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Religious Freedom and the Search for Meaning, Value and Identity PDF Print E-mail

Jacqueline Roumeguere
National Center for Scientific Research, France

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Berlin, Germany, May 29-31, 1998

The universal liberty of religion appears to be most fundamental on the eve of the 21st century. The history of religions in Europe and elsewhere is marked cruelly up to this day by religious persecutions and wars. Yet in traditional Black Africa, this was not the case, precisely because religion is basically linked to one’s identity and cultural heritage to the cult of the totem, and, as it implies, accepting the other man’s religion as an integral part of his personality. In Africa, one inherits the family totem at birth, and it is responsible for a human being’s identity. What does the totem represent? I have called it his genetic code. This gives us a unity in diversity, because one cannot blame the other person for not having the same totem as himself. On the contrary, the other person has totems that are complementary to one’s own.

I give the example of the tomb of the kings of Uganda where the tomb itself has a very large thatch roof going down to the ground, which is upheld by coils of papyri—fifty-two of them. The kingdom has fifty-two totems, and it is up to each clan to bring the coil of a different diameter since it is a dome and each of the fifty-two contributes to this tomb with different sized roll of papyri. No one can be considered as more important than any other one because they are all necessary to uphold this structure. If one fails, the whole roof caves in. These totemic clans are considered to be complementary and not in contradiction.

One of my researchers has shown that, in fact, what is called Voodoo or Arisha is in fact equivalent to what in the South we call the Motupu, the Sibango, or the Sareto. When I use that word totem, I have had to look for one word that could mean the same thing for all these others, for each African society has a name for his totem, a different totem, and I cannot use one of them because that would be discriminating against one of the others. So, we talk of Motupu, Sareto, Sibango. There are many others. I use the word totem.

At independence, African countries inherited the boundaries of the colonial system. It could not really have worked otherwise. It was the easiest thing to do. But, it was largely thought that in order to create a national unity, you would have to eliminate the clan identities and specificities, which were called tribalism. Nobody really knows what tribalism is. We know what clans are because they have their identity. Tribes are a number of clans over a certain territory, but that has changed as people migrated to another territory. So tribes mean nothing. But it was believed to be of bad taste and anti-national to uphold your identity, because they thought this would bring about warfare, as in Europe we have religious warfare.

Because the totem in fact is the basic religion of Africa., much has been written about animism being the so-called primitive man’s religion. Let us rather call it an epistemology adopted today by physicians and biologists. Do we not consider that all matter is made up of vibrations, that the atom is of the same quality in man as in stone. Are we not all on our way to becoming animists. I will not elaborate very much on this point because it would be a full lecture by itself.

It was generally said these animists are polytheists. Can we really make that distinction between monotheism and polytheism? It’s not true for the pastoral nomads who we would agree in European terminology are monotheists, for they do not speak about the dead once they have gone, and they have a one name for the god, creator of all things, to whom they pray. Among all the Bantu of Africa, there is a cult of the ancestors as in Madagascar too. Now, this is what people have called polytheism. Can we really call it polytheism? They do believe that these ancestors are intermediaries between them and the creator for which there is a name but which is normally taboo, so they do not pronounce that name, but it is implicit in all the prayers to the ancestors.

I do not see the difference between the cult of the ancestors and, in the Roman Catholic Church, the cult of the saints. To me this is exactly the same thing. They are intermediaries between us and God. In the same way, I do not see that diversity of totems, and therefore of religions, is opposed to unity. I see it as being complementary. Just so, I do not see that polytheism is opposed to monotheism because I have not met it as such.

In my initiations in Africa, I was told that all things on earth belong to different categories, each having its own rhythm, or call it vibration. They will tell me that such a mineral is on the same frequency as a specific plant, as a specific insect, fish, animal, human clan. From this we derive the fact that certain clans adopt one of these or numerous of them as being the totems. They will not eat the animal which belongs to their totem. If it is an antelope, you will not eat that antelope, because they will say, “Do you eat your brother.” There is a very specific link to this animal because they are on the same frequencies. The people of the lion totem will go about on foot in lion country and not fear the lion. The kings of Uganda—some of them, those who have the leopard totem—will say that the leopards at night accompany the royal family back to the palace and then disappear. Sometimes in the morning, a leopard will appear in the courtyard. The women and children are told, just go into the house. This is our brother visiting us. And the men will remain outside, because obviously. There is this very intimate link—a link which involves a lot of respect and love. They will say, whatever you do for your totem, it is not out of a duty. It is not out of pressure put upon you. It is because you love your totem. He is the one from which you have emanated. The vibrations are the same and at death you return into that a bank of all these totemic vibrations and then reappear again at another stage because all children born will be born to that clan from the one that is dispensing the energy and the protection.

