The Hindus of Mauritius
Hindus of Mauritius have come a long way since the days of indentured servitude less than 200 years ago. Can they face the challenges of tomorrow?
I have always heard it said that India is the ancestral home of Hinduism. This seems almost too obvious to mention. However, with the diaspora of Hindus around the globe first as indentured servants from 1835 to 1910 and later after 1960 as fleeing wartime refugees and adventurous fortune seekers the larger picture of this oldest of world religions has changed considerably. India still holds its place as Hinduism's throne of origin, but changing times have given birth to offspring outposts now burgeoning all over the planet. Thriving with the enthusiasm of new life, many of these outposts are often better examples of Hinduism in practice than even Mother India herself. Mauritius is one such place.
India's prime minister Sri Atal Bihari Vajpayee said, "The sea between India and Mauritius does not divide them. It unites them." I certainly found this to be true when I traveled to that small island for two weeks in September, 2002, on assignment for Hinduism Today. The Mauritian Hindus welcomed me right in the streets saying, "Ram Ram" or "Aum Namasivaya." They invited me into their homes, fed me and introduced me to their families. The whole time I was there I never felt homesick, because I never felt like I was away from home. Even the physical characteristics of these peopleÑtheir features, their expressions, their styles of dressÑwere all just like back in Delhi. Just my being Hindu seemed reason enough for them to shower me with their abundant love and affection. The remarks of taxi driver Ramesh Seeboruth were both touching and typical. "People from India are not tourists," he said. "They are family. Hindus are very good people. I have a desire in my heart that I will visit India some day." Dozens of pictures of Hindu Gods and Goddesses were artistically placed in Ramesh's taxi around the steering wheel.
Formed by a volcano and shaped like an oyster, Mauritius is a small island country located in the Indian Ocean 500 miles east of Madagascar. Its 788 square miles of land mass form a plain in the North that rises to a grand plateau in the central region before descending to a girdle of beaches known the world over for their uncommon scenic beauty. Because Mauritius was settled by France, its population is mainly of French descent. Yet 60 percent of the island is Hindu, even though only 40 percent originally came from India. The rest of the Mauritian people are primarily Christian or Muslim. Although a number of dialects are spoken among the various ethnic groups, English is the official language, and French Creole has become the common vernacular.
Mauritius was probably known to Arab seafarers during the tenth century, or perhaps even earlier. The Portuguese visited the island in the early 16th century but did not settle there. Although the Dutch formally claimed possession of it in 1598 and named it "Mauritius," the island remained unoccupied except for renegade pirates. Finally, the French took it under aggressive control in 1767 and planted sugar. For the first time, a prospering colony was established. Although the British captured Mauritius in 1810 and their occupation was confirmed by the Treaty of Paris, the customs, laws and language remained French. Slavery was abolished in 1835, and slaves were replaced with indentured servants from India. These indentured servants from the holy land of Bharat brought Hinduism to Mauritius less than two centuries back.
These first Hindus of Mauritius were a heterogeneous lot. They arrived in great waves from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in the North of India and from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh in the South. Others came from Maharashtra and Gujarat. Despite the disparity of their origins, they found themselves united in hardship, for life as an indentured servant was extremely difficult, humiliating and sometimes even cruel. Today, this bond of inherited mutual compassion remains with them regardless of the fact that their ethnic groups have been politically separated due to particular festivals being officially proclaimed public holidays according to ethnic origin. First and foremost, however, the Mauritian Hindu is overwhelmingly religious. He simply cannot bear to miss a festivalÑregardless of whom it has been assigned to. All Mauritian Hindus participate in all festivals.
One of the biggest festivals on the island is Mahasivaratri, "Siva's Great Night." During this annual Hindu celebration, which takes place in the months of February and March, four to nine days of ceremony and fasting lead up to an all-night vigil of Siva worship. I was told boldly and proudly that, although this festival is officially designated as a public holiday for the North Indian Hindi-speaking community, every single Mauritian Hindu participates by making a pilgrimage to Grand Bassin, which they also call"Ganga Talao" after the sacred Ganges river in India. Many of these devotees walk the full distance, some barefooted, visiting roadside shrines and singing devotional songs along the way. Hindus living near the pilgrimage route consider it a privilege to rush forward and offer water or juice to the tired travelers who usually carry no food or water.
