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Manikarnika
ManikarnikaGhat from the Ganges.  The terraced buildings to the left and center are pilgrim sheds.  The domed temple to the right, now abandoned, was built in the 18th century by Queen Ahalya Bai Holkar of Indore

ManikarnikaGhat from the Ganges. The terraced buildings to the left and center are pilgrim sheds. The domed temple to the right, now abandoned, was built in the 18th century by Queen Ahalya Bai Holkar of Indore

It’s always six o’clock at Manikarnika.  Squinting through the thick smoke of incinerating bodies, one can see the clock atop the decrepit Birla pilgrim shed which hasn’t moved in living memory.  Shrouded in perpetual twilight, legend states here, at this most holy of Hindu sites on the banks of the Ganges, time never runs down but instead stands still.  And so it does.  Precariously rooted in the ashes of thousands of bodies burned over thousands of years, the site is reverently known as the “cradle of Vishnu.”  Its origins, rumored to extend back to the beginning of creation, serve as a gruesome yet persistent reminder of life’s trembling fragility and temporary essence.  Here within the ancient sacred city of Varanasi, multitudes of the Hindu pious have for millennium brought their dead to this auspicious place for cremation and ultimately their final journey from this world.  Their presence and force is palpably felt within the all enveloping spectral haze.  It is a place of great severity and immense profundity.

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Last Updated on Sunday, 5 January 2014 09:33
My Friend The Witch Doctor
Animal skulls at the Lome fetish market

Animal skulls at the Lome fetish market

Animist Practice In Yorubaland

In many societies there exists an ever widening chasm between the ideals of their mythological heritage and the activities of ordinary life.  It often seems with every new nugget of information and technological innovation the relevance of cultural myths and legends as templates of practical action in daily existence recedes.  Their pragmatic authority marginalized, traditional mythology tenuously survives as an existential metaphor of the higher, more abstract ideals of existence as yet not fully explained by contemporary knowledge.  Societies continuing to live in accord with these “archaic,” metaphysical notions are widely considered to be uneducated, superstitious throwbacks destined to eventual doom by their lack of modern awareness.   Possibly the most conspicuous examples of such retrograde behavior lies with cultures who believe in the active, unseen role of spirits; those referred to as “animists.”  However, closer examination of the nature of animism suggests modern judgments may be in need of modification.  Could animist belief and ritual reflect a deeper more accurate ontological understanding than many realize?   Is it possible in many ways the advancements of science are leading us back to the essential truths of our distant mythological past?  The traditional Yoruban cosmology of western Africa may be a relevant case in point.

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Last Updated on Sunday, 5 January 2014 09:39
Sacred Sounds

Searching for the mystical within music

From the onset of the written record it’s apparent many have considered music a form of sacred expression.  Regardless of form or instrumentation, the relation of music to the ultimate forces of existence figures prominently within every culture and permeates our shared history.  Those more profoundly affected claim music to be the embodiment of the Divine.  Many of greater circumspection may conceive of music as merely a representation of the divine or, if less theistically inclined, the reflection of some kind of cosmic existential order.  Semantics and nuance aside, music has always been idealized as a medium through which the higher forces driving existence may be known.  This lofty concept has long been propagated, formalized and exploited by powerful spiritual institutions in whose trust the sacred remained.  

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Last Updated on Sunday, 12 March 2017 08:59

As bees suck nectar from many a flower
And make their honey one, so that no drop
Can say, “I am from this flower or that,”
All creatures, though one, know not they are that one.

Chandogya Upanishad

Virtually every spiritual system on earth espouses the existence of an original source.  A source from which all existence emerges and all knowledge flows.  This observation in itself is hardly profound or requires great deductive acumen.  After all, if it’s here it must have come from somewhere.  Both physicists and theologists are in rare accord when claiming everything and everyone must trace back to a singular starting point.  Defining the nature and motivations of this original source has led to a variety of different and conflicting opinions which form the basis of the worlds formalized spiritual systems.   However, closer examination of the description of the essence of the original source brings surprising unanimity.  It reveals an ultimate, singular intelligence of which all are a part; a power whose essence forms and informs all within existence.  Many of the descriptions of this source found in the spiritual texts of our world are exceedingly complex, others breathtakingly simple. 

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Last Updated on Sunday, 1 August 2010 06:25
Seven Minute Shaman

The Mazatec peoples have always lived just out of reach of the great empires of Mexican history.  Deeply ensconced in the highlands of the Sierra Madre Oriental in the northeast corner of the state of Oaxaca, their lifestyle has long withstood the brunt of such formidable forces as the Toltecs, Aztecs, Spanish Conquistadors  and the Mexican Federal government.  Though a tribe of Popoluca-Zapotecan linguistic stock, Mazatec is a Nahuatl name given them by the Aztec  meaning “Lord of the Deer.”  The Mazatec prefer to refer to themselves as the “Humble People.”   While the relentless pressures of Catholicism and modernity have gradually seeped into their daily lives they remain predominantly a community of weavers and farmers. 

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Last Updated on Friday, 30 July 2010 11:51
Losing Paradise
The Torajan village of Kete Kesu outside Rontepao

The Torajan village of Kete Kesu outside Rontepao

The Torajan people on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi are a rarity among traditional cultures.  They possess something capable of holding at bay the inexorable encroachment of modernity.  Something within their cultural essence whose preservation is of great value to the ravenous economic sensibilities of the modern world.  Something allowing them to maintain those native customs, ideals and forms so delicately assembled and maintained over countless generations.  This commodity is neither land nor material resource but rather a unique and dramatic set of spiritual perspectives and behaviors.  The Torajan are a new breed of entrepreneur.  In concert with the Indonesian government, they have parlayed their traditional animist practices into big business.

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Last Updated on Sunday, 12 March 2017 09:01