As revolutionary India entered the world stage as a free nation in 1947, The Hindu, a widely read Indian newspaper, condemned the banning of Paul Robeson’s public performance in Peoria, Illinois as a consequence for his agitation for world peace and the freedom of oppressed peoples everywhere. “If Paul Robeson is un-American, so much the worse for America,” declared the writer of the piece. The article was republished on the first page of The Baltimore Afro-American on May 24, 1947
In 1956, Robeson would be viciously targeted for his support of the erstwhile Soviet Union and his lifelong admiration for the Russian Revolution as well as the revolutions of Asian and African peoples for independence from colonial rule by the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, which was established in 1938 in efforts to quell the rising tide of communism as the American nation struggled against a deep economic depression. Robeson’s heroic defense at the investigation against the encroachments of the virulent Jim Crow, anti-communist regime:
Could I say that the reason that I am here today, you know, from the mouth of the State Department itself, is: I should not be allowed to travel because I have struggled for years for the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa. For many years I have so labored and I can say modestly that my name is very much honored all over Africa, in my struggles for their independence. That is the kind of independence like Sukarno got in Indonesia. Unless we are double-talking, then these efforts in the interest of Africa would be in the same context. The other reason that I am here today, again from the State Department and from the court record of the court of appeals, is that when I am abroad I speak out against the injustices against the Negro people of this land. I sent a message to the Bandung Conference and so forth. That is why I am here. This is the basis, and I am not being tried for whether I am a Communist, I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people, who are still second-class citizens in this United States of America. My mother was born in your state, Mr. Walter, and my mother was a Quaker, and my ancestors in the time of Washington baked bread for George Washington’s troops when they crossed the Delaware, and my own father was a slave. I stand here struggling for the rights of my people to be full citizens in this country. And they are not. They are not in Mississippi. And they are not in Montgomery, Alabama. And they are not in Washington. They are nowhere, and that is why I am here today. You want to shut up every Negro who has the courage to stand up and fight for the rights of his people, for the rights of workers, and I have been on many a picket line for the steelworkers too. And that is why I am here today. . . .
Sue Bailey Thurman and Howard Thurman travelled to India, Burma and Ceylon, as part of the first African-American delegation to colonial India in 1935-1936, at the height of its anti-colonial struggle against the British Empire. Known as the Pilgrimage of Friendship to the East, the delegation was organized by the Student Christian Movement in the United States in tandem with Christian student organizations in India, Ceylon, and Burma. The leader of the Christian student organizations in southern Asia at this time was a man named Augustine Ralla Ram, who felt that a black Christian delegation would be more accepted than white missionaries who cooperated with the British Empire, as Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt discuss in their new book, Visions of a Better World: Howard Thurman’s Pilgrimage to India and the Origins of African-American Nonviolence. He called the delegation because “Christianity in India is the oppressors religion” and that “there would be a unique value in having representatives of another oppressed group speak on the validity of the contribution of Christianity” (quoted in Dixie and Eisenstadt 70). An article in the Spelman Messenger reported Augustine Ram Ralla’s interest in “The social and class distinctions to which Negroes in America are subjected” which “seemed to parallel, to some degree, caste distinctions in India” (70).
The delegation was chaired by Howard Thurman, a renowned theologian and civil rights agitator who would become a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., introducing the young King to Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence. The significance of their visit to furthering mutual understanding between India and African-America cannot be underscored enough as it was the first Black Christian delegation to tour India. The pilgrimage would also constitute an crucial dimension of Thurman’s 1949 book, Jesus and the Disinherited, a work of great spiritual striving and erudition, which King carried with him everywhere. Knowing this history is vital to understanding King’s oft-quoted remark that while he went as a tourist to other countries, to India he came as a pilgrim. In this book, Thurman would argue that
American Christianity has betrayed the religion of Jesus almost beyond redemption. Churches have been established for the underprivileged, the weak, the poor on the theory they prefer to be among themselves. Churches have been established for the Chinese, the Japanese, the Korean, the Mexican, the Filipino, the Italian and the Negro with the same theory in mind. The result is that in the one place in which normal, free contacts might be most naturally established – in which the relations of the individual to his God should take priority over conditions of class, race, power, status, wealth or the like – this place is one of the chief instruments for guaranteeing barriers. (Jesus and the Disinherited 98)
Thurman was King’s senior by thirty years, sharing the same birth year with his father: 1899. His proselytization, teaching, and scholarship at Howard University and Boston University, had a profound influence on the civil rights struggle and black leadership in the twentieth century. His philosophy emphasized the oneness of humanity and his theology emphasized communion with God and nature as a way of arriving at the truth about human existence. He saw the segregation of the Christian church in the United States as a great evil and his search for peace took him to India, where he and Sue Bailey Thurman, lectured widely and built relations with prominent figures like Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi.
