Kolhapur, Maharastra, India
8 April 2004
"It Takes a Village"
(Meaning: Kali Yuga takes a village)
A Vedic Perspective on Things Fall Apart
Chinua Achebe is a British-educated writer from Nigeria. At 28 years of age he published his first novel, Things Fall Apart, in 1958. One of his aims was to rebut the Western justification of European colonialism in Africa that was promoted by British novelists like Joseph Conrad.
Achebe went on to publish twenty more novels, but his first stands out as the most important. Since it appeared forty-five years ago, millions of copies of Things Fall Apart were sold around the world; it is required reading in many schools that teach literature.
It would be wrong to assume that because Achebe reacted against the Eurocentric view of Africa championed by Conrad and others, Things Fall Apart is a sentimental, nationalistic defense of Africa as it is known by Africans. He is doubtlessly proud of his African heritage, is well-versed in the history of his people, and has strong sympathy for the pre-colonial culture of his country. But Things Fall Apart does not depict Africa before the coming of the white man as an idyllic heaven on earth. At the same time the novel makes clear that the Western assumption that Africa advanced under European political hegemony is a conceit.
When the Vedic perspective is brought to bear, Things Fall Apart stands as evidence that pre-modern civilization around the world was shaped by Vedic knowledge and culture. Achebe writes of the Ibo people (also called Igbo) of southeastern Nigeria. Traditionally the Ibo are agriculturists who grow yam, cassava, taro, melon, okra, beans, and so on. These crops are considered to be the blessings of the goddess of the earth. Wealthier farmers keep cows and protect them. Before the coming of the white man's urban civilization, the Ibo lived in groupings of villages that had a maximum population of a few thousand. Each household unit in a village occupied a compound of huts, different huts being used by the household for different purposes. For example, within a family compound, men- and womenfolk lived in separate quarters.
The dress of the Ibo was remarkably similar to clothing worn in India during Vedic times. For money, they traditionally used cowries (small seashells); as we see in Srimad-Bhagavatam 5.14.26, in India cowries were used as money during Vedic times. The traditional alcoholic beverage was palm-wine. In Bengali villages, the old-fashioned way to get drunk is by taking the fermented ras of the date-palm. The Ibo didn't know about ghee, but in its stead they used palm-oil in cooking and as the fuel for lamps. Their diet was predominantly vegetarian; flesh foods were prepared from chicken, goats and fish. Marriages were arranged. Parents could hope to marry their of-age daughter into a good family only if she was a virgin. Men could have as many wives as they could afford to maintain. Children were taught not to whistle at night, as that attracts ghosts. Children in India are cautioned the same way.
The Ibo lived according to a elaborate moral code that was dictated by a host of deities. The purpose of morality was to accentuate finer human qualities. For example, during the Week of Peace, which was sacred to the earth goddess, quarreling between people--even within the confines of the household--was completely forbidden. The Ibo understood from this that ideal human life is free of strife; their Week of Peace obliged them to practice this ideal. Transgressions of codes of behavior and taboos might be alleviated by the sacrifice of a chicken or a goat. If a transgression (achu) was severe, the transgressor could be banished. In today's climate of exaggerated individualism, we might ask, "What is so bad about banishment?" But in Vedic culture a person's identity was established by his participation in the social body--his dharma. For a person to be severed from his dharma was as good as death. In social dealings the Ibo were very careful to avoid offenses. Speech was never blunt nor to the point; it was elaborate, ritualized, politely indirect, and interwoven with stories and proverbs. "Proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten."
Sometimes different Ibo clans fought wars. If in a war the lives of a dozen men would be lost, that conflict would be remembered as exceptionally bloody. Wars were not declared on whim. If a causa belli manifested between two clans, they would first try to to settle it by peaceful means. The path of war was never taken only by the decision of the village council--more importantly, it had to be approved by the Oracle of the Hills and Caves. This Oracle was a sage or supernatural being of great power who lived deep within a cave. He could not be seen directly by the Ibo; he was represented by a priestess who would deliver the Oracle's instructions while she was in trance. If the Oracle disapproved the path of war, the clan dared not fight. For if they did, they would surely lose.
In the main the Ibo took care to avoid quarrel because it threatened to divide the social body; they strove to keep their collective life as peaceful and satisfying as possible. Achebe makes this clear through these words that he has a village elder speak:
"A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see the moon in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so. You may ask why I am saying all this. I say it because I fear for the younger generation, for you people." He waved his arm where most of the young men sat. "As for me, I have only a short while to live, and so have Uchendu and Unachukwu and Emefu. But I fear for you young people because you do not understand how strong is the bond of kinship. You do not know what it is to speak with one voice. And what is the result? An abominable reliion has settled among you. A man can now leave his father and his brothers. He can curse the gods of his fathers and his ancestors, like a hunter's dog that suddenly goes mad and turns on his master. I fear for you, I fear for the clan."
