AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINAL RELIGION: perspectives from Theosophy by  Bernard Parsons

I propose to read a poem and a story by way of introduction to this talk.I am told the Aborigines used words having different levels of meaning. There was the ordinary everyday level then at a certain initiation the same word was given a further meaning, and at a further initiation a third meaning was added.The poem needs atmosphere, rhythm sticks, a didgeridoo grunting and groaning and a tropical night with the tribe assembled.

 Song of the Wonguri-Mandjigai People.

-Up and up soars the Evening Star hanging there in the sky.-Men watch it, at the Place of the Dugong, the Place of the Clouds, the Place of the Evening Star,-Far off, at the place of the Mist, the Place of Lilies, the Place of the Dugong-The Lotus, Evening Star, hangs there on its long stalk held by the spirits.-It shines on that Place of the Shade, on the Dugong Place, and the Moonlight Claypan.-The Evening Star shines back toward Milingimbi, over the Wulamba people…-Hanging there in the distance toward the Place of the Dugong.-The Place of the Eggs, of the Tree-Limbs-Rubbing-TogetherPlace of the Clay-pan…-Shining there on its short stalk, the Evening Star; Always at the clay pan, the Place of the Dugong-There far off, the long string hangs at the Place of the Evening Star the Place of Lilies.-Sway there at Milingimbi…at the Place of the Full Moon, Hanging above of that Wonguri headman:-The evening Star goes down across the camp, among the white gum trees…-Far away in those places near Milingimbi…-Goes down among the Nguruwulu people, toward the camp and the gum trees,-At the Place of the Crocodiles, Place of the Evening Star,away toward Milingimbi…-Evening Star going down, lotus flower on its stalk…-Going down among all the Western clans…-It brushes the heads of the uncircumcised people…-Sinking down in the sky, the Evening Star, the lotus…-Shining onto the foreheads of all those headmen…-On to the heads of all those Sandfly People…

-It sinks into the place of the white gum trees at Milingimbi.

The story I have to tell is not one of the secret initiatory type but one told around the campfire. Like the poem it comes from a northern tribe.

The Beginning of the World. 

This story comes from the Aboriginal people of Northern Australia. They believe that in the beginning all was darkness. The earth was featureless. No hills or valleys broke its flat surface. No birdsongs were head on its trackless surface. It was a silent world.The time came when Kara, ancient and blind, clasping three young children to her breast rose out of the ground and started to grope her way from place to place in the dark. As she did this, a sea of water bubbled up in the tracks she left behind her. After some days of wandering over the earth she last of all made a channel that separated the island of the Tiwi people (

Melville Island) from the Australian mainland. After that blind Kara decreed that the island of Tiwi should be tree-covered, with animals and tiny spirit children so that her own family, whom she was leaving on the island, would have sufficient food and children to populate the land. No-one knows whence she came or where she went to continue her creative tasks.The three children of Kara were two girls, Wuriu and Murapa, and their brother Purupu. They soon grew up and Purupu found the spirit children and brought them to his sisters, so that could become mothers.Years went by, many other children were born and grew up to be men and women.In those early days there was neither light nor heat, the Tiwi people had to feel round in the darkness for food and when they found it they ate it raw.One day there was a great storm with thunder and lightning. Two men were feeling their way through the forest when they saw a light where the lightning had struck a log. This sight puzzled them so the men watched it closely for a long time.To see what would happen they covered it with dry strips of bark and leaves. They were astonished to see the glowing embers burst into flame. This spectacle frightened the two so much that they ran to Purupu and asked him to destroy this evil monster they had found. However Purupu, when he saw the blazing wood and felt the heat of it understood that his friends had discovered something that would give people something to lighten the darkness and give warmth against the cold and means to cook their food.So that the people of the Tiwi should never again be without fire, Purupu gave both his sister Wuriu, and his friend Japara, a torch of blazing bark. Japara’s torch was much smaller than Wuriu’s.When the torches were passed to them he also gave them a most solemn command that the two torches must always be kept alight.Life was very much more pleasant with the coming of fire. The people of the Tiwi grew in numbers and spread, further out from their first camp until they were everywhere on the island.At about the same time Purupu married a young woman called Bima, and it was not long before he brought to her a spirit child which later was born an earth baby.Purupu was immensely proud of his infant son Jinimi, and spent many hours talking to him and playing with him. Every morning Bima took Jinimi into the jungle whilst she collected food. When evening came she brought him back to camp to the joy of his father.Japara, carrying the smaller torch would often follow his friend’s wife Bima. They would leave the baby Jinimi, in a tree shaded place and sneak off into the jungle together. One day when the sun blazed hot in the sky they stayed in the jungle too long, and when they returned the shade had moved and Jinimi was dead.When Bima took her dead baby back Purupu was very angry. He beat Bima about the head with his wooden club and after he had chased her into the jungle, savagely attacked Japara her lover. The two men fought fiercely for hours, until both were severely wounded and collapsed with exhaustion.Purupu, after he had rested a little, picked up baby Jinimi’s dead body and still firing curses at his faithless wife and his friend, her lover, walked backward into the sea and drowned himself. Today in that place there is a whirlpool of such strength that any Aborigine who tried to cross it in his canoe would certainly drown.The death of Purupu and his son brought the creation period to an end. It was also the signal for the people to gather for the elaborate burial rites which are still performed by the Tiwi. At the end of the ceremonies all the descendents of the old woman Kara, when they returned to their camps transformed themselves into one or another of the creatures, plants or heavenly bodies.Japara with his torch rose in the sky and became the face scarred moon man. Bima the sad unfaithful wife became a curlew and still roams the forest at night wailing with sorrow for the loss of her baby and the trouble she brought on the world. Wiriu with her large torch changed into the sunwoman. Every day she travels across the heavens giving light and warmth.The first light of dawn brings the soft tuneful call of Tukimbini to wake the sleepers and taking their spears or dishes hunt game or gather food for all to eat.During the hottest hours of the day the fire by which Wiriu the sun-woman cooked the food she had gathered during the morning becomes to hot that all Aborigines to into the cool jungle to rest until it is cool enough to hunt again. Soon after Japara the moon-man rises in the east to lighten the darkness of night.

