Saturday, April 6, 2013

Defending the Wisdom of the Sacred Fool Amid Historical Revisionism and Social Media Rumors

While the rest of the world celebrated April Fools’ Day 2013 with the usual jest, an allegation spread through Indonesia’s social network sites, including Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger, that the celebration originated in the 1487 slaughter of the last of the Andalusian Muslims in Granada, Spain. The claim is decidedly “foolish” in itself and is a slur against history and the figure of the Sacred Fool, who indeed exists in most spiritual traditions of the human race.

Whoever initiated the erroneous claim alleges that on April 1, 1487, Muslim refugees in Granada were tricked into believing that the Catholic Spaniards would let them leave Europe on ships unmolested. In the end, the treacherous infidels burned their ships instead.

The problem with this is that history recorded that Granada opened its city gates to the Spanish on Jan. 2, 1492, after signing a treaty of defeat on Nov. 25, 1491. The only noteworthy event of 1487 was the siege by Spain’s Catholic monarchs against the Emirate of Malaga, which ended in the latter’s capitulation on Aug. 18, 1487.

Most historians are also in accord that the April 1 date celebrated as All Fools’ Day started when Pope Gregory XIII enacted his Gregorian calendar in the 16th century. The calendrical reform effectively moved New Year’s Day to Jan. 1, as we know it today. Previously, the New Year’s holiday season started on March 25 and ended on April 1.

As can be imagined, the sudden change resulted in confusion throughout Europe. Although most European governments adopted the change, many in the populace were not aware of it and still celebrated New Year’s Day on April 1. And these were mocked by others as April Fools. When America was colonized by Europeans later, the tradition was exported across the Atlantic.

Older still, the celebration originated in the pagan festival of Saturnalia when rules, regulations and societal taboos were suspended. During this festival, everything that was usually deemed discourteous, even licentious, was encouraged. This was in accordance with the pagan religious principle that something that is nefas , or unlawful, can be fas , or lawful, on holy days. Psychologically, the temporary suspension of rules provides emotional release for the populace.

The Sacred Fool teaches us to laugh at ourselves and hence gain a new perspective on life. The figure has survived in the Tarot card “The Fool,” interpreted as a person who is both foolish and courageous enough to journey through unknown paths in life, someone who is unorthodox enough to make great changes in his or her life, and in doing so, faces obstacles. But in resolving them, the “Fool” becomes wise beyond measure.

The most important role of the Fool is to impart to the world and its people the truth, undiluted and shocking as it may be.

The figure appears in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a tale based on much older stories. The tale speaks of a ruler who is duped into believing he is wearing a marvelous new outfit, when he is in fact wearing nothing. Yet his ministers and subjects dare not point it out to the ruler. Instead they praise the new clothes extravagantly, until a child — the Sacred Fool — in the crowd blurts out the truth.

In fact, many great religious figures started out as Sacred Fools.

Siddhartha “Buddha” Gautama became one when he, a powerful and wealthy prince, left his palace and lived as a mendicant in search of enlightenment. The teachings of Jesus certainly shocked most Jews of his generation, so much so that the religious leaders of the day turned against him and had him executed on the cross.

In Javanese mythology, the Sacred Fool par excellence would be the figure of Semar and the other punakawans. These physically ridiculous figures are the repository of wisdom. They are the spiritual advisers to rulers. And they often give their advice through jest. In fact, the ancient Javanese highly revered the figure of Semar, whom they claimed to be an incarnation of a very old deity Sang Hyang Batara Ismaya, an older brother to the King of the Gods, Sang Hyang Batara Guru.

Hence, in defense of the Sacred Fool and indeed history, the false 1487 claim must once and forever be debunked. When religious conflicts break out, many Indonesians profess yearning for tolerant figures such as Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid. And what was Gus Dur if not a Sacred Fool? In all honesty, this nation needs more sacred fools to bring about the changes that it sorely needs.  Johannes Nugroho is a writer based in Surabaya.

1 comment:

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