By Bridget Brereton
Apr 25, 2012
In a column last month I wrote about an interesting new book on the Ramayana tradition in Trinidad. Today I'll look at another recent study of religion in T&T, this one by an American anthropologist, Keith McNeal. It has the usual long, academic type of title: Trance and Modernity in the Southern Caribbean: African and Indian Popular Religions in Trinidad and Tobago.
This book is a comparative study of the Orisha or Shango religion, and the Shakti Puja tradition—the worship of Kali and associated deities in modern Trinidadian Kali temples. It is historical ethnography: it combines historical research based on documentary evidence, with detailed descriptions of present-day practices based on actual observation and even participation (McNeal did most of this "field work" in 1999-2000).
These two religious traditions are what McNeal calls "subaltern": both were historically despised and marginalised in colonial Trinidad, a situation which still prevails even today, though to a far lesser extent especially in the case of the Orisha faith. Derived from origins in West Africa and North and South India respectively, McNeal shows that they have evolved in remarkably similar ways, both adapting and changing in response to similar forces in colonial and post-colonial society.
Because this is an academic book, there is a lot of theoretical discussion which is densely written and difficult; but the heart of the book for non-academic readers will probably be the chapters that present the "ethnographical" descriptions of the two religions, their ritual practices, their beliefs, their "pantheons" (deities). The fascinating material is enriched by striking photographs by the author of what he saw at Kali temples and Orisha yards (taken and published with permission, of course!)
The core of McNeal's project is to show how similar the ritual practices and belief systems of the two religions are, though he never down-plays the obvious differences. Both are examples of what he calls "ecstatic worship": the central religious ritual involves persons falling into a trance ("catching the power") and "manifesting" a particular deity. During these manifestations—a term McNeal prefers to the more commonly used "possession"—the "medium" counsels, rebukes, advises and (especially in the Kali temples) tries to heal those who have come to the service.
Of course the manifesting deities are different: Kali and associated deities of mainly Indian derivation as against the Orisha pantheon of Yoruba origins. But the concepts behind the rituals of trance, manifestation and medium performance, McNeal shows, are strikingly similar. Each faith stresses a kind of mystical, cosmic energy which makes the trance and manifestation of the deities possible: Shakti in the Kali worship, which is often known as Shakti Puja, Ashé in the Orisha.
In addition, the ritual sacrifice to the deities of animals, goats and chickens, has historically been an essential part of worship services in both faiths, though not all Orisha "feasts" involve such sacrifices, and many modern Kali temples don't practice "blood sacrifice" at all.
The similarity between the two faiths, therefore, is fundamental, having to do with core religious concepts and rituals. It's not just the fact that many African-Trinidadians attend Kali temples, and some Indo-Trinidadians are involved in the Orisha faith. It's not just that there are "Indian" deities who manifest in Orisha rituals—Osain is also known as "Indian Man", Ogun may manifest as Hanuman or Mahabil, Oshun has recently shown a link with Ganga Mata and Mother Lakshmi. The similarity has to do with deep spiritual concepts—often called a "cosmology"—and the ritual practices at the heart of both faiths.
Shakti Puja or Kali worship, of course, is rooted in traditions of Hinduism originating in both North and South India which were brought here by the indentured immigrants in the 19th century. It was revived and transformed by influences brought from Guyana after national Independence, and the modern Kali temples were established from the late 1970s on. McNeal gives a detailed account of both the colonial practices which were "precursors" or fore-runners to the modern Kali worship, and the individuals, Guyanese and local, who pioneered the present-day movement.
Although Shakti Puja is part of Hinduism, the modern movement has not been warmly received by mainstream, orthodox, "Sanatanist" Hinduism. It is generally frowned on as being a more "primitive", backward, "low" form of the faith. In this sense, the marginalisation endured by Kali worship in colonial times has continued—but now it is the mainstream Hindu bodies, rather than the State, doing the marginalising.
By contrast, as McNeal shows, the Orisha movement has been embraced warmly by many persons who are not the traditional, grassroots adherents of the faith, but who see in it a vitally "African" religion which can help redeem and recover their African identity. They have tended in recent times to lead a movement to "purify" the faith by eliminating the Christian (and Hindu) elements which have been part of it since the 19th century, and by emphasizing its Yoruba origins. No surprise that this effort has not been without its tensions and controversies.
McNeal's richly detailed and always sympathetic study should help us to see how complex and fascinating our cultural and religious scene really is.• Bridget Brereton is Emerita Professor of History at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, and has studied and written about the history of Trinidad and Tobago, and the Caribbean, for many decades.http://www.trinidadexpress.com/commentaries/Shakti_and_Ash__in_modern_T_T-148989585.html