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Commentary: Mother Kali as Virgin Mary: A Hindu-Catholic phenomenon in Trinidad
Caribbean Net News ^ | April 3, 2007 | Dr Kumar Mahabir

Posted on 04/03/2007 8:35:52 AM PDT by Alex Murphy

“National unity,” “one love,” “inclusion” and “multi-culturalism” are catchwords used by politicians, public speakers and tourist guides to camouflage tensions and divisions in ethnically plural societies like Trinidad and Tobago. Boundaries and enclaves are created and maintained by competing groups to separate the insider from the outsider through a process of absorption, exclusion and subordination (Livezey 2001). Even churches in these societies are not always blessed with tolerance for diverse cultural and theological differences and the acceptance of “other” ethnic identities. I wish to argue that even in Creole, Post-Creole, Plural or Post-Plural societies, equality and mutual respect are superficial ambiguous notions that can be contested. The celebration of the feast of La Divina Pastora by Hindus and Roman Catholics in the same church during the same Easter weekend in Trinidad articulates the persistence of marginalisation and alienation despite the rhetoric of integration, assimilation, and creolisation.

The Crossing Paths of Pluralism

For a small country with a population of 1.3 million people, Trinidad and Tobago is arguably a microcosm of the world with its extraordinary range of plurality of races and religions. Data from the Central Statistical Office for 1993 show that (East) Indians now comprise the largest single ethnic group in Trinidad and Tobago (40.3%) with Africans consisting of the second largest group (39.6%). Roman Catholics form the majority (29.4%) of religious groups followed by Hindus (23.8%). At the end of the 19th century, the number of Hindus in the Indian population was 87 percent; they now form 65 percent of the Indian population (Singh 2001). In the past, the majority of Christian Indians belonged to the Presbyterian Church (3.7 % in 1993), but the Church has suffered a decline in numbers by about one percent in the last decade (Parmasad 1995:48). It is believed that the majority of Christian Indians now belong to the new Evangelical Church and are converts from Hinduism.

The tendency to negate or marginalize Hinduism in any study on religion in the Caribbean reflects the limitation of scholars to see characteristics of culture created beyond the abolition of slavery in 1833. Hurbon (1986:150) argues that the tendency to “obscure the importance” of Hinduism “is yet another way of denying the multi-ethnicity of the Caribbean” which is reinforced by the “onslaughts of covetous external forces.” Indeed, little research has been done on the varied nature of relations between contemporary Hindus and Christians in the Caribbean. Most of the research has been confined to the relations between Presbyterians and Hindus during Indentureship (1838-1917). There is the need to explore the tensions between Hindus and Evangelicals which have flared up in the last few years. To be studied also is the process of conversion of Hindus to Pentecostalism, and the ethnic identity of over 40,000 Indians (20%) who belong to the Roman Catholic Church1.

Protestant fundamentalists have pursued an aggressive campaign of conversion of Hindus in the last few years. The number of Pentecostal churches has doubled in the past decade to more than 1,500 and two-thirds of these converts have come from the Hindu community (Hoag 2000). Religious intolerance, discrimination, tensions and violence have arisen. Kenneth Ragoonath, Trinidad’s representative in the World Evangelical Fellowship International Council, argues that the tension between East Indian Hindus and African Christians are “more racial than religious” (Cagney 1999).

On Divali [Hindu Festival of Lights] morning in 1999 in Sangre Grande, anti-Hindu literature was distributed to households with a jhandis [Hindu flags]. The same was done to mourners at a cremation site in south Trinidad. The Endeavour Hindu temple was completely burnt down in March 2001 in what police believed to be arson. Parts of the Divali Nagar site in Chaguanas was also burnt in June 2001 in what was believed to be a “renewed attack” on Hindus (Mohammed 2001). Four murtis [statues], twelve religious paintings and a giant-sized effigy of Swami Vivekanand were destroyed. The physical intimidation of devotees during worship in a Fyzabad mandir in July 2001 by a Pentecostal man was viewed by the Maha Sabha as testimony of the growing incidence of religious intolerance against Hindus (Butler 2001). The same temple was desecrated earlier in the year when vandals broke in and smeared murtis with pork. Under the country’s archaic colonial laws the perpetrator could not be charged for blasphemy or sacrilege because the crime was committed against a non-Christian religion and place of worship.

