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The ecstasy in crowds

As it has been this time of the year, tomorrow’s front pages will have awesome photos of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, even a million perhaps this year, incredibly packed together as they follow an image, considered miraculous, called the Black Nazarene.

It is a statue so unusual in Christian iconography: Jesus Christ, black-skinned yet still with European features, suffering under the weight of the Cross where he would be crucified, yet garbed in kingly robes of medieval monarchs and wearing a three-rayed crown.

Touching the image, even just the holy carruaje (carriage) that carries it, the ropes that pull it, or even your handkerchief that a procession attendant uses to touch the statue for you upon your request, or your mere participation in the procession, will result in the granting of some boon. I can’t forget a participant’s reply two years ago when asked by a TV reporter why he has been such a “devotee”: “The first time I joined, I earned enough money that year to buy a Tamaraw FX. Next year I got a Revo. This year, I’m hoping to buy a Fortuner.”

As a reporter most of my life, I can say that over the years, the Black Nazarene crowd has become much bigger. But I don’t think this is because of a resurgence of faith, but because the media each year glorify the event, reporting celebrities as devout followers of the Black Nazarene and casually reporting as fact devotees’ claims of miracles and prayers answered — encouraging more and more people to join the procession. Just 10 years ago, the procession was a minor story, given just a 3- or 5-minute coverage on TV news. Last year, as it will be this year, it was the main news story, with at least 30 minutes of airtime devoted to it, including scores of interviews with participants.

The yearly Black Nazarene procession, participated in by hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, is considered by religious Catholics as yet another proof of God’s existence and the correctness of the Catholic faith. “How could so many be wrong in their devotion,” they ask. More importantly I think, participants themselves report experiencing ecstasy, even religious enlightenment, just by joining the Traslacion and suffering from being nearly compressed out of air in the packed crowd.

However, such phenomenon, which involves thousands of devotees packed in a procession that winds through the city’s streets, or assembling in one holy site, isn’t unique to Christianity. You wouldn’t guess what countries are known for having such phenomenon of huge religious processions that have over the years become tourist attractions: Japan, India and Taiwan.

Clockwise from upper right: Procession for the goddess Mazu in Taiwan; Hadaki Matsuri or “Naked Man Festival” in Japan; Janasthani, or celebration of Indian god Krishna’s birthday and the Black Nazarene Traslacion in the Philippines last year


Japan, in fact, is known for its centuries-old festivals (matsuri), in which images or representations of Shinto gods and goddesses are put on carriages and pulled, in the way the Black Nazarene is, along a city’s or a town’s streets, followed by thousands of devotees.

I’ve seen one in Kyoto (the Gion Matsuri), and it is an awesome event, with giant floats so elaborate they have been called mobile museums. In a way, just like the motivation of devotees in the Black Nazarene procession, the Gion procession is part of a purification ritual to appease the gods thought to cause fires, floods and earthquakes.

A most unique kind of matsuri are the Kanamara in Kawasaki City and Hone in towns near Nagoya city, in which the image of veneration is a giant phallus, symbol of fertility for a bountiful crop–or human–harvest. Probably the most photographed festivals are the Hadaka or “Naked Man” matsuris held in several sites in Japan. The event involves thousands of men wearing only loin-clothes in the cold of mid-winter jostling to catch sticks thrown by the priest, which are supposed to make their year a lucky one. (Shown in accompanying collage of photos.)

One variation that reminds one of the Black Nazarene involves the town’s designation of a “holy man,” who is carried in a procession from one major temple to another. A “devotee” who succeeds in getting through the dense crowd and touching him is supposed to be extremely lucky in the coming year.

India’s mostly Hindu festivals for centuries have been attended by tens of thousands of devotees that some have become deadly in recent decades, because of stampedes and even terrorist bombings by rival religious groups.

The most important of these is the Kumbh Mela, in which the Hindu faithful gather to bathe in sacred rivers, mainly the Ganges. It is considered to be the biggest peaceful gathering in the world, in which an incredible 20 million and more people assemble in one place. (Thirty-six died in a stampede in a Kumbh Mela event in 2013.). Another well-known festival is the Jamasthini that celebrates the birthday of Hinduism’s most revered god Krishna, who was believed, centuries before Christianity, to have been, like Jesus, a God-man. (Shown in accompanying collage.)

Communist China had banned such festivals, but these have survived in Taiwan, the biggest and most famous being the eight-day festival and procession revering the sea goddess Mazu, attended by tens of thousands of Chinese and local Taiwanese (In accompanying collage of photos.)

Sea of human bodies

What is it about crowds, or more accurately, in a sea of human bodies, that has been a feature of human cultures?

It is, as many philosophers and psychologists have shown, one form of “self-transcendence.”

That is, humans are so imprisoned in their own selves – their tiny fields of perception and consciousness and in their petty problems – that identifying especially physically with a crowd in worship, in ritual dancing, in EDSA-I kind of political event, and even in rock concerts, makes them forget their small selves, to experience a sense of liberation, an ecstasy in being submerged in the crowd. The religious would express it as unity with the Divine.

The famous novelist and psychedelic-drug investigator Aldous Huxley vociferously criticized it, though, as crowd-delirium, vulnerable to manipulation by both religious and political demagogues.

Watch an El Shaddai event, and you will realize that the reason it is attracting so many Catholics is its dancing and singing and Brother Mike’s skill in having them do something at the same time (“Raise your hands, Amen!”) that he creates that ecstasy of crowd-participation in a Black Nazarene procession experience. Look at the documentaries on Nazi events in which party members cry out in perfect unison as if one body, “Sieg Hiel!”, and you will realize that Hitler was also a master in the use of the ecstasy of crowds.

When I saw the Gion matsuri in Kyoto, I very quickly realized that these events that created ecstasies in crowds served to strengthen the sense of community, especially since the events were organized and the floats built by residents in a block or two.

I don’t think they do, though, in the case of mammoth crowds such as those of the religious festivals in India and in our Black Nazarene, because the huge size of the assembly ensures anonymity for the participants.

The phenomenon of such huge religious festivals, instead, gives deeper, even scientifically-based, meaning to Marx’s notion of religion as opium for the people, especially so if the people are made to believe their wishes would be granted if they could endure the suffering of being packed in a sea of humanity.

I doubt very much that they serve to build our sense of nationhood, or even help the participants deal with the hard realities of their lives.