Ardoksho (also spelled Ardochsho) was a deity who is best known for her appearances on gold coins of the Kushan (also spelled Kusana) Empire roughly two thousand years ago. The Kushan Empire included parts of today’s nations of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and the northern part of India. Contemporary empires included the Han Empire in what is now China, the Roman Empire, and the Parthian Empire between the Kushans and the Romans.
It may be that Ardoksho had never been represented visually prior to her appearance on Kushan gold coins:
“…Taken collectively, the coins of the Kusana include twenty-three (and possibly as many as thirty) confirmed different-named deities, most of whom seem to have been drawn from Iranian, indian, and Greek pantheons. Zeymal has argued that the vast majority of these have no known anthropomorphic form before their appearance on Kusana coins. He asserts that only three of the religious figures depicted on Kusana coins draw from preexistent figural forms, and one of these is the Buddha. However, the rest of the deities, such as Miiro, Mao, Ardochsho, Athsho, and Pharro, are unkonw in figural art before the intervention of the Kusana die cutters. While the exact motivation for this explosion in iconographic innovation is unknown, it is conceivably a by-product of Kusana cultural borrowing. In other words, after the tradition of minting coins with images of deities on the reverse was adopted, such practice was expected, and the coin makers were compelled to create forms for those gods that had no prior iconography….” (1)
Ardoksho was a fixture on Kushan coins for something like five hundred years. As a goddess of prosperity, she would have been a likely candidate for inclusion on a coin. Her origins are not entirely clear: she may be related to the ancient Greek goddess Demeter, or perhaps the ancient Greek goddess Tyche or the Roman goddess Fortuna; or she may have been her origins in a local goddess of eastern Iran known as Ardvi Sura Anahita, a goddess of water and moisture; and she is said by some sources to be the daughter of Ahuramazda. But Ardoksho’s iconography is fairly stable, always relating to prosperity and plenty: she was typically depicted holding a cornucopia or horn of plenty; a cornucopia and a wreath; a flower in her right hand and a wheat-stem in her left hand (not unlike Demeter); or a cornucopia in her right hand and a fillet in her left hand. (2)
Empires tend to bring different cultures together, which can lead to cross-cultural fertilization. Over the centuries she appeared on Kushan Empire coins, Ardoksho is one of the deities who engaged in cross-fertilization:
“…If Greeks were converted to Vaishnavism or came to accept the presence of Bhagavata and Shaiva deities, Indians began to worship deities from across the borders, some of which entered the Indian pantheon, such as the goddess Ardochso in the form of Shri….” (3)
Indeed, the Kushan Empire was quite tolerant of local deities and religious practices:
“Although the Kushans had a favored style of military architecture, it is clear they did not attempt to impose a single religious tradition on their empire but rather patronized key regional cults. Vima Kadphises’ son, Kanishka (127-147), thus dedicated a major ceremonial complex at Surkh Kotal in Afghanistan which combined dynastic statues with a [Zoroastrian] fire-temple but also established a major Buddhist stupa at Shahji-Dheri, in Peshawar to the south. His coinage demonstrates similar plurality, and he was equally happy to be portrayed with the Hellenistic deity Helios, the Iranian deity Adsho, and the Buddha, whose identities were confirmed in Greek script.” (4)
On the coin shown above, Ardoksho appears in the center, with her name written at left. I don’t think she’s holding a cornucopia; I believe on this coin she’s holding a flower in her right hand and what might be a wheat stem in her left hand.
(1) Robert Daniel DeCaroli, Image Problems: The Origin and Development of the Buddha’s Image in Early South Asia (University of Washington Press, 2015).
(2) Prashant Srivastava, A Dictionary of Divinities and Their Symbols on Ancient Indians Coins (WebGuruCool, 2022), pp. 10-11; excerpts from the earlier publication by Srivastava, Encyclopaedia of Indian Coins: Ancient Coins of Northern India up to c 650 AD, 2 vols. (Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan, 2012). See also: British Museum website, “Ardochsho,” https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/term/BIOG132101 accessed 3 Nov. 2023; this web page references J. Rosenfield, Dynastic Art of the Kushans (Berkeley, 1967), pp. 74-75.
(3) Romila Thapar, The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300, p. 223.
(4) Robin Coningham and Mark Manuel, “The Early Empires of South Asia,” in The Great Empires of the Ancient World (London and New York: Thames & Hudson, 2009/2021), pp. 187-188.
Updated to add more info about Kushan religious plurality.
