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MASAKAZU TANAKA :: Professor of Anthropology, Gender & Sexuality Studies
INSTITUTE FOR RESEARCH IN HUMANITIES, KYOTO UNIVERSITY
Based on my field research in Singapore, I would like to discuss the changing nature of Hinduism. In Singapore we find Hindus in a multi-ethnic society, that has a majority of Chinese. Hindus form the third largest population after the Malaya-speaking Muslims. Singapore, urbanized and exposed to the global economy for many years, provides an interesting example of what can happen to Hinduism when it travels.
How do scholars make sense of the Hindu religion as a social phenomenon? Usually the following types of observation are made. Compared with Christianity and Islam or Buddhism, people often characterize Hinduism is a ritualistic religion. There is no Hindu Jesus, Mohammed or Siddharta Gautama: it is a religion without a founding figure. Similarly, sacred scriptures do not have the same force to Hindus the Bible or Quran do to true believers. The Vedas are considered as the most sacred texts, but they are not used as a guide for conduct in present-day India.
People receive the core knowledge of Hinduism through rituals gradually coming to their own understanding of its ideas and symbolic meanings. Trying to catch the bubble of Hinduism many scholars seem content to sum it up as by saying that rather than being based on orthodoxy it is a religion of orthopraxy (Harper 1964, cf. Geertz). Although, over the millennia, it has developed a body of philosophical interpretation, this has rarely spread beyond the subcontinent. Hindus tend to say that this is because people do not become Hindu, but are born Hindu. In that sense, like Judaism, rather than a proselytizing world religion, Hinduism is frequently characterized as the religion of an ethnic group. The spread of Hinduism depends on the migration of social groups rather than actions of missionaries.
While thinking about the phenomena that I observed in Singapore, I wondered if the time had come to reconsider this somewhat consensual characterization of Hinduism in the context of globalization and related social changes in Singapore. First of all, when Hinduism has been reduced to a minority religion in a colonial setting or in a host country, there has been a tendency for it to be codified and transformed into a set of non-practical knowledge that lacks social function. This is one of the features of so-called Neo-Hinduism in India from the 19th and early 20th century, as a defense against cultural criticism, which held that Hinduism was primitive and magical. Furthermore, rituals that have disturbed those in power have become objects for "reform." The colonial government initiated such actions, and the Hindu elite acceded to them. This happened both in India and overseas in Malaysia and Singapore (Nair 1972). Textualization(1) and the alteration of rituals were the main Hindu response to encounters with non-Hindu hegemonic regimes.
The tide, however, has now changed. First of all, rituals that were criticized in the past have become effective symbols for Hindu minorities. They now attract many people, both Hindu and non-Hindu. Secondly, the development of visual and virtual technology means that images of the rituals can be positively and effectively presented. These days, text and image can be integrated to put across a powerful massage in identity politics. Spectacular festivals are more significant to attract people than profound philosophy.
I will begin by commenting on the present situation of the Indian community in Singapore. After describing the general features of local Hinduism, I will analyze a votive kavadi ritual performed at the Tai Pusam festival and propose that the perception of kavadi has changed.
The earliest Indian migrants came to British Malaya in the 19th century. Most migrated to work on sugarcane and rubber plantations under the British Imperial regime. Four out of five of these early migrants from India were Hindu(2). They belonged to the lower castes including Untouchables, and were mostly from South India. By contrast, people from higher castes, especially Brahmans were conspicuously absent. Indians, which in Singapore officially means people from anywhere in South Asia, account for less than 7% or about 200,000 of the current population of Singapore(3). Tamil-speaking Indians from South India formed 62% of the Indian population in 1980.
There are two government bodies that deal with Hindu religious affairs: the Hindu Endowments Board and the Hindu Advisory Board. The Hindu Endowments Board is charged with the management of four temples. Following the complaints about the mismanagement of religious institutions, it was set up in 1905 as the Mohammedan and Hindu Charitable Endowments Board. In 1969, it was split into Hindu and Muslim boards, the Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura being the Muslim offspring. Board members are appointed by the Ministry for Community Development and hold office for a term of three years. In 1915 the Hindu Advisory Board was set up to advise the colonial government on Hinduism. Both organizations are concerned with the promotion and protection of Hinduism in Singapore.
For the majority of the Hindus living in Singapore, because they are Tamil, the temple plays a significant role in religious and secular activities(4). There are about thirty temples in Singapore. In addition, there are numerous small shrines in the grounds of private homes with gardens. Although each temple is devoted to a particular deity, it usually also houses various other gods and goddesses in its precincts. Each temple is the center of four or five major festivals and employs several priests, either from India or in the far less wealthy temples, from the local community.
