My smartphone alerts me with a new notification. Someone has added me to a WeChat group of natives from Tashi Yangtse. I am told that the group is planning a month-long recitation of the holy Kangyur canon, and that they are raising funds to cover the initiative. I am not from Tashi Yangtse, but I have a connection there. It is happening in a temple that is dedicated to the choe-sung (dharmapala), which my family invokes regularly. I happily agree to contribute and make a transaction using a banking app.
Stories such as these have become a routine in the era of social media and mobile phones. In this article, based on a paper that I presented at the last International Vajrayana Conference, I share about how the tutelary deities and sacred places bring the Bhutanese people together. It was one of the findings from an ethnographic study that I conducted from 2018 to 2021 to look at the influences of technology on society – after being inspired by a provocative piece by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, What makes you not a Bhutanese?
Emergence of hybrid communities
Migration has depleted the rural communities. This in turn has led to the decline in farm productivity and land use, and also, as suggested by some scholars, to difficulties in sustaining the cultural and spiritual life. Poor road connectivity and communication system meant that rural areas were abandoned for good by some, while others did not return there for decades.
However, there are new emerging and promising trends and practices, which can be attributed to social media and digital networking platforms. Natives of the remote communities are connecting back to their families, relatives, and to the protector deities. The reconstituted communities, however, adopt a hybrid mode, in that while some members meet in person, most engage with others online. The use of social media is, thus, contextualised to address time-space dilemmas, and integrated into local traditions to convey the vernacular languages, and the religious and ritualistic practices.
Repositioning of women
The era of the western education, which gained momentum in the 1970s, created some unsaid casualties – women and local languages. Their participation in the public discourse was limited as English language dominated the public forums such as the mass media. Even today women’s representation is poor when it comes to national leadership positions.
Social media and technology may change that scenario. The affordances of voice messaging apps such as WeChat has meant that anyone can express in their own language and post messages on the family or community WeChat groups. This has probably made WeChat the most popular social media in Bhutan. Almost all informal WeChat groups that I studied are either led by, or have active participation of, women, thus reclaiming the traditional role of women as the nang-ghi-aum (lady of the house).
Return of the vernacular
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, language is not just a means of communication. Wilhelm von Humboldt, the nineteenth century scholar, even went on to argue that our culture and our thought processes are influenced by the language we speak. Therefore, speaking a vernacular language sets the foundations for the appreciation and deeper understanding of one’s culture, timeless values, and the worldview.
Local languages are rich in moral values, belief systems and collective imagination. Of particular interest is the finding from my study of the prevailing practices of anthropomorphism of the natural and the supernatural worlds, whereby we attribute human characteristics and behaviours to objects, gods, nature, or animals. It sounds perfectly normal to us to talk about Guru Sungjoen, dre-chhu, or tsho-korban. Whereas it does not resonate well when we say them in English about speaking statues, demonic rivers, or runaway lakes.
Equally important is the practice of referring to deities and animals with kinship terms. In Tshangla, my native language, we call elephants – memay Sangye (Grandfather Buddha) and bears as ajang (uncle) omsha. We refer to the deity Jomo as ama (mother) Jomo, and in Bartsham, a village in eastern Bhutan, a tiny statue of Vajrapani in the community temple is fondly referred to as memay Chador.
Such rhetorical devices and sociolinguistic tools shape our identity as Bhutanese – of an interdependent self in harmony with not only the human world but also with the natural environment and the supernatural realm.
In the deities we unite
Instant personal communication devices extend religious practices and spirituality over space and time. Notwithstanding the technological determinism, though, tools are what they are: just a tool. Ultimately, it is the people and their sustained beliefs and values that will determine a society’s usage and relationship with technology. In the earlier International Vajrayana Conference, I had pointed out how, aided by the technological affordances of WeChat, users in Bhutan are practising and propagating Buddhist teachings such as compassion and loving kindness by saving yaks and pigs. What was inferred there was the inherent compassionate nature of the Bhutanese as the main catalysing agent.
In this paper, whether it is a community getting reconstituted, or an extended family coming together for the annual rituals, the binding force seems to be the tutelary deities and sacred places that provide a safe space and solace. For example, places like Dechenphu provide mental and spiritual support in a city that is increasingly perceived as unjust, greedy, and stressful.
Why do all these matter?
The sociologist, Anthony B Smith, highlighted the importance of the “power of myths, symbols and memories to mobilise, define, and shape people and their destinies.” Along this school of thought, I also add the protector deities and sacred places as powerful centripetal forces to the existing symbols. Dechenphu is a prime example. This is vital for a small country like Bhutan where major discords and differences are not a luxury. In an era of divisive political era and discriminatory public policies, made worse by mindless and myopic bureaucratic rules that all seem to segregate rather than integrate, we must embrace and hold on to what unites us as people, as communities, and as a nation.
Nation-building is a work in progress. And by nation-building I refer to the sense of nationhood, and that feeling of oneness as people. Nation-building is not the construction of hydropower dams or highways or hospitals. Furthermore, the existence of a country with simply a territory of human habitants does not guarantee a nation, as Massimo D’Azeglio, an Italian unification hero, famously pronounced, “We have Italy. Now let’s make the Italians”. Citizens must have a sentiment of unity, solidarity, and harmony, and work towards a common goal and a shared future.
Adding to the rural-urban migration impasse, there is now a growing concern of Bhutanese moving to foreign shores. Notwithstanding the gravity of the issue, in this day and age of instant communication technology, the world has not only flattened, to paraphrase Thomas Friedman, but has also shrunk considerably. Physical distance, thus, does not matter much as long as emotional distance is not created. Social media platforms such as Facebook and WeChat help maintain this vital emotional link to one’s place of birth, origin and people. However, stereotyping those who have left, or curtailing the opportunities of those who have stayed back will not be helpful in any manner. Instead, it might only exacerbate the problem.
In conclusion, on the eve of the National Day, each one of us must ponder on what unites us as Bhutanese and work on them. Given the role they play in national consciousness, sacred sites and deity citadels of national and local significance need to be protected by laws from the Parliament with some sort of a cultural heritage bill. I would go even further. Popular monuments like Paro Taktshang, which draws thousands of visitors every day, could be administered through its own Act, so that its power and influence can extend beyond the realm of spirituality.
Then, there is social media that is here to stay. Newer communication technology can create, what sociologist Benedict Anderson calls it, a “deep, horizontal comradeship” when he defined the nation as an imagined political community. It is essential, accordingly, that large state investments and initiatives be made to harness their immense power for the public good – and for strategic national interests – such as bringing people together.
Dorji Wangchuk (PhD)