Benin: Bringing African and Indian Spirituality Together

Some years back a young man from the Francophone West Africa turned up at the Rishikesh Ashram,  by the name of Idriss, a man with a saumya face and mien.  He had been teaching Yoga in his country and after initiation at the Ashram, his spirituality just blossomed.

He has been training Yoga teachers from all over Africa and now has students in all parts from Algeria to Zaire to Tanzania.

In December 2001, he organized a conference in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, sponsored by the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  The conference was developed around Swami Veda Bharati’s teachings.  The title of the conference was “Bringing African and Indian Spirituality Together.”

On the way to the conference, I had the opportunity of meeting with Swami Ghananda who had taken his Sannyasa vows in Rishikesh several decades back and runs a Hindu Monastery of Africa in Accra.  I have never heard such powerful singing of Hanuman Chalisa and other hymns of India as from Swami Ghananda’s students in Accra, as well as in Lome, the capital of Togo.

Before going on to the conference in Burkina Faso, I had the opportunity of fulfilling my lifelong wish to visit the country of ancient civilization, Benin.  Here is a brief account of that visit.  The parallels between Yoga and other Traditions of India and the spirit of the countries like Benin are most striking and a much detailed study will be required to do it full justice.

Prior to my participation in the International Conference on Yoga and African Traditions, held from 15 – 17 December 2001 in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (West-Africa), I spent a few days in Benin. Benin is a small country in West-Africa, locked in between Nigeria to the East, and Togo and then Ghana to the West. I was particularly interested in going to Benin, because it is the cradle of Voodoo. Voodoo is often associated with witchcraft and black magic, but it is in fact a deeply spiritual tradition. Its basic tenet is the concept of an omnipresent God Creator, too complex for man to understand or communicate with. Therefore, communication with the Supreme Creator takes place through the intermediary of a number of primary and secondary divinities, called ‘Voodoos’.

The visit was prepared by Pascal Kpadjouda (a.k.a. Baba Ayoka), a Fa[1] priest who later became my initiate, Hervé Akponikpe, grandson of the last king of Benin and Secretary General of Benin's Association for Yoga Meditation in the Himalayan Tradition (AHYM-Benin) and Sonia van Nispen tot Sevenaer, co-founder of AHYM-Benin, a Dutch diplomt. I met and discussed with the following people:

  • Pacôme Kpadjouda, a Voodoo priest who is in the process of establishing a school where the teachings of Voodoo can be preserved integrally and taught in a systematic manner. He gave an introduction into the outlines of Voodoo.
  • Daagbo Houno, the High Priest of Voodoo (at his temple in Ouidah), with whom I was able to exchange on the spiritual practices in Yoga and in Voodoo.
  • Nna, a fourteen year old girl priest to Mahou (the Supreme God, Divine Mother of Nature) and Mahounon, the priest in charge of the Mahou temple.

Also, I met some ‘revenants’, initiates channeling the spirits of the ancestors. We listened to the chanting, watched traditional dancing, and received blessings. This text gives the highlights of these four encounters.

The meeting with Pacôme Kpadjouda:

Mr. Kpadjouda started by explaining that Voodoo represents God on earth, and that one who lives in harmony with Voodoo will have peace and tranquility in his life. The teachings cover practices taught to the priests and other adepts, as well as the wisdom of how to live daily life, which is taught to everyone. The essence of Voodoo expressed in one word would be ‘justice’. Transmission is important, and may be of knowledge or of power. The powers and practices of a particular Voodoo are not exclusively transferred to priests, but may also be transferred to laymen. However, the person to receive such a transmission is first observed carefully. He or she must be wise and well behaved, may not have a temper, and must be inclined towards justice.

God has created everything, and put man on earth as the master of creation. The word for ‘man’ in the local language (Fon) can be translated as ‘master of life’ or ‘father of this world’. But man does nothing of his own accord, and has to consult the divine will before acting. Messages from God Creator come down to man through the intermediary of the Voodoos. It is on the basis of these messages that sacrifices are made or other acts are performed . Voodoo prescribes non-violence, but animal sacrifice[2] is not considered violence as it is done for the benefit of mankind. Efforts must be made to minimize the suffering of the animals. The sacrifices demanded by the Voodoos have changed in the past and might do so again in the future. Formerly, even human sacrifice was sometimes asked for. That is no longer performed, so it is possible that “we” (said the priest) may receive the divine instruction some day to stop the animal sacrifices also. 

