Hinduism is largely a matter of practice, few in any religion understand its complexities

Stabroek News

October 28, 2003

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Dear Editor,

Mr. Amar Panday’s “A Peasant Hinduism was brought to Guyana,” [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ] (Stabroek News 10/24/2003) is a shocking capitulation to the forces of bigotry and backwardness. Instead of confronting the dangerous falsehood being perpetrated by Dalgetty and Gibson, what he proffers is an apology for Indian/Hindu stereotypes of people of African origin in Guyana, based on an array of inaccuracies.

In doing so, Mr. Panday creates problematic categories and false divisions based on a weird and fanciful elitist notion. In the process, he disparages. With defenders of the faith like him around, God help the poor peasants.

But precisely what does the writer mean by “peasant Hinduism?” Does it mean a Hinduism practiced by people who are peasants or is it a Hinduism with a special content that demarcates it from other types of Hinduism? And what is its connection to “British economic exploitation?” Is/was there a Hindu-ism of the aristocracy and landlords versus a Hinduism of the peasants?

Was “peasant Hinduism” created by British economic exploitation?

Let us look at the meaning of the word ‘peasant’ and see what Mr. Panday is trying to say. To take a simple definition from the Oxford English Reference Dictionary (p. 1069) a peasant is firstly a “worker on the land, a farm labourer, or a small farmer especially a member of an agricultural class dependent on subsistence farming.” The second meaning is a derogatory one where the peasant is a “boor, a lout; a person of low social status.” Which one of these meanings is the writer referring to?

From the general elitist approach it is clear that the writer has chosen the second meaning. For him peasants are/were “uneducated with regard to the totality and complexity of Hindu philosophy,” they were poor and lower caste, they were “inadequately educated with regards to the complexity of its traditions of philosophy.” Now if this thinking is not a product of British education based on Christianity and Macaulayite imperialism, then nothing else is.

In addition to “not being educated in the philosophy” two other ideas stated here help us to understand what Mr. Panday means by “peasant Hinduism”. One is a Hinduism that is not based on any sacred text, and the other is a Hinduism based on a corrupt caste system, all of which taken together account for the stereotypes that “restricted Hinduism” has of people of African origin in Guyana, as the writer claims.

The writer seems to have a preference for words like complexity and profundity as if by their very use illumination occurs. Are complexity and profundity necessarily the marks of a faith? Can something be simple and profound at the same time? Is complexity necessarily truth? What “complexity” and “profundity” is the writer speaking of? Let us have some examples.

What percentage of a people who profess allegiance to any of the world faiths can be said to be initiated in the complexities, profundities and mysteries of those faiths? I would make bold to say a mere handful for the vast majority are practitioners. Hinduism has always been a matter of practice. Yoga is practice not talk. Bhakti Yoga is practice not talk. Karma Yoga is practice not talk. Jnana Yoga is practice not talk.

Anyone can read a book and become an expert. But Hinduism’s experts are its practitioners. Radhakrishnan wrote many wonderful books but he was up at 4.00 in the morning doing his sadhana. Vivekananda was a great intellect, writing and speaking but he worked tirelessly among the poor.

Our poor “peasant” Hindus who came to Guyana were mainly from northern India, from the Awadhi and Bhojpuri belts where the Ramcharitamanas of Tulsidas pervades every nook and corner of people’s lives. Along with the devotional compositions of Kabir, Mira, and Sur, the Ramcharitamanas is one of the principal sacred texts of this region and continues to hold sway in the Indiaspora as well. So to say that the peasant Hinduism has/had no textual base is absolutely incorrect.

Further it would be clear from any reading of the Ramcharitamanas that it is as “complex” and “profound” as any other text in Hinduism. Anyone with any knowledge of this text will affirm that Sant Tulsidas, an intellectual and spiritual superman, dived deep into the soul of Hinduism, gathered the purest gems, and enshrined these in his glorious work.

In addition, let it be said that this masterpiece of Tulsidas cut across, and still does, all social lines in India and in the Indiaspora. As such there was no class of people who were ever denied access to it, contrary to the claim made by Mr. Panday. Let it be also clear that when Hindus speak of a sacred text they do not necessarily mean a physical printed book like say the Bible.

Over such a physical book one could exercise a lot of control and denial to others as was the case with the Bible when it was denied to the masses in the so-called Dark and Middle Ages in Europe. Until recently “sacred texts” in Hinduism have been completely oral and were orally transmitted.

Even those texts like Tulsidas’ Ramcharitamanas which were written compositions soon became oral as the joy in Hinduism consisted not in the reading of the book but in reciting the text by heart. A text in the head and heart, the Hindu ideal, was worth much more than one on the bookshelf.

In the Indian countryside, people rich and poor, “high caste” and “low caste” those “educated” in “complexities” and “profundities” and those not “educated” in the “complexities” and “profundities”, all are firmly grounded in the Ramcharitamanas.

Such oral compositions were more difficult to control and definitely had access to a greater number.

Mr. Panday, willy-nilly it seems, proceeds to commit another major faux pas in his preposterous claim that the formation of the dehumanising stereotypes that Hindus have of Africans come out of this “restricted Hinduism,” that is, the “peasant Hinduism” where Hindus are “inadequately educated” in the “complexity” in their “traditions of philosophy.”

Since these seem to be categories in Mr. Panday’s head, he will be able to tell us what is the ineluctable connection between this Hinduism and the formation of stereotypes. He must be able to say what are the inherent characteristics of “peasant Hinduism” that necessarily lead to Hindus stereotyping our African brothers and sisters. Do other Indians, who are not Hindus, also stereotype them? Which “peasant Hinduism” do they belong to? Can we be sure that local conditions in Guyana at the time of the arrival of the “peasant Hindus” were not the material bases for the creation of stereotypes?

On the question of the formation of cultural and racial stereotypes and on racism in general, history tells us that they were very much the creation of the cream of the European religious and philosophical intelligentsia.

It was Germany, Europe’s leader in art, music, philosophy and sciences, where people were definitely educated in the “complexity” and the “profundity” of their philosophies, that was responsible not only for stereotypes but also the extermination of millions of Jews, Gypsies, and Poles. Peasants would be far less inclined to be the authors of stereotypes, racism, and genocide.

One wonders whether Mr. Panday knows of the existence of such spiritual giants like Shri Ramakrishna Param-hansa, who by his definition would be “unlettered” and “uneducated” and the power and influence that he continues to exercise on Hinduism, both in India and in the Indiaspora? But one may argue that Shri Ramakrishna was a brahmana, so let us call to mind Sri Amritanandamayi of Kerala, a woman and a product of a fishing village, a modern spiritual genius who gives solace to millions across the world.

In my limited knowledge of “restricted, peasant Hinduism” I have discovered that there are three things that are of great importance in understanding Hinduism. These are practice, practice, and practice.

All else is what my peasant mentality would call “blow-blow.” Finally, as we go about our business let us beware of that dangerous foot-in-mouth disease.

Yours faithfully,

Bihari Lall