Is it possible to understand the spiritual outlook and way of life of a people who, though intensely religious, "have no word for religion in their own language," as Frank Waters has exclaimed in surprise of the Navaho? (Masked Gods, The Swallow Press, Inc., Chicago, 1950; p. 125.) In truth his expression can apply to all the great native American cultures, for each centered thought and daily action in the vast mystery of spirit-matter. Equally with the Taoist of China who saw life as a Way, American Indians spoke of the Road or Way of Life and Death — a progression of consciousness. For them, the Road of Life embraced not merely the individual's three score and ten years, but the complete process of mankind's evolution. Because our manner of approaching truth is primarily through the mind, and not the 'heart" or intuition as with the Indian, his vision of reality is often incomprehensible to us.
The Indian had no word for religion because he did not see it as something separate from life: his life-stance itself was religious, was a "way" trod through this time-space world to the worlds of the Beyond. The Indian's "ways" were really Mystery-religions whose closest parallels are found in the Mysteries of the ancient Mediterranean world, such as the Eleusinian, the Orphic and Mithraic. (For a fuller and authoritative comparison of native American Mystery-religions with classical Mediterranean and Asian counterparts, see The World's Rim, by Hartley Burr Alexander, University of Oklahoma Press, 1953; or more recent editions.) Esoteric "schools," they embraced deeper experiences of consciousness, whose comprehension demanded prior training, discipline, and qualification. As such, they were "operative," because intended to actively evoke man's divinity during life on earth, and not passively in a heaven after death. If not this time, then in a succeeding incarnation it might be accomplished, as the individual treading the Way learned to blend his consciousness ever more fully with the "Great Spirit" or cosmic divinity.
Everywhere in native American traditions coming down to us we note a type of Lesser and Greater Mysteries. The Lesser are typically the annual cycle of dramatic religious dances and ceremonies which can still be witnessed by the populace and are open to the general public. The Greater Mysteries consist of secret rites and instruction, restricted to the precincts of the kivas, lodges, and temple schools. Judging by present-day practices, it was always possible for those having the right qualifications to pass from the Lesser to the Greater. Among the Hopis of northern Arizona, for example, all children aged six to eight are initiated into either the Kachina or Powamu religious societies. Only every four years, however, are initiations held into four higher, more restricted societies: the Alwimi or "Two-Horn," Kwakwan or "One-Horn," Tatawkyam or "Flute," and the Wuchim. These are ceremonially accomplished in a secret, sacred event called Astotokya. (See Book of the Hopi, by Frank Waters, 1963, for further details of Hopi religious conceptions. For similar information on the Zuni counterpart, see The Zuni Indians; Their Mythology, Esoteric Fraternities and Ceremonies, by Matilda Coxe Stevenson; first published in 1904 as Bureau of American Ethnology Report No. 23.)
Among the ancient Mexican peoples, all male children of comparable age were enrolled in one of two temple-schools, the Calmecac or the Telpochcalli. There is much we still do not know about these schools. However, they were centers wherein young men were trained to become respectively scholars or religious officials, or soldiers and administrators. The two highest initiate orders in pre-Columbian Mexico were termed the "Eagles" and the "Jaguars." (Pre-Columbian religious schools and initiate orders or societies in Mexico are lucidly discussed in The Fundamental Principles of Old and New World Civilizations by Zelia Nuttall, Peabody Museum, 1901. Correlative material on this theme can be found in Aztec Thought and Religion, by Miguel Leon-Portilla, University of Oklahoma Press, 1963.) Equivalent centers of esoteric instruction were open to girls and women. Each order had its own sacred precinct within religious areas of the community.
How can we present the rationale of the Indian's Mystery-religions? The possibility of a transcendent evolution, set forth in his profound philosophy of Being, has been examined in previous articles. It explained to the Indian the structure and operation of the solar universe and his place in it. Because he has in him everything that the universe has in it, man's essence or core is a 'spark' or 'particle' of the universal divinity. Logically, then, the human being enjoys a potential for conscious union with that Whole. All of the interwebbed, bipolar hierarchies or grades of spirit-matter have corresponding reflections in the total man. Thus, the very structure of the solar cosmos offers the means and the way or path by which such union with the transcendent can be accomplished. Each human being can, then, "become divine."
To show men how this could be done was, in the view of native Americans, the only real justification any religion or system of devotional practice had for its perpetuation. Each qualified individual was taught that he could rediscover his origin in Light, by the transfer of consciousness from one state to another and higher condition until the highest — which includes all the others — is attained. These higher states of consciousness were identified with the spiritual planes or worlds of the solar cosmos and with the "gods," or more evolved entities, which dwelt there.
"What is so astonishing is the cosmic role assigned to moral virtue," marvels Laurette Sejourne, an archaeologist writing of the ancient Nahuatl religion and its symbols. (Burning Water, London, 1956; p. 76. Sejourne, who has excavated at Teotihuacan and lives in Mexico, has in the writer's opinion done as much as any contemporary scholar to clarify and bring forward some of the hidden mystical symbolism in ancient Mexican thought and religion.) Such could not, however, be otherwise in genuinely "operative" systems whose aim was to make men godlike. Only the loftiest and most selfless ethics and morals could hope to bring this about. If "becoming the universe" entails the steadily more perfect alignment of man's consciousness with the hierarchies of greater consciousnesses above and ahead of him, which compose the spiritual and divine spheres of that universe, it follows that the quality and type of his every momentary thought and action are critical to the enterprise. These have gradually to be molded to the flow and pattern of the greater: the lesser perforce must be 'sacrificed' to that greater. Recognition of the need for such spiritual sacrifice runs as a salient thread all through the best native American thought. It entailed the daily and hourly living in harmony with the great inner nature surrounding and bathing man, in which he "lives and moves and has his being."