Temples house many deities. Interesting locally is the cohabitation of Vaishnava and Shaiva deities. In India, where it is rare to see their deities worshipped in a single temple, the devotees of Vishnu and Shiva tend to worship as distinctive sects. The ShivaKrishna Temple is a case of this local peculiarity, although, according to one of the management committee staff, it is textually sanctioned. It is by no means unusual to see non-Hindu images, such as manifestations of the Buddha, in Hindu temple compounds in Singapore. Furthermore, it is not uncommon to see Chinese people paying their respects to Hindu deities in a temple. Perhaps the converse is true of Hindus too. The syncretistic qualities of local Hinduism is emphasized as a positive sign of religious harmony and national unity in Singapore, and is presented with positive spin by the mass media.
Some Hindus, however, feel threatened by this syncretism (cf. Sinha 1987: 172-173). One opinion, widely voiced, is that Indian youths are loosing their tradition and the only way to prevent the rapid disappearance of Hindu tradition is to adopt proselytizing ways similar to Christianity. For example, conversion to Christianity, especially on marriage, is common cause for concern. Generally speaking, given the way of life in modern Singapore, it is practically impossible to spend the necessary time for the complex rituals and religious observances associated with marriage. On the other hand, in a multi-cultural setting, people are made increasingly aware of their particular ethnic and religious background.
Numerous social and religious organizations run educational programs to transmit Hinduism to the young. One of these, the Hindu Centre, which was set up in 1978, very actively organizes numerous seminars and workshops. Unaffiliated with any sect or linguistic group and using mainly English, it is regarded as an overarching organization. According to Mani, it is oriented towards Sanskritic and Vedic Hinduism and is reluctant to promote Hinduism via in the medium of the Tamil language (Mani 1994: 800).
Here is a quotation from its journal, Omkara (vol.1, p.33, 1982):
"Many of the rituals and customs have significance and meaning. But only a minority practice these rituals and customs in full awareness and understanding. To many performance of rituals is a habitual exercise. To the elder, such blind belief (reinforced by personal experience) may promote and sustain Bhakthi (tr. faith). But the younger generation, with keen, inquiring minds living in an Age of Scientific Inquiry and swarmed by the wealth of knowledge is not prepared to blindly adhere to such precepts. Applying logical analysis and upholding the supremacy of reason, the young mind is baffled and confounded by the complex concepts of Hindu Philosophy. Such young minds need to be given convincing explanations. The younger generation has to be taught the precepts of practice in a comprehensive manner. It was to preserve the spiritual and cultural values of Hinduism--- the oldest of prevailing religions of the world, that the Hindu Centre was established in 1978" (Hindu Centre, The Need).
Here the answer to the problem of communicating the essence of Hinduism is to teach it using simple English words, not through rituals or original sacred texts. In 1982 the government introduced a subject called Religious Knowledge as a compulsory subject to be taught to all upper secondary students. At first, the curriculum included Bible Knowledge (English and Chinese), Buddhist Studies (English and Chinese), Islamic Religious Knowledge (Malaya), and Hindu Studies (English). In addition World Religion was added. In 1983 Confucian Ethics, and, in 1984, Sikh Studies were introduced.
The Hindu Centre was also involved in making the textbook for Hindu Studies. Subsequently, Curriculum Development Office, in 1983, for Hindu Studies, published two textbooks, Hindu Reader Books 1 and 2, together with several workbooks. The nine chapters are titled: The Basic of Hinduism; Life and Religion; Hindu Contribution to World Culture; The Ramayana; The Mahabharata; The Hindu Philosophy; Deities, Shrines and Worship; Rituals, Ceremonies, and Festivals; Legends from Mythology. The author was Manoj Das, who, besides writing, was a Hindu English-teacher and writer at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education at Pondicherry, South India. The secondary school course remained compulsory until 1988. By downplaying ritualization and local particularity, this furthered the textualization of Hinduism.
These tendencies can be considered as evidence of a current of reform in Hinduism. The reform movement in its narrow sense, however, started in the1930's, influenced by the Dravidian Movement that originally got underway in South India to resist Brahman domination: the Brahmans were held to be immigrants from the north. With the purpose of promoting the welfare of Tamils and social equity among various castes, raising the status of women, and encouraging thrift and temperance among Tamils, in 1932 the Tamils Reform Association was formed in Singapore(5). Although Brahmans were not dominant in British Malaya and Singapore, the Brahmanical rituals in a marriage ceremony became a target of reform, and were consequently simplified.