Discrimination against Hindus continues by the Christian-dominated secular state. Between 1956 and 1986, not a single member of Cabinet was a Hindu. And even when the first Hindu was being sworn in as a Cabinet member in 1986, the President did not have a Bhagavad Gita in the Presidential library to administer the oath to Basdeo Panday as Minister of External Affairs. The Trinity Cross remains as the name of the country’s highest national award despite protests that it should be changed to the more inclusive The Order of Trinidad and Tobago (Maharaj 2001). In the official protocol “Table of Precedence,” the Catholic Archibishop heads the religious dignitaties at No 9, with the Anglican Bishop at No. 10 and the Hindus, who outnumber the Anglicans tow to one, at No 11. In the House of Parliament, the Speaker recites an opening prayer beginning with “Our Father” and ending with “Amen.” Hindus have complained that the opening prayer should be a universal one created by the International Religious Organisation. At the opening of each session of the High Court of Justice, services are always in the Cathedral rather than rotated in a mandir or mosque.

Hindus have always had a voluntary intimate relationship with the Catholic Church in Trinidad. They participate in Old Saints’ Day by lighting candles on the graves of their departed relatives. This practice was first noted in the mid-1880s at the San Fernando and Mucurapo cemeteries. To this day, Hindus still climb their way to Mount St Benedict to have their cars blessed by Catholic priests. The pilgrimage began as early as indentureship (1845-1917) when it became an annual event in which Catholic Indian converts took the lead. An article in a colonial newspaper (The Abbey 1987:17) describes the procession:

It was certainly a soul-moving sight to see these erstwhile pagan children of the Orient, still wearing their modest and picturesque garb, led by the Cross carried by one of their race – Rev. Brother Joesph, a Benedictine … During the Holy Sacrifice the following hymns were sung in Hindi: Kewal Ishwar (sung to the air of “Before the Altar, angels veil their faces”), Jisu ka dil (sung to the air of “To Jesus’ heart all burning), Din aur rat ko (sung to the air of “Daily daily sing to Mary”).

Apart from the Shiva Mandir in Penal (in which the magical wishing stone “grows”), The Roman Catholic Church2 in neighbouring Siparia is the only place of worship in south Trinidad that attracts thousands of Hindus from all over the island. These visits, like that to the forested river in Blanchisseuse for Ganga Dashara, affirm that the idea of pilgrimage is deeply embedded in the Hindu psyche.

Hindu participation in the feast of La Divina Pastora in the early l870s can be seen as an attempt by the immigrants to adapt their religion to the New World. This religious adaptation by the Hindu immigrants to the Catholic-dominated religious system was spontaneous, unlike the Hindu/Presbyterian syncreticism which was contrived by the Christian missionaries as one of the methods of conversion (Samaroo 1982). The Roman Catholic church at Siparia is perhaps the only one in the world where Hindus worship a saint who, according to Marion Ocallaghan (2001) “is unknown by Hindu scholars in India.”

Mother Kali as Virgin Mary

The practice of Hindus honouring the Catholic Saint at Siparia is men­tioned by Rev. Fr. Cornelius O’Hanlon in the 1871 church records. He wrote:

For the East Indians, the Black Virgin is really ‘Suparee,’ the name of a seed which is used in their religious ceremonies, and also the name of a powerful saint in India .…When their ancestors came to Trinidad, the Indians heard of their ‘Saint’ at Siparia and found that she had all the qualities of their Suparee-Mai and were convinced that she was the same one.

Kali is the black Hindu deity who leads her children to the invisible God, and who readily grants wishes. The more popular view is that the dark-skinned3 Christian female saint in flowing, white sari-like gown, and long jet-black hair is/was identified as Mother Kali. This being so because even Hindu elders cannot recall any saint in In­dia bearing the name of Siparee but which, they say, is really a corrup­tion of the village name Siparia. Elderly Hindus call her “Siparee Mai” or “Siparee Ke Mai.” Friday (1975:8) argues that “K” stands for Kali which suggests syncreticism on the part of Hindus. Vertovec (1992:220) observes that the statue is revered by Hindus as a murti [sacred icon] “which in fact looks remarkably like an Indian woman.”

Kali worship in Trinidad and Guyana has attracted an ethnically diverse following because of the deity’s power to heal the sick (Stephanides 2001). Hindus in Trinidad claim that after participating in ritual worship of Mother Kali, they experience recovery from illness (Guinee 1992). Young girls would seek the help of “Sipari Mai” to secure a husband, infertile women would pray for children, and parents would ask that their children grow strong and healthy. Hindus attach great healing powers to the “Sipari Mai.” When one has an ailment in any part of the body, a replica was made out of gold and offered to the saint. Hindu devotees touch the saint, bow to her, and pray silently. Some buy a postcard of the saint to install among the pantheon in deities in their private shrines at home (Nurse 1997).