Early nest morning Tukimbini’s sweet notes again waken the people to their daily tasks and so the cycle goes on again. 

From listening even to these very typical selections from the Aboriginal culture you can see evidence of a considerable sophistication of concepts.There are the high gods – Kara, and low – Purupu, architect and builder.There is a hint of this story of the cyclical nature of life as the Aborigines saw it. You noticed the whirl-pool?Reincarnation is an Aborigine belief that conveys this characteristic.From this story of the beginning of the world you are probably wondering how much the Aborigines have of the ancient teachings. How much do they teach of the Path that is so beautifully set out in the 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 deprived of their ancient sacred trails and holy places when the last of their initiates died, feel that all is lost. The old path is gone for ever. My suggestion is, the true path is one of many levels. There is a spiritual way as well as the path set out on mother earth. If you ask the question “were the Aborigines aware of the spiritual significance of the rainbow serpent whose pathway they used to ceremoniously follow at the appointed times?”, I can only tell another story.They taught that at death man dissolved into his parts. 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.There would be, I suggest, tremendous value for the Aborigines in the realisation that their ancient tradition is a fine one.It is akin to the major religions of the world.It has, as we do, a belief in a continuum of life and spirit. That the universe is a wonderful infinite organisation of living being – 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, share.2.      Do not steal.3.      Respect old people.4.      Respect strangers.5.      Respect women. Do not stare at them.6.      Keep a clean mouth – Do not lie or swear.7.      Have courage.Inter tribal warfare was almost unknown as was considered a type of suicide.The Aborigines have been laughed at and patronised for their quaint beliefs. I

suggest that far from being quaint they are very often close to the truth.

The Inquest and the Four Elements.     


To find who is “responsible” for the death of someone the Aborigines go through a strange process. Even though the cause of death may seem to be obvious. For instance if someone felling a tree accidentally cause it to fall on and kill another man, the tree felling act was the instrument of death and not necessarily its cause.At a meeting of the tribe for the purpose four objects are put out in the centre of the tribal gathering – a piece of charcoal, representing fire; a feather, air; a stone, earth; and a shall, water.Everybody watches for a sign. Something always seems to happen. A puff of wind might move the feather or a beetle cause the stone or shell to move. The sharp eyes of the old women and men see the sign and declare that someone from the portion of the tribe indicated by that sign is guilty.Further tests will determine who is the person who thought a death wish and so caused the death.

Having pronounced the name of the guilty one, no more action is usually taken. While the method of divination is strange to us, we theosophists do recognise the power of our thoughts to harm or bless someone and this feature is the outstanding feature of the practice.

An extract by H.C. Coombs, discussing the future of the Australian Aboriginal people gives a good summary of Aboriginal philosophy.

            “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 30,000 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”. He goes on to mention the hunting skills, “and also that there was 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 is the text of a lecture given by the author at a public meeting of the Theosophical Society (Pasadena) in Melbourne, Australia. The ideas expressed in all our public meetings are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the TS (Pasadena).