1960s Media Coverage of Ayahuasca and the UDV†
Notes on the article "Na selva, um místico vende o sonho" [In the forest, a mystic sells dreams] (1968)
v 2.0 - Dec 3, 2009
Citation: Labate BC, Anderson B, Meyer M. "1960s Media Coverage of Ayahuasca and the UDV: Notes on the article 'Na selva, um místico vende o sonho' [In the forest, a mystic sells dreams] (1968)." Erowid.org. Dec 3 2009.
IntroductionWe recently discovered a 1968 Brazilian newspaper article on the União do Vegetal (UDV) that was previously undocumented in the literature. "Na selva, um místico vende o sonho" [In the forest, a mystic sells dreams], which appeared in the daily newspaper O Estado de São Paulo,1 is an important relic in the history of the Brazilian ayahuasca religions, and one of the first pieces carried by the mass media on this topic. It provides a fascinating and problematic journalistic look at the early UDV, consonant with the spirit of that time. We suggest that our observations be read after reading the English translation or Portuguese original (PDF) of the 1968 article.
ObservationsThe article "Na selva, um místico vende o sonho" should be understood with respect to the climate that existed around ayahuasca at the end of the 1960s, in the context of Brazil's counterculture movement as well as the growing police presence in the Amazon during Brazil's military dictatorship.2,3,4 The text, written in what could be seen today as a prejudicial tone--yet based on what may have been considered a rational point of view at the time--depicts Mestre José Gabriel da Costa (the original "Master" and founder of the UDV) and his followers: a band of fanatics with foolish fantasies--a mishmash of almanac tales, Biblical mythology and Amazonian folklore--cooking up a dangerous substance in the back of a filthy "shack" alongside pigs and ducks, and offering it to "men, women, old people, children and the sick, without any medical or police restrictions." The reporter must have felt like he had stumbled upon the discovery of yet another school of mysticism rooted in the lush Amazon--maybe even a potential Canudos (a messianic community that existed in Brazil's backlands from 1893 to 1897, defying Brazilian rule until it was finally conquered by the national army).
Although the article contains information that we suspect to be false (for example, the reference to the use of cachaça [Brazilian sugar cane liquor] to preserve ayahuasca), the report reveals some clues as to what the sessions of the UDV might have been like at that time, findings that until now have not appeared in the literature. The following claims need to be further explored: A) The existence of 5,000 UDV disciples already in 1968, which contradicts a contemporary article that reports the UDV as having less than 1,500 disciples in 1971,5 as well as a masters thesis in social anthropology that estimates that the UDV had less than 150 followers in 1971;4 B) The holding of ritual sessions three times per week instead of two per month, as is normally done today; C) The use of uniforms with shirts of colors other than blue and green--interestingly, at least one UDV splinter group (pictured at right) also uses uniforms of different colors;6 D) The practice of small children drinking vegetal--today, regular use of the brew is permitted only after 12 years of age; E) Mestre Gabriel's declaration that the UDV cures everything, except for "an eye that has been ripped out or a leg that has been cut off", which conflicts with the official stance of the UDV directorate that rejects the therapeutic use of hoasca (name given to ayahuasca in the UDV),7 although at least one alternative account suggests that healings were indeed carried out during the history of the UDV.8
The affirmations by Mestre Gabriel that during the burracheira (the state of being under the effect of the brew) people actually converse with "kings and queens", as well as the reference to the esthetic elements of the other participants' accounts ("precious stones", walls "bathed in gold", etc.), seem to point to a view of the burracheira as being a more visionary and spontaneous experience than the UDV's current official public discourse suggests. For example, an excerpt from the website for the UDV in the United States reads: "the hallucinations characteristic of LSD and recreational drug use do not occur within the religious context at issue in this case. The effect of drinking the tea for the UDV members is an enhanced state of spiritual awareness through which the adherents receive communion with the Divine and greater insight into the UDV's religious doctrine."9 (This topic has been further elaborated with respect to not only its legal,10 but also its sociological implications, for instance, with how the notion of mental concentration and the more rational trance of the UDV compares with the trance of another ayahuasca religion, Santo Daime.6) As a corollary to the apparently more spontaneous nature of the burracheira experiences of some early UDV disciples, this article also reveals that the UDV once had a less measured relationship with the press. There was clearly a greater openness to journalists interviewing and photographing the participants of the rituals, which rarely occurs in the "discreet" UDV of today--although, recently, this appears to be changing, as was the case with, for example, the 2005 segment that aired, with the institution's blessing, on the Globo Network's Fantástico program,11 and the Second International Conference on Hoasca, held May 9–11, 2008 in Brasília, which was in large part directed toward the media.12
