How differently Hinduism developed in the adjacent
nations of Suriname and Guyana
The Indian subcontinent has not been the only source of major Hindu
migrations in the last 50 yeah. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus have emigrated
from the former British colonies of Trinidad and Guyana to America and England and from the former Dutch
colony of Suriname to Holland. These communities, whose
forefathers left India 150 years ago, have unique
elements today, some the result of colonial policies, others customs preserved
intact from the mid-19th century India of their ancestors. Hinduism
Today Trinidad correspondent Anil Mahabir visited the region, meeting
with religious leaders and lay Hindus. Here is his engaging report on
the countries similarities and differences.
The day I arrived in Guyana, I traveled 45 miles
by speedboat from one bank of the Essequibo River to the next. For the
first time in my fife, I was standing on one side of a river unable to
see the other side.
My whole country of Trinidad, in fact, would fit inside
this river, only slightly overlapping the banks. We don’t have rivers
back home, just streams, canals and ditches. Rivers aside, there was much
that was similar to Trinidad-every Hindu home flies the jhandi flags in
front, the Ramayana is the main text, the Deities and festivals are the
same, the food is the same. The similarities are, in part, because of
common origins in India, but also seemed to have
been shaped by a shared Caribbean experience.
I was most struck by the temple culture of both countries. Wherever
I went, I found simply-built temples that exhibited a most compelling
beauty. I had not felt this way about the temples in my own homeland.
Obviously the Guyanese and Surinamese take great pride in’ their temple
Despite the fact that Guyana and Suriname sit side-by-side, their
histories are vastly different. Guyana was colonized by the
British, Suriname by the Dutch. The obvious
result of this was that Guyanese learned to speak English, while Surinamese
learned Dutch. The colonial policy of each country was also very different
with regard to religion. The Dutch pursued a “hands off’ attitude as far
as the culture of the Hindus was concerned. In Guyana, explained Swami Aksharananda
of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh and Vishwa Hindu Parishad of Guyana, “The
British sought to interfere, control and convert the Hindus and Muslims.
Many missionaries were brought to Guyana to evangelize the Indian
population and to destroy their language and culture. That is why Hindi
has persisted in Suriname and not in Guyana.” This is the same tactic
the British used in India. “During the colonial
period,” Pundit Reepu Daman Persaud, head of the Dharmic Sabha and Guyana’s Minister of Agriculture
(firstname.lastname@example.org), told me, “the Hindus were forced to convert
to get jobs in the public service, even if they did not want to. Many
who converted continued to be Hindus within the private confines of their
Devanand Jokhoe (email@example.com), an economist in Suriname, explained, “Conversion
was not an official policy of the Dutch as it was of the British in Guyana. Hindus were not forced
to convert as a prerequisite to get jobs. That is why less than five percent
of all Indians living in Suriname are Christians. Some
non-Indians can also speak Hindi, for example, the Javanese and Blacks
who live in Indian villages.”
Suriname, who’s 121,500 Hindus
comprise 27% of the population, is the only country in the Western Hemisphere where all the Indians
speak Hindi. That this is so after so many years away from India-is amazing. In neighboring
Guyana, where 238,000 Hindus
form 34% of the population, it is the opposite. Almost no one speaks Hindi.
Everyone speaks English. This is a perfect example of the differences
in colonial rule between the British and the Dutch. The British sought
to destroy everything Indian and Hindu, while the Dutch allowed it to
flourish. So, from the youngest toddler to the oldest nani, the Suriname
Hindus all speak Hindi.
I was struck by the divisions among Hindus in Guyana. There were people whom
I met who did not want me to speak to others, and even went out of their
way to prevent me from doing so. Perhaps this is related to the overall
pessimism of the Guyanese. Even the very wealthy talk of migrating. Even
so, paradoxically, most seem quite happy and go about their daily routines
with smiles on their faces. They were also very hospitable to me. The
country’s president himself, Bharrat Jagdeo, loaned me a car and driver
to tour the capital. Where else would that happen?
