Ways of Living

Exploring the impact of religions and beliefs on how people live their lives;

Understanding and responding critically to beliefs and attitudes.

Organisation

There is no formal, central organisation of Rastafari. They avoid bureaucratic or hierarchical organisations, which they see as characterising the social structures of Babylon. They reject governments, especially the colonial British government in Jamaica, but after this ended in 1962 they remained opposed to ‘western civilisation’ in general. The organisation of Rastafari is individualised, cellular, or reticulate in its structure. There is an open form of Rastafari organisation called a ‘house’ or ‘mansion’. There is no individual leadership equivalent to a priest among Rastafaris generally, although some of the more structured houses, such as Bobo Shanti and the Nyabinghi Order, do have priests. A ‘leading brother’ acts as spokesperson during group meetings. Houses can have a chaplain, a local treasurer, a sergeant at arms, and a recording secretary; or some of these roles – or none of them. In Jamaica, Rastafaris often follow a communal way of living, patterned on the early Pinnacle communes, where they grow their own food and ganja. Membership is not based on baptism but on adoption of Rastafari beliefs and practices. This provides a broad solidarity of mainstream Rastafari, who largely support the three main Rastafari principles of the divinity of Haile Selassie, the spiritual use of ganja, and the principle of repatriation to Africa. Rastafari are then free to live their lives individualistically without collective discipline. This provides a collective sense of religious identity that is not supported by any specific ritual obligation. Houses strive for collective decision making, reaching a consensus on issues of importance to the group even if this requires extensive debate. Rastafari characterise themselves as a ‘brotherhood’ or ‘brethren’. As there is no formal membership; there is a general ethos of coming, going, and participating solely on conviction.

Guidance for Life

Rastafari is more about a way of living than an acceptance of doctrine. An early codification of morality was written as ten principles by the Jamaican Rastafari elder, Sam Brown (1925-1998), who was the first Rastafari to run for political office:

1. We strongly object to sharp implements used in the desecration of the figure of Man; e.g. trimming and shaving, tattooing of the skin, and cutting of the flesh.

2. We are basically vegetarians, making scant use of certain animal flesh, outlawing the use of swine’s flesh in any form, shell fishes, scaleless fishes, snails, etc.

3. We worship and observe no other God but Rastafari, outlawing all other forms of Pagan worship yet respecting all believers.

4. We love and respect the brotherhood of mankind, yet our first love is to the sons of Ham [black people].

5. We disapprove and abhor utterly hate, jealousy, envy, deceit, guile, treachery, etc.

6. We do not agree to the pleasures of present-day society and its modern evils.

7. We are avowed to create a world of one brotherhood.

8. Our duty is to extend the hand of charity to any brother in distress, firstly for he is of the Rastafari order – secondly, to any human, animals, plants, etc.

9. We do adhere to the ancient laws of Ethiopia.

10. Thou shall give no thought to the aid, titles and possession that the enemy in his fear may seek to bestow on you; resolution to your purpose is the love of Rastafari. (reproduced from Barrett 1977: 126)

In general, Rastafari try to live in a way that defends the poor and oppressed, a worldview inherited from the early movement. The white race is seen as oppressive, but not all white people are evil, they accept individual white people on merit unless they are found guilty of racism. Rastafari became less concerned with racial separatism and aggression after the 1960s. There is, however, no uniform view on race. While there is a general principle that Jah is in everyone, Rastafari view themselves as a people apart. For many the sense is that they are a ‘covenant people’ like the Jews with special responsibilities rather than being a superior race, as early Rastafari preachers claimed. This means striving towards the ideal way of life including living off the land, growing their own food, not using the land for commercial profit, and eating only clean ital food (see ‘Ethical Guidelines’ below). This is seen as living in a natural ‘African’ way. This is phrased as being a ‘conscious’ not a ‘careless’ Ethiopian (using Ethiopian as a symbol for all black people). Those who are careless do not follow the Rasta way, the conscious do, and salvation comes from being a conscious Ethiopian.

Religious/Ritual Practice

A ritual celebration is called a ‘duty’, but there is no obligation to attend. Participation in ritual and ceremony is voluntary. In all types of Rastafari ritual, ganja (a form of marijuana) is smoked as a sacrament, often called ‘wisdom weed’ or ‘holy herb’. It is used to meditate, called ‘head resting with Jah’ (see ‘Prayer’ below). This is smoked through a glass or wooden chillum pipe called a ‘chalice’ or ‘cup’ because sections of Deuteronomy and other biblical books that mention sending up incense to God from a chalice or cup are read as referring to smoking ganja. Rituals also generally involve chanting, drumming, meditating, dancing, and prayer. Most Rastafari communities hold weekly and monthly meetings. The most important is the Nyabinghi, held on special occasions for the purposes of celebration; more frequent are reasoning sessions. There are also less ritualised weekly meetings called ‘business meetings’ which are forums to solve problems and to discuss ongoing programmes such as community projects.