4,6 This article from O Estado de São Paulo was published less than a year after the arrest of Mestre Gabriel (August 1968), and in it the reporter claims that the official registration of the UDV was related to the appearance of two known cases of "madness" associated with consuming vegetal, at the end of the 1960s, in the region of Rondônia, Brazil. Although the UDV itself has presented reports in which they have documented cases involving psychiatric problems and the consumption of hoasca,13,14,15 and although we know that choosing the name "Centro Espírita" and its legal registration already revealed a project of legitimization and the search for public recognition,4,6 to our knowledge, the alleged cases of "madness" mentioned in the article have not been cited in any other source. In a 1995 conference hosted by the Center for Medical Studies of the UDV (known today as the Medical Scientific Department, DEMEC), there was a panel where the "Masters of the Origin" (Masters who were Mestre Gabriel's contemporaries), openly discussed the occasional problems associated with the consumption of hoasca, and they mentioned specific cases that they themselves had witnessed.16 It is possible that some of these cases may have been the very ones reported on in this article.
With this in mind, it would be interesting to investigate in what way the arrest of Mestre Gabriel and the consolidation of the UDV as an official institution may have been related to political problems involving the effect of ayahuasca consumption on mental health, as well as how such events may have influenced future developments of the UDV, which is known to be particularly preoccupied with the medico-legal legitimization of the use of hoasca.17 Be this as it may, it is important to remember that the other Brazilian ayahuasca religions--not only Santo Daime but also the Barquinha--confronted similar problems with respect to the authorities from the end of the 1950s onwards, which, analogously, influenced the legal strategies of these groups;4,6,18 however, only the UDV has so far developed both medical and legal departments to deal with these types of issues.
Even though he refers to Mestre Gabriel as a "man of good faith", for the reporter, the UDV can only aspire to attain the status of a "religion" and the doctrine of Mestre Gabriel can only exist in his "imaginary kingdom" to justify "the indiscriminate use of the brew that cause[s] hallucinations". The "tea of dreams" revered by the peasant believers portrayed in this article is reduced to a "drug", leaving the dreams and hopes of an already marginalized people even further crushed. With this in mind, the article needs to be read in a critical manner since it clearly implies that the consumption of ayahuasca is associated with dangerous, meaningless states of consciousness--a stance which delegitimizes the possibility that the use of ayahuasca can be taken seriously as an element of religious practice, and which is highly problematic with regard to the principle of respecting religious diversity.
Translation of the article "Na selva, um místico vende o sonho"
[PDF of Original Newspaper Page]
Translation from Portuguese by Robin Wright, edited by the authors
O ESTADO DE S. PAULO, Aug 29 1968 (daily newspaper)
In the forest, a mystic sells dreamsText and Photos by Alberto Prado, Local Desk
Gabriel, a semi-illiterate Bahian man from Feira de Santana, leaves his land and goes off to the rubber camps of Bolivia in search of better luck. He meets a rubber-tapper there who gives him a strange tea to drink that produces fantastic visions. Under the effects of the tea of dreams, men and women would break down the barriers of decency and fully experience moments of total freedom. But Gabriel didn't like it: This here is a plant but I see that it has spiritual power. One can't use it for certain things. Gabriel learned the recipe for producing the tea of dreams, established a doctrine that justifies the use of the drink--a mixture of the Bible and Inca history--and founded a religious sect, the União do Vegetal (or, Union of the Plants, UDV). And, for nearly two years, the Amazon Forest has had a new mystic: Master Gabriel. Today, on Abunã Street, in Porto Velho--Rondonia Territory--Master Gabriel and his sect have more than five thousand adepts scattered throughout the whole region and with branches in Bolivia. The headquarters of the União remains in the back of Gabriel's house.
