Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Reviews - Raph Jensen

The West turns Eastward, Journal of the American Academy of Religion written by Mark Bevir.

The West Turns Eastward by Mark Bevir (1994) is a fairly unbiased account of the life and work of Madame Blavatsky, a controversial figure in the 19th century who was a champion for the occult, co-founder of the Theosophical Society, and a major influence on the New Age movement we see today. This article could be recommended to any broad-minded person interested in spiritual matters. Although it is not directly related to trance or shamanism, it does bring up some issues of interest, such as the impact of science on western spirituality and the subsequent widespread pursuit in the west for new religious or spiritual beliefs and experiences. There is also brief discussion of some forms of natural magic, such as that of Ayurvedic healing in India, which ties in with some indigenous shaman belief.

As the title suggests, the article is to do with the west turning to eastern religions for alternative answers to spiritual problems encountered with the theological clash Christianity has with science. For example, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species offered the theory of evolution in 1859, which contradicted the Christian account of creation, causing the problem which Bevir (1994) refers to as the Victorian crisis of faith. He concentrates on the occultist contribution Blavatsky has had on the west, how she transformed the occult tradition and pointed to India as its spiritual homeland.

Madame Blavatsky offered an alternative, which was a belief firmly grounded in the occult and based upon ancient Indian wisdom, which she argued, blended with western science. She interpreted the major Indian religions, which were already romanticised in the west, and tried to integrate them into her own brand of occultism, claiming that the occultist tradition and perhaps all religion had originally stemmed from India. The main inspiration she drew from India was from the Vedas, and believed the most ancient form of Brahmanism contained a lost truth, tied up with the mystical monotheistic set of beliefs held by occultists, firmly grounded in Indian cosmology. Bevir (1994) explains how Blavatsky concentrated on the esoteric, dogmatic and cosmological, with a special interest in natural magic. This provided more than a romantic view of India’s spirituality, but a set of beliefs that had a more acceptable view of morality through the notion of karma, and one that falls in with science and evolution. As Bevir puts it, “Just as the cosmology of the Vedas resolved the scientific dilemmas facing religious belief in the west, so the ethics of the Vedas resolved the moral difficulties of such belief.”(Bevir, 1994:761)

The way Bevir (1994) was able to present the thoughts and arguments of Blavatsky on the topic clear and concise, without arguing for or against them, was well done, although at times he did hint at there being some contradictions. It was a little disappointing that Bevir didn’t offer more commentaries of reactions to Blavatsky, and it would have been very interesting to see an Indian perspective of the way their beliefs were interpreted.

One idea of Blavatsky’s that Bevir (1994) presented of particular interest, was the way she linked science with religion and natural magic, and hinted at the next step of human evolution being that of a spiritual realisation and harnessing of that natural magic, maybe even through science. It is through such scientific efforts as Michael Winkelman, the author of our next article, which gives this idea hope.

Altered Sates of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour by Michael Winkelman

In this article, Winkelman (1997) argues that the occurrence of Altered States of Consciousness or ASC across many different cultures shows a biological predisposition to spiritual experiences. The amount of effort and research put into this article is impressive, if a little daunting. A fascinating look into the way the shaman and the brain have evolved together, the article would most benefit one with a prior knowledge of the physiology of the brain, as it can be quite technical. Still, his arguments are clear and he is able to support his main points with empirical scientific research quite convincingly. He explores the universality of trance and the shaman through cross-cultural, physiological and cognitive perspectives.

His first main point is that of the origin of shamanism and the use of trance or ASC. Winkelman (1997) explores the role of the shaman, how one is selected to be a shaman and explores possible definitions and typologies of shaman through cross-cultural research. He is able to show the worldwide distribution of the shaman, the important role of ASC and the fundamental use of ASC in shamanic practices across all such cultures. He states that, “Shamanic practices have substantial similarities cross-culturally as a result of the interaction between the innate state of the brain and certain ecological and social conditions.” (Winkelman, 1997:396)

Next he explores the physiological basis of ASC, and argues that because the psychophysical aspects of ASC are almost identical across different types of trance, that ASC is actually a type of normal brain functioning. I found this point to be particularly fascinating, as sceptics usually write off this type of experience as just ritual. He shows that the wide range of ASC share physiological characteristics, and describes the physiological similarities of the brain while under some type of ASC. He is able to show that, “A wide variety of ASC induction techniques lead to a similar alteration in the biology of consciousness, characterised by a state of Para-sympathetic dominance in which the frontal cortex is dominated by slow wave patterns originating in the limbic system and related projections in the frontal parts of the brain.”(Winkeman, 1997:397). He then goes on to show the way the various forms of ASC fall into this para-sympathetic dominance, and argues that this proves that ASC is a natural, biologically based mode of consciousness, and not a primitive mental state.

