Australian Indigenous Religion: Perspectives from Theosophy

Bernard S. Parsons - Australia

Theosophy ABO 2 A Elderr

Aboriginal elder

Australian Aboriginal peoples have the world’s oldest continuous culture stretching back into the mists of time at least 40,000 years on the archaeological record, and, according to Theosophy, very much longer. Unlike the modern world with its many conflicting religions, the Australian Aboriginal peoples in traditional times did not have any ‘religion’ separate from everyday life. There were no ‘churches’ or ‘temples’ outside of sacred natural places. Their whole life was geared to their understanding of Nature as a living being and therefore every daily routine was ‘religious’ observance in this highest sense.

Theosophy ABO 3

Prof. A.P. Elkin, author of Aboriginal Men of High Degree, a wonderful book about Aboriginal traditional religion, put it well when he wrote of the Aboriginal people:

The bond between a person and his (or her) country is not merely geographical or fortuitous, but living, spiritual and sacred. His country…is the symbol of, and gateway to, the great unseen world of heroes, ancestors and life-giving powers which avail for man and nature.

However, if we speak in terms more familiar to modern Australian people who are used to separating ‘religion’ from ‘normal’ life, then when you listen traditional Aboriginal stories, you can hear evidence of highly sophisticated philosophical concepts indicating their intimate knowledge of the ancient wisdom, or what we would call Theosophy today. In Aboriginal tradition there are High and Low Gods, or what are called in some Western occult traditions, ‘Architects’ and ‘Builders’. There is repeated mention of the cyclical nature of life, even disguised references to what we would call reincarnation.

The question that occurs to us theosophical students is: How much do the Australian Aboriginal peoples teach of the spiritual Path that is so beautifully set out in the Bhagavad-Gita and the Middle Way (Eightfold Path) of the Buddha? If your thoughts whilst reading this have a theme or trend in a particular direction, I would suggest it is this. Most of the Aborigines were deprived of their ancient sacred trails and holy places when the last of their initiates died, and now many of them may feel that all is lost. The old Path is gone for ever. My suggestion is that the true Path remains one of many levels.

As the Aboriginal people believed and illustrated in their practical and ritual travels around various parts of Australia (called by them ‘walk-about’), there is a spiritual way, as well as the Path set out on mother earth. If you ask the question… “Were the Australian Aborigines aware of the spiritual significance of the Rainbow Serpent (the mythical creator being central to the traditions of many Aboriginal peoples) whose pathway they used to ceremoniously follow at the appointed times?”, I can only say that they taught that at death man dissolved into the constituent parts of his being both physical and spiritual. The life and atoms of his body became the life atoms of his totem animal; the life atoms of his soul go to his tribal totem, his spirit goes to its home. It meets the male and female aspects of a god and is tested. The male tries to make him laugh. If the spirit under test can maintain its equanimity it goes on home to father sun. If not, the spirit goes no further. This story, it seems to me, suggests that hints of deep understanding are there in the Aboriginal tradition.

Theosophy ABO 4 aboriginal art 503445 1280

Intriguing  Aboriginal art

There would be, I suggest, tremendous value for the Aboriginal peoples today to realize that their ancient tradition is a noble one of vast antiquity. It is akin to the major religions of the world. It has, as we theosophists do, a belief in a continuum of life and spirit. The universe is a wonderful infinite living organism – a brotherhood. It shares belief in the four elements with Buddhism and the Greeks. It has a very ethical tradition. At the time of initiation, the young man was instructed in his obligations by an old member of the tribe, man or woman. Dr. Donald Thompson listed these instructions:  1. Do not be greedy, 2. Share. 3. Do not steal. 4. Respect old people. 5. Respect strangers. 6. Respect women.  7. Do not stare at them. 8. Keep a clean mouth – Do not lie or swear. 9. Have courage. Indicating the extent to which these basic principles of ethics were accepted, intertribal warfare was almost unknown as it was considered a type of suicide. The Aborigines were formerly patronised for a long time for what was seen as their ‘primitive’ beliefs. I suggest that far from being ‘Primitive’ they are very often close to the truth as we understand it from our theosophical teachings.

An extract from, H.C Coombs, the famous Australian economist and advocate of the Aboriginal peoples, gives a good summary of the Aboriginal philosophy of life:

In his own world the Aboriginal did not see Man as one thing and Nature as another; he was of Nature. He saw the Earth itself, plants, animals and men, the clouds and the stars, indeed all natural phenomena, as a living system of social life. It was not just a scientific or philosophical system, but one with which, and by which, Man must live consciously and reverently.

Long before Terrance said, “nothing concerning Man can be alien to me”, the Aboriginal was asserting and living by the faith that nothing in all Nature can be alien to me.

It is true but inadequate to say of Aboriginal life that it was in harmony with Nature. The harmony came from Man being in thought, word, and deed of Nature itself. Over at least 40,000 years Aboriginal society was instinct with the understanding that its highest, most religious purpose was to help Nature be itself, to be unchanging, to replenish it. From this replenishment, Man himself was nurtured, and his kind perpetuated as successive generations inherited an environment as rich, as beautiful, and as spiritually alive as that of their ancestors. To this purpose were dedicated the great ceremonies in all their richness.

Their life, it is true by our material standards may seem to have been excessively simple and in some respects, poor, but it was not unduly arduous, and there was time for the less immediate but more fundamental purposes of human existence. There was also time for games, stories, song and dance, drama, and the great ceremonies, sacred and profane. Almost every day was one of journeying, sometimes only for hunting and food gathering, sometimes to visit a neighbouring group to share good things, sometimes to come together with other related groups to share the experience of ceremonial life. Indeed, it was in these shared experiences that much of the purpose, justification, and fulfilment of life itself were founded.

There was within the social groups a complex pattern of relationships which was both source of support and of mutual obligation. The outcome of the hunt and the food gathered were shared in accordance with firm tradition. No person was uncared for or unsupported when care or support was needed, and no-one was without obligations to others. This pattern of complex mutual relationships with a strong sense of personal, as well as social obligations, gave to their care for children and for the aged, a warmth by comparison with which the impersonal social service benefits of our society seem poor indeed.  


This article also appeared in the magazine Theosophy Downunder (TS-Pasadena)

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