Strong stuff makes money, friends

23 August 2010

Last Thursday the prime minister gave Banhan Silpa-archa a small statue of Ganesh as a birthday present. When Ganesh and other Indian gods came to Siam many centuries ago, they lost contact with Hinduism and were absorbed into the vast troop of spirits, deities, and supernatural devices propitiated for luck, wealth, and success.

Undoubtedly this present was carefully chosen to convey the Democrats' hope for mutual success with Banharn's party.

The same day saw a seminar on "Amulet charms and supernatural devices: the culture of Buddhists in the Golden Land." The notice stressed this was an academic event, perhaps the first to address this topic. The hosts were the Institute of Thai Studies in Chulalongkorn University and the Discovery Museum whose Thai title is "the museum institute for national knowledge." The keynote speaker was a senior and eminent authority on culture. All these trappings shouted that supernaturalism was to be taken very seriously indeed.

Supernatural Devices

Every culture has its good luck charms but, as several speakers stressed, Thailand possibly outdoes anywhere for the sheer number of supernatural devices, and their continuing popularity. Even neighbours like Cambodia cannot compete.

In the past, many different things were considered khong khlang, meaning "strong stuff": natural substances which defied the laws of nature, such as mercury, a metal which acts like a liquid; pretty stones imagined to be petrified cat's eyes; gnarled lumps of metal thought to be single testicles transformed into copper by the cremation pyre; shreds of ivory left in trees or anthills by charging elephants; gems or golden needles inserted under the skin, and wooden phalluses tied on the belt.

The seminar concentrated on yantra or lekyan, once the most popular device for ensuring good fortune. Yantra are designs incorporating Buddhist prayers, usually abbreviated and written in old Khmer script; strings of numbers, often arranged in magic squares; pictures of the Buddha or Hindu gods such as Ganesh; and images of powerful animals, especially tigers and snakes. These designs have to be made by an adept-teacher renowned for his personal powers, and enable those powers to be transferred to someone else. The designs are painted onto cloth which is then worn as a shirt or scarf; inscribed on paper which is then twisted, lacquered, and worn as a ring or belt; tattooed on the skin; or inscribed on something carried as an amulet.

These devices were once worn either to induce love or provide protection against enemies, weapons, and other dangers. Up to the Second World War, they were still standard issue for Thai troops. Today commanding officers often provide them for their own men, and corporate sponsors distribute them to troops dispatched to the far south.

Spectacular Amulet

In the past fifty years, all these devices have been superseded by the spectacular success of the Buddha amulet. Today it is more difficult to find shards of tusk in forest anthills, or retrieve a metalicized testicle from an electronic crematorium. Besides, amulets fit better with modern clothing than a dangling phallus or a shirt covered in magic number squares. Though the Buddha forbade his followers to reproduce his image, let alone sell it as a good luck charm, amulets with small Buddhas encased in glass or perspex are now standard male attire. The prevalence of this practice represents the total triumph of the local spirit tradition over the Buddha's teachings - although this is rarely admitted.

Variety and Vitality

In truth, the seminar had virtually no academic content. No speaker analysed where the Thai tradition of supernatural devices came from, and why it remained so prevalent in the present day. Half of the speakers were preachers advertising their particular favourites among the array of devices, and the other half engaged in show-and-tell - making the seminar a bit like a fairground. The show-and-tell sessions highlighted the extraordinary variety and vitality of this tradition. The north has a fondness for sweet little love amulets of entwined loving couples. In the Islamic world, there is a parallel tradition which, when it comes into contact with Buddhism in Thailand, results in wonderful hybrids such as kris blades inscribed with Buddhist prayers.

One faction at the seminar argued that this tradition helps to promote Buddhism. When giving an amulet, an abbot tells the recipient he must observe the precepts, stop drinking, and be faithful to his wife. One speaker insisted this tradition is a "casing" which protects the true core of Buddhism.

But the two final presentations undermined this argument. A large monk described how his temple had made vast sums by selling golden dolls to business folk who believed the dolls would boost their profits. He boasted of the vast revenue from these dolls, invested in schools, hospitals, and other good works.

He showed pictures of the temple, festooned with thousands of light bulbs, looking like a fairground ride. Some seminar participants questioned whether the end justified the means, but they were batted away by the monk reciting more vast sums of money. The local spirits however intervened more effectively. A sudden downpour cut the power to the microphone.

Next up, the founder of an enormously lucrative website selling amulets scoffed at critics of "Buddhist commerce" by boasting of his charitable donations and showing the picture of a new temple under construction which would be the best because it would be the biggest, and hence a great tourist attraction. The local spirits spared him from the power cut. After all, he is an honest hustler who, like many others, has discovered the profitable trick of selling dreams of success under the guise of religion. But those arguing that this "strong stuff" made better Buddhists seemed to lose to those boasting it made better profits.

And perhaps stronger allies too. Abhisit's choice of present shows that, despite Eton and Oxford, he still has roots in the local tradition of supernaturalism. Moreover, Ganesh is currently a fad among hi-so and corporate luck-seekers, so the choice positions Abhisit as on trend. This strong stuff should cement the political alliance.