Though Gandhi had embraced the teachings of Christ by the time the Thurman delegation came to India, most Indians were antagonistic towards Western Christianity given its repression of native spiritual traditions and saw great hope in African-American interpretations of Christ’s teachings. As Gandhi put it, he loved Christ, but couldn’t say the same about white Christians, who invoked the Bible to justify colonial violence against the darker races: “Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” King also drew attention to this central contradiction in Christianity, noting in a fiery 1956 sermon about “Redirecting Our Missionary Zeal“:
The paradox of it all is that the white man considers himself the supreme missionary. He sends [millions] of dollars to the foreign field. And in the midst of that he tramples over the Negro.
Gandhi began developing his own interests in Christianity as early as South Africa, after having come in contact with an English priest named Charles Andrews, who decried the white church’s treatment of Africans and Indians and lent his support to Gandhi who was there to study the condition of Indian laborers. In 1929, Andrews traveled to the United States and spoke on the theory of nonviolence at black colleges and universities. At the time, Gandhi was organizing the Indian people against the repressive imperialist tax on salt, which culminated in the great Dandi Satyagraha, where he marched more than. 150 miles from Sabarmati, with upwards of 60,000 Indians vowing to produce their own salt, in defiance of the British tax on the sale of salt. The act commanded the attention of the world to the struggle of the Indians, and was widely covered by the international press.
But Gandhi’s ambition was much higher than independence. “Through the deliverance of India,” he said, “I seek to deliver the so-called weaker races of the Earth from the crushing heels of Western exploitation in which England is the greatest partner” (see “Independence vs. Swaraj, 12 January 1928). White Christianity was an integral part of Western exploitation. Like Thurman, Gandhi believed that the consequences of racial strife and Western exploitation were manifested them most tragically in the inner life of human beings, in the dilapidation of the soul, in the breaking of the spirit, in the negation humanity’s fundamental interconnectedness to each other as well as to God and nature.
As King put it later, we are all wrapped in a single garment of destiny and so responsible to the “cosmic partnership.” Western civilization, by contrast, had done great violence to this unity and oneness of mankind, valorizing in its wake man’s inhumanity to man. It was for this reason that Gandhi would refer to segregation as a “negation of civilization,” a thought that King would echo in his sermon, “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” whose allegorization and ventriloquization of the Apostle Paul as a character requires King to go into a dramatic monologue. Here, he impresses upon the Afro-Asiatic origins of Western civilization, like Gandhi, drawing attention to the fact that Paul would have been writing in Greek. The irony of reading this speech through a Gandhian looking glass tripled when we consider the fact that Paul is beaten, arrested, jailed, and beheaded by the Emperor Nero for his bearing and conveying the teachings of Christ, king of the Disinherited, as Thurman knew him to be.
As is somewhat well-known, King came to the teachings of Gandhi during his time in Pennsylvania, where I am writing this from. He studied at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, where in a homework assignment, he recognized Gandhi for having revealed to him “the working of the spirit of God in bringing about moral transformation within the individual.” He confesses to becoming a disciple of Gandhi upon listening to a lecture given by Mordecai Johnson in Philadelphia, shortly after the Howard University president’s own trip to India.
Mirabehn (née Miriam Slade), an English disciple of Gandhi’s, played an important role in the concretization of the Thurman delegation’s invitation to India. Mirabehn who was christened as such by Gandhi himself, was a prominent British admiral’s daughter. Thurman, who had been searching for a way to organize a meeting with Gandhi, intercepted her during her visit to the U.S. As he writes of her in his autobiography, With Head and Heart
She was an Englishwoman who had given up her life in England not only to become a mere follower of Gandhi but also to live in his ashram as a member of the family community of which he was the center…Her situation was unique because she was a woman of the upper class And had given up her way of life, abandoning the goals of her peers, including wealth and status.
