History of Indo-Caribbean Hinduism


Life-sized form of Swami Maharaj

While the notion of Caribbean or South American Hindus may seem surprising to some, Hindus have been present in these places in significant numbers since the early 19th century as a result of British colonial policies. African slaves became the first trafficked laborers to arrive in Guyana in the early 1700s. But in 1833, Britain officially abolished the sale of slaves in Britain and its colonies, although existing slaves could still be held in captivity.1 In the second half of the 1800’s the decline in the use of African slaves by the British posed a "challenge" to colonial industry. For example, Britain's sugar plantations in the Caribbean required a steady supply of manual labor. As second generation slaves could not be forced to work, the British plantations shifted to indentured servitude, which brought people from China, Portugal, and India to effectively work as "contract-slaves" in places like Fiji, Malaysia, Trinidad, Jamaica, and British Guyana.

Indentured servants brought the full range of religious traditions with them as they moved from their native countries to other British colonies. In the case of Indian indentured servants, this migration not only diversified the religious traditions found in many of the British colonies, but it also introduced new and complex class and racial dynamics; many of the indentured servants from Asia who moved to the Caribbean, South America, and South Africa, for example, were from oppressed castes and lower socioeconomic groups. Although indentured servants were "promised" return passage home at the end of their contracts, the majority of indentured servants never returned to India. This resulted in the creation of additional class of people who were, in the case of Trinidad or Guyana, not Black or Indigenous, but not White either. The legacy of indentured servitude has shaped former British colonies in profound ways to this day, shaping the cultural, religious and political dynamics of these countries to this day. 

Minnesota is home to a number of Indo-Caribbean Mandirs (3-4 depending upon the count). Hindu Milan Mandir, was founded by an Indo-Guyanese woman and her family. The Indo-Caribbean and Guyanese community complicates the picture that many have of American Hinduism and American Hindus. Indo-Caribbean and Guyanese communities living in the US have experienced what is often referred to as a "double diaspora," tracing their traditions back to both India and Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago, etc.

Among the colonies, Guyana had one of highest percentage of Indian immigrants; between 1838 and 1917, about 238,000-239,000 migrated there under the assumption that they would be given the opportunity to return to India. 2  In 1997, 27% of Guyana's total population was Hindu, and this percentage is consistent with other Caribbean countries that saw the migration of indentured servants in the 19th century (Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and Grenada). 3

The realities of indentured servitude affected how migrants related to colonial authorities, as well as how they related to India and Indian and Hindu culture and heritage. While indentured servants did "consent" to manual labor, their work conditions were often no better than those endured by many slaves. Indentured servants were typically bound to the land for a period of 5-10 years, after which they were "free citizens" of the colony. 4 While this opportunity for material advancement seems bleak by most standards, it becomes more salient when one considers, as Steven Vertovec argues that most indentured servants were from lower castes within India. Because the caste system did not exist in the colonies, complete but delayed freedom offered more opportunities for social mobility than many emigrants had back in India. In fact, almost 80% of initial immigrants did not return to India once their period of servitude had expired, evincing both the challenges of gaining return passage and a strong connection to their new home.5

The Sanatana Dharma (Eternal Dharma)—the more common term for Hindu traditions that developed in the Caribbean and Guyana the 19th and early 20th centuries—was shaped by concerns with the preservation and transmission of tradition. The ways Hinduism was transformed and maintained by these communities laid an important foundation for later diasporic Hindu communities in the U.K., U.S., Singapore and beyond.

  1. Steven Vertovec, The Hindu Diaspora: Comparative Patterns (New York: Routledge, 2000). 

  2. Paul Younger, “Guyana Hinduism,” Religious Studies and Theology (2004): 36-37.

  3. Jagessar, Ram. “The East Indian Legacy in St. Lucia.” Indo-Caribbean Heritage. 25 July, 2006. 30 May 2011.

  4. Steven Vertovec, The Hindu Diaspora: Comparative Patterns (New York: Routledge, 2000), 39.

  5. Paul Younger, “Guyana Hinduism,” Religious Studies and Theology (2004), 42.