Pandit Toshan Persaud's Spiritual Calling to Spread Joy and Learning to the New Generation
Written by Felicia Gopi
Sunday July 2, 2023
Religion can be intimidating. More and more you hear Gen Z and Millennial folks describe themselves as atheists, or as “spiritual but not religious”. Young adults and children in Indo-Caribbean households have mostly grown up Hindu, Muslim or Christian and while many have held onto their religious practices and traditions, there are some who would describe themselves as blank but not that religious. The term religion itself, for many folks - worldwide, signifies a system of rules or a structure to be followed; something Gen Z, Millennials and Gen X have a knack for challenging.
I found myself at these crossroads in 2020 when I had the unique opportunity to join the Gayatri Mandir on Sunday mornings via Zoom. Immediately, all my resistance and intimidation (largely based on a lack of information on the subject), came to a halt and I felt like I was presented with a very approachable and accessible way to learn more about Hinduism from leaders in my community that I had known my whole life alongside my extended family. Joining those Sunday Zooms made me feel closer to my cousins, aunts and uncles while I also learned from two respected figures in our community.
In 1992, Pandit Ganesh Persaud opened the Gayatri Mandir in downtown Toronto, where they operated until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. “Before that we were renting out an auditorium in a high school”, says Pandit Toshan Persaud.
“He wanted his children to have a dedicated space where they could be exposed to the religion, and that’s when he opened up the Gayatri Mandir in 1992.”
Pandit Toshan is the eldest son of Pandit Ganesh, and as of 2023, he is now the central Spiritual Advisor of the Gayatri Mandir which has been relocated to Etobicoke, Ontario. The relocation was a decision they made with their community members in mind, noting that the Mandir would now be more central to where most of their attendees reside.
After years of working and learning alongside his father, grandfather, uncle and brother - Pandit Toshan was appointed the Spiritual Leader of the Gayatri Mandir. A transition he cannot describe without of course, crediting the decades of work his father, Pandit Ganesh has put in, dating back to the 1970’s.
Of his father’s influence over his path, Pandit Toshan plainly says “His influence is infinite.”
Pandit Ganesh was his first teacher, but Pandit Toshan also credits his community for his extensive learnings at a young age. “All the prayers, the bhajans, the songs, and the mantras; I had a lot of people helping me learn. My mom, my grandparents, my father, aunties, uncles…”
He describes his father’s teaching philosophy as one that prioritised experiential learning, recalling that as a child he spent his Saturdays attending anywhere from three to four Pujas. While as a child, he would have preferred to spend his Saturdays playing with friends he also realised that the gift of experience taught him everything he knows now.
“To be a Pandit, it’s not just experience on how to do a Puja, it’s experience on how to talk to people, how to stand in front of a crowd, how to deliver a message, how to influence people, how to conduct yourself in a manner, that people say ‘you know what, I’m going to listen that guy’.”
He explains that, “Experience is the greatest teacher that you could ever have.” The proof, was sitting directly across from me as he told me that he is a self-taught musician who can play the tabla, the harmonium, the dholak and the piano.
As he continues to go down the list of all the ways his father has influenced his life he concludes by saying “I can’t quantify it, it’s tremendous.”
So what is Pandit Toshan’s role as a Spiritual Leader and Pandit? He breaks it down into two facets for me. The first, is the fundamental role of performing Pujas for individuals and families within our community. He describes Pujas as safety blankets that provide a sense of hope and strength to those who choose to have them.
While he struggles with the use of the word religion itself and what it signifies for many, he does describe the second aspect of his role as one where he is proud to promote the world’s oldest religion: Hinduism. The Hindu religion to him is more about a way of life, and a set of principles though. It was enlightening to listen to him describe it as such and not a system that enforces judgement of any sort.
As a full-time engineer and a father, I wanted to understand more about Pandit Toshan and who he is beyond what we see of him in the public eye. With all of his commitments considered, somehow he does manage to make time to have fun. “I love basketball, I like sports in general. Basketball is my favourite, I like watching it, I like playing it.” Furthermore, he also enjoys reading fantasy novels, watching movies, playing board games and playing video games.