Now an Englishwoman who had renounced imperial Christianity, Mirabehn took it upon herself to defend Gandhi against his Western critics, leveraging her position as an upper-class white woman . By this time, Gandhi had transmuted the existing Indian National Congress into a mass movement clamoring for Indian self-rule through a constructive program, which included the boycott of British goods and cultural institutions, an act that led to the mass jailing of thousands of satyagrahis, as his disciples were known, including Gandhi himself who was arrested and jailed in 1922 for two years on charges of sedition.
After making many inquiries as to her whereabouts, Thurman arranged for Mirabehn to give a lecture at Howard University:
I told her as Howard was the only Negro university of its kind in the United States, her experience there could not be duplicated anywhere else in the world.
In her address, she analyzed the connections between Gandhi’s teachings and those of Christ. She emphasized, that Christianity had arisen in the Near East, remarking that “the greatest spiritual teachings of the world have all come from the darker races.” As Gandhian philosopher-poetess Sarojini Naidu, had put it, “Jesus was an Asiatic, like me.” Watching Mirabehn speak passionately about these matters, Thurman came to a new awareness of the interconnectedness of Negro and Indian spiritual striving. Grateful for the experience at Howard, Mirabehn assured Thurman that she would relay his interest in visiting Gandhi’s ashram and she made good on her promise for Gandhi wrote back to Thurman:
Dear friend… I shall be delighted to have you and your three friends whenever you can come before the end of the year.
British officials initially opposed the trip, seeing the political connection between Afro-America and India as a threat to white supremacy and the colonial government. Sue Bailey Thurman, who was also invited as an official member of the delegation (not simply in her capacity as Thurman’s spouse), served as an important adviser on African American affairs to Mahatma Gandhi. During the visit to Shantiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore’s University, she lectured on the historical and aesthetic development of Negro spirituals in America called “The History Of Negro Music,” after Tagore impressed upon her how much the Indian people found inspiration in African-American spirituals and traditionals. Coretta Scott King would discover the same sentiments amongst Indians, who had a great regard for the spiritual strivings of their black brothers and sisters in struggle. While in India, Sue Thurman taught local choirs how to sing spirituals and continued to develop these interests upon her return to the U.S. Thurman writes in his autobiography, “Sue delivered [lectures on the beauties of Indian civilization] at many campuses and communities in the United States and Canada on her return home.” She stayed at Shantiniketan longer than Thurman because “she wanted to learn more about India’s ancient musical instruments,” particularly the veena, a long-necked string instrument with a domed gourd on either end.
The delegation only met with Gandhi about five months into their visit, two weeks shy of their return. Gandhi, realizing that their stay was coming to an end, wrote them a note inviting them to Bardoli, where he was resting, rather than the sevagram. Thurman was lecturing at the University Of Bombay at the time. In his autobiography, Thurman writes of their discourse:
Never in my life have I been a part of the that kind of examination: persistent, pragmatic questions about American Negroes, about the course of slavery and how we had survived it.
The conversation about slavery took them to the question of religion and civilization, namely the existence of hierarchies amongst worshippers in all world religions except Islam. Gandhi reserved the highest respect for the Muslim Faith, noting that
If you had become Muslim, Then even though you were a slave, in the faith you would be equal to your master.
Likewise, he argued that Hinduism had been corrupted by caste and that as Hindus, we have lost our self-respect not because of the colonizer, primarily, but because of the presence of untouchability in Hinduism, which was–and remains–the greatest hurdle to be overcome by modern adherents of the faith.
As their three-hour conversation drew to a close (The Thurmans had to catch a train back to Bombay), Gandhi requests a song of them, the spiritual, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” (see here for Paul Robeson’s rendition which Gandhi likely encountered):
I feel this song gets to the root of the experience of the entire human race under the spread of the healing wings of suffering.
Thurman remarks that his wife was the real musician, but that he and the others would accompany her and so they joined in song as “Gandhiji and his friends bowed their heads in prayer.” As they took leave, Gandhi bestows a basket of tropical fruit to Sue Bailey Thurman, at which point Howard Thurman requests of him a gift of his own. After gazing upon the spinning wheel which accompanied Gandhi everywhere, he asks for a piece of khadi, the revolutionary fabric that would set India free:
I would like a piece of cloth that you yourself have spun from the flax.