As penance for past misdeeds, many of these pilgrims pull or carry kanwars, chariots or shoulder arches decorated with flowers and colored paper. These kanwars can be simple or complexÑsometimes even humorous. On one occasion a kanwar was constructed to look like a Boeing 747 airplane, 25 feet wide and 40 feet long. Elaborate kanwars can cost up to us$2,000 to create.
The Legend of the Lake
My new Mauritian friends most happily informed me that any good Hindu visiting Mauritius absolutely had to make the "Ganga Talao pilgrimage." Although I had already planned to go, it would have been impossible not to. As I walked around that magical lake enjoying its indescribable beauty, I chanced upon a distinguished gentleman named Sri Satish Dayal who was, as it turned out, a retired member of parliament. Dayal explained to me that his family had built and now maintains a popular Siva temple on the banks of Ganga Talao called the Lord Maurishwernath Temple. He took me to this temple and conducted a puja for me there. I was deeply impressed by his devotion and his chanting of Sanskrit, which was flawless. After the ceremony, he told me the mystical legend of Ganga Talao.
"Usually a lake is formed at the bottom of a valley," Satish said softly, leaning forward with widened eyes as if to tell a secret. "But, as you can see, this lake is on top of a mountain. This is very unusual. According to legend, this is where the angels came to bathe and rest. They would dry their hair on a small island in the middle of the lake. First, Grand Bassin became known as 'Pari Talao' (a lake for angels). This was 100 years ago. Then, when devotees started having visions of Lord Siva there, it became associated with the Ganges in India. A lot of rituals were performed. A lot of Ganga water from India was poured into this lake. Finally, people began to call it 'Ganga Talao.' From 'Grand Bassin,' it became 'Pari Talao,' and from 'Pari Talao,' it became 'Ganga Talao.' That was when a statue of Goddess Ganga was put there. It is the biggest statue of Ganga anywhere in the world. Another distinction of this lake is that no one knows its depth, despite scientific investigation. Even in extreme drought, it never dries up."
Other Hindu Festivals
Other important Hindu festivals in Mauritius include Thai Pusam, honoring the South Indian God Muruga. Although it is officially a Tamil holiday, thousands of non-Tamils join in to carry kavadi (like kanwar). Ganesha Chaturthi, a festival occurring on a public holiday assigned to the extensive Marathi-speaking community, celebrates the birth of Lord Ganesha and just as readily attracts all the island's Hindus, since this God is the Patron of Harmony and is worshiped in all Hindu temples. Finally, there is Divali, "the Festival of Lights," also known as Dipavali.
Divali is so popular it is proclaimed a national public holiday in Mauritius. Not only does it cut across Hindu ethnic barriers, it crosses a few Christian ones as well. During this special time, all temples and some churches light lamps with wicks dipped in oil, and true religious solidarity is felt in an all-encompassing mood of cheerfulness and joy. Live cultural shows are organized in strategic areas, and during the evening hours many elegantly dressed Hindus amble about the streets enjoying houses beautifully decorated with multi-colored lights and earthen lamps.
Aside from religious festivals, Hindu weddings draw different Hindus groups together. On the eve of a typical wedding, a vegetarian meal is customarily served in a huge tent erected near the home of the bride or bridegroom. At such times, relatives, friends, neighbors and acquaintances forget all differences for the sake of simple rejoicing. Ethnicity is of no concern. Today in Mauritius, more and more cross-ethnic and cross-cultural marriages are occurring among Hindus. This is a new development and portends well for the future.
Organizations of Note
There are many important Hindu religious organizations in Mauritius. The famous Ramakrishna and Chinmayananda Missions both have centers on the island which are extensions of their networks already very well established worldwide (See sidebars). The Arya Samaj and the Swami Lakshmanacharya Vishwa Santi Foundation also have ashrams in Mauritius where they provide great service. But it is Krishnanand Ashram that warms the very heart of Mauritian spiritual life.
In an antiquated building in Calebasses originally constructed as an Infirmary in 1888, Swami Krishnanand founded the Krishnanand Seva Ashram and the Human Service Trust in 1983. Today, this ashram supports 200 needy people in residence and maintains a fully equipped ayurvedic health care center that treats some 400 outside patients each week. Swami Krishnanand, who was born in Rajasthan in 1900 and died in Mauritius in 1992, spent a long, fruitful life as a spiritual teacher and mentor to literally thousands of Mauritian families. Famous for freely and abundantly giving away clothes, food, money and religious literature everywhere he went, he truly lived a life of service. His motto was: "Service to man is service to God." Although he himself never touched money, he inspired the financing of hugely expensive, service-oriented projects in Mauritius as well as in many other countries, including Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabve. Swami Krishnanand is considered by many to be the most eloquent cultural ambassador of immigrant Indians Mauritius ever had. Among his accomplishments, two important social contributions stand out. First, he stressed character development in his training of the island's Indian youth. Then he encouraged Indian families to sendtheir children to India for higher education. Today there are 9,000 graduates from India living in Mauritius.
