I’ve written before on the merits of the parody religion of Pastafarianism. It may have escaped my readers that I referred to the Flying Spaghetti Monster as Pastafari. I almost felt tempted to talk about I-and-I, but I’m aware that most of my readers will be unfamiliar with one of the youngest Abrahamic religions, the only one to have emerged from the Caribbean island of Jamaica, and the one which is being parodied by the Pastafarians.
Who is Ras Tafari
Rasta faith was made popular through the spiritually and politically awakened reggae lyrics and music of its most famous adherent, Bob Marley. But it’s more than a cultural and musical movement. It’s an Afro-diasporic theology of liberation that emerged among the impoverished descendents of slaves in the British colony of Jamaica. In the early 20th Century, Marcus Garvey–who is considered a prophet by Rastas–had been calling for Blacks to return to the African motherland and preaching the coming of a Black Messiah-King, who would soon be crowned. When the Ethiopians crowned Ras Tafari Makonnen (aka Emperor Haile Selassie), the last vestige of the dynasty believed to be descended from King Salomon and Queen Sheba through the lineage of Menelik–as per the sacred Ethiopian scripture of Gebra Nagast, the Chronicle of the Ethiopian Kings–Rastas believed their Messiah had finally arrived. A new latter-day religion was born. In the lyrics of his song Get Up, Stand Up, Marley explains his belief:
We’re sick and tired of your ism and schism game
Die and go to heaven in Jesus’ name, Lord.
We know when we understand
Almighty God is a living man.
You can fool some people sometimes,
But you can’t fool all the people all the time.
Now you see the light!
Stand up for your right!
Ras Tafari is revered as a God in Jamaica. The colonial realities of the island, and perhaps the thirst in the souls of Black diasporic people for a Black divinity, produced this strange epiphany.
To this day, Ethiopia is the only country in Africa to have preserved its sovereignty during the colonial era. This is thanks to Emperor Ras Tafari, who successfully prevented the Italians from taking over his kingdom. All the other lands in the entire continent have been owned and mercilessly exploited by foreign, European powers at one point or another, except for this–considered by Rastas the most holy land–of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is also mentioned favorably in the Bible, and it is considered Sion, the promised land, in Rasta liturgy and in the lyrics of Bob Marley’s songs.
We can expect this religious and racial ideology, born and bred as it was in resistance, to carry within it a political narrative and philosophy. Rasta is, to a great extent, shamanic and anarchic. The smoking of ganjah–marijuana–as a sacrament makes it shamanic. It’s justified with a Bible verse that speaks of qaneh bosm as a holy herb used to anoint priests, and to anoint God’s chosen one. This term is at the root of our modern word cannabis.
As for the politics, the colonial experience in Jamaica produced naturally a strongly-embedded distrust of the state. In Rasta, the (British and Western) state and its corruption is known as Babylon. “Babylon will fall”, Rastas say, and they chant down Babylon. The concept of consecration and holiness revolves around an eternal hostility, also seen in Epicurus, between nature and culture, between the wholesome order of (the God of) nature and the polis, the political order of Babylon and of this world. Politicians are known as politricksters in Rasta discourse.
We must admit there’s something profoundly clever about Black Jamaicans taking the sacred book, theology and symbols of their colonial overlords and projecting their own politically-awakened narratives against them with such force and insistence that an entirely distinct religion and liberation theology emerged with so powerful a cultural and moral force, that it’s come to define Jamaica before the rest of the world.
Rastas accept Jesus as one Messiah, but naturally the Rasta Yeshu is quite different from the Jesus of traditional Christianity. Having descended from the lineage of David and of Salomon, this Yeshu has Ethiopian ancestry and is believed to have lived in Ethiopia during the exile from his birth (when the Bible says Joseph and Mary took baby Jesus to Africa) to the age of about his Bar Mitzvah, when he was next seen in the Gospels discussing Torah at the sinagogue.
I-and-I: Intersubjectivity in Rasta Philosophy
The philosophical process of the Rastas is known as reasonings. This is interesting from the perspective of Epicureans, who are said “heal through arguments and reasonings”. In Rasta, people gather to smoke ganjah and reason with God and with each other, following the instructions given in Isaiah 1:18
“Come, Now, Let us Reason Together”
Rastafarians’ ganjah-induced reasonings, naturally, produce a quite different variety of insight than the sober reasonings of the Epicureans. It may be easy for us to dismiss the rants of destitute, sometimes illiterate, weed-smoking Rastas who are submerged in their religious opium and in their herbal ecstasies. And while it’s true that their dread talk and their God-fearing, angry, anti-colonial discourse are anything but Epicurean, Rastafarians have also come up with their own dialect in order to purge their language from Babylon’s colonial corruption in a way not to different from how in On Nature, Epicurus and the other founders argued that words must correspond with things that exist in nature and that we must purge language from Platonisms.
This conception of reality and of the role of philosophy as a tool needed to purge our words of a certain fundamental corruption that is pervasive, is present in both Rastafarian and Epicurean discourses.
But the Rastas, in their evaluation of power and of human relations, have also come up with an important overstanding (as they say) concerning intersubjectivity. They criticize the colonial language of England as having been used to objectify their ancestors. They rebel against the very structure of the colonial language, referring frequently to I-and-I instead of me and you.
