Uwahnie Martinez

Spirituality and Colonial Resistance in India and Belize

By Ty Kakkad
Posted June 20, 2022

“We weren’t religious; we were spiritual.”

–Uwahnie Martinez, Director, Palmento Grove Cultural Institute, March 7 2022 (photo of Uwahnie Martinez, above, by James Diedrick)

Spirituality has many different connotations in the English language today. The term is used in so many different contexts and associations, religious or otherwise, that as Philip Sheldrake notes it is “often vague and difficult to define because it is increasingly detached from religious belief systems” (Sheldrake 8). Although spirituality is still part of many different religions and is tied to those religions in some major ways, it is used today in a range of different cultural contexts and therefore cannot be tied down to a singular definition or set of beliefs and practices. Many people practice spirituality today in many different ways, some within specific religious traditions and others completely independent from organized religion. A couple of distinct examples of the different broad approaches to spirituality today are Hinduism, which embodies classic religious spiritualities, and the spirituality of the Garifuna people in Latin America, which showcases an increasingly popular secular approach to spirituality that does not necessarily conform to the systematizing nature and group mentality of religion. Many different spiritual traditions are contextualized within any given religion, and they have distinctive features and histories including highly developed theory and value systems that are not simply based on prayer and meditation, as spirituality is. As a continuation of this idea, spirituality exists as a concept outside of religious influences, whether it is because it consists of developed practices before the imposition of a religious identity on a group of people or as practices that emerged as a connection to ancestral roots and a simultaneous rejection of religion in the form of colonial resistance.

The term “spirituality” originally emerged in the 14th century from the Latin “spiritualitas,” which in turn is derived from the New Testament Greek “pneuma,” or “spirit.” Biblically, the term “spirituality” was intended to refer to anything that was the opposite of “fleshliness,” which, in a moral sense, refers to everything contrary to the spirit of God. As the term clearly has these religious origins, it is also important to note that all the great world religions have some sort of foundation based on spiritual beliefs and teachings. Despite the fact that this is where the term originates, the concept of spirituality as we know it today is overarching and covers many different contexts and cultural settings. These diverse forms of spirituality can be seen today through the lens of various religions practiced around the world; it is also often used in opposition to religious systems by indigenous and displaced peoples all around the world who adapted their practices and beliefs due to colonialism but continue to find ways to connect back to their spiritual roots and heritage in a spirit of resistance to colonial rule and legacies.

Hinduism before and after British colonization

Take Hinduism, for example. Hinduism is a classic world religion today, sometimes even thought of as one of the world’s earliest surviving religions due to the existence of foundational scriptures dating back to around 1750 BC and evidence of worship dating back to around 2500 BC. The religion has a variety of origins, dating back to the Pre-Vedic period around 2500 BC. But it appears to have solidified and transformed into a religious system as a result of colonization by the British and academic claims by British colonial scholars and subsequent colonial social structures. In this context it is important to emphasize that Hinduism before British colonization was not a system of overarching practices and beliefs, but rather, as Philip Sheldrake has written, “a complex of religious and philosophical traditions, scriptures, devotional or folk religion and ascetical movements” (Sheldrake 131). It is a unique religion through the way that it accepts all kinds of worship and all ways of seeking out the divine. Although there are scriptures and a pantheon of deities, Hinduism ultimately promotes the idea that all ways of worship lead to the same divine. It is a faith grounded in spiritual practices and the belief in the eternality of the soul. As with Buddhism, the ultimate goal in life is to achieve spiritual transcendence (moksha, or nirvana in Buddhism) through the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara, or reincarnation) depending on your actions and deeds as a human (karma). Although the “invention” of Hinduism came about as an approach to understanding and categorizing the semblance of a religion that made up these spiritual ideas, Bean Heath notes that Orientalist scholars “drew on the expansive materials of Indian culture in such a way that they were treated as connected parts of an overarching culture” (Heath 3). This led to an artificial synthesis of the diverse traditions of Indian culture, transforming Hinduism into a religious category that had not previously existed in such a cohesive way (Heath 3). Scholars who created encyclopedias of the classical and near-eastern gods misconstrued the majority of Indian spiritual ideas into a system of beliefs, traditions, and practices that served both to lump the people of India together into a category for colonial, bureaucratic reasons and to argue for the comparability of Hinduism as a religion to Christianity (Dalrymple). It is important to note here that the British appear to have invented the religious category and identity of Hinduism, but in no way did they invent the concept. Many spiritual practices and traditions exist today in different sects, cultural groups, and ways of worship as part of the open nature of the religion.