Some elderly Hindus have laid claim that it is their foreparents who had first seen the apparition of a lady in white sitting on a stone under a karat [palm] tree where the church now stands. They claim further that the apparition was endowed with healing powers, just as Mother Kali. A record in Siparia parish around 1871 states that the image of the Virgin Mary was brought from Venezuela by a Capuchin proselytising priest who publicly declared that it had saved his life. Whether it is the Hindus or Catholics who first discovered the sanctity of the spot or image (at first as an apparition and then as a statue) is not crucial to the thesis of this paper, as the alienation of Hindus by Catholics from Indentureship to the present time.

The annual Hindu pilgrimage to Siparia from Holy Thursday affected routine work during the sugarcane crop season in some estates in Aranguez and Boissiere during indentureship. A French planter sought to divert the drain of labourers and minimise loss of working time by constructing a statue of Our Lady in East Dry River, Port-of-Spain, and calling the site Siparia. This attempt did not work partly because the new statue was “white” (Friday 1975). Hindus who lived in the north, and in East Dry River, still made the long journey to south Trinidad in buses singing bhajans [hymns] to the accompaniment of dholak, dhantal and manjira [percussion instruments]. The introduction of the railway system in the 1870s made access to Siparia easier for Hindus living in north and central Trinidad (Nurse 1997). Sugarcane planters eventually got Good Friday as a public holiday to worship La Divin. On Holy Thursday night, Hindus camped outside the church with lighted candles. The period of Indentureship (1845-1917) was a time of pain and despair for the indentured Indian immigrant labourers, and they saw in La Divin most the attributes they found in Kali. They were both seen as intermediaries between man and god, as a solace for their suffering in the sugar cane estates, and as a fulfillment for their long nostalgia for home in India.

Hindus Convert a Church

On Good Friday, Catholics are forced to give way to Hindus who take offerings to “Sipari Mai” either in supplication or thanksgiving. Vertovec (1992:20) observes: “Each person individually files past the statue/murti to charawe gifts (with the accompanying gesture to their forehead) and to places a tika of sindhur on the forehead of the Mai.” Nurse (1997:5) notes negatively that Hindus “have converted the veneration of La Divina Pastora into an almost Indian cult,” and Sister Marie Therese (1976:56) writes in exasperation that “on Good Friday, Hindus literally take over Siparia.” In the past, worship of the saint was done inside the church, but the number of worshippers increased every year. To prevent “the uproar,” the statue was taken outside the church (Friday 1975).

During indentureship, Hindus sacrificed cocks, goats and pigs in the churchyard. The practice was discouraged by Catholic officials. In 1880, a parish priest remarked, “They truly give the Blesses Virgin an idolatrous worship” (see Nurse 1997). Today, women in orhanis [veils] make offerings of flowers, raw rice, money, olive oil and candles. Gold and silver jewellery in the form of a chains, earrings, bracelets, brooches and necklaces are draped over the statue and on her outstretched arms. In 1891, a Colonial official noted that the gifts of the indentured In­dian workers were so abundant that the image of the Divine Shepherdess “may be seen covered with watches, gold chains, silver bangles and bracelets of all kinds.” The practice of gift-giving continued, and around 1960 two American anthropologists (Niehoff and Niehoff 1960:156) observed that the venerated saint received “items of considerable value.” Friday (1975) found Hindus to be “very generous, and it is for this reason that the number of beggars has increased over the years.” Hundreds of beggars flock to the site seeking alms from women with bags and purses. Some of them cry, “Mai, me! Mai me!”

In the past, an eternal lamp burned olive oil in the Church and Hindus brought olive oil to keep it burning. The oil burnt in the eternal lamps was constantly refilled since it was used by Hindus and Catholics to anoint any part of the body that is afflicted with pain or abnormality. The Hindu practice began as early as 1871 when the parish priest of La Divina Pastora recorded in his diary that “no one goes away without having thrown on their heads the oil which burns before the statue” (see Nurse 1997:6). The tradition continues today with Hindus bringing oil, pouring most of the bottle into a drum and retaining some for themselves.

Another Hindu ritual which is performed on the church grounds on Good Friday is the first cutting of the hair of a child, locks of which are placed at the feet of the statue (Vertovec 1992:220). In the Hindu tradition, the first hair-cutting is done during chatti or barahi [postpartum] (Mahabir 1997), or during the Shiv-ratri festival in February or March. Parents use the services of the barbers at hand to cut their children’s hair as a sign of dedication and offering. The practice began as early as 1871 when the parish priest of La Divina Pastora recorded in his diary that he found “many coolies who wanted to cut their long hair and offer it to the Virgin [and] I stopped them” (see Nurse 1997:6).

