Native American Spirituality: A Vedantic View

By Devadatta Kali Jaya

This month’s reading is from a lecture given at the Vedanta temple in Hollywood, on Aug. 28, 2005 and in Trabuco on October 2, 2005. Devadatta has been closely associated with the Vedanta Society since 1966. A regular contributor to Vedanta journals throughout the world, Devadatta Kali is the author of In Praise of the Goddess: The Devimahatmya and Its Meaning. He also has a forthcoming book, The Veiling Brilliance: Meditations on Shakti, which will also be published by Nicolas-Hays, with a projected release date of autumn, 2006.

Native American spirituality is as vast a subject as the North American continent itself, which stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the frozen expanses of the Arctic to the steamy jungles of southern Mexico. At this point we will only be able to gain a few impressions of the breadth and depth of the ideas and beliefs by which the First Peoples of this continent lived. We have available a staggering wealth of material on their myths, traditions, and practices, written by Native American holy men and women themselves and also by sympathetic religious scholars. Additionally I can share with you some of my own recollections from the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions, where I was fortunate to meet some great spiritual leaders and learn directly from them.

And so, I’ll take you back to Wednesday, 1 September 1993. It was a sultry evening in Chicago, but it was comfortable inside the air-conditioned Palmer House Hotel. There, Mary-ellen Baker addressed the Parliament of the World’s Religions. A member of the Ojibway tribe, she was the founder of the Lac Courtes Oreilles Institute on Alcohol and Drug Abuse. Her story was compelling:

I was an alcoholic. No, I am a recovering alcoholic. For many years I walked the streets of Chicago; I was out there on those streets.”

After describing her long battle with alcohol and degradation, she continued, “I have been wondering how I am going to tell my grand-children about this night when I go back to the reservation. One hundred years ago my people were not invited to the Parliament. Tonight I stand here before you, speaking for my people. Tonight I am here making history.”

She could barely contain her joy, and I could not contain my tears, nor could many others in that room. We rose to our feet and applauded.

Two days earlier, Jennie Joe, a Navajo, recalled the days of her youth, when she greeted the rising sun with cornmeal and prayed for all humankind. She remembered also how Indian youths were forced into boarding schools and taught that their beliefs were heathen and without value, how children were forbidden to speak their native tongues, made to wear the white man’s clothes, and taught to be ashamed of their families and of who they were.

Native Americans have had to fight hard in the white man’s courts to regain the right to practice their religion. Jennie Jo was referring to the Indian Offenses Act, passed in 1890 by the United States Congress. This law remained in effect until 1940. That means that for fifty years, conducting native ceremonies and even praying in the traditional native way were forbidden and punishable by jail. “Now,” Jennie Joe said, per-haps with irony, “it’s encouraging to recognize that we do have a religion.”

When we speak of Native American religion, we must keep in mind that there were and are many religions among this continent’s First Peoples. When thinking of people in India, we do not assume that Shaivas, Shaktas, Vaishnavas, Tantrikas, and Vedantins all hold the same religious views and follow the same practices, even though they all fall under the general label of “Hindu.” In the same way, we cannot assume that there is one, homogeneous Native American religion.

The truth is that Native American religions, like religions everywhere, were shaped by differing physical environments, which gave rise to a variety of worldviews and cultures. The life-experience of sedentary agriculturalists in the northeastern woodlands was different from that of the buffalo-hunters on the plains, and different still from the hunter-gathers and pueblo-dwellers who coexisted in the southwestern deserts. In fact, anthropologists divide the North American continent into ten cultural zones, each with its own patterns of adaptation to the widely differing natural environments. To add to the cultural diversity, within these areas some 250 indigenous languages are still spoken today.

Even so, it is possible to make at least one generalization about Native American religion. It is closely tied to the natural world.

When we look at the roots of Vedanta—at the ancient hymns of the Rigveda—we find a similar connection to nature. In those Vedic hymns we find all the natural phenomena deified. Agni is the god of fire, Surya is the sun God, Ushas is the goddess of dawn, her sister Ratri is the goddess of night, the life-sustaining river Sarasvati is a goddess.  Both in the sacred scriptures of India and in the oral traditions of the native New World, we find a deification of natural phenomena. We encounter gods or spirits of sun and rain, a superhuman being wielding thunderbolts, goddesses of grain and the harvest, and on and on. These are more than surface similarities or mere coincidences. They give us a hint that people everywhere have tapped into something universal—a divine presence within everything.