The Arya Samaj is active in Mauritius. Loosely affiliated worldwide under a supervisory organization called the Arya Sabha, the Arya Samaj is reported to have 100,000 active priests around the globe. Yet it is in Mauritius that many insiders consider the organization to be most vibrant and effective. On March 5, 2000, when the 125th anniversary of the Arya Samaj was cerebrated on the island, more than 165 havans (fire rituals) were performed. Six thousand people were expected. Fifteen thousand showed up. With at least 450 branches and each of those divided into more districts the Arya Samaj seeks to unite Hindus primarily through the performance of havan.
The Swami Lakshmanacharya Vishwa Santi Foundation (SLVF) is another important Hindu institution in Mauritius. Under the direction of its charismatic founder, Swami Sri Lakshmanacharyulu, many Mauritian Hindus have become vegetarian and learned to worship regularly. The SLVF also provides free medicine, meals and lodgingÑas well as yoga classes for the youth. The swami is credited with bringing many of the island's Hindu converts to Christianity and Islam back into Hinduism.
The Spiritual Park and Ganesha Chaturthi
On the Northeastern coast of Mauritius there is a remarkable Hindu pilgrimage destination called the "Spiritual Park Where River Meets the Sea." Founded by Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, the late publisher of Hinduism Today, the Park officially opened to pilgrims and the public on September 14, 1999. Although the property is exquisitely landscaped around a number of open-air buildings established for worship, meditation, music, education and religious activities, the rare treasures of the Park are the three eight-foot-tall stone murtis, icons of Hindu Deities, that were hand-carved in Mahabalipuram, India. A five-faced Ganesha is enshrined in the Kerala-style "Ganesha Pavilion" at the center of the Park. Dakshinamurti, a form of God Siva, sits majestically in a nearby grove of Konrai (Golden Shower) trees. And a six-faced, twelve-armed Lord Murugan faces the ocean where the river and the sea meet.
During my short visit, I had the good fortune to attend the Ganesha Chaturthi festival at the Spiritual Park. Thousands of Hindu men, women and children dressed in the most elegant Hindu attire attended the colorful function. Hundreds of women carrying little wooden baskets filled with flowers and offerings moved quietly and patiently in queue towards the havan platform. Even in India such disciplined worship is not often seen. The whole Park was tastefully decorated with flowers. The air was full of Indian fragrances. And during the culmination of the main Ganesha ceremony, thousands stood with eyes closed and hands palm to palm in worship, fervently striving to merge their minds with the oneness of all. It was a breathtaking and mesmerizing scene.
The Youth and Our Future
For the older Hindus of Mauritius, India and its timeless mystic allure has a sort of indefinable charm, a ÒsomethingÓ which they cannot seem to easily explainÑor want to. Their children do not seem to share this amorphous fascination, butÑmore often than their parentsÑexpress an intelligent thirst for a greater knowledge of their Hindu heritage. In this interesting juxtaposition of two very different generations forced to coexist amid such rapidly changing times, I could not help but wonder about the future of this faith of ours so apparently indestructible.
It was with such thoughts that I was leisurely strolling down a lovely lane in the most picturesque village of Triolet one sunny afternoon when suddenly I was hailed by a young Hindi school teacher just gliding by on his bicycle. Slamming on his brakes, he greeted me most enthusiastically. ÒRam Ram,Ó he blurted out with almost childlike joy. "My name is Sri darshan Dukhi." He wanted to show me his Hindi Pathshala (school) just across the way. It was a small, humble building with very little furniture and poor lighting. Inside a class was in progress. Small children were reciting the Gayatri Mantra and other Sanskrit verses sacred to Hindus. Somehow in that moment I knew the future of our children and our religion was secure.
On this magic island of elegant resorts and idyllic beaches, the rich and famous from around the world lounge in luxury at hotels like the Marina Village, Villas Pointe aux Roches, Domaine du Chasseur, Le Touessrok, Lapirogue and Le Grand Gaube. The economy is booming like never before, and life in general for all Mauritians has unquestionably never been better.
