February 2003 A Conscious Evolution Newsletter
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Volume 2, Number 2

Opinions presented in Metamorphosis are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of others associated with the newsletter.

A Land that Dreamt of Life

by Sucheta Shetty

As a child turning the pages of my Alphabet picture book, I remember seeing the picture of a strange animal called “K for Kangaroo.” I'd seen many of the other animals in that book for real, like “D for Dog” and “C for Cat” and even “E for Elephant.” But never “K for Kangaroo.” I was told that this particular creature was found only on a far-away continent called Australia. I thought that Australia must be a really special place to have the sole right to house “K for Kangaroos.”

As I grew older, I learnt more fascinating things in Geography class. Like the fact that they have summer down there when it’s winter here and vice versa, and that water spiraled down the sink in the opposite direction than water up here in the Northern Hemisphere. Plus there were more strange creatures there that you couldn’t find anywhere else in the world. I wondered what kind of people lived in this topsy-turvy world. Were they like us or did they hang upside down? Did any humans live there at all? If so, what were they like and how did they get to this magical place?

Then one day I saw a programme on television about the natives of Australia. The Aborigines looked as out-of-this-world as the land they inhabited. They looked like golden-haired Africans to my fascinated eyes. That day I developed a curiosity to know more about these people. Who are they and how did they come to be what they are? What do they believe? What do they hold dear? What is their story?

The ever-helpful Internet, including the website of the Australian Museum, answered some of my questions, and here is some of what I learnt:

Who are they and how did they get there?

Since there was no primate stock in Australia, human beings must have migrated there. Nobody knows for sure when human beings first landed on Australia. Some researchers think the Aborigines first stepped on Australian soil some 40,000 years ago, while other data suggests people lived there as long as 60,000 years ago. In any case, they appear to be the first human beings who dared to move out of sight of land in their quest for a new home.

Toward the end of the ice age, the oceans were shallower than they are today, and hence, Australia extended farther than it currently does and was joined to Tasmania and New Guinea. The distance between Australia and the Asian landmass was as small as 80 miles. This is why some conclude that it may have been possible for people to spot the Australian brush fires from Borneo. Guessing that there must be land in that direction, they probably sailed to Australia. Eventually, the population spread along the coastline to South Australia and from there on to Tasmania.

With the passage of time, a steady flow of migrants spread throughout Australia and diversified into culturally varied groups. During the late 18th century, there were 500-600 distinct groups of Aborigines speaking about 200 different languages or dialects (at least 50 of which are now extinct). Despite their cultural diversity, these groups were not political and economic entities and lacked class hierarchies and chiefs. They were mainly hunter-gatherers who indulged in extensive inter-group trade throughout the continent. Despite this diversity, there remain some common elements, like the Dreaming.

What do they believe?

The basis of Aboriginal spirituality is the Dreaming, which refers primarily to the Aboriginal creation story but also carries through into subsequent stories and beliefs about the living sacredness of all of nature, including humans. The Aborigines believe that at the beginning of time, there was only a shapeless mass of nothing. This mass of nothing was transformed into the world that exists today by mythic beings known as the Ancestors. The Ancestors took a variety of shapes and forms as they went around the world forming the landscape and creating life. The Rainbow Serpent, for instance, pushed the land into mountains and created rivers as it writhed. Every important landscape in Australia has a Dreamtime story associated with it, explaining its formation. The Ancestors represent various themes like the sky or water and even some constellations. The Aborigines believe that they are constantly living the Dreaming.

Like the beliefs of other ancient cultures, these Dreamtime stories help the people make sense of the world around them, and the space beyond them. “The Story of the Seven Sisters and the Faithful Lovers” is an interesting legend about the Pleiades star cluster, and the Aborigines also have their own version of a Great Flood, summarized as “A Legend of the Great Flood” in a collection of Aboriginal stories published in 1923. You can find these stories here.

There are also stories that served as a means of passing on much-needed skills for survival in the harsh environment of Australia. One of those is the story “Bees and Honey” at this link.

These stories are sacred to the Aborigines. They have been passed down the generations through the oral tradition to teach young Aborigines about their culture and heritage and to impress upon them the importance of their relationship with their land. These stories are the invisible strings that have tied the hearts of the Aborigines to the land that their ancestors walked upon. These strings still pull on the people’s hearts when they move away from the old way of life and become part of “modern society,” and the stories have been responsible for bringing many of them back to the ways of their forebears, urging them to keep in touch with their roots. You can read more of these stories here.

