The Pohon Beringin puppet of Kelantan Wayang Kulit is closely related to the Gunungan puppet from the Javanese Wayang, which as Fiona Wong E Chiong and Ghulam-Sarwar Yousofexplain, is used by the Dalang to bring a whole cosmos of gods, demons, humans and other creatures to life for the time of the performance. While this magical function is understated in the Kelantan tradition, the Pohon Beringin puppet is used to mark the opening and closing of the performance. The Pohon Beringin is a microcosm of the universe, with a central tree motif surrounded by flora and fauna, sky, water, flame, and mountain motifs. There are three levels to this cosmos, with fishes, serpents, or crocodiles at the bottom level representing the lower Waterworld; land animals like monkeys or elephants in the middle level representing the earth; birds at the top level representing the Skyworld. The Pohon Beringian is associated with the universal Tree of Life motif, which, in Islam, is called the Tree of Immortality.
Islamic cosmology is a variation of what is essentially a Ptolemaic geocentric model derived from Aristotle. According to Edith Jachimowiczhe, the space between the surface of the earth and the sphere of the Moon is known as the sub-lunary region. It is the realm of the elements, of minerals, plants, and animals, and of generation and corruption. In addition to the eight Ptolemaic spheres (Moon or falak al-kamar, Mercury or falak al-utarid, Venus or falak al- zuhra, Sun or falak al- shams, Mars or falak al-Mirrikh, Jupiter or falak al-Mushtari, Saturn or falak al-Zuhal, Fixed Stars or falak al-burudj), the Islamic cosmos has a ninth Sphere, the Sphere of Spheres or falak al-aflak. This astronomical or physical model of the cosmos is integrated with a theological or metaphysical cosmology.
In the explaining the relationship of the structure of the Islamic cosmos to the process of the primordial Creation, Jachimowiczhe cites theTasawwurat of Nasir al-Din Tusi, in which it is said that the creative force “reached the Throne of God, from the Throne reached the pedestal and, from the Pedestal again, descended to the sphere of Saturn and became attached to it. Again, it descended further, from one sphere to the other, until it reached the sphere of the moon. Then the exaltations and the rays of the stars, by the force of that energy and through the mediation of the sphere of the moon, fell upon the elements. This was certainly the cause which stirred the elements …” A line of force is drawn from the highest heaven down to the sublunary region and, given the notion of the ‘stirring’ of the elements, we might impute a turning movement to this force. In my own imagination, this line of force echoes the axial function and dynamics of the Pokok Pauh Janggi which links Dasar laut to Kayangan in the Malay cosmos.
Image: Jachimowicz, Edith (1975). Islamic Cosmology. In Carmen Blacker, Michael Loewe & J. Martin Plumley (eds.), Ancient Cosmologies. Allen & Unwin.
8. Theocracy: An archaic form of government, soon to make a comeback near you! In Malaysia, theocracy used to vie for power with ethnocracy but in GE15 these the forces pushing for these two systems of goverments have coalaced to an unprecedented degree.
Sivakumar Varatharaju Naidu is the Minister of Human Resources and the only Indian in Anwar Ibrahim’s cabinet. Gone are the glory days of the Pakatan Harapan government that followed GE 14 when there were 4 Indian ministers in a cabinet of 25 ministerial portfolios. Waytha Moorthy Ponnusamy was Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department responsible for National Unity and Social Well-being, Xavier Jayakumar Arulanandam was Minister of Water, Land, and Natural Resources, Kulasegaran Murugeson was Minister of Human Resources and Gobind Singh Deo was Minister of Communication and Multimedia. Today, in Anwar’s Unity Government there is only 1 Indian minister from a cabinet of 28 portfolios. Indeed, the ratio has gone down dramatically, and there is a lot of discussion in the media, about the implications for the place of Malaysian Indians in the political paradigm of Malaysia.
Malaysia is a nation founded in the wake of colonial immigration and postcolonial communalism. Race and religion are determinants of status and rights in our constitution and the majority of the political parties in our constitutional democracy are defined in terms of ethnic and religious interests. As East Malaysian parties figure more prominently in the political leadership of our nation (as they should in the cause of strengthening the Federation) the space for Indians in the leadership of the nation will naturally diminish in time.
