“In our post-Christian society, it was perhaps inevitable that people went back to pre-Christian cultures to explore Shamanism. It is also a pleasant break from humdrum existence to have a vision quest, go to a sweat-lodge, dance sky-clad in the forest under the full moon, spend the night lying in your own grave, and indeed take ayahuasca. But now we have to move on.” – Dr. Koenraad Elst
Very recently, I met several yoga initiates who told me of their experiences with ayahuasca, a “plant teacher” which they regularly took. For me, this was a blast from the past. Thirty or more years ago, I have taken LSD trips about a dozen times and two mescaline trips. Like a few friends, but unlike most contemporaries, I saw these psychedelics as a spiritual way rather than as a form of recreation. Nowadays, the accepted term would be “Shamanism”, a Siberian-cum-Amerindian tradition involving vision quests and journeys in the spirit world.
Like many of my then friends, I quit the scene by age 25. By now, age 53, I was so completely out of it that I didn’t even think to myself of mind-altering substances as the explanation for a few strange things I saw about the people concerned. It was to my surprise that I heard the true story. Since one of them has wondered in my presence whether to keep on combining regular ayahuasca use with daily yoga practice, I have given the matter some thought.
Let me clarify first of all that I am not inclined to moralize about this. Those people and their motives are so recognizable to me. I am one of them, thirty years down the line. I also need not go into the medical drawbacks of drug use: these are together people who are in no direct danger of suffering the irritability or worse that I have seen in some users. Nonetheless, I am already showing my hand by adding that if I had remained in this scene, I would never have achieved what I have achieved now.
One reason why this revelation surprised me, is that by now I had become firmly convinced of the power of yoga to make these short cuts to some kind of zero experience unnecessary. From Woodstock on down, numerous people have abandoned the drug scene upon initiation into yoga. As a yoga adept was introducing hippies at Woodstock to yoga, he explained: “Now the drugs do it for you. Then, you do it yourself.” On the other hand, I have to admit – and remember only too well – that there is a grey area of being attracted to both alternatives. When I was first initiated into Kriya Yoga by Swami Hariharananda and his Dutch assistant in Amsterdam, more than thirty years ago, I was actually in Amsterdam to buy drugs. I saw the poster announcing the initiation, went there quite unprepared, and my life changed profoundly. It still took a few years before I had quit the drug scene altogether, though. I also learned that the Swami had picked up his Dutch assistant, who by then had become an accomplished yogi, from the Indian gutter where he had landed as a drug addict. Once you discover yoga, it mostly means you choose the exit from the artificial paradise of mind-altering substances.
As Patañjali’s classical definition says: yogaścittavṛttinirodhaḥ, “yoga is the cessation of the motions of the mind”. It is as simple as that. By contrast, the complicated visions and sensations unleashed by psychedelic drugs are, as much as our everyday experiences, cases of “motions of the mind”. Yoga is not about visions and sensations, but about mental silence and peace.
Maybe that doesn’t sound very adventurous. Drug-taking is only rarely done to “escape from reality”, as the bourgeoisie thinks. It is mostly done out of adventurousness, because everyday life is rather boring while spirit journeys challenge your attention. Also, there is a curiousness for the world beyond that the “plant teacher” is revealing to you, a warm enthusiasm. So, the abstract proposition that instead you could opt for a way to silence and peace might seem dull by comparison. But this changes radically when you meet accomplished yogis, like Swami X and Swami Y [names withheld as I don’t want to associate respected people with my controversial self], who led the retreat where I met the people concerned. There you find and feel that nothing compares with yogic bliss.
Yoga is a way of turning inward. The sensations given by ayahuasca are not an external affair, one that can be seen by outsiders. This might give the impression that it is comparable to yoga. But by yogic standards, these “inner” sensations detract as much from pure consciousness as any outward experience would. Whether you are adventuring outdoors or sitting in your armchair enjoying the effects of ayahuasca, in both cases your mind is preoccupied with the sensations you encounter, not with the Self.
But am I not being insulting to the Shamans and the spiritual traditions of their peoples? Many communities know of no higher state than that achieved with the help of “plant teachers”. For many thousands of years, varieties of Shamanism were the main religion of mankind. In China, the revival of openly practised religion is bringing to the fore Shamanic practices at the popular level, like people becoming channels for ghosts during exuberant public festivals. Daoism is in fact an evolved form of Shamanism; when a Daoist priest is ordained, he is given a list of spirits that he is empowered to command.
