Book Review of Dharma and Plantation Hinduism by Dr. Ramesh Gampat:The History and Practices of Hinduism in Guyana

Book Review of Dharma and Plantation Hinduism by Dr. Ramesh Gampat:The History and Practices of Hinduism in Guyana

April 1st, 2019:- Dharma and Plantation Hinduism: Explorations and Reflections of an Indian Guyanese Hindu (2019), written by Dr. Ramesh Gampat, helps us to understand Hindu Dharma as it is practiced in Guyana and by extension Hindu Guyanese communities in other parts of the globe (Hindu Guyanese diaspora). The examination of what is believed and practiced led the author to the conclusion that our brand of Hinduism does not squares up with Sanatana Dharma or Vedānta.It is a refreshing perspective of Hinduism.

Dr. Gampat is a former economist attached to the United Nations and has spent considerable number of years abroad advising countries on economic and human development.  One would never tell that man who is a scholar in economics would demonstrate such a comprehensive grasp of Hinduism, the Dharmic tradition of his ancestors and of himself. While the book is about Hinduism in Guyana, Hindu practices in that country are about the same as in Trinidad, Suriname, and in the societies where Hindus migrated (or fled to in order to escape repression), including Holland, UK, Canada, USA, etc. It is not surprising that Hindus in these countries have similar practices – they all come from the same parts of India (UP, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, etc.).

The author built this book upon considerable painstaking research that required him to make several trips to Guyana.  He spent weeks in the National Archives, talking and consulting with scholars and ordinary Hindus, including his own extended family. When he lived in Delhi, India, while working with the United Nations, Dr. Gampat was a frequent visit to the Ramakrishna Mission and the Chnimayananda Mission to learn more about Santana Dharma. The author comes from a deeply religious Hindu family and learned a good deal about Hinduism from his extended family. He also read a lot about Hinduism and familiarized himself with the Hindu scriptures (Shastras in Sanskrit) – by no means an easy task for religious scholars and much less so for a social scientist like Dr. Gampat. The book is original, comprehensive and a timely discussion of our brand of Hinduism.

Photo : Ramesh Gampat

The book is well-researched. The writing is great. The information (analysis) is presented in topics and sub-topics in chapters. The book offers primarily factual information on Hindu practices in Guyana and commentaries of the views of the author on these practices. The arguments or views are well articulated, and evidence documented, supported by anecdotal and empirical evidence. There is also a preface (an introduction to the background of the text and what drove the author to undertake this huge task) as well as an acknowledgement of the people who guided and helped him to final project.  The book is well-written; it is a history of various forms of Hinduism in Guyana -- Hindu tenets and religious practices in that country.  It is an important academic treatise, a kind of encyclopedia Hindu practices and beliefs, complemented by definitions of Hindi and Sanskrit terms that are commonly used in Guyana and worldwide.

The book is staggeringly comprehensive. It includes virtually all that is practiced in Hinduism in Guyana and more. One cannot think of what is left out. It requires a lot of patience in reading because of the amount of information that the author presents for the readers to digest.  No one has written such a detailed book on the many Hindu practices in one society, not even in India, where the faith originated. The book covers so many aspects of Hinduism. On cannot think of what aspect of the Hindu practices has been left out. But one must not get carried away that everyone practices Hinduism in the manner described. The Hindu ritual practices vary from family to family and individual to individual as well as from village to village, and from caste to caste, similar to India. Almost everyone, however, depends on the pandit’s worldview of Hinduism and his instructions to engage in rituals and other practices

Hinduism dates back to times unknown with a glorious history.  It is undoubtedly the most complex religion. One can be dumbfounded by the complexity and variety of the belief systems and of the many Hindu scriptures.Hinduism has many Gods and Goddesses with a variety of forms and names although each is a reincarnation (or avatar) of the one, non-dual pure Consciousness, which the Upanishads call Brahman.If complexity and diversity confound, the author is at pains to demonstrate that there is unity behind diversity – the whole manifested universe is built upon Divine Reality. One is always confronted with the question of which scripture one should follow; the author recommends the immortal Bhagavad Gita. Anyone can be Hindu,the author says, but there are certain tenets to which a Hindu must subscribe.The idea emerging from the discussion of this issue is that, despite its diversity, Hinduism is not polytheistic – for the shastrasrepeatedly state that there is only one God and He (She) is called by a variety of names.  Names and forms are merely descriptors we imposed upon the pure Consciousness.