Doumu, a Daoist deity, is sometimes called “Dipper Mother” in English because she’s the goddess of the of the Big Dipper, Ursa Major. Her name is variously rendered Doumu, Tou Mu, Dou Mu Yuan Jun, etc. The illustration above shows a Qing dynasty sculpture of her in the collection of the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.
Doumu has nine pairs of arms. She also has three eyes. In the sculpture on the cover, the third eye is hard to see, but it’s there — between her other two eyes, in a vertical orientation in the middle of her forehead.
Back in 1912, E. T. C. Werner gave a summary of Doumu’s attributes and powers in his book Myths and Legends of China:
“Tou Mu, the Bushel Mother, or Goddess of the North Star, worshipped by both Buddhists and Taoists, is the Indian Maritchi, and was made a stellar divinity by the Taoists. She is said to have been the mother of the nine Jen Huang or Hu-man Sovereigns of fabulous antiquity, who succeeded the lines of Celestial and Terrestrial Sovereigns.
“She occupies in the Taoist religion the same relative posi-tion as Kuan Yin, who may be said to be the heart of Buddhism. Having attained to a profound knowledge of celestial mysteries, she shone with heavenly light, could cross the seas, and pass from the sun to the moon. She also had a kind heart for the sufferings of humanity. The King of Chou Yu, in the north, married her on hearing of her many virtues. They had nine sons. Yuan-shih T’ien-tsun came to earth to invite her, her husband, and nine sons to enjoy the delights of Heaven. He placed her in the palace Tou Shu, the Pivot of the Pole, because all the other stars revolve round it, and gave her the title of Queen of the Doctrine of Primitive Heaven. Her nine sons have their palaces in the neighbouring stars.
“Tou Mu wears the Buddhist crown, is seated on a lotus throne, has three eyes, eighteen arms, and holds various precious objects in her numerous hands, such as a bow, spear, sword, flag, dragon’s head, pagoda, five chariots, sun’s disk, moon’s disk, etc. She has control of the books of life and death, and all who wish to prolong their days worship at her shrine. Her devotees abstain from animal food on the third and twenty-seventh day of every month.
“Of her sons, two are the Northern and Southern Bushels; the latter, dressed in red, rules birth; the former, in white, rules death.”
Unfortunately, Werner doesn’t tell us his sources. I’d love to know the date of his sources, because all deities have a tendency to change over time. Furthermore, Chinese culture is not monolithic, and I’d love to know the regional origins of Werner’s information. Nor does Werner tell us much about how Doumu’s devotees venerated her — all he says is that they abstain from eating meat two days a month, but what were her festivals, and how did devotees show their devotion on a daily or weekly basis?
Werner also neglects to tell us anything about the temples dedicated to, or named after, Doumu. For that information, we have to turn to other sources. An English language guidebook from 1912 briefly mentions one of Doumu’s temples on Tai Shan mountain:
“After a quarter hour’s climb (6 hrs. 50 min. [from the town of T’ai Fu]), the Toumu-kung ‘Temple of the Goddess of the Great Bear’ on the E. of the road. This temple, within whose walls are to be found a singular mixture of Taoist and Buddhist divinities, was inhabited up to 1906 by Taoist nuns.”
Tai Shan was one of the most sacred sites in China, and served as the home for other temples and sacred sites, as shown in the map below, from this 1912 guidebook. Doumu’s temple, labeled “Tou-Mu Kung,” appears almost in the exact center of the map.
It would be interesting to know if there were any relationships between the various temples. It would also be interesting to know something about the lives of the nuns who lived in the temple up to 1906. Doubtless there are Chinese language sources that could provide some or all of this information, but I was unable to find anything written in English.
Doumu’s temple on Tai Shan is still in existence. Wikimedia Commons has several photographs of the temple, taken by “Zhanzhugang” on 12 August 2015. Here’s Zhanzhuguang’s photograph of one of the entrances:
Other temples dedicated to Doumu exist today. For example, Doumu has a temple named for her at 779A Upper Serangoon Road, Singapore. A Singapore government website gives some more information about this temple:
“The Hokkien community refer to Tou Mu Kung as Kiu Ong Yah or Kau Ong Yah Temple (‘Temple of the Ninth Emperor’), which accurately reflects the main Taoist deity worshipped in the temple. While the temple is dedicated to Jiu Huang Ye, it is officially named in honour of another deity, Dou Mu Yuan Jun (‘Mother of the Big Dipper’), who is the mother of Jiu Huang Ye. Believed to be holding the Register of Life and Death, she is venerated by devotees in hope of prolonging one’s life and avoiding calamities. One version of the legend tells of Jiu Huang Ye as comprising nine stars: seven stars constituting the Big Dipper and two assistant stars that are invisible to the naked eye.