In India too, popular religion still has many elements of Shamanism, such as ecstatic dancing. The Paraias (in English usually spelt Pariahs, the proverbial untouchables) are a community of drum-makers and drummers. They use the archetypal Shamanic instrument, nicknamed “the Shaman’s horse” because it is their vehicle on journeys in the spirit world, to whip themselves into a Shamanic trance. In that state, they are consulted for predicting the future. This penchant for the paranormal is still in evidence in a low-caste Indian community which we are all familiar with: the Gypsies, whose women are known as fortune tellers.
In recent centuries, purity-conscious Brahmins used to keep these Shamans at a distance (and vice-versa) because these were deemed to carry the world of the dead with them, with which they were known to communicate. However, at a longer distance in time they were some kind of Shamans themselves. The ninth book of the Ṛg-Veda is devoted to soma, “pressed juice”, the product of an uncertainly identified plant. The most popular theory identifies it as ephedra (whence ephedrine, a type of amphetamine or “speed”), but we are not sure at all. Some modern moralistic Hindus deny that soma was a plant at all, they say the word soma referred to a yogic state. Others say it was the fluid state of a metal during the fiery stage of metallurgy. I am aware of these theories but till now, the “plant teacher” explanation is the most common and consistent by far. The juice is described as conferring a state of great clarity, incidentally also a property ascribed to ayahuasca, said to make its users “see through” situations and other people. Since man wanted to sacrifice to the gods the very best he had, soma was among the goods thrown into the fire in order to “feed the gods”; Indra is said to be a great consumer of soma.
So, with a little exaggeration: before the Brahmins, heirs of the Vedic seers, became dry scholars, they were tripping poets getting high on soma juice and composing drinking carols now known as Vedic hymns. A remnant of it is what I witnessed when I stayed at Banaras Hindu University during the Night of Shiva (Śivarātrī, an annual festival): very scholarly professors getting high on bhaṅg, a cannabis brew. Another remnant is perhaps in evidence in Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra: whereas the Buddha lists truth, non-violence, non-stealing, chastity and non-intoxication as his five basic rules (pañca-sīla), Patañjali’s list of five basic rules (pañca-yama) is identical except that it replaces non-intoxication with non-covetousness. Apparently Patañjali didn’t want to go as far as to categorically forbid intoxicants. He also admitted that taking drugs is one of the ways to attain siddhis, “achievements”, i.e. special powers. Especially clairvoyance is said to be an effect of the mental state conferred by plant teachers. But then, these siddhis only detract from the real goal of yoga.
Till today, you can see some Sadhus smoking their chillums full of marijuana. But rather than taking them as role-models, you should be aware that they only exemplify the freedom which Hinduism grants to its followers. These men can do their thing, but they are of low rank in the natural hierarchy. Gurus who intoxicate themselves with alcohol or drugs are not taken seriously. It is a bit like consuming meat: the majority of Hindus do eat meat, but they venerate vegetarians and rank them as more virtuous. So, even those who cannot do without their chillum, do realize that their intoxication is only a phase, and that they still have a long way to go.
As we have been taught, according to Mircea Eliade, yoga is an evolute of Shamanism. I am aware that among many Hindus, this view will not go down very well; nor among modern Westerners. Hindus will object that yoga is eternal, that the Vedic hymns were an expression of a yogic state, and that it is blasphemous to derive yoga from anything else. Westerners, who recently have been taught to approach every subject with the dogma of equality, will object that this evolutionary view establishes an inequality: Shamanism is the childhood stage, yoga the next, more mature stage. Still, I stand by it.
The ordinary people in India are the same as the people everywhere else, but the tradition to which they are exposed is – dare I use the word? – superior. The difference is that they know they have the example of liberated masters living in their midst. For them, venerable beings are not just talked about in sacred books, they are alive and nearby. The people may not practise yoga themselves but they know they can turn to yogis, who radiate the fruits of their meditation to their surroundings. It simply feels very good to be in their company once in a while. India is not so great in some respects, but at least it has this cardinal virtue: whereas people in most places are like orphans left alone, ordinary Hindus are like children playing in the park while their mother is watching.
