BHOHP project overview

The Life of Hindus in Britain

What do we really know about the different communities of Asians living in Britain, in particular the Hindus?

In the majority of cases, the only reference points for the indigenous British population are found in films such as Bhaji on the Beach or comedy shows like Goodness Gracious Me. However, both those within and outside the community have begun to recognise a growing need to address these largely stereotypical portrayals. It is for this reason that the Oxford Centre for Vaishnava and Hindu Studies launched its British Hinduism Oral History project in March 2001, to record the history of Hindus in Britain. The memories and impressions of first generation British Hindus will be invaluable in gaining a wider understanding of this community The project is unique in that it is not only the first of its kind to look at this community in depth but also to compare differences between the development of Hindu communities across Britain.

So far, only a fraction of the planned three hundred interviews have been conducted but already a picture of migration and community building is emerging that far exceeds and contradicts initial expectations. Each story told is rich in memory and detail enabling the future generations to hear, feel and even see for themselves their often ill-preserved past.

One of the first issues to be raised in the interviews is how many of those questioned would describe themselves as ‘Hindus’. If the answer to this question is ‘yes’, the respondents are then asked about it means to them to be a Hindu and what, if anything, they feel they have in common with others who call themselves such? Responses received so far have been varied: one individual claimed that everybody inhabiting the earth is a Hindu, another stated that one could only be born a Hindu, while many have suggested that being a Hindu simply equals being a good person. It is interesting to note, therefore, that one of the interviewees – a Bengali head teacher from Whitechapel – would be considered a Hindu simply because of his extensive service to the community, even though he is a communist.

Although it may be assumed that all respondents have similar outlooks because their ancestors all originate from the Indian subcontinent, the interviews have challenged this perception. For example, a Guyanese respondent whose ancestors had migrated from India in the 1820s, said that neither he nor his family had visited India and that he supported the West Indian cricket team, yet he still spoke Hindi and Sanskrit and was the Pandit of his local Caribbean Hindu Temple.

The one thing that links all these interviewed is the fact that they arrived in Britain between the 1940s and the 1970s, establishing a community that is now four hundred thousand people strong. The vast majority of the original migrants are Gujaratis who arrived from India or, following the turmoil in Uganda in the early 1970s, Africa. It is well documented that these Gujaratis brought with them wealth and a desire to build temples wherever they lived, which is why most Hindu temples in Britain date back to this period. However, the mere existence of such temples do not convey how the smaller Hindu communities, such as the Bengalis and Tamils, practice their faith. For example, to Bengalis the principal place for worship is the home, not the temple, with the annual Durga Puja celebrations being their only public religious celebration. Likewise, a respondent from Sri Lanka had built a temple in his garden, which is now visited by all tenets of British society, including Christians and Sikhs. Even considering those who originate from one particular region of India, there are many differences in religious practice. For example, the Punjabis belong to the Arya Samaj movement, followers of Sanatan Dharma and various other sects such the Sai Baba movement.

The project aims to look at two distinct types of individuals. Firstly, those people who are seen as having enhanced the prestige and self-respect of the Hindu Community in Britain. Included amongst these are business people, leading professionals and those who have developed Hindu representation within the British public sector. Secondly, but by no means of less importance, are the individuals who are considered by their local communities to be outstanding exemplars of their faith.

The stories of both these sections of the community need to be recorded so that society as a whole can recognise the enormous contribution Indian-born Hindus have made to their host nation. Additionally, the efforts of local community leaders to integrate with their host community as well as create separate public spaces in which the Hindu community has developed, are also vital to this historical record. Initiatives such as multi-faith gatherings, inviting school children to local temples and public celebrations of events such as Diwali have all helped to educate the host community about the meanings and origins of Hindu rituals.

All those interviewed so far stand firmly in the belief that he or she is British, their active participation in the public life of the country attesting to this. For many, India is a spiritual home, a place for pilgrimage and the country where family and friends still reside. However, Britain is considered to be their home and where their loyalties lie.

Each story is an inspiring chronicle of adapting to a new and strange environment. For example, the first migrants found few places that sold Indian spices, vegetables and sweetmeats. In the early days, as now, festivals are regarded as much of a social event as a religious one – an opportunity to mix with members of their own community. Women in particular made enormous efforts to ensure the preservation of Hindu culture within their home, as well as instilling the basic values of good behaviour and charity in their children, believing these things to be more important than daily worship or learning Sanskrit.

Many communities ran classes in Gujarati, Hindi, Bengal and Tamil to help children become acquainted with their mother tongue. Of particular interest is how some of those interviewed learned English. For example, one Gujarati gentleman picked it up while working for the British army in Africa during the Second World War. He would try to decipher the English newspapers and ask his officers for assistance whenever he got stuck.

Most British Hindus refuse to grant the issue of caste any importance whatsoever. When probed, some suggested that they would prefer their children to marry into the their own caste, but the majority perceived it as part of a past they have left behind. However this could also be a reflection of the high caste profile of most those interviewed so far.

Many of the respondents spoke of the perceived disunity amongst Hindus and the need to overcome this in order to gain wider political representation in Britain. While they considered themselves Bengal, Tamil or Gujarati Hindus, rather than simply Hindus, all proudly assert themselves as British nationals. Although the majority see racism as a relatively recent phenomenon, some recall their first attempts to gain accommodation and employment in Britain with a shudder. However, most prefer to dwell on the touching kindnesses they encountered when they first came here. One lady referred to the helping hand she received when she arrived destitute in the winter of 1969, as a sign from God.

So what do these elderly Hindus think of the future of their faith and community in the country they have adopted? Most are hopeful: their children are successful, respectful and still adhere to the principles learned within the family home. Some suggest that their community’s religious leaders and teachers should be well-versed in English so that the youth do not feel alienated from, and can relate to, temple worship as an activity which means more than ritual and convention.

Others are less happy when reflecting on the future. They fear a politicising of their religion and a swamping out of their own particular creeds by the need to unite British Hindus. These individuals are proud of the diversity of their faith and fear that a simplistic rendering of their religion in places such as schools might trivialise its differences. Others feel sadness at the break-up of marriages and the lack of continuity between generations in the Diaspora community in Britain. They suggest self-reflection on the part of the community and a need to understand the predicament of the young, whose norms and values are influenced as much by their environment as their families.

The British Hindu Oral History Project will ensure that the insight and wisdom of this first generation is recorded so that we can all appreciate the rich diversity of the Hindu culture and its positive contribution to Britain. It is also hoped that this will help the community itself, especially the youth, understand its place in history and the need to retain its unique identity in the future.

Shalini Sharma