Hinduism, Judaism, and the Rastafari movement of Jamaica may seem on the surface to have nothing in common with each other. But if we take a closer look there are things that the three spiritual traditions have in common. These commonalities grew out the colonial experience of Jamaicans.
The Hinduism connection to the Rastafari movement came by way of Indians coming over to Jamaica through the British coolie trade; bringing with them their Hindu traditions. In this case the Hindu Sadhu (Indian holy men) came into contact with Afro-Jamaicans who picked up on the Sadhu’s lifestyle of wearing mated hair (dreadlocks), vegetarianism (Ital food), and marijuana smoking (brought over by Indian coolies, Ganja is a Sanskrit word for marijuana). These things later found their way into the Rastafari movement. The first Rasta, Leonard Howell, a follower of Marcus Garvey, is also known by the name Gong Guru Marajh. Let’s break this name down, Gong (a type of percussive instrument found widely in Asia & Africa), Guru (Sanskrit for “Teacher” or “Master”), and Marajh (an Indian surname). We must note that although the Rastas contact with Indian Sadhus may have spurred on the wearing of dreadlocks, the African influence on Rastas wearing of dreadlocks came from the Kenyan revolutionaries, the Mau Mau who wore dreadlocks as a sign of resistance against European colonial culture imposed on Africans. For an in depth look into Hinduism’s influence of the Rastafari movement checkout Vijay Prashad’s Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity or this thesis paper by Vincent E. Burgess from Ohio State University [KB-OSU]
The Judaic influences on the Rastafari movement are less clear-cut, but none the less visible. Jewish presences on the island of Jamaica came by way of Spanish occupation of Jamaica from 1494-1655; these Sephardic Jews came from Spain and Portugal to escape the Spanish inquisition. The Judaic influence on Rastafari movement happened in around about way, we could begin by looking at Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican political leader who promoted Black Nationalism and Pan-African movements, a precursor to the Rastafari movement, and is considered by Rastas as a reincarnation of John the Baptist, he rejected Eurocentric views of the Christian Bible and made this statement in many speeches in 1920’s:
Look to Africa, when a black king shall be crowned for the day of deliverance is at hand! – Marcus Garvey
Rastas believe this black king is Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia (crowned king of Ethiopia in 1930), who they view as the black messiah prophesied by Garvey (“King of Kings” is an honorary title that Haile Selassie shares with Jesus, as well as being a Judaic expression that refers to God), the 2nd coming of Christ. From Selassie’s first name Tafari, meaning respected or feared, combined with the honorary title Ras, meaning head, used to denote a chief or prince, we get the name Rastafri. Rastas like Garvey rejected the Eurocentric Christianity evangelized by the European colonial powers, and embraced Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, as well as a belief that Ethiopians are the lost tribe of Israel, the black Israelites or Beta Israel, which is why Rastas believe Zion is in Ethiopia. One of Haile Selassie honorary titles is the “Lion of Judah,” as there is an Ethiopian tradition that believes the royal family are direct descendants of King Solomon and Queen Sheba, through their son Menelik, the first Solomonic king of Ethiopia. Rastas quote from the Old Testament, the Judaic part of the Bible (Rastas also read from the New Testament as well, particularly favoring the book of Revelations). Rastas refer to God as Jah, which they got from:
Sing unto God, sing praises to his name: extol him that rideth upon the heavens by his name JAH, and rejoice before him.
-Psalms 68:4 (KJV)
Judaic iconography such as the Star of David, the Lion of Judah, and Ark of the Covenant (according to folklore is said to be lost or hidden in Ethiopia) make way into Rasta iconography. The dreadlocks Rastas wear have similarities with Orthodox Jews wearing of side locks known as the Payot. Rastas believe that King Solomon wore dreadlocks, pointing to:
During the entire period of their Nazirite vow, no razor may be used on their head. They must be holy until the period of their dedication to the LORD is over; they must let their hair grow long.
-Numbers 6:5 (NIV)
In the case of marijuana (herb) use as a religious sacrament, one of the many biblical scriptures that Rastas point to:
He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man, that he may bring forth food out of the Earth.
