Perennialism and Primitivism In Psychedelic Religions, Part 3 (Roger Green)
The following is the last of a three-part series. The first installment can be found here, the second here.
Although Mercante tracks gender differences, when visitors are foreign, education level, and occasionally social class, he does not address ethnicity among members. This makes his work difficult to comment on from the models Alumkal describes with respect to racial formation theory and more general postcolonial theory. That said, although Christianity is pervasive in the theology, liturgy, and rituals he describes, Mercante insists that Barquinha is “larger” than mere Christianity.
In describing the make-up of the religion, Mercante discusses European, African, and Indigenous elements. Although there appears to be some hierarchy among members, he notes that “in the universe of Ayahuasca,” including the more hierarchical UDV church, “There is no teacher in the Barquinha other than the Daime itself”; it is “an inner reality that spreads through the physical world.”(104) This leads him to descriptions of the miração as spiritual space. In the space participants work through mediumship with different entities:
They can be divided in several spiritual currents. The first is the Christian current, where belongs the Missionários (bishops, friars, priests). The second is the African current, where the Orixás themselves do not incorporate, but he or she sends their knights to the medium. The third current is of Nature Beings, the Amerindian current, where we find the Encantos (fish, mermaids, botos [river dolphins], alligators, snakes, eagles, fairies, etc., all receiving the titles of princes, princess, king, or queen). There are as well, two intermediary currents. Between the Christian and the African currents, we have the Pretos-velhos and Pretas-velhas, and between the African and Amerindian currents we have the Caboclos.
Caboclos, which are thought to be the spirits of deceased Amerindian slaves, also appear in the Afro-Brazilian (with Catholic and Kardecist influence) religion, Umbanda, or “white magic,” as distinct from Quimbanda, which has often been seen as a “dark magic” complement to Umbanda. The contrast is similar (and similarly conflated) to those between Santería and Palo in that the base religious systems from Africa derive from different geographic regions.
These similarities are important to note, especially from a postcolonial perspective. Although Caboclos get more associated with Amerindians, we can also see in Mercante’s descriptions above, all sorts of European influences – “fairies,” “princes,” “queens,” etc. – on the enchanted Nature Beings. Mercante notes that with entities from the “darker side” of Umbanda “that those Exús and Pombas-giras are captured [in ayahuasca ceremonies] and sent to a field where they will receive their indoctrination, returning later, to receive, formally, their baptism.”
He goes on to note, “After the baptism, they continue working at the Center, they are incorporated in the ‘Jesus Christ Army.’”(138) Moreover, he explains that some of the drama that apparently led Madrinha Francisca to leave Casa de Jesus and eventually develop her own community had to do with one of her sons, Toinho, who tended more toward Umbanda.
Mercante says, “Francisco Hipólito’s discourse in Goulart (2004) mentioned that because of Toinho Madrinha Francisca was introducing Umbanda practices, such as the habit of some spiritual entities (mainly the Pretos-velhos) to smoke pipes.”(70) Mercante notes, however, that it was Frei Daniel himself who introduced tobacco use to Barquinha and Madrinha Francisca left because the group was not adhering to the founder’s practices.
To complicate things more, although her son, Toinho, left the congregation to practice Umbanda, some of his spiritual guides who had been baptized remained working at the Center. They also continue to use a Salmo [song] which Toinho received through spiritual transmission when worried that there were no Salmos to commemorate Easter. Frei Daniel, the founder, also established “the baptism of the pagans, one of the cornerstone rituals of the Barquinha.”(68)
Mercante notes that Manoel Araújo, at Casa de Jesus, who was a Freemason, “was attempting to follow a ‘westernized’ spirituality. He was clearly trying to ‘clean’ the Barquinha from African influences.” Mercante also notes that although Madrinha Francisca was initially more accepting of spiritual entities smoking pipes, over time the “same Pretos-velhos no longer smoke pipes during the ceremony.”(71)
Pretos-velhos were healers generally restricted by slavery during their lifetimes and more associated with African traditions. Although tobacco was in much more widespread use among Indigenous Amerindian populations, we see with the emergence of ayahuasca “religion” the influence of a biomedical dominance that sees smoking as unclean and unhealthy, as well as a privileged and narrowly optimistic use of ayahuasca as always enlightening and “healing.”
