Every year in June the Mendocino County Fairgrounds near our home hosts the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival. The festival features an eclectic mix of Afrocentric rhythms dominated by the immensely popular style of music known as Reggae. Evolving in Jamaica out of calypso and blues in the 60’s and popularized by icon Bob Marley in the 70’s, Reggae music has become the de facto anthem of the Rastafarian religion.
What is the Rastafarian religion? I asked this question to Reggae enthusiasts who had attended the festival and the unusual and conflicting answers I received left me quite confused. The Internet however, enabled me to become acquainted with the theology and fascinating history of Rastafarianism, which began in much the same way as the American Black Muslim movement did, out of racism, oppression, and hopeless poverty. Oppressed people, whether Israelite or African, often seek a messiah and beginning in the 1930s many Jamaicans believed they had found their savior in Haile Selassie, the then Emperor of Ethiopa. This was due in large part to the influence of (back to Africa) political leader Marcus Garvey who prophesized, “Look to Africa where a black king shall be crowned, he shall be your Redeemer.” These words were the catalyst for the first Rasta congregation, formed in Jamaica in 1935. The leader of that congregation, Leonard Howell, proclaimed that through the divinity of Haile Selassie black people would arise from white oppression and return to Africa in glory.
In a nutshell, then, “The Rastafari movement is a monotheistic, Abrahamic, new religious movement that accepts Haile Selassie I, the former, and final, Emperor of Ethiopia, as the incarnation of God, called Jah or Jah Rastafari. Haile Selassie is also seen as part of the Holy Trinity and as the returned messiah promised in the Bible.”
While the idea seems outlandish, one could hardly find a political hero with more apparent messianic credentials than Haile Selassie. Born into a royal dynasty claiming descent from Biblical King Solomon through his consort, the Queen of Sheba, and married to a woman who could trace her ancestry to Islam’s prophet Mohammed, the handsome and eloquent leader known then as Ras Tafari Makonnen (Ras means duke or prince) was crowned King Emperor of Ethiopia on November 2nd, 1930. Upon coronation he took the name Haile Selassie (Power of the Trinity) and became titular head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a mysterious Christian sect that worships the lost Ark of the Covenant. The Ark, believed to have been spirited out of Israel before conquering Babylonians by Menelik, the Son of Solomon and Sheba, supposedly remains to this day hidden in Ethiopia, awaiting divine renewal.
While Haile Selassie’s reign as Emperor of Ethiopia was not exactly stellar in every respect, all considered, he distinguished himself as a benevolent ruler, a champion of human rights, and a determined freedom fighter, leading his nation’s army in the field against Mussolini’s brutal invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. In exile, during the short Italian occupation of his country, as well as beyond, Selassie’s statesmanship and heartfelt pleas for universal justice and human rights endeared him to all lovers of freedom, inspiring figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, and other black civil rights leaders.
In light of all this, I can at least theoretically understand how that first Jamaican congregation and those to follow might believe Haile Selassie a prophet, saint, or even a messiah (defined in the Oxford-American dictionary as “a leader or savior of a particular group or cause”). Still, it seems to me quite a stretch to accept a modern politician, Haile Selassie or otherwise, as a divine incarnation of God. Perhaps the answer to this unusual mystery of faith can be found in the Rasta sacrament known as “The Reasoning.” In this ritual, Rastas use “wisdom weed” (cannabis) to find esoteric truth, often by discussing the Bible, as well as various ancient Ethiopian sacred texts. Through “The Reasoning” the deepest secrets of the religion (such as the divinity of Haile Salassie) are supposedly revealed to the chosen.
Of course Rastafarians are not the only religious people to use cannabis in quest of spiritual realization. Indeed, Rastas, with their matted locks, resemble India’s followers of Shiva who use cannabis to aid in meditation and induce visions. (Incidentally, many historians believe that indentured servants from India first brought the so-called sacred weed to Jamaica after the slave trade there was abolished.) Also in India, turbaned members of the Sikh religious warrior class (Nihangs) are known to drink bhang, a powerful beverage made from cannabis, during their ceremonies. Although Sikh scripture strictly forbids intoxication, the Nihang tradition holds that Sikh leader Guru Gobind Singh gave them special dispensation to consume the beverage in order to heighten their fearlessness before going into battle. (So much for the theory that cannabis is exclusively a peace-enhancing drug.) In addition, various Sufis, Shamans, Coptic Christians, Essenes, and other sects and sub-sects too numerous to mention are also known to use cannabis for religious reasons.