When we come upon a religious tradition different from our own, questions naturally arise. Because of our Vedantic orientation, the basic questions we are likely to pose are these: how does that religion view what we call God or the Supreme Being? How does that religion view the created world? And what is humankind’s place in the scheme of things? You will find these questions and their answers woven throughout this morning’s talk.

Do Native Americans recognize a supreme being? If so, what is their vision of God? I mentioned earlier that some 250 indigenous languages are still spoken in present-day North America. It follows then that God has many names. Let’s select a few from different tribes and cultural regions and see what they tell us.

The Lakota, who inhabit the plains, have a name for the Supreme Being that is fairly well known even among non-Indian people. If you watched the recent television miniseries Into the West, you heard this name spoken many times. It is Wakan Tanka. Actually, the Lakota use many names when speaking of God. Tunkashila, for example, means “Grandfather Spirit.” But Wakan Tanka refers to the highest aspect of divinity. It is often translated as “Great Spirit.” The Lakota holy man, Archie Fire Lame Deer, explains that the word wakan means “holy,” “sacred,” “mysterious,” “otherworldly,”  “super-natural.” And Wakan Tanka, the name for the Creator, literally means “the Great Mystery” or “the Great Mysterious.” Wakan Tanka is an unexplainable divine power that manifests through countless lesser beings or spirits as well as material objects, which are nevertheless parts of the One. These manifestations of power can assume good or bad, positive or negative, creative or destructive aspects. All these diversified energies are interrelated and go to make up the world as we know it. All are ultimately one force, shrouded in mystery. This Great Mystery, Wakan Tanka, is one but also many, and also the manyness that is one.

To the north and east of the Lakota people of the plains, the neighboring Ojibway tribes inhabit the woodlands. Their name for the Creator is Kitchi Manitou. Kitchi means “grand, immense, preeminent, ancient,” either in a concrete or an abstract sense. Manitou means “mystery, essence, substance,” and also “supernatural spirit” or “transcendental reality.” Kitchi Manitou is the literal counterpart of Wakan Tanka, and both reveal a similar idea of God as the great, transcendental mystery that expresses itself through the creation. And just as for the Lakota people there is the one great Wakan Tanka and many lesser wakan beings, for the Ojibway there is one great Kitchi Manitou and hosts of lesser manitous at work throughout the  creation.

This concept of divinity as power and the world as its expression does not sound all that different from what we find in the sacred texts of India. In the Chandi, the seer, Medhas, says of the Divine Mother Durga, “She is eternal, having the world as her form. She pervades all this” (1.64). The worldview of the Shakta Hindus understands all material forms, moving and unmoving, as emanating from divinity. Everything evolves from the one, primordial power, citshakti—the power of consciousness—through the interplay of the gunas, its three basic energies. Everything is pervaded by consciousness, which is not different from its power. As Sri Ramakrishna said many times, Brahman and Shakti, Brahman and its power, are identical.

In the southwestern desert, where the way of life differs greatly from that of the Lakota or the Ojibway, the sedentary Navajo nevertheless have a similar concept of the supreme being, but they express it differently. The message is lost on some researchers, who say that the Navajo have no supreme God because he is not named. The Navajo artist Carl Gorman explains that no name is needed: “He is simply the Unknown Power. We worship him through his creation for he is everything in his creation. The various forms of creation have something of his spirit within them.”

Farther to the south, hundreds of years ago, the tribes of Mexico built great urban civilizations with cities dominated by temples atop huge pyramids. For one such tribe, the Toltec, the highest concept of the supreme being was oneness, but paradoxically the name for this was Ometeotl, which in the Nahuatl language means “God of Duality.” This name indicates that the ultimate reality, though one, had a dual nature: Ometeotl was both the active principle, called Ometecuhtli, or “Lord of Duality, and the passive principle, called Omecihuatl, or “Lady of Duality.” The concept is strikingly close to the Tantric idea of Shiva and Shakti, with one important difference: the Toltecs conceptualized the active principle as male and the passive principle as female—a reversal of the Hindu roles. The Shaktas visualize this as Kali dancing on the breast of the recumbent Shiva. In either case, reality is one: an unchanging ground of being, inseparable from the dynamic existence that proceeds from it.

