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Holistic Health and Healing Practices of Polynesia
By Serge King
Theosophical Publishing HouseCopyright © 1983 Serge King
All rights reserved.
Since the time of early European explorations in the Pacific Ocean, the Western world has built up a romantic image of the South Seas based on the concept of a simple, carefree, primitive society. It has been the dream of many men to chuck the burdens of job and family and run away to a tropical island where all you have to do is lie in a hammock sipping fruit punch while the childlike natives take care of your every need. Another Western attitude, less romantic, is that before the blessings of civilization were brought to them, the people of the islands were ignorant savages governed by superstitious fear and undisciplined sensuality. Along with this attitude is the idea that these people had no philosophical thought to speak of, no developed abstract concepts, no art that was more than decorative, no books of any kind, and certainly no science or technology worth mentioning.
The truth of the matter, established by scientific research in many fields, is that the societies of Polynesia were every bit as complex as is our own: their moral, ethical and legal codes as stringent; their philosophies as developed; their art and literature as rich; and their science as skilled. However, the direction in which they developed these aspects was unique. As modern social psychologists point out, if we try to judge the accomplishments of other cultures by using our own as a standard, we risk distorting that judgment and severely limiting any benefit we might derive from contact with the culture we are judging. And the culture of Polynesia has aspects that can benefit us in every area of life.
The People of Polynesia
Polynesia is a term applied equally to a geographical area and to a people who share a common historical, linguistic, cultural and physical background. The area is usually defined as a triangle stretching from New Zealand in the southwest Pacific, to Hawaii in the north, down to Easter Island in the southeast, and back to New Zealand. It is an immense area, larger than the continent of South America, and dotted with volcanic and coral islands that are often as much as two thousand miles apart. What is remarkable is that this whole area was explored, settled and had regular commerce between the islands for hundreds and possibly thousands of years before Columbus made his voyage across the Atlantic.
The people of this area, the Polynesians, comprise the Maori, Samoans, Tongans, Tahitians, Marquesans, Hawaiians, Easter Islanders and others, named for the most part in modern times after their location. Though these groups are separated by vast distances, and in some cases have been out of contact with one another for centuries, there are fewer cultural differences between them than between such close neighbors as the French and the Germans. A thin-nosed Maori and a broad-nosed Hawaiian may not look like brothers, and their environmentally shaped ways of life may vary considerably, but they share the same basic language, cultural heroes, legends and inner knowledge. And they accept each other as coming from the same original stock, as Peter Buck, a part Maori traveler, found when he voyaged to other islands that hadn't been contacted by an "outside" Polynesian in living memory.
A question that remains unsettled among anthropologists is the original homeland of the Polynesians, along with the question of what route they took to get to their present home. The most favored modern theory is that they came from Indonesia, or possibly India, and passed through the west Pacific island groups of Micronesia or Melanesia on their way. This is based partly on some minor linguistic similarities, the supposed origin of many plants used by the Polynesians, a few technological similarities, and the notion that, since they had to come from somewhere, Asia was the most likely place.
Max Freedom Long and others have proposed that the original homeland of the Polynesians was in the Near East. Long based his idea on an unverified story from an Englishman who lived with a Berber tribe in the Sahara This tribe claimed to have been part of a group that had built the pyramids of Egypt; they had split off from the rest of the group who went to the Pacific to seek a new land. However, I spent some four and a half years, off and on, with the Berbers, and was unable to verify such a tradition. More importantly, Long impressively used linguistic studies to show that kahuna knowledge was incorporated into parts of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. He even went so far as to trace a route for the Pacific-destined group down the Red Sea, along the coast of Africa to Madagascar (whose language, Malagasy, does have affinities with Polynesian), across the ocean to India, and thence through Indonesia to the Pacific, using philosophical similarities as his main argument. Yet another Polynesian homeland has been proposed by Thor Heyerdahl of Kon Tiki fame, who sought to prove in a practical way that the Polynesians could have come from South America.
As noted in the prologue, my kahuna mentor, WK, has a considerably different version, supported to a great extent by researchers like James Churchward, author of a number of books about the continent of Mu, and Leinani Melville, author of Children of the Rainbow. It claims that Polynesia was the source of cultural similarities elsewhere and not the end recipient. Of course, there can be as much doubt about this version as any other, but it does have the virtue of being a Polynesian version and it does answer many questions. It explains, for instance, why the extremely skilled Polynesian navigators never settled any area outside the aforementioned triangle, how kahuna knowledge could have traveled throughout the world without being accompanied by the Polynesians, and how such subgroups as the Maori in New Zealand could have ancient navigation chants that gave sailing directions to Hawaii. It also explains why groups like the Maori, Hawaiians and Easter Islanders tell in their legends of people who were living in the islands when they first landed there. In Hawaiian, these people are even called the Mu, and there are many tales of conflict and cooperation with them. On the island of Kauai in the Hawaiian chain, I have seen temple floors and stoneworks that resemble pre-Incan building styles much more than they do anything built by early Polynesian settlers. These were supposedly built by the Mu people, also known as the Menehune.
