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"Don’t Say it is Religion!"

Sat, April 2, 5:15 to 7:15pm, Washington State Convention Center, Floor: 2nd Floor, Room 213


"Don’t say it is religion!" That was the only recommendation of the high ranking official on the point to give me his assent to conduct research about Burmese spirit worshipping, but it was a stern one. From Melford Spiro's decision to deal with spirit worship as the second religion of the Burmese (1967), against vernacular discourses, to the rejection of spirit out of the religious domain, the same cognitive discomfort is displayed that speaks for "a political history that has constructed the public reality of spirits, religion and rationality in a particular way" (Bubandt & van Beek, 2011). In their edited volume on Varieties of secularism in Asia, Bubandt and van Beek choose to focus on the "spiritual" as a source of problematization for secularism in Asia.

In this paper, I will pinpoint the contemporary situation of Burmese spirit worshipping as the target of new criticisms and categorizations emerging from the redefinition of the political field under the democratic transition and from the subsequent reformation of a Buddhist religious activism. If spirit worshipping and its array of practices, particularly the highly colorful and joyful nat festivals, have always been regarded with contempt by the tenants of an official dominant Buddhism, the political liberalization creates a new situation in which the religious identity of the Burmese is felt as endangered and needing to be revitalized in such a way as to redefine its outline. In this process, spirit worshiping practice faces new process of relegation in the margins that will be examined in this paper.