Monday, November 20, 2017

On Legends and Enlightenment: King Naresuan, King Mongkut, and Sulak Sivaraksa


Legendary Elephant Battle from Mural at Wat Suvandaram. From Wikipedia

The world is shaking its head again at the Thai government. The draconian lese majesty law is being used to defend a popular movie version of a legendary elephant duel between its own King Naresuan and Burmese Prince Mingyi Swa, which happened (if happened at all) in the 1500s. Charges of royal defamation (which threaten a possible 3-15 year sentence), have been brought against a famous intellectual, 85-year-old Sulak Sivaraksa, who apparently made some skeptical comments at a seminar in 2014. Sulak Sivaraksa is standing his ground. "My point is, if you want to learn history, you have to get all facts from the past as much as you can, and I just state the facts," he said. It may strike you as ironic that Sulak Sivaraksa, the latest victim in the escalating lese majesty witchhunt, actually describes himself as a royalist.

One is reminded of Galileo’s house arrest in 1634 after the Catholic Church charged him with heresy for arguing that the Earth goes around the Sun, contradicting the prevailing view that the Earth is the center of the universe. Not everyone knows the historical detail that Galileo was actually a devout Catholic. Galileo’s interest in correcting the Catholic Church was in part motivated by his fear that the Catholics would soon look foolish insisting that everything in the sky revolves around the Earth when people throughout the world would soon be looking up through their own telescopes and seeing, as he could see, the several moons revolving around Jupiter.

I’m also reminded that in the 1800s, King Mongkut, promoted the teaching of geography in Siam in a campaign to correct the then-prevalent belief in a flat Earth. This was a religious crisis for those Siamese who thought the Buddhist scriptures described a flat Earth. It was similarly obvious to King Mongkut that flat-Earth beliefs would appear foolish and backward to the many Westerners who were then beginning to flow into the country, and so King Mongkut actively promoted science throughout the Kingdom, most notably geography and astronomy.

(The religious crisis was solved by religious scholars reasoning that the Buddhist scriptures "were meant to be taken literally only when it came to matters of spiritual truth; details of natural science are revealed figuratively and allegorically." [Wikipedia, 10/14/2017].)

It is natural that people will want to believe in legends and myths. And it is natural that some religious or patriotic fanatics will try to punish those who doubt their preferred legends. I am not too happy about the fact that about 15-20 percent of my fellow Americans, including possibly our Vice President, still think the Garden of Eden story of human creation is real. But at least in modern-day American, we can’t be thrown in jail for 15 years for doubting the reality of Adam and Eve as the first human beings.

Like King Mongkut, I would like to promote scientific thinking as an alternative to wishful thinking. Just because a story is cool, or confirms one’s hopes, does not make it true.

In the process of translating an exciting Thai song, I Wikipedia-researched the legend of Bangrajan. This is another story of Siamese war with the Burmese, but this story highlights the power of simple villagers who banded together to fight for their country, with almost no help from the then-capital, Ayutthya. The story is inspring, detailed, and placed in the not too ancient past (1767), so I was eager to believe it contained a grain of truth. But other Thai-language learners noted that in Thai the word “ตำนาน (dtamnan)” means both “history” and “legend,” and a student of Thai literature suggested it is entirely possible that the whole Bangrajan story was made up to strengthen the nation.

Indeed, the myth-making also happened in America with stories of our Founding Fathers who lived around the same time. For instance, the story of young George Washington cutting down his father’s cherry tree with an ax and saying “I cannot tell a lie, I cut down the cherry tree,” was first written down 10 years after his death seems to be complete fiction as other events in the same biography are adapted from English folklore.

An honest investigation of King Naresuan is likely to run up against some disappointing findings. Whether he did or didn’t have a formal elephant duel with the Burmese Prince, there is quite a bit of evidence, both Thai and foreign, that King Naresuan was terribly cruel. A foreigner, Jacques de Courtre of Bruges, reported that he witnessed the torture and execution of an 8- year-old girl for stealing a piece of gold, and the torture and execution of 27 others for not telling on her; some of the Thai poems handed down from this time record similar outbursts of violence (Chapter 3 of Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis.) If Naresuan was a murderous despot, Thais will have to deal with it just as Americans are now finally facing and accepting very similar reports about Christopher Columbus (a European who 500 years ago accidentally discovered America as he tried to sail to China). A little disappointment is preferable to basing one’s worldview on a dangerous fantasy of national superiority.

Both Thomas Jefferson and King Mongkut were Renaissance men, curious and clever people who were able to study and make contributions in many different areas. Thomas Jefferson is remembered for writing “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” and for writing the Statue of Religious Freedom for the State of Virginia. King Mongut had a progressive mission, promoting science and modernization. At the same time I know that Thomas Jefferson had hundreds of slaves and King Mongut had a harem of 32 wives. I can learn that both men did horrible things without losing faith any of the enlightened principles they also believed in.

Our countries should not be based on people and legends that can’t bear scrutiny, but on enlightened principles that can. We may never resolve the question of King Naresuan’s elephant duel over 400 years ago. But Thailand currently has MANY nation builders, at least potentially. Leave the countries’ academics and intellectuals free to do their work!

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