Four years ago my family and I had the opportunity to go to the Thaipusam procession in Singapore. The trip was a last-minute opportunity that we jumped on. So when we landed in Singapore the night of Thaipusam, my husband’s graduate school roommate, a long-time friend we hadn’t seen in numerous years, picked us up and kindly offered to head straight to the festivities. That night and continuing the following day we saw amazing and disturbing displays of body mutilation. Men pulled carts of oranges from chains attached to hooks on their backs. Small swords pierced horizontally through the two cheeks of women. Some carried enormous displays on their shoulders. Sweat dripped off their skin in the hot Singapore sun.
The first shocking thing about Thaipusam in Singapore is the contrast of the trappings of wealth, technology, and civilization with such a seemingly primitive barbaric religious ritual. The second thing that strikes the observer is the display of intentionally inflicted pain. The third thing, the thing that resonates in the mind long after the procession has ended, is a question. What is the motivation for this type of pain?
This question is why Thaipusam fascinates me, though I have no intention of becoming Hindu. Do the people in this raw display of physicality hate themselves? How could this type of mutilation be healthy?
I cannot speak to the motivation of these individuals. However you can see that the procession is a spiritual journey. For those in the procession and their supporters, progress is made through sweat and blood. This is a truth, is it not? The spiritual world is not neat, organized, psychological. It encompasses the physical, too.
Thaipusam strikes the senses. Watching a procession brings forth emotion because it is so physically real but at the same time obviously connected to internal struggle. In America, people recognize the external. The internal is too often neglected. People see external injuries and offer to help. People rarely inquire about someone’s internal emotional state.
So much of life is conforming the internal to the external. Soldiers hold together their emotions to perform their duties. Emergency room doctors bottle up their anguish of losing patients just to release this anguish at some later appropriate time where their professionalism won’t be questioned. Wealthy housewives are reminded that they have no room to complain about anything, as if money is all that is needed for a good and healthy life. We conform our emotions, mind, and souls to a formula that maintains the external. What if it were different?
Thaipusam is a testament to a reality rarely acknowledged in western society: the spiritual and the physical are intricately and mystically connected. Pain, even physical pain, is sometimes necessary from a spiritual standpoint. Our bodies are not exempt from the spiritual drama that permeates the entirety of existence.
I do not believe body mutilation in and of itself is healthy. However I must admit that within the stories of my own faith tradition there is also quite a lot of blood and mutilation, something which is hidden in many American Christian churches. The passion of the Christ was a bloody and painful affair for both Jesus as well as those who loved him.
Most Americans, and most Christians, reel at the displays of body mutilation than can be seen at Thaipusam. However we need to recognize that we also engage in behaviors just as destructive of our bodies while giving them spiritual justifications. Woman of faith often bear numerous children. Most woman bringing a child into the world will rip to some extent. Others will have serious surgical wounds. These things are not better than the wounds seen at Thaipusam, and they are freely planned and prepared for by woman bringing children into the world. The battle wounds of birth and c-sections can be worse than even the most shocking wounds at Thaipusam that are still, appearances notwithstanding, just skin wounds. Many woman go further. They are warned of much worse possibilities: diabetes, stroke, sepsis, heart failure, kidney failure, rupture of the uterus, ripping of the bladder or bowels. Still, they choose to continue to pursue pregnancy, forgoing the contraception and sterilization their doctors insist on.
Like some of the displays that can be seen at Thaipusam, pregnancy is a manifestation of the internal and spiritual in the external and physical. Pregnancy is a spiritual drama. A new human being, body and soul is formed. By its very nature it defies a reductionist and dualistic view of the human. It defies all common sense if common sense is limited just to the physical. No amount of “clinicalization” can completely remove the spiritual dimension permeating birth.