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Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and the Netherlands

In 1902 Madho Singh, Maharaja of Jaipur, was invited to London to attend the coronation of Edward VII. It was fitting that Madho Singh attend the ceremony, for Edward was Emperor of India and the Jaipur ruler owed him allegiance. Yet the Hindu king was filled with apprehension at the prospect of crossing the ocean and accepting British hospitality. To him, Great Britain was a remote, barbarous country, situated in the northwestern sector of the inauspicious ‘Black Sea’. Madho Singh could not sustain his sacred person in such an alien environment.

And such a journey would put his subjects at risk, for in the course of his coronation the people of Jaipur had been ritually constituted within the body of the king. Were Madho Singh to become personally defiled by his journey, his land and people would also become defiled. Thus Madho Singh faced a dilemma. He could travel to Great Britain, but only on condition that he did not leave India. He eventually found a way round his problem by chartering a ship, the S. S. Olympia, having the vessel cleansed throughout and ritually consecrated by the royal priest of Jaipur.

Rice, dried fruit, vegetables, and water were brought on board, together with cows and fodder so that fresh milk could be supplied daily. Earth from the Sacred Land of the Hindus (bharatavarsha) and water from the Ganges were put in storage so that he could perform his daily ablutions and purify his alien surroundings. In this auspicious environment Madho Singh was safely conveyed to Britain. As Burghart goes on to point out, however, Madho Singh was not the first Hindu to face this problem.

In the early centuries CE brahmins travelled into south-east Asia (to what is now Cambodia, Thailand, and Bali) at the invitation of local rulers to consecrate their kingdoms. They remained, marrying local women, extending the ritual boundary of the sacred territory of bharat, and establishing aspects of brahminical culture such as their deities and scriptures. Today, in Thailand, the historical importance of the god Brahma is still witnessed in the Dheva Satarn temple in Bangkok and in royal ceremonies.

The Ramayana, or Ramakien as it is known locally, remains significant in popular cultural performance. Despite such a heritage, these countries today are no little Indias, and those brahmins who continue to live and practise there are now fully Thai or Balinese in all but religious inheritance. Quite different has been the movement of merchants to other nearby countries for business. The Chettyars, a Tamil banking community, extended their business to Burma, Malaya (now Malaysia), Mauritius, and other parts of southeast Asia.

Additionally, strong trading links have existed for many centuries between western India and East Africa. Earlier this century Gujarati and Punjabi migrants (Sikhs and Muslims as well as Hindus), attracted by the opportunities available to work under the British administration on the new railroads and as small traders, set themselves up in the growing towns and cities of Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), and Nyasaland (now Malawi). The majority of these later migrants were merchants and artisans rather than brahmins.

Initially, they were content to leave regular religious duties to their families back home. Later, when they became more settled and were joined by relatives, they began to establish social and religious institutions for mutual support, education, cultural activities, and religious nurture. Gurus and swamis crossed the seas to visit these communities and encourage their religious practices. They often consecrated new temples and held festivals and other devotional meetings.

Although the countries of East Africa, like India herself, were colonized by the British, Hindus and Indians of other religious persuasions travelled there freely in search of work and financial gain. They were able to maintain links with the homeland. Those indentured by the British and Dutch after the abolition of slavery in the mid-nineteenth century and transported to the plantations of Trinidad, British Guiana (now Guyana), Dutch Guiana (now Surinam), Fiji, Mauritius, and South Africa were not so fortunate.

Although promised the possibility of return to India, few were able to do so, with most settling in their new countries and eventually gaining their independence and the right to acquire land. The Hindu communities which grew up in these countries developed quite differently from one another, depending on factors such as their ethnic and caste composition, their relative size compared to other local communities, the impact upon them of indigenous religious, social, and political institutions, and their ability to acquire power and status. An informative study of one country in which indentured Indian Hindus settled is Hindu Trinidad.

The author, Steven Vertovec, depicts the colourful devotional life of the Hindus, describing particularly the musical renditions of the Ramayana which were popular in the 1960s and the grand, week-long yajnas (sacrificial rites) which were sponsored by families made newly rich in the oil boom of the 1970s and 1980s. He also mentions the brahmins who migrated with the indentured labourers to serve their religious needs, and the way in which regional and family traditions such as the worship of Kali often gave way to rituals endorsed by the brahmins.

He ends with the demands of young Hindus for a vigorous and confident Hindu identity which might compete successfully with that of other aspiring groups in Trinidad. With indentured Hindus arriving from 1845, Hinduism in Trinidad has now been establishing itself for over 150 years. The arrival of Hindus has been a more recent phenomenon in Britain, North America, and Australasia, where differing colonial traditions and immigration policies have led to variable patterns of settlement and community type.

If we compare the Hindu populations of Britain and the United States, for example, we find that settlement began earlier in the former as a result of Britain’s colonial relationship with India. The majority of Hindus, as British passport-holders, arrived in Britain from East Africa in the 1960s and early 1970s following the impact of nation-building policies in the newly independent states. Hindus in the USA, however, came directly from India as professionals, entering to take up jobs in healthcare, education, and business.

Hindus in the West in general have achieved a very high educational level and good standard of living, though sadly many have also experienced racial discrimination and racism. Interesting issues are raised concerning the nature of Hinduism as a religion by the presence of Hindu communities outside India (Hindus were resident in 68 countries by 1980). Clearly, Hindus have shown themselves to be resourceful and flexible people able to live, work, and create communities in many, quite different settings.