The gift arrived as promised a year later.
© 2019 Divya Nair
In 1913, Du Bois wrote and presented The Star Of Ethiopia, a historical pageant chronicling the history of black civilization and its contribution to world history at the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in New York City. In many ways, the play is an early enactment of the story he so painstakingly documents in the idiom of social science in his 1946 monograph, The World and Africa. Foregrounding African-American drama’s connection to African dramatic and spiritual traditions as well as its historical distinctions, his chief purpose in imagining it was to create a complete work of art, one capable of educating and uplifting the masses. As he put it, “The great fact has been demonstrated that pageantry among colored people is not only possible, but in many ways of un surpassed beauty and can be made a means of uplift and education and the beginning of a folk drama.”
Towards the fulfillment of this mission, The Star of Ethiopia progresses in six movements that detail the origins of humanity in Africa, the contributions of African civilizations to the ancient world, and the struggle of the black worker for freedom from American slavery and imperialism in the modern period. Originally imagined for an ensemble of three hundred to a thousand performance artists, the play premiered in Washington, D.C. in 1915 and made its Philadelphia debut in 1916 (see below for pictures of cast and the playbill). It was revived in a 1925 performance at the Hollywood Bowl.
“Hear ye, hear ye! All them that sing before the Lord and forget not the Vision of the Eldest and Strongest of the Races of Men whose faces be Black. Hear ye, hear ye! And remember forever and one day the Star of Ethiopia, All-Mother of Men, who gave the world the Iron Gift and Gift of Faith, the Pain of Humility and Sorrow Song of Pain, and Freedom, Eternal Freedom, underneath the Star. Arise and go, Children of Philadelphia—the Play is done—the Play is done.”
In the ninth chapter of his 1946 inquiry The World and Africa, which explores the role played by Africa in the ancient and modern world, W.E.B Du Bois theorizes the black foundations of Asiatic civilization, citing as evidence the African origins of the name “Nahsi” and the black features of the Buddha and Krishna, two of India’s most revered gods. Siddhartha Gautama who ascended to Enlightenment many centuries before Hume, Kant, and Hegel, sought to liberate Hinduism from the strictures of inequality and chart out a selfless path of human being-in-the-world. Du Bois copiously illustrates the long history of trade and inter-civilizational exchange in the Afro-Asiatic zone–the region above the Sahara Desert linking the African continent to the Asian land-mass, particularly the Indian subcontinent, in antiquity as well as by modern developments. Moreover, sub-Saharan Africa and India met in the body of water we now call the Indian Ocean and Roman North Africa had extensive trade relationships with the Indian peninsula. Finally, these continents were linked by the spread of Christianity and Islam.
As Du Bois confirms
The Asiatic and African blacks were strewn along a straight path between tropical Asia and tropical Africa and there was much racial intermingling between Africa and Western Asia.
He advances a scientific argument that presents evidence about race relations in the framework of historical materialism, guided by the logic of the Marxist dialectic. As such, though he draws on mythology and literature and indeed European ethnography as primary sources, he reads them to reconstruct a picture of the world that counters the Western imperial order, one in which the dark proletariat leads humanity in our common efforts to build a civilization founded on principles of peace and freedom. As a sociologist, Du Bois was interested in studying aspects of social life arising from human actions. As a humanist, he was guided by the belief that humanity had emerged from a common origin in Africa before developing continuously to our present condition. Ancient Greece and Rome were not European or “Caucasian”, per the evolving field of race science in Europe which struggled to establish the origins of humanity even while denying kinship with African and Africoid peoples throughout the world. Such was the vastness of the shadow cast by the Du Boisian epistemology on the history of science. Scientists today confirm what Du Bois discovered in 1946: that bi-pedalism, tool use, and language first arose in Africa before spreading to Asia about 2 million years ago and to the Americas by way of the Atlantic and the Pacific and later to Europe. Settled cultivation of land and use of iron began in Africa, as we now know. Du Bois was one of the first historians to insist upon this truth in the West in his pivotal study, The World and Africa which was published in America at the height of Jim Crow as a wave of virulent anti-communism swept the nation. The ground-breaking philosophy of history argued that contrary to white civilization, Black Africans had not only contributed to but led civilization in all epochs of human history.