As part of the “promise” to bear a child, the hitherto fruitless couple would have to “dance the baby.” This entails giving the baby to one of the transvestite Harischandra performers in the courtyard. The flamboyant and colourfully-dressed dancer would sing and dance with the baby in his arms around an orhani [veil] to the accompaniment of Indian music.

For the past decade, there has been the appearance of a poojari [head-priest] of the Kali-Mai cult in the church grounds. He collects donations from worshippers for the intent purpose of doing ceremonial worship for the protection of his village from sickness and na­tural disasters. The figure of this poojari, dark-skinned and dressed in white, jharying [stroking] with knife and neem branch those who seek his blessings, sub­stantiates the conception that the Hindus perceive this Divine Shepherdess as Mother Kali.

Stalls on the roadway are stacked with Indian sweetmeats and delicacies. Framed pictures of Hindu deities are sold alongside those of Christian saints, and potters peddle their kalsas [jars], jugs and goblets. Members of the Hare Krishna sect peddle incense, images and japa beads [rosaries] in their trademark traditional dress on the church compound and street. 

The Dividing Lines of Pluralism

Worrell (1994:20) states that Hindu participation has “actually been cricitised by many people of the Roman Catholic faith.” They believe that the practices are not in keeping with the teachings of the Church. She adds:

It is very important to note, however, that even though there is the veneration of the same statue by both Hindus and Christians alike, there is a division between the two groups. Although the Hindus are allowed use of the church facilities for their rituals, and many even attend the Catholic mass during the festival, their ritual and those of the Catholic community are still essentially separate.

The poojari, like the miracle players of the Harischandra cast, are not mentioned in the sermon or even accepted within the Church. After about 130 years, the Catholic Church still has not accepted the religious behavioural patterns of the Hindus towards this feast of La Divina Pastora.

In fact, in the 1920s, attempts were made to prevent the Indians from entering the church and a notice to this effect was made public in five languages. The Police was called in to enforce the decree, but the attempt was unsuccessful because of the threat of rioting. In another instance, the priests of the same Siparia church tried to stop the Hindu observance of the feast by locking the doors on Holy Thurs­day night. The priests received threats that the church would be burnt and, subsequ­ently, the decision was revoked. To this day, there are many Catholics who view the Hindus’ faith in The Divine Mother as an act of superstition. Worrell (1994:20) states:

Hindus are always reminded during the celebration of the mass at the church that they are not allowed to participate in the Catholic sacrament of receiving Holy Communion, and while many Catholics are curious of the Hindu rituals, and often view their customs with great interest, they do not actually participate in their activities.

The Catholic Church has not yet given any official sanction to Hindu ritualism in the Siparia Church as was done at the mass held in the Couva Catholic church in 1985 when deyas [earthen lamps] were lit and a Hindu invocation dance was performed. On the Hindu participation in the Catholic feast on Holy Thursday night, two foreign observers (Niehoff and Niehoff 1960:155) noted, “The Indians, though, have a night of their own which is completely unrecognised by the Church and which does not have its blessing.” Hindu critics would no doubt argue that had it not been for their valua­ble and generous offerings, the Hindus would not have been tolerated in the church. Some Hindu leaders have expressed the wish to see at least a part of the collection given to an Indian cultural group like the Harischandra Theatre Company which has been performing in the open courtyard on that occasion for the last 30 years. Father John Harricharan (1981:8), one of the few Indian Catholic priests, has made an appeal “for the Catholic church to go beyond the courtesy of extending the facilities and to adapt some form of worship to meet the religious needs of the East Indians....” Worrell (1994:20) notes:

It is hardly likely, therefore, that relations between these two groups would be improved as a result of the festival. Rather, as in most other parts of the country, the relationship between them in Siparia remains - what may simply be described as - peaceful co-existence.

One may add to “peaceful co-existence” the description “ecumenical partition”

In South India, Catholic priests dress like swamis and call their organizations “ashrams” as a means of making their religion more acceptable to converts (Frawley 1999). They also read prayers while sitting on the floor, recite Vedic mantras in addition to Western hymns, and light nikavilakku [brass oil lamps] to compliment candles. The idea is to identify the universal elements of Hinduism and other religions. During the Pope’s visit to India, he received a mala [garland] around his neck by a priest from Calcutta’s famous Kali Temple of Kalighat. At another time, he received vibhuti [holy ash] on his forehead (Awake 1987).

