Written by Prita Lal: May 1, 2005
The Arya Spiritual Center is an Arya Samaj temple located in Briarwood, Queens. The devotees of this temple are of Indian descent but are predominantly migrants from the Caribbean, particularly the country of Guyana. This Caribbean influence seems to have an effect on the spirit of the temple. The Indian-Caribbean Arya Samajis’ relationship to Hindu nationalism seems to be one point of variance from Indian Arya Samajis in that the Indian-Caribbean devotees of this temple do not appear to be as closely aligned to the rhetoric of the Hindu right as compared to Arya Samajis from India. It is perhaps the Caribbean background of these devotees that causes this variance. My observations at the Arya Spiritual Center have allowed me to explore this thesis in some detail.
The Arya Spiritual Center has been in existence since 1992. Originally, a group of Indian-Caribbean Arya Samajis who migrated to New York City would rotate, having pujas between several community members’ homes. In 1992, some of the community members secured the means to purchase a building in Briarwood, Queens, which is close to the other Indian-Caribbean establishments in Jamaica, Queens. One of the more prominent community members is Pandit Ramlall. He is highly respected and renowned in this community and regarded as someone with a great amount of wisdom. Pandit Ramlall is originally from Guyana, where he was raised as an orphan and taught himself Indian language and culture. He spent considerable time in India and studied Vedic texts. He came to New York in 1979 in the large migration of Indian-Caribbeans and helped establish the Center more than a decade later. This building in Briarwood was formerly a church, which is evident because of the stain-glassed windows in the main prayer area. The Center offers Sunday morning religious services in addition to various cultural activities such as language, dance, and yoga classes. The Center also celebrates Hindu religious festivals such as Diwali and Holi. The devotees of this Center seem to form a tight-knit community, with many younger generations being reared in the practices of the Arya Samaj.
Swami Dayananda Saraswati (1824-1883) founded the Arya Samaj in 1875. Kenneth W. Jones gives a detailed account of the life of Swami Dayananda in his book Arya Dharm. Swami Dayananda was a native of the Gujarati town of Tankara, in West India. He was educated as a Shaivite Brahman but rebelled against his family’s religious beliefs and orthodox Hinduism in general (Jones 31). His impatience with orthodox Hinduism led him to spend a considerable part of his life as a wandering sanyasi: he searched for mukti, or release from suffering. On his quest for the truth he met his mentor, Swami Virajanand Saraswati, in 1860. Swami Virajanand instilled in him great reverence for the Vedas as the ultimate authority of Hindu belief. After his mentorship with Swami Virajanand, Dayananda was motivated to reform Hinduism in order to rid it of practices he held to be irrational. His reforms include a rejection of polytheism by advocating a belief in one universal God. In addition, he rejected idolatry, child marriage, untouchability, and caste. He also advocated the equality of women and widow remarriage. Swami Dayananda was against the superiority of Brahmans and he believed that education and not birth determined one’s status in life. He held that everyone, women and low-caste people included, should be educated and read the Vedas, thereby seeking the ultimate truth. Dayananda began sharing his beliefs with others, but because of their controversial nature, he was initially met with a great deal of hostility. On April 10, 1875, he attracted enough followers that the first Arya Samaj was established in present-day Mumbai (Jones 35). A couple years later, Dayananda traveled to Punjab and encountered both positive responses and active hostility to his beliefs.
During Dayananda’s lectures in Punjab, he attracted both converts and opponents. Defenders of Hindu orthodoxy perceived the rejection of idolatry in particular as sacrilege. These opponents consequently formed the Sanathan Dharm Rakshini Sabha, also as known as the Sanatanist sect, which believed in preserving traditional forms of Hindu practice (Jones 37). Pandits Bhanudatt and Shraddha Ram established this Sanatanist sect. It is interesting to note the development of this Sanatanist movement because in the Caribbean, a majority of the Hindus are thought of (for instance, by Pandit Ramlall) as Sanatanists, even though many arrived in the Caribbean as indentured servants long before the formation of the Sanathan Dharm Rakshini Sabha. When the first Arya Samaj missionaries came to the Caribbean to spread the teachings of Dayananda, according to Pandit Ramlall, these missionaries were met with resistance from the established Sanatanist groups.
