An Introduction to the Nahuatl Culture and Its Concept of Isvara
by Akatl Ortega
Copyright 2001, Akatl J. Ortega
After participating in the World Congress for the Preservation of Religious Diversity,
15-17 November 2001 in New Delhi, he spent several weeks at the Arsha Vidya
Gurukulam in Anaikatti, where he gave this public talk on Sunday, December 16, 2001.
I am here in this beautiful land through the invitation from His Holiness Swami Dayananda to participate as a delegate in the World Congress for the Preservation of Religious Diversity. Today I am not going to talk about this Congress, which is over. I am going to talk about the work that we have to do. We all, brothers and sisters from this Mother Earth.
I am going to introduce you to my culture, and tell about how one part of this beautiful culture was destroyed by those people who invaded our continent about 500 years ago. They thought they were going to India to get some spices for their own king and queen, but instead they came to our continent. When they saw us for the first time they were afraid. They were sick, thirsty, and tired of travelling across the ocean. So the people from our culture took them with open arms, gave them water and honey, and healed them. We offered them friendship. They gave us in return only aggression. They started to kill many, many people on one island currently called Cuba, which is close to the country currently called Mexico. There was not one native left living in Cuba; they killed all of them. These native people were the Tahino people, people belonging to the Maya culture, which covered part of North America and Central America at that time.
After seven months they went from Cuba by sea to Mexico where they met our Maya people. The King Motekuhzomak (Moctezuma in Spanish) had heard about an ancient prophecy. No one from our culture knew about the white man. But about 2,000 years before the Europeans came, we had a prophet by the name Ketzalkoatl, who had white skin and golden hair. Ketzalkoatl means in English, “Snake with Feathers”. I am going to talk later about this snake, feathers, and animals in reference to our concept of Isvara, our Œgodness’. This prophet was telling our people that he would come back again. So, when those European people came from Cuba to the peninsula of Yukatan, the king told our people not to kill them, but to bring them to him. (The original name of Yukatan was ÜÜxmüül. The name Yukatan is a translation of the Mayan word “yekteten” meaning “I don’t understand”!
It took eight months of travelling through the mountains and the jungle to get to the city of the king, currently called Mexico City. On the day of their arrival to the city they were welcomed with music, with special food, with ceremonies, beautiful ceremonies. This marvelous big city was built on a lake. In the middle of the lake they had built a huge temple, the temple of Tenoch, meaning Œrock’. They built the temple in honor of this Tenoch, which is part of our sacred culture, our Œgodness’. And they put many, many objects made of silver, gold and precious stones to decorate the temple. It was not an image like Sri Krishna or other images, it was only a stone like the Shiva lingam. That was the representation of our gods.
The people who came from Europe saw only these brilliant metals, gold and silver. They got greedy and that same night they took our king prisoner. Our king was telling these people, if you let my people free, I will give you one full room of gold and other precious metals and stones. Let them free, let them go. You have me! I am the king of these people. These Spanish people accepted this offer, but that same night broke their word. They killed the king, Motekuhzomak, and they took our entire nation as slaves, as prisoners. They destroyed all our temples, all our houses, our schools, our hospitals. They destroyed everything including our holy books. They prohibited us from using our language.
Our Mother tongue is Nahuatl, the same name as our culture, the Nahuatl culture. There is no translation in English, or in German, or in sanskrit. It is the name the Creator gave to our people, to our culture. We can make different translations now, but they are not the meaning. The meaning is the Creator gave us this, the language, the knowledge, the culture, stones, air, water, fire, space. Everything is in those words of Nahuatl.