In the Catholic church in Siparia, Hindus remain ghettoized, their cultural traditions excluded from the sermon and service which do not embody a cosmopolitan vision of including multiple ethnoracial groups in the same congregation. There is no attempt to negotiate real unity with Hindus through worship or education in a parish that it is inclusively territorial. Catholic priests are yet to state that Hinduism is a great and honourable religion that is worthy of respect like Catholicism. Their mission remains the evangelization of all faiths into the Catholic fold. The absence of a multi-faith service in Siparia encourages the construction of ethnoracial identities and the continuity of ethnoracial clustering on separate days of the Easter weekend. There is little hope that there would be cultural and theological integration at this level. One Catholic columnist (O’Callaghan 2002:11) in daily newspaper emphasizes that the Christian Passover is essentially about segregation: “It has to do with what separates Christians – whatever their ethnicity – from all other religions.”

The pandits [priests] who condemn Hindus for participating in this ceremony do so out of ignorance, for Hinduism allows the maximum freedom in matters of faith and worship. Hinduism has absorbed all sorts of religious faiths, various forms of worship, and diverse kinds of rituals and customs. In La Divina Pastora, Hindus have been able to syncretise their traditional religious beliefs and practices with Catholicism in such a way that they have been able to reincarnate Virgin Mary and yet retain their distinct ethnic identity.

It may be a great challenge for Catholics to negotiate real unity with Hindus for many reasons. Catholics react instinctively to protect the “authenticity” of their faith from “other people.” They hanker for a more familiar and stable past against the creeping tide of neo- triumphalism. The opportunity for true ecumenism also exists at a time most sacred to Catholics. But the challenge is not impossible to achieve since one of the themes of Holy Week is reconciliation. Paradoxically, what seems as a barrier may in fact be a bridge to reconciliation between different peoples and cultures through inter-religious dialogue. The challenge for religious pluralism is not new because it started with the creativity of Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine monk, in India who founded his own ashram and adapted his lifestyle to that of a sanyasi.

The Catholic church at Siparia still serves a dual role. The same church serves two separate congregations on different days, each reflecting ethnic temperamental differences. On the Easter weekend Hindu singers, dancers, musicians, poojaris and devotees are to be seen outside, while Catholics listen to the sermon inside. In this way, the catholicity of the church accommodates itself to the separation of the Christians, for whom the nave is reserved, and the non-Christians who are relegated to the courtyard. Thus, Hindus are both included and separated. The Catholic church serves as a cultural and physical space in which Hindus collectively establish their ethnic identity as Hindus and their racial identity as Indians. Their cultural practices foster ethnic differentiation from other Indians who are Catholics, and reinforces their solidarity as Hindu Indians.


1 The appointment by the Pope of white American Bishop Edward Gilbert as the new Archbishop of Port of Spain provoked some disturbing remarks from leading members of the black-dominated church (Persad 2001). Father Clyde Harvey reacted by publicly announced his identity, “I am Black and I am happy to be Black.” (The Indian Review 2001:18). How do Indians identify themselves in the pre-dominantly black Catholic Church? Have they been able to retain some elements of Hindu beliefs and values with those of Catholicism? Extreme forms of syncreticism are to be found in the Rada and Shango/Orisha Cults in Trinidad. Thomas-Hope (1980) notes that proselytizing influence of Catholicism was superficial, and it had little effect upon the beliefs and values of converts.

2 The tapia church gave way to a wooden structure in 1906. It was reconstructed between 1958 - 63 and now holds about 1,000 people.

3 La Divina Pastora in Spain is not dark-skinned or black.

TOPICS: Apologetics; Catholic; Eastern Religions; Religion & Culture
KEYWORDS: caribbean

1 posted on 04/03/2007 8:35:56 AM PDT by Alex Murphy
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To: Alex Murphy

Kali, the Destroyer, patron Goddess of the Thugs as Virgin Mary? Just lovely.

2 posted on 04/03/2007 8:53:06 AM PDT by PzLdr ("The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am" - Darth Vader)
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To: Alex Murphy
The fact Hinduism incorporates and subverts many forms of worship or devotion from other religions is no reason for those other religions to accommodate Hindus.

Catholics and other other Christian denominations may want to convert Hindus but there is no reason incorporate Hindu views of theology into Christianity.

3 posted on 04/03/2007 9:13:55 AM PDT by Gingersnap
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To: Alex Murphy

****Kali is the black Hindu deity who leads her children to the invisible God, and who readily grants wishes.****

Does this work before or after a sacrifice of an inocent person to this deity. Remember the Thuggs of India were followers of this god.

4 posted on 04/03/2007 2:26:24 PM PDT by Ruy Dias de Bivar
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