The Arya Samaj was introduced to the Caribbean during the early 20th century. Since most of the devotees of the Arya Spiritual Center are from Guyana, I will focus mainly on the spread of the Arya Samaj in this country. However, because of its close proximity to other Caribbean countries such as Trinidad and Suriname, many of the same missionaries would travel to all three areas in order to spread the teachings of Dayananda, so the rise of the Arya Samaj probably took a similar developmental path in each country.
Bhai Parmanand was the first Arya Samaj missionary who arrived in Guyana–in 1910. As a result of his lecturing across Guyana, a rather substantial following developed; it continued to grow over the next several years. A few Arya Samajes were established in various Guyanese towns such as Demerara, Berbice, and Truimph Village (Vedalankar 157). Other missionaries followed the departure of the first Arya Samaj missionary for Guyana. In 1929, Pandit Mehta Jaimini was the second such missionary to arrive. An impact of his presence in Guyana was the development of a central structure and organization of the Arya Samaj. The Arya Sarvadeshik Pratinidhi Sabha, an organization concerned with the expansion of the Arya Samaj abroad, sent several more missionaries to Guyana in subsequent years. One such missionary was Pandit Bhaskarananda, who arrived in the Caribbean in 1936 and was one of the most influential “architects of the Arya Samaj movement in Guyana” (Vedalankar 159). During his decade-long stay in Guyana he helped establish the American Aryan League, which has been the central unit of all Arya Samaj activities in Guyana. The League’s office is located in the town of Georgetown.
According to Pandit Nardev Vedalankar, as of 1975, there were roughly 40,000 followers of the Arya Samaj in Guyana. The growth of this movement, though, has not been easy and has been met with resistance. For instance, Pandit Bhaskarananda faced challenges converting the Guyanese because of hostilities from not only Sanatanist pandits but also Christian priests. The Sanatan Dharma movement was in fact so disturbed by the advances of the Arya Samaj in the Caribbean that the Sanatan Dharma Pratinidhi Sabha, based in Lahore, sent its own missionaries to the Caribbean in an effort to counteract the missionary work of the Arya Samaj (Vertovec 70). Partly in consequence, most of the Hindus in Guyana remain Sanatanist; the Arya Samajis compose a minority.
Although both Arya Samaj and Sanatanist sects have a history of division and strife, according to Pandit Ramlall of the Arya Spiritual Center, the groups today live together in relative harmony in Guyana. He even implied that there is not that much of a difference between the two groups ideologically by saying that the beliefs of the Sanatanists are “very similar” to those of the Arya Samaj. Both of these Hindu sects form a significant part of the Indian-Caribbean identity, which began its formation in the middle part of the 19th century.
Having focused on the growth of the Arya Samaj in the Caribbean, particularly Guyana, let me open the lens and fill out the picture with a broader survey. Slavery was abolished in the Caribbean during the 1830s and the British colonizers consequently searched for a cheap source of labor to replace the slaves. After an initial attempt to secure this cheap labor from China, the British turned to India. British colonial policies in India rendered many Indians impoverished and the masses suffered from recurrent famines. Lala Lajpat Rai (1865-1928), a politically involved member of the Arya Samaj who subscribed to a Hindu nationalist school of thought (Hay 159), describes the famines in India that had been reccurring throughout the 19th century as not only due to a lack of rain, but also to unfair economic policies that forced the country to export foodstuffs, in order to increase colonial profits, instead of using those foodstuffs for domestic consumption. He goes on to state: “this general poverty of the people is the real cause of Indian famine and explains the frequency of famine conditions” (Rai 212). Thus, the British were easily able to lure many Indians to migrate to the Caribbean because the migrants hoped that they would be able to improve their livelihoods abroad. The British brought Indians to Guyana in 1838, which was earlier than in the other Caribbean colonies. For example, Indians were sent to Trinidad in 1845 and Suriname in 1873. The servants worked under contracts of varying lengths that stipulated work conditions such as the pay, housing, and medical care. Even though these servants left behind severe poverty and were given these contracts, the working conditions that they found in the Caribbean were a “harsh alternative” and were “often associated with poverty, disease, malnutrition, and social oppression” (Vertovec 43). Many of the Guyanese-Indians were able to eventually escape the slave-like working conditions of indentured servitude and develop autonomous communities in this country.