In the eleventh century a great priest-ruler emerged among the Toltecs. He was Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, “Our Revered Prince, the Feathered Serpent.” He was named after the creator god Quetzalcoatl, who had assisted Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl, the Lord and Lady of Duality, in bringing forth the creation. The human Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl was regarded as a god-man. Indeed, through the austerities of fasting, blood-letting, and other penances, he had achieved the direct experience of Ometeotl, the supreme reality.

In Toltec teaching, the human body was seen as a container of sacred forces, and therefore as an instrument for cosmic renewal through the performance of ritual and internalized spiritual practice. Three primary sacred forces resided in the body. Tonalli was the animating force or soul, concentrated in the head. Teyolia was the spiritual power of emotion, memory, and knowledge; this was concentrated in the heart. Ihiyotl was the power of bravery, desire, hatred, love, and happiness; this was concentrated in the liver. I’ve already mentioned that the concept of Ometeotl closely resembles the Tantric idea of Shiva-Shakti. The Toltec view of the human being as a living microcosm—an individualized version of the larger universe—also comes close to the Tantric view, even to the idea of places of concentrated spiritual energy within the body. We call them cakras.

Leaving aside the philosophical abstraction of the mysterious, nondual-yet-dual Ometeotl, we learn that the Toltecs and other Nahuatl-speaking tribes had other names for God which conveyed a more immediate sense of deity. The supreme being was called Yohualli-Ehecatl, which literally means “Night-Wind.” How eloquently this name expresses the idea that God is invisible like the night and intangible like the wind. Another common name was Ipalnemoani, meaning “Giver of Life,” which conveys the idea of God as a beneficent being—and one to whom we owe our gratitude.

From these few, far-flung examples of divine names, we learn that the First Peoples of North America had highly developed ideas of a sacred reality. And it did not matter whether their material culture was that of hunter-gatherers, agriculturalists, or urban dwellers; the people indigenous to this continent had deep spiritual and philosophical insights.

Unfortunately, this wisdom was not apparent to most of the Europeans who settled what they called the “New World.” Even though we are considering Native American spirituality in connection with Vedanta, the clash of world-views that occurred with the coming of the European Christians cannot go unmentioned. If boatloads of Vedantins from India had come here instead of Catholic conquerors from Spain and Protestant settlers from England, the history of this continent would have been much different. But we cannot ignore what happened. Christian missionaries and teachers believed it was their God-given duty to save the heathen savages from their devilish superstitions and inevitable hell-fire. Even if the subtleties of the indigenous religions had been explained to them, it is doubtful that the newcomers would have been able to understand—or would have wanted to.

There was a clash. The white man did not understand the Indian’s religion; the Indian did not understand the white man’s religion; and, worst of all, the white man did not understand why the Indian did not understand.

Without defending the Europeans, we can still admit that the lack of understanding worked both ways. Archie Fire Lame Deer describes what happened to him when we was removed from his family on the reservation and put into a Christian boarding school to live under strange, alien gods. As he explains it, there were three chief Christian gods: the Father, Wakan Tanka Chincha; the Son, Jesus; and Woniya Wakan, the Holy Spirit. Archie took the Holy Spirit to be something like Wakinyan, the Thunderbird, “because he was depicted as some kind of pigeon. They also had a chief woman god, the mother of Wakan Tanka Chincha. She had a husband named Joe, but her son’s father was Woniya Wakan, the strange pigeon god. Joe didn’t seem to mind. …”

Archie recalls how the priests tried to instill a sense of sin and a fear of eternal hellfire in the young students. They depicted the Devil as “a nasty, vengeful fellow with horns, cloven hooves, and a hairy behind like a mountain goat, and a buffalo’s tail. I thought this was an insult to the animals, our four-legged relatives. My father always said, ‘You whites invented the Devil; you can keep him.’ That was my feeling too.”