Outward appearances would seem to indicate that all is also well with the islandÕs Hindus. The elderly still recall how their ancestors, living as indentured servants in very hard times, were not even allowed to worship. Now, such worship is a source of great pride and inspiration for the entire island. Certainly, this is more than a modest improvement.
Yet, it must be acknowledged that todayÕs Mauritian Hindus must deal with challenges their great, great grandparents never dreamed of. Western culture continues to entice the youth away from principled living with mind-boggling technology and externalized enjoyments. Politicians seeking personal gain often purposely complicate the innately benign purity of the islandÕs Hindu worship by aggravating ethnic divisions. And a handful of fanatical Hindus deliberately antagonize the fabric of Hindu unity by stressing vernacular language rather than religious practice as being the essence of Hindu life.
Yet none of this is specific to Mauritius alone. Hinduism in India faces these same challenges and more. Hinduism in history has survived far worse. For the worldÕs oldest religion, often described as a vast ocean, such difficulties seem as but shoreline tidesÑsometimes high, sometimes low, but never deep or devastating.
Everyone is Religious
And the youth are leading the way
For sixty years the Ramakrishna Mission of Vacoas, Mauritius, has inspired local Hindus with tireless service and the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. Swami Ghanananda pioneered the Mission on the island in 1939. Striving to integrate social service and religious teaching, he set up an orphanage in Vacoas and a free medical dispensary in Port Louis at a time when such facilities were almost nonexistent. He also gave clothes and money to the needy, helped victims of cyclones rebuild their homes and established secular education for all age groups.
In more recent times such intensive relief work has not been as necessary, enabling the Ramakrishna Mission of Mauritius to focus more intently upon spiritual teaching. Today, scriptural classes and worship services are conducted weekly, satsangs occur monthly, well attended spiritual retreats are organized several times a year and religious discourses are constantly being given by the ashram's resident swami all over the island. Swami Krishnaroopananda, currently in charge, talked with Hinduism Today on the work of the Mission, the youth and realizing God.
How does Hinduism in Mauritius compare with Hinduism in India?
The Hindus of Mauritius are more devoted. You see temples everywhere. Here at this center we perform worship ceremonies, teach meditation and provide discourses. During Sivaratri 14 to 15 thousand people will visit us over a period of seven days. All the people of all the faiths here in Mauritius are constantly striving to learn and grow according to their capacity. And what they learn, they practice. Hindus go to temple on Thursdays. Marriages take place on weekends. Fridays are for Muslims to visit their mosques. Christians go to church on Sundays. Everyone is religious.
Are the Hindu youth interested in learning more about Hinduism?
It is very inspiring to see just how much they want to learn. They have such a great respect for the temple Deities. Ramakrishna and Vivekananda would be most pleased. A wonderful group of about 25 young people come here on Sundays to clean the ashram. This place looks beautiful because of them. The biggest problem today's youth have here in Mauritius is choosing where to go. There are so many centers. For the youth that come to us, we provide Sanskrit and yoga classes, as well as essay and debate competition. We get six to seven hundred young people coming in for all of this. There is such a great demand that we have to restrict the number.
What do you see for the future of Hinduism in Mauritius?
When one becomes happy and content, development stops. I cannot say we are happy or content, and this is good. We are developing. Throughout the world, we are witnessing the growth of science and technology. From this we are getting many things. Yet along with all of this getting, there is some losing too. We fear the loss of our purity. This is not just a Hindu problem. All sensible people are concerned about this.
What might RamakrishnaÕs advice be during these turbulent times?
He would say now as he has always said, that the aim of human life is to realize God. The Vedas and Upanishads say this, too. But for this realization to occur, there must be culture. We must preserve our culture and values so that we can continue to grow toward the realization of God.
Knowing the Self
There is only one problem: Ignorance
The work and mission of Swami Chinmayananda, which has continued to grow worldwide since his passing in 1993, has had a significant effect throughout Mauritius. Swami originally founded the Chinmaya International Foundation [CIF] to foster the study of the Sanskrit language, ancient Hindu scripture and comparative religion and philosophy. His many centers around the world are also famous for their community service. In Vacoas, Mauritius, the Chinmaya Mission is currently under the able leadership of highly respected Swami Pranavananda Saraswati. Swami talked with HINDUISM TODAY recently about the Self, the world and the work to be done.
