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A New God in the Diaspora? Muneeswaran Worship


in Contemporary Singapore
Article in Material Religion The Journal of Objects Art and Belief March 2008
DOI: 10.2752/175183408X288230

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Seng-Guan Yeoh
Monash University (Malaysia)
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Material Religion
The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief

ISSN: 1743-2200 (Print) 1751-8342 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rfmr20

A new god in the diaspora? muneeswaran worship


in contemporary singapore Sinha, Vineeta
Yeoh Seng-Guan
To cite this article: Yeoh Seng-Guan (2008) A new god in the diaspora? muneeswaran worship
in contemporary singapore Sinha, Vineeta, Material Religion, 4:1, 104-105
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/175183408X288230

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Download by: [Monash University Library]

Date: 18 February 2016, At: 02:47

What happens when a Tamil Hindu village


guardian deity (kaaval deivam) is transported
several thousand miles from its original
homeland to reside among diasporic Hindu
communities for several decades? Under
different material and psychological conditions
of migrant urban spaces, do ritual and
iconographic innovations simply replicate
religious traditions or do they make substantive
departures? When relayed back to the
homeland, do these changes render the deity
ritually unrecognizable?
Vineeta Sinha provides compelling answers
to these questions through an engrossing study

Sinha, Vineeta. 2005


Singapore: Singapore University Press
Reviewed by Yeoh Seng-Guan
Monash University
DOI: 10.2752/175183408X288230

Book Reviews

a new god in the


diaspora?
muneeswaran worship in
contemporary singapore

Volume 4
Issue 1

1980 census (38.2 percent Taoist and 34.3 per


Buddhist). Meanwhile the number of Christians
has apparently been increasing. Thus, in 1990
16.2 percent of those aged 2029 professed to
be Christian while the gure was 11.8 percent of
those aged 60 and above.
Given all the recent amazing changes in
Singaporean society do people still adhere to
the old customs? In surveys conducted only 8.6
percent of respondents revealed that they did
not have a family altar at home. The continuing
importance of lial piety, family and ancestors is
indicated by the high rate of observance of Qing
Ming Jie rites (81.3 percent) with the majority
(82.3 percent) of the practitioners visiting the
graveyard on this occasion.
The author keeps his focus rmly on
Singapore. There is no attempt to generalize
about important Chinese communities in
neighboring Malaysia, Thailand or Indonesia.
Nothing is said about the situation in Taiwan,
Hong Kong or indeed on the mainland. The
question of religion in the cultural and political
life of modern peoples has now become
a burning issue for social scientists in the
aftermath of the war on terror. It had never
ceased to be a mortally sensitive matter in
mainland China even before Mao and his
red guards. It is to be hoped that this gifted
scholar may at some point broaden his
perspective and approach these highly loaded
subjects.
This is an important work of rare scholarship
that provides illuminating insights into one of the
most dynamic cultures of our modern world.
It will become a standard reference work for
all scholars working on China. Anthropologists
and those interested in comparative religion
will nd Tong to be a helpful guide. There is a
bibliography of publications mainly in English,
extensive notes and a good index.

Material Religion

Downloaded by [Monash University Library] at 02:47 18 February 2016


104

Tong is convincing when he presents


the case of why people choose to place their
ancestral tablets in Buddhist or Taoist temples
while others prefer lineage or clan temples. His
arguments about Buddhist ideas of reincarnation
and how these are to be reconciled with Chinese
conceptions of the soul actually continuing in
the ancestral tablets in the temples are also of
the greatest interest.
What makes the study such a compelling
work is the meticulous care that Tong has taken
with the research. The eldwork was started
in 1981. It has taken many years of careful
and intimate observation to come up with the
nal results reported here. Meanwhile, Tong
has read every relevant theoretical work on
death and funerary practices both about the
Chinese and in general anthropology. There
are theoretical discussions running through
the work concerning the writings of all major
commentators on Chinese religion. They go
from J.J.M. DeGroot with his six volumes in
18921910, to Marcel Granet, Robert Hertz and
Maurice Freedman, as well as all the more recent
anthropologists writing on the subject. The
notes are replete with critical references to the
most interesting works by Wolf, Watson, Ahern,
Jordan, Hsu and many other contemporary
scholars of the subject.
Tong does not dwell on the details of the
differences between what he refers to as the
ethnic subcultures of the Cantonese, Hainanese,
Hakka, Hokkien and others. Given the
complexity of the intellectual streams this could
have been a challenging matter. In a brief nal
chapter, Tong does allow himself to comment
on what percentage of the Chinese in Singapore
actually practice these customs. It turns out that
whereas in the 1931 census over 97 percent
claimed to practice Chinese religion, the
gure had come down to 72.5 percent in the

Downloaded by [Monash University Library] at 02:47 18 February 2016

105

of a village guardian deity called Muneeswaran.


