’s activities can be so neatly compartmentalized. They ignore the concrete facts such as Henry VII and his tussle with the Pope, which helped to bring about such a dichotomy. Hindu society, which never had the problem of a Theocracy since Brahmins could not be Kings, had a holistic view of society and its governance.

Hindu Dharma would never condone the behaviour of those Hindus who never spoke out against the PNC dictatorship by sanctimoniously murmuring, “religion and politics should not mix”. In fact every Hindu ruler had to have a religious preceptor, and followed the Nitishastras – texts elaborating the duties of rulers, economics, and much more. “Dharma” is a very wide concept and covers the gamut of man’s activities and possibilities …duties, laws, rights, morality, and truth are only some of the words suggested. Dharma is evidence and experience based way of life and a view of life; there is no facet of man’s existence that is untouched. Thus there is no separation between dharma and say, cosmology or philosophy.

Dharma does not end with attending Sunday’s “service” in the mandir. “Idol” rather than the Hindu word “murti” is another problem word. Christians and Jews use it in the sense of a “false god” because in their history, their people actually worshipped specific images as gods. Their conception of a “one God”, came out of a long and tortuous road as among other things, one tribe arose victorious over the other tribes and their god was made supreme. Hindu society never had this problem since in its earliest conceptions of God, images were never used. In their earliest text, Rig Veda, there is no mention of images used in worship. It is only used later, when in an effort to explain the lofty Vedic conception, that stylized images were utilized for the masses. These images were always seen as representations of a deeper reality, never as the reality. The map was never confused with the territory. For example, to convey the concept that God was infinite, Vishnu, whose name means “pervader of the universe” is always painted blue to symbolize infinity because the common man could analogise the blue sky which he saw every day and knew was infinite. In their minds many Hindus, accepting the word “idols” are a bit sheepish about their faith’s “strange murtis“.

There are so many other words which dominate Hindu thought but instead of conveying Hindu thought, distort and subvert it – evil, heaven, hell, demon, sin etc. We will conclude this section by briefly looking at the word “God”, which is at the center of religious thought. Because of the hegemony of Christian thought in Guyana most Hindus “see” God as some old bearded man floating somewhere “up there”. The notion of a Nirgun Brahman, of a God beyond human categories of space, time, qualities etc. is rare. The notion that it is only our need to conceptualize that creates an Ishvar or personalized God is little appreciated. The notion that it is only an effort to suggest the infinite capacities of God, which gives us the different manifestations portrayed, is frequently overlooked.

The hegemony over Hindu religious ideals also takes a less benign form, and is manifested in virulent attacks over certain Hindu thoughts. Take for example the Hindu religious concept of “varna” which has been translated as “caste”. All Hindu Dharma says is that a person’s varna is determined by his inherent gunas (qualities) and his actions and environment (Sanskars). No more, no less. The belief that one’s qualities are determined by birth is not religiously sanctioned and is covered by the term “jati” which is a social category. The social idea of “jati” deteriorated over time due to multiple reasons. The discrimination still practiced in its name today in Bharat, while much reduced compared to the situation at the time of Independence, should be altogether jettisoned. However, we must not forget that the British who crucified Hindu society on the cross of casteism had – as the West and Creole culture still does – a nobility into which one can only be born and which as late as 1936 forced a King to abdicate for marrying out of that nobility. The hypocrisy is even more striking when one considers that the major attacks came while they were enslaving millions of Africans whom they conveniently labelled as “subhuman”. Even the Hindu untouchables were never “property”.


Not to give credit to Hindu Dharmic ideas is another aspect of the hegemony. For years, claims that practitioners of yoga could influence their heartbeat, breathing and other functions under the control of the nervous system were dismissed. Now that they have been proven, the process is labeled “biofeedback”. For thousands of years Hindus showed respect for the earth, which nurtured all of us, by worshipping it as “mother” and treating its resources with respect. Only now “environmentalists” have discovered that the earth is finite.

Vegetarianism was derided and it was asserted that animal proteins were essential for a complete diet. The Hindu conception of the universe contracting and expanding within vast expanses of time and space were seen as fables until the modern “big bang” theory. The Hindu concept of maya which states that the world as perceived is “unreal” in the specific sense as being changeable and but a projection of our minds did not receive a hearing until the propositions of quantum physics during this century. And it is still unacknowledged.

We have attempted, within the space constraints, to give an intimation of the penetration of the hegemony into the very structure of an alternate world view – Hindu Dharma. For the adherents of Hindu Dharma, it should suggest, for instance, that the answer to the present problem of conversion, which is being pursued so vigorously by the Christian evangelicals, goes far deeper than simply getting those who are vacillating back into the mandirs. It is not simply a matter of providing “answers” to questions. Because not only the questions, but the “answers” may presume the worldview of the oppressor. And this world view, we know, is fundamentally anti-Hindu, for here the Hindu is a pagan and a heathen.

(To be continued…other parts of this series – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

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Ravi Dev
Ravi Dev
Shri Ravi Dev is the Sanghachalak of Hindu Swamyamsevak Sangh (Guyana). He has been a Hindu activist for the past 27 years in Guyana, after 21 years in New York where he was a corporate executive and a member of the New York Bar.


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