So on that day of October, 1519, they killed the last king of Mexico. Since that time they continued to oppress our people through violence, through aggression to make us blind, to keep us without tongue, without language, to make us people without religion. In their thinking that they could do this to us, they didn’t think about our knowledge, our teachings from our ancestors, our elders, which are stronger than them. Our roots are there. They didn’t kill all of us. Many of us have been hiding behind those words of “Christianity”. They never accepted the conversion. Like me, when I was born I was given a Christian name and a Nahuatl name. I never used this Christian name. I only use it for the people in airports, for the people in different official capacities. But in my heart, it is not. It looks like a name of one small inferior animal to me. And it is. I don’t like this. I am a person who is talking always with part of my body. With my heart I see more things than with my eyes. And I cannot see this name in my heart; I cannot even see it with my eyes.
So what I also want to tell you today is about the relationship that exists between this beautiful culture, the Vedic culture and ours. Our scriptures are about 5,000 years old. I want to talk today about the concept of our godness and make a connection to the concept from your culture, the Vedanta, the Vedic culture.
In our culture, we have the representation also of five elements. We worship all these five elements, air, water, fire, earth (we call it Mother Earth) and space, the cosmos, the macrocosmos. This relationship is also in us, with the microcosmos and the macrocosmos and all these elements in us. We see in these five elements, also, God. We don’t have one special name for God. We call it the Great Spirit; we call it the Great Mystery; we call it the Great Energy. In my own mother language it is Ometeotetl. In another language of different native Americans, they call it Wakan Tanka. They call it also Naweshka. They call it different names; they have different forms.
We used to worship all these names and all these forms. Like I was telling in the beginning, we have also a form, which is a big stone. The people from Spain, when they saw this stone, they thought that we were people without souls, who can’t think, and who don’t have any gods. They wanted to give us their own god. We have been thinking, how can this god be from those white people who are so cruel, so aggressive, who want to talk to us, but with a sword in hand, and behind them with a cross, with slavery, with lies, with raping our women. How can one god be like this? We were asking ourselves, because we got the teachings from our ancestors that God is our Father, the Father of this Mother Earth. He is the Creator of the water, of the fire, of the trees, of this space, the macrocosmos, of everything. He is the Creator of the little microbiological insects or bacteria, virus. In this relationship we have in our culture the tradition to worship trees as God.
I saw in India you have also holy trees and holy plants, like Tulasi or the Boddhi tree. It is the same in our culture. I saw that you have also one special month and in this month one special ceremony for one god. We also. Our calendar is different than the Christian calendar. In one year we have twenty months. Each month has eighteen days. In this calendar we make twenty different worships a year for different gods, who are manifestations of only one, the Creator. We have 360 days a year to make worship and five days are free. During those five days you can worship what you want. You can worship the god for maize or corn, the god for water, and the animals and plants that live in water. You can worship the god for wind, or air. You can make your own choice for these five days. The other days are only once in a month a special day for one god. So there is complete worship during the whole year.
We have also the representation of God in the animals. I spoke before about the snake and the feathers. The snake signifies power, not power to oppress another, but spiritual power and wisdom. For us there is no dangerous animal, it is a brother, a sister. The eagle represents one of the highest spiritual symbols in our culture. The eagle is the eyes of God and is the speed of God. It can go very, very high and see down below what is happening, and it flies with great speed bringing a message to God.
At the end of my personal education as a medicine man, I got a present from my teacher, an eagle feather. In our culture the highest jewel that we can get is a feather. We can get different kinds of metals, but they are not as high as a feather. With this feather we make ceremonies; we can try to heal animals, plants, also brothers and sisters the human beings. This feather represents a direct connection with the Creator; we use it like an antenna.
We are also instruments of the Creator when we are making ceremonies, when we are making healing ceremonies, or when we are offering harvest ceremonies, or other types of ceremonies. In our culture, we have two big ceremonies, the birthday and the day of one’s death. In between, when it is the anniversary of my birth day, there is no ceremony; the birthday party doesn’t exist in our culture. There are only two ceremonies, the birth day and the day one leaves the body.
We have also the teaching and the belief that we are not this body. This body is just a transport, a kind of auto, which has to be in good condition to last a short time on this Mother Earth to do our duties, to learn and teach. That means tradition. It is in our spirituality to always talk about this. Nothing belongs to me, not even this body because I won’t take it with me when I leave.
