Lord Skanda-Murugan

Pierced by Murugan's Lance: Ritual Power and Moral Redemption Among Malaysian Hindus

Click to see gallery: Thai Poosam festival in Singapore
A devotee preparing Arigandi kavadi, the topmost structure is yet to be assembled. Photographer: Kuet Ee Foo, Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore

by by Elizabeth Fuller Collins
Northern Illinois University Press, Dekalb, 1997

Reviewed by Carl Vadivella Belle, doctoral candidate, Deakin University, Australia

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In the years since World War II, Thaipusam has emerged as the most visible and powerful assertion of Malaysian Hindu identity. While the Malaysian festival is consciously formulated on the mythology traditions and modes of worship observed at the pilgrimage centre of Palani, Tamil Nadu, the processes of relocation and adaptation have endowed Thaipusam with a distinctively Malaysian orientation, and a significance and centrality which it lacks in India.

With notable exceptions there has been a puzzling dearth of scholarly interest in Thaipusam. Most Western material consists either of popular accounts of the "mysterious East" genre, or of reductive orientalist discourses which speak for rather than through participants. Collins' book, a reworking an expansion of her doctoral thesis, is an attempt to redress this balance.

Collins has amassed an impressive body of research, and has subjected the material she has garnered to a wide array of theoretical perspectives. However, as a long time participant turned scholar, I found her work strangely unsatisfying, and both inchoate and disjointed. The book is more notable for what it omits rather than what it includes, and many of Collins' observations are based on incomplete evidence.

For Collins, Thaipusam consists of two conjoined festivals, a kingship ritual for the Dravidian deity Murugan, held on days 1 and 3 of the festival, interspersed with a day dedicated to lower caste/working class vow fulfilment, inspired by the egalitarian traditions of bhakti worship, and finding outward expression in the kavadi ritual (i.e. the stylised bearing of burdens associated with acts of bodily mortification). Collins maintains that devotees who take kavadis do so while in the grip of a stereotypical trance, an amnesic form of divine possession which leaves "…no conscious memory of the thoughts and feelings that accompany the experience". She contends that the kavadi ritual embraces two major themes - empowerment and moral redemption - which not only construct an ethical and social sense of personal worth, but taken collectively represent working class/lower caste political defiance against both the upper class/higher caste elites who supposedly dominate the broader Hindu community, and the more general array of oppressive forces which hold them in submission.

This thesis is both deeply flawed and ultimately unsustainable. Firstly, kavadi worship is not, as Collins supposes, restricted to the ranks of male working class/lower class devotees, but cuts across the entire spectrum of Malaysian Hindu society, and includes both Western educated professionals and large numbers of women (whom Collins tends to relegate to the role of marginalized and passive spectators, most typically of exhibitions of male sexual beauty). Ostensibly a Tamil festival, Thaipusam in Malaysia draws participants from all Indian Hindu ethnicities resident in the country, as well as large numbers of Chinese (especially in Penang and Sungai Petani), and members of Malaysia's miniscule Sikh and Sinhalese communities.

Moreover, Collins seems unaware that while the kavadi ritual is quintessentially associated with Murugan worship, in Malaysia kavadis are borne for may deities, including those representing Saivite and Vaishnavite traditions, as well as a multiplicity of village and guardian deities. Her failure to grasp this very basic point leads her to the risible contention that devotees bearing kavadis containing Krishna motifs seem unaware that Murugan and Krishna are separate deities.

Secondly, Collins' comments on the generic, seemingly uniform nature of the trance state are grossly simplistic. It seems trite, but the point must be made; the ritual of kavadi worship may be filtered through conflicting layers of belief, tradition and other influences, but it is ultimately received at the individual level. Dissociation states range from "basic" amnesic possession to more complex mystical experiences which are frequently ecstatic, often life transforming, and which are fully recollected by the devotee. It seems astonishing that Collins' research did not uncover personal accounts that would have revealed the entire gamut of trance experience.

