Societal continuity and change

The commemoration of the foundation of the Arya Samaj movement by Swami Dayanand on April 10, 1875 is a reminder not only of the continuous changes that all social groups undergo, but also that some of those changes are the result of directed action. The Hindus – 86% of indentureds from India between 1838 and 1917 – were snatched from an environment that had sustained their way of life within all-encompassing institutions.
On Guyana’s sugar plantations, the structure of logies/ranges/barracks catered for nuclear families rather than their familiar extended families; women worked in the fields and earned wages just as the men; communication now had to be in a new language, English – with all that implied for introducing new (and subverting old) concepts; with only one day off from work (Sunday), the familiar round of daily observances of the Hindu calendar had to be squeezed into that day; the congregational worship pattern of the Christians became the norm; the elaborate jati/caste work specialisation was undermined, now that everyone laboured in the fields.
But as the community gradually re-established itself when more than three-quarters of the immigrants chose to remain in Guyana, there were inevitable forces that buffeted the system they left. While the overall caste system was definitely destabilised, the strong pressures to observe the obligatory life-cycle rituals – especially marriage and death – in addition to the traditional worship of Deities, ensured the survival of the “priest”/purohit. Since those from the Brahmin caste generally had knowledge (fragmentary as it might often be) of the sacred invocations (mantras) for these rituals, the hereditary aspect of this function quickly re-established itself. The dearth of women occasioned by the planters’ calculations on productive labour assisted in the perpetuation of child marriage – even as it ensured widow re-marriage. The need for labour also facilitated the reluctance of Hindu parents to (mis)educate their children in general and their daughters in particular.
Back in India, reacting to British/Christian criticism of the Hindu way of life, Swami Dayanand had launched the Arya Samaj – in North India, from where most of the immigrants to Guyana originated. He reformulated Hinduism stressing one book (the Vedas), one God (formless); no hereditary caste; no idol worship; etc. But critically, he stressed 10 principles of social innovations that addressed the grim reality into which India had plunged. They also unveiled India’s long and glorious history and that much of the social degradations had been caused by foreign – especially British – invasions. The Swami was one of the first to demand “Swaraj” – Independence of India from British rule, and this stance characterised the early leadership of the Samaj.
The visit of a prominent Arya Samajist, Indian freedom fighter Bhai Parmanand in 1910 sparked interest in the reforms here – especially in the small group of educated Indians. He was followed in 1929 by Mehta Jaimini, but the work was carried to its zenith under the sustained efforts of another youthful and vigorous missionary, Professor Bhaskaranand, MA, LLB, between 1936 and 1945.
In retrospect, the Samaj’s greatest contribution was to precipitate a great debate in the wider Hindu society about the fundamentals of its religious and social practices. The social and political awareness fostered by the Arya Samaj movement ensured that its members were in the forefront of the modern political struggle in Guyana, which was initiated in the late forties. The strongest early Arya groups were located on the East Coast of Demerara and it was from this district that Dr Cheddi Jagan was to secure some of his staunchest second tier of leadership. Pandit Sama Persaud from Buxton in 1953 was made a PPP Senator for his leadership. Dr Jagan also acknowledged the contributions of the youthful Balram Singh Rai towards his election to Parliament in 1947. There were numerous other Samajists in the PPP, such as Pt Ramlall, who was imprisoned at Sibley Hall in the 60s.
Today as Guyana, like every other society, faces the challenge posed by “modernity”, it is our hope that the Arya Samaj will continue to perform its vanguard role.