Based on two-and-half years of eldwork in
Singapore and in Tamilnadu from whence
the deity originates, the author provides not
only fascinating ethnographic details of how
devotion to the deity is embodied and sustained
in the metropolis, but also debates with
familiar characterizations of ritual changes like
Sanskritization and Agamization.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries, thousands of mainly low-caste Tamil
Hindus were shipped to the British colonies
of Singapore and Malaya as cheap labor for
plantations, railways and public services. They
brought with them their devotion to a host
of gods and goddesses. Among them was
Muneeswaran. Although originally a working
class deity, Vineeta Sinha reports that in modern
day Singapore, professionals have joined the
ranks of devotees. Moreover, Muneeswaran
devotees (ayya devotees) also now include
Chinese, Malays, and Eurasians who are
adherents of Daoism, Roman Catholicism,
and Islam. For Hindus, Muneeswaran similarly
does not demand exclusive devotion and he
can easily co-exist with higher Hindu deities,
although ritual boundaries are drawn given
his culinary preference for meat, alcohol and
animal sacrices. In some cases, attempts to
upgrade his ritual status and improve his public
image by Agamic temples are indexed by a shift
towards vegetarian offerings and the bestowal of
honoric titles.
Another signicant change has been the
incorporation of Muneeswaran into the domestic
realm. As a demi-god his traditional territorial
domain has been the remote outdoors and
village boundaries, and this ethos continues
in some measure in clandestine jungle
temples escaping the bane of urban renewal
and religious standardization. But the author
also encountered other unexpected facets
to Muneeswaran devotion. From the status
of a kaaval deivam, Muneeswarans appeal
has broadened and deepened to become
a kula deivam (family or clan deity) and ista
deivam (personal favored deity) in the altars of
households that she visited. In some cases,
this practice has spanned a few generations. In
the idiom of the devotees, Muneeswaran has
chosen them. This shift also decenters old
ways where women, deemed to be periodically
ritually impure vis--vis the deity, now attend to
him in daily worship within their own homes.

The magnetic appeal of Muneeswaran lies


preeminently in his accessibility, intimacy, and
efcacy. Rituals, mantras and pujas directed at
him need not be too elaborate and people can
just talk to him to tell him what they want. This
aspect, supplemented by the comparative lack
of characterization of him in the Hindu scriptures,
unlike the big deities, has engendered multiple
visualizations of Muneeswaran and an uneven
iconographical grammar. In Tamilnadu, Vineeta
Sinha interviewed sculptors who said they
needed to go to the simple people rather
than experts to uncover his visual forms.
In Singapore, she discovered a wide array of
representations, noniconic and iconic. Materials
used for sculptures and statues range from
cement and clay to granite and bronze with
different textures and dimensions. Similarly,
devotees have a degree of autonomy in creating
anthromorphized images of Muneeswaran.
Apart from his signature moustache and long
locks, devotees construe his facial expressions
idiosyncraticallyfrom calm to erce, and from
childlike to sagelike to godlike. In the case of
the last feature, not all devotees appreciate
iconographic attempts at the deication or
Siva-ization of Muneeswaran, seeing them as
taming him or making him effeminate.
As elsewhere, the age of the Internet has
also beckoned into being emergent material
religious cultures. Mantras, testimonials of
trances, conversations with Muneeswaran
and so forth are shared effortlessly across
geographical boundaries in cyberspace. Queries
and debates about Muneeswarans identity
engage diasporic Hindu communities around the
world and feed into ritual practices. Altogether,
they lend themselves to a textual and ritual
cohesiveness and coherence that is perhaps yet
another stage in the evolving forms and identities
of Muneeswaran.
Vineeta Sinhas study is satisfying for a
number of reasons. Firstly, for the sensitive
manner in which she explicates a range of
devotees perceptions and experiences of the
urban appeal of Muneeswaran. Her nuanced
ethnographic portrayal also articulates well with
broader sociological discussions on the nature
of diasporic religious experiences. Finally, but
not least, and with particular reference to the
aims of this journal, her attention to the material
dimensions of religious expressions provides
a valuable benchmark for future research on
Muneeswaran.

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