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Merging Hinduism and Orisha Worship in Trinidad

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The following is an excerpt from a book cited in full at the bottom of the passage, that briefly discusses the syncretic practices of some African Orisha worshippers on the island of Trinidad, who have come into contact with an absorbed elements of Hinduism into their practice. Trinidad does, in fact, have a sizable population of Indian origin, and this sheds a  bit of light on another blended tribal / folk practice that may aid IndoPagans with leanings towards more tribal methods. 

    As with other borrowings, the incorporation of Hindu
     elements into the Orisha belief system characteristically
     takes different forms around the island.  Worshippers
     usually simply superimpose the borrowed elements onto Orisha
     beliefs and practices.  Typically, one finds at an Orisha
     shrine a small area devoted to one or more Hindu deities.
     This area generally contains statues, statuettes, and large
     poster representations of the deities and an assortment of
     Indian brass receptacles, candles, incense and other
     materials.

     Among the Hindu deities most commonly found in Orisha
     worship are Hanuman, Mahabir, Lakshmi, and Rama.  Because
     virtually all the Hindu deities borrowed by Orisha are
     popular figures in many public Hindu festivals and
     ceremonies in Trinidad, even the most uninterested African
     will have some familiarity with them.  Hinduism also
     manifests to a small degree in the form of Osain (also
     referred to as Osanyin or Osa), who clearly has Yoruba
     origins and can be found in Orisha compounds all over the
     island, but whose shrine is often surrounded with Hindu
     religious materials.  Osain, sometimes referred to as "the
     Indian man," is, however, formally syncretized with Saint
     Francis (see Chapter Thirteen).

     Although Hindu-Orisha syncretism is rare, a few of the more
     knowledgeable worshippers do speak of an association between
     particular Hindu deities and African orisha.  The perceived
     similarities of the gods of both groups allow for a
     syncretism similar to the associations worshippers have made
     between the Catholic saints and orisha.  Leader Scott noted
     the following pairings (the Orisha are listed first):
    
     Ogun/Mahabir (or Hanuman),
     Osain/Mahadeo, Oya/Parvati,
     Oshun/Lakshmi,
     Mama Lata/Pahrmisar,
     Shakpana/Durga,
     Eshu/Dee
     and Obatala/Ganesha.
    
      Noorkumar Mahabir and Ashram Maharaj
     (1989, 194) also mention syncretisms involving Ogun and
     Hanuman or Mahabir
, and Oshun and Ganga Mai.

     Nevertheless, in regard to the group as a whole, the
     relationship that exists between the Orisha religion and
     Hinduism is not a purely syncretic one.  Only a few Orisha
     worshippers, such as Leader Scott, recognize a syncretism
     involving African and Hindu deities.  Personal conceptions
     of relationship between various gods and spirits, involving
     as they do the association between concepts and beliefs of
     different religious traditions such as Catholic and African,
     or Hindu and African, reflect a sophisticated understanding
     of different belief systems as being functionally equivalent
     on some level.

     In addition to "mainstream" Hinduism, there is another form
     of Hindu worship in Trinidad which resembles Orisha worship:
     the Kali-Mai ("black mother") sect also practices ritual
     possession and animal sacrifice.  The Kali-Mai sect tends to
     be associated with the darker-skinned Madras people, and
     mainstream Hindus consider such worship "primitive" and
     "uncivilized."  According to William Guinee (personal
     communication) -- a folklorist who worked with Hindus in
     Trinidad -- as well as Leader Scott and many of the older
     Hindus, Kali-Mai worship was village-based at one time, and
     its practice was widespread.  Through time the sect
     gradually lost its appeal but has begun to make something of
     a comeback, although probably in altered form. For example,
     a large and elaborate temple in St. Augustine, only recently
     constructed by Kali-Mai worshippers, draws two to three
     hundred people every Sunday.

     It is interesting to note that although African
     participation in mainstream Hinduism is virtually nil, some
     7 or 8 percent of those attending Kali-Mai services are
     African.  It may be the strong emphasis that the Kali-Mai
     sect puts on healing that attracts the Africans.  At the
     four Sunday services I attended, it appeared to me that the
     Indian worshippers welcomed the Africans with an openness
     that is apparently uncommon at the ceremonies of mainstream
     Hinduism.

     There is little or no actual association between the
     Kali-Mai sect and the Orisha religion, but worshippers from
     each group are supportive of or at least sympathetic to the
     religious practices of the other.

         
 
          pp. 88-9
          Spirit, Blood and Drums: the Orisha Religion in Trinidad
          James T. Houk
          (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995)

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OM GAM Ganapatiye Namaha! OM DUM Durgaye Namaha!

Devi Spring, author and compiling editor. Copyright Devi Spring 2006.