After the servants completed periods of indentured labor, most of them stayed in the Caribbean because prospects to improve their livelihood seemed greater there than in India. I had a conversation with a member of the Arya Spiritual Center, whose name was Mrs. Persaud, on a recent site visit, and asked her questions about the legacy of indentured servitude in contemporary Guyana. She said that her grandparents told her about the hardships their grandparents had to endure and she consequently has “respect” for her ancestors and looks to them as inspiration to “move ourselves a step further.” I also asked her if poverty is still prevalent among Indians in Guyana, and she said that there are very few poor Indians in Guyana today. I then asked her if poverty was more common among the Caribbeans of African descent, and she said that it is. She then gave me her explanation for this being the case. She said that after indentureship, the Indians were given the opportunity to purchase plots of land and remain on the plantation. The Africans, though, mostly left the plantation once slavery was abolished and fled to the cities, where unemployment is high and it is difficult to provide for oneself. Indians, on the other hand, since they were able to obtain their own cultivatable land, were able to prosper financially and be more self-sufficient. I appreciate Mrs. Persaud’s analysis of how the Indians were able to escape poverty in much greater numbers than the Africans. It seems to me that she is examining the causes of poverty with a macroscopic lens that scrutinizes the systematic and structural roots of inequality, instead of attributing poverty to individual actions. Even though many Indians had relatively prosperous lives in Guyana, they still migrated to other countries in large numbers during the 1970s and 1980s. Social instability did arise in Guyana, causing the migration of substantial numbers of Indians to places like New York City.
Guyanese-Indians comprise a considerable portion of the Indian-Caribbean population in Queens. Although I do not know the exact figure, there have been estimates that roughly 100,000 Guyanese-Hindus live in the Queens area. The migration of Guyanese-Indians to New York City began more than twenty years ago, and the reason for this migration deals with Indian-African relations in Guyana. Since the Indians were brought to the Caribbean as a cheap source of labor to replace the Africans, it was not surprising that the Africans would view the Indians in a hostile manner; to the Africans, the Indian laborers were viewed as a source of competition and a cause of depressed wages. In addition, divide-and-rule tactics employed by the colonizer perpetuated hostilities between Africans and Indians since a lack of unity and active animosity between oppressed groups helps the oppressor maintain supremacy and control the system. Jealousy between the two groups grew even more after servitude when Indians were able to purchase land and improve their livelihoods. After the 1966 independence of Guyana, economic and social strife ensued as the “public policies…enforced by a black-led government [were] ignorant of the needs of the majority race in their population: the East Indians” (Singh 87). The government discriminated against Indians and the hostilities culminated during “The Reign of Terror” in the 1980s. Indians were the target of black gang crimes such as robbing and rape. Fear and isolation grew in the Indian community particularly because the police did little to protect them. As a result, during this decade, 30,000 Guyanese-Indians fled the country and a large percentage of this group escaped to the United States (Baber 134).
Mrs. Persaud told me about this “Reign of Terror” and how it was the cause of migration of her family to New York. I asked her about current relations between the two groups, and she said that currently there is a great deal of racial strife, particularly because of the memory of the reign of terror. She said in her town, though, the Indians and Africans get along well and she did not encounter any racial problems while she was living there. This was not the case for her husband, though, because he was raised in a segregated village in which there was racial division. I was a bit surprised to learn about this reign of terror and racial strife, though, because of my conversation with Pandit Ramlall. I asked him if the various groups in Guyana lived in unity. He explicitly said, “Any divisions that exist among these groups in Guyana came about as the result of British divide and rule policies” but that overall, Indians and Africans live today in harmony. I asked Pandit Ramlall during a subsequent conversation about the reign of terror inflicted upon Indians by the Africans in Guyana and if he felt any resentment towards the Africans because of that. He stated that he did not, and he held that the fighting between Indians and Africans were the result of a “game played by the British—the game of divide and rule.” This discussion of the reign of terror and Indian-African relations in Guyana has to do with Arya Samaj identity because of their emphasis on unity with other oppressed groups, which I will discuss later in greater depth.