Hinduism is the only religion that offers gender equality – people worship Gods and Goddesses and for each God there is a corresponding Goddess. Each lived among the people offering a model on how they should live and then return to the one non-dual Pure Consciousness. Hinduism also has countless holy figures (men and women) some of whom even views themselves as Gods. It is replete with so many cultural practices, festivities, customs, and rituals. Hinduism is so vast that it’s virtually impossible to know all about it. So writing a book on Hinduism, even as practiced in a small society like Guyana, with just 800K people, is no simple task. Yet Dr. Gampat has done a fantastic job in explaining Hindu Dharma and clarifying a lot of misconceptions and thoughts about this tradition, which is more a way of life than a religion as the term is understood in the West. He makes the subject matter simple by drawing from the scriptures and by invoking varied scholars and offering his own take.

The author defines important terms and concepts in Hinduism. He explains the term “Plantation Hinduism” – the kind of Hinduism practiced on the plantation that came from India and evolved over time into commerce between pandits and ordinary Hindus and between ordinary Hindus and gods. The upper-caste Hindus (pandits) have appropriated Hinduism in Guyana, conveniently interpreted the scriptures and have misled other Hindus about their religion. It is a Brahmin version of Hinduism -- invented in or developed out of traditions that were practiced in or brought from India. The Guyanese pandits’ view of the religion and its practices find takers in Guyana and the Caribbean among semi-Westernized (from their great ancient culture) Hindus who lacke knowledge of the language of the scriptures and thus are unable to read and understand the tenets and philosophy of the religion. Consequently, they allow themselves to be led blindly.  Yet there is no evidence in the book of any bias against any particular individual or against pandits.  Dr. Gampat is not against pandits; he simply wants them to become better educated and knowledgeable about their religion since they are the leaders and have to guide others.  And the writer provides a lot of information, too much to digest in one reading. The chapter on philosophy is very insightful as are discussions of other topics. And the chapter that discusses ‘Worship or rituals’ educate us about some forms of worshipping and the image (or form) of God/Goddess -- the murthis. 

The book does a fantastic job at shedding light on some of the main aspects of Hinduism which readers take for granted but about which people need to be reminded. Major topics addressed are: Indian immigration, name origins, literacy, tradition, worshipping, panditai, marriages, festivals (Diwali/Divali and Holi/Phagwah), Ramayana, religious gurus (some of who exploit the uninformed and ignorant which the author condemns), caste system, practices in the Hindu Guyanese diaspora, Hindu philosophy, kharma, dharma, bhakt or devotion, murti pooja and planting jhandis, Hindu scholars or missionaries, sanskars, rituals (Pinda) after death, Burnhamism and discrimination against Indians, and identity, among others. We learn that Goddess Sita is considered emblematic of chastity, Lord Rama is the ideal Hindu male, and Karma epitomises selflessness, and so on.  Two chapters examine the proselytization efforts of Christian Missionaries, who began their work by denigrating Hinduism, designated Hindus as heathens, and disparaged their food, culture, and attire (wear). By depicting Hindus as heathens immersed in a stultifying religion and culture, Christian Missionaries hoped to convert them to Christianity. Hindu immigrants and their descendants resisted and only a small fraction of them converted.

The book discusses popular devotional cults, shrines, festivals, rites, superstitions, folk and oral phenomenon, tantra, and legends that came from India and some invented locally and that are all part of Hindu practices. Dr. Gampat clarifies some of the misconceptions of Hinduism including rituals, superstitions, and the caste system that has been so misunderstood and exploited by those of the higher caste (Brahmins or pandits).  He explains how and why Indians came, literacy rate among Hindus, rise and fall in the number and percentage of Hindus in the population, distribution of caste among Hindus, and how caste withered or disintegrated. “The amalgam of different castes that came on the same boat helped to dilute the importance of caste among the immigrants”. He also tackled the social system (caste) among Guyanese and he even addressed the division in Hinduism between the Sanatanists and Arya Samajists. The Indians left their matribhoomi with a sense of guilt, shame and fear that they would lose their caste.

