Ever since man gained self-consciousness and thus had the ability to look at himself objectively, he has tried to solve the riddle of his being. A mere transient from the portal of birth to the gateway of death, and poised midway between earth's teeming micro life-forms and the star-strewn vastness of the cosmos, he might have felt desolate and lost. The universe is founded on compassion, however, and the Helpers of the human race provided man, the frail but thinking reed, with a knowledge of the divine origin and sacred purpose of all creation, so he would be able to face the trials of his long evolution. These truths were deeply etched into his nascent mind, and in subsequent aeons were presented again and again, lest he forget them. And though they might each time appear to come as a new revelation, at their core they were perennially the same.
Remnants of this primeval wisdom are to be found in most ancient traditions, and as they all flow from the same source it is not surprising that we can detect a certain similarity, regardless of geographic origin. As long as the West was so firmly in the grip of its own exclusive dogma, it fastened mainly on the exoteric diversity of form, while this commonality went largely unnoticed. By the end of the last century, however, the time had come for a broader outlook, and in her Secret Doctrine H. P. Blavatsky clearly showed the esoteric unity underlying the faiths of all times and places. She applied her interpreting vision to the philosophies of the Orient, to the beliefs of Greece and Rome, Egypt and Babylonia,, to the megalithic structures and the symbols carved in rock -- silent yet eloquent witnesses to archaic spiritual knowledge.
Since her days much additional information about religions in all quarters of the world has been gathered which, no doubt, would have been included in her comments had it come to her attention. Relatively little was said, for instance, about Africa whose vast interior during her lifetime was only then being extensively explored by the white man.
With the data become available in the last hundred years, we are in a better position today to search also in this territory for traces of the universal wisdom. That they can be found we need not doubt, for it would be illogical to assume that any peoples had been 'left out.'
The quest is by no means a simple one for several reasons, some stemming more from our own preconceived ideas than from actual facts. To begin with, the present-day scene is quite complex. This sun-drenched continent (still occasionally misnomered 'Dark' Africa), the home of more than 800 different peoples, is in a state of flux: modern cities, sprung up like mushrooms, are magnetically attracting the rural population. Urbanization and the spreading of Christianity and Islam have weakened the observance of the ancestral ways, and the sudden shift from the traditional to the technological era has cut off many from long-established roots. Once removed from integrated and close-knit tribal society, the individual no longer has the benefit of being taught by the elders the proven mores and, far more important, the reason for abiding by them. New gods replace the old ones, or are just added to the deities already worshipped. In this condition of change and disorientation, witchcraft has often become a substitute for true religion: as parasites descend in force on a neglected plant, so the fungus growth of magic and superstition can fasten more easily on the displaced psyche. Though in the villages life continues more or less unchanged, even here, as the older generations are gradually dying, there are ever fewer who understand the esoteric background of their beliefs than in former times.
As for Africa's past, the main obstacle lies in our tendency to equate the flowering of spirituality with the outer manifestations of civilization: those looking for an Acropolis may be blind to
obvious testimony of superior wisdom. Even so, the Parthenon in all its splendor constituted the smallest part of Athens, while the average citizen lived in a flimsy dwelling of sun-dried clay and timber, the refuse at the city's edge an open invitation to the plague.
Moreover, if we are unfamiliar with African culture, it is not so much because it never existed. In the Sudan, for instance, the mighty kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, Kanem-Bornu and Songhay succeeded each other from circa 500 AD. Early visitors were overawed by such a display of wealth and gold as they had never seen in contemporary Europe. (To avoid confusion, we might point out that in speaking of African cultures and religions we are not concerned here with those of Mediterranean Africa, modern or ancient.) In Timbuktu, Mansa (sultan or emperor) Kankan Musa, who gained dominion over Mali in 1307, built mosques equal in magnificence to those of Granada. The city became a center of learning and a haven for scholars. As Leo Africanus wrote in 1526: ''There is a big demand for books in manuscript, imported from Barbary. More profit is made from the book trade than from any other line of business." (The Lost Cities of Africa by Basil Davidson, 1970, p. 93.) Born c. 1485 in Granada, this Arab scholar is also known as Al-Hasan Ibn Muhammad Al-Wazzan Al-Zaiyatri. On one of his frequent commercial and diplomatic missions in North Africa, he was captured by pirates and presented to Pope Leo X as a slave. Converted to Christianity after one year of imprisonment, he took the name Leo, lived in Rome where he wrote several learned works, but returned to Africa before 1530, where he died a Muslim in Tunis c. 1554. About a century later, however, the slow Sahara trade routes became outmoded by swifter sea transportation, and Moroccan invaders had all but broken the back of Songhay. At the time of increasing contact with European traders and missionaries, West Africa was in a trough of demoralization and degeneration; the late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century traveler, therefore, reports of little else than savagery and wretchedness.
