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The battle of the plants

Ayahuasca religions may indicate a way towards a good war against drugs

George W. Bush may boast of being the most powerful man on the globe, an invincible “warrior”, but he has lost, and badly, the “battle of the plants”. By a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court of the United States decided, in February, that the president cannot prevent the Yankee branch of the União do Vegetal (Union of the Vegetable -UDV) form using, in its religious rituals, tea made from ayahuasca (or huasca or Santo Daime), seen by the American president as a “hallucinogen that alters the workings of the mind and causes irreparable damage in the efforts to fight the transnational trafficking of narcotics”. Last month, the ayahuascan cults achieved another victory: during the Ayahuasca Seminar, promoted by the National Anti-Drugs Council, the Conad in the Portuguese acronym, a recent report from the UN was presented that excludes DMT, the active ingredients of the tea, from the list of psychoactive drugs prohibited by the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances. Moreover, in 2007, Brazil is invited to present its way of working with ayahuasca at the organization’s headquarters, in New York.

“The appearance of religions that make the use of a psychoactive substance the central point of their ritual actions brings to light new ways of thinking and dealing with the question of the consumption of substances that alter perception in the modern world, above all those classified as illicit drugs”, reckons anthropologist Sandra Lucia Goulart, a researcher from the Nucleus of Interdisciplinary Studies of Psychoactives (Neip) and author of the doctoral thesis Contrasts and continuities in an Amazonian tradition: the religions of ayahuasca, defended at Unicamp. Ayahuasca is the Quechua term (meaning something like vine of the dead or vine of souls) given to the beverage prepared with the infusion of a vine and the leaves of a bush. Its use by South American Indians from the Amazonian region is pre-Columbian; it acts directly on the neuroreceptors, causing a sensation described by the singer Sting as “managing to talk to God, one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life”. The beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg even went to Lima, in Peru, to try the beverage, counseled by his junkie friend William Burroughs. “I felt like the son of the Lord, as if I myself were the Lord going back home and opening the gates of the ancestral paradise”, he wrote. What Bush calls a drug, the researchers, just as enthusiastic as Ginsberg, have preferred to baptize as “power plants” or “entheogens”, making it clear, by the use of the Greek work theos (god), that they recognized the role that many societies and religions have given and do give to the preparation: a way of facilitating the communication between the human and divine spheres, a transcendental, curative experience, that is directly linked to the shamanic cultures.

“Although there is a tradition of consuming ayahuasca in several countries of South America, it is only in Brazil that religions of non-indigenous populations using this beverage have developed. Religions that use this beverage reworking ancient traditions of the local systems following a reading influenced by Christianity”, observes Beatriz Labate, an anthropologist from Unicamp. It was with the rubber cycle, which attracted large migratory waves to the Amazon, that “whites” came into contact with the therapeutic practices and religious beliefs of the natives, based on the use of ayahuasca. Initiated in the use of the beverage by a Peruvian half-breed, a rubber-tapper from Maranhão, Raimundo Irineu, began his movement nicknamed Santo Daime [Saint Give-me] (since something is always asked for in the prayers) in 1930, in Rio Branco, capital of the then territory of Acre. Master Irineu, as he became known, gathered around him the poorest class of the region and exercised over them a positive influence of security. “The rituals that he presided over were within the spectrum of the shamanic tradition of the use of entheogens, which were used, not in a recreational way, but to establish contact with the sacred. More than an escape valve from the poverty of the day-to-day, Daime was a form of evoking and validating cultural values”, explains an anthropologist from the Federal University of Bahia, Edward MacRae. “To start with, the new religion would help migrants from the forest to adapt to the incipient urban environment, and the use of the beverage would take place in a ritual context, within a conservative ethic whose most important objective was the development of the communities in which the individual could integrate himself with his physical and social habitat”, the researcher analyzes.

