Whither Ramayan in the Park?


BY ANNAN BOODRAM
Why are the Arya Samajis not allowed to officiate at New York City’s Ramayan in the Park? This was a question I asked in 2012 after that annual event was concluded. Mr. Naidoo Veerapen, spokesperson for the committee that plans the Ramayan in the Park, indicated that, “The officiating pandits at Ramayana in the Park are selected by the planning committee. The planning Committee is comprised of members of the Federation of Hindu Mandirs, Inc., and the USA Pandits Parishad.”
However, a reliable source had disclosed that Pandit Ramlall was allegedly told that he could not officiate because he’s not a Brahmin. And when a female was proposed the alleged response was that Arya Samajis don’t believe that Ram is God so they could not be allowed to officiate.
The fact is there is no mention of caste by birth anywhere in the Hindu scriptures; hereditary caste was a tool used by ancient Indian rulers to keep the rest of society in ‘their’ place and easily maintain social order. In “Indic Visions”, Indian linguist, scientist and philosopher, Dr. Varadaraja V. Raman, explains: “…professions in any society may be broadly put under four groups: those dedicated to primarily intellectual and spiritual pursuits (Brahmins); those committed to the administration and defense of the country (Kshatriyas); those that contribute to the economy i.e. traders and merchants (vaishyas) and those that are engaged primarily in manual labor (Shudras). What made this system morally unacceptable was when these became hierarchical, rigid and hereditary…” Thus any pandit, Sanatanist or an Arya Samaji, is a Brahmin, since caste is an outcome of what one does, not who one’s parents were/are.
Secondly, the Ramayan is variously viewed as: divine revelation with Rama as an avatar; history with Rama as a historical figures; a creative narrative with Rama as the protagonist or folklore/mythology propounding metaphysical thoughts. Besides, how one interprets the Ramayan does not determine one’s God consciousness nor does it have anything to do with one’s relationship with God, especially given that varied, even contradictory versions of the Ramayan abound as A. K. Ramanujan, noted Indian poet, scholar and author pointed out in his celebrated essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translations”. Thus one does not have to accept Rama as God to be able to propound excellently on the Ramayan. In fact, the more important issue is one’s capacity to interpret and explain the philosophy in a manner that makes it understandable, pragmatic and relevant to contemporary times. And the reality is very few of our pandits do possess this capacity to any significant degree; in fact the general feeling seems to be that the ability to read and translate Hindi automatically confers upon the individual critical thinking, analytic, interpretative and application skills, along with knowledge of philosophy, metaphysics, literary devices, (especially of symbolism and figurative language) and other disciplines. This is one reason why Hinduism continually loses so many adherents to other religions or to atheism.
Thirdly, for far too long Hinduism has given lip service to the concept of women as laxhmis (light) and devis (goddesses). And one argument often put forward for the exclusion of women from officiating is that women are ‘unclean’. In fact, a few decades ago I sat in a congregation where a pandit quoted form Hindu literature to support this argument. It was then that I learnt that this label of unclean has been attached to our women folk because of the fact that women menstruate. As ridiculous as it is, however, this argument supports others that have traditionally relegated females to a status of subservience and abuse in Hinduism but that is an issue for another column.
Fourthly, the Arya Samaj community has always stood side by side with Sanatanist community in all endeavors – Phagwah Parade (which incidentally was not held in 2015), Diwali Motorcade, The Caribbean Hindu Conference et al. And Indo-Caribbean Hindu leaders often tout this cooperation as evidence of the unity of Indo-Caribbean unity. So why is it that when it comes to Ramayan in the Park, this unity is thrust aside? Or is it that, like gender equity, Hindu unity too is only provided only lip service and the Sanatanist embrace of the Arya Samajis smacks of hypocrisy?
In any case, in 2012, I proposed that the comparatively small Indo-Caribbean community must ensure that from 2013, Ramayan in the Park should include one night officiated by an Arya Samaji pandit and one night officiated by a female. I pointed out that these would be concrete steps towards Hindu unity and harmony and gender equity respectively. 2013 came and went and still no Arya Samaj pandit nor was any female allowed to officiate. 2014 is here and the list of pandits selected to officiate at Ramayan in the Park reveals still the same discriminatory and exclusionary selection policy – no Arya Samaj pandit and no female.
Instead of any such accommodations, Ramayan in the Park was rent asunder in 2015, because, in keeping with the dissensions and divisiveness that have come to characterize Indo-Caribbean institutions in the Diaspora and New York State in particular, emerging factions could not resolve their differences in the greater interest of unity and inclusion. So this year there were two Ramayan in the Park events held at two different venues and involving two different sets of officiating pandits
In the light of this reality, an intended appeal to those pandits selected to officiate at Ramayana in the Park was stymied. This appeal would have been thus: esteemed gentlemen, please prove that you are supportive of Hindu unity and gender equity by ensuring that your sermons at Ramayana in the Park this year include calls for women and the Arya Samaj to be included among the ranks of those officiating. Your failure to do would speak volumes about who and what you are regardless of how fabulous preaching you do. It is thus incumbent upon you to take the lead on this issue so this discriminatory and exclusionary practice is no longer propagated. After all surely you do not think that Sita was inferior to Ram? That your wives, sisters, mothers are inferior to you? And surely you do not think Pandit Ramlall and his fellow Arya Samaji pandits are less that you are? Or that your Arya Samaj neighbors, friends and fellow citizens are less than you are?
So now, as 2016 beckons one has wonder: Whither Ramayan in the Park?

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About caribvoice

Free lance journalist, educator and community activist. Guyana born New York based.
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