-Psalms 104:14 (KJV)
Rastas took from Garvey’s back-to-Africa-movement, and expanded on it to include the repatriation to “Zion” (Ethiopia), which Rastas believe is the place of origin for mankind; a utopia compared to “Babylon” the oppressive, exploitative, and materialistic modern world. In the music of Jamaican artists who are Rasta such as the legendary Bob Marley, they often speak of Zion (Ex: Bob Marley’s “Iron Lion Zion”, Damien Marley & Nas “Road to Zion”) or the phrase “Stepping out of Babylon” or “Chant down Babylon!” is used (Ex: Bob Marley’s “Chant Down Babylon”, Sylford Walker’s song of the same name, Ragga Jungle track “Revolution” by Congo Natty featuring Nanci Correia, Ras Buggsy, Iron Dread), which is a reference to an Old Testament story from the book of Joshua of how the Israelites used the blowing of horns and shouting to bring down the walls of Jericho. The mixing of Garvey’s politics and Rasta beliefs inspired songs about the African Diaspora and their experience with slavery and colonialism as heard on tracks like The Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon” which is a reference to a Psalm about the captured Jewish people in exile by the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem (Zion) in 586 BC.
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
-Psalms 137:1-4 (NIV)
Bob Marley “Iron Lion Zion”
Bob Marley “Chant Down Babylon”
Sylford Walker “Chant Down Babylon”
Congo Natty featuring Nanci Correia, Ras Buggsy, Iron Dread “Revolution”
The Melodians “Rivers of Babylon”
In recent years Jewish musicians such as Mantisyahu have incorporated their Judaism with Reggae and Rastafari elements into their music.
Mantisyahu “King Without A Crown” (Live from Stubb’s)
Another thing that all three spiritual traditions (Hindus, Judaism, and the Rastafari movement) have in common is a similar honorific title for God, priests or holy men. For Hindu holy men, Sadhus are often given the title of “Baba,” in Judaism God is also known as “The Father” or “Abba” which is also used by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians who call their priests and patriarchs “Abba.” Rastas by way of their adoption of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity also use “Abba” as an honorific title for their priests and elders.
It should be noted that not all Rastas wear dreadlocks or smoke marijuana. The usage of marijuana is a Rasta sacrament, a religious, meditative, and medicinal aid, but it is not required for Rastas to use the herb. As for dreadlocks Rastas say
“Not every dread is a Rasta and not every Rasta is a dread…”
Rasta musicians have songs with lyrics addressing the wearing of dreadlocks:
It’s not the dread upon your head, but the love inna your heart, that mek ya Rastaman. – Sugar Minott “Dread Upon Your Head”
You don’t haffi dread to be Rasta, this is not a dreadlocks thing, devine conception of the heart. -Morgan Heritage “Don’t Haffi Dread”
Sugar Minott “Dread Upon Your Head”
Morgan Heritage “Don’t Haffi Dread”
Just as not all Sadhus or Indian holy men use marijuana or wear dreadlocks, Rastas stance on these traditions vary from individual to individual, keeping with their belief in an individual’s freedom of conscience, encouraging individuals to find faith and inspiration within themselves, away from sects, denominations, and other “Babylon” institutions.
In a 1979 interview Bob Marley gives his thoughts on dreadlocks and the smoking of herb:
Do you have to have dreadlocks if you are a Rasta?
Well if you Rasta then you wouldn’t say why you shouldn’t have it, because you know freedom is freedom and you don’t have to bow you do whatever you like.
Do you have to smoke to be a Rasta?
No man. But – in this time, I mean like, how you stance… You reaching a sense where you strong enough, can take a likkle [little] smoke.
1979 interview with Bob Marley in New Zealand – talking about his Rastafri practice, his thoughts on dreadlocks and smoking herb
Dreadlock Story (2014) trailer
Awake Zion (2005) trailer
Bonus: Roaring Lion (2002) – a documentary on the Rastafari movement