“Another legend describes Jiu Huang Ye as a single entity, often represented by an incense burner instead of a statue. This form of Jiu Huang Ye is adopted by Tou Mu Kung which enshrines the sacred incense burner on the upper floor of the two-storey pagoda behind the temple. Access to the pagoda is restricted to males.”
Although Jiu Huang Ye is still venerated by annual rites at the Singapore temple, there is no mention of any rites performed for Doumu.
But there is an annual festival in Singapore for her children, the Nine Emperor Gods. A Youtube video from 23 October 2023 shows scenes from this festival, including people lighting incense, leaving offerings, watching performances, etc. Electronic keyboards play side by side with traditional instruments for the Hokkien opera; flashing lights outline the ceremonial palanquins; devotees dressed all in white line engage in various activities. At one point someone drives a bright orange Lamborghini sports car into the festival. While this festival doesn’t directly involve Doumu, it takes place in her temple. It looks like a fun mixture of contemporary pop culture and folk religion.
Doumu entered the Daoist pantheon in the Ming and Qing dynasties, as an adaptation of the the Hindu goddess Marici (Despeux, 2000). Having similarities to Guanyin, she sometimes became associated with that deity. She then traveled beyond China to Southeast Asia, where she became associated with the Nine Emperor Gods.
According to Hock-Tong Cheu (2021), for ethnic Chinese people living in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia, veneration of the Nine Emperor Gods takes the form of veneration of Doumu. In Southeast Asia, she may be represented as either a Daoist or a Buddhist deity. Contemporary sculptures in these countries most often depict Doumu with nine pairs of hands. There are nine pairs to represent the Nine Emperor Gods. In sculptures, these eighteen hands hold precious objects “such as the sun’s disk, the moon’s disk, bow, arrow, spear, sword, flag, rosary, book, ruler, scissors, dragon’s head, gourd, fan, pagoda, chariots, precious gem” and other objects. Each of these objects provides insight into Doumu’s abilities:
“Informants reveal that each of these precious objects signifies Doumu’s power. The sun and moon disks, for example, portray her power in controlling the universe, through the manifestation of day and night, brightness and darkness, heat and cold, health and disease, life and death, etc.; the bow and arrow demonstrate Doumu’s power in protecting humankind against war and pestilence, and in maintaining peace and harmony; the flag is used as an emblem to signify her power in preserving human integrity and territorial sovereignty; the rosary acts as a medium through which Doumu inculcates devotion, piety, and asceticism as channels through which salvation [sic] may be attained; and so forth.”
But more than anything else, contemporary devotees of Doumu understand her as the deity of “Lovingkindness and Mercy.” Devotees perform rituals during the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, which is held each year for the first nine days and nights of the ninth lunar month, so that these offspring of Doumu will give them blessings of “fu lu shou,” or fortune, prosperity, and longevity.
Doumu hasn’t made much of an impact on Western society; a few practitioners of Westernized Daoism might know who she is, but New Age practitioners don’t seem to pay much attention to her, and she hasn’t made the ultimate leap forward in status by being included in a video game. But she is still widely venerated in east Asia.
Hock-Tong Cheu, entry on Doumu in Chinese Beliefs and Practices in Southeast Asia (Singapore: Partridge Publishing, 2021).
Catherine Despeux, “Women in Daoism,” in Daoism Handbook, ed. Livia Kohn (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2000), pp. 393 ff.
David B. Gray and Ryan Richard Overbey, Tantric Traditions in Transmission and Translation (Oxford University Press, 2016).
Claudius Madrolle, Northern China: The Valley of the Blue River, A Handbook for Travellers in Northern China and Korea, in the Madrolle’s Guide Books series (London: Hachette & Co., 1912), p. 163.
A Simple Video Youtube channel, “Tou Mu Kung Temple Nine Emperor Gods Festival 2023,” video from 23 October 2023, accessed 30 October 2023, https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=tZ7U67il2qY
Singapore National Heritage Board, “Tou Mu Kung,” webpage accessed 30 October 2023, https://www.roots.gov.sg/places/places-landing/Places/national-monuments/tou-mu-kung
