Thursday, 3 February 2011

Idolatry and the Power of Ideas, Beliefs and Group Spirit

Paid my yearly visit to the neighbourhood temple with my dad an hour ago. My dad strictly adheres to some school of Buddhist tradition and, as such, has to usher in the lunar new year by praying.

I couldn't help but recall and contemplate Professor Margaret Chan's neat thesis on idol worship. Her argument asserts that idols are created so that people can harness the power of supernatural spirits to help people do earthly things. In order words, idols are gateways for the spiritual realm to enter ours, and do our bidding.

The legend of Nezha, as told by the Fengshen Yanyi, is significantly relevant to this idea. During the Shang Dynasty, Nezha was born in a military fortress at Chentang Pass. Nezha's mother, Lady Yin, gave birth to a ball of flesh after being pregnant with him for three years and six months. His father, Li Jing, a military commander, thought his wife had given birth to a demon and attacked the ball with his sword. The ball split open and Nezha jumped out as a fully developed boy who could speak and walk instead of an infant. He was later accepted by the immortal Taiyi Zhenren as a student.

One day, while playing near the sea, Nezha encountered Ao Bing, the third son of the East Sea Dragon King Ao Guang. Because of a dispute, Nezha killed Ao Bing. Ao Guang confronted Nezha and his family, threatening to flood Chentang Pass and report Nezha to the Jade Emperor. To save his family, Nezha flayed and disembowled himself to return his body to his parents. The Dragon Kings were moved by his filial piety and spared his family. Later, Taiyi Zhenren used lotus roots to construct a human body in Nezha's likeness, and Nezha managed to resurrect.

Knowing this, Lady Yin ordered for a statue of Nezha to be created. Through the statue and through the reverence of many people, Nezha was thus able to return to the earthly realm and help his people. The Fengshen Yanyi clearly portrays idol worship in this case.

What appears quite interesting is that, perhaps, it was already known back then that something magical happens when many people collectively believe in something. Sociologists call this "group effervescence". The spirit that is created because many people believe in something can be powerful enough to achieve great things that scattered individuals cannot, and it is possible that ancient scholars knew the power of this phenomenon and sought to express this in writing and mythology. They might even have thought that the spirit that grips and possesses a group of people through faith and belief was a supernatural being, and thus the personified portrayal of this spirit appears in ancient texts, such as the Fengshen Yanyi. Fables could have been a form of accessible knowledge to both leaders and ordinary folk.

Fast forward to centuries later, and we see how this plays out in our modern society. People pray to the God of Prosperity (Cai Shen) so that he will bring wealth to them. People give offerings to the Goddess of the Sea (Mazu) in hopes that their travels will be safe. People also idolize Confucius and often pray to him for better study performance. If the theory of idols as gateways is right, then indeed these are instances where we see statues as channels for spirits to come to us and provide divine assistance for our earthly pursuits, and we pray so as to unlock those gateways.

While this may seem specific to cultures with statue and idol worship, a common theme also finds its place among many other religions and, in fact, organizations, that have revered symbols as the 'idol' to worship and thus harness this spirit of the masses. In every following, there is a leaderly symbol or figure to be looked up to, and as long as people channel their faith and belief into this symbol or figure, their collective potential can and will be mobilized.

It could be because the natural psychology of humans makes us drawn in by abstract ideas. It is often the pursuit of abstract ideas that spurs us into action and motivates us go the extra mile. This is why working for the sake of a monthly wage can be a painful process, but when we believe, for example, that the work we put in for a company can save the lives of people in Sub-saharan Africa, we might be willing to work overtime for nothing. The moment we can connect our efforts to a relevant (and usually moral) cause, there will be sufficient justification we create for ourselves to reconcile any irrationalities in our behaviour. We would sacrifice our time, labour and well-being even against our own self-interest once the powerful connection between our existence and our purpose is made, and that purpose is often socially constructed. People are willing to give the most for ideas, which is why ideas can be both so powerful and so dangerous at the same time.

Leaders, or people who have the propensity to kickstart movements and have the capability to attract followers, have the fuel they need given this basic psychological set up of humans. As purpose can be socially constructed, a leader who has the charisma to convince people of the desirability of his or her purpose can have a following who are willing to forgo their self-interest for the collective. It has probably been this way ever since homo sapiens first discovered the advantages of banding together instead of remaining as disparate nomadic tribes, and in the process created agriculture, states, industry and other amazing large scale organizations and movements. Ideologies, religions, philosophies and causes have all managed to unlock massive human potential and will continue to do so, insofar as our human nature remains this way.

Art co-evolved alongside too, as huge cultural artefacts were constructed to symbolize, represent and motivate the movements of the day. By propelling these physically and objectively 'hollow' yet socially meaningful artefacts towards idol status, the hearts and minds of many were captured and channeled towards creating important moments in history.

Anyway while I was there I noticed a young Chinese man, probably the age of 18, praying alone by himself. Although I probably do not share his beliefs entirely, the intensity of his faith could be felt as he went from altar to altar in solemn prayer, eyes closed and on bended knee each time. It was somehow heartening to know that our faiths and traditions still carry on in their own personal and quiet little ways, without boasting fanfare and noisy proclamations. And somehow I would believe that this young man had heart and could not want anything more than goodness and well-being for the loved ones and friends around him, and perhaps for strength to overcome what is often left to uncaring luck.

Sometimes it's not so much the irrationality of the fear and insecurity that should drive how we think of religion, but the recognition that we are small pawns in the timeless cycle of life and the serenity of acknowledging something bigger than ourselves.

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