Civics, Culture & Community Engagement
By Aminta Kilawan Narine, Esq.
I first learned about Vijah Ramjattan a few weeks ago, as he was the lead organizer of the first ever United Madrassi Day Parade along Liberty Avenue. The parade successfully brought together Madrassi temples in the New York City area, with attendance from those subscribing to Sanatan Dharma as well. The colors were bold and beautiful, adorned Devis emerged from floats, a big group of tappu drummers played in unison, as organized and coordinated as a large-scale pipe band at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, except the group was wearing yellow dhotis, white t-shirts and red sashes. Why did Vijah choose to organize such a parade? What was he hoping to achieve?
A large portion of Indo-Caribbeans are suspect or fearful of Madrassi culture, or “Kali worship” as it is termed. You’ll find that many with names that are clearly Tamil in origin, converted to Christianity. Converts often changed faiths because they couldn’t understand Madrassi culture – they didn’t want to partake in animal sacrifice, get possessed, or be beaten. These are often the first things we are conditioned to think about when we think about Kali worship. And yes, they do in fact exist, but for Vijah, they aren’t adequate representations of the faith. The parade turned the above perceptions on their head. It highlighted the love and devotion of worshippers. It was a day of equity and inclusion. One example of this was having a drag queen, Sundari the Indian Goddess, dance as the Devi (goddess) herself on stage at Smokey Park, and addressing her respectfully as Sundari, without any undertones of mockery. Vijah was at the helm and as someone who holds his values in the highest regard, he’d have it no other way. To Vijah, “Mother doesn’t discriminate. We do.”
Vijah is unassuming, and always seems to have a gentle smile on his face. Yet, he is a powerhouse of a human being, sometimes defying norms for the sake of leveling the playing field for all human beings. Vijah didn’t grow up Madrassi. Born in Trinidad, he was a devout Sanatan Hindu and Satya Sai Baba follower. His parents were open minded – embracing different faiths and encouraging Vijah to learn about Christianity through Vacation Bible School (VBS), to understand the Arya Samaj movement as well as Islam.
How did Vijah become a believer In Kali worship? “I reached a point in my life where I wanted more,” Vijah said in a conversation we had recently. He recalled being in college, where he was pursuing a dual degree in psychology and comparative religions. Vijah took a class on Eastern religions and was on a quest to find deeper meaning in what had always intrigued him growing up: namely, Kali and the concept of death. He had a friend who introduced him to a Kali temple in Brooklyn, NY. It was the first time Vijah had stepped foot into such a temple. He admitted, “I was scared to death. I thought – people are jumping in there! There’s jumbie! I have to leave. I was petrified,” Vijah said. A kind woman told him that it was alright and that he should sit down. Vijah then witnessed what he called a “manifestation” or “invocation” and not a possession as many non-believers would call it. The Divine Mother herself told Vijah “I have been waiting for you. I need you to be in my garment.” What did She mean?
The Divine Mother was calling upon Vijah to be a pujari, a chosen individual to perform religious rituals. Unlike Sanatan Dharma, where priests are typically selected through birthright or caste, pujaris are given this divine duty through a request by the Divine Mother. You cannot choose therefore to become a pujari – you must be sought by the Divine Mother herself. Vijah indicated that the Divine Mother told him She was giving him a gift. It was his choice as to whether he would accept the gift. He accepted. His family rebuked this decision.
Yet Vijah stuck with it. “I felt I found my place,” he said. Before turning to Kali worship, Vijah recalls attending Navratri service at Sarvadeo Mandir, a Sanatan temple in Queens. It was the night to honor Kali Maa. Vijah prayed: “Maa, I don’t know who you are, but I want to understand you. People are so afraid of you but I want to learn who you really are.” Vijah thereafter found a temple that worshipped Mariamman. He fell in love with the worship.
A natural progression from the success of the parade, Vijah founded an organization, the United Madrassi Foundation. He hopes that the group will be able to raise awareness about Kali worship. To Vijah, Kali doesn’t hate anybody and doesn’t do evil on anyone. Instead, she removes evil. Unfortunately, Vijah noted that upon seeing dark-skinned curly haired individuals, many Indo-Caribbeans often think, “Uh oh. That person is a Madras!” Vijah believes this negative connotation is misguided.
The United Madrassi Foundation has three primary goals, with the first being “unity in the community.” Vijah wants to work against the competition that brews between temples for their size, grandiose appearances, or their musicians. Instead he wants to bring people together under a common cause. He also wants to shift ideology – specifically the thought that God needs material things from us. Vijah believes God doesn’t need anything at all. “God is the goat, God is the ocean. God is the lime.” Vijah said. “The idea of exchanging or bargaining with God… I’m against that. We may have a lot of money and want to pay to help us solve our problems, but we lack devotion,” he said. “True devotion means finding yourself within spirituality and religiosity. That doesn’t require a priest or pujari.” Vijah encourages pandits and pujaris give individuals tools to find themselves. Secondly, the group would like to pursue female empowerment. Vijah finds it ironic that he and his fellow faith members worship a female goddess while females are deemed impure when menstruating, or unfit to do tasks such as dressing murthis or playing tappu drums. The parade he organized was the first time that females played tappu in public. Vijah has a young daughter and wants to teach her never to be second to anyone. These teachings will begin right now.
Finally, the group wants to push youth development. “Our youth have so much energy but they have no outlet to put it. They want to help. We will help to give them the platform,” Vijah said. It comes as no surprise that Vijah is the Co-Project Director at the NYS Psychiatric Institute of Columbia University. He began his career with an internship on Rikers Island working at the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, an isolation unit with adolescent inmates, many who were committing suicide. He always wondered: How do young males end up in this situation? What environment made them get here? He worked on the Boricua Youth Study, which tracked the same families over 20 years and assessed where they ended up on their journey. Alcohol and drugs had a big impact on the results. Vijah saw his own community reflected in a lot of his work. He witnessed young Indo-Caribbean boys growing up in front of him and developing liver cirrhosis from alcoholism. With everyone turning a blind eye and no one asking why these young men are affected mentally, physically and emotionally, Vijah feels progress in the community is limited. Through the United Madrassi Foundation, Vijah wants to tackle this and so much more.