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Soyinka: Truth, deities and religion

By AbduRafiu
25 November 2022   |   3:40 am
A former colleague and professor drew my attention to a statement Professor Wole Soyinka made on Sunday, answering questions on the occasion of the public presentation of what PMNews called “his two-volume collection of essays...

A former colleague and professor drew my attention to a statement Professor Wole Soyinka made on Sunday, answering questions on the occasion of the public presentation of what PMNews called “his two-volume collection of essays, Of Power and Freedom and the forthcoming release of a collection of poems.” What a great interactive session it must have been, indeed fulfilling moments for a great many who gathered at his feet. According to the newspaper, the event was tagged “A Special Soyinka Retrospective” and was held at Alliance Françoise, Mike Adenuga Centre in Ikoyi. Because of the accustomed weight of Soyinka’s pronouncement on any subject, the colleague could not help calling my attention to the event. During Question and Answer session, Soyinka was asked: “You say in one of the essays in Of Power and Freedom that you are not a Christian, you are not a Muslim and you are not an Orisa worshipper. And that you use the gods of these religions merely as mythological constructs. But what exactly is your religion?”

Soyinka’s response was that he is a freethinker. He is neither a Christian, Muslim nor an Orisa worshipper and he has never felt he needed any religion. He does not worship any deity but that he considers deities “creatively real and are his companions in his journey in both the real and imaginative worlds.” The newspaper reports him as only stopping short of saying deities are mythological beings people create around themselves and project. He had said: “Do I really need one (religion)? I have never felt I needed one. I am a mythologist. I believe that people have a right and cannot help creating mythologies around themselves, around their experience about what they project from the inner recesses of their minds as answers to questions. And so I find nothing wrong with utilising mythologies as part and parcel of my creative warehouse. But religion? No, I do not worship any deity. But I consider deities creatively real and therefore my companions in my journey in both the real world and the imaginative world.”

Many consider the Nobel Laureate’s pronouncement a bombshell and predictably there have been reactions in the social media. Ordinarily, when news gets out that Soyinka has a speaking engagement anywhere, people are eager and long to be there to listen to him. Millions in Nigeria and around the world wait breathlessly to read what he may have said. Soyinka has earned the attention and paid his due. He is trusted to speak truth to power; never does he fight shy of demonstrating the courage of his convictions with absolute disregard to personal consequences. Can we ever forget his stance on the Biafra war? He was horrified by killings in the North in 1966. He was released from the jailhouse only three months to the end of the 30-month war, not even when his sight was failing him in the solitary cell. He was there for 27 months. His “twin brother” in the struggle was Dr. Tai Solarin, going in and out of police cell. The national sing-song during the months the hostilities lasted was “To keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done.” When he stepped out of the prison, Soyinka’s response to the sing-song was, “To keep Nigeria one, justice must be done.” He was unbowed—a hardly matchless humanist. From his iconic struggle with the government of Western Region till date, he is unrelenting in the quest for humanness. His stance on justice is unwavering. An inspirational leader in every respect and as the world was later to discover, standing up to tyranny and speaking truth to power runs in the family blood: Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and Beko Ransome-Kuti were his first cousins. Because, he is unrelenting on what he is convinced to be true and proper, noble and just it is all ears by hundreds of thousands if not millions every time to what Soyinka has to say. For an editor, he is a great copy.

So is it, therefore, that my colleague felt he must bring Soyinka’s statement at the Ikoyi event to my attention. A note added to what he sent to me as ‘forwarded’ reads: “Well I can relate with the position of Wole Soyinka in the sense that there is no greater religion than Truth! Truth can never bow to the limited understanding and comprehension of man must expand to grasp it. Each is the maker of his own future, the fashioner of his own being. The goal of life is upstream, not downstream. Man must struggle against the current, not drift with the flow. All religious pathways and undertakings are a means to an end except in Nigeria where religion is practised as the end in itself. Religion is just a toga of identity, position hunting and acquiring privileges. He who worships with empty rituals wastes his time and displays the shallowness of his thought.”

The note continues with what is captioned ‘INSPIRATIONAL, quoting Wilfred Peterson: “Walk with the dreamers, the believers, the courageous, the cheerful, the planners, the doers, the successful people with their heads in the clouds and their feet on the ground. Let their spirit ignite a fire within you to leave this world better than when you found it…”

The conclusion in the position of my colleague is that Soyinka is on firm ground with his conviction. This may largely be true, but I still have to interrogate the conviction with a view to preventing errors being passed to millions who are ready at all times to swear by Soyinka’s name and who would say once the words and concepts come from Soyinka, then they must be unassailably true! The thought that came to me is to have proper understanding of what Soyinka was saying. What, for example, is mythologist? Does man need religion or the concept that underpins it and to what end? What is worship? What is Truth? What are prayers? Will it be possible for one who is neither a Christian nor a Muslim to get to Heaven? Each of these is a subject for discussion on its own.

