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against the world
Tuesday, 25 May 2010
Hybridization as a Survival Tactic

In the face of changes in society and culture, advances in science and technology, many a religion has to alter itself to survive. When dominant religions were pushed, through expansionism and colonialism, into the same space as lesser [1] religions, these lesser religions also had to change to survive, often taking on aspects of the dominant religion and mixing those aspects with many of its own to create something new, a syncretic hybrid of two traditions. Withouth this hybridization, many a lesser religion would have gone extinct quite quickly. Some notable examples of such hybrids, with many followers, are Vajrahana (Tibetan Buddhism), Thai Buddhism, and the Macumba traditions of Brazil, and on a much smaller scale (i.e. with fewer followers), there are the examples from the first episode of Around the World in 80 Faiths: the Bugis and Tana Toraja of Sulawesi, and, even more specific examples in festivals like the Carabao festival in Pulilan and the Fertility festival in Obando, these latter two in the Philippines.

 Vajrahana brought together the magico-religion of the Bön, which could be described “in distinctly unfavourable terms as a perversion of Buddhism, a kind of marginal countercurrent in which elements of Buddhist doctrine and practice [have] either been shamelessly copied, or else inverted and distorted” [2], though practitioners of a Bön still insist their religion is the same as it was before Buddhism came to Tibet. Regardless of claims made, Vajrahana retains animist and shamanist elements not found in Buddhism elsewhere. Similarly, Thai Buddhism demonstrates “how ‘traditional’ magical, supernatural, Buddhist and other components are blended in the practices of Thai religious syncretism” [3].

 Macumba, which came, along with slaves, “directly from the sophisticated structure of the [Yoruban] mother-religion in Africa,” a religion involving “the divine interaction between humans and Living Gods” through music and dance [4]. When African practitioners of the Yoruban religion mixed with Roman Catholics in the New World, Macumba was born. The gods of the Yoruban and the saints of Roman Catholicism mixed. The Yoruban gods “have been reborn and continue to be reborn, the same, yet different” [5].

 The Bissu spirit mediums among the Bugis of Sulawesi are devout Sunni Muslims (even though Islam establishes that access to prophecy has been cut off since Mohammed and contact with spirits in this way does not happen). As one female follower pointed out [6], they can separate the two with a simple distinction: “one is religion, the other is tradition.” Except, this distinction, viewed from outside, seems, at best, a contradiction. Religion is tradition is religion. But, the Bugis don’t see it that way, just as the followers of Bön see themselves not as Buddhist while others see an obvious hybridization going on, just as practitioners of Macumba can continue their dances, with the faces of Catholic saints representing their gods. They take what they take, reject what they reject, and the result makes perfect sense, because even these new hybrid religions have now become tradition.

 The Tana Toraja used to make small effigies of the dead, vague representations of loved ones no longer around. These “tao-taos” seemed like idolatry to Christian missionaries, but they found that they could not keep the Tana Toraja from making effigies. So, instead, they got them to change the effigies. No longer vague representations, the tao-taos were now lifesize, carved and painted to resemble specifically the dead, more statuary than idol [7].

 A similar mix of traditions occurs in the Carabao festival hybridized with the Feast of San Isidro in Pulilan, Philippines. What once was a pagan harvest festival has connected to Catholic celebration, animist roots going accepted but unacknowledged, as the Carabao bull is paraded through the streets along with Catholic imagery. Similarly, in Obando, Philippines, a fertility dance ends at a Catholic church, where the crowd “dances” its “prayer.”

 In all these examples, local, lesser religions find ways to maintain at least some of themselves in the face of dominant, missionary religions. This is a matter of survival, culturo-religious desperation. But, there is, of course, a separate advantage, other than simple survival, in hybridizing a religion. Elliott West, in The Last Indian War, suggests that the Nez Perce, for example, “might draw more fully on two traditional sources of strength, commerce and spirit,” in mixing their religion with American Christianity, “and with that they could hope for greater command of their immediate world, seen and unseen” [8]. And, for what greater purpose is religion than to command—or, at least, to understand—the immediate world, seen and unseen? It is this same reason that those outside of religion, poets and filmmakers alike, still find inspiration in religion. The grand ideas, however incorrect they may be on a fundamental level, will always have appeal to the artist; they transcend the everyday, put the quotidian into a much larger, often more beautiful stage. Religious ideas make the everyday seem a piece of something fantastic, something transcendent, whether one believes in a particular religion or not. And, old traditions, among those who believe in them, have an even greater transcendence. So, of course, when faced with extinction, these ideas are held tightly, desperately, and inasmuch as they can be maintained, even as greater religions (or science) weigh down upon them, they mix and match and give birth to something new, something that can thrive between traditions, something that can, over time, become the new tradition so that, for example, Bugis attended a spirit medium’s ceremony don’t even question their only Muslimhood. They are not one thing or the other [9] but both, simultaneously.

 [1] Here, “lesser” refers not to some value judgment about any particular religion, but a simple measure of the number of practitioners a particular religion has.

 [2] Per Kværne. The Bon Religion of Tibet. London: Serindia, 1995. 10.

 [3] Pattan Kitiarsa. “Beyond Syncretism: Hybridization of Popular Religion in Contemporary Thailand.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 36 (Oct 2005): 463.

 [4] Serge Bramly. Macumba: The teachings of Maria-José, mother of the gods. San Francisco: City Lights, 1994. Ii.

 [5] Ibid, iii.

 [6] In Around the World in 80 Faiths. Dir. Rob Cowling. BBC Manchester, 2009.

 [7] In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud suggests that the more cartoonish a face (i.e. the less detail to it), the “more people it could be said to describe” (31). He writes of a “universality” of cartoon imagery, much like the smaller tao-taos, that can embody not only anyone but also ourselves as readers. When the missionaries got the Tana Toraja to add detail to the effigies, they took away some of the universality of these people’s  experiencing of death. Still, of course, the Tana Toraja  maintain what they can of their older practices; they do still make effigies (even if altered from the old way), they do still have their wild marches to the burial, they do still keep the dead around until a proper funeral can be afforded, and yet they are considered Christian.

 [8] Elliott West. The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. 38.

 [9] Except, of course, when it is convenient to specify, as followers of Bon might, where, depending on the time and place, it would make more sense to be a part of  state-sponsored Buddhism or to stand out from that crowd, amidst “sociocultural turbulence… in contemporary Thailand” (Kitiarsa, 464).

Posted by ca4/muaddib at 6:11 PM PDT
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