Ayahuasca, Religion, and Nature


Ayahuasca, is a word from the Quechua linguistic family of Andean-Equatorial South America. It means “vine of the soul” and refers both to a large forest liana (Banisteriopsis caapi), and a strong infusion (tea) made from its woody parts, or with one or more other plant admixtures. The most usual addition to the brew are leaves from the shrub Psychotria viridis. These plants are endemic to the Amazon Basin, where they are part of a much largerplantas maestras or “teacher plants” tradition native to that part of the world. Such plants – many of which have emetic, purgative, cathartic, dream-inducing and/or visionary effects – are used to facilitate states of consciousness that are believed to open into the worlds of spirit.

In the typical ayahuasca preparation, the molecular basis for this lies in the betacarboline complex (harmine, tetrahydroharmine, etc.) and the indole dimethyltryptamine (DMT). These are part of a structural group that includes neurotransmitters, molecules used to effect internal communication in the human body. In ayahuasca, these dialogues are deepened and expanded to include all manner of elemental, plant, animal, ancestor, and deity. These then appear less as an “other,” and more as participants in the metabolisms of yet larger bodies, such as regional ecosystems, or the earth itself.

Such organismic cosmologies are common to many indigenous peoples. These often suggest the existence of a reality a priori to material existence, one of mythic causality in which all beings are mutually transformative and exist as ontological equals, as “persons”. Dialogues with such a world are effected through imaginal exchanges (dreams and visions), dance, prayer, song, and their attendant feeling states and sensory awareness. These describe the body’s innate capacity to converse with what is presumed to be the affective life of the natural world. Ayahuasca allows access to this generous bandwidth of communication, and its repeated use cultivates familiarity with the ecology of souls which inhabit it.

Sophisticated eco-cosmologies have therefore evolved among Amazonian peoples around the use of ayahuasca and other plantas maestras. These tend to order such practical activities as healing, divination, procreation, and hunting within the concept of an all-encompassing fertility circuit. This view understands the world to be nourished by a finite supply of vital force that must be equitably shared. Human greed, waste, and disrespect can easily disrupt this flow, and the repercussions are thought to express themselves in personal and social ills. Spirituality and medicine are thereby integrated into various social norms which tend to preserve ecosystem integrity. Examples include food, sex, and hunting taboos, and the cultivation of kinship relations with plants and animals.

The world of nature as revealed by ayahuasca typically appears as a society, a culture of spiritual relations. The teachings of ayahuasca are acts of healing, remediations in energy flow and balance whereby one “becomes” the lessons. One so healed may then enter into transformative relations with larger organizing forces, with greater ecosystemic intelligences, which in turn tend to increase human self-consciousness, inspiration, revelation, and sense of mission. When these traits are understood within the context of spiritual evolution, ayahuasca takes on a religious significance.

The idea of healing body and soul has formed the essence of religious beliefs of peoples the world over. Similarly, one can conjecture that the supplication of humans to the healing power of nature is the source of much of what we know as religious thought. In this regard, the role of plants and fungi in the origins of religions has been explored by a number of authors. Perhaps the most well-known example is Soma, the mysterious plant (or fungus) recounted in the Hindu Rg-Vedas as a vehicle of religious ecstasy.

Plant-inspired religions can be understood as acts of guidance by an elder community of species to a younger one, the human. They are concerned with successful co-creative relations within the community of nature and the organismic and spiritual growth that these bring about. Such religions allow the initiate to cultivate an expanded sense of self, whereby one’s actions in the world are reviewed in experiences of right or wrong, heaven or hell. This often results in a greater awareness of, and respect for, the spiritual ecologies that govern the world.

These understandings have been lost to much of religious life as humanity civilizes itself into increasingly mono-species (exclusively human) social arrangements and dialogues. Politicizing, intellectualizing, and influences that move divinity off-planet have all played their roles in denaturing the religions that have co-evolved with Western industrialism.

However, a reformation of plant-inspired religions has been occurring since the late 1800s. These often come of syncretizing influences in places of sudden and disruptive culture change. Examples include the evolution of the use of peyote (Lophophora williamsii ) into a pan-Native American religion; and the creation of churches that employ iboga root (Tabernanthe iboga) in colonized central west Africa. Similarly, ayahuasca-based churches were born in the Amazon basin with the influx of colonists and forest extractivists.

