Testimony: From Hindu as religion to cultural identity

illustrated drop cap for the letter II am an Indo-Trinidadian woman who settled on Turtle Island in 1999 — more specifically, in Brampton, Ontario, in Canada. Despite an early unwavering religious conviction, my relationship with Hinduism, the religion of my childhood, remains complicated. 

Way back when I first left Trinidad, it felt as if I had to hold on to those oft-repeated Hindu mantras for dear life. This was particularly true as the instability brought by my immigration was amplified by worry that my grandmother would have difficulty moving countries while navigating the bizarre experience of skipping three grades upon transitioning to high school in Canada. 

But then my experiences over the past decade as a social worker in North Bay, Port Perry, and Toronto — three cities driven by white supremacy — provide a stark contrast to the life I had when I first moved here. Indeed, the harsh realities of the rampant fuckery I have survived have forced my own reckoning with the oppression inherent in all religions, including Hinduism.  

But first, a few notes about the rampant fuckery:

I was still in training as a hospital discharge planner for my first social work job after grad school when the children of a patient I was scheduled to see suggested that “maybe you’re not the best one to work with our mother.” I would later learn that their mother had waited for about a week until a white orthopedic surgeon was on call to do her procedure and that she would yell obscenities at all of the BIPOC orthopedic surgeons who tried to help heal her broken leg. I got no help from the the white supremacist trainer, who seemed to take some sick delight in clarifying to this patient’s children and myself that I had better learn how to handle these situations if I intended to be a competent social worker. 

I was still on probation for this job, with a lease in a new city where I barely knew anyone and the additional pressure of tons of student debt hanging over my head, when I took a deep breath and mentally recited Namo Namo jagan mataa, Vidya pradayani Maha Saraswati, Namo namo amar kalyani, Mata Saraswati namastute, while making my way to meet another old white supremacist woman. I had not even made it to her bedside before she pointed at me, and screamed, “You!” 

Honestly, out of all the things that I anticipated coming out of her mouth next, “When I get out of here, we are going dancing!” would not have made the first 1,000 things I would have remotely guessed. But that is what followed, to my sheer surprise and absolute relief. I likely would have said to loved ones that evening on a phone call that our exchange proved beyond a doubt that there is a God. While this is one example of a day in my social work career, I have survived more than a decade of these experiences. White supremacy fucks with me daily. 

According to the version of Hinduism that I grew up with, dharma represents all that is necessary for folx to thrive in society. It is a value system that includes prioritizing compassion, honesty, understanding, and humility. This still resonates with who I am as a person outside religion. Sadly, however, my grasp of Hinduism is limited to what survived colonization by white supremacists: My ancestors came to Trinidad following the abolition of slavery by the British between 1834 and 1838. Given what we understand of indentured servitude, their language was violently ripped from their throats in the name of capitalism. 

While they lost their mother tongue, my ancestors managed to hold onto Hinduism, which they passed down through the generations. It is why Trinidad and Tobago is one of only a handful of countries that recognize Diwali, the most popular Hindu celebration, as a statutory holiday. 

I can only imagine the trauma of being forced to communicate in the language of your colonizer, but I believe that experience silenced my ancestors from sharing details of these violations. In fact, it is a large part of why it feels like my responsibility to bear witness to their experiences. 

I believe that my ancestors relied on their Hindu beliefs to carry them through this adversity. Surviving this kind of oppression remains a testament to the power of their beliefs, and perhaps the power of Hinduism. 

As much as I trust that Hinduism sustained my ancestors in times of adversity, as it did for me, I also know that it has become harder over the years to hold on to my once unwavering beliefs. 

Unfortunately, as we approach 3.3 million deaths globally from the COVID-19 pandemic, my experiences in a social work career over which employers have routinely silenced, derailed, and gaslit the fuck out of me, all the while coopting the language of social justice, I trust in Hinduism less than before. I used to wonder if my grandparents would be disappointed in me for how my religious convictions have wavered of late, but in 2017, following white supremacist workplace harassment, when nobody would hire me, I had a great deal of time to reflect more about them and how they might feel with me relating to Hinduism as more of a cultural identity than my religion as the years have passed. I wondered whether they could have imagined the challenges I would face while raising me back in Trinidad to have integrity and speak truth to power. I wondered if they knew that I would settle on this stolen land full of post-racial myths fueled by white mediocrity tormenting me daily. Thankfully, I never hesitated to oppose them in childhood, even when we disagreed, and the emotional safety that they provided me then paved the way for my profound ability to think critically, including about Hinduism now. 

In some ways, very little has changed. I still identify as Hindu when asked. I still instinctively mentally recite the mantras my grandparents taught me as a child in moments of despair as an adult.

Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, artist, and educator who prioritizes equity in all her work. Her visual art was featured in Pandemic: A Feminist Response, and the zine, CRIP COLLAB. She has taught “Justice and the Poor: Issues of Race, Class, and Gender” at Nipissing University, facilitates Sustainable Resistance for BIPOC Folx workshops and will teach Writing for Social Change at the Loft Literary Center. Her work has been published by Huffington Post, Healthline, MedTruth, Verywell Mind, Prism, Canadaland, Community-Centric Fundraising, Giddy, Chatelaine, etc. She can be found on LinkedIn