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Rastafarianism Essay, Research Paper
Living in harmony with the environment and the laws of Nature is one of the
central ideas of Rastafarianism. To live in accordance with the Earth is to live in accordance with Jah; it is incorporated into the morality that is Rastafarian consciousness. The Rasta’s reverence for nature is influenced by the traditional African religions which are still practiced in Jamaica and which have also influenced Christianity on the island tremendously.
Hinduism, too, has influenced many Rastafarian beliefs and practices. Through the Rastafarian’s calculated rejection of Western cultural norms they have come to realize capitalism and the environmental destruction it has caused as Babylon, a place of destruction and greed. In order to escape this “Babylon system” a lifestyle has been employed that is focused on a correlation between man and nature. This lifestyle is an environmentally sound ideal that others around the World are only now beginning to strive for.
The African Tradition
In order to understand the Rastafarian idealism relating to the environment
we must first consider the traditions from which it came. In Jamaica, the survival of the African religious tradition can be felt throughout the island. Most clearly this religious tradition is demonstrated by Kumina groups. Kumina is generally accepted as being West African in origin; brought here by the Ashanti.
Kumina is based on the belief in a pantheon of gods, mostly non-human
spirits associated with natural forces, the worship of ancestors, a high superstitious quality, and the belief that sometimes human spirits return to the living in the form of duppies or ghosts (Bishton 104,1986.) Among the Ashanti is the belief that everything possesses a soul or sunsum, even non-living objects like rocks. Thus the religion of the slaves believed that, “the entire realm of nature has been endowed with personal life; and every tree or plant, every river or stone, becomes a source of energy or power
which may be used, abused, offended or destroyed (Morrish 17,1982.)”
Unlike in Haiti, where slaves were virtually forced to accept Catholicism by the French, the British found their slaves to be unworthy of their religion. One hundred and sixty-one years after the British took over the Jamaican House of Assembly passed an act to bring Christianity into the lives of the slaves. However, opposition to the act was so strong among the British planters that no clergyman would risk the support of his parish in order to carry out the task. In fact, it was missionaries from outside of Jamaica that
brought Christianity to the slaves. The Moravians, Methodists, and Baptists were the first to come. They were non-traditional denominations that had exuberant services that fit into the excitement of Kumina ceremonies. The new mixture has survived. Presently in Jamaica there are three sects of African-Christian religions: Pukumina, the Revival Cult, and Revival Zion.
In Jamaica, where 99 percent of the population is of African decent shamanism and the spirit World are very much a part of reality for many, especially in rural communities (Bishton 103,1986.) It is from this tradition that Rastafarianism was born.
The Rastafarians like the Hindus believe in a system of reincarnation . Rastas believe that from one birth to another the same spirit persists. Therefore, all the prophets from Jesus to Garvey to Selassie are in a sense the same. Dr. Mansingh also reflects on the relationship of Rastafarians to ganja, or marijuana, which was brought to Jamaica by the Indians who had used it for herbal medicine and as a hallucinogen to be used as a meditation aid for centuries. Rastafarians often refer to it Kali- a Hindu goddess whose
name means “great black mother whose invoking is usually associated with the lifting of sagging spirits (Bishton 116,1986.)” Also, Reddington (1995) states that “the dreadlocked, ganja-smoking saddhu or wandering ascetic is a well known figure in India, and bands of saddhus often live in Rasta-like camps and smoke marijuana from a formally-blessed communal chalice pipe.” The influence of Hinduism on Rastafarianism, though most likely not as significant as the African influences, definitely should not be overlooked when considering the development of the movements ideology.
Sitting in the Dust
From these traditions the Rastafarians received a respect and deep connection to the natural World that has been incorporated into the lifestyle which Rastafarians emulate.
The Rastafarian seeks to live in harmony with the natural World. Johnson-Hill (p202, 1995) states that “the Rasta word Ital is used to convey a sense of natural, organic purity, as well as cultural authenticity.” The ital way of life is regarded as directly opposed to the artificiality of lifestyles associated with Western consumerism. The Rastafarian’s
consciousness of the Ital ideal is expressed through diet, hairstyle, a rural experience, a sense of community, and an emphasis on simplicity (Johnson-Hill 201, 1995.) In practice, living naturally means producing one’s own food, eating only an Ital diet and, respecting the sacredness of the Earth by refusing to use it commercially or to sell it for profit. In this way, Rastas believe themselves to be living in accordance with both the
ways of Jah and with the African way.