In Suriname, my lack of any fluency
in Hindi hindered a smooth rapport with several in the country, especially
among those who spoke little English. Unfortunately, this included most
of the pundits, and I found myself relying upon intellectuals, businessmen
and others for information.
The first Hindus: It is generally agreed in both countries that
it was India’s poorest who emigrated
to the West. They were inclined to leave the India of the mid-19th century
because of famine, drought and poverty. The first Indians arrived in Guyana on May 5, 1838. Pundit Reepu Persaud pointed out that these
were the first to bring Hinduism to the Americas, not Swami Vivekananda.
The first shipload of Indians to Suriname arrived June 5, 1873. Trinidad’s first group came in
1845. Slavery was abolished in Suriname in 1863 and in Guyana in 1834. Freed slaves
refused to continue working the sugar plantations. Several nationalities
were brought as indentured servants to replace them, but only the Indians
adapted well to the harsh tropical climate.
The Indians came from Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Western Bihar, an area known as Bhojpuri’s
Belt-Bhojpuri being a regional dialect of Hindi. Most were farmers, though
a few Brahmins also came, even though this was against the policy of the
British, who considered the more educated Brahmins as potential trouble
makers. Perhaps ten percent returned to India from Guyana after their contracts
were fulfilled, but later almost none did so. Pundit Persaud said his
parents went back to India in 1930 and then returned
to Trinidad. He said, “The West Indies was generally recognized
as a place better to live than India.”
Between 1873 and 1916, 34,000 Indians came to Suriname. Nearly 23,000 stayed.
As in Guyana, after an initial group
which returned to India, hardly anyone left.
If they did it was to go to Holland, as is the case today,
according to historians Hassan Khan and Sandew Hira.
It is believed the ratio of migrants was 100 men to 20 women, creating
enormous social problems. According to Swami Aksharananda, “Indian men
forged unions with black women, not marriages.” I could not find out what
became of the descendants of those unions, whether they were in the Black
or the Indian communities of today.
The early years: The plantation system had a dramatic effect on
Hinduism. People were not allowed to move from one plantation to another.
They were sequestered and had to get passes to leave in any event, plantation
work left very little time for anything else. According to Swami Aksharananda,
“Only Sunday was left to the Hindus to practice Hinduism. Indeed, Hinduism
became a kind of Sunday thing in the early days in Guyana.” The legacy of this
is the popularity of Sunday morning temple worship in this part of the
During indentureship, there were tremendous efforts by the Hindus
to assert themselves as Hindus. This was so even though the colonial policy
of the British in Guyana was to crush Hinduism
at all costs and Christianize “the heathens.”
“The policy of the Dutch in Suriname was more relaxed.” says
Anoop Ramadhin. “Hindus were more at liberty there to practice there religion.
There were no forced conversions,” he continued. “The Dutch separated
the various groups from one another and allowed them to live in their
own villages. That is why today you have Black, Indian and Javanese villages.
Even the Bush Negroes are set apart.”
HVP Bronkhurst, a Euro-Asian missionary and writer says, “Hindu pundits
in Guyana would go from home to
home getting people to gather and sing the Ramayana.” The Gita became
a major text. People would gather at nights. This was how they were able
to maintain their religion. The only thing which kept them going was the
memory of Rama and Hanuman. Similarly, in Suriname the Ramayana reigned
Later, Guyanese-born Hindus took up the cause of Hinduism. One of
those early pioneers was Dr. J.B. Singh, who is credited with heightening
Hindu consciousness, setting up Hindu organizations and fighting for the
cremation rights of Hindus. In fact, he was the first Hindu to be cremated
in Guyana, in 1956. Prior to that,
Hindus had to be buried, even though this was very contrary to the Hindu
Swami Purnananda came directly from Bengal in India in the mid-20th century.
He established Bharat Sevashram Sangha, which is today called the Guyana
Sevashram Sangha and run by Guyanese-born Swami Vidyanand. Swami Purnananda
popularized the “Hare Rama, Hare Krishna” mantra. He printed a small book
called Aum Hindutvam, which was the first catechism or question-and-answer
booklet for Hindus in Guyana. He developed mantras
for different occasions and popularized havan service (the fire ceremony).