My observations at the temple and conversations with members and pandits have taught me that although many of these Guyanese-Indians have never been to India, they are highly attached to Indian culture. This is evident in the fact that the temple has such a large and active membership and offers courses such as Hindi, yoga, and classical Indian dance. Additionally, most of the devotees, especially the female ones, attend the Sunday morning service in traditional Indian attire. I find this particularly interesting for the youth, both boys and girls. As an adolescent of Indian descent, I never particularly enjoyed wearing Indian attire, and I would not have done so on a regular basis, as these youth do. It seems clear that the adults at the temple are highly attached to their ancestral culture. For instance, once I was having a conversation with Pandit Bharat during the lunch one day and he asked me about my background. He asked if I am Hindu, and I said that I was raised Hindu and my parents practice their religion devoutly. He got the impression from me that I am not a practicing Hindu per se, particularly compared to my parents or many of the temple devotees. He then advised me to be “proud of my Hindu heritage” and urged that once I discover how great Hinduism is, it would be a “great source of power” for me.
During my conversations with Mrs. Persaud, she told me about how her children are involved in temple activities and can sing bhajans and play classical instruments. I also asked her how she would identify herself, as Indian or Guyanese, especially while she was living in Guyana. She said she has always felt like she is Indian first, and really just saw Guyana as a “land of birth, not culture.” She told me that although she cannot speak Hindi very well, she does know how to read Devnagri. She said she does not really feel much of a Caribbean influence in her sense of identity.
Pandit Ramlall also conveyed to me an immense pride in Indian culture. During his interview, I asked him what he thought about many members of the Hindu right being a part of the Arya Samaj. He said that the devotees have a right to be affiliated with any political movement but he himself did not align himself with the Hindu right because he perceived them as being “a bit extreme.” However, he did say he agreed with them in that peoples of Indian descent should be proud of their heritage. He stated explicitly “Indians should maintain our identity and not be persuaded by the Western way of life.” He then made a comparison to Jewish people and said that Indians should retain their culture the way the Jewish do. Although many of the devotees of this temple seem to be proud of their Hindu heritage and believe in passing on Indian traditions to the next generation, they are still not opposed to non-Indian influences on their way of life, and an observation of their service brings to light certain Western influences.
The culture of the temple exhibits quite a few non-Indian influences. For instance, after the Sunday service, bhojan is served and it usually consists of rice, daal, aloo subjee, and some non-Indian dishes like beans and rice and pumpkin. Even the Indian dishes have a different taste to me than traditional dishes I have had cooked by native Indians because the dishes at the temple are much less spicy.
Another non-Indian influence on the temple seems to me to be an insistence the devotees and pandits have to remain on time. For example, the first day I went to the temple, I was struck by the fact that Pandit Bharat made it an issue to start on time, because he was looking at the clock and said that he could talk to us for about 20 minutes before the service began. The following week, he said, we should come at 7 am, so that he could spent an hour with us before the service after teaching his morning class. Pandit Ravi, who was playing the accordion, welcomed us. Pandit Bharat asked us if we would stay until 12 noon, but I said I would have to leave at 11:30. Pandit Ravi said that they finish at 11:30, but that they serve lunch at noon and we would be welcome to stay. Even throughout the service, the pandits were cautious about staying on time.
The emphasis on punctuality is not something I am used to in a temple setting because usually time is not paid close attention. This insistence on time became heated during one service because the service was running late. While the service was running long one day, past its usual 11:30 am completion, Pandit Ramlall began talking about a book that they acquired which was available at the Center’s bookstore, but he was interrupted while he was speaking. Someone in the temple was getting testy because of how long the service was running (it ended up finishing about a half-hour late), and this person shouted to the Pandit to speed things along. Actually, the person spoke in Hindi, which I found strange since most of the devotees seem to be non-Hindi speakers. Perhaps this particular devotee was from India and not the Caribbean. The Pandit was annoyed at being interrupted, and told the devotee to not interrupt. The person then responded “interruption ka baat nahi hai, samay ka baat hai.” A second pandit, Ravi, was supposed to deliver a short talk at this point. As Pandit Ravi began, he apologized for the lateness of the service, and stressed the fact that they are running 20 minutes late. One day I asked the president of the Arya Spiritual Center about this insistence on punctuality. He stated that they like to keep the service on time mainly because of the youth. He said that they get impatient if the service lasts too long and then become uninterested in staying.
