I am not against organised religion, per se. I get that religion connects people to their community and ancestral identity. I understand that it provides signposts to help people navigate through life and come to grips with death. I am just personally not going to join any religious organisations. I mean, why should I label myself a Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Taoist, Gnostic or even an Atheist for that matter? The universe is way too vast and mysterious to squeeze inside a box.
No matter how alluring or comforting that box may be.
I like to compare the religions of the world to cultural cuisines. If you live in a multicultural melting-pot, like Melbourne Australia (where I call home), it would make no sense to limit yourself to eating only your culture’s food, when there is so much out there. Why just stick to Chinese when your palate can be enriched by spicy Indian curries, perfumed middle eastern deserts and refreshing tropical fruits? What’s more, there are new discoveries about food and nutrition all the time, that I want to be able to incorporate into my diet.
I’m gobsmacked that in this day and age, people still believe their religion has the monopoly on truth. That’s like saying my culture’s food is the only real food and everyone else’s food is not food. We all know people who are so vehement in their religion being the only “true faith”, they go around trying to convince others to join them. In fact, people have killed and waged wars over this, and we continue to do so today. What these people don’t realise is they are mixing their drinks–religion with politics–and that’s a deadly concoction.
This leads us to number 5 in my countdown of the top 5 facts that can rewrite our understanding of religion:
5. The world religions owe their success to history’s largest empires
How did the major religions of the world become so widespread in the first place? The answer is they were backed by the most dominant political powers in history.
Without the patronage of the Indian emperor Ashoka around 200 BC, Buddhism would have probably remained an obscure little monastic sect.
Emperor Constantine’s adoption of Christianity around 300 CE as the official religion of the Roman Empire, enabled it to prevail over all of Europe and northern Africa.
Whereas Islam actually began with its own military empire around 600 CE, and within a few centuries, established territorial dominance across the Middle East, all the way from Spain through to northern India.
Religion and the State were the perfect corporate merger. Both parties helped fulfil each other’s need for power, control and expansionism in their own way. The state religion provided rulers with a set of principles to subjugate civilians and unify disparate groups within their empire. In return, wealthy rulers helped religious leaders proliferate their institutions by bank-rolling monuments, churches, temples, artworks, and missionary expeditions.
Many of these monuments still stand today, but what is often overlooked are the atrocities perpetrated by the state religion against people of different beliefs. This is the story of colonialism, forced conversions, persecutions and wars–that your history and R.E. teacher probably danced around or failed to mention.
4. All the major religions have secret traditions that preserved the original teachings
After Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, he declared the Roman Church as the “only true Church” and rejected all other viewpoints as heresy. Constantine was a man who killed his son and had his wife boiled alive in the bath. So you know his penalty for heresy was going to be brutal. Heretics were expelled, property confiscated, traditions banned and books burnt. Opposing groups, including minor Christian groups with different views, were hunted down by the state and massacred.
Then in 1945, an astonishing archaeological discovery in Egypt rewrote our understanding of early Christianity. In an earthenware jar, buried in the side of a hill, were 13 leather-bound books containing 52 scriptures by the Gnostic Christians. One of the scriptures, the ‘Gospel of Thomas’, is dated 1 even earlier than the gospels in the New Testament. Gnostic Christians worshipped both the divine feminine and masculine. Women in their communities had equality with men. They viewed Jesus as a teacher, who taught divine knowledge (gnosis). To them, anyone who practised the teachings could access what Christ experienced. This was a far cry from the Catholic’s notion of Christ as a sacrificial lamb, who died for our sins.
The Gnostic scriptures discovered in 1945, also known as the “Dead Sea Scrolls”.
Gnostic Christians were especially targeted by the patriarchal Catholic Church, and those who survived persecution went into secrecy–and hid their sacred texts to prevent them from being destroyed by the state.
In one way or another, this pattern has played out across all the major world religions. As a religion becomes institutionalised and the priesthood gains power from state sponsorship, an “orthodox” doctrine would emerge. Not surprisingly, the orthodox stance would reinforce the male dominant, hierarchical and authoritarian order imposed by the state. Minor sects, that refused to submit to political forces and dumb down their religion–like the Gnostics–were driven underground by fear of persecution.