E. T. C. Werner, entry on Doumu in Myths and Legends of China (London: George G. Harrap & Co., 1922), pp. 144-145.
The Asian Museum of Art in San Francisco has a polychromed wood sculpture of Aizen Myo-o, the Japanese name for the esoteric Buddhist deity of love and passion. His original Sanskirt name is Ragaraja. I have very little understanding of esoteric Buddhism, so rather than get some details wrong, here’s a 1916 description of Aizen myo-o’s attributes and iconography from a Japanese English-language publication:
Aizen Myo-o, by Noritake Tsuda (expert in the Tokyo Imperial Museum), The Japan Magazine: A Representative Monthly of Things Japanese (Japan Magazine Co., Tokyo), vol 7, no 7, November 1916, pp. 401-402:
“Another familiar Buddhist deity is Aizen Myo-o, though he is not so widely popular as Fudo [Myo-o], treated in our last number of the Japan Magazine. Aizen Myo-o is the Indian god known in Sanskrit as Raga-vidyaraja. Raga usually means color, especially red, which symbolizes love or affection. Vidya means finding, and Raja a king; and sometimes the Sanskrit name used for this deity is Namu-vajra-raga-vidyaraja, or again simply Ragaraja.
“Aizen Myo-o is said to be a partial incarnation of Kongo-satta, in Sanscrit Vajrasattva, who took an oath to expel from mankind all wicked passions and to hasten the coming of all men to Buddha, giving them happiness and good fortune.
“This god is represented commonly in red with three terrible eyes, six arms, the figure seated on a lotus pedestal with lion headdress. Some ideas associated with the iconography of Aizen Myo-o may be inferred from one of the old masterpieces of painting representing him. The most beautiful and interesting of these is in the Hobodai-in temple in Kyoto. The painting is now a national treasure, and at present is on view at the Imperial Museum, Tokyo. A minute examination of the piece shows that the body and features have been painted in red. In the sutra referring to this deity, his heart and body are said to shine as the sun; and it is probable that the red color was selected to represent this, as well as to suggest reality. The gaping, terrible eyes sparkle marvelously in the red face, one of the eyes being placed lengthwise between the usual two. The three eyes are to give the beholder an impression of terror and awe as well as to suggest that this god has the oversight of three different aspects of the world. The eyes are blue with golden eyebrows. The mouth is open and has a grotesque grin with teeth gleaming, a common characteristic of Aizen to represent truth indestructible; the Logos, which, in Buddhism, is symbolized by the first letter of the alphabet.
“The hair on the head of Aizen stands erect in bizzare fashion, and a cap, in shape like a lion, is placed on the head with a fine-pointed kongo-sho stuck in it. The erect hair is intended to symbolize the subjugation of all evil agents. In his first left hand Aizen holds a bell; and in his first right hand another kongo-sho, both of which are symbols of mercy, bringing the peace of Vajrasattva to men. In the second left hand he holds a bow and in the second right hand an arrow, to dispel the four demons and the three other obstacles of man, shooting especially the pessimistic passions. The third left hand is extended in a grasping attitude with nothing in it, and in the corresponding right hand a lotus bud is just opening, the gesture suggesting that the bud is to be thrown at something. This symbolizes the driving out of all worldly trouble by lotus-like purity. The red lotus on which the god is seated, typifies the stability of his will. In front of the pedestal stands a treasure jar, around which are scattered treasure symbols, which suggest the bounty of the deity to all in need.
“It is noticeable that red is the prevailing color in the icons of this deity; and this is always so, because in esoteric Buddhism red always stands for love and the faculties that make for affection and compassion. The painting just described comes down from the 12th century and may be taken to represent Aizen Myo-o in his most orthodox form.
“Several other forms, however, are found among the representations of him, as, for example, some with four heads or two heads and four hands, but such divergences from the conventional form are rare.
“The Aizen Myo-o is the god of the upper classes chiefly, especially since the Fujiwara period, as he is believed to have the power of staying calamities, or gaining happiness, for those who serve him. On occasions of worship an altar of red is erected and a red image of Aizen is placed thereon; and the officiating priests are also robed in red.
“There now remains in Japan some 21 representations of Aizen Myo-o which are listed as state treasures. In addition to the painting above mentioned there is a very beautiful one on silk in the Gokokuin in Tokyo, as well as a very fine gilt statuette of him in the Imperial Museum, Tokyo, which is dated February, 1297 A.D.”
So wrote Noritake Tsuda in 1916. More recently, as can be seen in the Wikipedia entry for Aizen myo-o, there have been Western attempts to recast Aizen myo-o as a deity of same-sex male love and passion. It’s an interesting possibility, but I don’t know enough to judge if this is merely Western wishful thinking, or a considered appraisal of the historical record.
