By Bridget Brereton
Mar 14, 2012
My colleague at the Department of History at UWI, Sherry-Ann Singh, has just published an interesting book with the rather long title The Ramayana Tradition and Socio-Religious Change in Trinidad, 1917-1990. Anyone seriously interested in the evolution of Hinduism in Trinidad should read it.
The book gives a comprehensive account of how Hinduism in this country has developed, from the end of indentured Indian immigration in 1917, to the start of the 1990s. But the focus is on the importance of the Ramayana tradition to local Hindus. Singh sees the Ramayana as a "lens" through which we can study the changes which took place in Trinidad Hinduism—and as "mirror and metaphor" of the transformations within the Hindu community.
The tradition began with orally transmitted Rama stories in India going back at least to 500 BC (2500 BP)and developed into many texts, oral traditions, plays, songs, poems, recited tales. The stories were first written down by the sage Valmiki, but the tradition came to Trinidad in the Hindi version written by Tulsidas around 1575 (he was a contemporary of Shakespeare). And this version, correctly known as the Ramcharitmanas, became the chief religious text of Hindus in Trinidad, and everywhere in the Indian Diaspora.
By the 1800s the Bhojpuri-speaking regions of northern India, from which most of the indentured immigrants came, were permeated by Tulsidas's text, and it soon became an "anchor" for the migrants, so much so that he has been called the "Father of Caribbean Hinduism". Its central theme of exile—Rama is exiled from his home city—struck a deep chord for the indentureds and their children. Rama's triumphant return represented the unfulfilled longings of most of the first-generation immigrants, and the villain, Ravan, could become a metaphor for those who threatened or oppressed them.
The Ramcharitmanas were brought from India as a text—imagine the proverbial Jahaji bundle containing a few clothes, some fruits or seeds, a lota and a precious copy of Tulsidas's text. But Singh argues that the tradition based on the text changed and developed over time, in keeping with broader changes within the Hindu community. The Ramayana tradition reflected these changes but also helped to shape them, thus it was both mirror and agent of developments in local Hinduism. She argues that a local version of the tradition developed, unique to Trinidad and to Trinidad Hinduism as it evolved over the 20th century.
The Ramayana tradition took many forms in Trinidad. The popular community drama, the Ramleela, is perhaps the best known, especially since Derek Walcott spoke about it in his Nobel Laureate acceptance speech in 1992. It's been performed continuously in villages in Trinidad at least since the 1880s, most famously in Dow Village, California.
Singh shows how this folk theatre performance has changed over time. For instance, girls and women began to play parts from about 1960 for the first time; and non-Brahmins, previously only allowed the smaller roles, began to participate on more equal terms. The way Ravan was portrayed was perhaps the best example of how local issues were incorporated: he became the chief symbol of evil as seen by the Trinidad Hindu community, whether this was the colonial authorities, the estate bosses, or African-Trinidadian political leaders.
The Ramayana story greatly influenced how birth, death and marriage rituals developed in the local Hindu community, especially wedding rites, and the Ramayana yagna—a series of sacred readings or recitations—was a very important form of religious discourse for Trinidad Hindus.
But more than its influence on life cycle rituals and other religious events, the ethical and moral dimensions of the Ramayana tradition had a huge influence on local Hindus. They helped to shape ideas about family life, relationships with parents and siblings, husband-wife relations and so on. The story provided an ideal model for familial and marital relations and the values associated with them.
As social realities changed for local Hindus, so different elements in the Ramcharitmanas were emphasised. As the traditional extended family, with the all-powerful father, the bullying mother-in-law and the down-trodden young brides, gave way to the nuclear family and more equal relations between men and women, those parts of the story which portrayed total obedience and deference to parents, and complete subordination of women, were down-played.
As one might expect, the Tulsidas text reflects a view of women as inherently inferior to men, impure, and potentially dangerous if not rigidly controlled. Sita is abandoned by Rama even though she is pregnant, simply because she'd been forced to live for a time in Ravan's home. Of course by the 1980s and 1990s, with dramatic changes in the position of Hindu women in Trinidad, this no longer seemed acceptable. So an assertive, morally self-directed Sita was "constructed" out of the text, to suit the new realities of Hindu life.
I can't do justice to a very rich book in a short piece like this. But Singh's careful study of how the Ramayana tradition helped to shape Trinidad and Caribbean Hinduism, and was in turn constantly revised and reinterpreted as the social, political and economic circumstances of local Hindus changed, deserves to be read. Especially by non-Hindus.• Bridget Brereton is Emerita Professor of History at UWI, St Augustine, and has studied and written about the history of Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean for many decadeshttp://www.trinidadexpress.com/commentaries/The_Ramayana__mirror_and_metaphor-142723955.html