We Have the Best Gods!
The Encounter Between Hinduism
and Christianity in La Réunion

Journal of Asian & African studies - Vol. XXXII, n°3-4, December 1997
An article by Christian Ghasarian, anthropologist
Institut d'Ethnologie de Neuchâtel (Suisse)



     Christian religion, imposed on South Indian immigrants from advent in La Reunion (Indian Ocean) by the French administration, did not succeed in eradicating belief in the Hindu gods: rather, Christianity became for the Tamils a matter of mere public display, acted out to satisfy the island's "others" and to demonstrate integration into the mainstream society. Meanwhile, Tamils in La Reunion today face an important dilemma emerging from within : to reform or not to reform their Hindu folk rites, as a brahmanic Hinduism is recently imported from India and propagated among Tamils of the younger generation.




     The South Indian Diaspora has spread to many places among which is a forgotten French Department in the Indian Ocean : the island of La Réunion. The substantial population of Tamil origin living in this small multicultural society (around 100,00 on a total of more than 600,000 inhabitants originated from Europe, Africa, India, China, Madagascar and Comores) offers interesting data for a comparative study on Hindu beliefs and practices outside India. I will consider here how Christianity, imposed on Tamils from their advent in La Réunion by the French administration, did not succeed in eradicating the belief in Hindu gods. I will also describe the internal religious transformation currently under way among the populace of Tamil origin in the island that is resulting in a confrontation between the former Hindu Folk rites, brought by the first low caste immigrants to the island at the end of the last century, and a more Brahmanic Hinduism, recently imported from South India and propagated among Tamil of the younger generation.

     The current religious situation of the French citizens of Tamil descent in La Réunion can only be understood by briefly retracing the conditions of immigration, and the integration of South Indians into this society. The bulk of Tamil coolies arrived in this French colony after the abolition of slavery, during the second part of the last century, to work as contract workers in the sugar cane plantations for the white land-owners. Principally recruited in French settlements of the Tamil Nadu, they were drawn mostly from the lower castes and practiced what Indianists used to call a "folk Hinduism". Although the engagement contract specified that the coolies' religion should be respected, the catholic church, directly linked to an authoritarian administration, spent a great deal of energy in converting the newcomers. While the population of Mauritius, ruled under the British government, was allowed to maintain and express cultural and religious differences, in La Réunion, the motivation and policy to "civilize" the alien population under its control led the French administration to convert Tamil laborers to the official Christian religion and, through this, to make them adopt the French way of life. From the very start of the immigration in this place, the practice of Hinduism (as well as any notable expression of otherness like the maintenance of Tamil language and Indian dress) was overtly disapproved of and discouraged.

     Under the joint pressure of the church and their employers, Tamils in La Réunion were obliged to learn the Christian religion, to go to church, to wear French clothes and to give Christian names to their children. They have thus adopted the three main Christian rites of the life-baptism, marriage and funeral-as an unavoidable part of life (I should say of the "public life") in the island. The contract workers had to express Christian attitudes to be more accepted-if accepted at all-by their employers and by the society at large. It appears that a Hindu sense of conformity (notably the idea that each thing should be assigned its designated place> helped them to act properly according to the dominant norms and rules of the host society to their own advantage. This external compliance to the dominant models explains why there is a majority of Christian first names, notably "Mary" and "John," among people of Indian descent in the island.

     It must be emphasized that Christianity has really been forced upon Tamil immigrants and their descendants in the island. Expected to act as Christians if they did not want to endure God's future and society's present reprisals, it was virtually impossible for them to avoid an outward display of Christianity. Memories of eiders are full of stories highlighting the authoritarian and oppressive behavior of Christian priests towards Tamils. An old man explained to me for instance that, at the beginning of the century, when he and his Tamil co-workers went to the church (under their employer’s pressure), the priest systematically asked them to kneel in front of him and to answer the question whether they were Christians or pagans, a query to which they all responded the same by heart learned sentence: "We are Christians. A Christian is someone who has been baptized, who apply the Christian dogma...". Another woman of Tamil descent told me that one time, during her catechism, the priest assigned the children to draw a picture of Christ surrounded by the apostles. She did her best and draw the Christ with three apostles in (what she felt to be) a nice picture. When the priest saw this drawing he angrily took a ruler, asked her to present her extended fingers and heavily rapped them, the number of blows corresponding to the missing apostles in her drawing. Such episodes, quite routine ip the island, only ceased to occur in the 1970s. Not surprisingly, this type of intimidation has failed to create a strong inner religious commitment. It only developed an alternate orientation, entailing the integration of external signs of Christian religion and the correct interpretation of social roles linked to it.


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Copyright © Christian GHASARIAN - 2002