“Right now, me and my son, who’s 6, we’re crushing Mario Kart on the Nintendo Wii”, he laughs. Ultimately Pandit Toshan loves being around his family, travelling and just having a good time with them.
He also described to me that being a Pandit is his “greatest hobby.” “I enjoy the Pujas and the reading and studying of our scriptures.”
As someone who is so engulfed in our religious history, it’s no surprise that Pandit Toshan had spent quite a bit of time visiting India. His trips were most valuable to his music development and in also helping him connect his learnings as a Pandit, with regards to storytelling and different places in India.
Conversing with Pandit Toshan really brought to light, how free-from-judgement he was and how accepting his nature was. I never once got the impression that he felt like folks should be religious or should subscribe to one certain religion over another. It made it really easy for me to ask him for his take on younger generations who are on the fence about practising or exploring their faith.
“Give it a chance.” He says that our generation is one that is likened to push back against authority, and one who knows that we don’t have to subscribe to rules, but rather, that we recognize that we have choices.
His words rang like validating bells in my ears as he continued to describe that sometimes, traditions can be passed down through generations and presented as rules, but for him - he sees our religion as a way of life with guidelines that we have the choice to follow.
He recognizes that Gen Z, Millennials and Gen X folks care a great deal about social issues. Of the various social movements that are taking place around us and where Hinduism fits in, he says, “It is one of the most accepting religions in the world.”
One example he gives in Hinduism is, “There is no ‘man is greater than woman’, it’s a duality. It’s, ‘one can’t exist without the other.’”
For the younger generation that is curious about exploring their Hindu faith he also cites TikTok and other social media platforms as a mindblowing portal of information. “If you just take that chance to investigate and research, it’s so surprising”
“The wonders that are embedded in our scriptures and in our religion, are absolutely mindblowing […] the connections we can make with what is being discovered now scientifically, and what has been discovered by our group of people, thousands of years ago, is mindblowing.”
For those of us who already know Pandit Toshan, we know he is approachable, candid and generally regarded as a young, practical, and easy-to-learn-from leader. He credits his approach to that shared experience of growing up here alongside the other members of his community who also grew up here in Canada.
While he, like many of us grew up asking questions and pushing back, he found that through his research and exploration of Hinduism that life, in a greater sense, really mirrored the Hindu ideology that he was uncovering.
He further explains to me that although a common trope is that scientists don’t believe in religion, “Some of the biggest scientists [Oppenheimer and Einstein] in the history of the world believed in Hinduism,” something that really spoke to him, being an engineer,
“Because I was exposed to that type of education, I hope I’m able to make that connection, and then broadcast it so that people can understand.”
Pandit Toshan aims to make spiritual learning comprehensible and authentic through his vast understanding and fascination in the subject itself. “That’s my approach, it’s just making that connection between what we’re doing, what our parents have been doing, what our grandparents have been doing, and connecting with what we’re being taught nowadays, and showing the relevancy that way, that’s my main goal.”
If you are looking for an easy way to incorporate God into their daily lives he suggests taking some time to express gratitude. “Every morning, we wake up, a simple thanks: thanks for this breath, thanks for this life, thanks for this sunshine that I’m seeing, another day that I’m seeing, another year that I’m seeing…”. Wherever we are, we can express thanks as a way to connect with our faith - it’s something I have heard him preach at the Gayatri Mandir many times before.
He says “you can’t expect someone to wake up and be the most religious person in the world.” Instead he suggests taking incremental steps, just as you would with something like school until you feel more comfortable.
“From that thankfulness and that gratefulness, hopefully it develops and inculcates a need to want to explore; and through that exploration, it will lead to research, and through that research will lead to learning, and through that learning will lead to questions, questions will lead to answers.”
Additionally he continues to champion platforms like YouTube, TikTok and other resources like articles that can be used to make connections and help develop an appreciation for the Hindu faith and the connection folks may be in search of.
In speaking about the relevance of religion and traditions it was important for me to ask Pandit Toshan about the pressure women in our community feel to get married.
