The Regulation of Religion and the Making of Hinduism in Colonial Trinidad

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Alexander Rocklin
  • Durham, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , April
     2019.
     310 pages.
     $34.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781469648712.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In The Regulation of Religion and the Making of Hinduism in Colonial Trinidad, Alexander Rocklin presents, with incisive insight, the multi-layered ways “Hinduism,” as a category of religious identity, was constrained and reconceived as “world religion” on the island of Trinidad. During the 19th century, India’s socio-cultural affiliations came to Trinidad with the movement of indentured laborers across the British Empire, from India to the Caribbean. Within this colonial milieu, as Rocklin tells us, these broadly “Indian” identity groupings began a process of gradual homogenization into bounded macro-categories (such as “Hinduism”) as opposed to indigenous or regional categorizations that pre-existed in India. At its core, Rocklin’s argument traces how subaltern workers, outside the homeland in Trinidad, navigated their religio-cultural worlds across sets of bifurcations intensified by the conditions of colonialism, be it subaltern-western norms, polytheistic-monotheistic religion, or folk healing-science.

Yet, the idea that colonialism perpetuates binary thinking is hardly novel; Edward Said presented this hypothesis, too. Although, Rocklin’s analysis shows how, in a Trinidadian context, dyadic categories suffused the society’s many constituents under colonial governance. The originality of Rocklin’s work, then, is its analysis of colonial religion-making in diaspora, set, theoretically, around postmodernist debates of “tradition invention.” The history of Trinidadian Hindu traditions–researched so assiduously by Rocklin–receives scant scholarly attention, so this monograph is certainly a significant contribution.   

Written as a work of History of Religions, this book should be commended for its methodological rigor: for each chapter, the author shifts elegantly between a theoretical analysis (e.g., a discussion of “religion” and “power” propounded by Talal Asad and Michel Foucault), secondary texts, diaries, and newspaper accounts. Generally, the book’s approach is sound. Structurally, Rocklin’s work is written in two parts, the first, “Religion” and the second, “Hinduism.” In part 1, the author interrogates the imbalances of power, centered on religion, that were imposed on subaltern workers by colonialists in 19th-century Trinidad, with each chapter focusing on a specific social sphere, including its institutions, ritual performances, and systems of healing. In chapter 2, the author examines how the colonial project of “secular toleration” re-educated or, in Louis Althusser’s terms, interpellated workers along these lines within colonial institutions, such as churches, schools, and prisons. As Rocklin argues, such policies of secular freedom meant all religions were tolerated, albeit extremely unjustly, since the colonists continued to rank and divide Trinidad’s racial and religious groups hierarchically (42).    

Next, Rocklin addresses the issue of collective ritual in Trinidad, focusing on three rites in particular, Ramlila, Hosay, and “Fire-walking rites” to the goddess (also Firepass). Here, he explains how the colonists sought to subjugate the “ambiguous and therefore contentious world” (76) of rituals to maintain their hegemonic power. For instance, the folk practices of Indian laborers—articulated in Firepass through blood sacrifice and possession—were, by nature, inclusive because they cohered Indian and African workers together in “mixed” congregations. Indeed, for Trinidadian ritualists, these ceremonies were aptly called “Conbination[s]” (p.1). However, from the colonial perspective, religion was, by definition, exclusive, restrained, and scriptural, which rendered Firepass “primitive” and non-religious. For the colonists, any “Conbination” festival was potentially dangerous, since it blurred public-private and political-religious binaries which, the British feared, could be “mutin[ous]” to their regime (80), so they strove to contain them. Firepass’ proclivity for inclusivity, then, was a de facto rite of resistance that organically contravened colonial notions of religious exclusivity. In this regard, Rocklin persuasively adds that “both rituals and talk about rituals generate communities” (76). On that point, the reviewer wonders why ritual theory, particularly Victor Turner’s communitas, is omitted here? While Catherine Bell’s ritualization is mentioned, perhaps other theories in cultural anthropology may have something nuanced to contribute too.

Meanwhile, in chapter 4, the author explores the practice of folk medicine or obeah. Primarily, among Trinidadian communities, obeah was, or became, a “plural” system of indigenous medicine that incorporated Indian and African spirit-worlds—populated by ghosts and spirits—who were the cause of illness. Throughout Trinidad, the British suppressed practices of obeah because they were deemed non-scientific, and suspected obeah practitioners were liable to face judicial trial. During litigation, obeah practitioners frequently “use[d] the authoritative categories of the court to . . . save themselves from . . . prison” (113). Simultaneously, obeah customs were being deployed to resist colonial structures by “overthrow[ing] court cases” (147). During these trials, Obeah was a contested category for colonial Trinidadians: obeah, like religion, was continually reformulated vis-à-vis the respective vantage points of subaltern “plural” practices and colonial notions of “order” (148).          

Part 2 brings us into the 1930’s when Trinidadian “Hinduism” was being reframed within Indian-Trinidadian communities themselves. In these chapters, Rocklin delves into the tensions that arose amid Arya Samaj missionaries and the Sanatan Dharma Board in their attempts at (re-)defining their communities for state recognition in a series of public forums. In the end, the Sanatan Dharma Board decided that “Hinduism” be reconceptualized as a transregional “World religion,” in conjunction with Hardwar’s All-India Hindu Mahasabha (a political party) so that Trinidad’s Hindu Mahasabha would become its local faction. From these endeavours, Rocklin suggests, the nascent formation of “Hinduism,” as world religion, was “confected” (229) during the early 20th century.                 

As an intriguing and erudite case study, The Regulation of Religion constitutes a welcome addition to the literature, not only for Caribbean history, but also for studies of ritual, colonialism, diaspora, and Hindu traditions in general.       

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Martin is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
February 12, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alexander Rocklin is Assistant Professor of the Study of Religion at Otterbein University.

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