Among pre-Columbian peoples such as the Nahuatls of Mexico this sacrifice was symbolized by the idea of "penance," and was so important it had its own glyph prominently displayed on statues and temple walls. In fact, the Nahuatls employed a series of pictorial metaphors to depict the "blossoming' from within the "man-plant" of the heart or 'particle' of solar essence there, and its conscious return journey to its parent, the inner sun of the solar cosmos. When mystically understood, this conception is of the highest beauty. The same is true of Hopi symbols depicting this process. The smallest spot of color, every simplest tying of eagle feather to stick of wood by cotton cord, has profound ethical and mystical meaning for the Hopi initiate. For example, the sacred artifact or mongko of their "Flute" society — a small piece of wood shaped like a hoe, painted white, having a downy eagle feather attached — is "a reminder that on the spiritual level man must cut down the evil grown from the assertion of his own selfish will" when this confronts the will or flow of divine consciousness of the universal life. (Book of the Hopi, p. 142.)
Everywhere among the best of early American cultures the importance of correct living and thinking was held up as an indispensable requisite to all true expansion of consciousness or initiation. Sejourne refers to "the seven difficult trials" confronting the candidate for godhood in the ancient Mexican tradition, in which the symbol of death, which stood between him and the solar light, "represents the annihilation of the individual who comes with insufficient inner preparation." (Burning Water, pp. 65-6.) In majesty of conception, native American symbol and metaphor of initiatory achievement lose nothing when compared with the highest visions of god-men from Mediterranean and Asian Mystery-religions.
There are even deeper reaches of meaning within the American Indian's esotericism. The self-sacrifice demanded of the candidates for liberation had nothing to do with personal salvation or achievement, strange as this may seem to us. The search for union with the divine was a duty owed to the community, to one's people, and ultimately to all mankind, as brothers. Because of the vital link between men and their divine progenitors — the "gods" — each is needed by the other. If it is true that men depend for life upon divinity, by the same token divinity depends for its sustenance upon mankind, and the forward progress of the solar universe depends upon both acting in harmony.
Mexican teachers anciently phrased this reciprocal relationship by saying that the Sun, which gives life to the universe, is born of man's sacrifices and can only exist if sustained by the power flowing to it from them. So that by "freeing their hearts," the candidates for initiation became the craftsmen "perfecting" the universe. Put by them in another way, the mystic "death" of the initiant meant the return of the human 'sun' or 'earth-sun' to the Great or Cosmic Sun. A return to that Sun's bosom of the now-luminous human solar particle, so that the Great Sun might also attain to the fullness of its evolutionary zenith. Thus, it was through individuals that universal salvation was brought about or ensured.
In Middle America, the successful man-god was personified in the figure of Quetzalcoatl or Kukulkan, the well-known "feathered serpent." This spiritual hero had, through the mystical passion, death, and resurrection cycle, reached that interior realm where divinity dwells: the state of consciousness of the solar universe. Various accounts telling of Quetzalcoatl's trials and tests demonstrate unmistakably his messianic character; he endured all solely to show mankind the way to that highest state. One story tells of a vast "river" blocking the road to liberation. Instead of crossing alone to the "other shore," Quetzalcoatl built a "bridge" over it so that his followers and disciples could cross over also. In the writer's view this reference suggests that this primeval Mexican man-god was a being of the grade or rank of a Bodhisattva or Buddha of Compassion who lived "not for himself, but for the world."
The concept of such advanced men, those who have become what in Oriental thought are termed buddha or fully "awakened," fully "freed" units of consciousness coextensive with the consciousness of the solar cosmos, is firmly embedded in ancient American esotericism, if we have some idea of what to look for. One has only to study a Hopi painting of the figure of one of their Qaletaqas, or "Guardians of the people," for example, to see emerging from the top of its head the protuberance or stalk of the lotus flower. This is a characteristic mark in Oriental iconography of the fully awakened spiritual "eye" of one who is buddha, called in Sanskrit the ushnisha. Or, again, to examine the various carved stone figures of the Mayan "maize god" of Central America. Above the serene countenance of this personage can be seen in floral wreath a form of the protuberance of the ushnisha such as is found in numerous Oriental Buddha and Bodhisattva figures. Moreover, the hands of the Mayan "maize god" are extended palms outward, one raised and one lowered, in a classical mudra or gesture of the Bodhisattva and Buddha as also seen in Oriental iconography. (See Mudra, A Study of Symbolic Gestures in Japanese Buddhist Sculpture, by E. Dale Saunders, London, 1960. The mudra cited is called in Japanese the Segan-Semui-in and, in Sanskrit, the Vara or Varada and Abhata mudra. Its symbolism is too extensive to be dealt with here. Briefly, it can mean that the Buddha of Compassion or Bodhisattva is extending to all sentient beings the 'gift' of fearlessness and assurance through teaching or preaching to them the facts of spiritual reality, or the Law. The ushnisha is, in formal Buddhist theology, one of the thirty-two superior and eighty inferior marks of beauty belonging to a "perfected" Buddha.)
Young Maize God. Copan, Honduras.
In spite of our stereotyped picture of early American peoples as untutored barbarians, it should not be so strange to find such convergences between their spiritual traditions and those of other parts of the ancient world which we tend to think were more advanced. What would be truly strange, would be to discover that the Hierarchy of Compassion in its universal work among men bad not been as fully active among the American civilizations as it has been in any other place or time in the world, nor had left any mark of its presence here.
(From Sunrise magazine, April 1975; copyright © 1975 Theosophical University Press)
Back Issues Menu