Spirit Possession Religions and Popular Rituals Flourish in Vietnam

Spirit Possession Religions and Popular Rituals Flourish in Vietnam

Spirit medium in Mother Goddess religion under her red veil communes with the gods on behalf of a supplicant.

Mother Goddess religion as well as local gods and shamans have strong following despite official disapproval.

Despite threats of legal sanctions many religious practices have won a considerable following in recent years, according to Dr. Hien Thi Nguyen, who holds a PhD in folklore from Indiana University and who taught at Vietnam National University in Hanoi for six years in the early 1990s while conducting research into religious practices in the country.

Most of the popular sects and shamans involve varieties of ritual and mediumship. Dr. Nguyen recounted her own research among practitioners of these beliefs in Vietnam at a May 12 forum at UCLA sponsored by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, where she is currently a postdoctoral fellow.

One of the largest and most widespread of the belief systems is Dao Mau, the Mother Goddess religion. One of its central practices is the Len Dong spirit possession ritual, where spirit mediums channel various gods and goddesses connected to the cult. When in trance for communication with the other world, the mediums don a red veil which facilitates manifestation of the spirit in their bodies.

The Len Dong "going into trance" ritual, despite its otherworldly trappings, is generally sought out by petitioners to achieve very down-to-earth goals: a good business, a better job, curing a health condition, or passing university entrance exam.

In addition to studying religious groups in and around the capital, Hien Nguyen has also done research among shamans of the Tay people near the Chinese border and spirit mediums of the Kind in the Red River Delta in the north of Vietnam.

"Shamanistic rituals have been banned by the Vietnamese government as superstition," she said. When she began her research she was advised by low-level officials to describe then, a trance song of the Tay shamans, as just folksongs to legitimize her research. "It is still a sensitive topic in Vietnam today," Nguyen said. "Even articles on the Western spiritual healing tradition had been cut down severely to be published."

Religion and the Communist Government

In 1946, Hien Nguyen said, "the North Vietnam constitution promised freedom of religion, but the state was very restrictive," limiting the legalization to major world religions only. "Official opposition to religion in Vietnam stems from the government's atheist policy. The government see religions organization as a potential focus of opposition and a threat to its power. The government officially denies that any supernatural entities exist or have any influence on human life. Officials in Vietnam have a particular concern with eliminating what they consider to be bad social consequences. They see such beliefs as part of systems of feudal ideological control and want to get rid off them. They argue that destiny should be in people's own hands, not in the hands of gods or spirits."

The Vietnamese constitution of 1992 provides that the citizen has the freedom to have religion or to not have religion. "According to the constitution, the state does not ban religion, but the state is determined to fight superstition. The state reserves the right to determine the definition of superstition." "Superstition" is a “false and wrong belief” that is denied protection under Vietnamese law. Specifically prohibited under the law are communicating with spirits and ghosts, exorcising spirits, or burning paper money or other objects for the dead. Going to a Buddhist pagoda or praying in front of ancestor's altars is a “legitimate folk belief” that should be preserved.

Dr. Nguyen said the government's definitions amount to "a very elusive distinction, since both practices involve supernatural power."

The Anti-superstition Campaign and Revitalization of Folk Practices

From the late 1950s to the late 1980s the Vietnamese government mounted an anti-superstition campaign. "Many old rituals such as divinations, spirit possession, and burning offerings were opposed and their practitioners denounced in the media as liars and tricksters. After 1986, however, the government relaxed its enforcement of the anti-superstition laws, although it still expresses disapproval."

One of the intact folk practices after 1986 is ancestor worship. "Ancestor worship is the most important veneration for Vietnamese families. They celebrate death anniversaries of their ancestors and give offerings in their honor on the first and fifteenth of the lunar month, and can make special offerings when praying to ancestors for help. People have rebuilt the graves of ancestors and deceased family members. They also look for lost graves and remains of dead soldiers in order to have a proper reburial."

Another popular revitalization is the Len Dong ritual of the Mother Goddess religion. "A number of businessmen and both wealthy and poor people have undergone initiation to become spirit mediums," Hien Nguyen said. "Common people go to them for a divination and a ritual for healing and pragmatic purposes. Spiritual healing is still a banned practice, but serves as one of the functions of the spirit possession."

Astrological guidebooks are printed and circulated showing auspicious and inauspicious days. Dr. Nguyen showed a slide of a woman at an office of Vietnam Airlines in Hanoi buying a ticket to Ho Chi Minh City, but checking her astrological almanac for an auspicious day for travel.

Confucian temples have also made a comeback. "Students pray to the statue of Confucius at Literature Temple (Van Mieu) in Hanoi to improve their studies." People also burn votive paper offerings at family rituals and in the temples. "Making these products has become a cottage industry, a family enterprise to earn a living."

There has also been a revitalization of local village gods. Usually these are some real heroes from the village's past, now elevated into protection gods to whom temples are erected. "An example of a historical hero is Ly Phuc Man, now a tutelary god of Gia village. He was a historical hero in the sixth century. About 70 villages worship him."

How Individuals Contend with State Disapproval

People have had to contend with government attempts to suppress the practices. From the late 1950s to the late 1980s many temples and pagodas were destroyed. "Today, when people have more money, they collect money to rebuild temples and pagodas. In many places people take retribution on local authorities for implementing state instructions to dismantle temples and pagodas by embroidering oral anecdotes about spiritual punishments."

Support for the spirit possession sects has been gaining support even among functionaries of the regime. "I have heard a lot of stories of people who have high titles who have their rituals performed by spirit mediums in secret. It is rumored that even politburo members secretly consult spirit mediums. In some cases, wives conduct the rituals at a temple in place of their husbands when the husbands have some official position in which this would be an embarrassment. In some public temples of the Mother Goddess religion the local officials permit use of facilities for performing spirit possession rituals at night, but not in the daytime."
Some mediums sanitize their practice by renaming it "extending respect for ancestors." Another way around the bans is to make a god out of a communist icon. Dr. Nguyen has seen Ho Chi Minh venerated as a god at a temple of the Mother Goddess religion. When asked if this was just an example of patriotism she replied that Ho had been incorporated into the religion and was deified and actually treated as a god.

Another protection is to seek association with reputable scholars and foreigners. "One medium wanted a photo of herself with scholars from Hanoi, the United States and South Korea, to use in case the police tried to stop her work, by saying that it was of interest and respect to prominent Vietnamese and foreign scholars."

The anti-superstition laws are not enforced with equal vigor in all parts of the country, Dr. Nguyen reported. "In Hanoi it is not legal to hold spirit possession rituals, but the law is not enforced restrictively as near the Chinese border and some other remote areas."

The least organized of the spirit possession practitioners are local shamans or mediums known as soul callers. Their operation is somewhat similar to the fortune tellers and channelers in major American cities. They carry on a conversation with particular deceased people their client wants to contact.

Published: Tuesday, June 08, 2004