It is a source of boundless energy and power that an animal totem like the panther represents. Shamans of the world intuit that secret. Let us journey into the heart of Africa where that elemental vibration of life can be sensed by those who are ready to leave their mundane mind and its humdrum reality behind. Like the meditative entry into the center of a mandala, if we trace ourselves back to the Mother continent, we may discover an elemental vitality where the Spirit, the Self and the Shaman meet, says Dr. Neela, in her erudite research paper. We are serialising the Africa Special Issue stories as cover stories for the next few months as the site was under attack halfway through. A Different Truths exclusive.
Let me tell you an Edenic tale told by the Bini people of Nigeria[i] that speaks of the time when the earth was coupled with the Sky, and human beings could just cut off its pieces to satisfy their hunger. There was no need for toil and trouble. The Sky did not mind at all if humans would take only what they needed. But often people took more than they could eat and throw the rest. They were warned of this wastefulness but to no avail. As all such tales end up telling, one day a greedy woman cut off too big of a slice, and the entire village could not finish the piece of the Sky. A very angry Sky then flew far away from the earth, and like Adam in the Biblical myth, people had to learn to plough the earth to grow food.
This myth speaks of our alienation from a unified consciousness, and perhaps reminds us that Nature has given us everything we need. Although a necessary hazard for the evolution of diverse beings, our extreme self-consciousness has led to a disconnect with Nature’s totality, and our consumerist greed has brought us on the brink of disaster. We have invented every kind of thrill possible, and yet have not learned how to be fully human. Our sharp intellect has created double edged tools that are potentially more addictive than all the drugs in the world. We have now reached a point where machine intelligence is enticing us to a mechanical life beyond the limitations of our death bound organic life-forms. However, joyful tranquillity that teaches us how to savour life’s bounty, a precious treasure, still eludes us.
Perhaps an imaginative return to the Mother continent’s primal roots is imperative for human beings so that we can awaken from the nightmare we have created in the name of progress. In the din of all the rabble rousing around latest gadgets that have speeded up life, we often lose track of that profound quietude that exists within us that makes life worth living. It is a source of boundless energy and power that an animal totem like the panther represents. Shamans of the world intuit that secret. Let us journey into the heart of Africa where that elemental vibration of life can be sensed by those who are ready to leave their mundane mind and its humdrum reality behind. Like the meditative entry into the center of a mandala, if we trace ourselves back to the Mother continent, we may discover an elemental vitality where the Spirit, the Self and the Shaman meet.
Africa is a vast continent with myriad tribes, cultures and civilisations that have been devastated by imperial adventures. Before the advent of a linear ideology of modernity that created a disenchanted world of dead matter and a mechanised existence, most people of the world consciously or unconsciously lived in a world where the human beings saw themselves grounded on Mother Earth. As we looked at the horizon, we saw a Sky that pours down rain and light as benediction. We saw human consciousness as an extension, an expression and even a witness to the Cosmic Spirit’s dazzling creativity. But as our self-consciousness grew, we saw ourselves as separate from that great unifying Spirit. Modern humans also distanced themselves from the root continent because mesmerized as we were of our Euro-modernity and unconscious of its underlying racist ideology[ii], we learned to fear blackness and saw the Mother Continent as the “Heart of Darkness.”
Dazzled by excessive light, we forgot our origin, the dark womb of existence where beginnings and ends meet. I have written in my work about negrophobia, the fear of the Black Mother and matricide in western religions.[iii] But She cannot be obliterated without destroying the very spark of life, and I discovered a version of her as the Black Madonna in the very heart of Europe. Talking about the original Black Goddess of Africa, Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor write how she “was regarded as bisexual, the instrument of her own fertility…and she carried a snake in her belly….The creator of the gods of Dahomy, for example, was Mawu-Lisa, imaged as a serpent; Mawu-Lisa was both female and male, self-fertilising, seen as the earth and the rainbow” (21) [iv]. This is very similar to Tantric understanding of the Great Mother.
In Egyptian myths, one story speaks of the Sky Goddess Nut protecting and covering over her male counterpart Geb, the Earth. This is another way to understand that unified consciousness where polarities of Earth and Sky are interconnected and dependent on each other. Genders are irrelevant in the ultimate sense, but it is fascinating how each culture imagines that unified consciousness by understanding the role of duality that we experience in our lives. We are fortunate that the shamans of the world knew how to reconnect the Earth with the Sky. They knew that life arose out of a Mother Principle that gave birth to the polarities of light and dark, and they could access that boundless energy for the benefit of their people.