Social science saw the history of human being in the world as a materially unified whole capable of being studied scientifically. Humanity’s origins were relatively recent in the history of the modern world and each phase of its development was characterized by a different relationship to means of production and reproduction. For example, means of production differed in the Stone Age and the Iron Age; during the latter, which began earlier in Africa, human beings discovered iron as a raw material, welding it to create tools, weapons, and other implements to improve their lives and build civilization. Du Bois’s intervened in the debate about positivism in Western social science, which suggested that the laws of the human social world operated in the same way as the laws of the natural world, a premise which he exposed as a fallacy. As he continued his scientific study of social life and human actions he realized that there was something incalculable about humanity–human behavior is counterintuitive and human consciousness infinitely variable, always operating in movement of time as an unknown factor. Moreover, as he increasingly turns to the work of Karl Marx and strengthens his commitment to the world Communist movement, he understands that each epoch of human history, and its attendant form of social organization, was constitutionally shaped by the mode of production upon which it depended. Hence, he saw that the world around him–a world riven by the color line–was so because it depended on a system of production that necessitated subjugation of the darker races and most especially the black race to labor for the capitalist planter and merchant.Thus, his dialectical reasoning interprets the ancient and modern past of humanity and human action in terms of their political and economic consequences for the dark nations in order to carve out a path for revolutionary change and non-capitalist development.
The rise of Islam and Christianity in the past two thousand years and the latter’s deployment in defense of European capitalism and slavery inculcated new civilizational developments for humanity in the medieval and modern period. Du Bois’s argument in this chapter also reminds me that both Hinduism and Islam developed against the spread of Western Christianity which also took on a new life in Africa and Asia, like other Abrahamic religions, and amongst African-Americans and indigenous American peoples in the New World colonies of Europe. His hypothesis is also confirmed by recent investigations of scholars such as Kosambi, Abu-Lughod, Gunder-Frank, Panikkar, and, to some extent, Wallerstein, though what distinguishes the Du Boisian thesis from the above and even a Martin Bernal is his commitment to a revolutionary politic, exemplified by his lifelong search for a broad strategy for human liberation and in particular, the unconditional freedom of the African-American people, who continue to wage a heroic struggle against the forces of white supremacy and war in the heart of the American Empire.
As he argues in his “Guiding One-Hundredth Address,” race is not solely a physical reality; it is, first and foremost, a psycho-social dynamic in that the racial experience of each group is shaped by its relation to the social power structure, means of production, which together shape the movement of history. This Karl Marx understood is the struggle of the oppressed to overcome the oppressor in the pursuit of freedom, a deeply human drive. As he puts it here
all races really are a cultural group. It is too bad that we have to use the world “cultural” for so many meanings. But what it means in modern scientific thought is that 15, 000, 000 men and women who for three centuries have shared common suffering and have worked all those days and nights together for their own survival and progress; that this complex of habits and manners could not and must not be lost. That person’s sharing this experience formed a race no matter what their blood may be. That this race must be conserved for the benefit of the Negro people themselves and for mankind. I came then to Advocate not pride of biological race but pride in a cultural group, integrated and expanded by developed ideals so as to form a method of progress.”
Du Bois compels us to revisit the inconvenient truth that in the past four hundred years, the white race has subjugated the darker races to toil on its behalf so as to sustain its criminal pursuits throughout the world. It was thus no wonder that the struggles of black folk in America for peace and freedom from slavery and later, segregation, and the struggles of colonized peoples throughout the world against imperialism and European domination germinated a tremendous renaissance of civilization amongst the darker races in the twentieth century, from Baldwin in America to Tagore in India. The dark proletariat created civilization in the face of soul-seeping oppression, pressing on in its heroic quest to free society from imperial tyranny and monopoly capital, and to define and interpret reality so as to gain control of it and thereby, transform it themselves.
