On Being a Pagan

My first awareness of Lord Shiva came from the late Iyalorisha Melvina Rodney. She kept a large framed image of Him in the inner sanctum of her shrine, between Ogun’s cutlass and Yemoja’s wooden boat brought with a Yoruba woman to Trinidad after Emancipation.

Behind the disguises of white saints, she had called on the spirits of her ancestors for strength, for healing and wisdom.

On the days I spent in prayer and meditation in Iya’s shrine, I looked into Shiva’s half-closed eyes, and was drawn to that look, that dream state, the dreadlocks, the crescent shaped moon, the drum.

Iya never explained to me why Lord Shiva was there, and I was too young to ask.

One of the few times I talked at school about African spirituality, there was awkward silence and a similar tone of fear and contempt reserved for when the good and saved were discussing Hindus.   I understood then why so many of my Hindu friends would stay silent when religion was being discussed.

Pagan was a word that got thrown around a lot.

It was just another word for weirdo. The other, the outsider, the misfit. The one who didn’t belong.

As I got older I realised that I was less interested in belonging and more interested in finding a way to define myself on my own terms.

Much of what I saw as a child started to come back to me in visions, in fragments of memory. 

The imperialist imposition of a young white man on a cross continues to dismiss and diminish everyone else’s spiritual consciousness to arbitrary definitions like pagan, heathen, un-saved.

But if to be pagan means to feel connected to nature then I’m okay with that. If to be pagan means to feel a sense of community, a part of a living ecosystem that cycles from unborn to child to elder to ancestor and back to unborn then I’m also okay with that. If to be pagan means looking at the landscape and seeing yourself as part of it, part of shaping it and making it better, then I’m okay with that too.   If to be pagan means to see god in your image and likeness then I’m okay with that. If to be pagan is to understand that your mother is your first notion of what god is, then I am okay with that too.

In 2015, after spending the day playing Black Indian, I went to my first Shivratri and finally understood what Iya saw in those eyes.

I can see now how our ancestors shaped their spiritual reality from dreams, from visions, from fragments of memory.

They danced and sang and prayed themselves into this new existence. It was the only way they knew how to be.

And in the same way that quantum physicists claim they can still hear the echo of that first big bang, it is the same way that Lord Shiva’s drumming of creation and destruction still echoes in our consciousness today.

To be pagan means that you live your spiritual reality daily. It means that every molecule of your being vibrates with a frequency that existed before somebody dreamt up Adam.

To be a pagan is to remember your personal divinity. Remember what it was like before people told us how to believe.

And perhaps more important than what they remembered was what they created with that knowledge.

What only exists in this space and time, in this reality.  To be an example to the world of what civilisation could be. We can only be stronger by understanding each other. The shame and fear that was and still is associated with both African and Indian spiritual beliefs is part of the shared reality of life in a place like this, that can be so freeing in one moment and so imprisoning in the next.

Our ancestors, our Orisas, our Devas would have it no other way.

In these recession times we are suddenly being told go back to our gardens, to go back to our bush medicines, to heal ourselves with yoga, use drumming to heal mental illness.  All the so-called pagan practices have now been repackaged by the west. The neo-pagans are making money from the shame our grandmothers felt for teaching us to make coconut oil.

But there are no accidents in this life. Nothing happens by coincidence or chance and it is not by accident or chance that this place called Trinidad exists. That we are here having this conversation.

That we are learning and remembering our obeah. That we are owning it. Understanding it. Claiming it and ultimately defending it against those who would use our own fears against us.

Presented in April 2016 at Varsha Pratipada Sansad, Chinmaya Ashram, Couva, Trinidad.

Obeah and other Political Tools

A couple of weeks ago I saw a tasteless attack on Hinduism expressing some vaguely articulated fundamentalist Christian desire to return Trinidad and Tobago to ‘God fearing ways’.

Forgetting of course that it was the church that Patrick Manning was building with his ‘Prophetess’ that was part of what hastened his being voted out.

This week they, whoever ‘they’ are took a turn behind African spirituality, aping the same divisive colonialist madness that was used to keep Indians and Africans afraid of each other since the first ship landed here in 1845.

The only reason anybody would put the Gods out of their thoughts, waste time and resources to make an ‘Obeah’ ad is because they/we remain mired by this Christian colonisation of our spiritual choices. We remain complicit in the contempt the society has for African spirituality and any other belief system that doesn’t subscribe to a Judaeo-Christian idea of who or what God is.

‘Obeah’ was used as a general term that lumped together all African spiritual practice and anything else that could be vaguely construed as a threat against colonial authorities.

The fact that many of the spiritual practices of Orisa and Hindu and Indigenous devotees have clear and evident similarities will never be highlighted in any political advertisement.

Go back and ask Iyalorisa Melvina Rodney why she had a big picture of Lord Shiva in her inner sanctum. Go back and ask Babalorisa Sam Phils how he knew so much Sanskrit. Go Enterprise and ask my Uncle Raviji why he invites Babalawos to his Mandir.

Hinduism and Orisa and Indigenous beliefs have and will continue to coexist here. Regardless of the racist and misinformed backwardness that gets peddled as political rhetoric.

Most PNM people also don’t know that the balisier has a wider meaning in the world of Orisa practice of the Caribbean.
Last year when I went to Cuba I found out that they call the balisier ‘Sword of Shango’. I saw the balisier flower all over the shrines of Santeria practitioners.

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Shango was and continues to be a popular Orisa in Trinidad for a very specific reason.
Many of the Yoruba people who were brought here after Emancipation were from Oyo, where Shango was a 13th century King of that large and ancient Empire. It was because of that longstanding connection to Oyo that they used to call all Orisa devotees ‘Shango people’. Go up to the hundred year old Orisa shrine on Upper St. Francois Valley Road and you will hear songs about Ibadan to this day.
Y’all think Eric Williams didn’t know these things?

Read more about Shango from eminent Trinidad born scholar Maureen Warner-Lewis’ Trinidad Yoruba : From Mother Tongue to Memory.
If you need more information on Caribbean anti-obeah laws read this paper from Jerome Handler:

Anti-Obeah Laws of the Anglophone Caribbean, 1760s to 2010

CLR James said in Black Jacobins ‘voodoo was the medium of conspiracy’. It was the Vodun ceremony held at Bwa Kayiman on August 14, 1791 that was the catalyst of the Haitian Revolution.
If it wasn’t for obeah, Vodun, secret societies, ancestral rituals, masking traditions, Ogun manifesting in the steel pan we would not have survived the Middle Passage or enslavement or colonialism or the continued attempts to deny us the fullness of who we are.

All of the born again Africans and Afro-Saxons waving their Swords of Shango, I ask you what the PNM is doing to protect you at the core of your spiritual beliefs?