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RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE IMPORTANT FOR A PLURALISTIC GUYANA
By Jeff Trotman

(November 2005)

Guyana, the only English speaking country in South America, boasts six races and aspires to be an exemplary pluralistic society as symbolized by its national motto: “One People, One Nation, One Destiny”.

This land of just over 800,000 inhabitants accommodates three Great Religions – Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam – which influence the cultural dynamics of the society. At the same time, the presence of the three religions in the country could serve to inform one of the historical development of the country since the Emancipation of African slaves and Indian immigration in 1838.

East Indians make up the major racial grouping of present day Guyana with Afro Guyanese being the second largest group. The two races account for over eighty per cent of Guyana population.

East Indians are, in the main, Hindus or Muslims while Afro Guyanese generally follow the Christian faith through various denominations and with varying degrees of intensity, spanning the devout to the nominal.

It could appear incongruous that although the Muslim religion was practiced in West Africa, the origin of most Afro Guyanese, long before Christianity, that in their transposed homeland Afro Guyanese know little of this religion and even, on occasions, look at it with suspicion.

However, since the country attained political independence and subsequently became a Republic, efforts have been made by various administrations to inculcate religious tolerance among Guyanese.

One attempt has been through the legislation of public holidays from important days in the respective religions and ethnic groups quite unlike colonial times when public holidays were essentially Christian observances or Bank holidays of the colonial power – Great Britain.

For instance, at this time of year in colonial times, there would have been focus on Guy Faulkes, who attempted to burn down the British Parliament. On reflection, the dissemination of information on Guy Faulkes seemed so innocuous – without much fanfare - taking the form of radio quizzes and seemingly informal discussions in schools of “an important incident in English History”. Sometimes there were quizzes in schools on the subject.

Celebration of the event was, to a large extent, perpetrated by children, who in the main, were unaware that they were engaging in symbolic actions that commemorated a particular event in English History. One recalls that in pre-independent Guyana in early November, school aged males engaged in exploding carbon in empty tins as well as used ingenious means of creating fire works such as lighting steel wool that was attached to a wire and swirling it. Many of those youngsters did not know that they were commemorating Guy Faulkes Day.

In 1605 Guy Faulkes and some other men attempted to blow up the British Parliament with gunpowder. The plot failed and the conspirators were captured, tried, deemed guilty, and were hung, drawn and quartered with parts of their bodies displayed around Britain as a deterrent to others.

While Christian events such as Easter and Christmas have held their own in post independent Guyana, there has been accommodation of Muslim and Hindu holidays. Additionally, greater emphasis has been placed on the Emancipation Day celebration of African slaves, and Indian Arrival Day.

Two very important holidays in the Guyanese calendar are Eid-ul-Fitr and Deepawali. The former is a Muslim celebration at the end of the month of Ramadan – the most holy month in the Muslim calendar. The latter is an ancient, seasonal Hindu festival in which summer crops are harvested and the winter crops are sown. Deepawali is also intricately connected with the means of production of wealth. It is also the time coincident with the return of Ram to the kingdom of Ayodhia, thus the welcoming lights.

During the Month of Ramadan, Muslims pray and read their holy book, the Qur’an. For them, it is a period of spiritual consciousness in which they are concerned about the plight of the poor, hungry, and sick. Additionally, it is a time when every healthy, adult Muslim is required to fast and abstain from sexual relations between dawn and dusk.

At the end of this month of fasting, the first day of the tenth lunar month, Muslims don their best clothes and attend Muslim congregations in which there is much conviviality; children receives gifts, relatives and friends visit each other’s homes and share sumptuous meals and sweet-meats.

The month of Ramadan and the Eid-ul-Fitr celebration can serve as lessons to persons who are outside the Muslim faith of the commonality of man’s search for reverent communication with the Almighty and his fellow man.

It is an oft said truism that “man is a gregarious animal”. In Guyana’s search for a truly pluralistic society, one in which people from different ethic backgrounds coexist side by side in relative harmony, a national understanding of Ramadan and Eid-ul-Fitr can serve to narrow the racial divide that plagues this potentially prosperous country, and help the citizenry to work more harmoniously in productive endeavors towards a common good.

Muslims believe that it was during the month of Ramadan that their holy scripture was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Compiled in the book known as the Qur’an, these revelations essentially embrace the teachings of other religions that preceded it, making the Muslim Faith all embracing in service to one Supreme Being – an ideal cherished by the Guyanese nation through it’s motto: “One People, One Nation, One Destiny”.

Around the same time that Muslims would be ending their month of fasting with the Ei-dul-Fitr jollification, Hindus would be preparing to celebrate Deepawali, a celebration which begins in the month of Kaartik (October/November) on what they consider the darkest night in the year.

It is no surprise, then, that much light is used during Deepawali, which is also known as the festival of light. During this festival, Hindus symbolically use light to illuminate their homes, their paths, their lives, their intellect and their deeds. They are aware that Light is a universal symbol that indicates knowledge as well as dispels darkness and reveals things in true perspective.

In this regard, the festival of light as portrayed by Hindus could be rationalized as an important religious lesson in the same vein as the Christian mantra expounded by Jesus: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father who is in heaven.”

In other words, ‘The festival of light carries a deep spiritual meaning that the lamp in each individual is to be lit and the negative things are to be burned; the light of love, compassion and service is to be released for the benefit of society and humanity.

Consequentially, ‘external physical light is a symbol of an inner light of consciousness without which nothing can be perceived. Materialism, lust, anger and greed, unfortunately, often cloud the inner light of the soul’.

While many persons who are not members of the Hindu faith may be fascinated by the thousands of lighted lamps, including candles and electric lamps – in and around temples, residential and public buildings – that provide a beautiful backdrop to the colorful fireworks that thunder across the skies, they need to also be aware that Deepawali for Hindus, signifies among other things, the Triumph of Good over Evil.
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