Race relations among the ethnic groups in T&T are okay but there is room for improvement. Pundit Uttam Maharaj, president and dharmacharya of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, stresses this point as the country gets ready to celebrate another Indian Arrival Day holiday.
Pundit Maharaj, who says that every citizen must be treated as a human being regardless of their sexual orientation, has reservations about accepting same-sex marriage as it goes against the Hindu philosophy of marriage.
Q: Pundit Maharaj, how satisfied are you with the progress-social, political and otherwise of Indo-Trinis since their arrival in Trinidad in 1845?
A: (In the conference room at Radio Jagriti in Tunapuna, Thursday morning) Like our African brothers and sisters they came with little else than their clothes on their backs...very few personal possessions. You could say they came here with nothing and had to start from scratch. By dint of hard work they have made progress but there is always room for improvement.
Q: What particular area or areas are your referring to?
Certainly, for one thing, in education there is always room for moving upward even though we have made great strides in that regard. In the beginning most of them who came here were termed illiterate because most of them could not read or write in English, but many of them were literate in Hindi and could have read and write in that language. Of course many were unlettered in any language but they were able to communicate verbally.
Q: Pundit, do you agree that Indo-Trinis were or are being discriminated against-even though you do not hear that charge to the extent that it was voiced in the recent past-today?
It depends on the individual or group to make their presence felt and maybe in the beginning it was so but of late, Indians are claiming their space and making their presence felt, and in so doing they are also contributing to the upliftment of our country as a whole. So I would think we have to continue striving to make our presence felt in every strata of the society.
There would always be this perception with any group who feel they are so affected but as I always say, the individual has to show their qualifications, let's say if they are looking for a job and the best person always wins out in the end. We have to strive to get past this cry of discrimination and what not. Personally I have never experienced racial discrimination even when I attended high school, a Catholic school (I have always been a Hindu) and we never had a problem. I appreciated the Catholics and they appreciated me for who I was.
Q: Pundit Maharaj, some people are saying that instead of Indian Arrival Day and Emancipation Day celebrations it should be Arrival Day, period?
Indians came here on May 30; the Africans would have come before, right? Likewise the other ethnic groups, so we are celebrating the arrival of Indian people here and we are happy for our brothers of other ethnic origins as well, that they should celebrate their coming here.
Q: There is a school of thought that says one is born a Hindu and cannot be converted into the religion?
Certainly we are born Hindus but Hinduism is a way of life, okay, and once we follow that way of life...this is what we call Sanatan Dharma, this is not a religion that was founded by any individual and we have Hindus of all ethnic origins.
Q: If I want to become a Hindu tomorrow morning what is the procedure?
(Slight smile) Okay...to become Hindu in the morning? (A strong chuckle) Very well, that's fine...you learn about this way of life and you just follow, the kind of discipline we follow that is what is important.
Q: What about the question of race relations between the various ethnic groups in Trinidad and Tobago, is it at the level it ought to be?
There is always room for improve- ment but I think generally here in Trinidad everyone is happy with each other. I grew up in Rousillac and that is a predominantly East Indian village, but there are also people of African origin and we are happy with each other. We have respect for each other so that there would be problems which may come up from time to time but we exist with each other in a very harmonious and productive manner.
Q: Are you content with relations specifically between Afro-Trinidadians and Indo-Trinis?
There is always room for improvement and from my own experience I am very happy, and some of my best friends are Afro-Trinis, one of them is Patrick Edwards our High Commissioner in Uganda. There is a race issue but certainly not a race problem and in some ways things could be better.
We have to respect each other more for who we are and not to look at each other with ethnic blinkers.
Q: Pundit, I know you religious people don't like to publicly discuss politics (interjecting with a big laugh and a wave of his hands) we belong to everyone.
There is talk of a Hindu cabal in the Cabinet that is running the country, as the spiritual leader of the largest Hindu group in Trinidad Tobago how do you view that allegation? (Clearing his throat with hands outstretched on the table) This is politics, the Government is involved in running the country and I don't see why religion should be coming up in this context.
Mr Raphael, I am sure you are aware that there was a time when there was absolutely not a single Hindu in the Cabinet for 30 years. Not even a Bhagavad Gita at President's House. Do you remember when then President House had to run and look for the Hindu holy book to swear in Basdeo Panday as a government minister in 1986?
No one raised a hue and cry then. Today by dint of hard work Hindus have found their place in the highest levels of the society, they are just doing the job as those of other religious persuasion have been dong, right? So if there are Hindus in the Cabinet now why should there be any complaints? What we should be looking at is how they are performing; are they doing what they are supposed to be doing in an effective and efficient manner; that is what we should be looking at...not what is their religious background.
Q: Pundit Maharaj, in spite of our strong religious history this country is reeling under the effects of an out of control crime situation. Do you think Dharmacharya, that religion has failed the people?
Religious leaders have been doing their part but parents, guardians, members of the community have a part to play. This is not a problem that arose overnight, it has been festering for a long time and less and less people are paying attention to the positive values. Mothers and fathers should be there for their children, looking after them, monitoring them closely, ensuring they are on the right path and so on.
How many of us check our children's school bags to see what is contained in them?
Q: That used to be done in the past didn't it?
Yes. Of course. And are we condoning their little bad habits which have a way of growing and catching up with us? This is what has been happening within recent years-broken homes, single parents, absentee fathers, a child who is not receiving attention at home, who is insecure in their home environment, he or she tends to go astray, right?
Q: Is there anything in the Hindu doctrine that speaks specifically to curbing crime at the level we are experiencing in this country today?
Any one of any religious persuasion would have the same solutions in that we have to teach our children from very early the positive values; do not wait until...it has to start from day one. The home environment must be one of positive values. Children learn by example and our children's friends should also be the parents' friends, okay?
And when we notice they are keeping the wrong type of company we must nip it in the bud so we cannot blame the religious leaders for that. We try to keep them on the right path, that is as much as we can do. We cannot hold them on a leash and pull them in, we can only encourage them to do the right thing every time. We can motivate you, encourage you, but the change has to come from the person who wants to change for the positive.
Q: To deal with an issue back on the national agenda-homosexuality. What is the Hindu position on same-sex marriage?
(A slightly uncomfortable countenance which quickly softened) We have all kinds of people in our society who are all human beings and must be treated as such but when it comes to marriage well, I am not so sure because according to our system, the marriage ceremony has always been between a man and a woman. I do not know of any marriage where two people of the same sex could be joined together, right?
I cannot agree with it because according to our Hindu thought, man is incomplete without a wife and a wife is always referred to as a woman and one of the functions of marriage is for procreation, I cannot see that happening in a same sex marriage. Individuals have the right to enjoy all the privileges afforded by the society but I do have reservations with that same-sex marriage matter.
Q: Finally Pundit Maharaj, as the country gets ready to celebrate another Arrival Day what is your most fervent wish at this time?
I would wish that we continue to try to make our country a better place and do all to ensure that there is harmony in the country between each and every one; love for each other and that we continue to grow as a nation together.