In any event, while some Indians have risen to power based on communalist politics, Samy Vellu being the exemplar, this order has not really served the Indian community very well in the post Independent period. So, while I acknowledge the communal nature of the Indian Malaysian stake in the nation, I believe the time has come to pursue our community interests less directly, by perpetuating general principles of justice and citizenship for all. As the power dynamic shifts in Malaysian politics, Indians need to assert their needs and rights as citizens, rather than as a members of a community. They need to entrench themselves within the multiethnic political parties and contribute to the deepening of trans-communal ethos that may be emerging, in the Malaysian political landscape, albeit, with difficulty.
Our community is clearly on the way to losing its 3rd place in the triumvirate of Malaysian races – Malay/Chinese/XXX, we need to be at the forefront of the effort to transcend communalism in Malaysian life. This might be a losing battle in the face of the rising wave of Malay ethnoreligious sentiments, but I believe it is still the only way forward, and the best chance for Indians to have a say in a future Malaysia. We should stop worrying about the number of Indians in the Cabinet, and focus on deepening our role and influence at the back end of governance. Indian Malaysians have everything to gain from thinking and acting as Malaysians per se, and much to lose by being entrenched in the Indianness of our national identity. I believe that Indians can best serve our community by striving to raise the living conditions and opportunities for all Malaysians who have been left behind in the post-independence period.
Siapa Parasit? In Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 Academy Award-winning film Parasite, members of a poor family, are employed by a wealthy homeowning family. They infiltrate the household and attempt take over their wealth resources and lives. Post Malaysia’s GE15 Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) has accused the Democratic Action Party (DAP) of being a parasite riding on a Malay unity government that will in the end destroy the “weak” host. The Chinese-dominated multiethnic DAP was the 2nd most successful party in GE15 with 40 seats and will be part of the Unity Governmenmt under Malaysia’s 10th Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim. PAS was the party that won the most seats, numbering 47 and will be part of the opposition.
The revivification of religion in contemporary society leaves me with a sense of foreboding with regard to the future of humanity. There has been a resurgence of religious values in the politics of the 21st Century as theocratic and quasi-theocratic modes have made an impression, even in what were once staunchly secular democracies. The Christian right has brought socially conservative positions to the forefront of the politics of the USA. The Hindu right has turned India’s avowedly secular democracy into a nation-state steeped in Hindutva (Hinduness). Before these developments, there were the theocentric formulations of Islamic fundamentalism and Zionism. Tragically, all of these ‘post-traditional’ hybridizations of religious truths with modern politics have resulted in the division and alienation of peoples.
There are, however, examples of a more integrative incorporation of religious values at the forefront of human affairs. Canadian politician and leader of the NDP (New Democratic Party), Jagmeet Singh, is an exemplar of this more inclusive post-traditionalism. In a 2017 interview with GQ magazine, he articulates his religious approach to contemporary secular society, “My Sikh spirituality … influences my political style. We strongly believe in social justice as an element of our founding philosophy—that there is one energy and that we are all connected, kind of like the force. So if I see someone else suffering, as a Sikh I see that as me suffering. There’s this morality that flows from this idea that we are one and connected, and we celebrate diversity and people of different backgrounds, cultures, and religions..” He underscores his point by citing a Sikh mantra that wishes for the “betterment of all humankind.”
As the May 8th polling date approaches in Malaysia, there has been an interesting turn of events with regard to the use of images. According to the Straits Times of Singapore, the Election Commission just issued new guidelines stipulating that, other than the photograph of the candidate standing for election in a given constituency, the only other photographs can be used on campaign materials are photos of the candidate’s party president and deputy president. This effectively removes images of Dr Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim from the iconography of the campaign. Reflecting on the power of images in the contemporary media, and the interdiction against images in Islam in this context might be quite enlightening ……. as might pondering on the Superstar Cutouts that populate the box-office and polling landscapes of Asia!
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