An important aspect of the Rastafarian quest for a closeness with nature consists of the practice of “sitting in the dust,” or remaining close to the Earth in order to develop an understanding of the intricacies of nature.
Rastafarianism livity evokes a consciousness in regard to living arrangements that aim to bring about a communal relationship. It also brings a yearning for country life as it was in earlier days, and how it is presently within established Rasta communities. Country life is often idealized because of the nurturing and sense of community that it fosters. The Rastafarian ethic calls for social renewal by means of building on the solidarity of the village (Johnson-Hill 335, 1995.)
The Ital Diet
An important aspect of Rastafarian livity is the diet, which they adhere to. Rastas are primarily vegetarians: They eat no meat, poultry, pork or shellfish. On occasion many will eat fish smaller that twelve inches in length. Fish larger than that are considered to be symbolic of the Babylonians who feed on the lives of others (Johnson-Hill 149,1995.)
Many Rastas advocate eating holistic, unprocessed foods, which they call “ital,” coming from the words “natural,” and “vital.” Many fruits and vegetables are eaten raw in order to gain the most nourishment. The Ital diet is believed to be more helpful to the body than are processed foods that use chemicals and preservatives (Youd 1987.) Indigenous fruits and vegetables like plantains, papayas, oranges and calallo are the basis for the diet.
Wild bushes and leaves from trees are prepared in teas and juices which are aimed at the alleviation of certain symptoms, including headaches, colds, cramps, and others. Within Rastafarian society there is often a “Rasta-doctor,” who specializes in the ways in which the various herbs, leaves, roots, and grasses interact. The Rasta doctor also may use prayer or sorcery to combat the particular illness. One Rastafarian doctor, Ras Hu-I is quoted as saying to Bishton:(105, 1986)
” I believe in herbs because there are more powerful active ingredients in the herbs than have ever been discovered by Western scientists. I know that herbs was before man. I know that these active ingredients within these herbs are for the use of man. I would never encourage no one to take any active part in Western medicine. It kills. These Western scientists, they use too much weapons, too much surgery which destroys the natural, the harmonious flow of life within one’s system.”
Ganja, or marijuana, tea is also used widely for its medicinal values. Rural doctors prescribe tea for a variety of illnesses including rheumatism and insomnia. The leaves and stems of green ganja are boiled and the resulting tea is drank (Bishton 106, 1986.)
Ganja is not used exclusively for its medicinal purposes within Rastafarianism. It is considered a sacrament and is used both ritually and socially. At meetings, or ‘reasoning sessions’ participants take the ’sacred chalice’ to smoke. Drum playing, chanting, and poetry readings are common occurrences. While no one is forced to participate in the smoking of ganja, most Rastas do. It is widely believed amongst Rastas that can bring revelation and inspiration to those who smoke it. Smoking the herb is
said to bring great healing and increase the intensity of meditation (Youd 40, 1987.)
The use of ganja is justified by Rastafarians on the basis that it is a plant, which grows from the Earth and was therefor given to man. Many Biblical quotes are employed to demonstrate this point including, from Genesis 1:29 “Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the Earth, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall befor meat.” From the book of Revelations 22:2 ” In the midst of the street there was the tree of life, and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” Rastas believe Ganja to be this tree, and the smoking of it to
be in accordance with the natural way.
Dreadlocks are symbolic of many things within Rastafarianism. A widely held belief is that dreads are intended to intimidate and put dread into them. While this is one explanation, it is only one aspect of the practice. Dreads are grown by some in order that they resemble a lion’s mane- a sign of strength and a tribute to the Lion of Judah, Haille Selassie (Morrish 90, 1982.)
