Written by Prita Lal: April 8, 2005
The Arya Spiritual Center is located in Briarwood, Queens. This Arya Samaj temple was founded in 1990 by Caribbeans of Indian descent. Before then these devotees of Swami Dayananda, founder of the Arya Samaj (1824-1883), would rotate between community members’ homes for pujas (prayer services). With the establishment of the Center, this Indian-Caribbean community has developed a space that can be used not only for religious services but also for cultural activities. It has become an important center of Indian-Caribbean Hindu tradition in New York, particularly for the younger generations. Since most of the devotees of this temple are from the Caribbean, it is beneficial to give a brief background sketch of Indo-Caribbean history.
Indians arrived in the Caribbean roughly 150 years ago. After slavery was abolished in the Caribbean, the European powers searched for a cheap source of labor that they could exploit, and consequently turned to India. They brought Indians from states such as Bihar and Tamil Nadu to Caribbean colonies such as Trinidad, Guyana, and Suriname, in order to work as indentured laborers on plantations. These Indians were taken from mainly agricultural castes because of their ability to cultivate land. The manner in which these indentured laborers were taken to the Caribbean was quite harsh and many Indians died en route to the Caribbean. Once these laborers arrived in the Caribbean, they were subjugated to slave-like working conditions and discrimination by the colonizers. Indeed, this entire experience of Indian indentured servitude in the Caribbean can be described as the “second transatlantic” trade—second after the African slave trade. According to one prominent figure in the Arya Spiritual Center, British divide-and-rule policies initially created hostility between the people of African and Indian origin, but today these hostilities have subsided and the various ethnic and religious groups live in harmony in countries such as Trinidad and Guyana.
In the beginning, Hindus in the Caribbean were part of the Sanatanist sect. In the 1930s, however, an Arya Samaj missionary by the name of Professor Bhaskarananda arrived in the Caribbean to spread the teachings of Swami Dayananda. The Arya Sarvadeshik Pratinidhi Sabha in Uttar Pradesh sent him. He faced challenges converting the indentured laborers because of the hostility not only of Santanist pandits (priests) but also of Christian priests. Although most of the Hindus in the Caribbean are still Sanatanists, a considerable number are also Arya Samajists.
Now, we shall give a brief history of the Arya Samaj. The Arya Samaj means the Society of the Aryas, or noble men. This is a movement founded in 1875 by Swami Dayananda Saraswati and was a Hindu reform movement. Swami Dayananda was born in 1824 into a Brahman family in Gujarat. When he was a young child, he was trained in Sanskrit and the religious traditions of his family (mainly Shaivism), but when he was a teenager, he revolted against his family’s religious practices. He became an ascetic and developed a strong veneration for the four Vedas, dismissing all later scriptures as unworthy. The central tenets of the Arya Samaj, which separate it from mainstream Hinduism, are a rejection of idol worship, caste, and child marriage, an acceptance of women as equal to men, an emphasis on the Vedas as the supreme source of truth, and a stress on reason and rationality. Another important principle is a socialist concept: one should not be content with one’s own welfare, but should find one’s own welfare in the well being of all. The Arya Samaj accentuates the glory of ancient India and has influenced the rhetoric of the Hindu right, which espouses the glory of India’s ancient history and relies on this history to purge India of any subsequent foreign influences.
Caribbean and Indian
A visitor to the Arya Spiritual Center will quickly observe both Indian and Caribbean elements in the behavior of its devotees. As for the Caribbean part, the Pandits stated during a recent service that they believe in being united with other oppressed groups, such as African-Americans. In my own analysis, it makes a great deal of sense that the Indian-Caribbeans would feel a sense of kinship with African-Americans since the ancestors of Indians in the Caribbean were basically treated like slaves under the system of indentured servitude.
On the other hand, devotees of this temple are obviously very proud of their Indian heritage. The Arya Samaj believes in the ancient glory of Indian’s past, and this proud connection to Indian culture is evident in all the activities of the temple. The Center offers Hindi language, Indian classical music, dance, and yoga classes for the devotees, so that they do not lose their culture as they reside in the U.S. The Center also offers lunch after the Sunday service; the food served is a delicious blend of these two cultural influences. They serve traditional Indian dishes such as daal (lentils) and roti (bread), yet they also serve non-Indian dishes such as Creole pasta. The devotees also engage in humanitarian efforts aimed at helping both Indians and Caribbeans during natural disasters. For instance, the Center raised several thousand dollars to help the tsumani victims in South and Southeast Asia. Additionally, the Center was a part of a large fundraising concert recently whose purpose was to raise money for flood victims in Guyana.
Personnel and Programs
Pandit Ramlall, who is a well-known figure in the Caribbean-Indian community, play an important role in establishing the temple. He is from Guyana and was born in orphan. He is also a self-educated person who has studied in India for an extended length of time. Pandit Ramlall is fluent in Hindi and Sanksrit and taught these languages in Guyana after his stay in India. He was also politically involved in Guyana’s struggle for independence, and worked alongside Cheddi Jagan, the well-known freedom fighter and politician, in the People’s Progressive Party. He experienced hardships in consequence of his political involvement and was jailed by the British. He came to the U.S. in the late 1970s to escape political persecution in the newly independent Guyana (1966) and after seeing that there was no Arya Samaj temple in the New York area, he helped form the Arya Spiritual Center. He is highly regarded by the devotees as a great source of knowledge and wisdom for the community.
The Arya Spiritual Center offers a number of programs. As stated earlier, they offer classes in Hindi, classical music, dance, and yoga. They also offer a weekly Sunday morning prayer, which consists of Sandhya, Havan, and Pravachan. The Sandhya and Havan are prayers performed by the Pandits and the Pravachan is a lecture, which is then followed by bhajans. Many of the devotees offer the congregation a bhajan before or after the Pandit’s lecture. In addition to these regular activities, the Center organizes special activities such as a yearly celebration of the anniversary of the Arya Samaj on April 10th, a Mother’s Day celebration, movie nights, workshops about Vedic philosophy, annual festival celebrations, and performances by prominent singers and dancers. Such activities are posted at www.aryaspiritualcenter.com. The temple is conveniently accessible by public transportation from Manhattan: Take the F line to Sutphin Blvd.
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