Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Aquarian Spiritual Center

by T. Hasan Johnson
The Aquarian Spiritual Center in South Central, Los Angeles, is a spiritual studies school that integrates a variety of practices--Ancient Kemetic, Jewish, Buddhist, Taoist, Christian, Yoruba, Islamic, Masonic, Native American, Rosicrucian, and Masonic--with African Diaspora cultures. Founded by Alfred Ligon, a self-taught religious bibliophile in 1943, the group held weekly classes out of his bookstore and developed what they have called a “Gnostic” worldview. Currently, led by one of the Center’s three primary teachers in a small refurbished apartment, members hold classes on Sundays and discuss readings, current events, and spirituality. In such classes a form of Black religio-cultural esotericism that is called “Gnosticism” has been created and cultivated. [1]The movement behind the school that is behind the bookstore is fascinating as story and as challenge. In 1936, at the age of thirty, Ligon read Levi Dowling’s The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ and was inspired to start his own bookstore and school of metaphysical studies. [2] Paralleling what is reported to be the non-literal creative if not outrageous interpretations of scriptures and traditions among “gnostics” of every age and culture, Ligon created a school that perceived sacred figures such as Jesus and Buddha as symbolic archetypes, not historical figures. He believed these figures symbolized different potentialities of human consciousness and that the meanings of such could be revealed only through rigorous study and meditation.Although not all understood what Ligon believed and taught, he became a local hero for building the first Black owned bookstore in Los Angeles. He also made available to the Black community texts on African history and non-orthodox religious practices.In response to the challenges of its younger members, the Aquarian Spiritual Center began in the 1970s to adopt a more Black Nationalist worldview. Merging Black Gnosticism with the Black activism, the Center’s curriculum began to focus on Ancient African history and culture, while maintaining its appreciation for esoteric exegesis. It also emphasized African Diaspora politics and reinforced the notion that Africans were a global community with special spiritual sensibilities, connections and orientations. Nevertheless, the focus of the bookstore and school remained on the acquisition, reflection and articulation of sacred, hidden knowledge, especially regarding Black existence and destiny.In 1974, the Aquarian Center became a non-profit organization, changed its name to the Aquarian Gospel Temple and the Aquarian University of Occult Philosophy, and established the Aquarian Spiritual Center Publishing Company alongside the Aquarian Spiritual Center Bookshop. [3] The Aquarians developed a framework that defined a Black Gnostics as those who affirm at least seven general principles: 1) God is both impersonal and non-gendered. Physically, God manifests as a hierarchy of the natural forces of heat, electricity, magnetism, and the atom. Metaphysically, God is the intelligence that establishes harmony and order in the known universe. 2) God and all things transcendental can be known through internal reflection and initiation into an esoteric mystery school. 3) All things possess an inner spirit, emphasizing the interconnectedness of the physical world to the metaphysical. 4) Sacred texts should not be interpreted literally, but symbolically. In this sense, for example, ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ are not places one goes after death, but states of consciousness experienced while alive. 5) Through the acquisition of hidden inner knowledge, transcendence and spiritual growth liberate the soul from ‘bodily fetters’. This is called ‘God-consciousness.’ 6) Human beings are a combination of physical, temporal, intuitive, abstract, and transcendental hierarchal forces. 7) Black Gnostics believe they must prepare for the coming Aquarian Age by studying the esoteric sciences and the occult curriculum. This is perceived as the primary means for heightening people’s awareness about higher consciousness. These principles, designed to be guidelines more than rules, helped bring new generations from a diverse range of backgrounds to the Center. [4]Scriptural Practices and OrientationsIn addition to Levi Dowling’s The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ (1907), the Aquarian Spiritual Center’s core readings consist of: John G. Jackson’s Introduction to African Civilizations (1937), Marc Edmund Jones’ Occult Philosophy (1948), George G.M. James’ Stolen Legacy (1954), Dane Rudhyar’s Astrological Mandala (1974), and G.A. Gaskell’s Dictionary of Scriptures and Myths (1981). [5] Although these main texts provide the foundation of the Aquarian’s worldview, the group developed a twenty-year initiation process and a full course curriculum. Yet despite the emphasis on reading, the curriculum privileges the group’s own orality as a source of knowledge. Oral transcriptions served as the primary “text”--traditional “texts,” no matter how they are interpreted, are of secondary importance--and accomplish two tasks: they measure student advancement and outline the Center’s legacy for newer members.The group’s curriculum is organized in seven sections--the Macrocosmic; Microscosmic; Mathematical; Therapeutic; Symbolical; Intellectual; and Dialectal-- with six subsections for each. Thus, the twenty-year curriculum, the seven general principles, the core texts, the weekly classes, and the transcribed lesson materials comprise the Black Gnostic Studies curriculum. By re-imagining spirituality and re-orientating exegesis, they challenge both canonical history and normative religious practices. As an example of powerful cultural agency, the Aquarians have with great creative energies engaged myriad texts and traditions and made them serve their interests and purposes. They have effectively complicated history. They have re-imagine religious traditions and created new spaces for unconventional and experimental interpretive traditions.The Hip Hop Nation: The Extension of the Black Gnostic LegacyBetween 1978 and 1983, the Los Angeles Aquarian Center opened schools in Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, Atlanta, Washington D.C., and New York City. Some of today’s most notable hip-hop artists are either members themselves, or have had contacts and experiences with Black Gnostic practitioners. They are, in a sense, the exegetical progeny of Dr. Ligon. With their emphasis on non-religious spirituality, segments of Hip-Hop culture parallel Ligon’s thinking and encourage many religiously disenfranchised youth to look into the discourses of Black Gnostic traditions.Jason Hunter, also known as Brother J of the group X-Clan, was introduced to Black Gnosticism by his band mate in New York He now espouses Black Gnostic themes of personal divinity and the “science” of becoming God. He emphasizes intuitive knowledge and spiritual liberation, myth symbolic thinking, the immortality of one’s spiritual self, and the role of unconventional exegesis, the immortality of the individual through higher consciousness. His lyrics integrate political issues, Black Nationalism, and spirituality while attempting to popularize occult notions of personal godhood. [6] This is especially the case nn his 1993 poem on immortality versus mortality, entitled “Only Mortals:”
A mortal asked me why I’m so harsh on mortals, and why they’re so different from the Gods. Only mortals would allow wisdom and feel to exchange place with intellect and illusion. Only mortals would allow sexual preference to become a separate race. Only mortals would allow their children to be taught by those who can be bought, or sex for grade. Only mortals would allow chemical warfare to override natural instincts of healing. Only mortals would allow leadership without knowledge of self, to lead the already confused. Only mortals would allow the undisciplined to inherit the earth. So don’t ask me stupid questions. [7]Hunter’s ‘godhood’ is always present in his critique of how people (mortals) in society have led us all astray, implying that only through inner knowledge can we grow beyond such limitations.As a distinct, albeit little known spiritual group, the Aquarian Center offers interpretive alternatives to conventional religious practices. Its curricular fluidity incorporates new ideas, addresses global issues, and opens critical spaces for religious and cultural experimentation and reinterpretation. The Black Gnostic Studies curriculum integrates a wide variety of religious traditions, politics—ancient texts from a wide variety of cultures; the Black Power movement; modern popular cultural practices (Hip-Hop music)-- while its approach to Gnostic cosmology remains rooted in an Africana imagination. Thus, the Aquarian Center’s appropriation and re-articulation of “Gnosticism” reveals the creativity of Black cultural agency and its capacity to engage dominant religious and cultural hegemonies, exposing new potentialities for excavative [8] possibilities. [1] Readers are aware that “Gnosticism” has a controversial and freighted history. Among the many scholars who have focused upon this history, Michael Williams (Rethinking Gnosticism [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999]) and Karen King (What is Gnosticism? [Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2003]) have been in the forefront of efforts to render problematic and more honest our thinking about the phenomenon. They have complicated assumptions about ancient “gnostic” practices and orientations by analyzing the ancient texts against later claims about “gnostic” “authenticity.” Williams has argued that many of the nineteenth and twentieth century claims about “Gnosticism” seldom addressed the politics and social psychology of their relationships to the ancient texts that were referenced (214-217). King makes clear that the ancient “Gnostics,” were an amalgam of groups that were seen as in opposition to the developing “church” and had no single origin or distinct set of characteristics (1-2).The burden of the complexity and attendant polemics of the history of reference to the term have made it easy for many throughout history and even today to accept the straightforward intensely anti-gnostic sentiments such as those associated with Irenaeus as the window onto the ancient “Gnosticism.” (See Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels [New York: Vintage Books, 1989], xxii). And looking through such a window, with the attention to the intense rhetorics and politics of the established western church, it has also become easy and customary to ignore the contributions of African and African diaspora peoples in the historical trajectories of the orientations that are understood to be “Gnostic.” The focus upon the modern-day Black Gnostics of Los Angeles is a challenge regarding the politics having to do with “Gnosticism” beyond that associated with Williams and King.[2] Levi H. Dowling, The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ: The Philosophic and Practical Basis of the Religion of the Aquarian Age of the World (Marina Del Rey: DeVorss & Co., Publishers, 1907).[3] Dadisi Sanyika, video interview by T. Hasan Johnson, Los Angeles, California, November. 2003.[4] These seven general tenets are comprised from my interviews with Sanyika and the various weekly classes held at the Aquarian Center throughout the fall of 2003.[5] Willis N. Huggins & John G. Jackson, Introduction to African Civilizations (Citadel Press, 1937); Marc Edmund Jones, Occult Philosophy (Stanwood: Sabian Publishing Company, 1948); George G.M. James, Stolen Legacy: Greek Philosophy is Stolen Egyptian Philosophy, (Trenton: African World Press, 1992 [1954]); Dane Rudhyar, The Astrological Mandala (New York: Vintage, 1974) and G.A. Gaskell, Dictionary of All Scriptures & Myths: A Classic Reference Guide to the Sacred Language of the Religions of the World (New York: Gramercy Books, 1981); Jackson’s text can also be coupled with: Cheikh A. Diop, The African Origin of Civilization Myth or Reality (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1974).[6] Jason Hunter, “Only Mortals,” Seeds of Evolution, Polygram Records, Dark Sun Riders compact disc 524159, 1996. [7] Ibid.[8] See Vincent L. Wimbush’s AAR-SBL Plenary Address, “TEXTures, Gestures, Power: Orientation to Radical Excavation,” 20 November 2004, San Antonio TX.

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