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.

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