Furthermore, there was an effort to eradicate some of the violent and superstitious aspects of Hindu rituals: firewalking, kavadi with skewers (alagu kavadi), and animal sacrifice were targeted. In 1937 the Association wrote a letter requesting the colonial government to ban alagu kavadi, which can currently be observed at the Tai Pusam festival.
"As the practice of loathsome self-mortification with skewers is prevailing in this country and in an increasing rate in recent years among the labour classes and as there is a mass rational opinion against this ill practice, which has neither religious nor moral sanction, the Hindu Advisory Board should be requested to consider deeply and to recommend to the Government of the Straits Settlements for the abolition of this ill-practice in the same lines as that of the Government of Madras" (1940 a letter to the Hindu Advisory Board quoted from Nair 1972:33).
This appeal, however, was not successful. Neither was a similar request made in 1950. This feeling led to the ban of alagu kavadi in two prominent temples, but it was lifted owing to the pressure from wealthy Hindus. The appeal to ban the animal sacrifice was favorably received in 1948.
When Hindus suffer sickness or other troubles, they may supplicate for the help of a particular deity, vowing to perform a ritual service if the request is granted. After recovery, a votive ritual in thanksgiving is performed. When children suffer, their parents will make a vow on their behalf.
Votive rituals should be performed as promised at the outset. Although small-scale rites are conducted on Tuesdays and Fridays, both of which are sacred to the Hindus, the greatest number of votive rituals are performed during the festivals. Vows to a deity may range from making an offering of fruits to the construction of a temple.
Votive rituals are full of sacrificial symbolism. Consider these examples. A man rolls around the temple, fully out-stretched, holding a coconut and sprigs of margosa leaves over his head. After he has completed a round of the temple, he smashes the coconut on a round stone in front of the temple. The rolling is interpreted to be equivalent to a period of diksa (liminal period of sacrifice); the coconut is sacrificed as a substitute for him. A female votary touches her head to the ground in prostration, stands up, and steps forward a few steps and again prostrates. She makes her way around the temple repeating these acts and smashes a coconut to conclude the circulation.
One of the most popular votive rituals in Tamil culture is kavadi, or dancing (adu) with a pole (kavu). The kavadi is a three-foot long pole, shaped as an arch, and decorated with peacock feathers, lime, and streamers of papers. Two pots containing milk are tied to the pole. For alagu kavadi, the structure is made of four or more arched metal frames and many small skewers are pricked in the flesh of the kavadi carrier.
Votaries take a bath in the early morning and gather at a local temple, where, with the help of family members, they decorate the kavadi and perform worship. Some of the votaries carry their kavadi and begin shaking in a trance. They then go out and walk to another temple, where they offer milk and receive sacred ash from a priest and collapse.
The kavadi is primarily a votive rite for Murugan, as explained in the following myth from the Palani Murugan temple.
Agastya (a sage, who went to Mt. Kailas to worship Shiva) was given two hills, Shivagiri and Shaktigiri, as sites of worship, with permission to take them south. One day he met the demon Itumpan, who had survived the slaughter, by Murukan (Murugan), of the hosts of Cur. Since all the other demons had reached heaven by virtue of having been killed by Murukan, Itumpan spent his time performing their sraddha (funeral) rites. Seeing he was of good nature, Agastya sent him to bring the hills. When Itumpan arrived at the hills, a kavadi (the shoulder pole) appeared, and the eight serpents which support the world took the form of ropes so he could tie the hills to support. In this way he lifted the mountains and carried them southwards until he reached Avinankuti (Palani). Suddenly he felt faint; he put the hills down and rested, but when he tried to lift them again he could not move them. Puzzled and sorrowful, he climbed one of the hills, and there he noticed a child under a kura tree. 'Go away,' he said to the child, and added that he was a murderous demon. 'This is my home,' said the child; 'pick it up if you can!' 'You may be small in size, but you tell big lies,' cried Itumpan as he leapt at the boy. But the child was Murukan, playing his games, he killed Itumpan at a stroke. When Itumpan's wife Itumpi heard of her husband's death, she prayed to Murukan, who revived him. Agastya came to worship Murukan at the spot, and he ordered the demon to serve Murukan there for his salvation (Shulman 1980:48-49).
According to Clothey, the story goes on as follows. Itumpan was restored to life and to the service of Murugan. Itumpan asked permission to stand ever at the god's portal and requested that whoever should offer vows to Murugan bearing a kavadi should be specially blessed. Both requests were granted (Clothey 1978:119).
The demon was killed by Murugan, but later revived and became Murugan's devotee and the guardian at his temple in Palani. Votaries who carry kavadi-poles, therefore, reenact the experience of the demonic devotee, Itumpan; that is, the process of a votary becoming a humble devotee through death, or through getting rid of his evil aspect.
