The Religion of Ayahuasca by Alex Polari De Alverga

Originally published in 1999 under the title ‘Forest of Visions: Ayahuasca, Amazonian spirituality, and the Santo Daime Tradition’; this edition, published under the new title ‘The Religion of Ayahuasca – The Teachings of the Church of Santo Daime’, came out in 2010. The author, Alex Polari De Alverga, tells the story of his own experiences with Santo Daime, alongside the history, and his relationship with, one of its leading members Sebastião Mota de Melo.

Santo Daime was first founded by Mestre (Master) Irineu Serra in Brazil on March 26th 1931. The church “combines the inheritance of the Christian esoteric tradition with the spiritual legacy and indigenous force of the pre-Colombian people” and centres around a sacrament; the hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca. Mestre Irineu began the process of turning the “new knowledge” garnered from the spiritually structured framework of Santo Daime’s  ayahuasca relationship into doctrinal form, but after his death on July 6th 1971, it was left to his disciples to carry on the work.

One such disciple was Sebastião Mota de Melo who was born on October 16th 1920, and is  described as “an illiterate rubber taper, canoe builder, mystic, healer, and prophet of the new era.” It had been prophesised that there would be a great increase in arrivals to the church and Sebastião was to facilitate this; he was given the task after the death of Mestre Irineu “to become the guide for the people, the new people who would come from afar”.  Then as if on cue, during the early 1980s, there was an influx of travellers and seekers coming from far and wide to investigate the church. Padrinho Sebastião is a fascinating character portrayal, he is both distant and close within the narrative, seemingly with a foot in both the ethereal reality of ayahuasca and the day-to-day being of Santo Daime. However, it is his relationship with the author that ultimately leads the narrative.

It was in Rio Do Ouro that the Alverga met Padrinho (Godfather) Sebastião. This sets the scene for the book in that the story involves a combination of the teachings of Santo Daime and Padrinho Sebastião against the backdrop of its 1980s history, alongside Alverga’s own spiritual awakening. By all accounts the 1980s were a period of great change for Santo Daime, not only was there an influx of visitors but it was during this period that the Confen commission was set up, by the Brazilian state, to investigate the ayahuasca church. Included in the text is an enlightening Illustration of a ceremony, which is taken specifically from when they visited the church. However, the political history of Santo Daime mainly serves as context, the narrative is more focused on the doctrine and its process. According to Alverga it was Padrinho Sebastião who introduced ideas about spiritual rebirth, the ego and self into teachings begun by Mestre Irineu.

In some respects Alverga’s spiritual drug text bears a resemblance to author Carlos Castaneda (1925-1998), who wrote about his purported experiences with Yaqui Indian Don Juan Matus, both in the style and content of the writing. Like Castaneda, Alverga often kept records of his apprenticeship with pad and pen, and he discusses the nature of sorcerers; even describing a ‘battle’ Padrinho Sebastião had with a possessed ‘evil’ sorcerer. Yet aside from these similarities, one has the impression of a very different framework, one more intensely psychological, which increasingly appears to be the dominant force in ayahuasca literature; more reminiscent of the drug writing from the early 1960s but that still  exerts a great force on today’s drug writing – “A great euphoria and love of life overtook me. To balance it, the Daime [ayahuasca] showed me my painful and emotional personal issues parallel to these ecstatic states” – this is drug psychotherapy.

At the heart of Alverga’s story, and a motif that is repeated regularly in a good deal of contemporary ayahuasca literature, is an overcoming of the personal unconscious and a reaching out to a spiritual, or a transpersonal, level: “When our spiritual consciousness is awakened, the conviviality with our sons and daughters makes possible a great recovery of our own memory and a real lesson in how to nourish and foster them”. But what, for Alverga, is happening during the Santo Daime ayahuasca experience? It is, of course, a doctrine that reaches much further than traditional transpersonal theory because it is  stratified according to the Santo Daime doctrine and practice.

In taking his leave from a hymn of Mestre Irineu’s about the bringing together of the vine, leaf and water, in the preparation of ayahuasca, Alverga writes: “The result of the union is something more than the drink. Something more than the effects of certain alkaloids on our nervous system. The power that acts over our consciousness is also the same power through which we can realize this Being that is expressed through our own perfection”. The spiritual embodiment between ayahuasca and the individual is described as the miraçáo: “As our bodies metabolized the energy contained in the active elements of the sacred plants, the force was preparing us for the miraçáo in which everything becomes within God”. Alverga begins to loosely describe a system of ethics, wherein the physical world is ethically opposed to the spiritual realm that embodies all that is good, and must therefore be lived in accordance with.

This manner of ethical application is stratified through Santo Daime, and through the text can be read in the conceptual and linguistic coupling of psychology and religion. For instance, the following biblical motif is repeated: “In the beginning was the Word, I am the Word and the Word is God”. The second half of which differs from the King James bible version, which reads “…the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. From past to present tense, this reference to Jesus being in us all is both immanent in temperament and illustrative of the spiritual place being located in consciousness and through psychedelics. There are detailed, carefully written descriptions of the spiritual process and the precision with which Alverga has woven these threads through various perspectives and conceptual frameworks is fascinating.

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