Saying the word 'Rastafarianism' will, for a lot of people, evoke the picture of a dreadlocked Jamaican, lying in a hammock smoking a carrot-sized spliff and staring with red-shot, stoned eyes out over the Caribbean sea for hours on end without so much as moving a finger. While this might be part of the Rastafarian picture, it will not be more than a very small part of it. Rastafarianism is part lifestyle and part religion, but maybe the term 'spiritual consciousness' will cover the meaning of the term Rastafarianism more than anything else.
'Back to Africa'
With its roots in 1930s Jamaica as a 'back to Africa' movement, Rastfarianism has changed a lot since then. Poor Jamaicans of African origin saw the slave trade and the exportation of African slaves to the Americas as the black people's Exodus. Similar to the Exodus of the Jews in Egypt and Babylon, they wanted repatriation back to the motherland, Africa, and away from their own Babylon, the Americas. From this starting point Rastafarianism grew into what it is today, a whole encompassing lifestyle.
At the centre of Rastafarianism is the belief that Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia is the reborn black Christ, although not born as the Lamb this time, but as the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. While Haile Selassie died in the 1970s, many Rastas still believe he isn't dead, and all will say he still is here in spirit. These beliefs in Haile Selassie are surrounded by stories giving proof of his divinity, and are also rooted in a speech presumably given by Marcus Garvey, which says 'Look to Africa, where a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is near'. This was seen as proof, not only that Haile Selassie was this king, but also that the day of deliverance, of going back to Africa was soon to come.
Another reason why Haile Selassie is central to Rastafarianism lies in the name 'Rastafarian' itself, which comes from the words Ras Tafari, meaning in Ethiopia, Prince Tafari. This was Haile Selassie's Christian name. Haile Selassie is seen as part of the Rastafarian divine trinity built loosely on the Christian traditions, although God is called Jah, a name derived from the Old Testament's name for God, Jahve.
While some will call Rastafarianism a religion, others will say that Rastafarianism is a kind of spiritual consciousness because the Rastas lack a great deal of what is central for other religions while still retaining a belief in a God. There aren't too many organised Rasta 'churches', and the closest thing you would come to a church will probably be Rasta organisations like 'The Twelve Tribes of Israel', the 'Nyabinghi Order' and especially the 'Bobo Dreads'. Rastafarianism also lacks a confession of fate, which most other religious systems will have. So the question will remain open if this is a religion or a spiritual consciousness where everyone calling him/herself a Rasta will be more or less free to believe in what they like.
As already mentioned, Rastafarianism is not just a religion or spiritual consciousness, but also a way of life. This encompasses among other things food, called Ital food. Rastas are supposed to be vegetarians, while some eat fish, the Ital food consists only of vegetables and spices, not including salt, which for health reasons are not used in cooking. The food is very healthy, as health is also generally very important to Rastas. You will seldom see an unhealthy Rasta. Rastas also smoke ganja, or marijuana as it's more commonly known, but this is not something you have to do. The smoking of ganja is founded on Bible passages describing how ganja was used in ancient times by people like King Solomon, and the Rastas see it as a way to ease the way to commune with Jah. But there are even a small number of Rastas who do not smoke it on the grounds that easy ways out to reach a 'communion' with Jah should not be sought.
The Rasta way of life also encompasses a social side, where the lives and rights of everyone, but especially of the poor, are taken into account. They believe that everyone deserves and has the right to freedom, and more than anything else a belief in equal rights for everyone. The question of dreadlocks or no dreadlocks is not so important, even if most Rastas will have them. Even one of today's reggae groups sing a song that's called, 'You don't haffi (have to have) dread to be Rasta' (Morgan Heritage). It's more to do with how you behave, act and what you believe in, than how you look.
Even the language of the Rastas has changed the Jamaican Patois language, where many of the expressions unique to Jamaica originated in Rastafarianism, like 'I and I', meaning 'I for myself' or 'me'.
One more side of the Rasta culture might be mentioned. While not really central to 'being' a Rasta , it really plays a very important role, and that is reggae music. For many, many years, even before reggae was starting to be played, the Rastas have had a huge influence over Jamaica's music industry, with people like Bob Marley and Burning Spear in the 1970s, to today's Luciano, Anthony B, Capleton and Buju Banton, just to mention a very few of the uncountable Rasta reggae artists. The music business of Jamaica has a lot to thank the Rasta way of life. These artists put their thoughts and ideas into the lyrics of many of their songs.
So, the dreadlocks do not have such a central theme as one might think, and many people with dreads might pose as Rastas for different and often not too good reasons. This has often given the 'true' Rastas a bad reputation, while the Rasta look-alikes have been given their own name by the ones that truly follow the lifestyle of Rastafarianism: 'wolves'.