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15 The Charisma of Saints and the Cult of Relics,Amulets, and Tomb Shrines Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah As a sequel to my third monograph on Thailand—The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets (Tambiah 1984)—I have begun a comparative study that aspires to span some Christian, Islamic, Buddhist , and Hindu traditions with regard to their characterization of saints and the cults of relics, amulets, and shrine worship associated with them. In this essay I cannot realistically cover all the dimensions of the comparative project I have embarked on and which I hope others will consider. The main question I wish to probe is why ordinary worldlings are elevated and edified by, and draw energies from, the labors of the “athletes of God,” as early Christianity hailed its saintly martyrs, of “the canker-waned arahants” (perfected saints), as classical Buddhism venerated them, and of the auliya’ Allah, or “the friends or protégés of God,” as the Qur’an celebrated them. Lest you think that I have chosen a topic too remote in time and experience from contemporary sensibilities and modern concerns, let me cite a few paragraphs from an article by Alan Riding that appeared F5920.indb 15 F5920.indb 15 12/17/12 3:00:36 PM 12/17/12 3:00:36 PM 16 Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah in the New York Times of April 15, 1989, under the title “Vatican ‘Saint Factory’: Is It Working Too Hard?”: Despite a Roman Catholic calendar already so crowded that some days are shared by several saints, Pope John Paul II has sharply increased the number of saints honored by the church, apparently in the hope that devout role models can help reinforce the Christian faith. Complementing his frequent trips abroad, he has also made a point of reaching out to the third world to find examples of long-forgotten martyrs and ‘heroically virtuous’ Christians worthy of canonization or beatification, which is the first step toward sainthood. As a result, in his first 10 years in office, John Paul has already carried out 254 canonizations and 305 beatifications, far more than all previous Popes together in this century. Furthermore, the number of candidates for beatification has swollen to more than 2,000. . . . . . . Pope John Paul has been able to step up canonizations and beatifications thanks to a simplification of the procedure over the last 20 years. For example, while giving local bishops responsibility for initiating cases of canonization, the Pope ruled in 1983 that only one miracle—instead of the traditional two—would be needed in each case. (Riding 1989) John Paul II’s penchant for making pious visits to both great and remote shrines has elicited the remark that he had an “apparently insatiable appetite for visiting sanctuaries” (Sox 1985).1 He was particularly attached to Marian shrines: “There have been the widely publicized papal visits to Lourdes, Fatima, Czechtokowa and Knock, but lesser known are his visits to venerate the Turin Shroud, the Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano,the Holy House of Loretto,Our Lady of the Miracle at the Church of St. Andrea della Fratte in Rome, among many others” (ibid., 6).2 The purpose of my citation of the New York Times article is not to poke fun at the former Pope’s sponsorship and extension of the cult of saints, but to underscore the point that the phenomenon is not simply archaic—that it also massively appeals to contemporary sensibilities. The question then arises: why does the cult of saints have such a general appeal both in space and time? F5920.indb 16 F5920.indb 16 12/17/12 3:00:36 PM 12/17/12 3:00:36 PM The Charisma of Saints 17 The Saint as a Cultural Type and Social Person The veneration of saints,and the literary genre of biographies and hagiographies of saints—however stereotyped and ritualized they may be—raise the general question of why societies and cultures committed to diverse religious traditions,including Christian,Islamic,Hindu and Buddhist, have at all times, but more intensely at certain times, responded to the lives of the saints—that is, to the attributes, virtues, and acts of saints as celebrated and outstanding individual persons.Is there a “spontaneous” inclination in human life to think and experience power and influence in personal terms? Are there special times and circumstances when these person-focused phenomena have a special appeal? It looks as...


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