The abominable religion mentioned above is Christianity. We will look at that a little later. The Ibo believed in a high god called Chukwu, the supreme person. The gods ruling over the affairs of the village, to whom the Ibo made sacrifices, were the assistants of Chukwu. The theology of God and demigods is expressed in Things Fall Apart by a wise man named Akunna.
"We make sacrifices to the little gods, but when they fail and there is no one else to turn to we go to Chukwu. It is right to do so. We approach a great man through his servants. But when his servants fail to help us, then we go to the last source of hope. We appear to pay greater attention to the little gods but that is not so. We worry them more because we are afraid to worry their Master. Our fathers knew that Chukwu was the Overlord and that is why many of them gave their children the name Chukwuka--'Chukwu is Supreme.'"
Though they depended upon the intercession of God and His servants, the Ibo acknowledged individual free will as a factor necessary for achieving goals. Agbala, priestess of the Oracle, speaks thus:
...when a man is a peace with his gods and his ancestors, his harvest will be good or bad according to the strength of his arm.
The elders of the Ibo understood that life is ultimately suffering. A graybeard named Uchendu says to the young folk of his village:
"You think you are the greatest sufferer in the world. Do you know that men are sometimes banished for life? Do you know that men sometimes lose all their yams and even their children? I had six wives once. I have none now except that young girl who knows not her right from her left. Do you know how many children I have buried--children I begot in my youth and strength? Twenty-two. I did not hang myself, and I am still alive. If yuo think you are the greatest sufferer in the world ask my daughter, Akueni, how many twins she has borne and thrown away. [The Ibo abandoned newborn twins in the forest to die, as they were considered inauspicious.] Have you not heard the song they sing when a woman dies?
"'For whom is it well, for whom is it well? There is no one for whom it is well.'
"I have nothing more to say to you."
Reincarnation was acknowledge by the Ibo. For example, they feared the ogbanje, a soul whose karmic mission is to take birth again and again to the same woman just to die in infancy, bringing that mother repeated grief. We see clearly see belief in reincarnation in this speech by one of the egwugwu, a group of select persons who ritualistically masquerade as ancestral spirits and are thus possessed by those spirits. This spirit, "One-Handed," spoke thus at the funeral of Ezeudu.
"Ezuedu!" he called in his gutteral voice. "If you had been poor in your last life I would have asked you to be rich when you come again. But you were rich. If you had been a coward, I would have aksed you to bring courage. But you were a fearless warrior. If you had died young, I would have asked you to get life. But you lived long. So I shall ask you to come again the way you came before."
When addressing ordinary human beings, the egwugwu spoke in this manner: "Uzowulu's body, I salute you"; or "The body of the white man, I salute you." This suggests that the Ibo understood that the physical body of a person to whom one speaks is not the actual person. In their dealings with one another human beings tend to forget the distinction between body and soul, but the egwugwu, who live on a higher plane of awareness, remind them that they are not their bodies.
As I mentioned earlier, Achebe, while keeping up a strong sympathy for Ibo cultural tradition in his narrative, does not gloss over its failings. While it has much in common with Vedic culture, Ibo tradition as described by Achebe is quite steeped in the quality of tamo-guna. It offered no higher level of spirituality than karma-kanda-type ritualism, demigod and ghost worship, blood sacrifices, taboos, and clannish superstitions that sometimes resulted in appallingly cruelty.
