First, let us start with where voodoo came from: During the sixteenth century, slave traders began taking people from the West Coast of Africa (also known as the Slave Coast), the area comprising Benin, Dahomey, and Togo, and selling them to French owned plantations in the Caribbean. The French Catholics tried to forcibly convert the slaves to Catholicism. What instead happened was an integration of the Yoruba and Fon traditions of Africa with Catholicism, thus creating Vodou. The later movement of these slaves also brought Vodou to New Orleans and the Carolina coast.
The word Vodou means “Spirit” or “Diety” in the Fon language of Dahomey (which is now a part of Nigeria). Like vedic religion, Vodou is monotheistic. They believe in one God, called Bondye, but they believe he is unfathomable. In vedic religion, guru provides a link between God and man. In Vodou, that link is accomplished by spirits very similar to the demigods: the loa (also spelled lwa). Also, it is accomplished by the Mambo (priestess) or Houngan (priest).
There is no difference between Houngans and Mambos other than gender. They are equals in respect and power. But, they complete the link between man and God by helping us link to the loa. In many ways, the Houngan and Mambo are like our spiritual parents. They provide spiritual guidance, emotional support, and they even provide herbs when we are ill. Whereas any person can pray to the loa and feel them in their lives, the mambo or houngan has the ability to bridge the gap between our plane of existance and theirs and actually call them into our realm of experience.
As far as the loa themselves, who are they? They are archetypal and ancestral spirits, bridging the gap between man and God. Their similarity to the demigods is surprising. For instance, the loa Ghede corresponds to the demigod Yama and the loa Papa Legba corresponds to the demigod Ganesh. A major difference between the demigods and the loa is that in Vodou they realize that the demigods are below God and so they serve God THROUGH the demigods.
A major theme in Vodou is service....just like in vedic religion. As Sallie Ann Glassman (my old Mambo and author of Vodou Visions, a book where you can find this information on Vodou as well as a lot more) says, “The core focus of a Vodou Sosyete (society or congregation) is on service. Be true to yourself and make your life the most beautiful offering that you can give. Service to the Lwa is service to the community. Service to the community is service to the Lwa.”
The lwa are honored in much the same way as Krishna and the demigods. They are offered incense, water, food (they even have favorite foods), etc. A difference is that the loa are also offered liquor and cigarettes or cigars. But, the idea is the same. The offering is made, the loa accept the offering, and then the now sacred food can be consumed by the congregation.
In Vodou, respect and honor are paramount. It is not some empty respect for a God that you cannot see, but it is respect for all life. Each individual is a creation of God and is thus sacred. Every item, when used in the service of the Lwa, becomes sacred. Whereas Christians go to a church which they consider holy ground, Vodou makes the ground they live on holy. Vodou makes the things of your everyday life sacred. Vodou makes the here and now an act of worship, and not just the “there and on Sunday”.
Like the Gaudiya vaisnava tradition, song and dance is an integral part of the voodoo ceremony. When you dance in Vodou, you offer your energy and body to the lwa. You feel the drumbeat pulse through you like the heartbeat of the loa and you immerse yourself in their caress. The trappings of everyday life bleed from you and you become spirit, dancing in honor and ecstasy. You commune with the lwa.
No article on Vodou would be complete without also touching on three often misunderstood subjects, which I will do now: magic, possession, and sacrifice:
In Vodou, like in the Vedas, animal sacrifice is a reality. But also, like the Vedas (or even Judaism), animal sacrifice is done with a sense of compassion and respect. The idea is not to torture or harm the poor animal, but instead to offer it up to the lwa, life and body. Afterwards, the animal is cooked and eaten by the congregation. This is not a barbaric rite, but one that affirms life. Whereas in the US we eat meat that comes wrapped in plastic and anonymous, these animals are cared for, respected, and eventually offered to the lwa. All life is sacred. Their gift does not go unnoticed.
There is often a difference in Vodou in the United States and Vodou in Haiti in that regard. In Haiti it is believed that without the life force, the lwa cannot manifest in our realm of experience. It's also worth noting that the Haitians don't have the luxury of buying anonymous animals wrapped in plastic. They have to kill their own animals as well. So, it can be argued, if they have to kill their own food, why should they not be able to kill the food for the loa?
That brings up another issue: How do the loa “manifest” in our realm of experience? One of the most powerful ways is that of possession. In the West, when you mention possession immediately you think of a setting something like that from the Exorcist. The thought of losing control over our own bodies terrifies us. In the context of Vodou however, possession is a beautiful thing.
When someone is possessed by a lwa in Vodou, the loa essentially borrows that body for a time. Then, they can interact with the congregation directly. This is an amazing experience, being able to talk, dance, and laugh with a being that is, for all intents and purposes, identical to the demigods. For the person who is possessed, they do not remember the incident. They have given the ultimate sacrifice: their own body for the good of the congregation even though they weren't around to enjoy! However, they're later told what has happened and can take comfort in knowing that THEY were inhabited by the lwa...and they are transformed by the knowledge that they themselves were chosen by the lwa and shared their bodies with such a powerful and beautiful spirit.
The last thing I want to touch on is the issue of magic. Since we are familiar with Hinduism, it comes as no surprise that other religions acknowledge magic to be possible. However, in the context of Vodou, there is a difference between a sorcerer (bokor) and the priest or priestess. The priest and priestess deal with spiritual transformation and the bokor deals with magic. Magic is temporary whereas spiritual transformation follows you for all your life.
It is not simply a case of good and evil, because the bokor can do spells for good OR bad. But, like Gandhi said, “As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world - that is the myth of the atomic age - as in being able to remake ourselves.” Anything the bokor does is necessarily temporary because it works on the material plane, which is in a constant state of change. However, when we enact real spiritual change with the help of the Mambo or Houngan and the loa, that change follows us all the days of our lives.
I would like to end this article with a quote from Gandhi as well:
“The essence of all religions is one. Only their approaches are different.”
Thank you and Hare Krishna.