When the European people came to us and started to take people, animals and our land as if it belonged to them, we were surprised. How can the god of those people teach this? How can these small people be so greedy and take everything as if it belongs to them? “My microphone, my auto, my children,” they think like this. In our way of thinking, we don’t think of my children, just children of God, children of this Mother Earth. This is also the name that we have in our culture.
When those people saw us, they thought they were in India, and they called us Indians. I am very proud to be an Indian and to be here in India with my brothers and sisters. The people call me a Red Indian. I have always been looking for this color and I found that I am blind. I cannot see these colors. I cannot recognize colors on the skin of my brothers and sisters. One teacher gave me an explanation about the white people who have categorized the colored people by red, dark, black, or yellow. He said it as though talking to a white person, “When you were born, you were pink. When you grew up, you look white. When you get a sunburn, you look red. When you get sick, you look green. When you die you look blue. And then, you have the nerve to call me colored?”
My teacher was very happy; he made many jokes during my learning time with him. I lived with him, just as in your tradition you have a gurukulam where you live with your gurus. I went to his house, a little bamboo cabin.
After I finished school, I was in the university, I decided to put all those papers aside and went to my own profession, which is Mother Nature. My teacher called me a healer of Mother Nature, but I am only an instrument. This instrument is giving me new ideas every day. It is giving me energy every day to fight with non-violence for human rights, for the human rights of all of us to preserve our traditions, to preserve our mother tongue, to preserve our religions, to preserve our ceremonies, old ancient ceremonies. There are other people in my country who think like me, but as you know, in America and especially in Mexico, Christianity is the majority.
When I used to speak to people in my country, afterwards the police would come and arrest me. I am not afraid because I know I am not this body. They can put this body for a couple of hours in jail, or a couple of days in jail, but I am free. So, they are ignorant. They don’t want to know about the truth about our religion, about our traditions, how beautiful they are. Our traditions are non-violent. We are accustomed to give what we have to other people with non-violence. It is the same as in your culture, when you use the word, ahimsa. We don’t have this word, but we know. We got this teaching from the first culture of this Mother Earth. When I say the first culture, I mean the Vedic culture. Many, of our old teachers are sure that our culture is a teaching from the Vedic culture. Mexico in this Mother Earth is in the same parallel as India. We have the same weather, the same plants and animals, but not elephants and also no big tigers only small tigers. But we have the same kind of natural medicine as ayurvedic, and I treat our people only with plants. We also have a rainy season during a big part of the year like the monsoon in India. But we have two weathers in Mexico. Up north it is very cold, sometimes snowing. Down south is like here always green in the winter. The temperature ranges from 28 to 32 degrees Celsius.
In a vast part of our continent the native Americans are suffering very much from this invasion and colonization. The invaders talk about a discovery. To us it is not a discovery; it is an invasion, a massacre. They have been killing not only people of Mexico or Central America or South America, but also of the country currently called U.S.A., Canada, and the last land called Alaska. In the part called Alaska, Canada, and U.S.A., the native people are living in reservations. A reservation is a piece of land with a fence. It is a small piece of land for nations, a different kind of nations. In the reservations they are still trying to preserve their traditions, trying to learn to teach their own children their own mother language, which is prohibited. Sometimes they are trying to make ceremonies, but that is also still prohibited.
They must have different kinds of ceremonies outside the reservation, and they have to call the place where they perform those ceremonies “Native American Church”. They are not Christians, but anyway they have to call it a church. So they can go there and make a ceremony; they have to close the door. Other people are not welcome because if some strange people are coming and talking about this, when the native Americans are leaving this church, the police catch them and put them in jail. Everything is still prohibited in those countries.
