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Yoruba and Ifa

Yoruba Drum

Ifa is a spiritual tradition rooted in the culture of the Yoruba and passed along from one generation to the next using the ages old African tradition of word of mouth. Parents would teach the concepts to their children through immersion with techniques such as constant recitation, ritual, and ceremony. The children spent their entire lives not just learning the principles but living the principles. With minimal changes to their environment for centuries these time honored techniques served the people well.

It’s not too far a stretch of the imagination that when Africa was “discovered” by the European explorers, irreversible changes were introduced into the Yoruba style of living by the western cultures. European influence introduced a new level of materialism never before imagined by the African people. Suddenly there was a need for wonders never seen before such as more sophisticated and refined jewelry, clothing, decorations, weapons, etc. There was a new focus on individual materialism that began to invade the culture where before a more communal environment existed. For centuries, although individuals in the tribe may have had their own possessions no one really had much more than anyone else, including the tribal leaders. Everyone enjoyed in the bounty of a feast or paid the sacrifice for a famine. But the communal philosophy was eventually abandoned in favor of a more “every man for himself” way of thinking. With no regard for one’s neighbor it’s no surprise to see integrity, equality, and justice dissolve while deceit, disparity, and corruption develop in their wake.

The reality is that today, after a history of corruption and incompetence within all levels of government, Nigeria, largely recognized as the modern incarnation of Yorubaland, has been left a country rich and abundant in resources but mired in debt and poverty for the majority of its population. Government administrators are more concerned with personal enrichment and immediate survival than with long term prospects for future generations. Bribery, favoritism, military coups, and short lived government administrations have become the standard way of life. The practices of the government are a reflection of the people. Therefore, the study of the Yoruba culture truly makes one of the poorest examples for a correct form of Orisa worship. Although the Yoruba are credited with being the first civilization to recognize and develop this particular spiritual practice, the focus on Orisas, ancestors, and community have become secondary to personal gratification. The insistence of following a doctrine of strict adherence to long-established hierarchal structure based on titles, seniority, and class assures the perpetuation of customs that have absolutely nothing to do with spirituality but everything to do with personal benefit.

By developing an ever expanding system of hierarchies and tiers based on so-called African traditions the priest and priestesses towards the top of these rankings have secured their place in a system that looks very much like the infamous multi-level marketing plan otherwise knows as a pyramid scheme. The non-initiates at the bottom of the spiritual hierarchy without their own godchildren or certification of importance will see little personal benefit while the royalty, priests, and chiefs at the top reap benefits, status, and credibility for little more than being where and/or who they are.

Many priests will allege that they are doing the work of the Orisa and must be respected, honored and compensated for such. For sure priests and priestesses are a vital component to the community they serve and should be compensated for their services. But what is the focus? Does a person become a priest to serve as a spiritual guide to the community and as a voice for Orisa or is the priest’s endeavor merely for personal gain?

Too often the community service that should be the focus becomes community domination when priest and priestesses develop a sense of entitlement that comes from being well placed within the spiritual pyramid. The impression of entitlement leads to a sense of disassociation from the “little” people for whom a priest is supposedly here to serve. Feeling the need to win the favor of the priest/priestess in order to gain a more favorable position within the pyramid, lower members of the community will indulge as many impulses as possible from the members higher relative to their position, which reinforces the sense of entitlement, and perpetuates the cycle. As members of the community rise through the spiritual pyramid they feel entitled to work the system that they have helped to establish. The various investments that the men and women make as lesser members will reap rewards and benefits when they gain their spiritual upper status. But eventually, people who suffer from a lack of integrity will find the pursuit of personal rewards and material compensation too much of a temptation to resist and they will have their sense of community service knocked right out of their conscience.  Unfortunately, the version of Orisa worship based on the Yoruba system justifies this condition.

If one is a scholar of history the study of the Yoruba culture with respect to Ifa makes for a logical pursuit. But as a guide for how one honors and upholds Orisa and ancestor worship it is without merit and is a hindrance to true spiritual enlightenment. For someone to claim that the study of Yoruba culture is recommended in order to develop a true understanding of Orisa is, to be polite, fabrication. No where is it written that the study of the Chinese culture is a prerequisite to being a good Buddhist. No one of merit requires the study of Jerusalem’s culture in order to be a good Christian. Conversely logic holds to reason that just because a person is of Italian descent and may know something of their culture doesn’t necessarily mean that they are more proficient in Catholicism. One does not automatically or necessarily lead to the other.

Credit must be given where credit is due. Present day Nigeria, which was at one point known as Yorubaland, is the cradle of Orisa worship. That much is true. But because one might be born in Nigeria or may be aware of Nigeria/Yoruba culture, does not automatically endows them a special place in the in the eyes of Orisa. The spiritual pyramid based on knowing the Yoruba culture is little more than an artificial concept used to control the masses and protect someone’s ability to reap undeserved benefits. To study Yoruba culture as an example to spirituality is flirting with an invitation to wander off path.

Friday, March 23, 2007 - Posted by | African Americans, Black Culture, Black Men, Black People, Ifa, Orisa, Spirituality

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