Chambers 21st Century Dictionary provides four definitions of myth as 1: an ancient story that deals with gods and heroes, especially one used to explain some natural phenomenon. The most germane of the four definitions are: a commonly-held, false notion and a non-existent, fictitious person or thing. Mythology is a collection of myths. For the purpose of this discourse, I do hope I am right, a mythologist is one who regards the deities as non-existent; they are not more than what arose from the inner recess of man which he projects from experiences. I pray I am correct in my train of thought. The dictionary defines deity as “a god or goddess; the state of being divine and then the Deity that, with the definite article ‘the,’ it says is God.

Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God has a narration on deities. Three years ago, I did write as follows: “Every now and then there is talk about foreign religions. The two religions to which our minds race at the mention of foreign religions are Christianity and the Islamic faith. We read and hear of years of resistance and wars in different lands and in different communities, in centuries past. The natives everywhere see the advent of the religions as an intrusion into their own ways of life; it was an attempt at supplanting their own religions and ways of worship for those of the Whiteman. The people of old not exposed to Western education resisted them. The modern man, well educated, has reservations. Those who embraced the new religions could not understand why their towns’ men could not see what they were seeing. They became overzealous and believed force was the answer. Come with me to Umuaro in Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God. The elders met, disturbed that the Yam festival was going to be postponed, a period each person was to give one yam to their deity, Ulu. The influence of Christianity would also get them to abandon the worship of Python. John Jaja Goodcountry, Catechist of St. Marks’s C.M.S. Church Umuaro would countenance no such thing as worship of what were regarded as sacred animals. His uncompromising position was opposed by the most important Christian in Umuaro, Moses Unachukwu who feared the possibility of incidents of martyrdom in the area. It already happened in Delta Pastorate which claimed the life of Joshua Hart. There was a petition to the Bishop of the Niger. There were skirmishes following which the Lieutenant Governor wrote a strong letter to the bishop, a White priest, to call his overzealous boys to order. The Bishop himself in turn wrote a firm letter to Goodcountry, the Catechist and assured the community that the Catechist would not interfere with the Python, but prayerfully hoped that the day would not be long when the priest and all his people would turn away from the worship of snakes and idols to the true religion.

As it was with the people of Umuaro so was it in several parts of the world, whether in India or China or Greece. There have been writings in which the authors wonder how even highly educated people could embrace foreign religions, forsaking their own. They must be victims of brain washing, they assert. There is reference to the Chinese that they have held on to Confucianism based on the teachings of Con-Fu-Tse. They also argue that Hinduism is the main religion of Indians. Why will Africans not hold on to theirs, especially as the study of Ifa corpus is said to be going places, in some parts of America and among Brazilians of Yoruba extraction? The penultimate Ooni of Ife, Oba Okunade Sijuwade was wont to say to the world that Creation began at Ile-Ife, rekindling memories of dispersal from out of Ife, adding proudly that Remo in Ijebu was from his domain, Ile-Ife. What is called Olojo Festival; the age-long Festival is staged yearly at Ile-Ife to commemorate the story of Creation. There is Osun Osogbo which is not unrelated to the Ife beliefs. The question we may wish to ask is: What is religion? If I may take cover again from Chambers 21st Century Dictionary, religion is “a belief in, or the worship of, a god, or gods; a particular system of belief, or worship, such as Christianity or Judaism…” How did belief and worship begin?

Spiritual longing is inherent in all human beings in consequence of who they are and where they came down to this earth from. Because every human being comes from the Spiritual Realm, his core is spiritual. The Spiritual Realm is what is referred to as Paradise where he was unconscious as a result of the luminousity which the vicinity of the Almighty Creator engendered, vicinity, which in terms of distance and vastness from the Throne of Grace is inconceivable and incomprehensible to us human beings. As I have had occasions to state in this column, there we lived in an unconscious state which made it impossible for us to partake of the splendour and joyful activities that pervade all life there. The urge arose in us to be permitted conscious existence there. The urge was tantamount to a petition to the creator. The petition was granted and all human spirits were led through different intervening planes until we got to this earth where we got cloaked in what is known as physical body. The substances of the intervening planes are wrapped as finer bodies around the spirit which makes us individually a soul, and on earth, an earth dweller with the physical body which was woven around the soul in our mother’s wombs. This is why it is possible to continue living outside of this earth after death when the physical body is discarded. The purpose of man’s sojourn on earth is to mature, get himself ennobled through familiarisation with the Will of God. The Will is to be internalised so man can obey It and swing in It effortlessly. Our world is thus a school. The universe in preparation for our sojourn was a subject of a long process of evolution which scientists believe must have begun about 15 billion years ago. They say the earth is thereby in no way the centre of the world, but only a tiny speck in the universe which needed approximately 20 million years to cool down to a temperature which has allowed life to develop therein. Astronomical discoveries through the use of powerful telescopes in the 20th century, it was possible to reveal the size of our universe, and there are seven universes, all named in the Book of Revelation. Our earth is only a planet in a solar system built around the sun and the sun is one of billions of stars in our galaxy called the Milky Way which in itself in turn is only one of the billions of galaxies in our universe which is just one of the seven in the material world. These are not myths but work of scientists.

