The most unlikely place where many conversions have taken place is in Ghana (Africa). Approximately 10,000 Africans have embraced Hindu Dharma (Religion).
The West African nation Ghana is an unlikely place where one would encounter a Hindu monastery. A photographer Smruthi Gargi Eswar meets the eclectic cult. As an Indian in Ghana, he soon became aware of the country’s Indian community and it was while working on a photo-essay about cross cultural interactions, especially interracial marriages that she learnt of the African Hindu Monastery. Now, Ghana is by no means homogeneous when it comes to religion. Though predominantly Christian, with Islam being predominant in the north, most Ghanaians still maintain their connections to older traditions of ancestor worship and belief in the spirit world. Hinduism, though, is a foreign and recent entrant, associated with the Sindhi, business families who dominate the immigrant Indian population. The presence of an African Hindu community, therefore, came as a surprise. Smruthi decided to go and see the place herself.
The African Hindu Monastery (AHM) is a simple white structure in Odorkor, a suburb of the Ghanaian capital city of Accra. Started in 1975, it is headed by Swami Ghanananda Saraswati. The gentle-voiced Saraswati was born in to a traditional African faith. Although he converted to Christianity when both his parents became Christian priests, he continued his search for truth. Attracted by Hindu beliefs and the practice of yoga, he travelled to India. While staying at Swami Sivananda’s ashram in Rishikesh, he decided to embrace Hinduism. At 35, he returned to Ghana and acquired his first disciples, holding lectures to educate Ghanaians about this ancient and foreign religion. Initially, his teachings attracted the literates and the academic – university lecturers and lawyers. Soon, some Indian families started to come. Later, a meeting with one Swami Krishnananda (who was visiting from India) inspired him to set up a monastery “where he could tell people about all that he had learnt in India”.
Today, Ghana’s population of 23 million includes 12,500 Hindus of which 10,000, like their Swami Ghanananda Saraswati, are indigenous Africans. While an older Sindhi temple still exists in Accra (and the Sathya Sais, the Ananda Margis, ISKCON and the Brahma Kumaris are also active), the African Hindu Monastery (AHM) is now Ghana’s largest centre of Hindu worship.
The AHM’s iconography and practices provide clues to its hybrid origins. Its non exclusionist attitude is apparent from the picture of Jesus alongside the Hindu Gods on the main mantel piece, as well as images of spiritual leaders from other religions. There are even images of secular leaders from India. The monastery’s members also believe that the Supreme God is known by other names, such as Yahweh and Allah.
While it identifies itself with Vedic philosophy, with Vishnu as the primary deity, there is an adjoining temple of Shiva. In fact, the day starts with a Shiva Abhishek, followed by an aarti, conducted by the Swami or one of his disciples. This is followed by a havan (fire sacrifice ritual) and the reciting of the Hanuman Chalisa. In contrast to the specially commissioned havans in most Indian temples, all those present can pour a spoonful of oil into the sacred fire. Bhajans in Hindi – sung exquisitely in a Ghanaian accent – might follow. Later, a Vedic text might be discussed, either in English or in a Ghanaian dialect.
The AHM is not just accommodating of multiple religious traditions but also open to people of all races, classes and communities. Indian worshipers are not only members of the dominant Sindhi community, but also recent immigrants: managers and contract labor alike. But most worshipers are Africans, again from different professions and backgrounds. When disciple was asked about the group’s opinion of the caste system, he pointed out that there is no society in the world that does not break its people up in to the privileged and the unprivileged, be it through profession, ancestry or race. Ghanaian Hindus like him, however, are clear that people have an equal right to education, the means to a good life and most importantly, religion.
Contrary to its name, the monastery has only one monk. Saraswati explains, “Hinduism is a new thing in West Africa, and I don not want to make somebody a monk who would later on abandon the monkhood. It would bring a bad name to me and to Hinduism”. Believers who want to become disciples enroll in a 6 week residential course, after which they are initiated. The transition to Hinduism is a gradual one. For instance, an African Hindu would continue to have a Christian or Muslim first name and a traditional African last name – for example, Daniele Otchere. But there are disciples who have given their children Hindu first names like Rama or Krishna after a Hindu naming ceremony. Hindu rituals at marriage and cremation (rather than burial) at death are also beginning to be adopted, though not obligatory.
The monastery likes disciples to pray and perform pujas at home. In fact, the performance of rituals is seen as essential to being Hindu. Sometimes, new believer’s desire to perform Hindu-ness is so great that it feels like they are play-acting – like the time when several people fell at the feet of a visiting dignitary to show respect ‘in the traditional Hindu manner’. But then, ritual is often the embodied route of faith.