Sunday, February 25, 2018

Pandita Indrani Rampersad

A cut above the rest


Mark Fraser


Mark Fraser

Om Agne vratapate vratam

Charishyaami tatte prabraveemi tachchakeyam....

O Agni, Lord of the holy ordinances, I shall observe the vow of truthfulness in thought, word and The first two lines in the renewal of the vow taken by Pandita Indrani Rampersad a month ago at the Hindu Women’s Organisation of T&T 25th Anniversary Celebrations.

Not any and every woman dares to become a voice for Hindu women. Not any and every Trinbagonian woman wakes up one morning and decides to become a Hindu pandita (female Hindu pundit).

Not any and every young Hindu girl goes through childhood wondering about life after death and the deep-rooted teachings of Hindu religion. Pandita Indrani Rampersad is all of the above. She is not any and every woman. She is a cut above the rest. Inspired by scholarly works on Indian women by Dr Merle Hodge, her colleague and teacher and the writings and insights of Pearl Eintou Springer, Rampersad has found her own niche. “I reached out to these women to hold hands in the women’s movement and they warmly embraced me as a sister. They guided me along my own path of self-discovery. I lament the lack of time and institutions that would continue to nurture such friendships,” declares Rampersad.

Outspoken, assertive and driven by a passion to lead women into a whole new realm of self-worth and self-acceptance the San Juan born President and founder of the Trinidad and Tobago Hindu Women’s Organization (HWO) is living her dream. “When we got together to form the HWO, I was not afraid of responsibility. I had a vision and I humbly requested the founding members to make me the first president, explaining that I wanted to set the tone and energy of the organisation as an activist, one in the areas of women and development; reaching out to grassroots women, collaborating with national and regional organisations; and working for a fair and just society where racism and discrimination would not stifle the spirit of our people. They agreed

and there was no turning back”.

Rampersad’s affinity to the Hindu way of life began very early- “I was born in San Juan into a very humble family that placed the highest value on education as a way for empowering a new generation. We saw the pandit once per year for the annual Puja and renewal of the Jhandi but other than that we were not too involved in religious activities. I lost my father at age eight and that was when my spirituality ignited. I began asking myself questions about what happens after death and was drawn to a spiritual kind of search as a child. I still remember my grandfather’s long philosophical discussions with me about God. He imparted to me the values of Sanatana Dharma or Hindu way of life”. A Masters and PHD graduate of Communication and Journalism (at the University of Pune where she broke their 35-year-old record by being the first to graduate with Honours), the vibrant leader remembered reading the newspapers every day as a child searching feverishly for a female role model

“As a youth I looked around for role models in my spiritual search and could only find pictures of Roman Catholic nuns and of Caucasian people. Back then the press did not give much coverage to people of colour. I admired the nuns and wanted to live that kind of spiritual life but as a Hindu. I grew up with strong women and lived with grandparents in an extended family setting where we had a common kitchen and shared in everything, looking after each other. This upbringing only fed my desire to fulfil my destiny as a voice for Hindu women,” she reminisces. The Secretary, Arya Pratinidhi Sabha of Trinidad recalled rejecting books that did not have girls in them. “Somehow I was a fighter for my identity way back then and even now. My foray into yoga as a teenager strengthened my spiritual resolve and I went to India to study Sanatana Dharma but there was no such course of study there. I ended up studying Indian Philosophy with an Honours in Geography so I could get a job when I returned home. I topped the University (Benares Hindu University) in Geography Honours”.

India was a great experience for Rampersad. She matured spiritually and emotionally and learned to be a stronger patriotic Trini as she admired the strong spirit of Indian patriotism. After her tertiary education in India she started her career as a school teacher teaching at primary and then secondary schools locally and in the US.

However, the devout Hindu’s sacred moment really came in 1993 when she became a Hindu priest under the auspices of the Arya Pratinidhi Sabha of Trinidad which is a reformist Hindu movement. Her most pioneering move ever, she broke the barriers entering into a very traditional and ritual stronghold of men.

In 1945, another woman also made the leap and Trinidad and Tobago got its first female pandit though Pandita Deokie Devi. Devi, then 24 years old, became a pandit in the Puranic Hindu tradition. She never received a license however to perform as a pandit in Trinidad because no Hindu organisation would grant her that right. Rampersad therefore made history in being the first woman to become licensed as a pandit and be able to perform marriages and other rituals. “On September 15, 1993, the Arya Pratinidhi Sabha of Trinidad formally inducted me into the priesthood. I was later recommended by this organisation for a state license to conduct marriages etc. Hindu culture has always had women who broke the traditional chains that debarred them from full spirituality. There is Mira Bai in the 15th century who gave up the householder life to live the life of a devotee. The bhakti period in India saw many women shining as leaders”, the Senior Research Fellow in Ram Lila (University of Trinidad and Tobago- UTT) declares.

Rampersad further states that women have received sacred knowledge directly from God and they have composed some of the world’s oldest mantras as found in Hinduism’s holiest spiritual knowledge called the Vedas.

“In Pune, India, there is a school for training women to become pandits in the Sanatani Hindu tradition. In Trinidad, the Arya Pratinidhi Sabha was the first organisation to ordain women as priests. After me, two other women were ordained as priests in the organisation,” she continues.

In 2007 Rampersad left her teaching role in the US to return to Trinidad. She joined UTT where she did intensive research in the area.

Today she is the Community Development Officer at the Land Settlement Agency where her job is to improve the quality of life of squatters and the poor.

“This is a tremendous task that I approach with a spiritual commitment. I believe that God has given me this job to serve the poor, the marginalised and the voiceless. I am a natural advocate for the disempowered so I look forward, daily, to doing my job. I am a lifetime learner because I strongly believe that one needs to keep training and educating one’s self to remain relevant in the constantly changing world of the digital age. In Sanatana Dharma we grow up knowing that “change is the only constant in creation” – it is part of our philosophy of life, so it is easy for me to prepare for and accept change,” the avid cook concludes. Her journey is indeed a challenging one but a role which she is more than equipped to fill because she is not any and every woman!

PLEASE NOTE: Indrani Rampersad instructed writer Lorraine Waldropt-Ferguson that although it was pronouced pundit the preferred spelling was pandit.