Throughout the rest of the article he demonstrates the functions of ASC to the shaman such as therapeutic ones, and goes on to discuss the phenomenological and physiological differences in the various types of ASC. He also explores how and why ASC has been left out of most modern organised religious practice, and argues that in the modern western context, due to a biological predisposition and therefore drive to pursue ASC, many are turning to alcohol or other drugs and even suggests that this is a possible reason for the west turning to Eastern religions for spiritual practice, and the fulfilment of ASC or transcendence. This article was very informative and his conclusion ties into the previous article nicely, suggesting an alternative reason for the west to be leaning away from Christianity and other organised religions in the search for spiritual enlightenment.

“Stalking With Stories:” Names, Places and Moral Narratives among the Western Apache by Keith Basso 1996

Written in a personal narrative style, anthropologist Keith Basso (1996) tells the endearing story of his friendship with Nick Thompson, Western Apache elder, who instructs Basso on Western Apache language and culture. The article starts off with five spoken statements from various members within the Apache community of Cibecue, Arizona. The statements all share the common theme of land, and only after reading on do we find the true meaning of what’s being said. Basso’s aim then throughout the article is to try and understand these statements in the context of the culture, which as he discovers involves language, morality and the land.

The Western Apache are shown to have a deep connection with their natural landscape, and the major theme of this article involves what is referred to as place-names. (Basso, 1996) He explores the concept of language to the Apache, and states, “in acts of speech... Apaches negotiate images and understandings of the land which are accepted as credible accounts of what is, why it is significant, and how it impinges on the daily lives of men and women.” (Basso, 1996: 87) In order to better understand the statements introduced, Basso goes to his friend Nick Thompson for help, and so begins to learn all the names of the local places of significance around Cibecue, and ends up naming almost 300 places. Basso (1996) notes the utmost importance of the place-names to the Apache, and finds that when someone tells a story, the place-names they encounter along the way are as important as the story itself.

After the names of the places were learnt, Basso (1996) is then tutored by Thompson on the stories of place-names, which is what makes them culturally significant. Basso (1996) shows the depth of storytelling within this society, and identifies four main types of narratives used by storytellers. The narrative he is most concerned with is ‘agodzaahi which translates to long ago. (Basso, 1996) These stories are directly linked to the place-names, and Basso refers to them as historical tales. He explains how they are short and simplistic stories, with the main purpose of carrying a moral theme, which is used to criticise or apprehend those breaking social or moral customs and makes several references to people describing these stories as being shot like arrows. (Basso, 1996) This concept was clearly described as follows, “just as ‘agodzaahi stories are “about” historical events and their geographical locations, they are also “about” the system of rules and values according to which Apaches expect each other to organize and regulate their lives.” (Basso, 1996:94) He goes on to examine some of the historical stories that are connected to these places, and considers how this relates to the statements we read at the beginning.

Although this article doesn’t relate directly to Winlkleman or Bevirs work, being more of an anthropological study, it is still an incredibly fascinating reading on how this culture relates socially to their natural landscape. The way the author introduced the statements from the community members at the start as abstract and not particularly profound was very clever, because upon rereading them once the article was finished, one is elated to see their true meaning.


Bevir, Mark. The West turns Eastward, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, v.62 no.3 1994

Blazier, Stephen (ed.), Anthropology of Religion, Altered Sates of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour by Michael Winkelman, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1997

Halpern, Daniel & Frank, Dan (Eds.), The Nature Reader, “Stalking With Stories:” Names, Places and Moral Narratives among the Western Apache by Keith Basso, Hopewell, N.J., The Ecco Press, 1996

No comments:

Post a Comment