A confusing circumstance to the researcher of African religions is also the absence of written text of sacred scriptures past or present, as well as of any prophet or avatar, whose name has been preserved for posterity. For lack of such 'Bibles' one has to rely on the fairly sizable, if secondhand, chronicles of early explorers, ethnographers, missionaries or government officials, later followed by the sociologists and anthropologists, who have recorded the oral traditions and generally presented their own observations. During the last few decades valuable contributions have also been made by Africans themselves. Names such as Danquah and Mbiti come to mind.
Like the American Indian, native Africans have no word for religion, for religion and daily life are inseparable. To gain any measure of understanding, therefore, we have to consider the totality of their life experience. Immediately we are faced with a perplexing panoply of customs, symbols, rituals; different forms of magic, spirit- and ancestor-worship, and here and there whole pantheons. As a culture we have been bred to regard these things as barbaric and heathen, and with almost instinctive rejection have usually classified them as superstition, animism and fetishism. Only the rare individual has had the empathy to try and fathom what meaning such concepts might hold for the Africans themselves.
Ironically, our own civilization has some of its taproots in thought worlds not too different from those of Africa. We so readily admire Platonic philosophy, a relative afterthought that came to a Greece then virtually already in its decline. Yet we ignore the fact that human sacrifices were offered to Zeus as late as the second century BC. (The Life of Greece, by Will Durant, 1939, p. 194.) The Romans, great administrators, whose legal system was the basis for our own, before all major decisions of state had priests look for divine guidance in the flight of birds or in the livers of sacrificial animals. These practices probably were taken over from the 'Chaldeans,' and 'demon'-conscious Babylonians, who had a magic formula for every ailment and an amulet to match. All Mediterranean peoples (as did the Germanic nations) had extensive pantheons. In Europe of the Middle Ages fear of witches and witchcraft led often to mass hysteria and persecution, and the history pages of that period are rank with the blood of the innocent. To this day in the backward regions of the white world superstition is having its influence. The churches never really were able to eradicate it but only lent it Christian overtones. It was finally in the cool light of empirical science that the old specters vanished or retreated to the ill-lit corners of the subconscious.
In that same spirit of scientific rationality many Western scholars who in the past hundred years have examined indigenous African beliefs, have perceived but little of the essence within the animistic outer form. Traditional peoples the world over, however, regard man as inseparable from nature and thus have always accepted the existence of its hidden forces, some individuals having the innate capacity to work with them. In the case of men and women of high spiritual caliber, who knew the universal laws and were willing to respect them, such knowledge has not been harmful, while those of less moral stature have been apt to abuse it. The African has always made a sharp distinction between the two categories, for while rainmakers and healers (who rarely make a profit from their gifts) have ever been sought and valued, someone suspected of wreaking evil on any one person or on the community is often traced and disposed of as unworthy of life.
What then -- within and beyond the magical aspects -- can we find that might be termed the heart of African religions, and does it connect with the universal wisdom traditions?
The continent harbors a great diversity of nations, ranging from the tall Tutsi to the tiny Pygmies. There are 'primitives' such as the Dinka and Bushman, who have no material belongings except the barest necessities, while the Yorubas or Ashanti, for instance, have created works in stone, metal and wood that are much sought after by art collectors the world over. But although we cannot give a general picture, it may be said that most peoples believe there is a highest god, an all-father, often accompanied by a great nature mother, who takes more intimate care of her living creatures. These parents are sometimes portrayed as having a son, who is at the same time the child and the husband of the mother figure. One easily sees here a parallel to the many known trinities such as Brahma-Vishnu-Siva, Osiris-Isis-Horus, or the original Christian trinity of Father-Holy Ghost-Son, in which the Holy Ghost was feminine.
As for man, no African identifies himself with his body or even his "shade'' or astral form. Instead he recognizes as his core a divine principle, allied to God, that remains with God and does not immerse itself in matter-existence, but overshadows the human consciousness which manifests itself in the soul or ''souls.'' In some cases these are closely akin in character to the different Egyptian ''souls,', or again to the life elements described in Oriental philosophies.
There is a fairly general belief in a type of rebirth or metamorphosis -- though often not comparable to the more accepted idea we have of a reincarnation. But the premise of a continued consciousness goes a long way, here too, to explain life's seeming inequities. In almost all cases the African is convinced that nature is just, and that when things are awry the cause probably lies in the ill behavior of some individual. Moreover, when this cause has been established (if perhaps by methods that would be rather unacceptable in the West), definite steps must be taken to restore the balance. Is this, in essence, not the principle of karma?
Looking further, we come upon ancient lore of sunken lands, civilizations which have been destroyed, of giants who made the earth tremble under their thundering footsteps, and "earlier," peoples who were mere dwarfs. We also learn of journeys into the Underworld, reminiscent of those undertaken by culture heroes in other parts of the globe.