Referring to a guided group meditation with the members of AHYM-Benin, Pacôme Kpadjouda remarked that also in the practice of Voodoo there are moments that an individual, alone or while in a crowd, will fall silent in a similar way. This may even happen to a whole group of people. For him, this experience is a manifestation of the Spirit of God descending, through the intermediary of an angel or Voodoo called Legba.

We found some common purificatory practices, such as fasting, abstaining from meat, periods of abstaining from sexual contacts (which in Voodoo is done for periods of a few days or weeks, perhaps months, but not as a lifelong practice). A woman who has given birth recently or who is having her period is considered impure and should not come close to a Voodoo, and the same is true for someone who has been close to a dead body.

I asked if they use plants or mushrooms for changing the state of the mind for the purpose of ritual and divine will. Mr. Kpadjouda answered that indeed there are leaves of which a potion or tea is made. The person taking those becomes a direct messenger of God. A devotee can also enter into a trance spontaneously and become a messenger of God. A third and probably the most common way of knowing the will of God is through the instrument that Fa uses to express himself[3]. For the principal Voodoos, it is the Fa - i.e. the Divine will - who designates the priests. For secondary Voodoos, responsibility or 'priesthood' may be transmitted from father to son or (on rare occasions) daughter.

Women may be designated priest, but it is uncommon. The woman would normally have had her menopause, so as to not have impure periods which would prevent her from approaching her Voodoo. Nna, the priestess we were to meet the next day, is one of the rare exceptions. Mr. Kpadjouda explained that the male priest in her compound may approach the Voodoo in the name of the priestess whenever the latter is impure, either because she is having her period or because she has been with a man. At such times, she stays in a separate partition of the compound. If she were to become very impure he would have to replace her altogether. But then he may never come close to a woman again and will not have children. He will not do that lightly.

As a gift, I had brought Mr. Kpadjouda special japa-mala from India, made of rose petals[4]. He was very pleased, and remarked that Christianity has a rosary, Muslims use something similar, and so does Voodoo. The Voodoo ‘mala’ has 41, 16, 21, 7 or 9 beads, depending on its purpose. It led him to a conclusion that I was happy to share: that humanity in a spiritual sense is one.

Meeting the High Priest of Voodoo, Daagbo Houno

On Tuesday 11th, December 2001, we went to the town of Ouidah, the world capital of Voodoo, to visit the High Priest of that tradition. Ouidah is a small town with plain dirt roads that reminded us of villages in India. We saw people sitting under bunyan trees and enjoying themselves. Beautiful goats were running around. The compound of the High Priest was also just like we see it in the villages of India. Dirty concrete walls with lots of pictures and paintings, details of ceremonies and so forth that the Voodoo high priest has performed. On one wall was written “Souverain Daagbo Houno, Chef Suprême de la Réligion Voudoun”.

The High Priest came and sat on his chair, in the manner as though he were sitting on a throne. He was in traditional clothing, with a wraparound cloth around his waste, a special kind of shirt without any seams, and a saffron cloth wrapped around his head under a hat. His bearing was calm and reassured. Although he leaned back on his chair, his back was straight. His feet were on both sides of a little mound in front of him, the diameter of about a little over one foot, and height of maybe 7 or 8 inches. I was told that if he puts his foot on top of that little mound he will read everybody’s mind. Those present prostrated before him in the following manner: they kneeled or squatted, crossed their arms or put the hands on the floor, and bent down. Then we were given a little vessel of water, which was passed from one person to the other. Everyone took a sip of the water and then poured a sip on the ground. After that, our discussions could begin.

I explained that I had heard and read about the influence of Voodoo in other countries, like Brazil and Haiti, where influences from Benin and from the Yoruba of  Nigeria have mixed with Christianity and with the local religions. I had come here to find it in its pure form. I argued that spirituality in the world is facing a great crisis. Many religions that think they represent spirituality do not represent true spirituality. It is for people like him and me to bring real spirituality to the minds and hearts of ordinary people. My one quest is always in finding similarities, sharing ideas and experiences and finding ways in which we can support each other’s work. Daagbo Houno shared this vision. He said his goal was to achieve peace, at a personal level, at the level of his community, and for the whole of mankind. He was looking forward to working together for mutual respect and peace worldwide.