There are 2 cases of madnessA summary, up to now, of the União do Vegetal's activities: five thousand adepts, centers even outside the country, scores of imagined cures, apotheosis of the Master, and two "brothers" who went crazy after prolonged use of the drink. Gabriel says that mariri does not make anyone go crazy, but the truth is that the two cases of madness were observed by medical doctors from Porto Velho and confirmed by the Police Station. One of them, a 19-year-old young man, was taken to a doctor; he had difficulty in walking and his gaze was fixed. The young man said that, after taking the potion, he got this feeling of wanting to "do something, he didn't know what", and he started to cry, overcome by a great anxiety. One of the people hurt by the drink took off into the forest and wandered for several days, until he was found.
The explorationGabriel worked for some time without registering the group. But, after the first case of madness appeared, the official registry of an association called the União dos Vegetais [Union of the Plants] was requested with statutes elaborated according to the law. It is known that Gabriel did not prepare this document, since he was a person practically without any schooling. The obligation of registration was handed over to a third party who apparently has nothing to do with the drug but controls the entity administratively. It seems that this "grey eminence" uses the União for other than mystical purposes, and would find this very easy since Gabriel, the "religious head", is only concerned with his flock and leaves the earthly part to the director of the association.
In the event of police intervention, the first person to suffer the consequences would be Gabriel, a man of good faith. The "grey eminence" seems to have no connection whatsoever with the distribution of the caboclo6 LSD, for he only controls the "social part of the club". But mariri is cheaper than cachaça and does not need a still to prepare it. Thus, if the association closed down, fanaticism would not prevent the forbidden "religion" from expanding throughout the forest.
Monthly dues: 3 cruzeirosAfter he got to know the effects of the uasca-mariri mixture, Jose Gabriel da Costa, Master Gabriel, guided his "religion" toward the possibilities of searching for the unknown that the drug made available. Presently, the União dos Vegetais has its statutes registered in the Official Registry of Titles and Documents office of Porto Velho and the authorities do not know what to do to stop the pilgrimage that the Master's fame has been causing. And, as a legally registered association, the União charges its members monthly dues of 3 cruzeiros novos, and 2 cruzeiros novos for each new "brother" who shows up just to drink the brew and take a "trip".
The Police of Porto Velho sent samples of the two plants to Rio de Janeiro for an analysis to be made of the drug's effects. Based on these results, the União do Vegetal could be extinguished. But it will be difficult to extinguish the faith of Master Gabriel--who is not a hoaxer and really believes in his vocation as predestined leader. With the União extinct, it will be impossible to destroy the "religion": its thousands of adepts are spread out in the forests and at mining sites, and the easy access to the plants, which are native to the region, it will become a pastime for the caboclos.
How it aroseAccording to the oldest residents of the region, uasca and mariri have been used for a long time by the Indians of the region who, under the stimulating effects of the plants, were very successful in hunting game. The Indian becomes quick and cunning in his use of the bow and arrow. But Master Gabriel says that we can only understand what the drug is if we drink it. And he offers the brew, which is repugnant to anyone who has basic standards of hygiene: the tea is made in the back of the Master's shack, next to a pig sty, and over the oven, where a pot is boiling to the side of which chickens and ducks nibble scraps of food.
The Master was still living in Bahia when he heard about this fantastic drink for the first time and, ever since that time, he felt a desire to try it. Gabriel came to Rondonia in 1941, when rubber extraction received a boost due to the demands of the war. Always with an idea fixed on the tea of dreams--"which made us see persons who were not there"--Gabriel went to the rubber camp. He earned 9 cruzeiros (the old kind) per kilo of rubber extracted and lived in the worst possible conditions. Later, Gabriel moved to Acre, still with the idea fixed in his head of the marvelous drink that up until then he had not yet found.
He still remembers the day"It was on July 23rd, of 1961, that I met Master Chico Lourenço who gave me uasca to drink". Gabriel's eyes shine when he remembers that date, which is very important to him. That date marks the day the simple rubber-worker entered the ranks of respected persons. Now he is a spiritual guide and a religious leader toward whom around five thousand subjects look with respect, and from whose hands are born the dreams that those people were never able to have are born. And dreams distributed for free, or almost, only through a small contribution to the association's coffers.