So, when I am talking to you, I am talking also in the name of my brothers and sisters of Alaska, Canada, U.S.A., Central America, South America, and all the islands on both sides of this continent. Also, my message here and now is to give you my thanks first of all for allowing me to participate together with you in your culture, in your traditions, in your religion. In these few days I have been hearing how wonderful is your philosophy, the Vedanta philosophy. I am learning much to be able to talk about this to my people, because this learning is very important for all of us in this world. This kind of learning is not trying to convert anyone. It is teaching me who I am, really who I am, what I am doing here in this body; what I am doing here on this Mother Earth; where I am going after this. This is your philosophy, your culture. Now I can say proudly, I would like to be part of it; to learn more and go with you into the villages to be together with people who also have their own traditions and the same culture, Vedic.
I would like to motivate you to also motivate your neighbors, your family, and other people. Motivate doesn’t mean to convert, just motivate to be inside your culture, to be proud to be a Hindu. And say aloud, “I am Hindu, and I am proud to be an Indian”. Like me, when I am going all around the world I am dressing like this (in traditional clothes). Sometimes I am dressing with leather. In respect for this culture, this land, and you people, I know that leather is not in this culture because ahimsa (non-violence) is one of the highest values of your culture. I learned in Sanskrit many years ago the words, ahimsa paramodharmah, meaning ahimsa is the highest dharma. So, when I am wearing leather, I don’t feel good because it is not respectful to your culture. But when I am in other places with different cultures, I am wearing leather because it belongs to my culture. So, I look dangerous to other people. The long hair in our culture means we take in power from the cosmos, from the Creator. Long hair was there in all cultures before and I keep it. I have not cut it since I was eighteen. At that time I got the I.D. of an adult and I could decide by myself. So, I stopped wearing western clothes. I have been wearing only handmade clothes of leather or of cotton. These clothes are handmade by women in south Mexico where I live currently.
Like this, I would like to motivate all of you, wherever I am, to be proud of your culture, to fight with ahimsa to preserve your religion, to preserve your philosophy, to preserve your culture. The word tradition means to give from one to another, like the Creator was giving to our teachers and these teachers to us. Now is the time for our teachers to give it to us, but we must also have an active participation on this Mother Earth to talk about this with other people who are not here.
If other people who don’t belong to this culture hear about this, no problem. Maybe they will become aware that they are Hindus. The Hindu culture belongs to the Vedic culture. The Vedic culture is not some strange culture coming from I don’t know where. I don’t know from where was coming this Christianity. In the books I read only about war and war and war. I don’t know where this war originated, because still today there is war.
In the south of Mexico where I live, Christian people are making war against Maya people and are killing still. The Maya people there have become guerrillas because they want to preserve the jungle, they want to preserve their own traditions, their own customs, their own religion. The Christian people want to get that land, with people and everything. I am not a native person to fight against those people with ahimsa words. I only can motivate my brothers and sisters. Don’t let yourselves be caught by Christianity. Let yourselves catch the knowledge that is in your own culture, that is Vedic. In my own Mexikatl culture, a part of the Nahuatl culture, there are also many, many teachings from the Vedas.
I would like to thank you for these moments and I appreciate a lot this invitation from His Holiness Swami Dayananda. I have the opportunity to talk to you; I have the opportunity to live together with you, and the experience that I am taking to my country is experience that is going to make history. When we write an article about this, this is going to be part of history. We change the history. No more dates from war; we are going to make history about knowledge, about fraternity, about preservation from our own being, Vedic or Mexikatl. Both are the same; both are in the same boat, call it Mother Earth. Thanks a lot. Hari Om. Ahó.
(c) Copyright 2001, Akatl J. Ortega
Akatl Ortega was born in North America in Mexiko Tenochtitlan, today called Mexico City. He is a medicine man and a teacher. His work consists of teaching about the customs, ceremonies, and traditions of the native American Indians of Mexico, with the original names. His people are called Aztecs by the Europeans because they couldn’t say the right word “Atlantekah”, which is one of the Nahuatl nations.