ROAR of Ravi Dev
One of the consequences of the marginalizing and silencing of the Indian presence in the Caribbean has been a lack of knowledge in the other groups about changes that were initiated in that community both indigenously and externally. Consequently, there remains a persistent myth that the Indians in general and Hindus in particular, are like the people described by Squire in his poem: “There was an Indian, who had known no change.” Save rather than “straying content along sunlit beaches gathering shells”, the Indians brought from India into the WI linger in fields where they gather produce.
There were fundamental changes, however, in the way of life (called “Sanatan Dharma) of the immigrants and their descendants - which was now described as an “ism” – Hinduism. As we wrote last week, some of these changes were engendered by one of the reform movements that had sprung up in India in the 19th century - the Arya Samajists.
The latter continued with congregational worship, which was not a feature of “Sanatan Dharma” through the millenia, but which interestingly enough had already been adopted by the Brahmin priests who had arrived as immigrants. A visiting Royal Commission in 1870 noted two temples or “Mandirs” but within two decades, these had multiplied exponentially. In India, there were two types of Hindu priests – both drawn from the Brahmin caste/varna: those (Purohits) who performed the 16 sanskaras or sacraments that mark the life of Hindus– even before birth to death; and those who performed the worship rituals in the temples - Pujaris.
In Guyana, these two roles were fused into the person of the “Pandit”, a word which simply meant a learned person. The Arya Samajists, especially after Professor Bhaskaranand’s work between1937-1945, trenchantly criticised not only the worship of Murtis or images, but also the insistence of the Pandits that they had to be of Brahmin birth. A very fierce battle erupted in the Hindu community that still redounds into the present
And it was into this rather polarised milieu that Swami Purnananda was plunged when he arrived in Guyana in 1953. The institution of the Swami or “Monk” had been introduced into Sanaatan Dharma a thousand years before by Adi Shankara and adopted from the Buddhists. Before the Buddha, all individuals could “renounce” societal duties in their last stage of life and retire to the forests. The Buddha introduced the notion that one could become a “renunciate” even from the first stage of life. Shankara organised the Hindu Swami’s into ten orders who could, if they chose, work on behalf of Sanatan Dharma from “Ashrams”. A Swami could be from any of the four castes/varnas.
At the beginning of the 20th century, one young Bengali renunciant, Swami Pranvananda formed the Bharat Sevashram Sangh to encourage a more virile Hindu response to British rule and to also provide social services for the poor. Unlike the Arya Samaj, which was also founded for similar purposes, Pravananda did not reject Murti worship.
One of his disciples was a school teacher who was ordained as Swami Purnananda. He was sent to Trinidad along with three other Swamis and an assistant at the invitation of a Hindu organisation there and arrived on 31st December 1950. He remained in TT for another two years, where he launched an Ashram while the others went on to Guyana, made some contacts and returned to India.
Arriving in Guyana in 1953 he quickly organised the “Cove and John Ashram” with a High School by 1957 – one of only two others on the East Coast of Demerara. While he initiated Guyana’s first Swami, in my estimation, his greatest contribution was to reform the local Sanatan Dharma practices from “within”, so to speak. Without criticising the Brahmin priests, he fundamentally altered the performance of the puja in which all Hindus could now participate. Much of this change was achieved by the simple expedient of printing in 1956, a small booklet, “Aum Hindutvam”, in which the mantras for the Havan or offerings to the sacred fire - emphasised by the Arya Samaj as “Vedic” and “authentic” – but was combined with the mantras for conducting the worship to the Murtis. Because the text was in Roman script – in addition to Devanagari – worship by Sanatanis could now be conducted by one and all.
While the “Ashram” trained Swamis and not “Pandits” Swami Purananda’s work marked the beginning of Hindus of any birth being able to become Pandits. This was revolutionary step in Guyana.