But under the spell of patriarchal religions, abstract philosophies and scientific modernity, we forgot that wisdom and thought we have left such “superstitions” far behind! We thought we could “control” Nature without learning self-control or understanding the volatile elements within us. This has led to abysmal alienation, extreme addiction to consumerism and diseases of the mind that many modern cultures suffer from. Sjoo and Mor are deeply aware of this deep ailment as they write, “Modern sickness is that of disconnection, the ego unable to feel an organic part of the world, except via chemical and popular culture addictions. But when the healers – the physicians of mind and body—do not know themselves what it is we need to be connected to, how can they solve the syndrome of disconnection?” (29)
Modern medicine has marvellous capacities to eradicate a lot of physical suffering, but its big pharma driven profit motive keeps it mostly for the well-off. In addition, our insatiability is also destroying the very source of those medicines, healing plants of the rain forests. However, it has not found a remedy for the sickness of the spirit which has led many people back to ancient wisdom traditions and their ways of life. Writers, visionaries and dreamers name it, “Future Primitive.”[v] They are initiating a global resurgence of Mother Consciousness that does not deny modern human’s extraordinary achievements, but grounds them to our primordial reality, the source of life.
In the Mother continent where homo sapiens first breathed, we may find the primordial pulse of life with its magic in mythic garb. Since films capture our collective imagination and more people are familiar with this form of art, I want to draw attention to a blockbuster film that caught our imagination with a spectacular display of African grandeur. Although it has the usual pitfalls of a Hollywood bonanza, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther can be a good place to visually connect with Africa’s shamanic world. The film is based on a series by Marvel Comics that has been developing a black super hero character since 1966, but the moment to present an almost all-black cast in a film had only arrived recently.
The new comic book series that was launched in 2016 was written by Ta-Nehisi Coates and his words spoken by T’challa, King of Wakanda, resonate with its shamanic roots: “My name is my nature. I can track a body through wind and rain, for I track not the body, but the soul within.” I was startled by the roots of the totem, the panther clan, as it visually represents the power, beauty and grace of a continent that gave birth to our species. A panther’s gleaming blackness exudes a quiet power of unfathomable beauty and an elemental intelligence. Unlike machine intelligence created by us, this intelligence does not shy away from the annihilating impulse inherent in Nature that regenerates life. This beauty is the beauty of that pulsation where the polarities of Earth and Sky, Life and Death dance together.
As a student of literature, I was fascinated by the figure of “vibranium” in the movie. The film captures metaphorically the unity of human beings with the cosmic powerhouse and its rootedness on Earth. Like unobtanium under a tree in the film Avatar, Black Panther encapsulates in the word vibranium, the inexhaustible energy of the universe that is both invisible and potent at the same time. It is that fundamental pulsation of life that Indian traditions call “spanda.” Perhaps there exists an elemental longing in the heart of the universe. It is that creative impulse which expresses itself in our stunning planet. That is the impetus behind the evolutionary dynamic that created us, the species called homo sapiens.
This elemental vibration is appropriately imagined as a meteorite. The story presents a civilization that understands how energy works. The comic book states: “It’s long been known that vibranium absorbs sound and kinetic energy, but that energy stays locked within the vibranium itself. Wakandan scientists can tap into this stored energy and use vibranium as a limitless power source, and this powers all Wakandan technology. All the military spears and even the personal bracelets network into this power source. This is why the extraordinary technology of Wakanda cannot be exported. It would be the equivalent of having the world’s greatest laptop but with no battery. Perhaps this is a metaphor of the Wakandan people. They believe a part of their very soul exists within the country itself.”[vi]
Yes, our soul exists within our earthly existence itself. Life on earth began from non-living entities through spectacular flowering of sentient beings all the way to our current human life as self-conscious beings. Ever since that self-consciousness arose in the species, the compulsion to discover the creative root of existence drove humans to experiment and imagine myriad ways of being in the world. Searching for El Dorado, elixir of immortality, or eternal youth, humans have created cultures, sciences, and the arts that express the geometry of existence. But it was the shaman who understood the indwelling resonance and was able to channel it for healing.
