Whither the First Caribbean Hindu Conference in New York City?

It was deemed historic because, for the first time ever, Caribbean Hindus, in NYC, had come together in a conference to discuss issues related to their communities and lives. Three years later, no action has yet taken place…

It was deemed historic because, for the first time ever, Caribbean Hindus, in New York City, had come together in a conference to discuss issues related to their communities and lives.

However, the tone for an enduring historic conference was set by keynote speaker, esteemed Trinidad born academic and religious scholar, Dr. Anaantanad Rambachan, Professor of Religion at St. Olaf College, who, while emphasizing that though Hindu traditions are different, they are not inferior, laid out a number of challenges to the conference: the need for unity, greater focus on knowledge, expanded temple role, strengthening of families, overcoming the privatization of Hinduism, displaying humility, self-criticism and the right commitment.

Additionally, the conference ended with the adoption of a number of resolutions that included establishing a charter school, setting up a media network, building a resource personnel database and professionalizing mandir leadership by providing relevant training. Subsequent to conference a number of individuals pointed out the need for an established umbrella to coordinate, plan, implement and speak as one voice for the Caribbean Hindu community.

Three years later, no action has taken place and no public utterance has been made by the conference organizing committee, with respect to meeting Dr. Rambachan’s challenges or implementing the resolutions. At the conference itself, a number of individuals expressed skepticism about any such action and now one has to conclude that their skepticisms seemed justified. Furthermore, conference organizers, with one exception, refuse to respond to inquiries about any implementation; the one exception being a dynamic young man who has expressed frustration that absolutely nothing has been done and that there does not seem to be any interest in getting anything done.

When this conference was being planned, a number of individuals, who asked questions, were disdainfully dismissed by some of the conference organizers. Similar treatment was meted out after the conference, when questions were asked about the irrelevance of some of the presentations, about inaccuracies in some of the presentations (such as that Caribbean Hindus suffer from an inferiority complex, which was not backed up by statistical date, studies or other supporting hard evidence or that unless Hindus dress in traditional Indian garb they are negating their Hindu outlook, which failed to take cognizance of how dress modes evolve within geo-cultural contexts) and about time frames for implementation of resolutions and acceptance of challenges issued by the keynote speaker.

In a post conference, email correspondence, with this writer Dr. Rambachan expressed the following view, “I will be very disappointing if the practical measures are not taken to implement the Conference recommendations. I hope that there is an energetic follow through.” Also, responding to a suggestion that the best way forward was to set up an umbrella entity, Dr. Rambachan stated, “I agree so much with you about the need for an effective umbrella organization- this is a significant area of weakness that needs to remedied.” This need for an umbrella entity becomes so much more glaring, given the preponderance of community organizations that are active once a year or that take three steps forward and two steps back, or that exist only in name. Fragmentation has become the order of the day in the Caribbean Hindu community and woe betides anyone who expresses criticism of what currently exists. Meanwhile alcoholism, domestic abuse, suicide, school drop and other issues increasingly plague the community. Against this background, implementation of conference resolutions and affirmative responses to the challenges issued by Dr. Rambachan become even more critical.

With respect to expanded temple roles, while some mandirs do offer limited services, mostly revolving around the traditional activities such as music, dancing, Hindi, none comes close to fulfilling a mandate as a center for social interaction, which is what an expanded role would entail. For with an expanded role a temple would offer classes for all ages and both genders focusing on both religious/cultural and secular knowledge and skills. Furthermore, a temple which caters for the entire family, will serve to pull the entire family in to its ambit and thus help to foster the family as a unit – socially, religiously, culturally and in secular terms. And when the temple becomes the center of social interaction, there would not be the need to privatize Hinduism because then temples would also become self-supporting. Thus, an expanded temple role would make possible two of the other challenges: greater focus on knowledge and strengthening of the family.

An example of a mandir that typifies a center for social interaction, is the Flushing Temple in Queens, that serves the Asian Indian community. That temple is opened every day of the week, twenty-four hours a day. It offers a soup kitchen; a hostel; daycare and after school, academic interventions; technology, music, dancing and religious instruction classes; old folks, youth, women’s and children’s activities; a regular newsletter; empowerment services; scope for networking and regular outreach; a venue for community events such as weddings, poojas, celebrations and so on. There is always something happening every minute of the day; guests from around the world visit regularly and can be housed for as long as they want to stay, and a number of live-in priests cater to the temple needs.

What is quite instructive about this temple is that no matter what differences arise among administrators and members, no one seeks to split the institution, to move away and form a separate mandir, to expel anyone or to sow seeds of disunity and division. Even when a court case arose among factions, the members remained together after the case when finished.

It is well known that most of these community leaders volunteer their time and efforts, and that they do fill a need. But is also well known that far too many of them love to stage shows – literal and metaphorical – and to maintain ‘tight control’ of their ‘fiefdoms’. The First Caribbean Hindu Conference provided the scope for them to add substance to showy displays and to move beyond their individual fiefdoms to embrace community aspirations and reach out beyond the community to fulfill those aspirations. It is time to substantiate the historicity of that conference so that it does not become relegated to yet another show, and so that community interests do not continue to be sacrificed at the altar of insular thinking.


About caribvoice

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