I feel that this emphasis on punctuality is interesting because it is definitely not something I encountered in any other Hindu service I have been to since my childhood. In general, I think that Western society gives much more importance to time and punctuality than Indian society, so I contend that this emphasis on promptness to be a non-Indian influence. For example, in the current globalized, technologically advanced world, people residing in urban, developed areas such as New York City tend to be in a perpetual hurry. Based on my own personal observations, I notice that the lifestyles of my family in India are generally more laid back. My uncles who work in offices would usually return home for a leisurely lunch break. In addition, other relatives employed as doctors do not work nearly as many hours as their peers in the U.S., and are often home for the day by two o’clock in the afternoon. Further, Indian cultural events almost never begin punctually because Indian people rarely arrive on time. The Arya Samaj is dedicated to returning to pure Vedic culture, but its rigorous timekeeping practices seem to bespeak a Western influence. This may well go back to Swami Dayananda himself, who was a partisan of Vedic ways and a modernizer at the same time.
A final characteristic of the temple devotees that exhibits its non-Indian flavor is language. The vast majority of the devotees are native English speakers, and the only time I hear Hindi spoken is by the pandits during certain parts of the service, and this is always translated into English. I have never heard Hindi, or any other South Asian language, spoken colloquially in the temple. Thus, although the devotees of the temple grasp their ancestral Hindu traditions and are proud of them, they still cannot deny some obvious non-Indian influences on the overall culture of the temple.
The devotees of the Arya Spiritual Center seem to be open to non-Indian influences. For instance, during my talks with Mrs. Persaud, I asked her if her children identify with being more Indian or Guyanese. She said her children do not really know Guyana because they lived most of their lives here, and, although they have been raised attending the temple and are involved in its activities, they have “assimilated” in to American culture. Mrs. Persaud added that even she and her husband enjoy listening to American music like their children. She said that her children have “the best of both worlds” in that they still retain parts of their ancestral culture, particularly through their involvement in the Samaj, and have also accepted American culture. I asked Mrs. Persaud if she had a choice between an Indian and a Guyanese flag, then which one would she chose to put in front of her house. She surprised me by responding, “an American flag.” I then asked her about marriage preferences for her children, and she said that even though she would prefer her children to marry someone from the community, she would not force her children to marry from the community and would accept whoever her children chose “as long as they find someone who loves them and cares for them.” She also told me about how many members of her immediate family have married outside both their ethnic and religious backgrounds, and the entire family accepts these spouses. During a later conversation with Mrs. Persaud, I asked her what she thinks about “foreign” influences on Indian culture, and if she is opposed to them as the Hindu nationalists. She said no, she does not agree with the Hindu nationalists in this regard, and she believes that we should all take what is good from each culture and be open to change. She said that we are all a part of humanity and should not isolate ourselves.
I maintain that Mrs. Persaud’s experiences in the diaspora have made her more open to foreign influences. She was raised in Guyana, has never been to India, and has been living in the U.S. for more than 20 years. Her non-Indian influences are undeniable and are clearly a part of her identity, which is illustrated by her interest in American music and acceptance of her children marrying outside of their ethnic background. Thus Mrs. Persaud cannot eeasily adhere to the rhetoric of the Hindu nationalists in that she herself is a creation of various cultural influences, some of which are non-Indian.
Pandit Ramlall also conveyed similar expressions. Although he also believes that it is imperative for Indians to retain their culture, he did say that the Hindu right is “a bit extreme” in their disdain for any foreign influences. During the service of this particular day, Pandit Bharat Singh talked about how through “our children we know that this is Black History Month.” He then talked about how they owe the black activists and black movements a lot, and that is it through their struggles that they are able to live their lives today. He mentioned various black figures such as Rosa Parks, Fredrick Douglass, and someone in the audience adds Harriet Tubman. He insisted that we owe a great deal to their struggles 30, 40, 50, and 100 years ago. He also emphasized the fact that “Martin Luther King was inspired by Gandhiji.”
I afterwards asked Pandit Ramlall about these comments by Pandit Bharat Singh, and he said that the Arya Samaj “stands with all people’s movements against oppression.” In regard to the black leaders, he said that they have respect for these figures because of what they did for America. He said, “If they [the black movement leaders] did not struggle, then we could not be here today.” This is merely conjecture, but perhaps these Guyanese-Indians feel a connection with the struggles of African-Americans because of the similarities between indentured servitude and slavery. This is something I should try to explore more in conversations with devotees.