But what, if anything, does “wisdom weed” have to do with religious insight? Like most of my peers of the 60’s generation I experimented with marijuana but I never felt that smoking dope was intrinsic to my spiritual path. However, if one adds scriptural discussion and changes the name from “smoking dope” to “The Reasoning” then to many the affair might take on an air of mystic possibility. One such advocate, Ram Das/Richard Alpert, the famous author of the seminal 1971 countercultural treatise on eastern metaphysics, Be Here Now, lauded marijuana as a portal to transcendental realization. Yet, if marijuana is such a portal, then the question remains as to why so many millions have gone through that door to remain unenlightened or worse; as in gangs, in prison, or insane.
Rastas also point to the fact that Rita Marley, the wife of Reggae musician Bob Marley, claimed to have seen the stigmata, or wounds of Christ, on the body of Haile Salassie when he visited Jamaica in 1966. If this were so, wouldn’t this be proof of his divinity?
In reply to the question of visions arising from the religious use of marijuana or psilocybin, distinguished guru and author Swami Tripurari writes the following:
Research shows that visual experiences derived from the use of hallucinogenic drugs vary in relation to one’s mental preoccupation. Therefore, persons who use drugs for spiritual purposes will likely have visions corresponding with their particular religious preoccupation. For example, Native Americans and others who practice nature-based religions are said to often experience themselves as animal spirits. Hindus might have visions they imagine to be akin to Arjuna’s experience of the Universal Form of Krishna as described in the Bhagavad-gita, and Christians might perceive their visions as related to the second coming of Christ. Tellingly, persons with no spiritual background or interest whatsoever will hallucinate in terms of their own materialistic interests. Obsessed with the Beatles song Helter Skelter, the drug-induced visions of Charles Manson were of an apocalyptic racial war, one that he personally tried to bring about by murdering innocent people. Nothing at all spiritual about that!
Under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, one may have visions of Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, or dancing elephants for that matter, but such visions are only temporary creations of the mind. The real Krishna is adhoksaja, beyond the limitations of the mind. His darsana is available to persons like Arjuna, who through their devotion have become his intimate friends. Bhagavad-gita (11.53-54) says that to such great souls Krishna gives the transcendental eyes with which to see him in truth.”
From Sanga: Seeing Krsna, The Power of Love.
The fact that ones experience on psychotropic or hallucinogenic drugs corresponds with the users mentality explains why Rita Marley might have seen the stigmata on Haile Selassie, or “The Reasoning” might reinforce the Rasta claim of Haile Selassie as the divine Jah Rastafari. After all, a person has to be open to smoking cannabis and Rasta theology to take part in a Reasoning session. The trick then, at least for me, would be to be able to convince people of the divinity of Haile Salassie without the help of wisdom weed, something that from antiquity has been done with Buddha, Christ, Krishna, and other deities. It is also important to note that Haile Salassie never claimed to be divine, actually he claimed otherwise. In a news interview in 1967 he said, “I have heard of that idea [that I am divine]. I also met certain Rastafarians. I told them clearly that I am a man, that I am mortal, and that I will be replaced by the oncoming generation, and that they should never make a mistake in assuming or pretending that a human being is emanated from a deity.”
Nor is Haile Salassie on record as promoting the use of cannabis as a religious sacrament. Indeed, Marcus Garvey, the person said to have started it all with one enigmatic declaration, disavowed the idea of Salassie’s divinity, and made a statement that today in California’s marijuana-growing capital, Mendocino County, would be so politically incorrect that many residents here would be embarrassed to repeat it. Garvey proclaimed, “Ganja is a dangerous weed. That our people are being destroyed by the use of ganja there is absolutely no doubt. Between ganja and fanatical religion, we are developing a large population of half-crazy people who may not only injure themselves but also injure us.”
Therefore, despite the visions and claims of wisdom weed proponents I remain unconvinced of the value of using any type of intoxicant for spiritual purposes. For me, the words of another distinguished spiritual leader, Swami B. R. Sridhara Maharaja of India, sum up the issue. He said, “Many so-called holy men smoke marijuana. It helps concentration but that is the material mind, and the material mind under the influence of material intoxication cannot take us to the desired spiritual goal. Only faith can take us to that goal. Mundane things like marijuana and hashish cannot take us very high and will only frustrate us in our time of need. Ultimately, only real faith in the line of pure devotion can help us.” (The Search For Sri Krishna)