Aboriginal religious and ceremonial life has inspired a wide array of art forms, like body painting, personal ornamentation, ground sculpture, rock painting and engraving, bark painting and wood carving. Many of these art forms, especially paintings, are expressions of the artist’s dreaming. The Aboriginal art forms, stories, and elaborate dance and song rituals are looked upon as a manifestation of the original creative power of the Ancestors. Each generation has the responsibility to pass this body of knowledge and beliefs on to future generations.

Senior members of the community are influential decision-makers in this regard. Each sex has specific religious functions and knowledge that is restricted only to that particular gender. Each individual has a set of rights and responsibilities towards others in the society. Yet, despite this social control, a lot of emphasis is placed on individual autonomy.

What do they hold dear?

Robert Bropho, an Aboriginal leader who serves as custodian of the values of the Swan Valley Nyoongar Community, discussed the empathy with nature that is central to Aboriginal beliefs in an interview published online. “The Land ... we look at the Land ... we say, ‘That Land’s human.’ And we feel for it,” he said. “When we see a hill being cut away we feel sorry for it. And when we see an old tree going to be chopped down we say, ‘No, no ... that’s our Old Man or that’s our Old Woman ... we must leave ’em alone.’ ” Read the interview here.

For the Aborigines, everything around them is alive. Nature is sacred and an important part of their beliefs. The mountains and rivers and trees and rocks are manifestations of the Ancestors. They feel a kinship with all of nature and hence respect it. For centuries their lives revolved around nature.

The Aborigines believe that the human personality is a combination of the mortal and the spiritual, thus existing in both the physical and the spiritual realms at once. They do not have the concept of a soul. They believe that when a person dies, his mortal half disintegrates while the spiritual half returns to the land - where it came from. Here it creates a child spirit that may be received by a woman. This is their idea of conception.

Each Aboriginal clan has a totem - a plant, animal or other natural object that the group relies upon for strength or help. They refrain from harming or eating this particular plant, animal or natural object.

The Aborigines knew how to maintain nature’s balance. If the population of a group in a certain area increased beyond the capacity of the land to support the people, the group would divide and move on to another suitable piece of land.

This coexistence with nature was seriously disturbed by the arrival of the Europeans. The land that was so dear to the natives was snatched away. They were discriminated against and considered worse than animals. Their natural way of life disrupted, they tried to adapt to the lifestyles of the colonialists, which resulted in widespread poverty, disease and malnourishment due to an unsuitable diet. Many groups died out. Others survived by holding onto their roots while doing menial labour for the foreigners. They had very limited rights and were not treated like other citizens. Their beliefs were ridiculed and their way of life looked down upon.

It was only in recent decades that the Australian government took steps to make up for the years of injustice faced by the Aborigines. They finally won the right to vote. Legislation was passed to return land to them. Grants were given to organizations run by Aboriginal groups that provide them legal and medical assistance.

Yet, many natives of Australia, like the spiritual leader Bropho, continue to feel saddened by the exploitation of their dear land by the “white man.”

“If the Land itself could talk it would say, ‘Don't hurt me.’ If the trees, the running water and all the Sacredness (could talk), they would be all saying the same thing,” Bropho said. “Leave nature as it is. And if you’re going to start moving along and progressing and trying to trample on Sacredness here and there ... we say now that the waters was once clear and clean and cold and it run freely, we say now the water is mucky ... and it’s groaning and moaning to run freely because it’s been polluted ... crying because their mothers and fathers have been cut down, that means the old trees. The roots in the ground are saying, ‘Please don’t cut us.’

“The Land itself, where the hills are ... the beautifying scenery is saying, ‘Please don’t mine here.’ If you’re going to mine, mine properly. If you’re going to progress, progress properly but don’t become over-greedy. Don’t just destroy everything. Just take enough in a balanced way, as we move forth from today onwards into the future, which we say, the Aboriginal people, moving in the hopes of tomorrow. The Sacredness, it can never be divided from us because if you take the Sacredness from us it’s like taking the blood from us and if there’s no blood your heart will stop, the whole of your body will stop functioning.” More here.

That philosophy, coming from a people who were once thought primitive and uncivilized, provides a timely message, not just for the “white man” in Australia but also for all human beings everywhere. In my humble opinion, the Aborigines (or Kooris, as some of them prefer to be called) deserve more admiration for their relationship with nature than do all of the advanced civilizations that forgot to be civil to the web of life, of which they are a part.