Many see the cultivation of locks as Biblically inspired and a sign of accordance with the natural way. Dreadlocks are not created by the use of any type of gel or glue, rather they are uncut, uncombed black hair in its natural state. They are also seen as an outward expression of a commitment to natural living. By growing dreadlocks the Rastafarian has rejected the Western standard that have thrust chemicals and treatments onto Africans.
To Rastafarians the culture and particularly the economic and political systems of Jamaica, and the West in general, are equated with the Biblical Babylon, a place of captivity. Babylon has also come to symbolize the attitudes that hold Africans in a subservient position. In Babylonian life there is a void of spirituality, and respect for the Earth, which has instead been replaced by the pursuit of money and rampant development.
The Babylonian has, in the eyes of the Rasta, lost his connection to the natural World. He has become independent from the natural processes by surrounding himself with artificial gadgets and high rise buildings. The Westerner, who once used slaves, now uses machines to perform his natural tasks.
Babylon is encompassing of all that is wrong with the white, capitalist World. According to the Rasta Western society is built upon imperialism and domination over human and non-human life. Babylon has come to represent any system which is oppressive including the police, politicians, and the dominant philosophy (Johnson-Hill 257,1995.)
Most recently, Babylon has revealed itself through the neo colonialism of foreign aid and structural adjustments. These programs, sponsored by institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, are supposed to be aimed at reducing debt within developing nations. However, they have essentially been turned into a war on the poor. They have ended communal control of land, seized land for debt, and forced upon developing nations new agricultural programs aimed at increasing capital. With these programs cash crops have replaced traditional farming and subsistence agriculture. The drive towards industrialization and large-scale agriculture has been relentless. The goal of structural adjustment programs has been the annihilation of the old, African system of reproduction of labor power and struggle based upon the village and its tenure of the commons. Increasingly, for Rastas, Babylon is no longer a reference to a Biblical city, nor is it a term of abuse.
Around the globe there are huge inequalities in the distribution of wealth. To many Rastas, nothing is more symbolic of the absurd abuse of funds and power than the space program. Rastafarians question how the West can morally justify the amount of money spent on space expeditions while the poor can hardly afford the basic necessities for survival. To a Rastafarian, a moon launch represents an abandonment of Earthly realities and of responsibilities to others on the planet (Johnson-Hill 215, 1995.)
Within the movement political reggae is central and Bob Marley is highly revered. Since 1982 Kenyan Rastas have been commemorating Marley’s birthday. Turner (44, 1995) reports that: “While Government repression discourages the display of any Rasta symbolism or the Garveyite colors of red, gold, and green; phrases such as ‘beat down Babylon, ghetto child,’ may be seen traced in the dust on a city bus.”
Rastafarianism is a way of life that has emerged in response to the oppression, poverty, and colonialism imposed upon African peoples by the dominant, Western, white culture. The Rastas, though, have not accepted he view of nature that the dominant has handed them, rather, they have chosen to follow in the traditions of their ancestors. The African tradition in Jamaica adheres to the principles of animism, where all things are believed to have a spirit. This doctrine is essential to the development of a World view that is encompassing of the natural laws. Through the Afro-Jamaican heritage and various influences the Rastafarians have gained a deep appreciation for the intricacies of the Earth. Their beliefs, lifestyles, and rituals are a reflection of this appreciation.
The lifestyle of the Rastafarians comply with those that are currently prescribed by ecologists and environmentalists. The diet of the Rastas, which consists of organic, vegetarian foods has been a mainstay of the movement since its beginnings. Yet, only recently has this idea gained momentum in the Western World.
Bishton,Derek Blackheartman: A Journey into the Rasta (London,
Chatto and Windus Ltd., 1986)
Johnson-Hill, Jack A. I-Sight, The World of Rastafari: An Interpretive
Sociological Account of Rastafarian Ethics (Metuchen N.J., The American
Theological Library Ass. And Scarecrow Press, Ink. 1995)
Morrish, Ivan Jamaica and its Religions (Cambridge, James Clarke and
Reddington, Norman Rastafari History,
http://lamar.colostate.edu/~`laingg/rasta.html May 1995
Youd, Ital Itations of Jamaica and I Rastafari… the First Itation (Miami,
Judah Anbesa Ihntahnahshinch 1987)
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