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Tirtha: The Journey to Empowerment

Written by: Nicholas Indar

We are all born into this world with a soul. A soul that seeks to learn, grow, and ultimately discover its purpose. Making that discovery is shaped by many factors as we venture forth through trials and tribulations, triumphs and success, relationships and new experiences. However, the deeper part of that journey is realizing the many ways in which our souls connect to a higher purpose— the fact that we have a collective responsibility to act for the greater good of our fellow souls. This calling has taken me on a journey, a sacred pilgrimage that beckoned my soul into awareness of the importance of Empowerment in our community.

In today’s world, we are surrounded by diversity and those that are taking a stand against outdated biases and value systems that suppress those differences. As an Indo-Caribbean-American born Hindu male, I have been exposed to many different value systems ranging from very “old-school/conservative” to vastly liberal and “new age.”

What I found stood out to me most, is the need to truly think, reflect, and challenge the beliefs we’ve inherited, particularly from our family and community structures.

I used to believe that I was not affected by these stigmas and biases. I maintained my personal view that we are all created equally and that as long as I held true to that belief, I was doing my part. However, I often felt a sense of restlessness amidst deeper discussions about empowerment when it came down to the question of taking action. For instance, the movement for female empowerment has always been frequently discussed within my social circle. While I felt very passionate and supported the necessity of empowerment work, I often felt that I was being challenged with a problem that was not my own since I do not personally believe in the oppression or suppression of women and certain distinctions between males and females in the Caribbean community are very much reinforced by family value systems, cultural beliefs, and religious constructs. It was “normal.” We hear it all the time from our elders. “Woman suppose to deh kitchen!” “Who guh marry you if you can’t cook” or the endless jokes about “roti making.” Whereas men are expected to do “hard wuk,” provide for and protect their families, and be the head of household. Any deviation from this hypermasculine perspective raises the question: “Wah kinda man is you?” It is easy to be complacent when these biases have been reinforced for generations within our community. However the truth is we all are affected by these stigmas.

As I became aware of this, I was unsure of what I could do to be part of the change and was struggling to recognize my call to action.

The shift in my perspective and recognition of my call to action took place within the walls of the Temple. As a Shakti worshipper within Hinduism, our main deity is Mother Kaali— the embodiment of maternal divinity, strength, healing, and enlightenment. As I became more involved in this worship, I began to recognize how my own complacent attitude towards empowerment was not acceptable. Becoming closer to the ‘Divine Mother’ in essence brought me to a place of realization in terms of the power that society has shunned by suppressing the “feminine aspect.” This shift in thinking was also largely fueled by many conversations with one of the temple Priestesses, Joanna Ganesh, who is an active agent in the quest for empowerment for all and a Social Worker by profession. Joanna would actively question inequalities that exist within the Caribbean community, particularly within the temple, as religious and cultural beliefs often limit the role of women to that of secondary helpers. At times, I found myself feeling very defensive as I tried to process dismantling years of reinforced biases that are heavily propagated within the community. As I prepared this piece, I connected with Joanna to reflect on that crucial period of time where she would speak to our circle about empowerment.

She shared some powerful insights:

As I grew within my profession as a Social Worker, I began to learn a lot about different stigmas and made connections to those that existed in Caribbean Culture. In church, I recognized stigmas as barriers for not only females, but people in general that wanted to be involved. I realized that the key was rising above fear and standing my ground. I turned to scriptures and focused on reading between the lines to gain an understanding of them in a “non-masculine way,” but in understanding the metaphors and messages behind the text. This enabled me to speak up and to raise awareness and ultimately utilize the support system we have in place to bring about change. Our church leadership and our elders are fortunately very open minded and supportive. I found a way to connect to my higher power in a way that made me feel empowered.” —Pujarin Joanna Ganesh

Reflecting on what Joanna shared really helped me to reflect on my journey. As she embarked on her quest, she also shared this process with our circle and essentially built a bridge for me and others to cross. It is essential to read between the lines of the biases we have inherited within the contexts of culture and community. We all have experiences, insights, and the ability to question “the way things are” in pursuit of something better. In pursuit of fairness and equal opportunity.

The answers we come up with and the lessons we learn are the bricks we can use to build our own bridges on our journey to empowering others.

The purpose of sharing my journey is to spread encouragement within the community. My learning process was challenging at times but filled with teachable moments, supportive voices, and inspiration from the Divine and my peers. Oftentimes in travel, we must cross many bridges to arrive at our destination. These were my bridges and in turn I have realized it is essential for us all to become bridges for those who are not yet enlightened through our words, actions, and compassion for all. I am sure there are many others who are where I once was, complacently waiting for a bridge, for a call to action. This is only the beginning for me and I look forward to connecting with others so that we can make this pilgrimage together.

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