Thursday, February 11, 2016
Silencing by means of “superstition”
The most interesting – and yet most disturbing – thing about the latest Thai craze for Kuman Thong, or “Angel Dolls”, is not the phenomenon itself. After all, it is not a novelty of the past month, the past year, the past decade, or even the past century.
Rather, it is the harsh criticism the craze has sparked, including among people who condemn the challenges to democracy that, while not new to Thailand either, have perhaps most overtly re-emerged during the past 10 years.
The most recent fad of “Luk Thep” sees individuals purchasing life-like dolls for up to 21,600 baht (A$ 850) and which are meant to bring prosperity. It is associated to the long-time Thai tradition of Kuman Thong, sometimes associated with “black magic”.
Criticism of Kuman Thong is predominantly framed in terms of a “superstition” that is mistakenly incorporated into Buddhism. Condemnation of religious practices that allegedly do not belong to what is believed to be “true Buddhism” is also not new to Thailand. However, this criticism has originated – historically – in politics and does nothing but promote a political agenda that counters Thai society’s continued struggle for greater political participation.
Kuman Thong is found throughout Southeast Asia, as well as in Taiwan and, possibly, in mainland China. The first record of the practice in Siam is found in the tale of Khun Chang Khun Phaen, which likely originated in the form of oral literature in the 17th century. Originally, the practice involved mummifying aborted foetuses, stillborn infants, or the corpses of children who had died young.
A religious authority like a monk, a shaman (mho phi), a spirit medium, or a non-royal Brahmin rendered these mummies sacred by roasting them, wrapping them in golden leaf, drawing yantra on them, chanting magical formulas, and so on. The ritual’s end result was the creation of a Kuman Thong – in Thai, “Golden Boy”, from the colour of the leaf. A Kuman Thong is therefore the reification of the spirit of a deceased child, deemed capable of helping humans thanks to the powers that derive from its status as a liminal figure between this world and the Overworld.
The practice has never really disappeared from Thailand, although, in contemporary urban settings, parents who who wish to retain a lost child by means of a Kuman Thong are more likely to use a statuette instead of the child’s corpse.
Because of the divine powers of a Kuman Thong, owning one has also become common practice for Thais who have not lost their children. Statuettes representing a child spirit are an ordinary presence on the home altars of many, part of an inclusive and every-growing pantheon of deities that draws from Indic, Southeast Asian, as well as Chinese cosmologies.
Kuman Thong also features prominently in the tradition of Thai spirit mediumship, the playful and often irreverent nature of the spirit resulting in rituals of possession that are filled with humour and jokes. There are additionally, of course, numerous Kuman Thong amulets on the market. More recently, dolls of various makes and prices have become a more fashionable, and, at least until criticism became mainstream, a more socially-acceptable –alternative to statuettes, amulets and rituals of possession.
The term “superstition” dates back to Ancient Rome. It initially alluded to extreme forms of religious observation – perhaps akin to what we now refer to as “bigotry” – but eventually acquired a pejorative connotation, as the ruling elites appropriated it in order to discriminate over non-Roman religious practices and beliefs, among which was Early Christianity. When Christianity was endorsed by the Roman Empire, the category eventually switched to encompass non-Christian religions, Christianity appropriating the label of “religion”.
The categories of “superstition” and “religion”, therefore, have long been employed as tools for legitimisation, which seal monopoly of the highest truth in the hands of a precise, elite-appointed authority. The political relevance of this cannot be overestimated. Religious cosmologies establish a terrestrial social order while at the same time discouraging upheaval, often in exchange for the promise of a reversal in the afterlife – call this Heaven or next life.
They explain in moral terms who should enjoy worldly privileges, and why those who do not in fact should not. It is crucial, for those in power, that these cosmologies are not challenged by alternative worldviews. It is therefore important to undermine the legitimacy of emerging cults that may constitute competing sources of moral knowledge.
Contemporary Thai discourses of “pure Buddhism”, as opposed to “superstition” (ngom gnai), can be traced back to “modernising” absolute monarchs, who, intrigued by European philosophies and scientific innovations, took on the task of reforming Buddhism in order to bring it back to its supposedly original “rational” splendour. The reforms took inspiration from the centralised structure of Roman Catholicism, and aimed to turn the Bangkok Sangha into the only legitimate guardian of moral knowledge, which became the Vatican of the kingdom.
Religious practices ranging from forest meditation to spirit possession were deemed “superstitious”, and all monks were required to learn and to practice the more liturgical form of Buddhism that was preached in the capital. The political implications of these reforms are obvious, as authority over cosmological matters all of a sudden rested in the hands of a few, selected people in Bangkok.
This confirms that in Thailand, like elsewhere, the logic that labels certain beliefs and practices as “superstitious” and certain others as “religious”, like the criticism to Kuman Thong, is not rational but political. This is actually quite obvious, unless we wish to believe that that there is greater rationality in stating that, after the death of the body, the soul flies to Heaven or reincarnates, than in stating that it migrates into a doll.
To impose the term “superstition” on contemporary Kuman Thong practices echoes the recent trend of silencing individuals’ voices on the basis of the supposedly greater moral knowledge of a few, self-appointed “good people”. It is indeed complicit in the same project of power, as it delegitimises worldviews from below and reconfirms the primacy of one that comes from above.
But, perhaps even more pervasively, it strips people of a voice in the more intimate domain of religion, leaving them with no place – “real” or imagined – left to go to.
The Kuman Thong practice does not promote an egalitarian worldview. It does not in its latest “Angel Doll” form, and it possibly never has. Some people buy rather expensive dolls, cover them in jewels, and take them on holiday overseas – special in-flight meals being served.
The practice nevertheless constitutes a re-negotiation of the creative licence to construct a cosmology from below, and thus a re-appropriation of power by the people. It may even constitute a powerful inversion of the traditional world order altogether. The divine, it turns out, can be brought down to inhabit the villa as much as the slum.
All you need, really, is a doll.
Edoardo Siani is a PhD candidate in social anthropology at SOAS, University of London. His doctoral research project explores the relationship between Buddhist cosmology, politics and economy in contemporary Thailand.