Ramadan and Hungry Ghosts

Ramadan and Hungry Ghosts August 2, 2011

On August 1st here in Singapore, where I am currently teaching a seminar, two religious holidays began simultaneously. One was Ramadan, the fasting month of Islam. During Ramadan all healthy and sufficiently mature Muslims abstain from any form of food and drink from the sunrise to sunset. The fast is simultaneously a an act of obedience to God and remembrance of those who are hungry all the time. And when the evening comes it binds the community together in celebratory feasting. The other holiday was what is commonly called in English the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts. In Chinese traditional religion it is believed that on the first day of the 7th month the gates of hell are opened up and all the discontented spirits return to earth. They are hungry because through either an unnatural death, or through human neglect they have not been offered “soul food” in their otherworldly home.

This month while mosques across Singapore hold Iftar dinners to break the fast and offer hospitality to their non-Muslim neighbors Chinese associations will take over pieces of vacant property to hold banquets for the ghosts. Large tents with stages, temporary altars, and dozens of tables will be erected. Spirit mediums and Taoist priests will invite the spirit armies of the generals of four points of the compass to provide security. The altars will be filled with offerings for the various heavenly deities. And then night after night everything from Chinese opera to Canto-pop music shows will be performed. Human guests will take the tables further from the stage and the gods will look on from above while the “little brothers” will take the tables up front. They will enjoy for a fragment of their long deaths what they were likely denied in life: being served before even the paying guests. There will even be porta-poties set aside specifically for them: male, female, ghost. (Gender differentiation has not been noted in the latter case in my experience.)

It is hard to imagine, if one moves between and among these religious rituals, what they could possibly have in common other than the random confluence of two irregular calendar systems. Yet, remarkably, they do co-exist without visible problems in a single nation bound to a small island. If they are both a witness to some single truth it is this: the remarkable capacity of the human heart to reach to the limits of a reality far wider than the human religious imagination. One cannot be both a Muslim and a Chinese religionist any more than one can go east and west at the same time. The beliefs, the worldviews, the orientations are too different. Choices must be made. Nor can adherents of any other religion judge between them or harmonize them. The fullness of human seeing is knowing that it is always no more than partial blindness. Our bent world turns upon itself, and even the light of revelation curves under that gravity to fall into a human sphere. Yet still it is the same heart that beats in Muslim and Taoist, Christian and Hindu, Buddhist and Jew. And all know hunger, and long to be fed.

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