Some myths seem to trace back to ages of hoary antiquity when sexual reproduction as we know it at present was still new to the human race, which had to be taught by the gods or goddesses. The women then were the more powerful sex, not only because of their reproductive faculties but also because "to them alone the mysteries of the gods and secret things were made known." (Woman's Mysteries of a Primitive People. by D. Amoury Talbot. 1915, p..196.) Again, in all this, we hear echoes of the universal wisdom traditions which tell of different human races populating the planet. There were various methods of propagation; at one point man was androgynous before separating into two sexes.
Much as did the ancient Mediterranean nations, the Africans also consider every stone or bubbling brook to have its indwelling spirit, in theosophy referred to as the elemental kingdoms.
Whenever we find evidence of true wisdom-religion, the knowledge is 'layered' -- that is to say, there is surface knowledge for everyone, enough to form a basis for leading a moral life and to be a support in difficult times. But within such exoteric teachings is the inner mystery, the esoteric aspect, open only to those who qualify by their own development of perception and by their upright conduct. This is true also in Africa.
Interesting evidence of this we find in the second part of the autobiography of the late Louis S. B. Leakey, famous for the archaeological discoveries he and his wife Mary Leakey made in the Olduvai Gorge in East Africa. (By the Evidence) Perhaps less well known is the fact that when he grew up in Kenya he was initiated into the Kikuyu tribe and always considered himself a Kikuyu, be it a white one. A many-faceted man, in 1937 he sat down to write a detailed study of the customs of his tribe, under the rather unnerving supervision of some hundred elders, two of whom were appointed to be with him constantly as he worked. Although he was familiar with certain aspects of the Kikuyu religious teachings through his initiation, he readily admits that there was much to be known, about which his generation had not been instructed. And even among the elders themselves there was a hierarchical structure, Leakey being an elder of the second grade.
A still more eloquent example comes from the studies of Marcel Grisule and his coworkers among the Dogon of Mali. From 1931 this French ethnographer had conducted researches into the life of these remarkable people, who had patiently answered his questions on an exoteric basis. Not until they had observed him for sixteen years, and his questions became too complicated to be any longer answered by ''simple knowledge," did they decide to entrust him with their ''deep knowledge.'' Though esoteric it is not secret, strictly speaking, for it is open to all who are deemed to merit it by virtue of their social position and moral behavior. Thus a great many individuals who carry some responsibility or another in the community come "to sit by the side of the competent elders,'' to acquire this knowledge, a process that is slow and is, in fact, life-long. It is interesting to note the analogy with the Sanskrit word upanishad, which is translated as "to sit down near to,'' meaning someone sits down at the feet of another so that secret knowledge can be transmitted in this way; hence the word has also come to stand for those esoteric teachings themselves. Equally remarkable is it that the body of traditions which came to be known as the Upanishads, until it had been committed to writing in circa 600 BC., had for untold generations been passed on from mouth to ear, exactly as the "deep knowledge'' of the Dogon has been received orally by the disciple willing to sit in the right frame of mind at the knee of the elders.
Griaule and his team found that finally in going within and beyond both the exoteric and esoteric myths there
appears a logical scheme of symbols expressing a system of thought which cannot be described simply as myth. For this conceptual structure, when studied, reveals an internal coherence, a secret wisdom, and an apprehension of ultimate realities equal to that which we Europeans conceive ourselves to have attained. (African Worlds, Studies in the Cosmological Ideas and Social Values of African Peoples Ed. by Daryll Forde, p. 83.)
The amazing part is that evidently the "deep knowledge" was there all the time, but even Griaule, motivated by anything but superficial interest, had to prove his worth and ask the right questions. Germaine Dieterlen, who worked with him for many years, relates that it was her experience that in initiation the one who initiates, regardless of the degree of his knowledge, is not allowed to reveal spontaneously to the initiant anything he has not asked for. She illustrates this with a little incident that occurred during her researches. Day after day she passed the same upright stones, which had aroused her curiosity, but her informant with whom she had worked for 25 years volunteered no explanation. Finally, Madame Dieterlen tells, when they had passed these stones again, ''I say to him laughingly, because people are very gay in Africa: 'There was certainly something there, and you said nothing to me!' he replies: 'You had not asked me.'" (Reincarnation et Vie Mystique en Afrique Noire, pp. 185-6.) He then gave her their symbolic meaning. These keepers of their ancestral traditions clearly follow the rule observed by true occultists of all times: give truth only when asked for and give no more than the recipient can hold; if someone needs but a few drops, anything in excess is of no use, for it will not be assimilated.
If we know but little about Africa's spiritual treasures, could it be because as a culture though meticulously noting outer details, when it comes to the heart and the soul of what people believe, we have so rarely asked the right questions in the right and inwardly receptive attitude?
(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, June/July, 1976 Copyright © 1976 Theosophical University Press)
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