1961 – The União do Vegetal Ayahuasca Church is Founded by Mestre Gabriel
One of the most popular approaches of ayahuasca drinking to emerge in Brazil in the 20th century is the União do Vegetal (UDV) ayahuasca church. On July 22, 1961, UDV was founded by Brazilian rubber tapper José Gabriel da Costa, known as Mestre Gabriel. The UDV paves a path of esotericism with a doctrine combining Christianity with reincarnation and the progress of the individual soul to increasingly higher spiritual levels.
UDV is hierarchical, and more advanced teachings are reserved for higher-level members. Their ayahuasca ceremonies involve long periods of meditation in silence and listening to teachings from elders of the church while under the influence of the sacramental brew, which they call “hoasca.”
members are divided in four different hierarchical levels with reserved teachings to
each one of them. The 4
hour ayahuasca rituals involve sermons,
solo chantings and listening to music. However, the core of the “sessions” – as
the ceremonies are called – comprise of Q&As when attendees ask questions
answered by the ceremony’s facilitator.
UDV members regard ayahuasca as a sacrament, which they call “vegetal”, “hoasca” or simply “tea”.
Today, the UDV has around 27,000 adherents in more than two hundred congregations. Most of them are in Brazil, but UDV is also present in United States, Canadá, Peru, Portugal, Spain, England, Switzerland, Italy, Netherlands and Australia. The US holds the biggest overseas congregation with some 600 hundred people distributed in 7 groups around the country.
The UDV does not proselytize randomly. Members have the right to invite new people to ceremonies and every prospective new member is interviewed by members of the clergy prior to their first session. The UDV Headquarters is based in Brasília – federal capital of Brazil – and it exercises strict hierarchical control over all UDV congregations and members.
A New Religious Movement
The first chapter of the UDV church was registered in the Amazon forest region in 1968 under the name Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal (CEBUDV) meaning Benevolent Spiritist Centre Union of the Plants.
The members of this religion call ayahuasca “Hoasca” or “Vegetal”, both names related to the stories developed within UDV’s tradition. Along with Santo Daime and Barquinha, UDV is also considered by scholars to be an “ayahuasca religion” due to its ritualized approach.
This new religious movement uses ayahuasca under an esoteric template blending popular Catholicism, Western Esotericism, Afro-Brazilian religions, and indigenous elements. Some scholars also point correlations between UDV and the Freemansory founding story, and it is not uncommon for members of the UDV to declare themselves as freemasons as well.
The esoteric template previously referred means basically that there is a body of knowledge and practice available only to initiates and under direct supervision. This feature emphasizes ideas of initiation, exclusivity, secrecy and hierarchy. UDV requirers a great deal of commitment from members who tend to limit their social interactions within the religious group. Overall, UDV members tend to a conservative political stance in matters such as abortion, same-sex marriage and drug use. The churches also have a tendency to avoid party politics within its walls.
From the Amazon to the world
During the Second World War, the Brazilian government recruited people from the Northeastern region to be rubber tappers in the Amazon Forest. The latex extracted from the rubber trees would be used to the manufacture of tires for military vehicles.
José Gabriel da Costa became a “rubber soldier” in 1944 and only in 1959 he drank ayahuasca for the first time given to him by a fellow rubber tapper. In 1961, he used for the first time the name União do Vegetal and, according to the UDV spiritual teachings, it was at that moment that Mestre Gabriel had a revelation. Ayahuasca gave him insight into his past lives and his mission was to reestablish a millenary order firstly created by King Solomon, the same featured in the Bible. Under this revelation, the UDV chapter created in the 60s in the middle of the Amazon jungle was in fact the continuation and a spiritual created in time immemorial.
In the early 70s, some years after establishing itself among people from lower socio-educational backgrounds in a post-rubber cycle and impoverished Amazon city of Porto Velho (Old Port), UDV started to spread to southern Brazil. The main drivers of this expansion were young white students in search of mystical experiences. In the following decades, UDV became a national urban middle-class phenomenon and its expansion overseas maintains this tendency.
The international expansion of UDV started in the 80s towards four main destinations: United States, Paraguay, Japan and Europe. Driven by social-economical crises in the birth land, 1.5 million Brazilians emigrated internationally between 1980 and 2000.
Within the flow, the first members of UDV arrived in the US in the 80s seeking for better quality of life rather than to start a religious movement in that country. Only in the 90s, due to a bigger number of Brazilians from UDV who arrived, especially with the arrival of higher-ranking members, and the presence of Americans citizens in the rituals, the spiritual sessions started to happen as in Brazil, twice a month.
Since the Brazilian ayahuasca religions are considered to be one of the main drivers of ayahuasca globalization, it is correct to assert that the Brazilian diasporic movement is one of the main thrusts in this process. However, the growth of UDV overseas has been extremely slow. Apart from the esoteric template and use of a classified substance (DMT) in its rituals, language is also a barrier for the church’s expansion. Foreign nationals who wish to take part in the higher ranks of the institution are required to learn Portuguese, as many teachings and chanting are meant to be reproduced in their original language. So far, there are 15 UDV official churches overseas EUA (6), Spain (2), Portugal (1), Peru (1), Switzerland (1), Italy (1), England (1), Australia (1) and, more recently, Netherlands (1).
In 1998, the results a large study on the health and safety of ayahuasca use by UDV members was published, known as The Hoasca Project. Commenting on the results of the study, McKenna said: “We discovered many things, but I find that the key issue is that Hoasca is in no contexts toxic or harmful to the human body, does not cause any neurological, cognitive or personality dysfunctions.” The report concluded that “there does not exist any pattern of dependency, abuse, overdose or abstinence.” Later, the authors of the study stated that “it is not unthinkable that long term use of Hoasca can have positive and therapeutic effects on the psychiatric and functional status of individuals.”
Research that followed The Hoasca Project did indeed show health benefits related the use of ayahuasca in special contexts. Other important pioneering scientific studies would include a study of ayahuasca’s anti-depressant effects, the positive long-term health effects of ayahuasca; and how the brain on ayahuasca and meditation behave similar to each other.
Dawson, A. 2007, New era, new religions: religious transformation in contemporary Brazil, Ashgate Publishing Group, Abingdon.
Bronfman, Jeffrey (n.d.) Statement to the court on the UDV. Ayahuasca forums website
Goulart 2010, ‘Religious matrices of the União do Vegetal’, in BC Labate & E MacRae (ed.) Ayahuasca Ritual and Religion in Brazil, Equinox Publishing, London.
Labate, B. De Rose, I, and Santos, R. 2009. Ayahuasca Religions: A comprehensive Bibliography & Critical Essays. Santa Cruz, CA:MAPS
Rocha, C. 2006. Two Faces of God: Religion and Social Class in the Brazilian Diaspora in Sydney. In P. P. Kumar (ed). Religious Pluralism in the Diaspora. Leiden: Brill.
Tupper, K. W. 2009. Ayahuasca Healing Beyond the Amazon: The Globalization of a Traditional Indigenous Entheogenic Practice. Global Networks, 9: 117–136.
UDV Website https://udv.org.br/en/