As influences of the material world assail us we begin to come into an awakening through experiences. Man gets to be aware of forces around him, known as animistic beings. These were the first teachers of mankind. As loyal servants of the Creator they were the preparer of the Household of God which is at the same time His mantle. They taught the ancestors of man what they needed to know at the early stage of their development, for example, what plant to use as food and what plant to use to heal our ailing bodies. They showed them what plant was poisonous. They taught them the seasons to plant and the time to harvest. Using radiations, they bring plant to life and tend them. They work with unbelievable precision and harmonious beauty. Are we not seized by the meadows of the field and enthralled by gushing brook of the village or the water falls of Ikogosi in Ekiti, or the huge mountains or the hills Mambilla or the wonders of Olumo Rock. It only stands to reason to note that the elemental beings have forms and have consciousness. Indeed, they have human forms, even Water Spites that have pinions, a form which makes clairvoyants and children who see them to refer to them as angels. They are the governing and regulating forces, generating and preserving forms. In the words of Christopher Vasey, a Swiss naturopath, who has done extensive research on them, “they govern the chemical processes of inanimate matter and biological processes of animate entities.” And indeed, control them. Because the early men were close to nature, and as their perceptive faculty began to unfold, they were capable of seeing them. They saw the giants among them their heads touching the clouds. These were gnomes that build mountains and hills. Despite their size, they are of inconceivable beauty. This made the people of ancient days believe they had seen the Creator, and they began to worship them. And so in Yorubaland, in town with spectacular mountain or hill, there is “Ile Aboke”, the family that leads in the worship of their hills or mountain.

Similarly, their sharpened faculty and inner eyes were permitted to see Nixies more commonly called water Sprites, and in local parlance, Mammy Water; they are in charge of rivers and oceans. They were worshipped as well. This was the origin of the worship of deities, human beings seeing them as extra-ordinary. Those who understand their language that we refer to as rainmakers, sometimes entreat them to withhold rain if there is a major event taking place such as the Masquerade Festival. So were the Elves—male elves in charge of trees and female elves forming and tending flowers. In recognition and appreciation of their stupendous work, Harvest festivals are instituted in different cultures. Hence Yam Festival in the East, South-West, South-South and North-Central. In parts of South-West, the Harvest Festival is known as Orisa Oko, or Orisa Nla. In churches there is Harvest Thanksgiving called Odun Ikore in the South-West. The Festival worship of the river goddess is Yemoja. There is the god of iron (Ogun) and god of thunder (Sango). Salamanders create fire from the precipitation of the Power of the Holy Spirit flowing through Creation. The Sylphs are in charge of the air, winds, tornadoes, cyclones and hurricanes. Their sizes correspond with the nature of their activities. While giant gnomes form, tend or dissolve mountains, tiny gnomes form sands of the beach.

From the foregoing, it can be seen that the knowledge of these beings exists among all peoples and in all cultures. Although the beings protest being worshipped because worship belongs to the Almighty, human beings beheld them in wonders and amazement and would not heed the admonition and warning. In many cases, the beings had to withdraw their activities from rivers and the rivers dried up. Sylphs cause settlements to be uprooted as it happened when two communities were destroyed when Hurricane Ian swept through the United States a couple of months or so back. Salamanders cause fire to gut forests leading to massive evacuation from as a result of extensive damage to property and threats to life. The highly developed ancient Greeks with increased sharper perception even saw the lords of the gods and goddesses such as Zeus, as god of justice, Apollo, god of sincerity; Athena, god of vigilance and Ares, god of courage. As the modern man began to downgrade and in fact shut down the hind brain which is the spiritually receptive faculty of man, he began to close himself to the knowledge of the elemental beings and dismissed them as primitive and paganic. Missionaries and clerics dismissed them as myths and unreal and got different people in the course of evangelisation to believe only theirs was the way and people must embrace Christianity. While recognition of the Lord Jesus Christ is the ultimate, the ordinance of the Almighty Creator is that man is to be led step by step, from one level of their recognition to the other. That the coming of Prophets and Teachers of mankind preceded that of the Lord Christ is sufficient hint on the Law of Development.