It appears that Aizen myo-o spread beyond Buddhist circle into Shinto rites. In their book Shinto in History: Ways of the Kami (Routledge, 2018), John Breen and Mark Teeuwen document how Aizen myo-o was part of a kanjo or Shinto initiation rite:
“The kirikami [i.e., written notes] of this [Shinto] initiation further reveal that the syllable un, that is at the heart of the ritual, represents not only the mind of enlightenment, but is also the seed syllable (shuji) of Aizen Myoo or King Raga. This figure (which is also bright red) represents human lust and desire, and personifies the insight that one’s innate desires are no other than inherent enlightenment itself…. The practice revealed in Ise kanjo thus teaches the practitioner that the kami [i.e., Shinto deity or power] dwells in his own heart/mind. The initiate is taught to visualize the kami as the syllable un, representing both the mind of enlightenment and his innate desire, in the guise of Aizen Myoo. The insight to be gained from this is that enlightenment and desire are identical…. The kirikami go on to teach that the kami of the Inner and Outer Shrine of Ise appear in our world as a golden and a white snake…. both the kami of Ise and [of] Aizen Myoo are snakes….” [pp. 103-104]
The case of Aizen Myo-o shows yet again that it’s unwise to assume that a deity belongs exclusively to one tradition and has only certain specified attributes. That’s an assumption Westerners, especially Protestants (and their offspring, the crusading atheists), like to make, but it’s often incorrect. Deities tend to have regional variations, just as Ragaraj became Aizen myo-o when he left India fro Japan.. Deities may move between traditions, just as Aizen Myo-o moves between the porous boundaries of Japanese Buddhisms and Shinto. And deities may have more than one manifestation, just as Aizen myo-o can be both a humanoid with six arms and three eyes, and, at an esoteric level, a snake.
You can find quite a few photographs of Aizen Myo-o sculptures and paintings online. The Cleveland Museum of Art has posted the following photograph with a CC0 license, which allows me to repost it here:
A note on orthography: Usually there are macrons over both “o”s in the Romanization of this deity’s Japanese name: Aizen My?-?. And there are supposed to be macrons over the first and third “a”s in the Sanskrit name: R?gar?ja. However, diacritical marks don’t always translate well in all web browsers, so I’ve left them off.
In Terry Pratchett’s book Monstrous Regiment, there’s a deity known as the Duchess. She was once a real, live Duchess for a tiny country called Borogrovia. But at some point she became deified, in large part because Nuggan, the actual god of Borogrovia, made so many things taboo — or, in the terms of the Nugganites, called them Abominations — that people stopped trusting Nuggan. For example, Nuggan said that rocks were an Abomination, which meant you weren’t supposed to have anything to do with them. It’s really hard to get through life if you have to avoid every rock you see.
As Nuggan began to fail, people in Borogravia began praying to the Duchess. As a result, she became deified. And the Duchess did not like being deified. Finally, she said to one of her disciples:
“Let…me…go! All those prayers, all those entreaties…to me! Too many hands clasped that could more gainfully answer your prayers by effort and resolve! And what was I? Just a rather stupid woman when I was alive. But you believed I watched over you, and listened to you…and so I had to, I had to listen, knowing that there was no help… I wish people would not be so careless about what they believe.” [ellipses in the original]
Well, it’s just a story, just a satire. You don’t have to take this too seriously. But it does seem to me that you want to be careful who or what you pray to. In our culture, we tend to have this notion that our personal prayers, our personal spirituality, is our business and no one else’s. But that simply isn’t true. Everything is connected. There is no such thing as spirituality that is only personal, only restricted to one person. As the Duchess found out (to her dismay), prayers can deify someone or something who really doesn’t want to be deified. Don’t be careless about what you believe; or about what you don’t believe, for that matter.
I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston yesterday (in part so I could take advantage of their air conditioning on a steamy, stormy day). Major art museums in the West tend to be strange places, because they are typically full of deities from many different cultures. We in the West may have eradicated deities from our homes, and it looks like we’re in the process of slowly eradicating our public places of worship — but we like to salvage a handful of deities from all the cultures we’ve colonized, purify them of their religiosity by calling them “art,” and putting them in glass cases. Such is the trajectory the colonization of religion.
A small household shrine made of terracotta caught my eye. From Phoenicia in the seventh or sixth century before the Common Era, the shrine contains the goddess Astarte. Astarte was a goddess from Canaan. Some sources say that she was merged with, or took over from, the earlier Canaanite goddess Anat, a fierce goddess of fertility and war. Other sources say Astarte traces her origins back to the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar. Still other sources relate her to Esther, or to Aphrodite. There was plenty of cultural borrowing in the Ancient Near East.