In English grammar, notice that the I is used as a subject, whereas the me objectifies the self. I is the active doer, whereas me is the passive one to whom things are done. In I-n-I there is a we, but there is no object, only two subjects. InI makes us all equal, it’s egalitarian and inclusive, it’s shared spirit, unity, One Love without competing, without objectifying and enslaving, without oppression and power struggles. It represents an ideal of intersubjectivity that is prominent in anti-authoritarian and anarchic philosophies.
The Rastas make this interesting commentary on language, and have developed a quite complex dialect known as Iyaric, where they have systematically corrected the subtleties of the colonial language of Babylon that they have found issues with in their reasonings. Although Iyaric is beyond the scope of this blog, it is worth mentioning. We should definitely be concered with words, their meanings, their uses, and how those in power employ them.
On Feeling Irie
Irie is a word from the Jamaican dialect which means “feeling pleasant” and resonates with our conception of ataraxia. Here are some of the definitions of the term given in UrbanDictionary.com:
- to be at total peace with your current state of being. The way you feel when you have no worries.
- powerful and pleasing.
- the state of feeling great.
- I Respect I Eternally. Meaning you have respect for yourself; being happy with who you are.
- To be at peace and harmony with your self and the status quo of your existance.
- Jamaican term for everything is good, higher self, serenity
- cool, good, nice.
- a state of peacefulness or harmony either with oneself or the world in general.
Feeling irie means feeling good, being alright and confident, with healthy emotions and peaceful vibrations (sometimes accentuated by wholesome or religious music). Irie vibration, like ataraxia, is not merely a passive state. There are irie vibes in reggae music. Marley’s lyrics indicate that Jah (God) makes people feel high and irie; the sacramental consumption of ganja does also. It’s possible, however, to be irie without ganjah or any other opium, and in fact many Rastas do not consume ganjah or only consume it infrequently.
What’s interesting about Rasta culture is the natural, uninhibited approach to ataraxia, unlike the calculated angle taken by Epicureans, which is perhaps typical of the Western, scientific approach to all things. The experience of being irie is celebrated in Rastafari, as are the traditional Rasta tools, shortcuts, and techniques for cultivating irie spirit. This includes togetherness among friends, unity, singing, and of course reasonings. What we end up with is, in fact, a culture built around the cultivation of ataraxia with its own vibrant musical, cultural, and intellectual life.
The Problem With Dread as a Value
Rastas are known for their dread-locks. The practice of not cutting their hair emerged in imitation of the Nazarene vow, a sign of consecration to God that is believed to have given Samson his strength. The Sikh religion, from India, also has a similar taboo against cutting one’s hair. Unlike Rastas, they keep their hair under a different sign of consecration: a turban. Sikhs have strong affectionate ties to their turban, which is a sign of their sense of identity.
But dread is hardly a positive human value. In Rasta, dread has to do with fear of God. In the dictionary, dread carries connotations of terror and panic. Can we love what we dread? The first two of the Four Cures taught by Epicurus were antidotes against fear-based religion.
The term locks carries the connotation of chains, restriction, of unbreakable hold, and perhaps of security. One anecdote I remember from a former Rasta that I knew in my younger years, has to do with the time he broke his Nazarene vow and cut his hair, saying he wasn’t humble anymore. He had deconverted, and his bald head had become an expression of his rebellion not against Babylon, but against all religion.
We may disagree with Rastafarian choice of dread-locks, but there are still curious insights in this practice. Heads are where choices are made, and therefore our destiny and ultimate identity is created from them. A Yoruba proverb says that the head is the ruler of the body. The African conception of the head as sacred is tied to the Yoruba Goddess of pleasure and beauty, Oshún. As such, she rules hairstylists, hair-cutting, braiding, and head garments, among other things. Having someone work on one’s head is a pleasure, a therapy that relieves stress.
Hair can be a sign of consecration. It can also be a battleground for ideology and self-expression. Many African diasporic religions, like Voodoo and Santeria, are adamant about how people must protect their heads and keep them cool, and even provide ceremonies for washing and cooling the head. Anyone living in tropical climate can appreciate the importance of this, as excessive heat can easily produce ill moods.
The Vital Diet
Rastas have a dietary code known as the ital diet, based on the idea of vitality found in food that is natural and fresh. They are vegetarians and do not eat processed foods.
Hermarcus, one of the founders of our school, said that flesh was an unnecessary desire and seemed to favor a vegetarian lifestyle. On the other hand, Epicurus seems to have been more concerned with the importance of friends eating together than with what was eaten. Perhaps there is some merit in these days of dietary dysfunction in considering what we bring into our bodies.
I’ve always been fascinated by Rasta philosophy. It reminds me of the concept of grassroots, effortless, natural virtue that emerges when happy people come together, rather than the authoritarian, unnatural, top-down virtue of established religions and institutions.
Pastafarians are fond of parodies of faiths, and they already borrowed the name of this dancing, singing, joy-inducing island religion. Perhaps they should take another look at Rasta and elaborate a more coherent liberation atheology inspired in Rasta philosophy.
Some Irie Songs:
Om Namah Shivaya – a Hindu Rasta Chant
Imagine – a Secular Psalm
Stand By Me – a Song About Friendship