Archie’s story illustrates the clash of two different worlds. And what are these worlds like? Western scholars like to lump religions into two categories: historical and primal. According to their set of definitions, historical religions have widespread geographic distribution, sacred texts that exist in written form, and traditions that are cumulative, which means that they build and change over time. By these definitions, the historical religions include Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. The primal religions are the opposite of these in every respect. They are confined to small groups of aboriginal peoples; their teachings are handed down orally and are not written down; and their traditions remain more or less unchanged over hundreds or even thousands of years. In regard to this last point, Huston Smith wisely points out that later does not necessarily mean better. The Vedantic idea holds that divine reality is eternal and un-changing, and that the experience of it is available to people of all times and places if only they follow the proper means of accessing it.

Even though Hinduism is officially classified with the historical religions, we see that it overflows either category. It has a huge body of written texts, but for many centuries those texts, the Vedas, for example, were not written down. Even today they are memorized, and even today spiritual instruction is imparted orally from guru to disciple. Like the historical religions, Hindu- ism is a cumulative tradition; we can trace how it has grown steadily from the earliest times and continued to develop to the present. But, like the primal religions, Hinduism still observes rituals and follows practices that were formulated thousands of years ago and remain virtually unchanged today. The distinction between “historical” and “primal” religions is in large part artificial. It may fit when you are contrasting Christianity and Native American religions, but Vedanta defies such narrow definitions. Vedanta has developed some of the most highly sophisticated philosophy the world has yet known; at the same time it has never forsaken its primal roots.

What is more important than classifying a religion is how a particular religion plays out in the lives of its followers. In the larger, more stratified societies of the historical religions, a split opens up between clergy and laity and also between the sacred and the profane. In primal religions those distinctions are muted. All people living a tribal existence—not just the shamans or medicine men—are more likely to experience the world in a ritualized and therefore spiritual way. Instead of seeing the world in terms of sacred and secular, they see a single, sacred world that can be experienced in any number of different ways.

For example, for the Lakota the world is a place of oneness and unity. There is no line drawn between the natural and the supernatural; the whole of experience is one. In this connection I am reminded of an incident my guru, Swami Prabhavananda, used to recall. It took place when he was a young monk.

[O]ne day, I was discussing with another disciple the spiritual vision of ‘Gopal’s Mother,’ a woman disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. She had been given this name because she used to see Gopal, the boy Krishna, playing with her, walking beside her, and calling her ‘Mother.’ I expressed my opinion that these visions … belonged to the transcendental plane, and that I did not believe she had actually seen Sri Krishna with her physical eyes. Maharaj, who was seated in his room, overheard me. He came out and said rather sarcastically: ‘Ah! So you are omniscient!’

“‘But Maharaj,’ I asked, ‘how can one see God in the external world with physical eyes?’

Maharaj simply made this statement in English: ‘Show me the line of demarcation where matter ends and spirit begins.’”

As Vedäntins we can agree with the general Native American world view. As Shankaracharya taught in the Vivekachudamani (521), “Our perception of the universe is a continuous perception of Brahman, though the ignorant man is not aware of this. Indeed, this universe is nothing but Brahman. See Brahman everywhere, under all circumstances, with the eye of the spirit and a tranquil heart.”

In contrast to this unifying view of creation, the Europeans came to the New World with a three-tiered vision. There was the realm of God and spirit; there was the natural world of animals, plants, weather, and seasons; and there was the realm of human culture. This worldview perceived, or perhaps created, a fundamental divide between humanity, nature, and divinity. That divide translated into a theological need for humanity’s redemption.

Traditionally the Christian has seen this world as a place of exile, a place of punishment for Adam and Eve’s sin of disobedience in the Garden of Eden. How different is the Native American view, where humans are caretakers of our Mother Earth, who is to be revered and left unharmed for future generations.

The Native American creation stories are fundamentally different from the account in Genesis. Although they show great diversity from region to region and from tribe to tribe, they also share among themselves an underlying unity of vision. In these stories all sentient beings share the same personal nature, be they humans, plants, animals, or even rocks. All sentient beings are essentially alike, because as persons they all share intelligence, will, and voice. In other words, everything in the universe is alive with the power of consciousness.