King Solomon is taken to task in the Hebrew Bible because he worshiped Astarte, among other deities: “Solomon followed Astarte the goddess of the Sidonians… So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not completely follow the Lord, as his father David had done” [1 Kings 11:5-6]. One of Jeremiah’s jeremiads was against Astarte. The Shalvi/ Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women has a brief article on Astarte that’s worth reading, and that concludes by saying: “Although our sources do not provide enough information to identify definitively which Israelites were particularly attracted to the worship of Astarte or the reasons for their attraction, it is possible that some devotees were compelled by the presence of a female divine figure in an otherwise male-dominated religious environment.” You can learn a great deal more about Astarte in the Bible in the essay “Astarte in the Bible” by Stephanie Anthonioz, in David T. Sugimoto, ed., Transformation of a Goddess: Ishtar — Astarte — Aphrodite (Academic Press Fribourg, 2014).
But the Phoenicians apparently had no compunctions about worshiping Astarte. This small sculpture shows her nude, as if she were Ishtar. She is given an Egyptian headdress, and the columns on either side of her are topped with depictions of the Egyptian god Bes. She is, if you will, a multicultural goddess. This is not entirely surprising, given who the Phoenicians were. They were merchants and sailors, and they traded throughout the Mediterranean Sea and beyond, perhaps sailing even as far as Britain. No wonder, then, that they worshiped multicultural deities.
I’ve been searching online for depictions of Pangu, a creator deity in Chinese folk religion. So far, I’ve found lots of video game and anime and cartoon depictions of Pangu, which appear to be more or less commercial, and generally from an outsider perspective. But I’ve found few depictions done by religio-cultural insiders. This is probably in part because I’m searching for Pangu using English, and Anglophones don’t appear to be very interested in deities from Chinese folk religion.
But I have found a few interesting depictions of Pangu. Like this sketch in a Chinese manuscript dated c. 1900, currently in the collection of the Library of Congress:
Then there’s this depiction of Pangu. Note the horns on his head.
(I had to do a lot of digital repair to the image above; the scan that’s widely available online was apparently made from a poorly done print. I tried to remain as true to the original as I could, but this is really a recreation rather than a direct copy of the original.)
Finally, here’s my favorite depiction of Pangu. Like the previous depiction, he has horns on his head, a beard, and a sort of shoulder cape made of leaves (?).
I still have not idea of what Pangu worship looks like, or what it involves. Chinese folk religion is one of those religions where Westerners have a real blind spot. Which makes it hard to find out much of anything about Pangu.
Carolyn Chen, a UC Berkeley sociologist who studies religion, spent the last few years studying religion in Silicon Valley. She’s especially interested in the way work has become a religion for the tech workers of Silicon Valley — and in the way tech companies use religion to keep their workers in line.
Not surprisingly, given the stark realities of Silicon Valley, Chen finds that White supremacy is alive and well in this toxic mix of work, religion, and corporate control. In her book Work Pray Code, Chen writes about how tech companies co-opt Buddhism in service of making workers compliant and more productive:
“Most White Westerners don’t realize that the Buddhism they know is a particular brand of Buddhism that has been repeatedly altered and adapted to appeal to them…. This brand of ‘nonreligious’ Buddhism, however, has racial implications. It associated Asian Buddhism’s ‘rituals, robes, and chanting’ with ‘the complications of religious tradition.’ It dismisses the religious reality of most Buddhists who are Asian and is therefore a form of White supremacy….”
For this last insight, Chen cites Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation by Joseph Cheah (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011); looks like I’ll have to add that book to my reading list. Chen then goes on to detail the ways in which Whitened Buddhism ignore the religious realities of Asians:
“For the vast majority of Buddhists who reside in Asia, Buddhism is a devotional faith that involves the veneration of deities and beliefs in the supernatural. For example, in Chinese, the phrase that describes practicing Buddhism, ‘bai Buddha,’ translates to ‘worship Buddha.’ Most lay Buddhists in Asia orient their devotional practices — offerings of incense and fruit, ritual chanting, praying, bowing, donating money to temples and monasteries — to the attainment of merit or a favorable rebirth….”