I asked the Daagbo to goive me the definition of Voodoo – what exactly is it. His reply seemed  to echo the teaching of the Upanishads. He said

                        Voodoo is here

                        Voodoo is there

                        Voodoo is in front

                        Voodoo is behind

                        Voodoo is above

                        Voodoo is below

                        Voodoo was in the beginning

                        Voodoo will be for eternity

                        Voodoo cannot be named or defined.

We then discussed the importance of concentration of mind, which he had clearly developed to a high level. He explained that indeed concentration of mind is taught in the practice of Voodoo, but one has to be initiated to learn about it. After initiation one may learn everything: the wisdom in the world, the wisdom in Voodoon, how to behave in your interactions with the external world, how to control yourself. To prepare  for spiritual initiation, people are sent  away for isolation, either in a temple, or a holy forest, or some other sacred place, for a certain period of time. The prerequisite for initiation is the acceptance of Voodoo as the leading principle, and an ardent desire to learn. In the Voodoo tradition, initiation is simple, and it is everywhere at all times. At the same time it is a very serious matter that demands willingness and deep concentration. Initiation processes can be gone through by fairly large groups, and they can take a fairly long period of time. At the end of one of these processes, the next one starts. It is a cycle that never really ends.

When someone is initiated, rituals are performed and he is given powers. Power is given bit by bit, level by level. But it’s only after the rituals of initiation that powers are given, in different domains and of different strength. That is necessary to make sure that the person has sufficient self control and masters the practice of Voodoo. It also serves the purpose of allowing the person to protect himself, his family, and all of humanity. There are songs and prayers that are taught in the course of initiation. The initiates are lead to keep those words in the mind and to speak only the particular sacred language of Voodoo  for a certain period of time, which can be days or weeks of even months. There are also holy names for the father, or the mother, or for your teacher, your master. To invoke those names brings strength (powers) to your spirit, to your mind. During the initiation period, the new initiate will be taught by older initiates, who will be there with him and teaching him all along the way. The holy words and prayers are not meant for just anyone. They are kept a secret among the initiates, and the initiates use them during these particular periods, and whenever they need them, whenever they are found necessary.

There are also practices with breath and concentration in Voodoo. The example was given of devotees and initiates who separate themselves from the body. The body - no longer inhabited by the mind - will then continue to breathe, a very slow and hardly perceptible breath. After certain practices the mind and the body are again brought into connection, and the mind returns into the body.

Daagbo Houno explained the confusion that sometimes exists on the nature of Voodoo. He said you have to differentiate between Voodoo and Bo. The first one is spiritual; the latter is based on the material side of the world. Bo consists of practices to manipulate nature, to influence things for a purpose of your own. But Voodoo is purely spiritual. It is an oral tradition, with people being taught personally and having to remember. That is why it is said in Africa that the death of an old man is like a library being burnt. Daagbo Houno knows the names of 11 of his predecessors, dating back to 1452. Of twelve more, names are known but no dates.

On our way out, the sacred turtle that lives in the compound came towards us at great speed. The turtle is an important symbol in Voodoo, it represents longevity, and it is used in many rituals. We were invited to stand on top of it to get its blessing… It was then that I saw some little drawings on the walls, yellow markings on a red surface, again very reminiscent of Indian designs. On the outside wall of the compound there were all sorts of sacred and ritual designs as well. Some of them seemed a little influenced by the European emblem kind of designs, but quite interesting.

Meeting the spirits of the ancestors

Next we arrived at a dirt compound with some small houses among lovely mango and Banyan trees. There was a large open space with chairs set out for us. A little chicken was running around, as was a little baby with a bare bottom; women were sitting on benches. There was a well in the centre, which had the same kind of wheel with a little belt to bring water out, just like at home. I can’t believe this is Benin… We were here to meet the ‘kouvitó’ (fon word) or ‘revenants’ (French). This word literally means ‘one coming back’. They are spirits of the dead.  It is believed that many of those who were taken away to the New World as slaves came back after death as ‘revenants’. Apparently only men are initiated into this part of Voodoo. We were advised you should not touch the revenants. To touch or be touched, even by their clothes, will kill you or make you very ill.