Hindus like to boast that the evolutionary theory is already present in the series of Viṣṇu’s incarnations: fish, tortoise, boar, man-lion, then a dwarf starting the sequence of human beings. We see in this system that lower animal species are followed by higher animal species (fish, reptile, mammal), then half-men and then full men. So, they should make no problem in applying the evolutionary model to their own tradition. It has been found that some motifs of the yoga tradition are already known in other, even reputedly “primitive” cultures. Thus, the practice of meditation was also known among the Greek Stoics, who sat every morning for “staying in the present” (i.e. preventing the mind from wandering to memories of past experiences and plans for the future). The concept of kuṇḍalinī, an energy working its way up the spine, is also applied in Chinese energy-work (qigong), where the “microcosmic orbit” (xiaozhoutian) is practised: the energy is led by the breath/attention upwards along he spine, then downwards again. But even among the distant cultures of the San (Bushmen) and the Australian Aborigines, the awareness of the rise of heat in the spine is known. So, whatever its precise history in India, kuṇḍalinī yoga is only a mature form, developed in India, of a reality intuited among a number of divergent peoples. It is a knowledge that, once developed, people in all countries can profit from.
Similarly, the yogic value of non-violence has an interesting prehistory. When eating animals was abolished, sacrificing animals was eliminated with it. But earlier, when animals were indeed sacrificed, explanations were constructed why this was not really slaughter, why it was better for an animal to be sacrificed rather than just eaten. While some violence was deemed necessary to bring the proper sacrifices to the gods, the priests were at the same time embarrassed to inflict this violence on the sacrificial animal. This was but the Indian form of a phenomenon also witnessed among the Amerindians and other Shamanic cultures: hunters begging forgiveness from their prey for killing and eating it. So, Hinduism shares a certain inspiration and outlook with the Shamanic cultures, but it has taken this a step further: while other cultures still kill and eat animals even though they say sorry, Indians (or at least some norm-setting classes of Hindus) have abolished animal-killing altogether and taken to vegetarianism. Admittedly, India was helped by its climate, which allows for eating vegetables all year long, whereas natives of Canada or Siberia in their cold climate have had to await modern times to acquaint themselves with the vegetarian alternative. Even in this respect, I would venture to utter the S-word: India’s climate is superior.
So, India has started with a Shamanic culture, preserved much of it, but has gone beyond it in some respects. This way, experts on the inner life went from “making spirit journeys” to meditating. They went from drug-induced altered states to mental stillness. From Shamanism to yoga.
Liberal Westerners will hold it against you if you dare to see an inequality between Shamanism and the yoga system. They cherish this new dogma that all world views are equal. And they can get nasty when you posit an inequality between two world views. Well, no matter, for the inequality is real. Children do not go from primary to secondary school because they feel like trying something different, but because, in their natural urge to expand and learn, they understand that secondary school is more advanced. So also, methodically developing peace of mind is more advanced than conversing with spirits.
In our post-Christian society, it was perhaps inevitable that people went back to pre-Christian cultures to explore Shamanism. It is also a pleasant break from humdrum existence to have a vision quest, go to a sweat-lodge, dance sky-clad in the forest under the full moon, spend the night lying in your own grave, and indeed take ayahuasca. But now we have to move on.
Ken Kesey, the writer of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as well as an LSD pioneer, was arrested after the state of California outlawed the use of LSD. According to Tom Wolfe, who wrote a book about Kesey’s exploits (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), he was allowed to shorten his incarceration in exchange for giving a speech on TV explaining to his followers why the LSD experiment had lasted long enough. He said that LSD had functioned as a door, an exit from the highly conditioned existence in bourgeois society. But once you have opened the door, you don’t stay there to play with it. You go in. And so, he told his audience, it is time to leave the door behind, to throw away the ladder that brought us up, and to go beyond.
Well, if he didn’t say that, at least he should have said it. I am at any rate willing to repeat it. To the people concerned, my message would be: I love you, I even understand you, but you would be wise to move on. Especially now that you have such a promising alternative. – July 2013
» Dr. Koenraad Elst studied at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. As an independent researcher he has earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state, the roots of Indo-Europeanism, the Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy.
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