The present-day Guyana Sevashram Sangha is unique among organizations
here. It is the only institution in the Caribbean which has produced its
own swami. It is the only institution which trains young men to become
bramacharis. It offers free medical services to all groups in society
The Surinamese I met did not seem to have quite the same keen sense
of history as the Guyanese. In general they said it was the elders and
the pundits who kept Hinduism alive in the early days. More recently,
the name of Nanan Panday, leader of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha of Suriname, is mentioned as the
key personality. “He has been at the helm of Hindu leadership for 40 years,”
says Anoop Ramadhin. The names of Pundit Haldhar Mathuraprasad and T Soerdjbaille,
leader of the Gayatri Mandir, have also been mentioned as playing key
roles in the Hindu community of Suriname.
Conversion: Swami aksharananda is firm on this question:
“Conversion is very high. In fact, conversion in Guyana is defined as ‘conversion
from Hinduism to Christianity,’ nothing else. The Muslims hardly ever
convert. The Christians do not convert. It is only the Hindus who are
coaxed into dispensing with their religion.” At the beginning of the 2oth
century, he says, “about one percent of the Indian population was Christians,
now it is about 15%-a 15-fold increase in one century. The Pentecostals
are doing the most conversions.”
Pundit Reepu Daman Persaud agreed, “The Pentecostals are studying
the demography of the country. They attack rural areas where they believe
the Hindus are more vulnerable, illiterate or weak. Since we have found
out the strategy, the Dharmic Sabha is going into the same areas and combating
their anti-Hindu propaganda.”
I met Parmanand Samlal, who visits the homes of converted Hindus and
gets them to reconvert to Hinduism. I had never heard of such a program
before. He said he has achieved four re-converts for the year 2000 so
far. He is a member of the Dharmic Sabha and a “worshiper,” as he put
it, of Pundit Reepu. Pundit Reepu is highly respected in Guyana as one
who has always stood for the Indians and Hindus, even in difficult political
times, whenever abandoned Guyana for better circumstances, though easily
available to him in another country.
Dirgopal Mangal, says conversion is on the decrease. He told me of
Blacks in Guyana who attend Hindu temples,
giving the example of “Minister Collymore, who attends the temple every
Sunday morning in Parika.”
Suriname is different. Radjen
Koemar-singh of Suriname (firstname.lastname@example.org)
told me there is some conversion from Hinduism but not much, due to the
binding factor of Hindi. Accountant Anoop Ramadhin agreed, “Conversion
from Hinduism in Suriname is less than one percent.
Some Javanese are also Hindus.”
Schoolteacher Algoe Harrynarain said, “The Christian churches in Suriname pay poor Hindus to convert.
They have funding from abroad. They are well organized. The Hindus do
not have such funding.” He said the Jehovah Witnesses pay a salary to
Hindus to convert to Christianity.
While conversion exists in both countries, it is not on a large scale,
and meets active resistance from Hindus, even with their limited resources.
In my entire visit, I did not meet a single Christian Indian, and I think
this says a lot about the situation.
Intermarriage: As in Trinidad and Tobago, intermarriage between
Hindu and Muslim Indians is very common in Guyana, constituting perhaps
eight percent of all weddings. Black/Indian marriages are rare. Hindu
activist Bharat Kissoon estimates that in six out of every ten Guyanese
Hindu/Muslim marriages, the wedding follows the Islamic line. The result
of the unions are combined names such as Kishore Mohammed (a Hindu), Salisha
Singh (a Muslim) and Anil Khan- Such names are also common in Trinidad. Suriname is much different, and
while I could not find any official statistics, intermarriage was obviously
Hindu activists in Guyana say that intermarriage
has been on the increase over the past ten years. Normally both parties
are allowed to keep and practice their faiths, though some Hindu girls
convert to Islam. It is very rare to see a Muslim in such a union convert
to Hinduism. Hindu and Muslim leaders are silent on these unions for fear
of possibly rocking the boat or destroying whatever Indian unity exists.