One of the most widely found creation stories is called the “Earth Diver” myth. There are many versions, involving different animals as agents of creation. In some versions the creation is brought about only through personal sacrifice. I’ll give you the version that Ben Pease, a Crow elder from Montana, told at the Chicago Parliament in 1993. He told it as he had heard it from his grandmother.

The Maker of All Things came upon the world and found nothing but water.”

At this point Ben, still a young child, interrupted. “But Grandmother, what did he stand on?”

Don’t worry about it. That’s not what this story is about. The First Maker said he had to do something to make a world with people, animals, trees and all things. Just then four ducks came flying from the North. First Maker asked for help from his brother and sister ducks. ‘Help me make the earth,’ he said. ‘Under the water is the earth, our mother.’ He asked the first duck, ‘Dive down and get me something.’ The duck was gone a long time, and the others became worried. At last he came back with a twig in his bill. The second duck dived down and brought back dirt, and from that First Maker formed a man and breathed life into him. With the dirt that was left he made a woman and breathed life into her.”

But Grandmother, what were they standing on?”

Don’t worry about that. The third duck brought more mud, and First Maker made all the animals, birds, fishes and plants. The fourth duck dived down and brought up a lot more dirt. First Maker took a handful and blew it to the South, and it became the arid land. He blew to the East and made the Eastern Seaboard and the Great Lakes country. He blew to the North and made Alaska and Canada. And he blew to the West and made the Rocky Mountains and the West Coast. Then First Maker said, ‘You, man and woman, are Crow people. Propagate in the world and be good to each other.’ And he gave the same message to the animals, birds, fishes and plants.”

In closing, Ben Pease observed, “This is like the Garden of Eden story, only we had no snake.”

Notice in this creation story how First Maker advised the man and the woman and all the other living creatures, “Be good to each other.”

Such a worldview has to be translated into practice, and that is the essence of all the creation stories. They are less concerned with the actual origin of the world than with the working of the cosmos.21 Their common thread is the inter-connectedness and interdependence of all beings. This has to become the outlook of the people who learn from these stories. For  example, Archie Fire Lame Deer explains that all Lakota ceremonies end with the words Mitakuye Oyasin, which mean “All My Relations.” The Lakota pray for all their  relatives—all human beings and every other living thing—“every animal down to the tiniest bug, and every plant down to the tiniest wildflower.”

Spiritual knowledge is worthless unless it gives us practical understanding for how to live our lives, and this bears directly on how we human beings fit into the grand scheme of things.

In the traditional Native American way, spiritual instruction began very early. The way Ben Pease recalled learning the creation story from his grandmother shows how spiritual knowledge is passed orally from generation to generation, within the family, as soon as a child is old enough to understand. And the way Ben kept interrupting, “But Grandmother, what did he stand on?” brings to mind another teaching from the Chicago Parliament that has stayed with me. Charlotte Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux descended from the great Black Elk, put it bluntly. She said “In order to listen, we first must learn to shut up.”

Douglas Long, president of the Native American Church, explained at the Parliament how a child in his Winnebago tribe is brought up. What is true of the Winnebago is true, I think, of most other Native American societies. First a young child learns to get along with its brothers and sisters and only then is allowed to go to the neighbors. When the child learns to get along with the neighbors and then with the entire village, only then is he or she allowed to visit other villages. In this way the circle of humanity expands and expands and becomes more and more inclusive. In this way the Winnebago, and many other First Peoples, are brought up with an attitude of respect toward all.

This practical advice has its roots in the basic wisdom of the universe, and signs of that wisdom are all-pervasive, if we only look around us. Archie Fire Lame Deer’s father, John Lame Deer, also a Lakota holy man, explained that nature wants things to be round. He pointed out that human and animal bodies have no corners. He affirmed the widespread Native American belief that the circle is a symbol of inclusion and unity. People sit together around the campfire, united in peace while passing the sacred pipe from hand to hand. The camp was a circle of tipis, and the tipi itself was a circle in which people sat in a circle. All families in a village were circles within a larger circle, and that in turn  was part of  the still larger circle, which was the Sioux nation. The nation was only a part of the larger universe, in itself a circle and containing the round earth, the round sun, and the round stars, as well as the moon, the horizon, the rainbow—“circles within circles within circles, with no beginning and no end.”