‘Reasonings’ are “a ceremony of varying degrees of formality in which participants access the spirit through the ritual smoking of herb (ganja) and the use of word/sound/power for the purpose of gaining clarity about spiritual, philosophical, political, and social truth claims” (Christensen 2014: 61). The discussion is cooperative not competitive, with the aim to reach consensus about the implications of a particular insight. There is a democratic atmosphere in which each member is given time for full and free debate on all subjects. Everyone has the chance to speak for as long as necessary. Participants tell each other about revelations they had in dreams and meditation. Reasonings are a form of ritual discussion that can also include daily prayers, meditation, drumming, chanting, hymns, lyrics, and poetry. Another name for the sessions is ‘groundings’. Monthly meetings begin in the early evening, last the entire night, and involve dancing, smoking and eating. Such meetings often begin with Psalm 122, then a Rastafari prayer, scripture readings, comments, and end with the Rastafari national anthem. This is followed by drumming and singing for fun for a few hours.

Larger celebrations are called Nyabinghi. In Jamaica, members from all over the island join celebrations; these are held in various parts of the island, like a convention for Rastas. Nyabinghi last for one to three days or for a whole week. The word ‘Nyabinghi’ comes from East Africa, where it denoted a religio-political resistance movement to colonialism from the 1890s to 1928. The term in Jamaica meant “death to the Black and White oppressors” prior to its association with Rastafari ceremony. It is a gathering of brethren for inspiration, exhortation, feasting, smoking, and social contact. Nyabinghi is also called ‘Groundation’ or ‘Grounation’. The first one was held in March 1958, called by Prince Emmanuel Edwards in Bull Bay, Jamaica. It is the central communal ritual of Rastafari. It originated as a ritual burning down of Babylon. The drumming, dancing, building and tending the fire were meant to unleash cosmic energy pervading the universe to eliminate the forces of imbalance. While they can be held spontaneously, they are routinely held on holy days and on days commemorating significant events in Rastafari history. Anyone can hold a Nyabinghi; first they get the support of their immediate group, then they announce the time and place for the gathering, then other Rastas arrive early to set up a tabernacle (see ‘Places of Worship’ below), prepare food, socialise, and then the ceremony begins at sunset. Drumming, chanting, dancing, and smoking ganja continues throughout the night and can last for several days. Proper dress for women is a long skirt, a top with long sleeves, and a covered head. Women traditionally cannot attend if menstruating.

The Journey of Life (life cycle)

Birth is celebrated with a Nyabinghi, the same can be held for a formal marriage ceremony. However, it is not necessary, and a man and woman living together are regarded as married whether or not a ceremony is held. There is generally no funeral ceremony for Rastas, who believe in reincarnation and that following Rastafari ways faithfully grants eternal life. Only evil things die. Atoms form new babies and life continues. People only die if they are unfaithful to Jah and have not followed the ways that grant proper self-preservation. This means that a true Rasta cannot die. When people do die, it is explained away by saying the dead person had strayed from true path of Rastafari somehow. Death is seen as unnatural and avoidable, an evil brought about by the influences of Babylon. Dying is called ‘transitioning’ to denote that it is not the end of that person’s life but a change to a new body. Rastafari believe reincarnation occurs with the same identity despite a change in physical form. This is how the line of black prophets from Moses to Jesus to Haile Selassie is of the same person. This notion connects the Israelites of the Bible to Africans and Rastas as the chosen people; Rastas and black people generally are the biblical Israelites reincarnated. However, notable Rasta elders have died after living exemplary lives following Rastafari codes of conduct. This has brought some reckoning of death among Rastafari. The first Rastafari funeral was for a Nyabinghi elder, Bongo Tawney, the chairperson of the Nyabinghi Order. It was conducted and presided over by Nyabinghi priests in Jamaica in April 2010. The Nyabinghi Order were previously the most opposed to funeral rituals, claiming “let the dead bury their dead”, implying Rastas should have nothing to do with death at all.

Holy Days and Celebrations(life cycle)

The following holy days are observed by Rastafari:

• Ethiopian Christmas on 7th January. Ethiopian Christmas is observed on the date of the Orthodox Church celebration of the birth of Jesus, usually on or around the 7th January, using the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar to calculate the date of his birth. Ethiopian holy days are observed because of their importance to Haile Selassie I, who was an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian.

• Groundation (or Grounation) Day on 21st April. This is the date when Haile Selassie I visited Jamaica in 1966.

• Ethiopian Constitution Day on 16th July. The date commemorates the proclamation of the first modern constitution of Ethiopia by Haile Selassie I.

• Birthday of Emperor Haile Selassie I on 23rd July.

• Marcus Garvey’s Birthday on 17th August.

• Ethiopian New Year’s Day on 11th September. In leap years on the Gregorian calendar this falls on 12th September.

• Coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie I on 2nd November.