- Topics & Settings
Religious and Linguistic Identities in Guyana
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, differentiation with respect to class, region, occupational status, and even caste were sometimes minimized, as religious differences became more pronounced. In part this was a feature of the forms of modern Hinduism that came to the colonies from India, which focused on religious education. Religious practices and doctrine became a means by which new forms of community and identity were constituted and traditions were transmitted.1 Scholars note that many Hindu communities emphasized ritual as a way to differentiate themselves from Christians.2
One of the main ways that community was fostered, was through the development of strong musical traditions, including the formalization of a weekly satsang, including worship and the singing of devotional songs. Some scholars argue that, cultural imperialism in the colonies, in fact, pushed Hindus to preserve the ritual base of their faith as the last stronghold of authentic Hindu identity. Immigrants during this period of time came from a diverse range of regions within India, and thus brought with them a diversity of religions and languages. The two most prevalent languages were regional variants of the North Indian language of Hindi and the South Indian language of Tamil. Communities often segregated along these linguistic lines.3
Perhaps the use of ‘mi’ in Guyanese was a manifestation of their anti-ego philosophy. By not using the egoistic phrase ‘I’, the Guyanese are subtly implying their communal nature and Hindu origins.
While a diversity of languages were present, colonial policy mandated that all official activities be conducted in English. Thus, immigrants were required to learn English through schooling or face severe disadvantages in the political realm. From this emerged a unique Creole–called Creolese–which blended English and Hindi. For example, the translation for “I’m not going” would be “Mi na go” in Creolese. ‘Mi’ comes from the Hindi word for ‘I’, while ‘na’ is a direct translation for ‘not’. However, on a more analytical level, Satya Balroop, who is one of the founders of Minnesota Hindu Milan Mandir, puts forth the idea that perhaps the use of ‘mi’ in Guyanese was a manifestation of their anti-ego philosophy. By not using the egoistic phrase ‘I’, the Guyanese are subtly implying their communal nature and Hindu origins.4
While many second-generation immigrants had no direct line to their Indian heritage and though many lost the ability to speak fluent Hindi, Hindi was still the language used within the religious sphere for Hindu mantras and scriptures. Thus, great religious authority existed for those who understood written Hindi and Sanskrit. As Vedic texts, all Hindu religious texts during that time were only available in Hindi. Consequently, a strong pandit authority emerged in the colonies, which placed all theological responsibility onto an elite religious class. Mrs. Balroop recalls that in many cases these pandits would try to protect their authority by restricting the spread of Hindi language. In many ways, the strict hierarchical structure of many Indo-Caribbean temples has its origin in the lingual monopoly of early pandits.
Paul Younger, “Guyana Hinduism,” Religious Studies and Theology (2004).↩
Satya's mother had grown up involved in worshiping Guru Maharaj through Bharat Sevashram Sangha, and this tradition transferred over to the children from an early age. On the left, Satya Balroop talks about the strength of communal worship and the role of Bharat Sevashram Sangha in keeping people in faith in Guyana.