When the revenants – two of them - came out, all the women went on their knees with their hands on the dirt floor. The revenants and the people in the compound chanted back and forth, as if in question and response. They did a kind of dance, very reminiscent of Tibetan dance, driving away the spirit or fighting the evil and so forth. Even the dress was very reminiscent. I wish I could describe it. It was very elaborate and colorful, probably cotton fabric, with all kinds of colorful designs on them, very sequential and orderly. They had an elaborate head dress, with flaps on both sides and behind, with some symbol on each side. There must have been something on the head to raise it higher. The face was completely covered with something that had cauris (small white shells) sown into it. Very white, giving it a sort of other-wordly appearance. The whole body was covered, and the shoes were very ornate, all kinds of colors in there as well. In their hands they each had a short staff with a kind of a horsetail ending that is whisked back and forth. In India it has long been a symbol of royalty or any other higher position.

Unfortunately, the ‘revenants’ are not authorized to answer ‘general’ questions like what the world of the spirits is like, in what form the people of the living world could help the people of the spirit world and vice versa, or the meaning of the symbols on their dress. We were told they come out to assist in rituals with a specific purpose, they prophesize, they give answers to specific questions that anyone could have and they bring messages from the other world for the living. The message they brought me was: not to worry. About my heart condition they said I know very well that that which cures each man is within me. However, there was one element of knowledge that I lacked, and they would help me with that. It would not be a physical healing, but on a spiritual level. They further said that the masters who went before me, and whose mission I am still on earth to accomplish, were very patient. They were waiting for me to accomplish my mission, and I would be given the time and the strength to accomplish it…

We later learned that the initiates who had channeled the revenants had been in isolation for a week prior to this ceremony. During that time they were not allowed to come close to a woman, or to have violent thoughts. Their contacts with the outside world had been restricted; they had been kept in isolation in a Voodoo convent, not even accessible to most other initiates. They had been on a meatless diet, without salt or salty things, and a minimum food intake (which included specific leaves), they had drunk only holy water, and had done a complete fast the day prior to the ceremony. We were told they do not invite a particular spirit: it is the spirit that descends when the initiate is ready, i.e. pure.

At the Mahou temple, meeting with Mahounon and Nna

Our last visit was to Mahouhoue Adeboula, the temple of Mahou. Mahou is the Supreme God or the Divine Mother of nature. As we arrived, I could see some symbols painted on the outside of the compound wall: a goat tied to a tree, a chameleon with a sword in its hand, some figures, people dressed up who are playing drums. On entering the compound, we saw again a number of paintings and designs on the red dirt walls. We could clearly see the two areas, one area for the priestess to withdraw when she is impure, and then the area we were coming into. There was a little goat tied there. And just as at the Daagbo’s place so also here everybody took out their shoes, as we do in India to recognize the sanctity of a place, and approached the central part bent down.

Here we met with Mahounon and Nna. The latter is the fourteen year old priestess of Mahou. The priest of Mahou is always a woman. Nna has been a devotee of Mahou since she was six, and was chosen by the Fa to become her priestess two years ago, at the age of twelve. She cannot be replaced during her lifetime. Mahounon is priest of a deity called Dorè. However, as he heads the collectivity and because Mahou is the supreme Voodoo, he is called Mahounon. Even though he is responsible for the whole compound and for Nna, he cannot enter into the part of the temple where the Voodoo of Mahou is located. Only Nna can go there, and her (female) assistants. (The matter of replacement in periods of impurity was not mentioned here).

Mahounon explained that the first place the Catholic missionaries landed in the whole of West-Africa was here, in Ouidah. When they first arrived, the missionaries and the priests at that time got along very well. The local priests even helped the Catholic priests build their first church, and they would take part in each other’s ceremonies. But in time the Catholics started to sabotage and relations deteriorated. Nowadays some people go to church in the morning and secretly come to Mahou’s temple in the evening, but whenever they have problems, they come to Mahou’s temple. Even some Catholic priests secretly keep coming. The Christian missionaries cannot succeed in converting the people here, because, Mahounon said, everybody here knew that Mahou is the supreme God.

