SUMMONING THE SACRED SPIRITS OF STUPIDITY
By Andrew Biggs
My office was abuzz with the news of the medium who went on TV last week and summoned the spirit of an ancient Brahman god.
“You should have seen it,” the maid, Noi, excitedly told my staff. “At first she was normal, then right there in the middle of the interview, suddenly –”
Noi paused to contort her face into that of someone suffering from extreme diarrhea owing to over-indulgence in fermented fish paste. Noi spoke in a voice that gasped and rasped like an over-exerted karaoke bar singer:
“I … am … Jatukham Ramathep!” she said.
“What nonsense,” I said in passing, then when safely out of distance, pounced on my PC and did a search of the TV show.
Such mediums are commonplace on Thai TV. Do you have that AIS Playbox in your home? It came with my internet connection; a box you plug into your TV set and you are able to view some 100 local TV channels.
I used to fret over the dearth of educational TV shows back when we only had six national TV stations. With the advent of the digital age, we now have one hundred. And yes, dear reader, you guess correctly: 100 TV channels as opposed to six means 16.66 recurring times less opportunity to find anything educational.
On nights when I need reassurance that my life does warrant some value, I pick up that Playbox remote and slowly flick through every one of those channels.
They are a litany of has-been actors and TV hosts, now spending way too much time in cosmetic clinics, holding up bottles of miracle cures, jewelry, kitchen appliances, Thai folk music CDs and incontinence diapers for the elderly. And if you order within the next 30 minutes, they’ll throw in a set of steak knives absolutely free!
In between those are the spiritual channels. Unhappy men sit at tables extolling the wonders of the Koran. Buddhist nuns explain karma to farmers. And there are what the Thais call reusee or hermit monks who wear brown robes with lots of bling. They look like overweight used car salesmen in fancy dress.
They talk about ancient spirits who have contacted them, in a similar way to evangelical Christian pastors who claim God speaks through them. Why these deities choose such dirtbags to spread their word points to a poor lack of judgment, indicating they are the Dalit of the spiritual world and thus should be avoided at all costs.
Speaking of cost, for a mere 999 Baht, I can order this amazing replica of an ancient Brahman god that will bring me great fortune. Or I can attend a gathering of the hermit monk’s most ardent followers at Rama 9 Park this Sunday, though I am obliged to make a “small donation” of 509 Baht to attend.
Before I came to Thailand my only experience with mediums was the movie The Exorcist. In my mind mediums were people possessed by demons whose heads spun around as they informed dinner guests they were going straight to hell, using vernacular that would even embarrass a motorcycle taxi driver.
Now, thanks to those TV channels, I am better informed. Mediums in Thailand can be softly-spoken friendly folk. And they don’t want your soul. They just want your money.
The woman who this week caused a stir on national TV, however, ratchets the medium outrageousness up a few extra notches. This attractive, amiable middle-aged woman went on a nightly TV current affairs program.
But this was not Channel 132 on that Playbox. This was Channel 3, or rather their digital station, which brings a level of respectability that your average medium could never aspire to.
The woman’s name was Saeng Suriyathep, which translated means “Sunlight Gods-From-The-Sun”. Dressed in an orange shirt, she calmly explained how, for the last 15 years, the spirits of nine different deities enter her body on a regular basis, suggesting she is not so much ethereal as she is suffering from self-enforced multiple personality disorder.
Then, as if right on cue, in the middle of the interview, one of those spirits paid her a visit.
Noi’s impersonation was spot on. The woman’s eyebrows raised. Her eyes widened. The corners of her mouth turned down.
It reminded me of drama class from high school, where we had to self-consciously contort our faces and bodies according to instructions from the drama instructor: “Be a lion! Now be a monkey! A slithering snake! Feel the animal! Feel!”
Little Miss Sunlight started talking in a raspy voice.
“I … am …. Jatukarm Ramathep,” she boomed. “I … have come … to spread goodness … to the world.”
(Somebody perhaps should have whispered in Miss Sunshine’s ear that in fact, the famous Jatukarm Ramathep is not a single deity. It’s two men. Technically her deity count is now ten.)
What is amazing is that Messrs Jatukarm and Ramathep knew about Facebook. They even knew about Facebook Live and are heard on one video clip instructing the cameraman to “pan to the left, pan to the right”. When the interviewer asked about this, the deity answered, with not a little hint of centuries-old indignation: “Why can’t ancient deities learn about modern technology too?”
It wasn’t just the medium being an idiot, either.
“Viewers, you’ll never believe this!” the breathless interviewer, Noom Kanchai, explained wide-eyed to the camera. “Just prior to recording this program, there was a blackout in the studio! Then the tape machine broke down! Then we had sound problems! Then I started coughing …”
This was proof, he intimated, that his guest was possessed by ancient spirits intent on disrupting the electricity over at Channel 3.
Noom Kanchai copped a lot of flak from the social media world after this went to air, which is a relief. It shows Thai society is becoming more educated, and is able to make value judgments on quacks, as opposed to the past when vast swathes of the population would blindly accept that a suburban nobody was home to nine ancient Brahman deities. Or ten.
But what Noom is most guilty of is the irresponsibility of allowing such fraudsters to reach a mass audience. He legitimized her. You can tell your viewers a hundred times to “use your discretion” in viewing his guest, as he did, but the fact remains you allowed that guest on your show in the first place.
And as for the technical disruptions? I have worked in Thai TV for more than 20 years. I can’t remember a single program where there wasn’t a blackout, or a broken tape machine, or faulty sound. Noom claimed he had to do four or five takes. I’ve done shows where I had to do 10 takes without a Brahman deity within walking distance.
There is a very well-known Thai saying that Noom himself used on his show. It is a saying that is used when you hear about something supernatural, or ghostly. Mai cheua ya lob loo. “If you don’t believe it, don’t disparage it.”
To me this saying is far more dangerous than any spiritual charlatan. It is a mechanism to keep the masses fooled. I absolutely exercise my right to disparage bad actresses who fake ancient spirits entering their bodies. I disparage gladly and gleefully. I would go one step further and say we, Noom Kanchai included, should rise up and forcefully eject such people from society.
Thailand no longer needs ancient spirits to intimidate. It needs education and critical thinking. May the ancient deities rest in peace, and allow the living to get on with the task in hand of expanding our minds positively. That, to me, is far more important than the gods, with or without steak knives.