In an article[vii] “Mysteries of African Shamanism: What Can’t be Explained Must be Experienced”, Geral Blanchard, a psychotherapist, speaks of Mandaza Kandemwa, a Shona healer from Zimbabwe for whom a “gentle peace and a devotion to serve humanity is essential to the heart of a shaman; that a calm presence is a quiet force for healing and, in consoling others, the shaman also is consoled.” In an age when we associate power with restlessness, violence and incessant activity, we are forgetting what is that quiet force that pervades all life. Blanchard was fortunate to experience the numinosity of African rituals and Nature’s healing powers. He also learned the secret that “Shamans activate the patient’s inner healer that resides within each of us.”
It is heartening to see many people are dropping their assumptions regarding these inner technologies and opening themselves to the vastness of our being beyond the limited capacity of our left-brain ratiocination. Facing an epidemic of depression, and other apparent disorders of the mind that are engendered by extreme paranoid aggression against organic life, many medical and psychotherapeutic professionals are looking elsewhere to heal the ills of the modern world. It is interesting that shamans of the world see something completely different in a human being that the western medicine brands as afflicted with mental illness.
Another fascinating article[viii] speaks of Dagara people who believe that what appears as mental illness is a gateway to the inner healer. Such people are experiencing that foundational vibration and find themselves disconnected with the humdrum reality that tries to put them in the straightjacket of “normalcy.” They experience isolation leading to depression and other ailments. They have the potential to sense the powers of Nature, can hear the voice of a medicine tree and if guided properly, can blossom into geniuses who will be the path finders of the future. They hear the music of the spheres and can help mend the profound disconnect with Nature that has created today’s societal and environmental crisis.
Our music making capacity connects us to the elemental Spirit and the rhythm of drumming could transport us away from that surface reality which creates mental prisons and conditioning. An important aspect of African shamanism relates to music especially drumming which is ubiquitous in most shamanic rituals. Living in a discordant world, we have lost touch with the precious “vibranium,” primal healing sound of the universe that can only be heard when what the Yogasutra calls chittavritti (fluctuations of the mind) has been quietened. Scholars who study trance inducing rituals [ix] know that these are designed to drown the mental chatter and engender a state where the illusion of a separate self is dropped.
To conclude this short foray into the vast world of the Mother continent, I speak of the unitive consciousness of our breathing that connects us to the world of the trees. [x] It is a truism to speak of African jungles but without the jungles, we will go extinct. It is only now when polluted oceans, clogged up rivers and unbreathable cities have become shockingly real that we are recognizing that we live in a truly interconnected world, and destroying our habitat for short term profit is beyond stupid; it is suicidal. In the film that precious metaphorical “vibranium” comes from a “heart shaped herb” and appears as a flower. It gives superhuman power and enhances “mystical” capacities in the fictional world of the Wakandans. We forget an ordinary mystery of our breath that connects us to the plant life. Shamans know that elemental power of breath, root of the word Spirit and they can connect us with our basic humanity. They are the true super heroes who live ordinary lives on the fringes of civilisation. Perhaps a spiritual return to the home of the original Black Mother and her Shamans will deliver us from our disconnected delirium.
[i] “The Bini Sky” in God: Myths of the Male Divine by David Leeming and Jake Page, New York: Oxford UP, 1996
[ii] So-called Enlightenment philosophers too held racist views. David Hume said: “I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and all other species of men . . . to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any complexion other than white.” Cited inhttps://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/black-panther-and-the-invention-of-africa
[iii] See my Absent Mother God of the West: A Kali Lover’s Journey into Christianity and Judaism, Lanham: Lexington Books, 2016
[iv] The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth by Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor, New York: Harper, 1987
[vi] Brian Stelfreeze Marvel’s Black Panther artist.
[ix] See Gilbert Rouget’s, Music and Trance: A Theory of the Relations between Music and Possession, a painstakingly detailed study about the entire world’s trance experiences.
[x] In The Golden Bough anthropologist James Frazer recognizes this except he thought these people were savages: “To the savage the world in general is animate, and trees and plants are no exception to the rule. He thinks that they have souls like his own, and he treats them accordingly” (42).
©Dr. Neela Bhattacharya Saxena
Photos from the Internet
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