As an example of the last, Achebe relates a method by which war between two clans was averted. While visiting the village market of another clan, a woman from the village of Umuofia was murdered. The case was settled when the two clans agreed that the young son of one of the men who had a hand in the killing would become the property of Umuofia village. This boy, Ikemefuna, was entrusted to Okonkwo, the main character of Things Fall Apart. He grew to adolesence in Okonkwo's household compound and, almost forgetting his own family over the years, came to call the man "my father." Ikemefuna was inseparable from Okonkwo's eldest son, Nwoye, a naturally softhearted boy. Okonkwo was also very attached to Ikemefuna, though it was not his nature to outwardly show affection because he considered that womanly...and he was a strong man. One day Okonkwo was told by the ndichie, the village elders, that it was time for Ikemefuna to be killed in sacrificial retribution for the murder of the daughter of the village. The Oracle of the Caves and the Hills had pronounced it. They asked Okonkwo to lead the boy out among a group of men who had volunteered to do the killing. But Okonkwo was not to take part in the killing because the boy thought of him as his father. And he was not to let the boy know why he was bringing him out among those men who would put him to death. Okonkwo told Ikemefuna the elders decided it was time for the lad to go back to his home village; he and some other men would escort him. In the forest one of the men suddenly struck Ikemufuna down with a machete. The boy fell but was not dead. He cried out to Okonkwo, "Father, they are killing me!" Okonkwo drew his machete and put the boy out of his misery. He had been advised to simply stand by, but at this moment of crisis he felt he had to show the other men that he was not weakened by sentiment and could obey the Oracle without flinching.
Okonkwo's son Nwoye was softhearted but not foolish. He discerned the fate of his dear friend Ikemefuna, and he knew his father had taken part in it. That day something broke inside Nwoye. Years later, when a white Christian missionary began making converts among the Ibo, Nwoye embraced the "abominable religion" wholeheartedly.
The abuse of women and children, the abandonment of newborn twins to their death in the wild, the labeling of some people as osu (untouchable) simply because it was willed by a god--these are some of the anomalies of Ibo culture that Achebe links to the success of Christianity among the Ibo people. There were two other factors. One was that Christianity had the colonial government behind it. The other was that with the arrival in the land of the Ibo of the government and Christianity, money came too.
Achebe's look at the clash of two cultures, Western and African, is fascinating. For me to go into that here would mean I would have to summarize in this essay about a third of Things Fall Apart, and that's going too far. If you're interested, you should read the book. Why should you be interested? Well, if you are a member or friend of ISKCON, Things Fall Apart offers a helpful guide to how deceptive, hypocritical Judaeo-Christian values can undermine a culture not very dissimilar from Vedic culture. Not very dissimilar, but surely not completely Vedic either. Vedic means "in knowledge," and it is clear from Achebe's book that the Ibo's main adversary was less Christianity and more their own ignorance.
I do think that there are "Christian missionaries" inside of ISKCON. I'm being facetious, of course, calling them such. They are not Christians, but they are missionaries who do seem to care a great deal about what Christians think about ISKCON. They do seem to desire strongly that ISKCON become "a recognized religion" acceptable to the Christians. And so they promote some of the same values that Achebe shows were instrumental in the destruction of Ibo culture. To the West, Achebe puts the question: what lasting good did your values bring to Africa? His own answer is that African culture, the good and the bad, simply fell apart under the leprous touch of Western "civilization." I hope that the near future will not find a writer surveying the ruins of the institution Srila Prabhupada started in 1966 and then asking ISKCON's own "Christian missionaries" the same question.
But it isn't my intention to point fingers. There's no use of that. Truly Krsna-conscious values can never be threatened by Judaeo-Christian values. Blind justice, self-empowerment, individualism, equality, enforced social welfare for the "deprived classes", suspicion of all that lies outside the Euro-American comfort zone (as being Satanic!)--we do hear echoes of these values being trumpeted today from some corners of the current ISKCON leadership. But these prized heirlooms of Judaeo-Christianity are deceptive and hypocritical. Just look at how these values are practiced by the Christians themselves. Such ideals represent the hopes for a promised heaven on earth that is cherished by people who are obedient to their senses and minds (when the two Latin words for "sense" and "mind" are combined, we get the basis of the English word sentimental). Judaeo-Christian sentiments cannot influence devotees fixed in the sattvic culture of Krsna consciousness. But if devotees are careless and permit the tamo-guna to wax in their midst with all its attendent anomalies--and to be sure, we have seen in ISKCON's history horrific cases of child abuse, wife abuse, abuse of power, caste-ism and so on--then things may fall apart for us too.
I titled this essay "It Takes a Village." What I mean by that is that Things Fall Apart shows us how Quarrel (the personality of Kali) took over the proud village of Umuofia, the home town of Okonkwo, the main character. But a reader of my essay who is a little aware of current karmi culture may detect in its title a reference to a book by Hillary Clinton (wife of the former U.S. president, herself now senator of New York State).
Her book is It Takes a Village to Raise a Child. So who cares about Hillary Clinton? At least one of my Godsisters does. She, an outspoken advocate of better treatment for women and children in ISKCON, liked to employ Hillary's title in her own rhetoric. I was in the room when she asked one of the GBC men for Africa where in Africa the proverb "It takes a village to raise a child" comes from.