Of course we are speaking here of ideals; in actuality the conduct of life is usually not so simple. In many parts of the North American continent life was difficult. Where the environ-ment was harsh—in the frozen expanses of the far north and in the sunbaked deserts of the southwest—people struggled for survival, often competing for scarce resources. Even where the land was more abundant and life was easier, there were tribal rivalries and territorial claims. Violence was a fact of life.

And so, we find in the Native American myths, that although all human beings, and indeed all creatures, are considered to be brothers and sisters, some are friendly and helpful, some are powerful, and some are dangerous. There are both order and disorder in the cosmos; cooperation and competition coexist in an ongoing state of tension.

The tribal teaching stories recognize that power can be used in either beneficial or anti-social ways, and that its use is a personal choice that will affect the world. Here is how the Cherokee explain it:

One evening a Cherokee elder told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside of people. “That battle,” he said, “is between two wolves inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other wolf is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”

The grandson sat there, thinking about this for a while. Then he asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?”

The grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”

Point by point this wonderful story corresponds to the ethical, moral, and psychological teachings of India—and in fact of most if not all religions. Notice the list of negative qualities, and how it corresponds to Vedantic teaching. We have the “six passions,” sometimes called the “six crocodiles” that lurk in the stream of our consciousness: lust, anger, greed, pride, jealousy, delusion. Or the “eight fetters” itemized in Tantric teaching and cited by Sri Ramakrishna: hatred, shame, fear, distrust, pride of family, pride of caste, calculation, and deceit. The qualities identified as positive or negative are universal to human experience. Like Vedantic teaching, the Cherokee story identifies the problems of human existence and also their antidotes, and then it says that the rest is up to us. It is we who have to do the work. Which wolf do we feed?

In our own tradition that same conflict between good and evil is beautifully illustrated in the Chandi. As in Native American religion, good and evil are equated with cosmic order and disorder. In the myths of the Chandi, demons have disrupted the cosmic order by casting the gods out of heaven and appropriating their powers. In each case the Divine Mother, in various forms, slays the demons, who represent ignorance, brutality, willfulness, anger, deception, self-aggrandizement, and all other human short-comings. The battles take place not in some mythical realm—as first we might think—but within our own hearts and minds. We fight these battles so that the divine in us will overcome the ignorance that causes all our distress.

Through the conduct of everyday life, Native American religions are concerned with maintain-ing contact with the sacred, and that is where ritual has a role to play. The many tribes had many different rituals, to be sure. Some of these, such as the sacred pipe and the Sun Dance, crossed tribal boundaries, with expected variations.

The oldest ritual of the Lakota is the Inipi— the purification ceremony known in English as the “sweatlodge.” As with all First Peoples’ traditions, there is a story that explains how the ritual was taught to humans. It is too long to tell here in all its detail; in short, it involves a cultural hero named Inyan Hokshi, or “Stone Boy,” who was taught by the rocks how to construct the sweatlodge and perform the ritual. 

The lodge itself is constructed from supple willow sticks according to strict specifications. The willow sticks are planted in the ground in a circle about eight feet across; there are sixteen willow sticks to represent the Sixteen Great Mysteries, the Wakanpi, which are different aspects of Wakan Tanka, the Creator.  They all reflect the evolution of the universe out of the mind of Wakan Tanka. They also reflect the structure and functioning of the universe. The sixteen Wakanpi are classified in four groups of four in a hierarchy of power. The first four mysteries, are called the Superiors. First among them is the Sun, the life-giving power. Second is Motion, the animating force or energy personified; we might call it Shakti. Third is Earth, the mother who feeds all. Fourth is Rock, which represents the everlastingness of the Creator. The mysteries that make up the last group of four are called the Inferiors, because they define the limitation of the individual being. Among these we find the fifteenth mystery, called Sichun, or Intellect. It is said that when Wakan Tanka created Intellect, he made a mistake; intellect was given to humankind as a safeguard against evil, but it was misused, and that is why the world is in such a sorry shape.

We can easily draw a loose connection between the Sixteen Mysteries of Lakota religion and the twenty-four cosmic principles of Vedanta, but that is not all. If we were to look at the circular framework of the sweatlodge from above, we would see that the sixteen intersecting willow loops form an eight-pointed star. The sweatlodge is in fact a mandala or yantra, a sacred diagram of the universe. And like a Hindu yantra, it is filled with meaning and power.