Of course, for Silicon Valley tech companies enamored of Buddhism, what Buddhism is really all about is things like meditation. And meditation is supposedly a value-neutral “technology,” not a religious practice. Whitened Buddhism focuses on things, like meditation, that can increase worker productivity and worker compliance. Whereas non-White Buddhism is deliberately ignored:
“Whitened Buddhism tends to protray the ‘religious’ Buddhism of Asians and Asian Americans as burdened by unnecessary accoutrements — ‘complications,’ ‘culture,’ ‘folklore,’ ethnicity,’ baggage’ — that distract from the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. For example, Mandy Stephens, whose company runs a meditation app for corporate clients, explains that they distill medication to ‘the fundamentals,’ ‘the part that isn’t religious or spiritual.’ Her company gets to ‘the fundamentals’ by getting rid of teachers who are ‘zany gurus’ [i.e., non-White] and replacing them with ‘strait-laced [White] trainers’ in [Western] business casual clothes. The chanting at the local Asian temple is ‘folklore,’ says former tech executive Pierre Beaumont, irrelevant to ‘what’s good for me in meditation.’ Mandy and Pierre dismiss the very elements of Buddhism that tens of millions of Asians hold most dear.” [my comments in brackets]
Because if you’re White, it’s apparently OK to co-opt whatever you want out of other religious traditions, and use it for whatever you feel like. And then you can say it’s not even really religion: “This Whitened Buddhism becomes a ‘universal philosophy’ and ‘science.’ It become ‘White’ — floating above context, invisible, and normal….” [Chen, excerpts from pp. 165-167]
I find the entire Silicone Vally Religion of Work to be repellent. But I find this especially repellent: co-opting a non-White religious tradition, perverting it from its original purpose to stop the endless cycle of rebirth, and instead using broken bits of it to control workers.
Indeed, as Chen notes elsewhere in her book, when tech companies offer things like meditation and mindfulness training to help tech workers deal with the overwhelming demands of Silicon Valley overwork, these companies are merely offering “therapeutic interventions, Band-Aids lovingly applied to deep and gaping wounds. Their programs might not be too distant from the ‘opiate of the masses’ that [Karl] Marx wrote about.” [Chen, p. 85]
The DeYoung Museum in San Francisco has a number of Cycladic figures made thousands of years ago in what is now Greece. I was attracted to one of these figures, labeled as “Cycladic Figure, Early Cycladic II, Spedos variety,” dating to perhaps 2500 BCE, so I made a quick sketch of it:
But of course there’s really no way to know what this figure represents. Is it a deity, or just a human figure? Or maybe something in between? Perhaps we would tend to call it a deity because the shape is so satisfying to look at; when we like looking at a piece of art it is tempting to think of that art as representing something beyond the mundane.
As I develop some new middle-elementary curriculum materials, I’ve been looking at myths and religious narratives for deities who do not have a binary, male-or-female, gender.
The most familiar example of a non-binary gender deity — but an example we mostly ignore — is in one of the two stories of the creation of humankind in the book of Genesis. The more familiar Genesis story of the creation of humankind comes from the second chapter of Genesis, where God creates a male human, then puts the male human to sleep, takes a rib, and makes a woman. However, as feminists began pointing out back in the 1970s, there’s another story about how humans were created in the first chapter of Genesis:
“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27, NRSV)
Commenting on this passage, Susan Niditch, professor of religion at Amherst College, says:
“For feminist readers of scriptures, no more interesting and telegraphic comment exists on the nature of God. The male aspect and the female aspect implicitly are part of the first human and a reflection of the creator.” (Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, Westminster/John Know Press, 1992, p. 13)
While agreeing with Niditch, I would add that this passage implies to me that the God of Genesis 1 cannot be reduced to a single binary gender.
The Navajo deity Turquoise Boy is of non-binary gender in a different way. In the Dine Bahane, the Navajo creation myth, when the humans get to the Third World, the men decide to live apart from the women, and cross a river in order to separate themselves. But the men take Turquoise Boy with them, because he is able to do the women’s work of grinding corn, etc., which the men ordinarily wouldn’t be able to do. (See: Aileen O’Bryan, The Dîné: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians, Bulletin 163, the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, 1956.) White Shell Girl is also a non-binary gender deity; the narrative refers to her as being intersex, or in the O”Bryan translation, a hermaphrodite.
Turning to Chinese myths and religious narratives, Lan Caihe (Lan Ts’ai-ho), one of the Eight Immortals of Taoism, is ambiguously gendered. According to folklorist E. T. C. Werner:
“Lan Ts’ai-ho is variously stated to have been a woman and an hermaphrodite…. According to the Hsiu hsiang Pa Hsien tung yu chi, … though he was a man, he could not understand how to be a man (which is perhaps the reason why he has been supposed to be a woman).”(Myths and Legends of China,E. T. C. Werner, London: George Harrap & Co., 1922, p. 293)
There are many other deities with ambiguous or non-binary gender, including perhaps most famously the ancient Greek deity Hermaphroditus. What I find particularly interesting is that non-binary gender plays out in many different ways in these various myths and religious narratives. I want to say that there is a spectrum of gender choices, but I think saying that imposes my early twenty-first century Western cultural framework on other cultures. Better to say that gender has been interpreted in many ways in different religious traditions.