As one of Mercante’s informants, sounding much like Alex Polari de Alverga, tells him, “What is this spirit, taking us within that light, cleaning our hearts, bringing us to the feet of Jesus? From a vine and a leaf, the holy love glittered. When this spirit incarnated, it cleaned our hearts. The spirit of Santo Daime, in truth is the holy love that God Jesus sent to us, for us to praise the Creator.”(126) The most recognized ayahuasca religions have much more to do with Euro-Christian theologies and metaphysics than they do with Amerindian ones, even when they critique more mainstream versions of Christianity and employ aspects associated with African and Indigenous South American cultures.
Although this is certainly not to claim that ayahuasca use was unknown to Amerindian populations before colonization, it does emphasize that what is increasingly recognized as “ayahuasca religion” is a Christian-dominated metaphysical perspective that is often conflated with indigenismo. Contrasts between “light” and “dark” magic exists with respect to other African-inspired religions such as Santería and Palo, but so-called “shamanism” in South America has apparently never been without its own “dark” elements, which nevertheless do not always work on a light-dark binary. This has led many researchers to take up the loaded term “shaman” and apply it to South American Indigenous practices.
As Neil L. Whitehead has explored with respect to “dark shamanism” in the Guyana highlands, like Taussig and León, it is a matter of poetics:
This poetic is neither a system of empirical observation nor a fanciful embellishment of the inexplicable – it is both. The term poetic, in this sense, suggests that the meaning of violent death cannot be entirely understood by reference to biological origins, sociological, functions, or material and ecological necessities but must also be appreciated as a fundamental and complex cultural expression.(2)
In other words, attention to differing ‘poetic’ systems helps us side-step the culturally loaded notions of ‘religion’ with respect to ayahuasca use. In “Will the Real Shaman Please Stand Up?” Glenn H. Shepard notes that for Matsigenka people of the Amazon basin,
The purpose for using ayahuasca is not for healing in its strict sense, but rather for hunters to improve their aim. In this sense, despite having adopted the Psychotria-based ayahuasca brew, the Matsigenka maintain the general features of the ‘pre-ayahuasca’ indigenous shamanic complex described by Bianchi as focusing on ecological, rather than therapeutic, functions.”(21)
Shepard notes that “openness and enthusiasm about ayahuasca shamanism contrasts sharply with the secrecy and modesty surrounding Matsigenka shamanism.”(27) Furthermore, Shepard notes that “Modern ayahuasca practice appears to fuse previously diverse functions and settings of psychoactive plant use for individual healing and group purposes.”(31) Along with noting that modern practices of ayahuasca use among Matsigenka are likely erasing the traditional roles of women in “shamanic” practices, Shepard concludes with a powerful observation:
Is it possible to imagine a court case for ayahuasca legislation founded on the principal of the right to “novel radical experience of alterity,” rather than the established precedents of religious freedom, therapeutic diversity, and millenarian indigenous practice? A closer examination of the diversity and dynamism of contemporary shamanistic practices among urban, and even indigenous, populations calls into question the sometimes artificial boundaries between “us” and “them,” between the “global” and the “local,” the “modern” and the “traditional,” and the “authentic” and the “spurious.”
And yet, many of the laws that lend authority to sanctify appropriate, legal use of controlled substances in religious or therapeutic settings are built precisely on such fragile notions. Further inquiry into the dynamism of indigenous religious practice will surely confirm these misgivings; but if indigenous people and their cultural practices are not allowed the final safe refuge of exceptionalism, where will they be left?
And so we see the ongoing problem, especially if we think of the ongoing transnational expansion of ayahuasca religion. For western “seekers” of new religious experience, the very frame of “religious” continues to perpetuate colonialism and indigenous genocide even while recognizing that “ayahuasca religions,” which are indeed hybrid but ultimately favorable to Christian theological priority, claim Indigenismo as a cultural or political perspective. The more secular New Age emphasis on “healing” is no better.
In the United States, it is likely that racialized “white guilt” and an ongoing reverence for the “already deceased” American Indian that provokes the affective bravado by which religious organizations get the state’s approval for ayahuasca (or other entheogens) use in sacramental or ritual settings. Such reverence has absolutely nothing to do with the versions of ancestor worship present in Marcelo Mercante’s ethnography cited in this paper, nor does it have anything to do with indigenous metaphysics unable to be translated into static, transcendent notions of ‘religion.’
This conclusion certainly runs counter to – and will likely be rejected by – those who claim universalist, transcendental, New Age, and post-race versions of religiosity. What those perspectives lack is a self-critical awareness of their own investment in Euro-Christian notions of religion, whether they be Protestant or Catholic. Instead, their motivation is driven by subjugated individuals who seek to, through “ecstatic” experience, transcend their own cultural (ethnic, gender, class, etc.) subjugation.