While we acknowledge that the pressure has always existed for both men and women, he admits that the pressure on men is not as much as it is on women. It was refreshing to listen to someone so highly regarded speak so openly about marriage, love and relationships.
He first addresses those who may be wondering why they have not found that special life partner of theirs just yet.
“I believe in destiny, I believe that what is for us, we will get, and we will get it in a timely manner. To find love, it’s hard.” His message remained to be one of reassurance,“If the moment is right, and if it is in our path of life, to be married, then it will happen. If not, then God has other things in store for us.”
Of the pressure he says, “I think the pressure for women to get married by a particular age is wrong.” He notes that we are at a point in time where women have an abundance of opportunities to further themselves in a number of ways, (i.e, through education or taking up positions of responsibilities). From a Hindu lens, he cites the importance of education above all else (including marriage) and even describes to me the Kanyakumari people, who are in fact highly respected, unmarried women.
Whether it be through education, marriage, work or family, it is clear that his view on women is multidimensional and it’s both refreshing and comforting to hear. Oftentimes women internalise the constant remarks and questions as feelings of not being good enough, if they do not have a husband, partner or plainly put, a man by their sides; but in speaking with Pandit Toshan, the message was clear, you are enough.
Oftentimes in our culture when individuals are experiencing a hard time or a sense of feeling lost they turn to their faith, their spirituality or their leaders for guidance. Pandit Toshan explains that it’s always tough to see people who are feeling this way.
His approach he says incorporates preaching about principles such as karma and destiny that are more rooted in religion. But also, he says, “we would just have a talk, and the main thing that I would try to bring to them is that it will pass. Your lows, when you’re sad, it will pass. Just like when you’re happy, that will pass. It’s just a cycle, up and down, up and down.”
He continues, “To get from one stage to another, or to move from that low to that high, there are tools that are embedded and outlined, like I said not rules, but tools in our scriptures that can help us improve.”
I found it particularly poignant that even the happy times do also pass, and that the most important thing we can do to best equip ourselves to move between stages is figure out what tools work for us. It’s ironic because his advice is similar to that of a therapist who would stress the importance of developing the right tools to manage your life’s changes. It’s another paradox that Pandit Toshan unknowingly is able to reveal where Hinduism mirrors the modern everyday world.
When it comes to his children, Pandit Toshan expresses “I want them to be happy, I want them to have a love for God, a love for learning, and a love for everyone around them.”
“Both my parents taught me that, you need to treat everyone like your brother and sister, regardless of if you know them, and if you treat them like your brother and sister, they will treat you like a family member as well. And that’s something that I want my kids to grow up with. Regardless of gender, regardless of race, regardless of whatever. There’s God within everybody and we have to treat them with that respect.”
When asked if he wants his son to be a Pandit his answer is balanced, “Yeah, I do. But, only if he enjoys it.”
I sat before him, a rebellious Millennial who is stubborn, someone who challenges authority and someone who is careful about shelling out praise. And yet, I was in awe of the honesty, the humbleness and the sheer authenticity of Pandit Toshan. I asked him what compelled him to take on this legacy of being a Pandit and leading his community.
He surprised me again when he said “I don’t know. I can’t tell you, it’s innate.” He was genuinely describing a feeling versus a well-rehearsed answer. Upon further reflection he laments,
“Yes my grandfather and my father put me into a situation where I was immersed with all these things, [...] but that drive, it’s just there, it’s a force, it’s a light that… I can’t explain it, I really can’t. It’s just this drive, that’s there. It brings me joy, it makes me want to move forward, makes me want to learn more every single day and communicate that learning with people. The fire definitely was lit by my dad and my mom, but what’s flaming that fire is… I don’t know, it’s something.”
I would reckon, it’s a calling that is much bigger than all of us.
About the Author
Felicia is the editor in chief of Story, a newsletter by the Indo-Caribbean Canadian Association. She also works in digital marketing with a background in beauty and fashion. She began volunteering with the Indo-Caribbean Association to contribute directly to her community and to learn from other like-minded individuals.
For more information visit feliciagopi.ca