Considering spirituality on islands of Hawaii

Special to Lowcountry LifeJune 30, 2012 

The night winds were uncharacteristically powerful for this time of year. Standing on the beach on Maui earlier this month, I imagined the powerful canoe, the hokule'a, transporting Hawaiians across the Pacific Ocean from their ancestral lands in the Marquessa Islands to this paradise we now call Hawaii. They sailed without compass, instead using their knowledge of the wind currents and the stars to navigate.

This begins the story of the great migration of the Polynesian population. And even their journeys from islands such as Samoa, Tonga and Tahiti became the basis for their religion and the view of the universe they would develop and live by for well over a millennium.

Tourists to Hawaii can get a feeling for this spirituality. Yes, one can go to a luau and learn how the Hawaiians told their stories through the hula dance tradition. But opportunities to learn more about the actual religion they practiced are available as well.

Scholars of the Hawaiian religion tell us it showed a distinctly non-Western view of the world. One particular example is toward the view of nature itself. In the Bible, nature is a product of the creative will of God. This is not the same thing as believing that in each aspect of the natural world, such as a flower or plant, the presence of a God dwells and that object has its own will and spiritual consciousness -- which is referred to in Hawaiian as "akua." Hawaiians believe they participate in a larger spiritual network embracing all forms of life. This ethos built into their world views a strong respect for and consciousness of the interconnectedness among humans, God and nature.

Because Hawaiians did not have a scribal tradition at first, they found other ways of preserving their history. One of the most powerful means was the tradition of chants. The Haku Mele, the Hawaiian scholars of old, preserved their histories of chiefs and religious leaders -- much like the Israelites in the Bible preserved the genealogies beginning in Genesis and extending to tribal and priestly families throughout the Torah. Their stories of the Gods, such as Pele and Maui, as well as the histories of the great chieftains and kings, were passed down through chants, which told the stories that for many native Hawaiians are as real today as they were more than 1,500 years ago.

As a matter of fact, I spoke with quite a few Maui residents of non-native Hawaiian background who could balance their Christian beliefs along with their respect for the presence of the god, Pele, who carved the volcano crater at Haleakala on Maui.

These are not just old-fashioned myths but represent a real life force in the consciousness of those who live on Maui.

The religion itself sustained the people until the beginning of the 19th century when the king abolished the kapu system, which was responsible for the laws and rituals that governed Hawaiian institutional religious life. The king did this right before the American missionaries arrived so it provided a natural vacuum for the people to embrace Christianity.

Even though the old religious system was gone, Hawaiians continued to embrace the beauty of the religious narratives that depicted the history and spiritual values of their civilization. That heritage, including its language, history, spiritual values and belief in the Gods, has sustained Hawaiians and inspires all those who visit this land and who have taken up residence in the islands.

The visitor to Maui or to any of the Hawaiian islands can experience, if they stretch themselves spiritually, the very personal and religious feeling the Hawaiian people have for the land itself. The idea of aloha 'aina -- the love of the land -- underlies the Hawaiian philosophy of life. This is the reason the state motto says, "Ua mau ke ea o ka 'aina I ka pono," which means "the life of the land is perpetuated in justice."

It is that divine life force from land, God, humans and nature that is up to the people to preserve for history and for Hawaii's future, as well.

Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter, @rabbibloom.

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