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Paying holy men to pray

By Raffique Shah

THIS "black speck", as Eric Williams once labelled Trinidad and Tobago (and other Caribbean island-states), must be the holiest country in the world—and I'm not referring to potholes on our roads, in which we probably also rank high. I'm speaking of religions, churches, beliefs, prayers, flocks, festivals, feasts: on a per square kilometre calculation, we undoubtedly have more places of worship and people who worship than anywhere else on earth.

Put in perspective, Jerusalem may host more Christians, Jews and Muslims than we do; but it has no Hindus, Baptists or Buddhists as far as I am aware. Mecca is the holiest city for Muslims, but that's its only claim to fame. Varanasi on the Ganges is holy for Hindus, the Vatican the capital of Roman Catholicism, and so on. But not one of these acclaimed holy places can boast of the religious diversity, density or denseness that we cleverly combine.

Time was when, in many communities, there were more rum shops than any other establishments. Not again, my friends. The only outlets that might outpace places of worship are recent-vintage Chinese fast foods restaurants that are mushrooming like ants' nests in every hole-in-the-wall, servicing members of the churches they strategically straddle.

Churches—and I use this word to encompass all religions and places of worship, no offence intended—have also emerged as political battlegrounds. Admittedly, from the dawn of religion and politics, long before Christ, politics and religion intertwined, mostly acting in concert to shaft ordinary people, but sometimes differing, resorting to war, again using ordinary people as fodder. In all the major wars that man has fought, religion, in one form or other, has played a role.

To return to the local scene, come Tuesday, Hindus will celebrate the festival of Divali, which modern Trini-Hindus have renamed "Divali". It's probably the most significant day in the Hindu calendar. In my boyhood years, even though I was a Muslim, I was very involved in preparations for the big night, lit and re-lit deyas, and enjoyed the special culinary treats. Divali then was a spiritual experience for Hindus and a community affair in the villages and towns where they predominated.

To further explain where I'm coming from, most of the Hindu women in the Freeport-Boccarro (now "Beaucarro"!) district did not own saris, so they wore dresses, their only distinctive symbols being "tikkas" on their foreheads. At best, the men wore "dhotis" as they performed "pujas". All of us, guests and hosts, sat on clay floors ("leepay") or around modest tables to feast on food and delicacies, and as the deyas' last flames flickered, we walked to our homes with small brown paper bags containing tasty "parsad".

There were no thousand-dollar "gararas" and "kurtas", no glitter and gold, no banquets, no paid performers. Best of all, there were no politicians to make incendiary or divisive speeches. No officials-on-high doled out dollars. Indeed, no Hindus sought to raise funds for the festival except for small community activities that were funded by small contributions from villagers. Felicity and Dow Village (California) hosted the biggest and finest displays of deyas, with all the funding raised within their communities and the environs.

And you know what? Divali then had more meaning. It was a much more joyous celebration than the contrived, dress-to-impress charades that we endure today. We didn't even enjoy a public holiday, but the community spirit more than made up for its absence.

In similar vein, Muslims marked the two "Eids" without state sanctions or support or holiday. The faithful had to walk or cycle or travel for miles to find a mosque at which he or she would read "namaaz" (today, "salah"). The only distinctive garment some men had was the "topee" or "fez" to cover the head. Most of us used handkerchiefs as headwear. Women wore the "orhini": there were no "hijabs" or other more elaborate, not to add expensive, garments. And the only common fare at mosques for "Eid" was "sawine". At their homes, Muslims who could afford it prepared special meals, and they all shared "sawine" with their neighbours. Today, Muslim organisations get generous government grants.

Look, I am not harking back to yesteryear to suggest that we revert to those simple practices. Indeed, I have no authority, not even the right, to tell Hindus or Muslims or Christians how they must practicse their religions. But I can certainly express the view that religion and politics have grown too intertwined, that this is an unholy alliance that must undermine the very tenets of faith. More than that, the line that is supposed to separate Church from State becomes blurred. One wonders if the priest is not a politician, if the politician is not playing priest.

I venture further: should people of any faith be paid to pray, to host religious feasts and festivals? In my view, these grants that government has doled out over many years to elaborately and expensively bedecked religious leaders are questionable. Since we are dealing with State funds, are the high priests and pundits and imams asked to present proper statements of accounts for such funds?

I know many people who disagree with me would point to even larger sums that are disbursed annually for Carnival and other cultural events, and more recently, to individual artistes. Except for the development aspect of selected art forms, I, too, have a problem with this "freeness". It is hardly different to the huge allocations for government's many no-work programmes.

So we taxpayers, through government, pay people to play, to party, and to pray. In the name of Bhagwan, God, Allah, Ologun, how could that be right? For its spiritual integrity if not the spirit of the Word, the Church must stay a safe distance away from the State. Amen.

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