The Kapu System
The question of origin may never be answered to everyone's satisfaction, but it is a fact that the Polynesians were there when the Europeans arrived in Polynesia. Among other things, the first Western explorers found a powerful group of people known as kahunas who were the religious leaders, master artists and craftsmen, doctors, lawyers, teachers and political advisors of the society. They and the chiefly families ruled the people by what has come to be called the kapu system, though most Westerners would be more familiar with the Tongan form of the word, tabu or taboo.
The kapu system has been much maligned because it has been so little understood. The word kapu has usually been taken to mean "forbidden" and has been associated with mysterious warnings regarding things outside the scope of reason. A fuller rendering of the word, however, would also include the meanings of "sacred, holy, or consecrated." The kapu system was actually a code of laws, like that which is necessary for any society to function smoothly. A certain grove of trees or a special fishing place might be declared kapu for one or more seasons to keep it from being overexploited, for instance. This is no different from our present regulated hunting and fishing seasons, but such environmental foresight was totally unknown to the early European visitors to Polynesia who couldn't undersand why one tree or place was kapu and another was not. Certain parts of a temple or plots of land could also be declared kapu because they were reserved for priestly or chiefly use. The path to such a place would be marked by a pair of crossed sticks topped by a ball of white cloth, and the natives would refuse to pass beyond such a marker because the breaking of kapu laws was severely punished. Yet, the same European who would hesitate greatly before violating a royal or government sign marked "Keep Out" or "No Trespassing" in his own country would often think the island native was merely acting out of superstition.
The most difficult kapus to understand for the foreigner were, of course, those that dealt with social customs. In some parts of Polynesia there was a kapu punishable by death against allowing the shadow of a commoner to fall upon that of a chief. This seems the rankest kind of superstition at first, but the foreigner would not be likely to know that the word for shadow also has the meaning of "laughter," and that the above event could be interpreted as an act of sedition or lese majeste. Another kapu forbade women to eat bananas, because the word for banana is similar to the word for genitals and the act would have been as offensive as using four-letter sexual words in public has traditionally been in the United States.
The kapu, then, formed the basis for the Polynesian legal system. At its best it reinforced the cohesiveness and productivity of the society, but the system could be, and often was, used by greedy chiefs and priests for political and economic exploitation. Social rebellions and/or emigrations were not uncommonly inspired by overly restrictive kapus imposed on the people by their leaders. The severity of the kapus enacted by Kamehameha the Great to maintain control over his Hawaiian kingdom, the unreasonable exploitation of those kapus by certain kahuna priests, and the psychic misinterpretation of an opportunistic kahuna leader were some of the main reasons why the whole kapu system in Hawaii was so easily overthrown in the time of Kamehameha's son.
The Kahunas Of Hawaii
Since I have had more experience with Hawaiian kahunas than with Tahitian tahunas or Maori tohungas, the following section will deal with the Hawaiian system, based on historical record and discussions with WK.
When Captain James Cook anchored off the leeward coast of Kauai on January 19, 1778, he broke a six-hundred-year isolation of the Hawaiian islands from the rest of the world. Contrary to popular belief, however, Cook and those who followed did not intrude on a simple island paradise. The beauty of these volcanic islands was breathtaking, and when the inhabitants were friendly they were very friendly. But the Hawaiians were neither uncorrupted innocents nor ignorant savages. Their society was structured as a full-blown feudal system, and Cook arrived in the midst of violent social and political turmoil. After the first brief shock of contact, the Europeans and their superior technology were quickly exploited for political purposes by the pragmatic Hawaiian leaders, including the kahunas.
In history books much has been made of the story that Captain Cook was thought to be the god Lono returning to the islands. According to the Hawaiian historian Kamakau, the people of Kauai were astounded and frightened at the unprecedented sight of British ships standing off the shore. The people had no idea who was in the ships. It was a kahuna, Kuohu, who decided that the ships had to be the temple and altars of Lono because the masts and sails resembled the pole and banners used in an annual ceremony dedicated to that god. Cook and his men stepped ashore for a short visit and then took off for the coast of America. Word spread quickly through the islands, and by the time Cook returned to stop at Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island of Hawaii, the stage was set for a remarkably astute political maneuver, which might have been successful if Cook had not stayed so long.
