By Aminta Kilawan Narine, Esq.
Pandit Ramlall, a freedom fighter for Guyana’s independence and a prominent Vedic scholar, has died. Ramlall passed away peacefully surrounded by loved ones on Saturday, January 26th, 2019. He was one month shy of his 91st birthday.
In his autobiography, titled “My Pilgrimage from Jail to Glory,” Ramlall began by saying: “My name is Pandit Ramlall. I was born in then British Guyana – now Guyana on February 28, 1928. When I look back at my life and the things I have seen and experienced, I feel blessed to be alive.” Indeed, this legendary hero lived a full life.
Ramlall came from very humble beginnings and led a humble life until the end. His parents were poor, yet hard-working, and he wrote that they had “deep respect for culture and religion.” His father stopped working at the sugar estate once indentureship ended, and became a skilled and popular barber in Skeldon. His parents’ marriage was arranged after his mother’s previous husband had died. Reflecting on what he remembers from his parents’ marriage: “They were very close to each other and their love was the foundation of our family.” Ramlall learned from his father that “if you are lazy you will never be able to support yourself or your family.” His father died when Ramlall was just four years old. Ramlall acknowledged that his father’s death had a big impact on him mentally. He carried with him his father’s drive to work hard towards success.
After his father’s death, Ramlall’s mother assumed the role of both mother and father. Ramlall fondly recalled a conversation with his mother when he was about five years old. He told her he wanted to be a famous singer when he grew up. While he certainly accomplished that goal in myriad Hindu settings around the world, he surpassed it in all else he achieved in his life. He wrote that “even as a boy, I was frightened by my own ambition.”
When Ramlall was 8, his mother passed away from an illness that she could not afford treatment for. An orphan struggling to find his own in this world, Ramlall’s childhood was incredibly difficult. After his father died, he worked at his uncle’s bakery and was called “Baby Ramlall.” That uncle promised to help fund Ramlall’s education. He didn’t make good on the promise. Ramlall was ultimately treated like a child slave. Through some good fortune along the way, Ramlall did achieve an education. Much of his knowledge was self-taught, including his versed understanding of Hindi. Crediting the same aforementioned uncle who hurt him for introducing him to the Hindu religion, Ramlall discovered the Arya Samaj and became an ardent follower of the Vedas and the works of Swami Dayananda Saraswati, an inspiration to Mahamta Gandhi.
Ramlall still struggled to achieve economic stability in his early adulthood. “I had one pants and a shirt. No one knew because they never noticed,” he wrote. “I kept it clean as I would come home nights and wash them. By morning I was fresh and clean. It made me feel brand new every day.” Ramlall ended up teaching Hindi at Tagore High School in Guyana, when those of his past thought he might never learn to read and write.
A reward for his dedication to his temple and its congregants, Ramlall was ordained a priest at the age of 19. His marriage was arranged and he recalled it being a lovely wedding. Shortly thereafter, he was awarded a scholarship to study in Suriname. He attended night classes and worked to maintain himself during the day as a clerk. Ramlall ranked in the top ten of his class of one hundred students. He studied whenever he had the chance. “I would study in my sleep if I could,” he wrote. At a later point, Ramlall also worked at a post office and hosted a radio program. He recalled being on the radio as his favorite past time.
During a time of racial and political turmoil in Guyana, Ramlall was jailed for three long years at Sibley Hall. There he recalls having to fight to maintain his vegetarian diet behind bars, going on many hunger strikes, and awaiting the opportunity to perform his daily rituals as a Hindu priest, a right that was denied of him for some time. He kept fighting, and his requests were eventually honored. In Guyana, Ramlall also served as a Member of Parliament.
In 1974, fearful that he and his family would be attacked, Ramlall fled from Guyana and migrated to the United States. A believer in education, and someone who was never shy to encourage diligent studying to any youth he came across, Ramlall himself earned a college education when life afforded him the chance, albeit when he was already a mature adult. He obtained his Bachelors Degree in psychology as well as a Diploma in Education. An obvious by-product of his innate leadership capabilities, Ramlall was even a union representative for civil service workers at one point.
In addition to his professional achievements, Ramlall was eager to share his religious knowledge and opened up a mandir in his house in Briarwood. Later spotting a beautiful church on a hill, Ramlall knew that it would be the new home of the Arya Spiritual Center. Ramlall made that dream a reality once the property went up for sale. Visiting the Center today is moving – Hindu Vedic tradition is surrounded by stained glass windows and high ceilings.
Among Ramlall’s proudest achievements was receiving the prestigious literary award at the first ever Vishwa Hindi Samelan in Nagpur, India. Ramlall, a son of the Caribbean, was on stage in the presence of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He received many other awards in the U.S., Canada and India. In 2003, Queensborough President Helen Marshall declared one day of the year to be “Pandit Ramlall Day.” In New York City, Ramlall can be remembered for his contributions to the annual Phagwah Parade, billed as Queens’ largest street festival. At his viewing at Grace Funeral Chapel in Brooklyn on Tuesday night, Phagwah Parade organizers Vedo Basdeo, Naidoo Veerapen, and Romeo Hitlall indicated that this year’s Phagwah Parade would be in remembrance of Pandit Ramlall.
Naro Balli, Vice President of the Arya Spiritual Center, who Ramlall often depended on for transportation and was his frequent travel companion, indicated at Tuesday’s viewing, “We can’t fill your shoes even if we try.” Dr. George Jhagroo, who has a practice on Liberty Avenue and serves many Indo-Caribbeans, recalled meeting Ramlall in 1977 when he and his brother were interns at a hospital in Guyana. Jhagroo ended up becoming Ramlall’s doctor in New York. “I became his doctor but was more like a son. Whatever he said, I listened!” Jhagroo was sure that Ramlall would make it to 100 with the way he peddled down in his wheelchair. “There is a beauty of being old and leaving with all your intellectual capabilities.”
Vrinda Jagan, granddaughter of the late Cheddi Jagan, former president of Guyana who is regarded as the “Father of the Nation,” spoke of Ramlall’s friendship with her grandfather and of the work they did together to lift up the nation. Valmiki, a youth of the Arya Spiritual Center, indicated that Ramlall was a “stalwart of the Arya Samaj” and that the Mandir would not be where it is without Ramlall. Another speaker named Sumintra told a story about a king and two different subjects tasked with developing vacant land. One subject used the time to drink alcohol while the other used it to build ashrams and elevate the area. Sumintra indicated that like the latter subject, Ramlall knew exactly what he was brought to earth to do and he did it.
Ramlall’s life reveals a man who knew struggle yet overcame each battle emerging victorious. “I am getting old now, but I still have the spirit of a sixteen year old. I just celebrated my 86th birthday and I am still learning how to be a better person. I grew up as an orphan and today I am a well-known Vedic scholar. By thinking positive, I matured from an orphan to now being a respected member of society.”
Ramlall’s tenacity of spirit and dedication to unity could teach many of today’s world about the qualities of a good leader. He was fearless in the fight for his people, firm in his faith in God, and humble in his approach to learning. Pandit Ramlall will be remembered by all those whose lives he touched and his legacy will live on through the lights he kindled in the hearts of his people.
May his Great Atman transcend to liberation.