What do you do at this center?
Our activities here continue to focus upon imparting the knowledge of Vedanta. I give lectures based on religious scripture, but my main focus is on the children. All festivals are celebrated here as well. Our temple is called the Vidya Nilayam, which means the Temple of Wisdom. Our last function was attended by over 2,000 people. We also have branches that operate from within the homes of our devotees.
How have these changing times effecting the stability of Hinduism in Mauritius and what can people like you do to help?
Hinduism is fine in Mauritius because of the temples and the swamis here and there. As far as "changing times" are concerned, times change. People change. We sadhus accept this. It must be. All of these "world problems" are never coming from outside, as it may seem. They are coming from within us, for there is really only one problem. That one problem is ignoranceÑnot knowing the true Self. We all know a lot about what is going on outside, and we say almost without thinking, "It's going from bad to worse." But we don't know the true Self.
What is your message to the Hindus of the world?
The Hindus of the world should not forget their heritage. They should not forget their dharma. True peace can only come from the eradication of ignorance. This is not just a problem for Hindus. It is a problem for everyone. This problem of ignorance is universal.
I would like to add one other thing. There is nothing wrong with Hindus speaking different languages and worshiping different Deities. In India, if you go to Tamil Nadu, they speak Tamil. In Bombay, English. In Sitamarhi they speak Hindi. Let it be. In all of our ashrams, all our swamis and brahmacharis speak only one language, the language of Vedanta.
"Our Hindu forefathers suffered greatly here some were even killed. But they never allowed themselves to be converted. They had no access to education. Yet they survived and rose in dignity and respect. They got their children educated. They built temples. These were great people and we should follow their example. Now we are facing difficult times, but our saints tell us that when there is adharma, dharma gets established. Education is important. We must answer the questions that today's Hindu youth are asking: 'Why do we light the lamp? Why do we ring the bell? What happens during puja? Why do we prostrate?' Knowledge is power. If we can bring forward the knowledge of our great tradition, we will be more like our forefathers strong and united in the face of opposition. Today's youth can be divided into two groups. One is going away from Hindu culture and the other is coming toward it. Those who are going away are complaining that they are not getting proper answers to their questions. They are smart. When they ask questions, they expect intelligent answers. We need to pay attention to this."
Sarita Boodhoo, Managing Director of Jan Vani, a Hindi weekly published in Mauritius
"Here in Mauritius equal opportunity is given to all religions. We are the only country in the world where government provides subsidy to run temples. Unfortunately, we do have a problem. As a result of a strong political influence, Hinduism has become compartmentalized. This is occurring because religion is getting linked to language. I want to bridge this gap created by the politicians. Yes, I am a politician. That is how I can help. I chair a committee which oversees the solving of problems faced by religious organizations in this country. We also try to anticipate any threat to their existence. The idea is that everybody should be given the liberty to grow and flourish. Our greatest promise is our youth. In India, the heads of religious institutions and temples are old. Here, they are young. Here, we have new life. Wherever I go, I see organizations run by the youngsters. And for them language is not an issue. Our youngsters are taking over, and this is good. The elders are still there, but the youngsters are leading the way. Modern ideas are coming in. We cannot stop them. It is our children who are molding these modern ideas in positive ways to help our religion. We are in safe hands."
Anil Kumar Bachoo, Minister, Public Infrastructure,Land Transport and Shipping, Mauritius Government
"I have served as a priest within the Arya Samaj for the last 50 years. We have more than eight thousand Arya Samaj centers all over the world. Yet, if I tell you that Mauritius is the soul of the Arya Samaj, you might be surprised. But it is true. The Arya Samaj in Mauritius is more active and lively than the Arya Samaj in India. For the 125th Anniversary of Arya Samaj in March of 2000, we arranged for 125 havans (fire ceremonies) to take place here. Immediately, all these havans were fully booked. Some families came to me and said that they also wanted to participate. When we told them that there was just no more room, they arranged for their own havans. During the anniversary celebrations, there were a total of 165 havans. I have never seen so much dedication anywhere. However, I must say that many of the youth are not coming to Arya Samaj meetings, and this is a major concern of ours. I feel that we have not tried hard enough to communicate with the youth. We must change with the changing times and try to win them over. They are our future."
Dr. Swami Satyam Chairman, Vedic Dharma Prachar Samiti ofSarvadeshik Arya Pratinidhi Sabha
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