 Hinduism does have a foundation in specific spiritual traditions and practices, especially as one of the key ideas that does in fact tend to be a common belief throughout Hinduism is the concept of ātman, which has many different translations in English, some of which are the non-material self, eternal self, spirit, essence, soul, or breath. There are many sources of what is considered to be Hindu spirituality. There are foundational scriptures and mythological narratives which as Sheldrake notes are believed to be “divinely revealed texts, or if not divinely revealed, the eternal laws of the spiritual world” (135). Due to the incredibly broad nature of Hinduism, these supposed sources originally transmitted orally derive from different places and times and present many philosophical teachings, often encouraging spiritual detachment and the search for self-realization and a moral life among the unclear “reality” in the contingent world and what is really real in eternal spiritual terms. The concept that what is presented as real is not really real and one must move from the unclear reality to what is actually truly real is a commonly held belief in Hinduism, involving direct approaches to the spiritual path.

Spirituality and Colonial Resistance among the Garifuna

The Garifuna people in Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala have also experienced threats to their ideas of spirituality and/or religious practices because of British (and Spanish) colonists. In contrast to Hindus in India, Garifuna spirituality and practices were never generalized or systematized by the British, but rather absorbed influences from Roman Catholicism via the Spanish (and later British Methodism), as well as spiritual practices associated with their ancestors in West Africa and the Arawak and Carib people (Johnson 70-74). Garifuna spirituality places an emphasis on the power of ancestors over life after death and before moving on to the afterlife. As a result of Belize’s multitude of ethnic and cultural groups, the ways in which many Garifuna people hold onto their Afro-Caribbean roots through spirituality and resistance to imposed religious systems is an example of the attempt by many of Belize’s cultural groups to “embrace the strength and beauty of [its] diverse cultures and simultaneously to shed the prejudices created by the hierarchical social structures of colonialism” (Flores 3).

During my visit to the Palmento Grove Garifuna Cultural Institute in Belize (as part of an Agnes Scott College Global Journeys course), I heard a presentation by Institute founder and director Uwahnie Martinez, who emphasized that the Garifuna people are spiritual, not religious, and noting that ancestor worship is more important to most Garifuna people than, say, belief in the Holy Trinity. In her remarks she noted the fierce independence of the Garifuna, and their resistance to imposed, European forms of religious belief. The way that spirits of Garifuna ancestors mediate between individual Garifuna and the external world is a form of respect paid to their Afro-Caribbean heritage and roots. Martinez put it this way:

Our spirituality has two dimensions. First, we live together, as a community. “I for you. You for me.” We take care of each other. We live communally; we have relatives, friends; their children are our children. And vice versa. And then the second aspect of our spirituality is the idea that we say our ancestral spirits, those who have passed, they have just transitioned. So while they are not here with us in flesh, they are here with us in spirit. So often they come to us like a voice in our head, guiding us, showing us the way.  . . . many times, because of [imposed] religion, we have not known how to deal with it, and as such we have been misinterpreted as being crazy. . . . having been  miseducated, having adopted Catholicism and religion, it has taught us that much of what has to do with our spirituality is demonic. . . . But when you do [embrace spirituality], you get to realize it is your strength. . . . and the reason it has been demonized.(Martinez)

Ancestor worship and belief in the souls of the departed and the influence of the dead on the living are customs that are prevalent across Africa, and represent continued resistance by many to the influence of Christianity and its imposition by the British. As John Kapya Kaoma has observed, colonial settlers often viewed the religions of the people they colonized from a western and Eurocentric perspective, not understanding that their views of the dichotomous “sacred” versus “profane” were not shared by the people they colonized (Kaoma 59). This distinction between what used to be considered religious spirituality and contemporary uses of the term spirituality creates a new sphere of thought that is neither an offshoot of religion or secularism but instead introduces a new cultural category with new social institutions, cultural practices, and personal identities (Huss 101). In terms of the Garifuna people, this new category can be viewed as a departure from religion as it was imposed on them and as a return to their West African, Arawak, and Carib roots through their reverence for and belief in the role of ancestors in their lives.