I think it is important to be somewhat compassionate here. I think it is relatively easy to understand why subjugation would lead to a desire for transcendence. As my teacher, Dr. Tink Tinker, has frequently noted, the root of “pioneer” is peon. Someone’s foot was already on them, and as Bob Dylan sang with respect to poor whites, “They’re only a pawn in their game.”
That said, a descriptive analysis of history does not justify the minimization of injustice that is ongoing and perpetually destructive, even when the producers and entertainers of ongoing oppression may come from historically oppressed groups. New Age theology often unabashedly justifies such minimization because New Age theology most often aligns with lower class “white” perspectives while perpetuating financially privileged “white” perspectives.
In other words, I am claiming that an impulse in New Age religion accepts disenfranchised “white” perspectives that may have indeed at one point been inter-ethnic. But the transformation into “recognition” in a white-dominant society intensifies a whitening of white perspectives, even among “whites.” To put it in rather point-blank terms: lower class whites are hegemonically encouraged to universalize what would otherwise be considered “colored” or “ethnic” experiences at the expense of “non-white” perspectives, because in doing so their impulse to essential human transcendence neutralizes the very recognition of difference.
In doing so, indigenous people are made “just human enough” to not be entirely “other” and therefore held responsible for their own resistance to cultural assimilation. By the same reasoning – and this is very important – “white” or “gringo” interest in ayahuasca religion is often an enculturated impulse that perpetuates genocide, especially when it avoids the complex struggles of indigenous peoples.
Let me be very clear here: it is not the use or non-use of “ayahuasca, yage, hoasca, etc.” in whatever recipe one derives its effect, that is at issue. The issue is, in a classically psychedelic perspective, one of set and setting. The set and setting of most ayahuasca tourism and most ayahuasca religion is genocidal. I am not claiming that if one has “done” or not “done” ayahuasca that he or she is more or less implicated in the genocide of Amerindian peoples.
I am claiming that anyone who has participated in ‘ayahuasca religion’ or promoted it as universal or transcultural without respect to local indigenous groups is complicit in genocide (and yes, this includes many in my previous sentence). This is especially important as emergent ayahuasca religions become “recognized” by colonizing powers such as the U.S. government. As Charles Hayes notes with respect to the Supreme Court decision on the UDV church’s use of ayahuasca:
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals defended the UDV’s case for religious freedom, prompting psychedelic researcher and UCLA professor Charles Grob, an expert witness at the hearing, to notice that “religious rights can apparently trump the Drug War.”(66-7)
But religious rights also perpetuate a different kind of oppression. Indeed, these are heavy words. But the essentialist, transcultural rhetoric needs to end. Such rhetoric is more a product of white privilege than the effects of actual psychedelics. It is not because every “white” person is automatically racist or ethnocentric; it is that white privilege pretends to expunge itself of a reservoir that is perpetually refilled by its investment in static transcendent concepts.
I am not claiming that all white people interested in ayahuasca religion are essentially “bad” or “evil,”; white people, especially poor white people, want to survive in the face of their own oppression, and the seduction of power is often too much for them. The Euro-Christian cultural backdrop confounds these ethnic distinctions. Often when Euro-Christians think in well-intentioned ways that they have escaped oppressive traditions, they merely resuscitate the oppression through universalizing and culture-transcending rhetorics that allow them to focus on themselves at the expense of other people.
Power is raced and classed and gendered and more so. What we need to do is to find ways to divest in Euro-Christian white power, whether we identify as “white Euro-Christians” or not, especially in relation to entheogens. Certainly, such divestment requires more recognition on the parts of people who identify as white, and non-white people do not need to divest in a whiteness in which they never invested in the first place. But as members of ayahuasca religions or advocates of ayahuasca “healing” techniques vie for legal recognition and deregulation of controlled substances, they need to be more aware than ever of the historical colonizing powers’ continued eradication of Indigenous peoples and not support laws that in protecting ayahuasca use cause further harm.
We must attend to the set and setting that culture plays in motivations to seek spiritual knowledge by taking more poetic approaches to economic analyses, moving them beyond the worn-out economies of the twentieth-century.
Roger K. Green is a lecturer in the English department at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, where he teaches literature, rhetoric, and songwriting. He has studied at the School of Criticism & Theory, and his dissertation on political theology and psychedelic aesthetics explored transatlantic influence of Aldous Huxley, Antonin Artaud, and Herbert Marcuse in literature. He is a former guitarist of the rock band, The Czars (John Grant, Bella Union, UK) and continues to perform and produce music. He is currently completing coursework for a second PhD in Religious Studies and Theology at University of Denver.
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