This is precisely how we ended up with the esoteric traditions within all the major world religions: Gnosticism in Christianity, Kabbalah in Judaism, Sufism in Islam, Advaita in Hinduism and Zen in Buddhism. Thankfully, we live in more liberal times today, and many of these groups can now practice freely and reopen their doors to the public.
3. You too, can experience what the religious founders realised
While in South India in 2015, I went to see V. Ganesan, the grandnephew of the late and famous Indian sage, Ramana Maharshi. Like his great-uncle, Ganesan is from the inner Hindu tradition known as, Advaita. In this tradition, seekers are welcome to sit with the teacher, while he or she riffs on spiritual truths. That morning, Ganesan said:
“Religion is not about the great saints and sages like the Buddha, Jesus or Ramana Maharshi. Who is religion for? Priests? The community? The universities? Scholars? No! They have nothing to do with them. They are about YOU and they are for YOU.
That was my great uncle’s approach. When seekers came to him, he pointed them back to themselves. He would often counteract their questions by asking, ‘To whom does the question arise? Who is asking the question?’”
In his statement, Ganesan had perfectly summed up the original meaning of religion. The word religion itself comes from the Latin ‘re’ and ‘ligo’, which means linking back2. Linking back to what? Linking back to one’s true self.
All religions were founded by individuals who had a realisation so profound, they felt they had encountered the absolute meaning of life. Some of the founders attributed their epiphany to an external agent or higher power. Whereas, others believed that it came from our innate divinity. Regardless of cultural interpretation, the experience radically transformed them and inspired them to teach others.
We know what happens next. After the founder dies, the teachings become institutionalised and a hierarchy of intermediaries–priests, monks and scholars–emerge as the authority. State politics gets involved and BOOM, sales hit the roof! The founder is put on a pedestal, deified and worshipped. The original message gets lost, but it is still whispered behind closed doors by all the inner traditions: What the founder realized, so can YOU.
Nothing highlights this better than what happened to Gautama, the historical founder of Buddhism. After Gautama Buddha’s enlightenment, he spent the next forty years teaching the path to spiritual liberation. He was born in Northern India aound 500 BC, into a deeply hierarchical society. Going against the orthodoxy, he claimed that spiritual enlightenment was everyone’s birthright, regardless of gender, caste or status. In a culture obsessed with gods and rituals, he declared that there is no higher birth than human, and opposed any form of worship. Buddha admonished his followers to question everything and not rely on any religious authority, including his own. Gautama was a true revolutionary of his day, the guy was O.G (Original Gangster3).
Even on his deathbed, he encouraged his followers to not depend on him. His famous last words were, “Work diligently to gain your own salvation.” Keeping loyal to his words, his early followers did not create any statues of him as objects of worship. There is no archaeological evidence of statues or any human representation of him in Buddhist art for at least 500 years following his passing. The first Buddha statues were not created until around the first century CE. These statues from the Gandhara period were made by Indo Greek descendants of Alexander the Great, who settled in northern India.
Gandhara style Buddha statue (100-200 CE).
Ironically, today you can’t walk into a Buddhist temple without the focal point being an ornate Buddha statue. Gautama is deified and many Buddhists believe that only monks can fully understand the teachings. Gautama is probably rolling over in his grave right now.
All this explains the Zen koan, “If you meet the Buddha on the road kill him!” The statement is a pithy reminder of the founder’s emphasis on self-reliance in one’s spiritual path.
2. Indigenous cultures were able to access the same powers as the founders of the major religions by using a set of universal methods
Growing up in Australia, I was exposed to very little information about the Aboriginal people of this land. The limited information I did glean was from our British-centric education and the whitewashed media. At best they painted a picture of innocent but primitive people, and at worst, inferior savages who should be grateful that colonists came to civilise their country. Of course, there are always multiple sides to history and from the aboriginal perspective, the real savages were the white invaders who stole their land, committed widespread genocide, wiped out their culture and forced the few survivors to convert and assimilate.
Haunting photo of Australian aboriginals shackled and chained around the neck, expose their brutal treatment by the white population (circa 1896).
No doubt, the double-headed dragon of ‘progress’ and ‘profit’ has brought the modern world many awesome benefits, such as air travel, medical science and the iPhone. But at the same time, we are chopping down 1% of the earth’s trees annually to meet our insatiable consumption. What good is all this if we end up with an inhabitable planet in a couple generations?