So a child is born into a specific clan that dictates certain behavior patterns that will distinguish him from other human beings. He lives these at first as a set of codes. Do this; do not do this. But it is only through initiation at puberty that he searches for meaning, value, and identity finds its fulfillment. Initiation confirms his identity and places in perspective the laws, taboos, and moral codes imposed upon him as a child. Initiation explicates his values, which—and I refer to a definition in the Encyclopedia Britannica which, I was very happy to note, has the same point of view that I do—exist in a sense that they are operative and effective on the human mind and human action and find embodiment in objective institutions of society.

Now that is their definition, and I’ll continue to say the man that has completed his initiation becomes involved in certain actions which are inserted in a specific social context. At the religious level, they involve rituals belonging to a set space and time pattern. Then comes the search for meaning to these. It will be the myths that will reveal the meaning. The Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, the totemic legends.

In the study of religion, I have for many years distinguished three frames of references: myth, ritual, and taboo. A myth circumscribes a reality which reason cannot account for, but, nevertheless, a reality which dictates one’s behavior. Ritual I define by the meeting place of man and his God. Taboo is the respect of one’s identity, the recognition of the totemic clan frequency.

[Using a chart] You have time and space. The man is born here. At every moment of his life, he is at the intersection of time and space. He’s born into a family, and in this family he receives his taboos: you’re going to do this, you’re not going to this, with this code. That becomes a ritual at initiation. He then becomes conscious of belonging to a greater society or community as you wish. In this community, he will be practicing now in the context of the social framework, and here we’re going to have the religious framework. So here one has a family, and the main religious framework would be the taboo. Here he is conscious of belonging to a bigger group of society, and this is where he will on the religious level practice rituals. And then he will become conscious of belonging to the whole planet, the world, to the cosmos, and this is where he will find the myth.

In the same way, I would say that through his family taboos he receives an identity. He then, through his search for values, will be practicing rituals in this community which he belongs to, and through his search for meaning he will be at the cosmic level, the one of the myths. So, although he will belong to a certain religious system that has its own myths, the more he can know something about the other person’s myths, the more he will expand and also be able to understand that, in fact, all these myths are not just stories, but that they need to be inscribed and take on values through rituals. This is where my definition of ritual as a meeting place of man and his god.

I just wanted to bring in another anecdote that it is possible in Africa to cure illness by acting on the specific frequencies related to the totem. A few years ago in Zimbabwe, I made a small documentary film. A woman was lying in a coma in a village in which I was living. People gathered around her trying to reanimate her, and to no avail. Then the drums were brought and they tried different rhythms, very softly near her ear. She did not react. They tried another rhythm, she still did not react. And then suddenly, to a new beat, she started shaking, waking up, sitting up, standing up, dancing to this beat. Others joined in. They said, “We have found her rhythm.” So, it was a matter of reintegrating her in her own frequency, which she had left and which had caused this coma.

Just as different people will be able to harmonize their energies according to a rhythm that is theirs, so they will be able to express their faith in various ways. In asserting one’s identity, one’s myths, which they must be at liberty to assume as complementary to mine and not antagonistic, you then realize that another person has their own and has as much right as you and that it is beneficial to you that the other has a different rhythm and frequency to yours.

If I still have a few minutes, I would like to speak about the intra-tradition meeting. Last year in April/May, the Dalai Lama invited people from five different continents to meet in Savoy, and for ten days we lived together. Each day one of the delegations practiced their rituals and we all joined in and got to know about each other’s rituals, not only thought patterns, because we did discuss, but I think I must emphasize that religion cannot be just thought. This is where the emphasis must always be on rituals and values. Out of this meeting at which the Dalai Lama himself was present, the United Traditions Organization came into being.

When I told them about this conference, they said that they are interested in coordinating with you here. I am on the committee of the UTO. They were very interested.