Mircea Eliade "From Primitives to Zen": THE SACRED WORLD


The area inhabited by the sacred people is the sacred land. It was given to them by the godhead, which had shaped it out of the remains of the sun and the moon. It lies among the primeval waters, between Upperworld and Underworld, and rests on the back of the Watersnake. It is bounded by the raised tail and bead of the deity of the Underworld. We also find in myths the idea that the world is enclosed in a circle formed by the Watersnake biting its own tail. The world is thus supported and enclosed by the godhead, a man lives under its protection, in divine peace and well-being. Man lives in the sacred, divine land of Mahatala and Jata. The mountains of the sacred land reach up to the Upperworld. The godhead descends on to them and on them he meets men and gives them his sacred gifts. Man lives in the sacred land in communion with the supreme deities. He climbs the sacred mountain and there practices asceticism (batapa), and Matahala draws close to him there and regards him. In the still of the night he lets himself drift on a small raft in the river, and the Watersnake emerges and sees him. The godhead is everywhere, and man can appear before it everywhere, for he is in the godhead's land and under its protection, and the godhead has created for him an approach to the Upperworld and the Underworld.

The world described here is the primeval village Batu Nindan Tarong, the origin of which is told in the creation myth, and which is pictured in the sacred designs. The head and tail of the Watersnake are usually represented in these drawings as the Tree of Life and this representation is meaningful in that the Watersnake and the Tree of Life are identical. The first human beings lived in this primeval Village, and their three sons were born to them there, and when this time is spoken of or sung about the sacred legends and songs say: 'At that time, in the beginning, when our ancestors were still living in the mouth of the coiled Watersnake [which lay circled about the village], such and-such happened,' and in this village the sacred ceremonies were first established.

With the exception of Maharaja Sangen, the three brothers did not stay in Batu Nindan Tarong. They left there and settled in the Upperworld and in our world. But the sacred people did not stay together in this world. The tribal organization collapsed, its members moved to other rivers and settled among strangers, and the idea of the sacred land diminished. Instead of a tribal area there is now the village, with its neighbouring villages upstream and downstream. The world and mankind (kalunen), or man as part of this mankind, are synonymous and the same term kalunen is employed for both. The world is nothing but the sacred land, and the sacred land is inhabited only by the sacred people. The Ngaju calls his world (today, his village) by various names, e.g. batu lewu, home village, lewu danumku, my village and my native river. The name always used in myths and chants is lewu injam tingang, the village lent by the Watersnake, or it is also described as the village where the hornbill enjoyed the Watersnake. The real native village of mankind is not in this world: it is Batu Nindan Tarong, in the Upperworld. Man dwells only for a time in this world, which is 'lent' to him, and when the time has come and he is old, then he returns for ever to his original home. To die is not to become dead; it is called buli, to return home. This idea has nothing to do with any Christian influence; it is an ancient Dayak concept which is understandable in relation to the primeval sacred events and the mode of thought connected with them.

The Dayak loves the world into which be is born and where he grows up. His village is the largest and most beautiful place in the whole world, and he would change it for no other. If he leaves his village he takes with him sacred medicines which will guarantee his safe return, and if he himself never comes back his bones or his ashes are still brought back into the village and thereby he finds his last resting place in the sacred land. The description of the village and the world in myths and priestly chants has poetic force and beauty. There are old people, mostly women, who have never left their own village, not because they have never had a chance to, but because they simply never felt the need to do so. Why should one leave the village? Why roam far among strangers? Peace, safety, happiness, and the good life are to be found only in one's own village, only in one's own world where one is protected by the godhead, surrounded by the primevally maternal Watersnake, where one rests on its body and is enclosed by its head and tail.

The love for one's own world is expressed in the parting song of a dead person who leaves his village for ever to enter the village of the dead. He is fetched away by Tempon Telon and journeys to the Upperworld. His boat stops before the entrance. The dead person looks down once more on the world, and sings to his village and his river and to all those he loved -

I can still not express my innermost thought property,

Nor is it possible for me to speak what fills my heart.

I have thrown away the village lent by Hornbill, as one discards a useless plate,

I have pushed away the place where the hornbills live widely scattered as one rejects an unusable dish,

And I have myself become like a cast stone, -never to return,

I am like a clod of earth thrown away, never again to come home.

This is not hopelessness, it is simply the farewell of the deceased, and with these words the boat travels on towards the true and eternal home to which the dead may return and where he will be joyfully received by the ancestors and by all who have travelled this road before him.

The world which is borne on the back of the Watersnake and enclosed by its body is the good, sacred land. The surroundings of the village, i.e. the area which is not bounded and fenced in by the Watersnake's body, is a strange, horrible, and fearsome land where one no longer feels at home, where one will not readily build a house, which

one will not enter without taking grave precautions and providing oneself with protective medicines. Persons who have died bad deaths lie outside the village, and this is where criminals are buried, that is, those who are excluded from the sacred people by the community and even by the godhead itself. They do not rest in the midst of the sacred people and in the sacred land, nor are they enclosed in death by the Watersnake, and they are buried in unhallowed ground. God and man have no more to do with them, and they are separated for ever from them, they are thrust out into solitude and homelessness, banished to ominous surroundings. There they live in the company of those who have died bad deaths, i.e. who have lost their lives in an unnatural way, by accident or by a particularly dreaded illness (leprosy, smallpox), as punishment for some known or unknown offence. The godhead has caused them to die an unripe death' (matei manta), has put a mark upon them and thrust them out for ever from the community of the living and from that of the ancestors. This community of unfortunate and homeless souls continues to live the existence of evil spirits in the bush and forests surrounding the village. As such, they attack people, make them ill, or take their lives. . . .

One's own world is the central point of all worlds, the focus of the whole divine cosmic order and harmony. This applies also to the village, which after the collapse of the tribal organization has taken over everything that we said above about the sacred land. The village also represents the social and cosmic totality; the village also possesses the dual division. The upper part of the village (i.e. the upstream, ngaju, part) is lived in by the superior group, and the lower part (ngawa) belongs to the lower group and to the slaves (if any). . . .

The sacred land is the land of the godhead. It was not only created and maintained by the godhead, it is the godhead itself and represents the totality of Upperworld and Underworld, of Mahatala and Jata. Man lives not only in the divine land, not only in the peace of the godhead, but actually in the godhead, for the sacred land is a part of the Tree of Life, it was created from the sun and the moon, which flank the tree, and which issued from the Gold Mountain and the jewel Mountain, and thus from the total godhead.

Hans Schirer, Ngaju Religion: The Conception of God among a South Borneo People, translation by Rodney Needham (The Hague, 1963), pp. 59-62, 65, 66

Bibliography for this page:

Books by Mircea Eliade:

Man and the Sacred | Main Menu | Keyword Search