Although there is substantial evidence of the influence of the British on Hinduism as a religious group and identity, there seems to be an overemphasis on the contributions and inventions of the colonial British on Indian culture and religion. The caste system is a feature of Indian culture that dates far back before colonial times, with evidence of its existence in the Rigveda, one of the earliest scriptures from the Vedic period, and later foundational texts as well. It is undeniable that the British, as colonial powers do, used the caste system to their advantage and turned it into something that stratified society more as a hierarchy than as groups of people living together in harmony. The caste system was originally used to organize local populations, assigning roles to groups of people to ensure that necessary tasks were completed and order ensured among populations, but it was appropriated by the British colonial rulers as a way for the “ruling power to embrace local traditions and utilise them for their own means” (Heath). Just as there is evidence of much of the content of Hinduism stemming from the Indus Valley much before colonialism (but lacking a systematized structure or identity), it is evident that before the British occupied India, anything other than what was Muslim or Judeo-Christian at the time was considered heathen. This further suggests the generalization of Indian culture into Hinduism sometime during that period. It is important to note that the role of religion in colonial resistance and nationalism has roots in the foundation of what became the Hindu religion, which was many different aspects of what was Indian culture at the time. The British did not invent the concept of Hinduism, and the existence of Hindu spiritual traditions and practices today are evidence of the presence of religion in anti-colonialism and colonial resistance.

Spirituality and Freedom from Oppression

Spirituality is a broad term for a concept that is used in many different contexts today, including those involving post-colonial resistance to neo-colonial forms of European religion. As I have attempted to demonstrate, religion and spirituality have often played a major role in colonial resistance, whether it comes down to reclaiming certain traditions and practices that existed since before Christianity and colonialism within the capacious label and structures of organized religion or completely abandoning religious “systems” in favor of reconnecting with indigenous heritages and spiritual beliefs. Analyzing the spirituality of the Garifuna people and Hinduism as a comparison point allows us to better understand the evolution of the term and concept of spirituality as well as helping us consider the different ways spirituality exists in modern and contemporary society and coexists alongside specific religions. It is important to  note and honor the classic religious spirituality of Hinduism and the pre-Christian spiritual beliefs of the Garifuna. It is equally important to acknowledge the different ways that spirituality allows these cultures to reaffirm their history and their heritage, while simultaneously rejecting the way that views of their cultures were used as tools for oppression in the past.

Works Cited

Dalrymple, William. “Gods and Monsters.” The Guardian, 25th August 2007, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/aug/25/art.art. Accessed 4th March 2012.

Flores, Barbara A. T. Religious Education and Theological Praxis in a Context of Colonization: Garifuna Spirituality as a Means of Resistance, Northwestern University, Ann Arbor, 2001. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/dissertations-theses/religious-education-theological-praxis-context/docview/276081061/se-2?accountid=8381.

Heath, Ben. “The Impact of European Colonialism on the Indian Caste System.” E-International Relations, 27 Nov. 2012, https://www.e-ir.info/2012/11/26/the-impact-of-european-colonialism-on-the-indian-caste-system/.

Huss, Boaz. “The Sacred Is the Profane, Spirituality Is Not Religion: The Decline of the Religion/Secular Divide and the Emergence of the Critical Discourse on Religion.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, vol. 27, no. 2, Jan. 2015, pp. 97–103. EBSCOhost, https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.43907185&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Johnson, Paul Christopher. Diaspora Conversions: Black Carib Religion and the Recovery of Africa. University of California Press, 2017.

Kaoma, Kapya John. “African Religion and Colonial Rebellion: The Contestation of Power in Colonial Zimbabwe’s Chimurenga of 1896-1897.” Journal for the Study of Religion, vol. 29, no. 1, 2016, pp. 57–84, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24805707. Accessed 11 May 2022.

Martinez, Uwahnie. Presentation on Garifuna history and culture, Palmento Grove Garifuna Cultural Institute, March 7, 2022.

Sheldrake, Philip. Spirituality: A Guide for the Perplexed. Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. EBSCOhost, https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib&db=nlebk&AN=802002&site=eds-live&scope=site.