Civil Religion in Yangon

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Because American public life sometimes seems awash in a sea of religion, from time to time it’s worth casting one’s gaze on parts of the world where the spiritual politics is, like, really real. Take, for example, Burma (or, as the ruling generals have managed to convince the world to call it, Myanmar).

According to report in the Burma Digest, last year Supreme General Than Shwe sent a bunch of his men to steal the mortal remains of a holy monk who, according to the general’s occult teacher, was a zawgyi–“an alchemist who has become immortal and attained magical powers through his Art.” Than Shwe and his gang proceeded to feast on the corpse, in order to obtain the monk’s spiritual powers.

Now comes Seth Mydans’ story in today’s NYT about the collapse of the 2,300-year-old golden domed Dogan pagoda in Yangon on May 30, just three weeks after it was adorned with a diamond orb and blessed “in the presence of Daw Kyaing Kyaing, the wife of the country’s supreme
leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, along with an A-list of junta society.” The pagoda’s sacred umbrella crashed to the ground–not a good omen for the senior gen.

“The fact that the umbrella did not stay was a sign that more bad things are to come, according to astrologers,” said Ingreid Jordt, a professor of anthropology at the Unviersity of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and a specialist in Burmese Buddhism.

“It is also a sign that Than Shwe does not have the spiritual power any longer to be able to undertake or reap the benefit from good acts such as this,” Professor Jordt said in an e-mail message.

“In a sense, the pagoda repudiated Than Shwe’s right to remain ruler.”