As our modern civilization edges closer to extinction every day, more people are turning back to the wisdom of indigenous cultures. After all, the Australian Aboriginal way of life survived for a whopping 70,000+ years. It is dawning on us that indigenous people have a much more sustainable and sophisticated understanding of the world than we initially thought.
The universal term, “shamanism” is used to describe the spiritual practices of indigenous people around the globe. Anthropologists observed a common thread running through the religions of all native people–whether it’s the Australian aboriginal, American Indians, Eskimos, Celtics, African, Amazonian tribes or Siberians. As far back as we know, indigenous villages have always relied on individual men and women, known as shamans, to serve their community for healing and problem solving important issues. The spiritual techniques used by shamans of different cultures are strikingly similar, despite being separated by oceans and continents for tens of thousands of years.
The two main methods used by shamans to induce spiritual states of consciousness include sonic driving with drums and ingesting psychoactive plants. These techniques enable shamans to have visionary journeys into spiritual dimensions for spiritual healing, personal transformation, communing with spirits and divination. What’s more, the archetypes, cosmology and spiritual visions that are reported by shamans over time and across continents, have intriguing parallels.
Siberian shaman and his drum used to induce spiritual states for healing. Shamanic drumming is strikingly similar the world over.
However, shamanism is diametrically opposed to the major religions, because it is all about first-hand experience and real results; not accepting beliefs from established authorities, and not pledging allegiance to a particular group. It is for this reason, that shamanism has always posed a threat to the state religions and consequently suffered a long history of political persecution.
The distinguished anthropologist, Michael Harner, who has been instrumental to introducing core shamanic practices to the contemporary West (through founding the Foundation of Shamanic Studies), illustrates this point in a story about an encounter during his fieldwork in South America:
“When I was living with the Conibo Indian people in the upper Amazon jungle in 1961, there used to come to our village, a North American evangelist missionary. He spoke the local Indian language and they liked to have him come around because nobody ever read from books to them before–even though he always read the same book! One evening, he came to the village and he read about the miracles of Jesus. Afterwards, when he was returning to his canoe, one of the old shamans in the village went down with him. The shaman said to the missionary, ‘You know that was a good story you told of this man, Jesus bringing Lazarus back from the dead’. Then the shaman added, ‘You are absolutely right, we did it here a few nights ago and it works!’”
Now, here is my number 1 fact that can rewrite our understanding of religion. Drum-roll…
1. Drugs have played a prominent role in inspiring religious experiences since time immemorial
My first ever experience with an indigenous shaman was when I did ayahuasca in Peru in 2016, and it totally blew me away. Through three ceremonies, I underwent an inner journey where I encountered spirits, was taught significant life lessons and had moments of rapture and catharsis like I have never known.
For at least three thousand years, shamans of the Amazon region have been using the brew, ayahuasca in healing ceremonies. Ayahuasca is primarily a blend of two plants–the ayahuasca vine and a shrub called chacruna that contains the psychoactive molecule, DMT (Dimethyltryptamine). Both plants need to be orally present in order for hallucinogenic effects of the medicine to take effect. How ‘so called’ primitive people were able to discover this chemical combination from over 80,000 catalogued plant species in the Amazon jungle is mind-boggling.
My experience in Peru with ayahuasca opened my eyes to the truly mysterious and magical world of shamans and entheogens. The term entheogen comes from the Greek root, entheos (god within) and gen (generating), meaning, “generating god or the divine within”. The term is applied to psychoactive plants used for spiritual development or spiritual experience. Today almost all entheogens are banned by state governments and taboo among the major religions.
Yet, their prominence and ubiquity in the spiritual lineages of humanity cannot be denied.
Some scholars argue that there has been widespread use of entheogens among humanity since prehistoric times, pointing to the earliest sources of human art–rock paintings (dating from 60,000 BC) that commonly depict shamanistic rituals and geometric shapes, possibly inspired by consciousness altering plants.
We have evidence of the blue lotus flower being an important sacrament in ancient Egypt (4,000 BC). Around the same time, Amanita muscaria mushrooms were used by the shamans of Siberia. At the pinnacle of ancient Greek civilization (from 1500 BC), an entheogen called kykeon–believed to be derived from the fungus ergot, which is also used to synthesize LSD–was used for almost two thousand years in a sacred initiation ritual, known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. Anyone who was anybody in Athenian society, including Plato and Socrates were initiates of this sacred rites of passage4.
