Leonardo Boff mentioned the concept of Pachamama in an interview I blogged about recently. This comes from the Andean worldview of indigenous people in South America including many in Bolivia. I’m not an expert on Andean indigenous religion, but I though I’d try to take a stab at describing what I’ve learned about this idea and how it might be helpful to our view of the earth.
Bolivia has the largest population of indigenous people in Latin America (Guatemala has the most in Central America). Most of these people are Aymara and Quechua and come from the altiplano region, a flat plain between the two ridges of the Andes mountain range. There are other indigenous people in Bolivia who come from the lowlands and do not share the Andean worldview which is a point of contention in Bolivian politics.
Most of what I learned about the Andean worldview and concept of Pachamama comes from an incredible Bolivian woman who works at the Maryknoll Institute for Languages in Cochabamba. She is a very visual and tactile person, because the whole time she was explaining this to us she was cutting construction paper and creating these visual representations of what she described. Here’s what I gleaned from our conversation which keep in mind was in Spanish and I’m not yet fluent. Any gaps in understanding our most certainly my fault.
Kicking the Flows
The Andean view of the world could best be illustrated with a vin diagram. Some people use three vertical linear levels representing the sky, earth and underworld, but according to this teacher that is probably not an accurate illustration. It is better to use a vin diagram with three circles overlapping. The circles represent the three pachas or realms. The realm of the sky is where birds, clouds and things having to do with the sky live. This realm represents spiritual things like god or ancestors. The pachamama is the realm of the earth. This is the realm that gives us life. It includes animals, plants, humans and the earth. The realm under the earth is considered the underworld. It represents death and the unknown.
These realms are not separate from each other as a vertical linear diagram might indicate. Instead they overlap. Birds live in trees and often get their food from the realm of pachamama, even though they belong to the pacha of the sky. The plants and animals belonging to pachamama need air, sun and rain to live. The underworld is connected to pachamama through the world under our feet. Death is part of the flows that keep balance and the unknown is part of our existence. Honestly, I don’t completely understand the underworld and its relationship to pachamama or the realm of the sky. I tend to put it into categories and boxes that are more familiar to me, mainly agriculture and the Judeo-Christian worldview.
Between each of these realms there is a two-way flow. They overlap, but there is also an exchange between them as described above in the ways they overlap. The ideal is for everything to be in balance between these realms. The center of the vin diagram represents the convergence of these three realms. So, when one of these realms is out of balance it affects the other two. Everything is interconnected.
Even though I feel I don’t understand the underworld realm very well, one example might shed light on how it is perceived. In Bolivia when miners go into mines they will often make an offering to “Tíe” (not sure about spelling). This is like the god or ruler of the underworld and is depicted as a goat-like figure which resembles our caricatures of Satan. When the Spanish Catholics conquered this area of South America and began mining for silver and later tin, it naturally appeared to them that these pagan people were making an offering to the devil. This is not the case.
In the Andean worldview opening a huge hole in the ground and taking things from the realm of the underworld is a pretty scary venture. Not only is this the realm of death and the unknown, but such action interrupts the natural and healthy flows between the three pachas. The offering given to “Tíe” is an effort to correct the imbalance that the miners are participating in, not an offering to the devil.
Worshipping the Earth?
Many of the Christians here in Bolivia and elsewhere quickly become nervous around indigenous religions, because of the way they understand our relationship to the earth. You can see in the above example how foreign this understanding is to Christians. The concern usually revolves around the idea that these religious beliefs and worldview amounts to worshipping the earth. If this means simply giving something the reverence it is due then I agree that the Andean worldview worships the earth. However, the meaning usually implies some sort of pantheism, that they actually believe that the earth is god. This does not seem to be the case in my limited understanding. In fact, I think this mistake is often made when trying to interpret indigenous religions and/or worldviews around the world. Our hermeneutic, or way of interpreting, these beliefs is only in terms of our own Christian doctrines. This causes a lot of confusion. You cannot simply equate cultural and religious symbols on a one-to-one basis. They must first be understood on their own terms as much as possible. Much harm has been done in Christian missions through the centuries, because of this kind of misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
What this view of our relationship to the earth reminds us (because I believe it is inherent in our own tradition) that all of creation is interdependent and interconnected. The Western scientific worldview posits a disconnected and independent existence for human beings. Science can (though not necessarily) result in a reductionistic and atomistic view of the world in which everything is broken down into its component parts and interrelationships are often ignored or called anomalies. I’ve talked to an agricultural scientist at the Texas A&M research station in Stephenville who has found this to be true even in his own field which studies animals, plants, crops, etc., but ignores and often does not fund research that studies the relationships between these fields.
I continue to believe that God is the God of the whole world and truth is found in the diversity of human expressions of belief throughout the world. I don’t believe in some sort of universal religion which ultimately does violence to the diversity of human expression, but marvel that truth is revealed also beyond the borders of the church.