Using their powerful status, Christian priests constantly pointed out the normative behavior to follow and adopt. For a very long time, the figure of the priest has been associated with hierarchical authority and punishment. This image, deeply ingrained, explains why, even today, in the majority of families of Indian origin in the island, we find at least one Christian picture prominently displayed in the living room and no Hindu representations. We will see further that it is only since the last few years that these explicit Christian symbols in the household are slowly being replaced by Hindu ones.
Christian priests succeeded to a certain extent in their mission, but their success has been partial and mainly external. Practically every person of Indian origin in La Réunion has been baptized, has been to the church and know some Christian prayers (sometimes better than the white Christian population of the island). Meanwhile, despite their vigorous disapproval from outside, Hindu practices were never abandoned. They have only been relatively hidden by the immigrants to avoid enhancing an already negative perception of them because of their differences. This is why numerous Indian families have erected private temples in their yards (consisting of oblong stones representing various deities and ancestors) for private usage, allowing tbem to maintain and express their original 'order of things:'
It was this failure of the employers to respect their workers' rights to practice Hinduism under the terms of the engagement contract that lent the religion a secret, even clandestine, character. This situation endured from earliest immigration down till the time when workers were finally allotted plots of land on the plantations to construct temples and officially worship their gods together. This concession was also a strategy to maintain the Indian labor force on the island. The practice of Hinduism among the immigrants allowed them to reconstruct their former, stable world-view with its ideas of hierarchy and order. From that point, this French island ceased to be an alien place for the immigrants. Documents show that this strategically necessary tolerance of Hindu practices by the white land-owners was yet strongly disapproved of by the church. We can find their lament in some texts, where we read: "It should be forbidden for Indians to play their drums in the street. This awful music, the incense, their clamor and their dance disturb all the neighborhood. Their grotesque images, the weird ornaments of their cult express the very sad vision of an open temple close to the church."
When the practice of Hinduism was finally authorized, Christian priests still did everything they could to force the cessation of such "pagan" activities and to make Indians act like Christians. During my earlier fieldwork among a population of white people in the bighlands of La Réunion in 1982, I remember having listened to
a priest's sermon in the church of a village where he warned its Christian audience not to be tempted to attend "the religion of walking on fire, of piercing the body with needles," that he defined as "the religion of Satan...." Because of its relative attraction among a particular category of the population in the island (notably the poorest, like the descendants of African slaves), Hinduism has rapidly been perceived by catholic priests as a rival religion. Their only possible recourse in preventing its spread was to create and diffuse a negative perception of Hindu practices in the Island. Because of its non official character and because of the fact that its religious practices were practically hidden in the beginning, Hinduism was very soon associated with some kind of sorcery.
It is important to stress that the Tamils' eventual official practice of Hinduism did not imply the end of the Christian apprenticeship and its show off. On the other hand, it is impossible to say that they have really been converted to Christianity. As I have suggested, for them, this religion became above all a matter of mere public display, acted out to satisfy the Island's others, those having the political and economic power, and thus demonstrating their integration into the mainstream of the society.
Hinduism has been adapted to the new cultural and social context of this French colony in the Indian Ocean. As there were no Brahmin priests among the Tamil newcomers, the priestly function was assigned to the workers who knew better than the others the religious traditions, those who knew how to read and to interpret Tamil sacred books, those who received a special knowledge through the oral tradition from their eiders, etc. These persons acted like the puja ris in India. They were never full time priests. Despite some regional variations, as in the villages of Tamil Nadu, the gods' figures are the same throughout the entire island. Probably the main and most powerful figure of folk Hinduism in La Réunion is the goddess Kali, who requires powerful self-sacrifices and animal offerings. With Kali are associated Madurai Viran, Muniswaran, and Mariyamma, three powerful deities to whom devotees address vows. The preliminary invocation of any ceremony if of course still directed to Ganesh. The other deities invoked, who only receive vegetable offerings, are Shiva and his son Murugan. More occasionally some prayers are addressed to a form of Vishnu: Peroumal. Each Tamil family bas its own family cult (koledeivom) addressed to a special deity. Among the specific expressions of this folk religion in the island let us mention fire-walking, the ceremony of kavadee, the animal sacrifices and the priest's ritual of possession by a deity or an ancestor.
It is an anthropological fact that living traditions are those able to integrate novelty and change. The Tamil Diaspora of La Réunion indeed offers many interesting examples of maintenance of the fundamental patterns and rites of Hinduism within the social context of their host society. The ceremonies of fire-walking and of Pongol, for instance, have been celebrated at the beginning of the French civil year, when the workers had some rest because of the end of work in the sugar cane plantation. The ceremony for the ancestors was also celebrated on the official day of the Christian religion, that is during Ail Saint's day. Hindu attitudes associated with birth, marriage and death, although not quite manifest, have been similarly maintained at the same time as Christian practices. I will briefly describe here how Christian and Hindu worlds have cohabited by compartmentalizing the public sphere of life for the former and the private sphere for the latter. The following examples documents not the disappearance but the adjustments of a living tradition.
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Copyright © Christian GHASARIAN - 2002