I can describe with certitude, though, elements of Arya Samaji belief that explain why these devotees would have admiration for other oppressed groups. I asked Pandit Ramlall if he viewed this unity with oppressed groups as a “reformist” element of the Arya Samaj. He said that the Arya Samaj is not a religion but a way of life that sees all humans as equals. He then called Swami Dayananda a Martin Luther-style reformer of India. Swami Dayananda believed in people fighting against injustices in life. He stated “…a man should…constantly endeavor to undermine the power of the unjust and to strengthen the power of the just, even at the cost of great suffering” (Saraswati 55). In “The Essence of Vedic Religion,” a booklet Pandit Ramlall gave to me, the author describes Vedic Hinduism as “a humanitarian religion” that “teaches us the essential unity of all creatures” since we are “but the different forms and shapes of that Supreme Lord” (Prasad 15). The author also discusses the communitarian spirit of the Vedic religion; he states, “the chief aim of the society should be to look after the all around welfare of each and every individual” (15). Furthermore, people should “shed off all narrow sectarianism and practice the broad principle of universal brotherhood irrespective of any caste or creed” (15). Thus, the religious beliefs of the Arya Samaj seem to support these concepts of unity among all different types of people, especially those peoples fighting against injustices.
I find the appreciation the devotees have for the struggles of blacks to be surprising mainly because it is not something I would expect from my Hindu community growing up. My community never acknowledged the struggles of black people and did not feel much empathy or appreciation towards the black community. I would think that the outlook of my Hindu community is more similar to that of the Hindu right in this regard. The rhetoric of the Hindu right always seems to stress the glory of ancient India, and not attempt to learn lessons from other groups of people, such as the blacks. The Hindu right tries to reach out to groups previously excluded from the Hindu fold, such as the Dalits, but they do this in an attempt to create a larger, exclusionary Hindu community.
Swami Dayananda’s writings have obvious appeal to the Hindu right because of his stress on the knowledge of the ancient Vedas and disdain for later texts. In The Sources of Indian Tradition, Stephan Hay discusses Lajpat Rai and how he rose to “prominence as a militant nationalist” in the early 20th century after his active involvement in the Arya Samaj (162). Additionally, in the tract Khaki Shorts, Saffron Flags, the authors discuss contributions the Arya Samaj has made to the cause of Hindutva and how Swami Dayananda is frequently cited by the Hindu right (8). The attraction Hindu nationalists have towards the Arya Samaj stems in part from this society’s “love for ancient Indian culture” (Hay 160). In Satyartha Prakash, Dayananda not only describes the greatness of the Vedas, but also criticizes Christianity and Islam as inferior religions (Pandey 16). Indeed, Dayananda held that “it was upon this infallability of the Vedas that he wanted to build up the Hindu society and the Hindu nation” (Pandey 17). By giving supremacy to the Vedas and condemning the Bible and the Quran, he sought to weaken Western influence. Dayananda believed in establishing the nation on this foundation of Hindu supremacy, which became a power in stimulating the strength of nationalism in India (Pandey 17). Thus, it is no surprise that Hindu nationalists cite Swami Dayananda as a supportive reference for their beliefs.
Services at the Arya Spiritual Center and interactions between people present there reveal that several different cultural influences are at play. Although the devotees are of Indian descent, the vast majority is from the Caribbean country of Guyana and has roots that go back in Guyana for several generations. This history in Guyana inevitably has an effect on the behaviors of these devotees, whether they are conscious of it or not. In addition, living in the U.S. has a further effect on the cultural orientation of the devotees and consequently this temple. Although the devotees of this temple are proud of their Hindu heritage, they do not seem to claim that Hinduism or Indian culture is superior to other ways of life. On the contrary, they seem to be open to the influence of non-Indian entities. Many Hindu nationalists subscribe to teachings of Swami Dayananda because of his insistence on the glory and supremacy of ancient India. Although the devotees of the Arya Spiritual Center eagerly attest to their Indian heritage, whether they are conscious of it or not, they still retain significant non-Indian influences, mainly from the Caribbean and the U.S. Because of these non-Indian effects, these Indian-Caribbeans are not in a position to reject foreign influences in the way that Hindu nationalists hope.
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