For Master Irineu, Daime was directly linked to the Christian sacrament, regarded like the blood of Christ. “Santo Daime preserves the sacred character of the festival, dance and music, by means of hymns that the Daimists sing in the rite, from popular Catholicism. Its pantheon brings together Catholic saints, figures from the Afro-Brazilian universe and beings from nature, like the stars, the Sun and the Moon. All mixed up with doses of Kardecism, within a military spirit, of order and discipline, which requires the use of uniforms etc.”, says Beatriz. In 1945, a disciple of Irineu, founded his own cult in the same region, also based on the use of ayahuasca and baptized as Barquinha [Little Boat], since its adepts regard themselves as “sailors of the sacred sea”. Rich in images and rituals, this religion likewise used Catholic saints, but it had a strong influence from umbanda (an African Brazilian religion), with an emphasis on the removal of evil spirits and on the fight against witchcraft. The third of the ayahuascan sects is the youngest and the most austere, aiming at “mental concentration” and “spiritual evolution”: the União do Vegetal (UDV), the David that recent overcame the American Goliath in the Supreme Court. Created at the end of the 1950’s by another rubber-tapper from the Northeast (like Irineu and Daniel the sailor), Master Gabriel, the UDV, with its strict process for selecting members, brought to its ranks the urban middle class.

Originally restricted to the Amazonian region, the ayahuascan religions today are all over Brazil and in 20 countries of the globe, with a right to dissidences like Alto Santo and Cefluris, both born of Santo Daime, after the death of Master Irineu. Cefluris has the peculiarity of associated with Daime the use of cannabis, brought to the cult by the hippies in the 1970’s and associated with the Virgin Mary. “Innovations” like these were responsible for the rupture between the various cults that, in spite of sharing the same credos and rites, intend to differentiate themselves from each other by attacking the supposed “impurities” that their differentials might have in the preparation or in the non-ritual use of ayahuasca. The delimitation of frontiers between these groups takes place through a complex game of accusations that is related to the more general debate about the consumption of ‘drugs’ in our society”, Sandra Lucia reckons. “Be that as it may, the orderly functioning of these religious organizations helps to validate a more tolerant approach to the question of drugs that goes beyond a mere emphasis on the pharmacological aspects of the problem and takes into account the social, physical and cultural environment in which the use of these substances takes place”, believes MacRae, for whom the ayahuasca cults confirm the efficiency of social control in determining the consequences of the use of illicit drugs.

For the researcher, the disciplined use of the infusion can be an alternative to the “current policy of fighting drugs, which, limiting itself to declaring them illicit, has not managed to eradicate them, nor even to reduce their psychologically and socially harmful uses”. MacRae’s observations have made him realize that these movements have managed to turn many away from drink and drugs in an effective way, although they use psychoactive substances (the ritual use of which has been allowed in Brazil since 1987). Within the ritual environment, with leaders controlling access to the infusion, as well as the quantity to be drunk, and providing doctrinaire limits in structuring their lives, the researcher believes, the ayahuasca religions merit a more in-depth study of their potential for helping to diminish the problem of the uncontrolled user of drugs.

“The cults transmit a series of values and rules of conduct that endow the adept with a very structured life, by putting him in contact with other followers of the doctrine and prescribing for him all sorts of behavior, not only when taking part in the rituals, but in all the moments of the day-to-day existence”, MacRae analyzes. “The distinction between the ritual and religious use and a profane use of ayahuasca is often very recurrent, and it seems to orientate a good part of the contrasting relations between the various groups. Members of one group would accuse another group of making inadequate use of ayahuasca, that is to say, of consuming it outside a totally sacred context. Accordingly, the stigma of using a drug or being ‘stoned’ is nowadays very much feared, at the same time that it is refused by all the groups of the ayahuascan religions”, Sandra Lucia notes. In his expedition to Peru in 1960, Allen Ginsberg went to Pucallpa to experiment the infusion. With a shaman, he took three generous doses. While the healer waited, whistling and stamping his feet, the beatnik saw himself in a multidimensional universe, watched by an immense snake. “In spite of all this, it was not frightening and offered a solution for death. The vision seemed to tell me that death, although inevitable, was not so terrible as I had imagined. Death, I thought, was a break in a familiar dimension.” Relief or terror? Be that as it may, on the following day, the poet ran to catch a plane back to the USA.