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. These people above all others were taken for the slave trade because the British regarded them as especially sturdy and good for labor (Barrett 1997, 16). The Ashanti came to dominate slave, and later, peasant society, especially within the realm of religion. Their practice of Kumina eventually spread throughout the slave World (Barrett 1997, 17.)
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 1986, 104). 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 1983, 17).”
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. What resulted from the influx of Christianity into the Afro-Jamaican’s life was a religion that was basically a mix between the African tradition and the new Christianity (Barrett 1997, 20). The new mixture has survived. Presently in Jamaica there are three sects of African-Christian religions: Pukumina, the Revival Cult, and Revival Zion. All draw aspects from African religions yet identify themselves as Christian (Barrett 1997, 20).
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 1986, 103). It is from this tradition that Rastafarianism was born.
Rastafarianism began as the beliefs of four men: Leonard P. Howell, Robert Hinds, H. Archibald Dunkley and Nathanial Hibbert. All were clergymen and all claimed to have had a revelation that the coronation of Haile Selassie signaled that he was the black messiah foretold of in the scriptures who would lead Africans out of Babylon into redemption. Howell was the most outspoken of the group and proclaimed the divinity of Selassie to all that would listen (Clarke 1986, 33). Howell’s main goal was the establishment of a community of followers. In 1940 he formed the Pinnacle community in St. Catherine’s. This was the first Rastafarian community. One of Howell’s early followers was an Indian man remembered only as Laloo. It has been suggested that his influences on Howell may account for some of the similarities between Hinduism and Rastafarianism. Howell preferred to be referred to as Gunggunguru Maragh. The name is a combination of the three Hindi words gyan, wisdom, gun, virtue, and guru, teacher, or translated to teacher of famed wisdom. Maragh means king (Bishton 1986, 105).
An account of the possible influences of Hindu philosophy on early Rastafarianism thought has been given by Dr. Ajai Mansingh in an article in the July 18, 1982 Daily Gleamer. Dr. Mansingh states that roughly 36,400 indentured servants were brought to Jamaica from India between 1845 and 1910, bringing with them a new religious, cultural, and social outlook. He also hypothesizes that because the Indians had a similar outlook on nature and its forces in terms of faith healings, herbal medicine, and animalism as the Afro-Jamaicans that it sparked an interest in Hindu philosophy. It has also been noted that within the Afro Christian religions there is a great respect given to the “Great Book of Magical Arts, Hindu Magic and Indian Occultism” (Bishton 1986, 105).
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. This belief is central to the understanding that they, as Africans in exile, are the chosen people – the Israelites of the old testament (Clarke 1986, 69). 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 as Kali – a Hindu goddess whose name means “great black mother whose invoking is usually associated with the lifting of sagging spirits” (Bishton 1986, 116). 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 movement’s 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 term “livity” is common among Rastas. It refers to an independent lifestyle that rejects the dependency mentality cast upon blacks since slavery. Rastafarians act out livity in various ways, but the goal is to strive for the an Ital way of life (Jacobs 1985, 90).
The Rastafarian seeks to live in harmony with the Natural World. Johnson-Hill (1995, 202) 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 1995, 201). 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. This is in some ways, an attempt to return to the pre-Babylon days (Clarke 1986, 83).
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. However, Clarke (1986, 83) observes that “in the West it is almost impossible now to ‘sit in the dust,’ for there man confronts Nature, strives to manipulate and conquer it, disrespects its laws, is even prepared to manufacture weapons for the total destruction of this loving mother, Earth.”
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 1995, 335).
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 than twelve inches in length. Fish larger than that are considered to be symbolic of the Babylonians who feed on the lives of others (Jacobs 1985, 89).
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. Many combine their foods with a great understanding of their nutrients and the relationships among those nutrients (Jacobs 1985, 91).
Natural medicine is widely practiced within Rastafarianism. The general belief among Rastas is that there is no illness for which nature provides no cure (Chevannes 1998, 24). 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:
“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” (Bishton 1986, 105).
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 consumed (Bishton 1986, 106).
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 (Clarke 1986, 89).
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 be for 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 (Clarke 1986, 90).
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. They are also a device aimed to create an increased self-awareness, and are an affirmation of ones African heritage (Clarke 1986, 92)
By growing dreadlocks the Rastafarian has rejected the Western standard that have thrust chemicals and treatments onto African hair. They have distanced themselves from mainstream culture by signaling that they do not wish to be accepted into a society that does not cherish African beauty and heritage. In this way locks are a form of protest against the prevailing “Babylon system” (Clarke 1986, 90).
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. The World, as the Rasta knows it, is dominated by the belief system that brought about slavery, racism, capitalism, and exploitation and has therefore pushed aside the needs of African peoples (Witvliet 1985, 114). 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. This has led to the decadence which is present within the industrialized society (Clarke 1986, 83).
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 1995, 257).
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” (Federici 1990, 12, as cited in Turner 1994, 38). Increasingly for Rastas, Babylon is no longer a reference to a Biblical city, nor is it a term of abuse. It is a description of their everyday reality (Chevannes 1998, 186).
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 1995, 215).
The structural adjustment programs and neo-colonialism present within Jamaica are not limited to the island country. They are being employed all over the developing World. In Kenya programs have had strong effects on the Mau Mau and other indigenous people. However, the Mau Mau have fought back. Led by Dr. Wangari Matu Maathai, a Kenyan feminist, the various groups effected by the programs united to form the Green Belt Movement. The movement, primarily consisting of women, has employed resistance tactics to oppose development, and defend the land on which they live and farm. Many of the members have been referred to as Rastafarians (Turner 1995, 43).
Within the movement political reggae is central and Bob Marley is highly revered. Since 1982 Kenyan Rastas have been commemorating Marley’s birthday. Turner (1995, 44) reports that: “While Government repression discourages the display of any Rasta symbolism or the Garveyite colours 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 has also influenced other islands within the Caribbean. In the 1970s the islands in the Caribbean faced a huge unemployment rate of between 30 and 40 percent. Under these conditions, the youth of the Caribbean began to look to Rastafarianism. In Grenada, Rastafarian groups formed agricultural communities and began to cultivate locks. They also participated in the People’s Revolutionary Army which successfully overthrew the government. The victory in Grenada attracted youths of all races within the Caribbean, including Indians and some whites, to unite under Rastafari (Barrett 1997, 236).
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 the 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. The emphasis placed on small farms, or sustainable agriculture, too, has recently been recognized as a more viable form of agriculture than are the large agro-industries that have taken over much of the World. Because the Rasta did not allow himself to be separated from nature, he has become more aware of the laws which govern it and has therefor retained a deep respect for the Earth, unlike the majority of the Western World.
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