A kavadi is typically decorated with peacock feathers, the peacock being Murugan's vehicle. Its relation to Murugan is described in a myth from the Tiruccentur Murugan temple.
Murukan and his hosts are said to have come here (Tiruccentur in Tamilnadu) in pursuit of Surapadma (an immortal demon), by then deprived of much of his army. Seeing the battle go against him, Surapadma entered the ocean where he became a vast, fiery red mango tree spreading expansively underwater. With his vel (lance) Murukan split the tree which therewith turned into a peacock and a cock (Clothey 1978:121-22).
Murukan tamed them both by his benevolence. He then mounted the peacock and rode on it around the world. The god adopted the cock as the emblem of his banner (ibid.: 83).
Thus, when a votary carries a kavadi decorated with peacock feathers, he becomes a peacock, Murugan's vehicle. The votary again enacts a process of transformation: the demon becomes a humble devotee of Murugan. A small, lance-shaped skewer (vel) is sometimes pierced through the votary's flesh, harking back to Murugan's demonic enemies who were killed by his mighty lance (vel).
In the transformations of both Itumpan and Surapadma the symbolism of sacrifice is evident. The sacrificial victim is described as the god's vehicle or mount. Becoming a vehicle is a typical expression of submission to a deity. Possession, sacrifice, and becoming a vehicle or a guardian for the god, all involve the transformation through total surrender of self to a divine being.
To sum up, kavadi exhibits both this-worldly and transcendental dimensions. Motivations for kavadi are directed towards the this-worldly or self-maximizing gains, but the underlying ideas and symbolism are more profound and concerned with the self-negation and other-worldly salvation. It is not difficult to recognize bhakti or personal devotion in ecstatic kavadi performance. Such complex meanings may explain why kavadi is popular and appealing to contemporary Singaporeans.
In Singapore, the Indian community celebrates three important festivals. The first, Deepavali, or the Festival of Lights, in November is a public holiday(8). It is essentially a domestic ritual, with a stronger hold on North than South India. The other two are of South Indian origin and observed in temples: Tai Pusam is associated with Lord Murugan and the Firewalking Festival is dedicated to Draupadi, the heroine of the Mahabharata. Murugan was the second son of Shiva, and the younger brother of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god. Tai Pusam falls on the day of the full moon day in Pusam during the month of Tai (January-February), usually in late January. Many devotees carry kavadi from the Srinivasa Perumal (Vishnu) Temple in Serangoon Road (better known as Little India) to the Thendayuthapani (Murugan) Temple in Tank Road. The Firewalking Festival is observed in the first-established goddess temple in Singapore, the Mariyamman Temple in China Town. It occurs as the climax of a four-month long recitation and performance of the Indian Epic of the Mahabharata. Draupadi is not the main deity but is enshrined inside the temple. The Thendayuthapani Temple is one of the few temples managed by a caste-base community. It was built on Tank Road in1859 officially by Chettiars, a merchant caste from South India who were very influential as moneylenders in British Malaya and elsewhere.
Considered to be the main festival of the Hindu community in Singapore, the Tai Pusam festival attracts much attention(9). On the eve of the festival, a silver chariot is taken to the Mariyamman Temple and then to another Chettiar-managed temple, Sithi Vinayagar Temple on Keong Saik Road. Some Chettiars carry wooden kavadi without skewers to accompany the chariot. Such participation is restricted to Chettiars. On the arrival at Thendayuthapani Temple, according to one description, "a dramatic scene takes place. The kavadi bearers form a circle and begin a rhythmic dance while one or two of the supporting Chettiars recite songs and verses" (Evers and Pavadarayan 1990: 858). A large number of people gather at Srinivasa Perumal Temple, 4 km away from the Tank Road Murugan Temple, where they prepare kavadi and other offerings.
Early in the morning of Pusam, devotees head off from there bound for Thendayuthapani Temple. They perform three types of votive ritual action; bearing of a milk pot, which is carried on the head; bearing of wooden kavadi without skewers, carried on the shoulder; and alagu kavadi. Weighing over 45kg, only men are allowed to carry alagu kavadi(10). The number of the votaries has been annually increasing year by year, whereas those who carry bearing alagu kavadi have remained fairly constant at around 650(11). The votaries are accompanied by their family members and friends. On the arrival at Thendayuthapanni Temple, they offer milk to Murugan for consecration.
To regulate the procession, from 1973 the Hindu Endowments Board prohibited music and dancing in the street. Inside the temple precincts only traditional musical instruments can be played.
