Prathit Misra | Rastafari: the Indian connection
Like millions of Indians, I had just a faint idea about Rastafarianism, hearing the word in Bob Marley’s songs, his dreadlocks and unkempt beard appeared similar to the Indian holy men with long locks, who lead a spiritual life. Living in Jamaica now, it is apparent that the cross-pollination between Rastafarianism and the Indian culture is deeper at the level of philosophy and belief, and not limited to a few physical similarities.
Rastafarianism is a Jamaican religious and social movement that began in the 1930s and has adherents all over the world today. It started among Afro-Jamaicans with an urge to reject white supremacism, replacing it with a new identity based on the reclamation of their African heritage.
As a result of the unequal treatment meted out by the colonialists, the Afro-Jamaican community developed an urge to redefine Christianity in the African mould, that would give them a greater sense of ownership and belonging. In doing so, Rastafarianism absorbed traits from other cultural groups present at the place and time of its development, the most prominent being the Indians. However, some scholars like Michael Barnett (Elliott School of International Affairs) limit Rastafari ideology to ‘an Afro-centralised blend of Christianity and Judaism’.
The Indians had established themselves as a vibrant cultural community in Jamaica by the 1930s when Rastafarianism began to take root. The cultural independence of the Indians from the whites appealed to the burgeoning urge of Afro-Jamaicans for an independent identity. Similar socio-economic status, familiarity from working alongside in the plantations and intermarriage assisted in the absorption. Affirming the same, Bob Marley’s granddaughter Donisha Prendergast, an actor, film-maker, poet and activist, says, “Sharing energy with the sadhus (ascetics) on the riverbank in Varanasi was parallel to the experience of being with the Rastaman in Jamaica. There’s an old connection between these cultures: when Indian indentured labourers were brought to the Caribbean plantations, they brought with them ideas of spirituality, spices and the beautiful plant that would become a central part of the Rastafari culture.”
INDICATIONS OF ABSORPTION
The most visible philosophical interchange is visible in accepting Ras Tafari, the Ethiopian Emperor, as the God incarnate by Rastafarians. It is similar to the Indian concept of the king as the God incarnate or Avatar, most notably Rama and Krishna. Joseph Hibbert, one of the first preachers of Rastafarianism, had admitted that he acquired books to learn about the Indian deities Rama, Krishna and Buddha as well as the emperor Ashoka. It could have made Hibbert believe that every nation and race had their own God, leading him to depict the Ethiopian emperor as an Avatar, a God incarnate. It is also more than a mere coincidence that Rastafarianism has a diversity of beliefs, much like the traditional Indian religions.
Leonard Howell, one of the most influential preachers of the Rastafari movement, also called the First Rafta, was born in Clarendon, a region with a substantial Indian community. An Indian friend changed Howell’s name to Gagunguru Maragh (translated in Hindi to ‘Gyan’ – knowledge; Guru – teacher; Maharaj – king).
The Indians and the Afro-Jamaicans intermingled during the Indian community religious celebrations that included prayers, rituals, dinners, music and dancing. There seems to be a strong logic in Dr Laxmi and Ajai Mansingh’s argument in the Caribbean Journal of Religious Studies that the chant of ‘Jai’ (victory) in these celebrations was modified and adopted by the Rastafaris as ‘Jah’, a central Rastafari word referring to God. Early Rastafarian prayers also have many words in Hindi, Urdu and Bengali, which are all Indian languages.
It is common knowledge that marijuana was introduced in Jamaica by the Indian indentured labourers. Many Indians also smoked marijuana as a religious tradition which seems to have rubbed off in the Rastafari culture. That Rastafaris call marijuana Kali, a popular Indian goddess in whose worship marijuana is smoked, and refer to the pipe as chillum, its Indian name, further corroborates the absorption.
Anyone who has been to India can testify to the prominence of vegetarianism as a religious ideology there. The small Indian community that came to Jamaica was but a microcosm of the country and had ascetics with long locks, practising vegetarianism. It is possible that these practices appealed to the early Rastafaris and therefore incorporated in the faith.
The Rasta practice of ‘grounding’ is similar to the Indian tradition of ‘shastrartha’ or ‘debate’, where non-combative discussions on the religion’s principles and their relevance to present times take place. Whether it came through the Indians or not, it points to a similar approach and the importance of internal democracy in both cultures.
In his 2007 thesis on Indian influences on Rastafarianism, Vincent Burgess of the Ohio State University writes, “Hinduism had a profound influence on the inherent mysticism found in Rastafarianism, including a reverence for all things in their natural state.”
As we celebrate 175 years of the Indian community in Jamaica, these similarities have become a common heritage of our countries. The aim is not to claim an Indian hand in the development of Rastafarianism. The aim is to elucidate that Indians and Jamaicans are much more similar than we believe we are, in ways that we are not even aware of.