Collins generally overstates the extent of Hindu reformist opposition to Thaipusam, especially among educated Hindus. She fails to distinguish between those who are opposed to the festival in toto, and those who simply aim at the elimination of perceived abuses and excesses. The former consist of two basic groups - western educated Hindus, acutely sensitive to Western perceptions, whether imagined or real, often influenced by the "scientific" teachings of Vivekananda and his followers (and usually embarrassingly ignorant of the complex symbology associated with Murugan), and secular Dravidian nationalists, ideological heirs to Ramasamy Naicker's "Self Respect" movement on the 1930's. However, the overwhelming thrust of reformist pressure is directed against practices regarded as "transgressive" and involving the "left handed" worship of Amman (as village goddess), guardian deities and lesser spirits.[i]

The weakest section of Collins' work is her attempt to interpret kavadi worship and the sprawling corpus of related puranic mythology through the lens of Freudian and psychoanalytic theory. The selectivity involved in this approach leads to conclusions which are both reductive and jejune, and which occasionally border on caricature. For example, Collins claims that because the tongue can be construed as a phallic symbol, the act of piercing the tongue with a miniature vel (spear), may be seen as symbolic castration. Apart from overlooking the fact that many women engage in this practice, Collins seems completely unaware that most devotees explain this action in terms of the ascetic tradition of mauna (silence) - the symbolic and actual renunciation of the gift of speech and language in order to enable the devotee might concentrate more fully upon Murugan as Lord of yoga, operating within and ultimately beyond the sphere of the mind. (As Murugan is also widely held to be the founder and divine patron or the Tamil language the state of mauna has additional implications for Tamil devotees.) Likewise in her portrayal of Ganesha's "perpetually flaccid trunk", held to symbolize impotence, Collins simply ignores the many representations of the deity (e.g. Vira Ganapati) which depict the deity with an outstretched or even rampant trunk.

Collins' discussion of relevant puranic mythology is similarly selective, and her analysis is rarely rises above the superficial. She gives surprisingly little space to the main body of justificatory mythology surrounding kavadi worship or the substantial body of puranas outlining Murugan's defeat of the asura (demon) Surapadman, and she does not consider in any detail what these imply in cosmological terms. Collins expends much effort in seeking trances of fraternal Oedipal conflict between Ganesha and Murugan, but does not seriously explore the more fundamental concept of Siva-Sakti (that is, the shifting relationship between absolute and generative power), even though this principle not only pervades all Saiva Siddhanta philosophy, but also underscores the mythology which attends the creation of both Ganesha and Murugan, and ascribes roles and functions to each. She is thus unable to explain the essential significance of Parvati's bestowal of the Sakti Vel (or Vetrivel - electric spear), upon the Siva created Murugan (i.e. a manifest fusion of Siva-Sakti, involving themes of entropy, dissolution, renewal and reconstitution, and held to operate upon every level of cosmic consciousness) which lies at the very heart of Thaipusam in Malaysia.

I believe Collins' work would have been much better informed had she chosen to cast a wider net. By restricting her study to Penang. The only Chinese majority state and site of the only Chettiar managed Thaipusam festival in Malaysia, Collins has missed broader themes which are more clearly evident in the much larger festival conducted at Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur, and resonate more obviously within the overall arena of Malaysian Hinduism. Surprisingly Collins has made no real attempt to locate Thaipusam and the overarching rubric of Murugan worship within the context of an ethnically plural society dominated by Malay and Islamic power brokers. Her cursory reading of the history of the Indian Hindu experience in Malaya/Malaysia precludes the identification of emergent trends which are reformulating Malaysian Hinduism. These include the tamilization of Malaysian Hinduism (and the more general linkages to Tamil resurgence in India, and to the Tamil diaspora), the processes of Sanskritization/Agamicization, and the continuing syncretisation of village/Agamic Hinduism and Saivite/Vaishnavite traditions. All of these find overt expression in Thaipusam.

But the most glaring omission in this book is the voices of Thaipusam participants themselves. Collins has not explored the significance of the Hindu pilgrimage tradition in any depth - the tīrtha yātrā, removal from mundane time and space, and the journey to the metaphysical centre - and how it operates in Malaysia, or what asceticism signifies to a Hindu pilgrim in Muslim Malaysia. We learn little about the backgrounds, motivations, or experiences of kavadiworshippers, nor do Collins' discussions link us to any disquisitions on the more basic themes of Hinduism, namely karma and dharma (or fate and destiny their "village" equivalents). Nor, incredibly, is there any reference to the breaking of fast ceremony, usually dedicated to the demon-turned-devotee Idumban, in which the devotee is formally released from him/her vow of asceticism and symbolically returned to society and "ordinary" time. It is though in the midst of manipulating the detail of her theoretical approaches, Collins loses sight of the very performers who collectively comprise this multifaceted and extraordinarily complex festival. And by allowing the participants to fade into a distant background, Collins squanders the opportunity to pursue many subtly nuanced and paradoxical lines of enquiry which may have tarnished the compliant elegance of her theoretical perspectives, but would have encouraged a more rounded and truly representational analysis.