In 1978 the first explicit criticism of Tai Pusam appears in Straits Times (10 Feb 1978). It asks the following question at the outset; is Tai Pusam becoming a comic or fun lovers' opera? Or is it losing its solemnity and sobriety? Then, it quotes some remarks by Hindus, "Thaipusam (sic) was becoming more of a carnival" or "Wearing multi-coloured fancy dresses, they (young people) danced through the streets with funny gestures and acted in a way I must call obscene." It concludes, "most of these youths who misbehaved did not come to support any particular kavadi carrier, but "outsiders" who wanted some fun." The same expression was repeated in the article of Tai Pusam in the following year (5 Feb 1979).
Even in 1990, Singapore Hindu, a quarterly journal published by the Hindu Endowments Board, pointed out a similar problem as follows. "Incidents of supporters playing musical instruments and dancing on the streets were less. Nevertheless some musical instruments were confiscated by the Police", or "Devotees still keep forgetting that they are attending a religious function and therefore have to be attired appropriately"(vol.1 no.2, p.13). A similar criticism appeared again in Straits Times (4 Feb) in 1991. Only in 1992 the festival was described as orderly, quoting one Hindu's remark "In the past, many people were shouting and playing around, and they made it difficult to concentrate. They were just not respectful. Now the situation is much better"(21 Jan 1992).
Newspaper articles on Tai Pusam generally show that Tai Pusam or kavadi is considered to be a Hindu rather than a Tamil festival. From the names of kavadi bearers we can guess people of north Indian origin also participate in Tai Pusam. Significantly, no explicit reference is made to the prominent position of Chettiars. Non-Hindus are reported to have carried alagu kavadi. Or a prominent public figure such as the Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Kuon Yew visited the Festival. These facts certainly have contributed to forming of a general idea that Tai Pusam is significant at both national and ethnic levels. According to Sinha, in the mid-1980's, Tai Pusam started to "appeal to those clusters of Hindus to whom it traditionally was not significant. For example Brahmins (sic), Malayalis, North Indians and also individuals from literate backgrounds and other religions such as Sikhism and Islam, as well as members form other ethnic categories such as Chinese, in increasing numbers, participate in the festival" (Sinha 1987:143-144)(12).
Furthermore, there is no criticism of kavadi itself, rather there is disdain for those young people who are turning what should be a solemn festival into a comic opera or carnival. This criticism of the young is directly linked to concern about the loss of Hindu traditions, especially among the young people. If only young people could understand the religious significance of Tai Pusam, they would stop mocking it. Thus negative perceptions of alagu kavadi have been replaced by the criticism of the young. As the main attraction of Tai Pusam is kavadi, it has also become a symbol of the Hindu community and the multi-cultural nation-state.
At the same time, Tai Pusam and kavadi have been textualized. For example, a small booklet on the festival is prepared and issued on the day of the festival. Or the chapter on rituals, ceremonies, and festivals of the Hindu Studies Reader describes major festivals. In the associated workbook one exercise is devoted to the Tai Pusam festival in Singapore. On the first page there is a picture of a devotee carrying alagu kavadi. In light of the past efforts to ban alagu kavadi, the presence of the picture in the workbook suggests a radical change in the perception of kavadi in Singapore.
Outside India, the diversity of Hinduism is downplayed, even more or less denied in the attempt to textualize Hinduism in textbooks and small books of the similar kind. While this textualization has taken place, however, the spectacular performative aspects of Hindu devotion have also come to the fore. What could be conceived of as a case of ethno-nationalization has occurred in which actions such as kavadi and firewalking, are also expressions of ethnicity in a multicultural context(13). Here the spectacular aspects of the festival get sensational attention. This is how Hinduism is typically represented in the Singapore Hindu, and especially in tourist pamphlets. A point has been reached where philosophical Hinduism expressed in coherent English words and popular eye-catching Hinduism seem to have merged in contemporary Singapore. In multi-cultural Singapore, actively open to globalization, orthopractic Hinduism tended first towards orthodoxy, then towards spectacle. Things have spiraled so that formerly abhorrent ritualistic features can now acceptably presented in a new context.
Babb has insisted on the individualistic nature of Hindu rituals in several articles on Singaporean Hinduism. There is no denying that many young Hindus and non-Hindus participate in rituals such as firewalking out of personal concerns. What I would like to emphasize, however, is that both the collective and individualistic dimensions have to be taken into account to achieve a more complete understanding of the social nature of Hindu festivals in contemporary Singapore. Babb has viewed the change of Hinduism as the process of being carried forward by ritualistic individualization. While it is true that the rituals are more open to non-Hindus, this ingress occurs only at the extreme margin of the core ethno-nationalization of Hinduism in Singapore.