In the late 1920s, a rubber tapper named Raimundo Irineu Serra, or Master Irineu as he came to be called, had a series of visions in the forests near Acre, Brazil brought on by his use of ayahuasca. In these he was visited by the Queen of the Forest in the guise of the Virgin of Conception. Through her he received the doctrine of a new religion based on spiritual healing. Ayahuascatook on the name of Daime, after the invocation Dai-me Amor, Dai-me Luz. . . (“Give me Love, Give me Light”), and the religion became known as Santo Daime. Master Irineu moved to the nearby town of Rio Branco in 1930, and there began to cultivate this religion with a small group of adherents.

A number of hymns began to be received by church members in the form of “singing murmurs,” considered to be gifted from higher worlds. They invoke an eclectic pantheon that includes Old and New Testament figures and various saints, spirits of sacred plants, forest animals, devic presences, and heavenly bodies. These, along with accompanying musical instruments and formalized dancing, became an important part of church ceremonies and source for doctrinal development.

As the religion grew in Brazil, it spread from rural caboclo (mixed-blood river dwellers) communities into new settings and populations. These include the urban middle class, health professionals, and intelligentsia, as well as more marginalized groups, such as drug addicts (the churches have become well known for their work in helping people to overcome addictions), counter-culturalists, and the urban poor. This growth stimulated the formation of sects. For example, the Barquinha (“little boat”) group emerged in the 1950’s; it accommodates aspects of the very heterogeneous Umbanda (mediumist) spiritualism.

Yet another rubber tapper, Jose Gabriel da Costa, encountered the use ofayahuasca with native Indians in the forests bordering Bolivia and Brazil. In 1961 he founded the U.D.V. (União do Vegetal) which soon spread into the urban south of Brazil. Among the more hierarchical and organizationally sophisticated of the ayahuasca religions, the U.D.V. stresses a less “active” service, with long periods of silence interspersed with conversational sharing.

Despite differences, all churches share similarities that derive from the integrative nature of ayahuasca itself. It is considered a sacrament, and like its predecessor soma, a divinity, both “Christ’s blood,” and a forest spirit. The replacement of the bread and wine Eucharist with ayahuasca brings an eco-spiritual force into communion with Christian saints and their prescriptions of love, peace, charity, and fraternity. By unifying the naturalized and the civilized, it appears to work as a bridge over the 500 years of culture clashes wrought by the colonialist enterprise. In this way it births new cultural forms of indigeneity, ways of belonging to the land that reflect the needs of the various peoples brought to it.

A notable example is the 1982 founding of a community called Vila Céu do Mapiá (Mapia) by Santo Daime church members. Located in a large forest reserve in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, Mapia is intended as an ecological-communal “social laboratory” where the teachings received through theDaime can be practiced in daily life.

The world affirmed by ayahuasca, and in fact all teacher plants, tends to run contrary to that enacted by industrial-growth cultures. Hence those individuals that convert often become less amenable to mainstream mores, values, and ways of life. The media in Brazil and elsewhere have observed this, and in recent years have accused the churches of contributing to the breakdown of society; this by inducing its followers into acts of fanaticism, such as leaving one’s city life and disappearing into the forest.

Antipathy to the forces of change unleashed by sacred plants is likewise reflected in the modern War on Drugs. Under international pressure, Brazil added B. caapi to its list of controlled substances in 1985. Following a series of appeals and investigations it was removed from the list with provisions in 1987, and fully exempted in 1992. In that year its legitimacy was celebrated with ayahuasca ceremonies featured as part of the inter-religious vigil of the Global Forum section of the Earth Summit conference in Rio de Janeiro.

As the use of ayahuasca spreads outside of Brazil, it continues to run into prohibition policies. In recent years the churches in Europe and the U.S. experienced a number of seizures and arrests. Many court cases are pending, though a decision on May 21, 2001 in the Dutch court acquitted the Santo Daime church under the constitutional right to freedom of religion.

Modern ayahuasca religions are born both of the sylvan cosmos and a humanity sundered from that world. They therefore have great implications during this era of ecological crisis. To reestablish communicative relations with medicinal plants is to reconnect with a perennial source of assistance to humans. What such plants can do for individuals, they can do for communities; in this way they engender healing cultures. This process continues in Brazil (e.g., the Centro de Cultura Cósmica has recently sprouted from both Santo Daime and the U.D.V. influences) and in other areas of the world, where such movements are more covert.

These religions are prophetic in considering themselves microcosmic realities of a future-healed earth, yet for them, the future is now. They presume that as more people awaken to this reality, a relational indigeneity appropriate for the times will become increasingly accepted as a new cultural norm, and the planetary crisis will then pass. This vision is millenarian in scope, and suggests the inevitable evolution of a heart-opening ecotopia. To this end, aDaime hymn sings of a “new life, new world, new people, new earth.”


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© Morgan Brent 2008