He leaves the earthBut Gabriel continues his story: "The first time that I drank uasca, I felt myself outside the earth. The forest became covered in gold. I heard music that I'd never heard before. I saw so many marvelous things that the vocabulary that I have does not even offer the words for me to describe them." "After that first experience", he relates, "I had a number of other trips". But the simple Bahian man soon became disgusted with the intentions of Master Lourenço "who only thought of evil". Uasca was used by the guide as a way of getting easy access to the women of other rubber-tappers. Gabriel did not like that. Thus began the mystical experiences that would justify the indiscriminate use of the brew that caused hallucinations.
The explanationAfter finding out how to prepare the drug, Gabriel felt that he had an extraordinary force in his hands. He then sought a religious explanation for the origin of the two plants. He asked Chico Lourenço, who told him that the plants were used by the Indians. But Gabriel was not satisfied with that and, after taking a double dose of the mixture, he thought about Solomon--who he says is the Father of Science--and dreamed, or better, "saw", like in a film, the whole mystical history of the origin of the plants.
The dream room is just a hovel"The room where the sessions take place is located in a filthy old hovel where, under the worst hygienic conditions, the drink is prepared and given to whoever wants it, men, women, old people, children and the sick, without any medical or police restrictions. The dream sessions are held three times a week--on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays--for members and non-members. But Master Gabriel does extra sessions for those who desire to know the mysteries of the unknown on any day of the week, and freely distributes his mixture. All in the name of converting the impious.
The sessionThe União do Vegetal's sessions begin around eight p.m. and last as long as the effects of the drink last. Master Gabriel is the first to drink the brew--a full cup that he drinks almost all at once. Later, already under the effects of the drink, with a hallucinating appearance, he distributes the brew to the other participants, who remain seated around a rectangular table. The Master always uses a green satin shirt, and the sect's members wear brightly colored shirts of different colors. After singing a song in praise of the sect's highest god--"Tiuaco is mariri, Tiuaco is marshal. Tiuaco is the great king in the hall of the Vegetal"--the session of dreams itself begins. Each person thinks--Master Gabriel says--of his own problems and everyone together in one thought, and led by the Master, enters the world of fantasy.
What one seesThe two plants utilized in the preparation of the brew are called "uasca" and "mariri" From uasca, one gets the leaf, and from the mariri--which is a vine--the stem, which, after it is mashed, is put in hot water. The drink thus produced has a strong smell and is grayish. Master Gabriel says that he does not mix this brew with alcohol, but some people from Porto Velho who know the religion, say that cachaça is added to conserve the drink, which is prepared in large quantities. A cup of the drug causes hallucinations that last for more than three hours, depending on who drinks it and, in just one week, 13 liters of the brew were consumed in Porto Velho.
According to the "brothers" of the sect, the first sensation that one has after taking the drink is of floating. Later, precious stones are seen and the walls of the house seem like they are bathed in gold. The cups "become encrusted with jewels that shine so bright it hurts the eyes". "I once saw all of Paris", a caboclo relates. "I climbed the Eiffel Tower, I sailed on the Seine, and I chatted with de Gaulle". This caboclo has never gone out of his mining site at the headwaters of the Candeias River. According to the testimonies of the drug's consumers, the effects correspond with those that have been observed in people under the effects of LSD.
In the childrenThe União dos Vegetais sessions are indescriminately done for very young and very old people. Master Gabriel's own son--who is named Salomão and wears long hair like a girl--participates in the sessions and, at only three years old, he says that he feels "weird things" but he does not know how to describe them. His mother says that Salomão, after drinking uasca, shows signs of "great intelligence and deep wisdom". "Great intelligence and profound wisdom", for the ignorant mother obsessed with mysticism, are the results of the state of drunkenness that takes hold of the child after ingesting the hallucinogen.
Theory goes from Solomon to the IncasGabriel mixes stories from almanacs with passages from the Old Testament and from the History of the Inca Empire, everything involved in low Spiritism, and extracts from this an explanation, more or less well stitched together. "Solomon presented himself to me", Gabriel relates, "with long hair and a white beard, wearing a very white tunic. He said that many centuries ago, there was a king who is not remembered in history. He was Inca". Gabriel interrupts his narration of the dream to say that he already knew, before taking uasca, that the Incas lived in Peru and that they had founded a flourishing, ancient civilization.