The presence of a Hindu diaspora suggests that Hindus have been prepared to contravene, or at least to reinterpret, the brahminical injunction set out in the Manusmriti against crossing the black waters. Although this does not counter the claim that Hinduism is best described as an ethnic religion — as most migrant Hindus have retained the practice of caste marriages and have not sought to widen the definition of who is a Hindu — it does invite scholars to review ideas about where and how Hinduism may be practised.

The foundation of temples and the migration of brahmins able to carry out lifecycle rites, yajna, and puja have allowed Hindus to establish sacred spaces and perform the necessary ritual activities outside India. Does this represent an extension of the sacred territory of bharat, as we saw in the cases of Madho Singh and the early Brahmin migrants to south-east Asia?

But what about those religious organizations, in many countries, which have been founded, managed, and led by enthusiastic and skilful lay persons who have raised funds, purchased property, organized festivals, youth and women’s groups, the visits of spiritual leaders, and the employment of brahmins? Although such lay people have generally been the facilitators rather than the officiants of public religious life, at times they have conducted worship and served the deities directly, showing that the desire to live the devotional life has sometimes been considered more important than orthodox brahminical practice.

As we saw in Chapters 5 and 7, the bhakti tradition within Hinduism offers the precedent and context for this. We might say that these Hindus have been inspired more by the spirit than the letter of their religion. In countries outside India, temples (mandir) have often been fashioned from converted premises, from schools, deconsecrated churches, homes, even factories. As Hindu communities have grown wealthier they have opened purpose-built temples, designed either according to local styles or in imitation of those in India.

In August 1995, the local population of the north London suburb of Neasden, with many thousands of Hindu devotees and invited guests, saw the opening of what Reader’s Digest magazine chose to describe as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’, ‘ London’s answer to the Taj Mahal’. Built from natural materials to Hindu scriptural specifications, and erected entirely by voluntary labour, the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir was the first traditional Hindu temple to be built in Europe.

It is used for the regular worship and meetings of the Swaminarayan Hindu Mission, a Gujarati Hindu movement or sampradaya headed by a popular Indian guru called Pramukh Swami Maharaj. It is at least as important, however, as a tourist venue. Approached through rows of ordinary terraced housing and set back from one of London’s busiest roads, it represents Hinduism in all its grandeur to non-Hindus, and shows what can be achieved by devotional service to God.

As well as a tour round the magnificent temple with its marble, limestone, and teak carvings, the visitor can expect to see a video showing its construction and an exhibition of the Hindu heritage. On the other side of the road they will see the Swaminarayan School, one of only two Hindu day schools in the United Kingdom. The Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Sanstha, of which the Swaminarayan Hindu Mission is the British branch, is the fastest-growing religious movement among Gujarati Hindus world-wide.

With a network of 370 temples and several hundred thousand followers, it has held important cultural festivals in East Africa, Britain, and the USA, as well as in India. It is a devotional movement in the theological tradition of Ramanuja, in which followers worship a deity known as Swaminarayan as their supreme Lord. It provides single-sex educational and spiritual programmes for children, young people, and those in older age groups. It holds mass rallies and engages actively in voluntary work in all the countries in which it has a presence.

It is just one of a number of popular sampradayas or sectarian groups operating within the Hindu diaspora. What do you see when you look at this picture? A cow? But what does that mean to you? A farm animal (in this case, out of place in a busy city street), source of meat and milk, leather and manure? A European observer might also think of the cow’s possible association with heart disease and BSE, Mad Cow Disease. But an Indian viewer, while noting this ordinary cow, might go beyond it to see a sacred symbol, divine mother of all, in whose dung the goddess of prosperity resides.

What you see depends on your standpoint. A cowsignifies something different to Hindus and non-Hindus; but even within Hinduism her meaning differs depending on whether you are a brahmin or a leather worker, one who milks her or uses her products for fuel and cooking. Hinduism is a bit like this, too. Outsiders and insiders see Hinduism differently, and those who are inside don’t always think alike, as we have seen in previous chapters. It would be convenient to offer a simple definition of Hinduism or to categorize it neatly, but it refuses such treatment.

To say a cow is an animal or Hinduism a religion tells us very little indeed. What type of animal? What type of religion? And what about their symbolic significance among Hindus? I shall start this final investigation of Hinduism, the meaning of which I have so far taken as self-evident, by considering what it means to call it a religion. After that, I will look at how Hindus and visitors to India have viewed it, and will examine its derivation and changing meaning. But will it do to see Hinduism as a single system, or is it like the divine in India, both one and many?

At that point, I will introduce a metaphor which might help us to think about Hinduism’s diverse character and the important part played by power in its structure. To end, I will return to the cow and her relationship with Hinduism past and present in order to show how the meaning of ‘Hinduism’ is a matter of constant negotiation. Defining Hinduism To call Hinduism a religion raises the question, ‘What is a religion? ‘ The term ‘religion’ is Western in origin. It comes from Latin and originally meant the bond between people and their gods.

In the study of religions, the principal example has been Christianity. By extension, ‘other religions’ have been those systems which have been judged to be analogous to Christianity, principally Judaism and Islam, both of which are Western and related historically to Christianity, but also Eastern systems such as Buddhism and Hinduism. Some of the key characteristics of Christianity against which ‘other’ religions have been compared and contrasted have been belief in a transcendent God, a founder, scripture, priests, an institution or church, and various dimensions such as belief, ethics, myth, and ritual.

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