Uniao do Vegetal

Another church which uses the sacrament of ayahuasca is the Uniao do Vegetal (UDV). It also has its roots in Brazil and its members claim that their religion dates back to the 10th century before Christ and that, due to humanity's insufficient spiritual evolution, the UDV lay dormant before reappearing in the 4th and 5th centuries BCE, in the Inca civilisation in Peru. What we consider now to be the UDV church was founded on July 22 1961 in Porto Velho Rondonia, Brazil by Jose Gabriel da Costa (Mestre Gabriel).

Mestre Gabriel was born in 1922 in Coracao de Maria, a town near Feira de Santana. He received minimal education and, at the age of twenty, he left Salvador to become a rubber tapper in the Amazon region. Working in the rubber camps, he came into contact with the native Indians of Bolivia, and first experienced the effects of ayahuasca. The visions, spiritual revelations and sense of personal mission he discovered came together in a coherent belief-system and he began to gather a group of followers. As the religion spread throughout the Brazilian Amazon and the urban south of the country it also formed a clear organisational structure which continued to develop after Mestre Gabriel's death in 1971.

Structure

The administrative structure is hierarchical and has a sophisticated bureaucracy with technical and judicial departments, by-laws and statutes. The UDV has 66 centres divided into 11 regions throughout Brazil. There are an estimated 6,000 members in Brazil, and the UDV is beginning to open centres in other countries. Each centre is a local congregation, or 'nucleo', where ayahuasca is ritually consumed in ceremonies presided over by a local 'mestre'.

Beliefs and Practices

UDV members participate in ritual consumption of ayahuasca at least twice monthly and often more frequently.The ritual ceremonies are less 'active' than those of the Santo Daime and are more like a Quaker meeting. Long periods of silence are included in the service, where members seek self-knowledge through mental concentration. The 'vegetal' (ayahuasca tea) facilitates this and is described as being the 'key' to the process. There is space for people to share the teaching they received from the Vegetal or to ask the 'Mestre' (who leads the ceremony) questions. The UDV emphasise the oral tradition in their doctrine and in the rituals the teachings of Mestre Gabriel are spoken, 'chamadas' (similar to mantras) are chanted and hymns are sung. They believe that this simplicity reflects the life of their founder and that one of their roles is to "worship and preserve his peasant roots, which translates the purity of his teachings; keeping alive the memory of the fact that one's degree of spiritual evolution is not dependent upon erudition nor academic titles". (1)

The teachings of the UDV are Christian-based but they also emphasise the role of nature, describing themselves as "a religion based on the superior Christian values of love and fraternity among men, in full communion with Nature through the tea Hoasca, a vehicle synchronising it with the Divinity...ecology and spirituality are indivisible'. (2)

The Hoasca Project

The Hoasca Project is a very thorough investigation of the effects of hoasca (ayahuasca) A multi-disciplinary, collaborative, biomedical research project, it is led by Charles Grob, Dennis McKenna and Jace Callaway. (3)

As part of this study, 15 long-term members of the UDV were assessed psychologically along with 15 matched controls who had no history of ayahuasca consumption. The tests included structured psychiatric diagnostic interviews, personality testing and neuropsychological evaluation.

The preliminary results suggest that the apparent impact of ayahuasca on the subjects in the study appears to be positive and therapeutic, in both self-reported and objective testing. The psychiatric diagnostic assessments of the ayahuasca-using subjects showed that a large proportion had alcohol, depressive or anxiety disorders prior to their initiation into the UDV but "all disorders had remitted without recurrence after entry into the UDV" (4). Eleven of the subjects had either heavy or moderate patterns of alcohol consumption before joining the UDV but achieved complete abstinence shortly after affiliating. The members were also "quite emphatic that they had undergone radical transformations of their behaviour, attitudes toward others and outlook on life. They are convinced that they had been able to eliminate their chronic anger, resentment, aggression and alienation, as well as acquire greater self control, responsibility to family and community and personal fulfilment through their participation in the hoasca ceremonies of the UDV". (5)

The ayahuasca using group scored higher on the neuropsychological testing than the controls and themselves claimed that they felt the ayahuasca had significantly improved their powers of memory and concentration. Without retrospective data this cannot be definitively substantiated, but "indications are...the long term consumption of hoasca within the structured UDV ceremonial setting does not appear to exert a deleterious effect on neurophysical function". (6)

Notes

(1) UDV official homepage: http://www.udv.org.br

(2) ibid.

(3) Grob C.S. et al (1996) "Human Psychopharmacology of Hoasca, a Plant Hallucinogen used in Ritual Context in Brazil" draft paper for the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease

(4) ibid.

(5) ibid.

(6) ibid.