Politicians dare not speak of it either.
Country politics: The prevailing view is that, culturally, Guyana is at it lowest ebb since
Independence was granted in 1966.
The “oppressive” reign of the Peoples’ National Congress PNC, the party
of the Blacks, and what one person called its ethnic “insensitivity to
Indian culture” is seen by most Hindus as one of the principal reasons
why the Indian culture is undeveloped.
Another reason is the constant stream of emigration from Guyana to other parts of the
world. “Migration took our best people,” says Pundit Persaud. “Our best
artists, dancers, singers, musicians left for greener pastures because
they simply could not make a living producing Indian culture in a country
where the political directorate was hostile to Indian culture,” says one
activist who declined to give his name.
Swami Aksharananda said, “The national culture in Guyana is often portrayed as
a Black and Creole culture which neglects or deliberately shuns the Indian
output. The present majority Indian government is often accused of being
an ‘Indian government.’ [That is, partial to Indians.] They are afraid
to develop Indian culture, afraid of being called racist. This is not
my perception, but that of most Guyanese. Indian culture gets little funding.
The National Dance School is a Black dance school,
for example.” I was told that Guyana does not have a single
all Indian radio or TV station.
There is more optimism and enthusiasm for things Hindu in Suriname. Indian musician Radjen
Koemarsingh noted, “There is an Indian cultural center, seven radio stations
with an all-Indian format and four television stations exclusively devoted
to Indian programming.” Hindi is taught in some schools as an official
Schoolteacher Algoe Harrynarain commented, “Yes, emigration has hurt
us, but there is a cultural revival right now. In any case because we
all speak Hindi here, the situation is different to that of Guyana. It is difficult for
the culture to be lost.”
Emigration is even more a factor here. Some 250,000 Surinamese now
live in Holland, compared to just 450,000
in Suriname itself-making this country
one of the most sparsely populated in the world. A dismal economic situation
continues to motivate people to leave. I even met teachers and businessmen
with stable jobs who were still anxious to migrate if they got the chance.
Hindu home life: Most Hindu homes in both countries have a small
shrine or prayer house located at the front of the home. Like the houses,
these will vary in nature and appearance, depending on the wealth of the
owner. There is also a jhandi or flag hoisted on bamboo next to the shrine
or by itself, as with one I saw in a rice field.
The main daily observance in both countries is the pouring of water
early in the morning. Water from a brass pot is used to bathe a Siva Lingam
located at the base of the jhandi. Some Hindus also chant bhajans and
meditate afterwards. Those who are free from employment may go to the
temple on a daily basis. One day a week is set aside for haven, or fire
worship ceremony, and fasting from salt and meat. At least once a year,
most Hindus will try to have a grand puja or Ramayana Yagna, an event
where the entire community is invited to participate. The biggest festivals
of the year are Diwali and Phagwa (Holi) in both countries. Lesser festivals
include Ram Navami, Sivaratri and Karthik Nahan.
The main Deity in both countries is Hanuman, because of the conquering
role he played in the Ramayana and His popularity in the Bhojpuri Belt,
whence came most of the original Hindu immigrants. Other Deities include
Siva, Durga, Kali and Ganesha.
There would seem to be more vegetarians in Suriname than in Guyana. Estimates are that about
10% of Hindus in Suriname are vegetarians. Less
than five percent of Hindus in Guyana are vegetarians. They
are mainly the pundits and the swamis and the spiritual leaders. However,
Dr Satish Prakash of the Araya Samaj says that vegetarians among his group
in Guyana are as much as 35%. Bi4t
overall it is not popular. One activist told me, “When Lord Rama was in
exile in the jungle with Sita, according to the Ramayana, were they not
eating meat to survive 14 years? And if Lord Rama could eat meat, why
can’t I?” I conducted a brief poll out of curiosity and I found that most
Hindus I talked to in both countries do not know what ahimsa is, or that
it is an integral part of Hinduism. Nonviolence remains an esoteric, opaque,
Gandhian concept, not taught by the leaders or drummed in by the pundits.
