His Excellency President David Granger: Please be seated, thank you. Thank you, Bhai Sasenarine for your introduction. We would have met each other on the university campus, not only in the VIP lounge of the airport, many years ago and, of course, he is the former distinguished Minister of Finance and a great Guyanese citizen.
Honourable Amna Ally, Minister of Social Cohesion; His Excellency, Mr. Venkatachalam Mahalingam, High Commissioner of India; His Holiness Swami Purnanandaji Maharaj; Swami Shivashankaranandji Maharaj – resident swami; Justice Nandram Kissoon and Mr. Jailall Kissoon, Mr. Indi Beharry, special invitees, devotees, principal and students of the Hindu College, members of the media, ladies and gentlemen.
First allow me to apologise for speaking out of turn on this programme, but I have asked to spend only a short time here because, as you know, over the last week we’ve had some non-peaceful events in our country, to put it mildly, and twenty-four hours ago I was at the Mazaruni prison, (at, not in) and I have some other matters of state to attend to. So I have asked to speak early in the programme, although I hope that in future years I would be able to spend much more time here. This is my first visit to this campus – to this ashram – and I promise you it will not be the last; so please keep on inviting me.
Ladies and gentlemen, my brothers and sisters, the Guyana Sevashram Sangha is an iconic institution in Guyana, not only from the point of view of religion but also of culture and education. This year this ashram celebrates its 60th anniversary, having been established by an Act of the Legislative Assembly in 1956; so it is a very auspicious year. Its genesis is integrally linked to the propagation of Hinduism in what used to be called the British West Indies; what we now know as the Commonwealth Caribbean.
Hinduism, the great religion of the east, was first brought to our shores by the indentured immigrants from the subcontinent; but as you know very well it was the first Prime Minister of India, Sri Jawaharlal Nehru, who, conscious of the cultural needs of the growing Indian diaspora- because as you know, the British empire created a huge Indian diaspora not always voluntary. But it was Sri Jawaharlal Nehru who understood the cultural needs of his people and he requested that Bharat Sevashram Sangha that is in India to send a mission to what was then the West Indies.
The mission left Calcutta in September 1950 by ship and arrived first of all in Trinidad and Tobago, three and a half months later in December 1950. The mission then left Trinidad for Guyana in September 1951. Swami Purnanandaji Maharaj, the founder of this ashram, was left behind in Trinidad but the mission itself received an enthusiastic welcome here amidst the local Hindu community. Swami Purnanandaji arrived in Guyana in October 1955 and he established the ashram here at Cove and John on six hectares of low-lying land, donated by Mr. and Mrs. Resaul Maharaj, and here we are today. He was able to build a school on these grounds.
The Swami can be considered one of the pioneers of Hinduism in Guyana. He is also recognised for the establishment of what was known as the East Coast High School, now known as the Hindu College, and today we’ve had beautiful renditions from students of this college and you should have noticed that it’s a non-sectarian college, accepting students of all faiths, of all ethnic backgrounds. The Swami encouraged girls to receive an education because he saw education as a means of empowering women and this is something that I have adopted: that every child, every Guyanese child must be in school, particularly the girl children, because they become mothers and they teach their children and that is why, with the support of my Minister of Social Cohesion, we have been trying to provide transportation in the form of boats, buses and bicycles to make sure that children get to school.
This was the lesson of the Swami sixty years ago and this is what I have gathered from him and this is what I will continue, not sixty years from now, but while you all give me the authority to do so. The college that he founded here also gives opportunities for poor children, to allow them scholarships and bursaries so that they could attend classes. His example is so relevant today and I would like to ask those of you of means, those of you who can afford to do so, to help poor children to get to school, stay in school and graduate. You will see the difference it will make to Guyana.
The Swami encouraged, also, a series of successors and successes because his example right here in Guyana was able to create the breeding ground, the crucible for other Swamis to be educated and to emerge and we have to thank the founder for his good work. The Guyana Sevashram Sangha is an integral part of the Hindu community of this country; for one hundred and seventy-eight years, an incredibly long period of time, that community has practiced, propagated and preserved the great religion of Hinduism. The great faith and the rich traditions and festivals have not only knitted the community together but have also given light to our present generation, and for generations to come, that Hinduism will remain vibrant in Guyana.
Today we observe Maha Shivaratri, the great night of Shiva. It is an auspicious festival for Hindus. Maha Shivaratri means exactly that; not only the great night but also the great power of Lord Shiva in the universe. This auspicious festival is characterized by acts of devotion and piety, acts of veneration to Lord Shiva. Maha Shivaratri enriches the culture of the entire country.
All Guyanese are proud of the fact that we are a land of these great religions – Islam, Hinduism and Christianity and other faiths, faiths which are practiced freely in this country. We are also proud of the fact that, unlike many other countries with multiple religions, we are at peace with ourselves and Guyana’s been spared violent religious conflicts. The mandir, the masjid and the church can co-exist peacefully in Guyana. This is a tribute to the high degree of religious tolerance within our country and we owe a debt of gratitude to the pioneers of religious propagation here in Guyana, like the Swami. Tolerance, also, is a result of the fact that our Constitution guarantees religious freedom, including the freedom to practise, the freedom to observe religious festivals and traditions, as we are doing here today.
We recognise and respect the right of Hindus to observe their religious festivals and to propagate their religion, especially through education. And let me divert to say that, quite recently, I was on the West Coast of Demerara in Region Three where I visited, I was honoured to be accepted, to be invited by another Swami, Aksharananda, and recently I was at the Islamic school in East Street, and I had the good fortune to have met the king of Saudi Arabia and I was able to bring back a small gift for the Islamic community – a gift of Zam-Zam water. And these events – and yesterday as you know, I was in Bartica where I worshiped at my own church, Saint John the Baptist Anglican Church – but these events just show how complex a society we live, but how peacefully we can move from Hinduism to Islam, Islam to Christianity – without feeling offended or without feeling excluded.
We live in a country where we enjoy freedom to practise our religion and our beliefs. We live in a country where that freedom binds us together; doesn’t drive us apart. It teaches us respect for each other and it helps to breathe social cohesion and social harmony, despite our differences. Today, may we all as Guyanese join hands in building a more peaceful, a more cohesive nation on the foundations of respect for our religious diversity, our unity and our harmony. These were the teachings of Hinduism and this is the light which Lord Shiva shines on the entire universe.
I thank you; and may God bless you.