See, that's what Hillary Clinton claims, that the title of her book is an African proverb. Very ironic that a Western politician would use a reference from African culture to underscore her program of liberalism (which just means politics that are derived from Judaeo-Christian values, those same values by which European colonialists justified saving Africa from the Africans--and thus destroying African culture in the process).
But wait: is "It takes a village to raise a child" really an African proverb?
Alexander Chancellor, writing in New Statesman of 27 March 1997, observes:
The title of this No 1 American bestseller is taken from what is alleged to be an old African proverb: "It takes a village to raise a child." The First Lady doesn't say what country or region of Africa this saying comes from, but that doesn't matter. Being old and African and a proverb, it suggests the kind of timeless native folk wisdom that most Americans find touching and profound.
But we are in the age of the information superhighway, so it needs bringing up to date. In her introductory chapter, Hillary Clinton explains: "In earlier times and places - and until recently in our own culture - the 'village' meant an actual geographical place where individuals and families lived and worked together."
But isn't that still what it means? Oh, what a silly, old-fashioned idea!
"The horizons of the contemporary village extend well beyond the town line," says Clinton. "From the moment we are born, we are exposed to vast numbers of other people and influences through radio, television, newspapers, books, movies, computers, compact discs, cellular phones, and fax machines. Technology connects us to the impersonal global village it has created."
From the moment we are born, we are not in fact exposed to cellular phones and fax machines, but that is by the way. In the next paragraph she redefines the village yet again: "The village can no longer be defined as a place on a map, or a list of people or organisations, but in essence remains the same: it is the network of values and relationships that support and affect our lives."
Ms Clinton's book, then, really has no intention of advocating an African model of child-raising. She be talking about The Global Electronic Village, and she be talking about The Village of the Modern Mind's Eye. But she sho' 'nuff ain't be talking about no Africa! Still, for an American feminist politician to use an African proverb as the title of her book is certainly a cool career move. How alternative and multicultural. Good for sales! Good for votes! And--like wowwww and far ouu-uuut--it even gets some o' dem ISKCON sistahs up on dat powah to de peeple bandwagon, punchin' they righteous fists inna air. You go, girl--rat own! ISKCON sistahs ain't feggitin' dem fired-up days o' de 1960s! Ho-Ho-Ho-Chi-Minh! Hare-Hare-Hare-Krish-in-na!
But again: is "It takes a village..." really an African proverb?
According to www.h-net.msu.edu/~africa/threads/village.html, no, it isn't. Not exactly. The following African proverbs, which appear to come closest to saying "It takes a village...", I've gotten from that website.
In Lunyoro (Banyoro) there is a proverb that says "Omwana takulila nju emoi," whose literal translation is "A child does not grow up only in a single home."
In Kihaya (Bahaya) there is a saying, "Omwana taba womoi," which translates as "A child belongs not to one parent or home."
In Kijita (Wajita) there is a proverb which says "Omwana ni wa bhone," meaning regardless of a child's biological parent(s) its upbringing belongs to the community.
In Kiswahili the proverb "Asiyefunzwa na mamae hufunzwa na ulimwengu" approximates to the same.
All right. Let's be open-minded and admit "It takes a village to raise a child" at least sounds like these African proverbs. Let's go ahead and accept it as a loose rendition of African folk wisdom. Fine. Just don't get carried away by sentimentalism. Chinua Achebe, himself an African, isn't a sentimentalist. His book, Things Fall Apart, show us that besides raising a child, it took a village to murder one, too. And it took a village to spur another one to run away from his father into the arms of Christian missionaries.
I added this postscript 27 April:
After reading "It Takes a Village" again today, I thought I should point out that I wrote this for devotees who have the tendency to latch on to catch-phrases like "It takes a village to raise a child" without really knowing much about where such phrases come from. From somewhere we hear it comes from Africa. We think, "That's cool, because Africa is a non-Western land and thus more 'natural.' The ISKCON mission does emphasize a 'back to nature' solution to many modern problems. So this nice African proverb falls in our playing field. People like it; Hillary Clinton got a lot of milage from it; it sounds neat; so why not use it in our preaching?" So my point to devotees who tend to think along such lines is: check your sources. In this case, "It takes a village..." isn't really an African proverb. It is similar in meaning to some African sayings, but in this rendering it seems to be a creation of Ms. Clinton...and she's not proposing a "back to nature" solution at all! Moreover, if we examine Mr. Achebe's depiction of child-raising in an African village, we'll realize that merely going back to (material) nature is no solution at all!