Our Coming of Age class took a field trip to the Asian Art Museum to see images of divinities. There we saw a beautiful jade sculpture of Ch’ang-O (Pinyin: Chang-e), the Moon Goddess. It’s just a few inches tall, but highly detailed: Ch’ang-O is smiling beatifically, and she is accompanied by her rabbits, one of whom is grinding something in a mortar and pestle:
Ch’ang-O is still honored in Chinese popular culture, at the Mid-Autumn Festival which takes place on the fifteenth day of the eighth Lunar month. More than one version of Ch’ang-O’s story is told, but the general outlines of the various versions are similar:
Ch’ang-O is an immortal being; she and Houyi are sweethearts. One day, ten suns appear in the sky, the sons of the Jade Emperor of Heaven, and these ten sons cause much damage; Houyi takes up his bow and arrow and shoots down nine of the ten in order to save the earth. Ch’ang-O loses her immortality by offending the Jade Emperor in some way. Houyi obtains a concoction that will make one person immortal (in some versions the pill could be split between Houyi and Ch’ang-O, making them both very long-lived, but not immortal), and this concoction is formed into a pill. Ch’ang-O takes the entire pill herself, either mistakenly or on purpose, upon which she not only becomes immortal, but she begins floating upwards towards heaven. At last she lodges permanently on the moon.
The Rabbit in the Moon
The reason there must be rabbits in the Moon is simple. In the West, we look at the moon and see the Man in the Moon, but in East Asia it is common to look up and see the Rabbit in the Moon; the Rabbit has a mortar and pestle in which it grinds herbal medicine, rice cakes, or mochi (depending on who tells the story). The body of the rabbit corresponds to roughly lunar landscape features as follows: left ear — Mare Fecunditatis; right ear — Mare Nectaris and Mare Tranquilitatis; base of ears — Mare Serenitatis; head — Mare Imbrium; body — Oceanus Procellarum. The mortar which the Rabbit uses for grinding is centered on the Mare Cognitum. For Westerners, here’s a sketch of the Moon Rabbit:
To help you find the Moon Rabbit next time you look at the moon, remember that the crater Tycho is just to the right of the Rabbit’s mortar.
How divine is Ch’ang-O?
Something we ask Coming of Age participants to consider when they look at images of deities is where they would place that deity on the following rough scale:
1. Ordinary human 2. Extraordinary human (prophet, sage) 3. Semi-divine (more than human, not quite a god or goddess) 4. Human who became divine 5. God or goddess with a non-human form 6. God or goddess that acts like a human 7. God or goddess that is far above humans 8. God or goddess so divine that humans cannot know it
In the stories about her, Ch’ang-O started out as — perhaps — semi-divine (more than human, not quite a goddess); then became completely human; then became immortal once more; and finally wound up as the Moon Goddess. Most Westerners, influenced by the strongly Western tradition of ancient Greek philosophy, tend to think of a deity as unchangeable, the “Unmoved Mover”; but far more human cultures have deities that can change in response to events. Thus Ch’and-O serves as a perfect counter-example for Westerners (both theists and atheists) who dogmatically assert that God is perfect and does not change.
Ch’ang-O in popular culture
The story of Ch’ang-O doesn’t leak out much beyond the boundaries of the Chinese American community (or other East Asian communities). But once in a while, the story of Ch’ang-O makes it into Western popular culture. The most notable example of this was just before the first humans set foot on the moon.
Here’s the Air-to-Ground Voice Transcription of the Apollo 11 Lunar mission, from July 20, 1969, not long before the Lunar Module landed on the moon:
03 23 16 18 CC [Capsule Communicator, i.e., Mission Control]: …The “Black Bugle” just arrived with some morning news briefs if you’re ready.
03 23 16 28 CDR [Commander, i.e., Neil Armstrong]: Go ahead.
[some material omitted]
03 23 17 28 CC: Roger. Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, there’s one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-o has been living there for 4000 years. It seems she was banished to the Moon because she stole the pill of immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not reported.
03 23 18 15 LMP [Lunar Module Pilot, i.e., Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr.; this was latter corrected to Michael Collins]: Okay. We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.