An Express article on Sunday, January 6, headlined "Mishra fears: Errors creeping into Hinduism", has given me cause for concern as a Hindu, especially when Indian High Commissioner Malay Mishra refers disparagingly to our pundits and priests by saying "among the so-called pundits and priests". He further goes on to imply that these "so-called pundits and priests" do not understand what Hinduism is all about and, therefore, a lot of confusion has crept into their understanding. I must admit my profound disappointment at what is a very unfair comment on our Hindu community and its religious leadership.
While properly commending the life and contributions of Swami Vivekananda, Mishra chose unfortunately to disparage the Hindu tradition in the Caribbean. In doing so, he showed little understanding of the challenging history of these communities, their contribution to the development and spread of Hinduism in the Western world and the many positive changes and adaptations made. It is important to acknowledge that Hindu immigrants to the Caribbean were the first to sow in the soil of the western world the seeds of a consciousness and way of life that had evolved thousands of years before in India.
Fifty-five years before Swami Vivekananda spoke at the Parliament of the World Religions in 1893 in Chicago, Illinois, USA, Hinduism was being practised and transmitted in the Caribbean.
What is even more distressing is Mishra's comment that too much emphasis is being placed on ritualism, "sometimes, with shallow understanding of the philosophy of the religion". I would have left these comments alone had it not been made by a duly accredited high commissioner of the Republic of India. While his statements may not be an interference in the internal affairs of this country, it is, in my respectful view, an unfair characterisation of our Hindu community and reveals a serious lack of understanding of our religious history and the advances which we have made.
Further, he has displayed a thorough lack of knowledge of the contribution of Hindus from Trinidad and Tobago to the development of the Hindu tradition in North America and other parts of the world. The following quote from a lecture by noted Hindu scholar Prof Anant Rambachan summarises a few of the creative developments in the history of Caribbean Hinduism:
"The historical ability of the Hindu tradition to adapt and assimilate under changing conditions has clearly served it well in the Caribbean. Its history in the Caribbean, however, is not merely one of survival, but also of innovation and creativity. Congregational forms of worship, on the whole, have become a prominent feature of Hindu worship, and most temples have regularly scheduled services consisting of singing, ritual and lecture. Traditional temple architecture has been modified for the purpose of collective worship. Regional and linguistic differences have disappeared, and this has made possible the forging of a common Hindu identity. While Sanskrit and Hindi remain the liturgical languages, they are increasingly used along with English translations, and the medium of religious instruction is English.
Worship patterns and strategies for transmission of tradition which have evolved in the Caribbean may be vital for Hindu life in societies where Hindus exist as a minority. In the past 30 years, the migration of Hindus from the Caribbean to the United States and Canada has contributed to the vitality of the Hinduism in these countries, and some of the most successful temples, like the Vishnu Mandir and the Devi Mandir in Toronto, are those which reflect the Caribbean Hindu heritage. Many of the innovations and strategies developed in the Caribbean are being utilised by South Asian immigrants in North America."
In Trinidad and Tobago, one finds many Hindu priests who are university graduates and well versed in the Hindu scriptures. In addition, they have a sound grasp of the relationship between the scriptures and daily life. Among these are pundits of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, Swaha and the Arya Samaj. Organisations like the Chinmaya Mission, the Satya Sai Baba movement and the Hindu Prachar Kendra, among others, focus significantly on the wisdom of the Hindu tradition.
Many commentaries on Hindu scriptures have been produced in Trinidad and Tobago, and several of these came from scholarly lectures presented at the Divali Nagar. In fact, for 25 years, the Divali Nagar and National Council for Indian Culture have been promoting Hinduism in terms of its philosophy and practice in a modern environment, for which they must be highly commended.
To suggest that we in Trinidad are lacking in efforts to understand the philosophy of our practices is grossly unfair and misrepresents the achievements of our community. Hindu rituals play a vital role in the structuring of our lives and in orienting us to its significant moments. To insinuate that rituals are only practised by those who are ignorant about the tradition is arrogant. Rituals have become important occasions for instructing about the value of nature (Kartik Naha, Ganga Dhara) and the conservation of our resources.
I honestly find the statement of the high commissioner to be an unfair attack on our priests and pundits who, throughout the generations, have been the stalwarts of Hinduism and who continue to serve their communities with dignity. Our journey is a continuing one and there is always more to learn. This journey, however, needs to be faithfully portrayed, and one expects a more informed view from the high commissioner.