But the Master continues: "Father Solomon told me that this unknown king had a councilor named Uascar. She was a mysterious woman, who foresaw things and knew all about the past and all about the future. It was she who advised the king in all of his decisions. But, one day, Uascar died". Gabriel, overcome by the hallucination, continues to listen to Solomon tell the story in the flesh. "The king buried Uascar and on her tomb a tree began to grow. It was a tree that was different from all others and the king, not knowing what tree it was, gave it the name of uasca". Years passed and, in Gabriel's imaginary kingdom, a boy was born who, according to "Solomon", was given the name of Tiuaco.
"Solomon" continued his revelation to the Master: "Tiuaco grew up and became a trusted high official of the old king. One day the two, king and his high official, went to visit the tomb of Uascar and the king said to Tiuaco that if a tea was made from the leaves of the uasca, whoever drank it would be able to talk with the spirit of Uascar and know her secrets and mysteries."
What it cures, according to the MasterAccording to the legend told by Master Gabriel, the mariri sprouted on the tomb of Tiuaco. The two plants, strengthened by the blood of heroes, were found many centuries later by Solomon, who, standing before the two tombs, said (according to the Master's imagination): "I come to make the union of the plants so that the liquid produced by the two may be the key to discovering divine mysteries". Thus the religion was born. Various "apostles" succeeded him until Master Gabriel, the Bahian supreme lord of the "vegetalistas", came into the world.
Master, do you also do cures? "The only things the União does not cure", Gabriel answers, "are an eye that has been ripped out or a leg that has been cut off. Outside of those, all the rest is cured. There are people who come in wheelchairs and leave walking. Wild madmen come tied up and go back calm and smiling". (The truth is that the crazy people leave the session hall completely doped by the drug.)
The crazy peopleDespite the evidence of two cases of insanity, Master Gabriel denies that the drink that he prepares and ministers is responsible for madness. He explains that, "In some cases, the effects take awhile to wear off and the brother continues to talk for several days with kings and queens and stepping lightly as though he was walking on clouds. But that's not madness. Those who don't know mariri think that the guy is crazy, but what's happening is that he is really seeing the kings and queens". To prevent the "brothers" from leaving the care of the Union, Master Gabriel warns that the only crazy people are those who take mariri without the guidance of the religious leader. In that way, through fear, he holds on to the simple people who follow him.
Arrested beforeBefore the legalization of uasca, Gabriel was actually arrested. What happened was that in one of his centers, in Jarú--on the roadside of the Porto Velho-Cuiabá Highway--a mineral prospector, under the effects of uasca, looked at the foreman of the mine and angrily shouted: "Get away from me Satan for I belong to God". The foreman came to Porto Velho and communicated the occurrence to the Police chief, who issued arrest warrants for the madman and for the one who had provided him the drink to verify what happened.
Gabriel later presented himself at the station and was able to prove to the Police that "whoever speaks in the name of God is not crazy. Otherwise everyone would be". After that episode, the association was officially registered.
The progressToday, the União has progressed and, in order to attend to the great number of faithful, Gabriel is starting, in the back of his house, a systematic plantation of uasca and mariri. Also the extensive consumption of the plant infusion has meant that the number of sites of production has multiplied: besides the tea prepared in the same place where the sessions are held, in Porto Velho, the sect's representative in Jarú prepares the drink in the same places where the plants are extracted and sends it in bottles to his boss.
The manGabriel really believes in what he does. He is not a vagrant and he does not hide his association's objectives from anyone. Besides the spiritual activities, the Master works as a truck driver transporting merchandise that is unloaded from the Madeira-Mamoré Railroad in Porto Velho. Very early every morning, Gabriel is there, with a red Ford truck, waiting for the shipments. Apparently he is a well-balanced person, with a tranquil expression, a good physique, and speaks calmly and clearly. His wife, however, sees her husband as a pre-destined leader. She refers to her own husband as "Master" and treats the sect's "sacred" objects with great care: the colored shirts, the little saint statues and images. In the preparations for the sessions, the wives of various "brothers" and some children, dressed in rags, get together to sweep the floor of the hall and wash the cups in which the doses will be served.
The floor of the shelter has to be frequently cleaned: many of the "brothers" when they're in trance and the hallucinations reach a peak, dirty the whole floor, in a great variety of ways, especially after periods of strong nausea. The nausea only occurs, according to an adept, when the master "is pushing hard".