Photo : Dr. Vishnu Bisram

While a portion of this eminently readable book dwells on philosophy in Hinduism, a considerable portion is based on real practical experience of Guyanese, and not what is only read in the holy books. Gampat’s book is not of the ivory tower variety, where one stays in an office and analyzes or makes pronouncements after reading some information of Hinduism in Guyana.  It is based on the everyday life of people and their interaction with the religious leaders. One may consider the book a history of Hinduism in Guyana, but the author makes ample use of politics, economics, sociology, and anthropology to clearly bring out his points and in enabling readers to understand the state of Hinduism going back several decades. The multi-disciplinary approach adds variety and color but also helps the reader to understand the issues. Gampat’s book helps us to understand some of the vast number of spiritual texts used by religious minded Hindu Guyanese and spiritual leaders when performing kathas or pujas.  It also helps us to understand the kind of religious leaders or teachers (gurus) available to Hindus. Few of the pandits or teachers or gurus are well trained and learned in the scriptures or how to deliver a liturgy (pravachan). They are in need of a lot of training and furtherance in education on Hinduism that they seek to lead others. 

Dr. Gampat major thesis that permeates the entire book is that the brand of Hinduism practiced in Guyana is not consistent with Sanatana Dharma. He takes issue with the kind of liturgies being uttered by the pandits in mandirs and at pujas at home or in Ramayana and bhagwat discourses in Guyana and its Hindu Diaspora because of inadequate knowledge and training of pundits to deliver expert liturgies. He contends that pandits tend to preach and encourage others to follow what is actually not in the scriptures or what they themselves do not practice. He notes that since the practitioners of the religion are largely not well versed in Hinduism, or the language in which the scriptures are written, they don’t understand certain basic concepts. Thus, they are misguided and also are unable to conduct their own kathas. “They become dependent on the pandits or purohits who exploit them commercially.” That is, the Guyanese brand of Hinduism is like commerce rather than like a religion.

Gampat states “that rituals and bhakti (devotion) have been degraded into desire motivated worship” by pandits. In fairness, Dr. Gampat did not accuse all pandits of this shortcoming but many of them fall in that category. He writes at length about the devotional “bhakti” tradition. He also addresses illiteracy among Hindus and how the faith accommodates women, low-caste men and illiterates. He critiqued Dr. CheddiJagan, the Indian political leader, for embracing Marxism as his faith, to the detriment of Hindus and other Indians. Jagan had a lot of influence on Hindus but not on Hinduism. Hindus considered Jagan as their God even though Jagan did not believe in a God. Jagan used the pandits for his own political ends that were detrimental to Hindus and Indians. The author also made references to the persecution of Hindus (Indians in general) by the Forbes Burnham dictatorship. And he notes that in spite of repressive colonial rule, missionary activity, and Burnhamism, Hinduism has survived. Indian culture has persisted in Guyana and other off places like Bali, Mauritius, Fiji, Trinidad, and Surinam, and even in America, Canada, and UK. The British order of what is faith and morality and the superiority of their religion was successfully challenged by Hindu immigrants, evidenced from the fact that Hinduism is still flouring in Guyana and its Hindu Diaspora. It took deception and bribery to convert Hindus into Christians, but the proselytization efforts did not yield much.

 

I am impressed by the vast amount information, views and research included in this book. The language and style of writing are consistent. The book approaches the topics and sub-topics in a very simple, comprehensible language that is easy to read.  And being formatted into various subsections, makes it easy to approach. One actually enjoys quite a lot while reading each topic. It is tediously lengthy but not boring, and it also contain some personal experiences to make the subject interesting.The only major complaint about this book is its length – it is some 600 pages long and is printed in a smaller font size than is used in regular text. The good news is as that the book is written in three parts and one can read any of the parts first as they are not contingent on an understanding of the other two. Each part can be read independently of the other. It is a great book. It is an erudite comprehensive analysis of Hinduism in Guyana, none like it has ever been written in the west or even in India. 

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding Hinduism as practiced not only in Guyana, but around the greater Caribbean region, USA, Canada, UK, Holland, and parts of India. Even those who are well-versed with the concepts of Hinduism may take something or other from the book.It is impossible not to admire a book that strides so intrepidly into such a controversial area, to seek to right the practices of Hinduism and to encourage pandits to become better in that profession. This book will no doubt expose Dr. Gampat to the fury of some pandits who don’t take kindly to critique of their limited knowledge of Hinduism and whose practices of the religion are restricted to murthi puja and the rattling of some mantras from the scriptures. One will not disagree with the writer after reading the book. Anyone who reads the book will have a deeper understanding of Hinduism and why Caribbean Hindus accept certain beliefs and practices. This knowledge will equip them with the tool not to readily accept the words of pandits as final truths. It will also force pandits to become more learned.