On a curtain leading to the temple I saw a cross, a crescent moon looking down, and a red sun. On both sides of the sun were two chameleons. Mahounon explained this as follows: the Supreme God, Mahou, existed well before white man came to Africa. The world is based on fertility, on male and female; the sun (and the colour red) represents the male, the moon represents the female. The chameleons are a representation of Mahou, because of their age, because of their wisdom, and because they take any colour. The cross expresses the fact that the African idea of God and the Christian idea of God are fundamentally the same.

The perenniality of nature and of life is based on the fertility of woman. Woman is therefore Mother of this world. One might compare this with Mary, Mother of God, and Mother of the world. That is why normally there are only priestesses to this Voodoo. But it has happened in the past that the Fa for a long period of time did not designate a priestess. So their father (Mahounon and Nna are brother and sister) was authorized to assume the practices. There was a painting of him on the wall, a very respectable figure, sitting with his right hand on his right knee and holding an elaborate staff in the left hand. He was wearing a little necklace on a white dress, a white head-dress and very attractive slippers.

After their father’s death the Fa designated Nna. Mahounon had not succeeded his father: his priesthood was transmitted to him by his grandfather, his father’s father.

Nna was a slim girl with a white cloth tied around her waist. She had a figurine in her lap representing the spirit of her departed twin sister. All the time we were there, she sat very still and did not speak a word. Mahounon said she is much wiser than any child her age. Her body may look young, but the sages of the practice are with her and guiding her. She was quite aware that she couldn’t behave like just anybody. Her position did not allow her to get angry. Since she had been designated priestess she had stopped going to school, and she never left the compound unaccompanied. When they saw her, all devotees of any Voodoo had to go down on their knees and touch the forehead to the ground – just we  do to honour holy personages in India. There were certain ceremonies that the High Priest could not do without her assistance. However, this would not make her proud, because the role she was playing was not something she had wanted to obtain. She was born to do it, and had been designated by the Fa.

Nna may get married if she so wishes, but contrary to the cultural pattern, she will herself choose her husband who will then integrate her compound, rather than her integrating the husband’s family. It was inconceivable to those present that she would ever decide to leave. She was predisposed to these responsibilities. We were told she cures illnesses through herbs and that her words are very powerful. When she gives a blessing, it is highly effective. She enters into the temple to communicate with Mahou, and the blessing becomes reality.

Nna had a very gentle inward Mona Lisa-like smile that you cannot decipher. One thing I noticed about this priestess girl of fourteen was her stillness. She did not blink her eyes more frequently than 30 or 35 seconds, which is very rare. We normally blink the eyes at the rate of once every five, six seconds. Even at the flash of the camera she did not blink her eyes. It told me something.

In conclusion

One thing I noticed in Benin is that in spite of the outward look of poverty and dirt roads, there is not a feeling of any kind of misery or ignorance here. You find the same thing in India. For example people we have talked to have cell phones, and they are quite into the modern world at the same time. But most important: it was wonderful to hear how God has shown the same way to different parts of the world, who outwardly have had no communication with each other for centuries and for thousands of years, and same God, same Divine spirit has shown to the Voodoo tradition in Benin the way of the secret and the sacred as he has shown to the people of many other of His/Her lands.

[1] Fa is the messenger between the Supreme Creator and both the other Voodoos and the humans. As such, he is one of the most important Voodoos.

[2] There was a long discussion between the priest and Swami Veda Bharati on the question of animal sacrifice.  It was in this context, the Priest said, “There have been many changes in Voodoo in the past.  For example, human sacrifice is now abandoned.  Maybe one day we will receive the Divine command to cease animal sacrifice.”  Swami Veda Bharati pointed out that the belief that a vegetarian diet is more spiritual and purer seems to be an ancient one and well grounded here.  It is obvious in the fact that during periods of purification for initiations and special ceremonies, the fasting requires refraining from flesh eating.  This was further confirmed when the revenant fasted for 7 days in a solitary hut to purify themselves to receive the Swami.

[3] This instrument consists of two strings of four seeds that are thrown in the course of a ritual. They may fall in any of 256 combinations. Though laymen may be and are initiated into its use, a Fa priest like Baba Ayoka will attain great depth in reading the outcome.

[4] Actually, the rose petal beads are made in Spain  by Carmaelite nuns for the purpose of making rosaries. I have taken these to India and occasionally made into japa-malas for people’s mantra practice.