Little or no reference is made by anyone to the Vedas as the source of
Hinduism, or the Upanishads or even the Mahabharata, except for the Bhagavad
Gita. The Ramayana, as in Trinidad, is the main text.
As is unfortunately the case among too many Hindus, priest-bashing
is common in both Suriname and Guyana. Many I met said the
priests were “not up with the times,” “too concerned with ritual” and
other complaints similar to what is heard in Trinidad. There are some legitimate
concerns because of the emigration of some of the best pundits to other
countries. This has broken up the traditional father-to-son training system,
and now some become pundits without being properly trained.
Suicide in Guyana: Many people I talked
to in Guyana expressed concern about
the high rate of suicide among the Hindu community and the fact that virtually
no one is doing anything to address the problem from a Hindu angle. Suicide
is not a major problem, among Surinamese Hindus. Dr. Vivekanand Brijmohan,
a forensic pathologist in the Berbice district, said the suicide rate
among Hindus in Guyana is “alarming.” In one
three-year period in Berbice, there were 197 suicides, 160 of them Indian
males, mainly Hindus. Brijmohan said, “It is a cultural thing. Hindus
are more strict in the household than the blacks. Certain Indians have
a longing for freedom, to go out at night, etc. Some of them do not get
that freedom due to their strict Hindu upbringing. If makes them dissatisfied
with life, depressed. Alcoholism and marijuana addiction is another cause
Swami Aksharananda runs AYUPSA: a National Centre for Suicide Prevention.
He sponsors a national health program which attempts to eradicate the
prevalence of suicide among the Hindu community. He does this by holding
seminars, making press releases and going into the villages for direct
contact with the Hindu people, particularly the youths.
Jailhouse preacher: Bharat Kissoon is a Hindu activist and retired
economist who ministers to the Hindu inmates in the Georgetown prison every Sunday.
He told me, “I was drawn to this work because of the particular case of
a Hindu prisoner in Trinidad, Dole Chadee, who was hanged last year. The day
before he was hanged he longed for a pundit to do his final rites. He
could not find any Hindu who was willing to go. to the prison and, therefore,
he had no choice but to resort to a Christian pastor.”
There is a famous story here, that of Salim Yaseen, a condemned prisoner
who was about to he hanged on the 12th
of September 1999. He allegedly told Bharat that before leaving
he wanted to hear the Hanuman Chalesa, a traditional scripture in praise
of Lord Hanuman. He got his wish, and he was not hanged due to a legal
loophole. Now, according to Bharat, “all prisoners want to hear the Hanuman
Connections with India: The Surinamese I spoke
with said they don’t think that Hindus ‘in India even know there are Hindus
living in Suriname. They could not recall
any visit by a major Hindu leader, nor recount any significant assistance
received from India in any way.
A few swamis have come to Guyana. Early ones, such as
Swami Chinmayananda and Rishi Ram, came in the 1960s and helped develop
Hinduism. But those coming today, said Pundit Persaud, “do not stay and
assist us in developing Hinduism. They come to talk about yoga and meditation
only.” In Trinidad, travel agencies often advertise “journey back
to your roots” programs to India. In Guyana and Suriname there are greater economic
restraints, and those who, have the money to travel use it to emigrate.
The future: Both countries have suffered from the chronic
brain drain and seem to be perpetually entangled in the politics of racial
and religious division. Both countries are relatively poor, but the people
do not want to be labeled as such. They feel ashamed when people from
the outside boldly come to, visit, analyze and recommend solutions for
their assumedly insufficient social and economic existence. They are content
with living very simple lives, not caring whether or not they have a cell
phone or a computer. Dharma dictates daily how they should act. The jhandis
flying proudly before every Hindu home, rich or poor, are their own statement
of identity. From cower roaming the roads freely in Guyana, to pundits walking miles
to puja service, I believe Hinduism, though simple, will never die in
this part of South America.