Resources

Religion

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Gujaratis/Rasesh Thakkar

The major religious groups of Gujarat – Hindus, Muslims, Jains, and Zoroastrians (or Parsis) – are represented among Gujarati Canadians. As in the homeland, Hindu Gujaratis are the dominant group, and it is primarily their religious practices and values that are discussed here. The Parsis and the Muslim Gujaratis (or Ismailis) in Canada, although they are Gujarat-speaking, define themselves, and are defined by other Gujarati Canadians, almost exclusively in terms of their religious identity. (See also ISMAILIS; PARSIS;) Gujarati-speaking Jains in Canada, however, are almost completely integrated with the Hindu Gujaratis, and their religious affiliation has not been a barrier to their full participation in Gujarati-Canadian communal life. For example, many Jains served as trustees during the construction of Toronto’s Gujarati Sanatan Mandir (temple) and have donated large amounts of time and money to bring the project to completion.

Religion plays a very important role in the individual and collective life of the Gujaratis. Most Gujarati homes display pictures of Hindu deities and often reserve a room or a corner for daily worship of their chosen deity. Their personal religious discipline may involve anything from private communion with their gods to meditation to a more complex program of religious observations, including fasting and devotional singing. Some families organize in their homes occasions for collective worship and religious discourse to which friends and relatives are invited.

A Hindu Gujarati’s life from birth to death is marked by a large number of occasions with religious and ritual connotations. These become important socio-cultural events for the family and community. They mark the birth of babies and their naming, and other rites related to life-cycles including weddings, death, and cremation, the blessing of business account books, laying the foundation of a building, and settling in a new house. When Gujaratis first arrived in Canada, ceremonies on these occasions were performed by any knowledgeable Brahmin of the community; now they are increasingly being taken over by official priests attached to Hindu temples in large cities like Toronto.

Although there are differences of emphasis and in some details of the rituals among the sects of Hinduism, and its off-shoots, for practically all socio-religious and cultural purposes these differences are of little relevance. Gujaratis of all sects live under the overarching framework of Hinduism. This is true even of Jainism, which, despite its basic philosophical difference, still belongs to the same broad family of religions as Hinduism and Buddhism. Most Gujaratis, therefore, respect, and some even worship, a whole range of gods, including the Jain Tirthankaras. In Sanatan Mandir, the newly built Gujarati temple in Toronto, there are idols of various Hindu and Jain deities installed side by side, to which the Gujaratis offer worship.

The emphasis on a basic unity of all sects, however, does not negate ritual diversity. In fact, Jains, and also the members of the Swaminarayan, maintain their own temples in Toronto, as they would in India, while at the same time contributing generously to the Sanatan Mandir. Gujaratis, like most Hindus, see no contradiction between belonging to a narrowly focused sect while being acutely conscious of its relation to other sects and their equal validity. They do, nonetheless, recognize differences between the sects. The Waminarayan sect, for example, which started as a reform movement within Hinduism in the nineteenth century, enjoins upon its followers a strict code of conduct that requires purity of food, conduct, and soul. For the initiates and saints of the sect, the precepts are stricter still, requiring, among other things, observances of an eightfold celibacy that includes avoiding looking at a woman – an extreme attitude for the followers of other Hindu sects.

Canadian Gujaratis consider religion a firm anchor for their way of life. They accord the highest priority to the building of a centre to serve both as a temple for religious worship and as a true cultural centre that gives the community, particularly children, a strong link with their heritage. With this aim the Gujarat Samaj of Toronto set up a building committee as early as 1977 and started on a twenty-year course through zoning laws, neighbourhood concerns, economic recessions, and conflicting attitudes and perceptions within the community. During this period, inspired by a different vision, the FOGA acquired a small church in Thornhill and set up a centre called Gujarat Bhavan, which combines religious and cultural functions.

Meanwhile, the Gujarat Samaj persisted in its efforts to build its own centre. Finally, a grant of $750,000 from the government of Ontario, combined with generous funds raised from the community, and a change of site enabled the Gujarat Samaj to complete the $3-million Sanatan Mandir Cultural Centre in August 1996. The centre, with a built-up space of 32,000 square feet, sits on a five-acre site in the township of Markham near Toronto. In its religious aspect, it is a centre for the worship and rituals of a number of sects, and it is served by a full-time priest, who also officiates at ceremonies for important individual occasions, such as births, weddings, deaths, and on such collective religious festivities as Diwali (Festival of Lights and Gujarati New Year), the Nine Nights Celebration in honour of the mother goddess, the birth of Lord Krishna, and so on. The centre also promotes public discourse on a variety of religious, spiritual, and philosophical subjects, conducted by wellknown spiritual leaders from India. Although mostly Gujarati, these lectures are sometimes given in English for the benefit of young members. In its socio-cultural aspects, the centre has large halls for weddings and receptions, a gymnasium for young people, a performance area with a stage, a library, a meeting place for the elderly, and a centre for women’s activities.

Another centre, also supported by a grant from the Ontario government for $750,000, is being constructed by the Gujarati Cultural Society of Toronto in the Brampton region, northwest of Toronto. In cities with smaller Gujarati populations, the religious needs of the community may be served by a Hindu temple which does not reflect Gujarati social life and cultural symbols. In these cases the strictly ritual and broadly sociocultural needs of the community are somewhat separated.