Religion in the Swinging Bridge

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Although I have chosen to focus on three specific ways that Espinet describes religion in The Swinging Bridge, it is worth noting that religion in the novel is characterized as a source for both resistance and acculturation. Religion, as illustrated by the ways in which the characters incorporate their beliefs and interact with religious institutions, is not static but a constant part of the negotiated identity of Indo-Caribbeans. Throughout the novel, we see the characters express a variety of relationships with religion – some hold on to religion as an essential part of their identity while others use it to achieve some alternate goal and yet another group reject it for their own lives but recognize its importance for the formation of the Indo-Caribbean community.

Espinet initially presents religion as a secondary part of the Indo-Caribbean identity. When Mona’s father signs his name as Nizam Maharaj because he wants to speak for all Indians, he is pointing to the fact that in the development of an Indian community in Trinidad, ethnicity trumps religious differences. He states: “For all a we, Hindu and Muslim, Indian is Indian” (941). In a similar scene, Mona’s mother warns Mona and her brother to have respect for other religions when they innocently make fun of a Hindu wedding (856). Mona’s mother is indicating in the scene that although their family is Christian, they still belong to same group as other Indo-Caribbeans despite their different religious practices. Instead of fighting amongst themselves because of their different beliefs, Mona’s parents call for Indians to be unified against the state which refuses to acknowledge their presence as a valuable one.

At the same time, though, the novel offers a critique of religion. Religion cannot be merely overlooked in the forming of the Indian community because, as Espinet demonstrates, it both aids and hinders the development of the community. Espinet writes:

“Poor people— newly arrived indentures and lifetime estate workers —contracted debts to purchase cattle and seeds for their acreages, but more often their monetary needs were for celebrations like weddings and barahis, funerals, kathas, and pujas. Officiating pundits would collect a good sum of this borrowed money. People blamed the moneylender, Muddie said with a sigh, but was that fair?” (3326)

Here it is clear that while people blame the moneylender for their tight funds, they are less conscious of the ways in which pundits also increase their wealth through them. We can read Espinet’s inclusion of this statement as a critique of those who religious power within the community. While it is true that the caste system collapsed in the Caribbean (see Steven Vertovec’s The Hindu Diaspora), Brahmins were able to maintain some of the power associated with their caste during the development of a more unified Hinduism in the West Indies. Although traditionally Brahmins are seen as the safe guarders of sacred knowledge, they are not automatically labeled as pundits who perform puja for others. There is instead a variety of titles which are associated with the performance of puja and other religious roles, such as pujari, pundit, astrologer, etc. In the Caribbean, however, the link between Brahmins and pundits was cemented and the duties associated with these various positions were combined into a single one. In other words, the designation of the term Brahmin increasingly became important only when talking about the qualifications of a pundit. Brahmins, then, were able to maintain their high standing in the stratification of the community by emphasizing their religious roles. The “Brahminzation of Hinduism,” as described by Steven Vertovec, refers to the continual justification for the presence of a pundit in all religious rituals (Vertovec, 53-4). By opening up their ritual services to everyone and emphasizing the necessity of various rituals, pundits ensured their status within the community.

The consequence of caste no longer having the same significance in the West Indies as in India, however, was that Brahmins could no longer justify their exclusive claims to religious texts and practices. Even though a pundit’s presence may be expected at a puja taking place at someone’s home, the reading of sacred texts, vegetarianism, and conducting puja were no longer seen as solely practices of a pundit or Brahmin.   As a result, pundits were forced to alter their duties in order to maintain their influence. Instead of acting as the guarders of the sacred texts, they became instrumental in translating the religious meanings of the stories. West Indian Hindus will readily point out that while anyone can read the texts, the pundit is able to reveal the intricacies of their meaning more easily because of his prolong study of them. Thus with the members of the community deferring to their expertise, pundits are able to still control what knowledge is transmitted even though the designation of the label “Brahmin” no longer has the same significance.

Espinet, though, is not only critical of pundits, but extends that criticism to the Presbyterian church which she recognizes as instrumental for the acculturation of Indo-Caribbean while at the same time advancing their own worldview and erasing the culture of Indians. It is with her references to the Presbyterian church that we can most clearly see Espinet’s complicated understanding of the role of religion in the development of the Indo-Caribbean community. Joining the Presbyterian church, as I will demonstrate later, became one way for Indians to gain respectability and the necessary education and connections for social mobility. Espinet’s own Christian background may be the reason why she privileges the church in her illustrations of religion, but it should also be noted that the church provided a model for Hindu and Muslim organizations to imitate and reform their own traditions. The politicization of Hinduism would later become central to making the Indo-Caribbean community visible and respected amongst the larger society.

Hence while Espinet never explicitly discusses the role of religion within the Indian community, there is enough religious content within the novel to necessitate further explanation. Espinet cannot exclude religion from the story of Indians in the Caribbean because it is an essential part of their identity. By expanding on the Ramayana, the Presbyterian Church, and the image of Sita, I hope to demonstrate the ways in which The Swinging Bridge reveals to its reader the multiple ways that religion forms and informs the Indo-Caribbean identity.

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