INDIGENOUS AMERICA WAITING TO BE REDISCOVERED IN A HINDU WAY1
On 12th October, 1986, the USA organised a festival to celebrate Columbus’s discovery of the New World. The Statue of Liberty, the guardian of the New York harbour, was symbolically married to the 170-feet high statue of Columbus in Barcelona. Mr. Edward Koch, the Mayor of New York, acted as the proud father of the bride, Miss Liberty.
But one wonders if this could also be a day of jubilation for the native Indian Americans who in so far as they survived general extermination were made into hewers of wood and drawers of water in their own homes. Five hundred years ago, on this day, they fell under an evil star and a process began in which they lost their hearths and homes, their land, their liberties, their language and culture, their Gods and religion and their wonted way of life. Their funeral became the newcomers’ festivity. I could not help recalling a book which I read recently: The Inconstant Savage by H.C. Porter, published by Duckworth in 1979.
Columbus landed on the American soil on 12th October. Within three days of his landing, he noted that the natives had “quick intelligence” and would make “good servants”. But his adventure was not all for gold and political domination. He was also a faithful soldier of the Church and on the fifth day, on the 16th, he also noted of the natives that “no creed is known to them, and I believe that they would be speedily converted to Christianity”. His biographical accounts tell us that wherever he went, it was his custom to set up a cross as “an emblem of Christ Jesus our Lord, and to the honour of Christendom”.
The struggle was unequal. The newcomers had arms, horses, wheeled carriages and dogs; the natives had only their bare bodies — though as Gonzalo Fernandez Oviedo, a naturalist, observed the bones of their foreheads were “four times thicker” and so many swords were “broken on their heads with little harm done.” Soon many of them were organised into En- comienda, a form of economic organisation by which the natives were made into slaves on land which in legal fiction still belonged to them. Culturally, there was the notorious “Requerimienta”, which required the natives to embrace the Faith and to submit to the authority of the Pope and the rulers of Castile (Pope Alexander’s Bull of May 1493), which if they failed to do, empowered the Spaniards to seize their lands and goods and to enslave their persons.
The colonization and its methods did not go undebated. But with rare exceptions, the ethics and theology were all on the side of the colonizers. One Juan Gines de Sepulvada, a theoretician and theologian, argued that wars against the American Indians were “very just”, that the Indians were bound to submit to the Spaniards “as the foolish to the wise.” It was also argued that the Indians were “idolators”, an important point to make because it meant that it was quite in order and even righteous to make them slaves. Luke was also quoted: Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled — a favourite biblical text for forced conversions and for the suppression of heretics ever since St. Augustine used it in support of this purpose.
A hundred years elapse and the same drama is enacted in the North; the main characters in the drama are the British, the French and the unfortunate Red Indians. Again, God’s hand is seen in the selection of the locale and the actors. Edward Hayes, Captain and owner of a ship, ‘Golden Hind’, that sailed to St. John’s Newfoundland, assures us that God had appointed the limits of the Spaniards “not to exceed North of Florida” and that He “had reserved the countries to be by us converted unto the faith at His appointed time.”
Today’s intellectual fashion emphasizes economic and political motivation, but to the first colonizers religious motive was highly important. Robert Johnson, a future Deputy Director of the Virginia Company, urged in 1609 that the first concern of the Virginia settlement should be “to advance and spread the Kingdom of God, and the knowledge of his truth, among so many millions of men and women, savage and blind, that never yet saw the true light”.
William Crashew, an ordained Calvinist minister, made a similar exhortation in his Virginia Company sermon. He said that while the settlers made their twenty percent, they should not be forgetful “of converting ten thousand souls to God”. He added: “Remember the end of this voyage is the destruction of the Devil’s Kingdom, and propagation of the gospel.”
All this was possible because as Edward Hayes (mentioned above) had already found out in 1583 that the natives were “destitute of edge-tools and weapons, whereby they shall be unable to defend themselves or to offend us.” Missionary zeal, finding no check, became more righteous and ran riot. The results were disastrous for the cultures and religions of the people of the two Americas. Hinduism Today (Nov.-Dee., 1986 Issue) provides a telling example in Hawaiin people who “numbered nearly 500,000 a century ago, are now less than 50,000 — their culture gone, their language spoken by a mere 500 people and their Gods worshipped by a dying handful of kahuna priests.”
This is all about the past of these unfortunate people but what about their future? There are signs that they may rise again, phoenix-like, from their ashes. Their “medicine men” are beginning to speak. They are discovering that their old religion was deep, that it did not believe that man was conceived in sin but held there is only one Great Spirit and one Great Mystery which is seen all around — Is this the sarvam khalvidam brahma (verily, the whole world is Brahma) of the Hindus? Their religion believed in the great balance in nature and the great law of harmony (the rita of the Vedas).
While the Missionaries sang the familar missionary song, “Lost in the dark the heathen doth languish”, the old racial type is coming to the fore. In the North, the old stock is pretty exterminated, but in many other countries of the Central and Southern Americas, people are “growing dark”, a new racial reassertion is taking place at the biological level. Will it also lead to cultural and religious reassertion? Will the people go back to their roots and rediscover themselves? Racial reassertion will have no great significance without cultural reassertion. The latter alone will make a contribution to the world’s spiritual store.
Remember that America was discovered during Europe’s search for India. Is it all chance, or does it have some deeper meaning on another plane? Are the two peoples of the two antipodal lands interlinked in some invisible way? Indians should learn to take a deeper interest in American Indians. Is not the Great Spirit of the American Indians the same as the Brahma of the Hindus, the purusham mahantam of the Upanishads? America is waiting to be rediscovered in a characteristically Hindu way, not the Christian way.
Article by Ram Swarup, reproduced from The Telegraph, Calcutta, dated November 29, 1991. ↩