Written by: Tiara Jade Chutkhan
The religious experience of Indo-Caribbeans has been fragmented since our ancestors left India. When Indians arrived in the Caribbean, majority being Hindu, they did their best to preserve their practices despite the restrictions their new life posed. It was also a time when Christian and Catholic missionaries were making their way to the Caribbean, setting up churches and schools, promising education and sometimes jobs to the Indians that converted. Many rejected the advances of the missionaries, holding tight to their identity. Others felt they had to convert in order to improve their living conditions and societal status.
This brings me to the present day. Majority of Indo-Caribbeans are still practicing Hindus, but a decent percentage of us have been raised as Christians— myself included. My experience with growing up Christian has, if I’m being honest, been strange at times. I grew up celebrating all the Christian holidays like Easter and my absolute favourite, Christmas. In Christianity, Christmas represents the birth of Jesus, but this has never been the motive behind my celebration.
I often found myself reflecting around the holidays, wondering how much of a Christian I really was.
On my mother’s side, everyone is Christian. My grandma was a church lady. She took her three daughters to church every Sunday and she knows all the songs and Bible verses. Growing up, I didn’t attend church regularly, but we still went with my grandma a handful of times, mainly Easter. We never attended Christmas mass. I even went to church camp one summer, where I mostly recall singing songs, reading stories and watching Veggie Tales.
Despite being exposed to the church setting, Christianity has always felt very foreign to me. I never understood what the Pastor was preaching about how it was supposed to be significant to me. I didn’t understand all the nodding heads that were clearly in agreement with the words spoken. I knew the nightly prayer, but never understood why I had to do it. Of course my questions were answered, but I was never satisfied. Why did I have to pray to God? Why couldn’t I see him? How come no one in the stories looked like us?
I remember in middle school, a classmate asked what my religion was. When I told him I was Christian, he looked surprised. He responded by asking me a number of questions about what Christian practices I did or didn’t do. Did I go to church for Easter? And Christmas? Did I know the meaning of Christmas? I answered what I knew, but apparently it wasn't enough.
By the end of the conversation, he concluded I wasn’t a real Christian.
As I’ve gotten older, there have been multiple occurrences where eyebrows raise when I say I’m from a Christian family.
On my father’s side, my grandma was born into a Hindu family while my grandfather was Christian. I can never recall my grandma practicing the Hindu faith, even my dad says she hardly did. When my grandma migrated to Canada, it seems like she left Hinduism behind when she started her new life. She didn’t attend church, but she often reminded me to thank God and pray to him to keep me safe. Now that I have a better understanding of the history of Indo-Caribbeans and Christianity, I wonder if she felt the same as some of our ancestors. If she felt like in order to succeed in a new place, she’d have to leave behind certain parts of her identity and create a new one.
When my grandma passed away in 2018, her siblings insisted that because she was born a Hindu, she’d have to be sent off as one too. This was my first real experience with the Hindu religion. I’ve never been to temple, prayers or celebrated Hindu holidays. The funeral was split; the first half being a Hindu ceremony and the second half a Christian ceremony. I didn’t understand a word that came from the Pandit’s mouth nor what the offerings laid on banana leaves were for. I looked around seeing family members mouthing along to the Hindi prayers and felt a mix of awkwardness and disconnect. This was a normal funeral for them, they understood the rituals taking place.
I was lost until Pandit switched to English.
I still feel this awkwardness when I see other Indo-Caribbeans celebrating holidays like Diwali, Navratri and Holi. Without the help of Google, I’d have no idea what the meaning behind these holidays are or how they're celebrated. As Indo-Caribbeans, we often battle feelings of disconnect. We’re not Indian enough, we’re not Caribbean enough, the list goes on. Religion was one of the most important things our ancestors had to keep them connected to their homeland and in my case, somewhere down the line my family wasn’t able to maintain that connection. I wish I could pinpoint when it happened, but the information has been lost as well. In these times, I’m reminded of how far removed I am from my Indian roots. Aside from my physical appearance, I don’t have much remnants of that culture.
Now, at 24 years old, my relationship with religion has changed.
I was raised Christian, but I don’t actively practice the faith or identify as a Christian. This has been my personal choice since I was a teenager, I no longer wanted to tie myself to a religion I didn't feel connected to nor be told I wasn't a "real" Christian. As I continue to learn more about Indo-Caribbean history and the influence colonialism has had on our people, I hold strong to this choice. I'm more interested in learning about our original religions and how they were practiced, even if it's lost to me.
Christmas has always been an important time for my family. While I may not celebrate this in the religious sense, I've developed my own meaning for this time of year. It's a time for spending time with my loved ones, eating plenty and creating memories. There's no room for the awkward and confused feelings of the past.