14 October 2007
Jatukham Ramathep: Buddhist Amulets?
All over Thailand there’s a craze going on surrounding amulets called Jatukham Ramathep (one is pictured above). These lucky charms are rather large, cumbersome looking objects seen dangling in front of the wearer’s chest, apparently as some kind of display of the protective power that these things are believed to posses. At the school in which I work here in Ubon Ratchathani, both pupils and teachers exhibit their Jatukham Ramathep talismans over their uniforms for all to see. I’m sure that if you live in Thailand and mix with Thais on a daily basis, you’ll have seen these amulets – I even know Westerners that wear them: perhaps you’re wearing one as you read this!
But what are the origins of these extremely popular idols? Well, the original Jatukham Ramathep amulets were made back in 1987 by a Thai policeman who believed that the spirit of the same name had assisted him in solving a difficult case he was investigating. In 2006, after the policeman’s death, the amulets began to become wildly popular amongst Thais who believed that they granted good fortune and solved the wearer’s problems. Today, the amulets will generally sell for anything between 200 Baht for a basic version to 1, 000 Baht for limited editions, but the highest price paid for one has been reported at 1.2 million Baht!
So, who or what is this Jatukham Ramathep that allegedly bestows such magical power? Well, nobody’s exactly sure! Two theories are that Jatukham Ramathep is a fusion of the names of two ancient princes from Southern Thailand, or that it’s an alternative name of the Mahayana Buddhist deity Avalokiteshvara. (The significance of the latter is that Thai Buddhism is of the Theravada school, not part of the Mahayana movement, and therefore does not recognize Avalokiteshvara.)
Whatever the genesis of these amulets, the fact remains that they are very popular nowadays: so popular that there was a stampede when some people attempted to reserve talismans in the South of the country where they are produced and blessed, killing one woman. (She obviously wasn’t on Jatukham Ramathep’s friendship list!) A similar story in the news related to a driver of a Mercedes that thought he might be invincible due to the supposed protection of the Jatukham Ramathep talisman that he was wearing. Apparently, he tried to get across a level crossing while a train approached, but the magical power of the train must have been stronger – the guy was crushed to death!
As you might have guessed by now, I’m pretty skeptical about the efficacy of these things: you’re right! It’s not just my cynical Western upbringing that’s to blame for this lack of faith, nor such (amusing?!) stories as the two cited above. It’s the fact that as a Theravada Buddhist, I know that the Buddha taught against the superstitious use of such objects. I also know that roughly 95% of all Thais are said to be Buddhist, but that doesn’t seem to translate into all of them following the guidance of the Awakened One. (Most Thais that I know drink alcohol for instance, despite the fact that the fifth precept that Buddhists undertake is to refrain from drink and drugs.)
In the upasakadhamma, a set of five qualities that all Buddhists should aspire to, the use of amulets and lucky charms is discouraged, with the belief in (and comprehension of) kamma (action) and the results of action being encouraged instead. Buddhism, despite what one might think observing popular religion in Thailand, is not superstitious or fanciful in nature. But the use of Jatukham Rammathep amulets and their like distract their users away from the true teachings of the Buddha, and lead to an increase in worldly delusion rather than its ending as promoted in the Buddha Dhamma (Buddhist Teachings).