The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
May 2014 – Vol. 17 Issue 3
Out beyond hearing and seeing and thinking are infinite laws that hold us in their keeping. They speak to us at all times through the sunlit sky and the starlight; the silences of nature proclaim to us the greatness of the world and our own hidden grandeur; so that in the desert, in the deep caverns of the earth, under the heaviest weight of sorrow, he that hath ears to hear is never alone; and were he lost in the great waste places or in a rudderless boat on the open sea, he would carry within him still the Kingdom of Heaven and might find in his heart all the revelations for which humanity is longing.
We cannot succeed unless we work with nature, who will not accept half-hearted service. We receive no answer when we call to her only in moments of dilemma or disappointment, and then turn again and desert her. She has no word for the insincere or indifferent. It is as we reach out in thought to the noblest within us that her answer comes; and out of the great dark surroundings of life we who were under the shadow of our affairs and difficulties become aware that this is indeed a universe where divine laws govern, and that nature is all friendly and there is no need for human quarreling and fighting and doubting.
Fear is the basis of all discouragement. But if we cultivate fearlessness in meeting the trials from without and the weaknesses within, not only will we cease to be alone, but will attain discernment of a grand companionship ever present with us, "within and yet without" – the everywhere-existing Divine whose voice we may hear, listening for it, in our own spirit, and no less in the murmur of the brooks and in the chorusings of birds – for the mystery in the heart of nature is also the mystery in the heart of man; and the same wonderful powers are in both.
If we carry our minds beyond self into the limitless, our thought into the universal order and from the inmost recesses of our consciousness regard the universe in its magnificence, we shall be lifted out of our limitations and recognize within ourselves greater things than we have dreamed of. We shall behold the universes that throng the immensity of space as the outgrowth, the expression, of an infinite scheme proceeding from an inmost Source beyond our comprehension – flowing out from which, following the plan of evolutionary law, man too finds himself a vital part as he passes through the many lives ordained for his growth towards perfection. Nature is supremely just, and in all this grand universal scheme of being not a thought, not an aspiration, not the smallest effort is lost or wasted.
Godlike qualities lie sleeping within us: the spiritual things that mark us immortal For here within the heart is the Kingdom of Heaven, and the only recompense a man needs is to become aware of his own divinity. It is there, a creative power within us, by whose virtue he who has patience to endure and work shall behold the fruit of his efforts: the human family glorified and brought to the goal his heart tells him may be reached. – Katherine Tingley
I want to be willing to forgive
But I dare not ask for the will to forgive
In case you give it to me
And I am not yet ready
I am not yet ready for my heart to soften
I am not yet ready to be vulnerable again
Not yet ready to see that there is humanity in my tormentor’s eyes
Or that the one who hurt me may also have cried
I am not yet ready for the journey
I am not yet interested in the path
I am at the prayer before the prayer of forgiveness
Grant me the will to want to forgive
Grant it to me not yet but soon
Can I even form the words
Dare I even look?
Do I dare to see the hurt I have caused?
I can glimpse all the shattered pieces of that fragile thing
That soul trying to rise on the broken wings of hope
But only out of the corner of my eye
I am afraid of it
And if I am afraid to see
How can I not be afraid to say
Is there a place where we can meet?
You and me
The place in the middle
The no man’s land
Where we straddle the lines
Where you are right
And I am right too
And both of us are wrong and wronged
Can we meet there?
And look for the place where the path begins
The path that ends when we forgive
– Desmond and Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving (2014)
For thousands of years cultures flourished in the lands the Incas conquered only a few hundred years before the Spanish arrived. As early as 1200 BC “a model of political authority through religion seems to have started …, and it became the pattern for all cultures that came after,” according the Dr. Edwin Barnhart. We are handicapped in understanding this family of religions by the lack of written records. The Andean peoples used knotted cords or kipus to record information and had amassed huge kipu libraries by Inca times. The Spanish, however, ordered all kipus destroyed and their curators killed in an effort to stamp out native religion and culture. Around 500 kipus have since come to light, but we only know how they record numbers, not text. Still, many monuments, textiles, ceramics, artifacts, frescos, post-Conquest writings, and anthropology give us clues about pre-Incan spiritual practices.
Shamanism was present, and often central, in every pre-contact New World culture, as it is in most parts of the world. Shamans enter trances to contact the supernatural world in order to affect our world. This realm of nature spirits is also where the ancestors dwell. In South America people held that all sickness is due to attacks of evil spirits from other worlds, acting on their own or at the request of a shaman. Shamans thus can both heal and harm. Hallucinogens enable shamans to consult spirit companions, guides or guardians of other worlds and sometimes convince these spirits to obey their orders. The hallucinogen of choice in the Andes and Pacific coast was the San Pedro cactus. Sometimes a shaman takes on another form, and there are many images of people transforming into jaguars or birds. An ancient image shows a cluster of San Pedro cacti with a jaguar peeking out from behind it. The dominant pre-Inca depiction of divinity is a fanged deity, who often has a jaguar headdress, claws on hands and feet, and snakes on its belt or head. Interestingly, much of the iconography is of Amazonian creatures, like the jaguar. Though often illegal, shamans still practice today.
Another aspect of South American religion familiar to us is oracle and pilgrimage sites. Beginning about 1200 BC Chavín de Huántar had a large temple complex with images of the fanged deity, jaguar transformations, and rooms for offerings from pilgrims. This oracle site remained active through the 19th century. Another oracle was at Pacha Kamas south of Lima, and Spanish chronicles speak of a wide network of its branch temples. Tiwanaku on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia was another pilgrimage site, with impressive temples and markers for the winter and summer solstices.
Some key features of South American religion are alien from our culture. For instance, mummies were central. The world’s oldest mummies are from the Atacama Desert in South America, dating to 5000 BC, 2000 years older than the oldest Egyptian mummies. The earliest mummies were discovered with grave goods, but with no difference in pomp among the graves. From 1000 to 500 BC the Panacas culture in the Atacama left mummies in mass shaft tombs. Later on, individual houses had shaft tombs that contained only a few mummies each. The people of this region practiced extreme elongation of the skull and their dead look like popular images of space aliens. After 500 AD the first veneration of mummies appears. Mummies were stored in rooms in each house so that they could be included in everyday life. This trend kept escalating so that the Inca housed royal mummies in palaces, bringing them out at festivals and setting beer before them so the ancestors participated actively in public life. The Inca removed to Cuzco the royal mummies of those cultures they conquered, co-opting their rivals’ ancestors. These peoples had to travel to the Inca capital to visit their mummies and perform ancestral rites.
Another distinctive practice was decapitation, one that continues in the Amazon today. The preserved heads are considered objects of power, used to control the spirit of the dead person and dominate it. The Nazca, famous for their geoglyphs, made ceramic vessels resembling a severed head strung on a string to be hung on a belt, including those where the base is a lifelike portrait of a specific person’s head. Cultures often had a decapitation deity, who shared some traits of the fanged deity. The distinctive arc-shaped knife or tumi used in decapitation was a prominent sacred object.
With no record of what the people themselves believed, we can only infer the meaning of South American rites, places and practices. Some feel that the remaining native inhabitants hold important clues. Hopefully we will discover new keys to interpretation and thus get a fuller view of these sophisticated, alien and sometimes violent cultures and their religions.