The purification ceremony that takes place during the Inipi is more than a steambath. Every single feature of the sweatlodge—every object, implement, song, motion, and action, is highly ritualized and charged with meaning. I am reminded of our own homa fire, which is also a purification ritual of sorts. In it we offer all our actions and their fruits into the fire of Brahman and are cleansed of them. If you have watched the homa fire performed, you know that every object employed—incense, flowers, ghee, and so on—every gesture of the hands, every mantra spoken, is predetermined and designed to connect us to the Divine. So too with the Inipi. 

Often the sweatlodge is not an end in itself but a preparation for another spiritual endeavor. One such endeavor is called hanblecheya in Lakota. In English, the Vision Quest. It is an extreme form of austerity that involves going to a solitary place in nature and staying there without food or drink for four days and nights, all the while praying to the spirits for direction. The Vision Quest is complete self-surrender to the Creator, a dying of one’s former self. Sri Ramakrishna taught that in order to have the vision of God, one must long for him. In the Lakota language hanblecheya means just that—“crying for a vision.”

Just as we are taught that the spiritual journey is easier with the help of a guru, the Lakota vision-quester usually seeks the help of a wichasha wakan, a holy man, to prepare for a Vision Quest. The whole procedure, from beginning to end, is carried out according to strict guidelines, all shaped by tradition, all charged with spiritual meaning. Once the seeker has prepared himself and prepared the place, the really hard work begins. The way Archie Fire Lame Deer describes it, “you pray as hard as you can.” You try not to think of anything from your everyday world; you think only about what is holy and make your mind into a receptacle for a vision. There is no guarantee you will receive one. You have to guard against the power of your imagination; the vision comes to you—you do not create it. A vision is a gift from the spirits, so they should be approached humbly. Finally, one who receives a vision is transformed and is obligated to live by its revelation.

The Vision Quest is an intensive form of meditation. In the Vedantic tradition we find something quite similar. There are passages in the Shvetashvatara Upanishad and the Yogasutra of Patanjali, for example, that prescribe how meditation is to be performed. Here is what we find in the Bhagavadgita (6.10-12):

The Yogi should retire into a solitary place, and live alone. He must exercise control over his mind and body. He must free himself from the hopes and possessions of this world. He should meditate on the Atman unceasingly.

The place where he sits should be firm, neither too high nor too low, and situated in a clean spot. He should first cover it with sacred grass, then with a deer skin; then lay a cloth over these. As he sits there he is to hold the senses and imagination in check, and keep the mind concentrated upon its object. If he practices meditation in this manner, his heart will become pure.”

Throughout this past hour you have heard the wisdom of Native Americans in their own words. More than once I have quoted Archie Fire Lame Deer, a wichasha wakan, or “holy man” of the Lakota tribe. The term wichasha wakan is usually translated as “medicine man”—by those who don’t know any better, as Archie puts it. His own father, John Lame Deer, defined what it means to be a holy man:

When the wichasha wakan has grown is old, he has done everything: cure, prophesy, talk to herbs, command the stones, run a Sundance, or even change the weather. But these are merely stages along the way and are no longer of great importance to him. He has passed through them and gone beyond all of them. Now he has the Wakanya Wowanyanke, the ‘Great Vision.’ Now he prefers to be by himself—away from the crowd, away from everyday matters. He would rather meditate, “leaning against a tree or rock, feeling the Earth under him, feeling the weight of the big, flaming sky upon him. Closing his eyes, he sees things clearly. What you see with the eye in your heart is what counts.” The wichasha wakan wraps silence around himself like a blanket, a silence louder than thunder. All the while, sitting with his face toward the West, he listens. He hears the voices of all the creatures that move upon the earth, and as he listens, “something from every living being flows into him, and something flows from him.

This kind of man is neither good nor bad. He exists, and that’s enough. He is as free as a tree or a bird. … His life is a teaching.”

Ashtavakra Samhita: Study notes of Swami Shraddhananda
October 1, 2005
A Holy Woman of Modern India
December 1, 2005
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Native American Spirituality: A Vedantic View