Du Bois’s thesis is a significant discovery because at the time he was writing in America, whites were perpetuating the lie that civilization amongst black people was impossible,drawing on this rhetoric to deny the connection of African-America to Africa–and the latter’s relation o Asia–so as to justify the slave trade and slavery, both of which formed the basis of the capitalist mode of production, a process that began in the early modern period and created the conditions for modern life aaa we know it. Thus, Du Bois marshals a wealth of evidence attesting to the achievements of black civilizations throughout the world in order to show the complexity of black peoples worldwide and to disprove, by way of scientific argument, the primary lie of Western science which served as colonialism’s chief alibi: that the black race was inferior by nature and that African-Americans were incapable of development and self-determination–a premise that compels him to write a novel called Dark Princess in 1928 wherein he presents a vehement rebuttal of European race theorists by way of a bravely imagined political allegory about a romance between an Indian princess and an African-American doctor who together establish a pivotal alliance against world imperialism. Du Bois’s research emphasized, by contrast, that it was oppression which had impeded the progress of black folks in America and throughout the world towards their highest potential, not nature or historical inevitability, as it was being suggested by bourgeois science. He thus recognized that colonialism had set the darker races back by several centuries in development. It was for this reason that he insisted upon world peace, communism, and Pan-Africanism, by which he meant something very specific, namely the progress of oppressed peoples against imperialism towards the non-capitalist path of development, wherein production and civilization are directed towards the fulfillment of human need rather than imperial gain.
Du Boisian Pan-Africanism, as Henry Winston, leader of the American Communist Party clarified some decades ago, rejected the vicious anti-communism of the day which had led to the witch-hunt of so many beloved leaders, including Du Bois and Robeson but also King and Gandhi, peace-bringers who were assassinated for their efforts to cultivate civilization amidst war, poverty, and colonial devastation. It sought to oust imperialism from every corner of Africa and the world. It advocated the pursuit of the non-capitalist path of national development in newly independent countries and called upon exemplary figures amongst the darker races to eschew the European bourgeoisie and join with the proletariat in order to build socialism in their countries. This intercivilizational vanguard sought to create a revolutionary society in its own image, in the service of the people’s interests–education, industry, harvests that fed the people, art that nourished and propelled their imagination in pursuit of the grandest possibilities of the human mind and spirit, music that combed through the most antagonistic knots of the soul, literature that revealed revolutionary being-in-the-world–the kind of human beings we must become to build the world that will overcome the one that is presently collapsing.
The Black Buddha, after W.EB Du Bois
You have your own conscience, your own intelligence, and you know your own mind.
–Alice Turiyasangitananda Coltrane
A portrait of Alice Coltrane, R. Divya Nair
In this clip, Turiya Coltrane, the grand-daughter of jazz pianist, harpist, and vocalist Alice Coltrane (née McCleod) reflects on her grandmother’s study and interpretation of Hindu philosophy through the gospel of the Detroit churches of her childhood. The Hindu bhajan (devotional) and the African-American spiritual together constitute the formal foundations and thematic touchstones of Alice Coltrane’s ecumenical sound. I may have mentioned that a few weeks ago, I had the great honor of singing her composition, “Om Shanti,” at Blessed are the Peacemakers, the Saturday Free School’s celebration of the philosophy of Robeson, King, and Du Bois, at the historic Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia. I chose the piece because it is an invocation to world peace and a much-needed intervention in the politics of imperialism which thrives on perpetual war, war waged by the few at the grave expense of the many. The earth reels from many centuries of ceaseless destruction as humanity cries out for an end to oppression and a resolution to the degradation of the darker races in the past four-hundred years of white rule. Since then, I have been reading voraciously about her, focusing in particular on her spiritual evolution, namely her turn to Hinduism, the world-historical significance of her interpretation of it, and how it connects with the contributions of her contemporaries, familiars, and interlocutors.
After her husband, the legendary John Coltrane of North Philadelphia, passed on to the next world, Alice immersed herself further in the study of Hindu scripture and Indian classical music forms. She traveled to the city of Chennai in southern India to study with Swami Satchidananda. However, it was John Coltrane who would introduce her to the philosophy, theology, music, and meditation practices of Pan Africa and Pan Asia. John, who was ten years older than Alice when she first met him at age 26, likely encountered these sources during his world tour in the U.S. armed services–an experience which deeply inscribed upon him the evils of war and American imperialism. Coltrane would himself undergo a spiritual awakening in 1957.
