I just wanted to preface the post by explaining that I was unable to find/read the “Buddhism and Depression” article because my Lambek textbook (Ch. 29) had a different article by the same author (“Medusa’s Hair: an Essay on Personal Symbols and Religious Experience”). I still made an attempt to analyze that article with the Sacred of Suffering article.
Sacred of Suffering, written by C. Jason Throop, and Medusa’s Hair, written by Gananath Obeyesekere demonstrates the experience of sacred suffering through the religious and everyday practices of the people of Yap and Sri Lanka.
Throop compares his argument with Geertz’s definition of the sacred suffering. Geertz’s argument is reliant on his discussion of “modes of seeing” and the “religious perspective”. Geertz argues that humans turn to different orientations or perspectives in order to make sense of the suffering they are experiencing. The perspective then becomes a mediator between an actor and a specific situation in which it transforms the relationship between the actor and situation in a particular way. Geertz believed that it wasn’t possible for humans to “shift” between perspectives or “modes of seeing” because each perspective has a specific and distinct way of thinking about the world. Throop explains how his approach, although similar in many ways, different in that he does not believe that these perspectives are restricted to one situation. Throop argues that one situation can often shift between different perspectives and take form in multiple perspectives. He also quotes from Csordas and emphasizes the fact that the idea of the sacred suffering is not just about alienation or the other but rather, the sacred suffering also sheds light on new possibilities and the potential beyond our limitations. And so, the sacred suffering connects the human limits and potentials and so it is important that we closely observe the average everyday lived experience.
The author argues that because the sacred is not an objective and definitive presence that we can point to, the experience of the sacred can be seen through the many “modes of seeing” (Geertz) or perspectives in the everyday lived experiences of our lives. His experiences and conversations during his fieldwork ultimately conclude that the connection of the sacred and suffering can take form in the shift of the people’s focus and attention from their own suffering to the people and community who share the same as them.
The sacred in the island of Yap is seen through acts of severe self-discipline and abstention from all external temptations. Throop demonstrates these ascetic practices from different Yapese classes. The most sacred of the priests, the betiliw, were religious figures who voluntarily lived in completely socially isolated and secluded areas in the mountains. The priests had to follow strict ascetic practices which included abstinence from sex, specific foods, consumption, etc. However, the ascetic practices are also seen in other classes. In mundane and ordinary life, the sacred takes form in intimate relationships between individuals from lower and higher classes. Through these interactions, the Yapese people practice ascetic practices through self-sacrifice and through virtuous acts for one another. Generally, the lower-class citizens participate in these ascetic practices when they see another higher-class individual in suffering, and these practices are seen as virtuous acts towards the higher-class citizens. This, in turn, allows the higher-class citizens to return the favor with compassion through forms of genuine care whether that be donating food or access to land. This compassionate relationship and the give and take of self-sacrificing and virtuous acts between the two parties represents the sacred in that the compassionate response of each individual when witnessing another’s pain or suffering in order to connect as a community can be comparable with the ascetic practices of the sacred priests who are sacrificing the pleasures of the world to connect with the supernatural.
So, how can we observe this form of the sacred in the context of suffering? Throop answers the question through a common phrase used in the Yapese language, amiithuun ea binaew, which is used to express a form of concern, love, or pride for one’s village. Throop highlights the fact that amiithuun ea binaew’s literal translation is the “pain of the village”. The discussed phrase is used in the context in which the community collectively works and suffers together. This sense of connection and community highlights the common experienced emotions that the community shares like mutual longing, concern, and love for the village and the people who are in the village. The pain and suffering experienced as a community are part of the love and efforts towards working to accomplish a common goal of making the village a better place. When piecing the phrase and the compassionate relationship demonstrated earlier together, it becomes evident that one’s response to witnessing one’s pain and suffering or the shift between focusing on an individual’s pain to understanding the shared suffering among everyone in the community is what allows suffering to become a sacred suffering.
Throop does an excellent job of illustrating how sacred suffering does not have to be perceived within a specific context of the supernatural or “the other”, but rather, the sacred suffering can be experienced through everyday interactions and relationships with others as the Yapese have demonstrated. To make a connection with Geertz’s argument and Throop’s analysis of the Yapese’s sacred suffering, it seems that community based suffering or the idea of suffering through and working towards a certain goal as a collective allows the Yapese to make sense of their suffering and also to respond relatively positively to their suffering. When each of the classes give and take in virtuous acts, it forces individuals to shift their focus from themselves to others, and, at the same time, when individuals see others suffering, it forces them to shift focus from themselves and their lives to wanting to alleviate the suffering from others. This back and forth of shifting focus from one perspective to another, I think, constantly reminds the community that there is a greater and important reason that they are suffering.
On the other hand, Obeyesekere utilizes the symbolism of matted hair and Hindu ascetic practices to demonstrate how sacred suffering is experienced by females in Sri Lanka. Obeyesekere worked closely with Karunavanti, a 52 year old woman who had become a priestess. Karunavanti described her experience with marriage and the suffering associated with her marriage. Karunavanti believed that her husband was a disaster and was very focused on the pleasures of the world like materialistic wealth, drinking, gambling, smoking, etc. Soon after her mother passed, she had become possessed while she was with her husband at a near site of the central shrine of the goddess Pattini. The goddess Pattini was the embodiment of the ideal mother and wife. Karunavanti knew it was her mother who wanted to spoke to her and therefore possessed her with evil spirits. Despite several attempts to rid of the spirits, she continued to have attacks. Later on, she believed that the suffering she went through was a test to see if she could become a priestess. During her experience as a priestess, she felt compelled to move away from her family and become celibate. She believed that it wasn’t her who pushed her husband away, but it was the gods telling her to. During one of her possessions, the god had told her he would give her seven matted locks if she was able to absolutely stay away from sex with her husband and was able to get consent from her husband to do so. She then started to wear matted locks as a protection from the temptations of sex. She also was very protective of her locks as she believed that they were the gods’ gift to her for renouncing sex.
Karunavanti’s experience of sacred suffering is quite different from Throop’s analysis as Karunavanti’s experience focuses on how suffering and pain from one’s personal experiences and relationships can be then transformed into something sacred. Karunavanti, in her marriage, had gone through a lot of suffering that was possibly inexplicable to her. Through a religious experience, she was able to experience the sacred and transfer her past sufferings to a voluntary form of sacred suffering through abstinence from sex in which she focused all of her attention to. This shift, similar to the one that in Geertz’s analysis rather than Throop’s analysis, from the commonsensical perspective to the religious perspective of suffering allowed Karunavanti to experience a different kind of suffering, a sacred suffering. Especially when looking into Obeyesekere’s analysis on matted hair, it seems that Karunavanti and many other women who choose to follow celibacy believe that their sacred suffering amounts to something much greater, a gift from the gods and a form of a guardian angel that takes the form of matted hair locks. Just as the Yapese community found a clear reason for their collective suffering, Karunavanti finds a very clear reason for her suffering when thinking about suffering in a particular religious perspective.
Jason Throop, “Sacred Suffering,” In Kapalana Ram and Christopher Houston editors, Phenomenology in Anthropology (Indiana University Press, 2015), 68-88.
Obeyesekere, Gananath. Medusa’s Hair: an Essay on Personal Symbols and Religious Experience. University of Chicago Press, 2008.