Across the ocean in the Americas, we still have unbroken lineages that go back into antiquity, of entheogenic use with mushrooms, cacti and various other psychoactive plants like ayahuasca.
Scholars have even hypothesised that sacred mushrooms were the inspiration for Jesus’ revelation of the Kingdom of Heaven and that the Tree of Knowledge in Eden was Amanita muscaria mushrooms.
“Eden Panel” with the cap of the psychoactive mushroom, Amanita muscaria, as the forbidden fruit. Found in Saint Michael’s Church, Germany, 1240 (Photo by Julie M. Brown).
One of the most unexpected advocates for this hypothesis was John Allegro, a scholar hired by the Catholic Church to translate the set of lost Gnostic Gospels that were discovered in 1945. John found ample evidence of the use of entheogenic mushrooms in early Christianity and wrote many books on his research. His research should have turned religion upside down, but instead, the Church chose to suppress his translations and reinterpret the texts in a way that aligned with their own agenda.
A depiction of Jesus with psychoactive mushrooms at Great Canterbury Psalter, England (c. 1180). Found in the book ,”The Psychedelic Gospels – The Secret History of Hallucinogens in Christianity by Jerry B. Brown, Ph.D., and Julie M. Brown”.
Scientific research over the last ten years by the Johns Hopkins University has confirmed that entheogenic mushrooms at high doses can induce life-changing mystical experiences. In a double-blind study on a group of subjects who have not previously taken a psychedelic, participants ranked their high dose mushroom experience as among the most meaningful in their lives, comparable to the birth of a child or the death of a parent. In fact, a third of the subjects said it as the most meaningful experience of their life. When researchers tracked the participants a year after the experiment, they found that their mushroom experience had positive long-term effects on their personal behaviour, well-being and satisfaction with life.
Inspired by the Johns Hopkins research, I did an entheogenic mushroom retreat in Jamaica in 2017, that involved high doses in a supportive setting. The retreat certainly verified for me, the power of sacred mushrooms in bringing about profound life-changing experiences.
Scientific studies have also discovered that the neural pathways in our brains become a lot more connected on entheogens, and this can in turn help break negative patterns of behaviour. Subsequently, there is now increasing medical research confirming the benefits of using psychedelics in the right setting to help treat conditions like post-traumatic stress, anxiety, addiction and depression.
For me, the clincher that brings home the forgotten role that entheogens have played in religion comes from India. I have always been drawn to Indian spirituality, particularly by the mystical states that are so prevalently described in their sacred writings. For years I practised meditation and yoga but was never able to experience the exalted states that the traditions promised.
Then one day, I discovered that the original sacred text of Hinduism, the Rig Veda (1500 BC), was mostly inspired by a hallucinogenic beverage they called soma. In the Rig Veda there are over a hundred hymns dedicated to soma which they used in rituals to induce ecstasy, summon the presence of the gods and imparts visions. The early Hindus were so enamoured with soma, it was core to their religious practice. An elite priesthood closely guarded the ingredients of the psychoactive brew and, unfortunately, knowledge of soma has been lost for many centuries. And of course, most Hindus today are completely oblivious to the psychedelic origins of their religion.
If these rites of passage and transformative experiences can be found throughout our religious history in so many divergent cultures, could entheogens be the secret ingredient that is missing in our spiritual practices today?
So, next time a ‘Know It All’ friend tries to convince you that they have all the answers to religion or that their faith is the only true faith, perhaps point them to a verse from the Tao Te Ching: “The more one knows, the less one understands.” When it comes to religion, I have certainly found this statement to be true. It seems the more one looks into it with an open mind and without fixed notions, the weirder, more wonderful and mysterious it gets.
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- By Harvard’s Professor Helmut Koester to 50-100 CE.
- This etymological explanation was favoured by the renowned scholar of comparative religion, Joseph Campbell.
- Apologies for the 90s hip hop reference, I couldn’t help myself.
- <a href=”https://www.ancient.eu/article/32/the-eleusinian-mysteries-the-rites-of-demeter/”>Reference – Ancient History Encyclopedia</a>