Following her husband’s death, Alice fell into a deep tapas, a self-imposed spiritual retreat undertaken by Hindus committed to an intentional path wherein one lives a life of strict mental and physical discipline in order to reach a higher spiritual plane of existence and consciousness. Tapas often yields states of high spiritual vibration characteristic of Alice’s ecstatic compositions. During this period, it is said that Alice made connection with John’s spirit. She strove to continue advancing their common aspiration to create music capable of illuminating the totality of the human experience, the internal struggles of the atman (soul force) in the face of the external strife of humanity’s relation to itself and the physical world–songs of innocence, songs of experience, songs of pain, and songs of bliss. Indeed, her chosen spiritual name Turiyasangitananda roughly translates to the transcendental Lord’s highest song of bliss. In Hindu philosophy, turiya (Sanskrit: तुरीय or English “the fourth”) refers to the fourth dimension of consciousness, underlying waking consciousness, dreaming, and dreamless sleep. The seventh verse of the Mandukya Upanishad, which discourses upon these four states of consciousness which are accessible through the universal syllable Aum or Om, refers to the magnitude of Turiya’s infinity and incalculability in the following terms:
Not inwardly cognitive, nor outwardly cognitive, not both-wise cognitive,
not a cognition-mass, not cognitive, not non-cognitive,
unseen, with which there can be no dealing, ungraspable, having no distinctive mark,
non-thinkable, that cannot be designated, the essence of assurance,
of which is the state of being one with the soul
the cessation of development, tranquil, benign, without a second,
such they think is the fourth. He is the soul (atman). He should be discerned.
The Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad is the shortest of the Upanisads and is associated with the Atharvaveda, which is chiefly concerned with the practice of everyday life. It is also an affirmation of the soul force underlying all existence and creation. It reflects on the physics of the four-part structure of the sound AUM–A + U + M + “silence,” which not only harnesses the past, present, and future of time, but bends them such that the transcendence of time by the soul force is made possible. The intonation of the Aum sound explains the progression of sound through the universe, tracking its movement from the syllable “a,” which signifies Apti (searching and aspiring), to “u” or Utkarsa (exaltation) to “M” or Miti (Reconstruction) followed by the punctuating silence that separates each intonation. The rhythmic chanting of aum thusrepresents the human will to know in this world and beyond, to be of one’s time and yet, reach beyond it.
As such, it is high time that we recognize the true significance of the commitment to Afro-Asiatic civilization in twentieth-century jazz composition, a realization which once again affirms the intercivilizational unity of Pan Africa and Pan Asia in the struggle against imperialism and European civilization’s ongoing attempts to repress the contributions of the darker races to humanity. It is not a coincidence, for instance, that John and Alice Coltrane, along with Pharaoh Sanders, Don Cherry, Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, Yusuf Lateef, and so many other black composers in the United States, re-imagine the relation of the darker races to one another at a time when W.E.B Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., and Paul Robeson were extending their hands in open friendship with revolutionary leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, Nkrumah, and others. They dedicated their life’s work towards establishing an epistemology that saw the civilizations of Africa and Asia in a historical continuum, so as to break free from the chokehold of the Western interpretation of human history.
Alice Turiyasangitananda Coltrane thus participated in the invention of a radically new form of world spiritual music that fundamentally re-interpreted Hinduism–not unlike her contemporaries Don Cherry (e.g: his record “Mahakali”), Pharaoh Sanders (e.g “The Creator has a Master Plan”), and indeed, John Coltrane (e.g “Om”)–in terms of the African-American spiritual tradition and political struggle for freedom, truth, and peace. Her work ought to be considered in dialogue with other Black composers of the period who increasingly turned to Africa and Asia to discover their relation to African-America and broadly, the truth about the origins of humanity and the shape of its future. In the wake of their musical and cosmological experimentations, they left behind a rich body of music characterized by a distinctive Afro-Asiatic sound . What distinguishes their aesthetic practice at this juncture in history is their grounding in the black anti-imperialist political tradition. Prophets and architects of peace, these artists were committed to fulfilling the Creator’s great plan for the advancement of humanity in the twenty-first century.
Alice Coltrane’s songs are hymns to truth, grace, love, and peace. Her oeuvre ought to be studied in light of her deep spiritual longing for what James Baldwin memorably christened the New Jerusalem. In the new galaxies of sound she maps out for the world, in her cosmic distillations of jazz, we see the outlines of all that which remains to be won by humanity in our common quest for a kingdom of heaven on earth.