By Sharon St Joan
Sacred lands. Where has the concept of the sacred gone? Indeed this may be the key question to understanding our alienation from nature.
All over the world, tribal people and people who have not lost touch with the natural world have an enduring concept of animals, plants, the mountains, and the stars being sacred – respected, revered, and worshipped. It is only “modern” man – often “western” man — that objectifies nature, treating the earth with condescension and disrespect.
The consequences of this alienation from the earth are a profound malaise at the center of our being – as we rampantly destroy the forests, the wild species, polluting rivers and oceans, and hurtling pell-mell towards climate change run amok.
Meanwhile, we wonder why our western society is ill – crime waves, opioid epidemics, suicide, divorce, fragmentation of families, mental illness, racial injustice, warfare, and a profound fear and deep-seated unrest that afflicts a large part of the population.
To see a difference in cultural perspectives, we’ve only to look to North Dakota, at the Standing Rock Sioux – thousands of brave people over several months protesting the plan to run an oil pipeline under a river which would risk contaminating the water. Hundreds of tribal people are standing their ground; some have traveled there from all over the world. They talk about their sacred land, that water is life. Law enforcement chases them with dogs, sprays pepper spray into their eyes, and runs trucks across their burial sites. They talk about their treaty signed by the U.S. Government, which everyone ignores. Only the oil companies’ view of the law prevails, and Native American sacred lands and the water that is sacred to them, and has been for thousands of years, carry no weight within the law – no standing or recognition. The only law recognized is that of their conquerors, who took their land away generations ago.
To Native Americans, water is life, and the mountains, rivers, and the earth are sacred too. The lay of the land on which they live is also sacred. In the southwestern U.S., to the Hopi and Navajo people, four sacred mountains encircle their lands, framing the sacred center in the middle. This is the area where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet, known as the Four Corners region. These mountains are Mount Blanca in Colorado, Mount Taylor in New Mexico, the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Arizona, and Mount Hesperus Dibe Nitsaa in Colorado. From a great distance driving through the desert, one can glimpse the San Francisco peaks, covered in snow, mist-encircled, looking just like a high place where spirits surely live.
Animals are sacred to Native Americans as well. The word coyote comes from the Aztec word “coyotl.” The coyote is generally a trickster God – intelligent, resourceful, a magical creature who is sometimes helpful to human beings.
Another trickster God is the raven, worshipped as the maker of light, the being who existed before the beginning of time and created the world. The raven is also credited with creating the stars, the moon, rivers, and the sun.
On the other side of the earth, in India, the oldest book in the world, the Rig Veda, depicts the forces of nature as powerful living entities, as Gods. (Even today, we can see faint shadows of this belief, as when hurricanes are given human names.) To the ancient rishis who wrote the hymns of the Rig Veda, Agni is fire, Vayu is the wind. Indra, leader of the Gods, is the Lord of storms and lightning. Varuna is Lord of the oceans and the universe. Aditi is the original Mother, the boundless one of the heavens. Throughout the long history of Hinduism (at least 5,000 years, maybe 10,000), there are millions of Gods, yet they are all One. Every being has a soul, and the soul of every being is the same soul, the underlying ground of reality, the spirit of the universe.
The sun is Surya, the moon is Chandra. The universe is filled with life, and nature is sacred. Life is based on reverence and worship, on fulfilling one’s duty.
This worldview is in many ways the opposite of the western way of seeing things, where individuality is exalted, and the individual reigns supreme. In our culture nature is objectified – it is to be used and consumed. Its existence is deemed inferior to our own. Signs at the entrance to public lands run by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management proclaim that these are “lands of many uses.” This phrase, which sounds benign, in fact means that the land is a resource to be used by human beings.
To be continued in part two…
To read part two, click here.
© Sharon St Joan, 2016.
Top photo: Sharon St Joan / Zion National Park.
Second photo: Tyler finvoid / Wikipedia / Public Domain / The San Francisco Peaks.