Cook's second arrival happened to take place in an area sacred to Lono and toward the end of the annual festival dedicated to him. There are no records of what I am about to suggest and WK says he knows of no tradition for or against it, but the coincidence of when and where Cook landed the second time is so great that I suspect the kahunas had a hand in it. As we shall see later, they undoubtedly had the capability of clair-voyantly knowing where Cook was and of sending telepathic messages to guide him right to the bay where thousands of people had gathered for the Lono festival. Cook remarked in his journal that he had never seen such a large gathering of people in all the islands. Since the king of the island of Hawaii was in the process of consolidating his power over the people as part of his war effort against Maui, it was probably at the suggestion of his kahuna advisors that Cook was acclaimed as the god Lono himself come to lend his mana (divine power) to the side that was obviously in the right. The chiefs and the kahunas were not fools. They could recognize superior technology, however strange; they knew a man when they saw one; and they also knew how to take advantage of an opportunity. Unfortunately, the longer Cook stayed, the harder it was to keep up the pretense that he was a god. When he finally left after a few weeks, they showed undisguised relief. Unfortunately, Cook had to return again after only a week to repair a broken foremast. By this time the festival was over, the people had been dispersed, and Cook's reception was decidedly frosty. Relations between the Hawaiians and the Europeans rapidly deteriorated over the next two weeks until Cook tried to take the highly sacred person of the king as hostage for a relatively minor theft by one of the king's subjects. A battle ensued on the beach and Cook was killed. The point is that Cook's designation as the god Lono was no more than a politically inspired farce intended to gain favor for the regime of King Kalaniopuu. The chiefs and kahunas knew better, but at this stage in Hawaiian history the "state religion" was only a political tool designed to increase the power of the chiefs and certain priests, and to exploit the masses.
As more and more Europeans began to visit the islands, they heard tales of strange powers exerted by certain people known as kahunas. Stories of telepathy, clairvoyance, healing by touch, the causing of death at a distance, and walking over burning lava were mixed with observations of exotic ceremonies and chants, the practice of massage and herbal medicine, and the apparent worship of grotesque idols. It was easy to label these stories as pure superstition until one became directly involved in a personal experience. Then, for the thinking person, it was clear that something strange indeed was going on behind the religious facade. There was no doubt that some kahunas, at least, were able to do things that seemed outside the scope of physical laws. The longer one lived in the islands, the more one grew to accept this as fact.
However, because of four main factors, it wasn't easy to find out what was really going on. First was the natural reluctance of the scientifically trained Westerner to accept such abilities as possible. To do so would be to plunge back into the Dark Ages of magic and superstition that the Western world was still struggling out of. Second was the natural tendency of Christian-oriented visitors to blame all such things on the work of the Devil, for how else could ignorant heathens have such powers?
Third was the fact that, by the time of the arrival of the first Europeans, the mainstream kahuna practices were quite corrupt, and most of the early knowledge had been lost. While a small group retained the ancient teachings virtually intact, the majority of the kahunas—especially those involved in politics—had degenerated into a mere ceremonial priesthood, with very few members who even knew the rudiments of such things as telepathy and clairvoyance. This is poignantly brought out in the story of Hewahewa, high priest of Kamehameha II. In 1819, shortly after the death of Kamehameha I, this prominent kahuna in charge of the king's war god image had a vision in which he saw the representatives of what seemed to be a much more powerful god landing on the shores of Hawaii. No doubt influenced by his acquaintance with superior European technology and tales of Christianity, Hewahewa set about gaining support from fellow kahunas, ambitious chiefs and dissatisfied royal wives for nothing less than the abolition of the kapu system and the overthrow of the old gods. In this way he hoped to ingratiate himself with the representatives of the new god and at the same time undercut the power of any kahuna rivals. Kamehameha II, unlike his father, was a weak-willed man, and by November of 1819 he gave in to the urgings of Hewahewa and his followers. By the apparently simple act of sitting down to eat with the women, Kamehameha II broke a serious kapu and set a precedent for chiefs and commoners alike. The word was spread throughout the now united island chain and the people, long oppressed by overly severe kapus, gave vent to their feelings by burning and tearing down temples and statues. One kahuna rival of Hewahewa tried to prevent it, but he and his supporters were roundly beaten in a battle. For six months, then, Hawaii was a land without a religion and without laws. It was a time of great confusion, because without the kapus and without the gods there were no firm guidelines for conduct and no psychological security.
Excerpted from Kahuna Healing by Serge King. Copyright © 1983 Serge King. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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