One own’s drummer

One own’s drummer

Photo : Ravi Dev

ROAR of Ravi Dev

Last Saturday was Ram Naumi, the celebration of the birthday of Sri Ram, the seventh incarnation of Bhagwan Vishnu. I returned to my boyhood Mandir at Uitvlugt because it insists on following the prescribed time line of the sacred appearance of Ram at 12 noon precisely. It brought back memories of fervent debates as to how we could practice Hinduism after what we would later understand as the “hegemonisation” imposed on us during the colonial period – and which was still glaringly obvious in the late 1960’s. The following is a reflection from 1993 published in SN. What has changed since?

The Hegemonisation of Hindu beliefs begin with the words Hindus now use to conceptualize their practices. Having been stripped of their language in Guyana, most Hindus are forced to use English to both study and preach their faith. Two problems arise out of this. Firstly, and sadly, most of the translations of Hindu sacred texts [Shastras], and compilations of dictionaries were done by Christian missionaries, or those imbued by the ethos of Christianity. Consciously or unconsciously, their biases infuse their works. Secondly, as we have mentioned before, all languages, including English, have their own history and their words reflect and project that history. 

               We can begin by looking at the word "religion" which is substituted for Hinduism's "Dharma". In the history of the West, religion has come to encompass only a limited sphere of man's existence. They speak proudly of the separation of Church and State as if man's activities can be so neatly compartmentalized.

They ignore the concrete facts such as Henry V11 and his tussle with the Pope, which helped to bring about such a dichotomy. Hinduism, which never had the problem of a Theocracy since Brahmins could not be Kings, had a holistic view of society and its governance. Hinduism would never condone the behaviour of those Hindus who never spoke out against the PNC dictatorship by sanctimoniously murmuring, "religion and politics could not mix".

               In fact every Hindu ruler had to have a religious preceptor, and the Nitishastras [texts elaborating the duties of rulers], religion, economics, and much more. "Dharma" is a very wide concept and covers the gamut of man's activities and possibilities …Duties, laws, rights, morality, and truth are only some of the words suggested. Dharma is both a way of life and a view of life; there is no facet of man's existence that is untouched. Thus there is no separation between dharma and say, cosmology or philosophy. Dharma does not end with attending Sunday's "service" in the mandir.

               "Idol" rather than the Hindu word "murti" is another problem word. Christians and Jews use it in the sense of a "false god" because in their history, their people actually worshipped specific images as Gods. Their conception of a "one God", came out of a long and tortuous road as among other things, one tribe arose victorious over the other tribes and their god was made supreme. Hinduism never had this problem since in its earliest conceptions of God, images were never used.

               In their earliest text, Rig Veda, there is no mention of images used in worship. It is only used much later, when in an effort to explain the lofty Vedic conception, that stylized images were utilized for the masses. These images were always seen as representations of a deeper reality, never as the reality. The map was never confused with the territory. For example, to convey the concept that God was infinite, Vishnu, whose name means "pervader of the universe" is always painted blue to symbolize infinity because the common man could analogise the blue sky which he saw every day and knew was infinite. In their minds many Hindus, accepting the word "idols" are a bit sheepish about their faith's "strange murtis".

               There are so many other words which dominate Hindu thought but instead of conveying Hindu thought, distort and subvert it - evil, heaven, hell, demon, sin etc. etc. We will conclude this section by briefly looking at the word "God", which is at the center of religious thought. Because of the hegemony of Christian thought in Guyana most Hindus "see" God as some old bearded man floating somewhere "up there". The notion of a Nirgun Brahman, of a God beyond human categories of space, time, qualities etc, is rare. The notion that it is only our need to conceptualize that creates an Ishvar or personalized God is little appreciated.