Ua Dab (Hmong word for "worshiping the gods"), also called Hmongism, is the ethnic religion of the Hmong people. It is a religion of the animistic and shamanic typology, pantheistic theology, centered on worship and communication with gods and spirits, and on ancestor veneration. Throughout its history it has incorporated theoretical and ritual elements from Taoism, and broader Chinese culture, especially the emphasis on the pattern of the forces natural universe and the need of human life to be in accordance with these forces.
Most Hmong continue to practice the traditional religion, although many Hmong in Asia have converted to Buddhism, and many Hmong Americans and Hmong Australians have adopted Christianity or Buddhism. In 2012 a Hmong American organisation of the traditional religion was founded, with the name "Temple of Hmongism".
Deities and world
The highest god of Hmong traditional religion is called Saub or Yawm Saub, who endows the shamans their abilities. The Saub god may be called in times of need and he can manifest in points of crisis of the course of history. The first shaman was Siv Yis: Hmong shamans refer to themselves as "Siv Yis" when they are in ecstasy. The gods of cosmic nature are simply called dab, while dab neeb or qhua neeb are shamanic spirits that float through the worlds and work with the shamans operating within a specific sphere which is their domain. The shamanic spirits include wild spirits of untamed nature and the tamed and friendly spirits of the house. Ancestral spirits (Xwm Kab) who reside in the world of the dead form another category, though also involved in shamanic practice.
The frog god Nplooj Lwg is considered the creator of humans. Ntxwj Nyug and Nyuj Vaj Tuam Teem are the lords of the otherworld, determining life, death and reincarnation or rest in heaven. While Ntxwj Nyug is an indigenous deity, Nyuj Vaj Tuam Teem is thought to derive from the Jade Lord of Taoism. Every house has an altar for the Dab Xwm Kab (god of good fortune). Dab Pog is the goddess of babies. Zaj Laug is the "Old Dragon" or "Dragon King". Poj Ntxoog is a fearful female spirit associated with the tiger. Yaj Yuam is an ancestral hero, the "Heavenly Archer", corresponding to the Chinese Houyi. Other gods are of nature, such as Xob, the god of thunder and lightning, and Nkauj Hnub and Nraug Hlis, "Lady Sun" and "Lord Moon". Chiyou (or Txiv Yawg) is worshipped as an ancestral god of the Hmong nation.
The Hmong house is a reflection of the cosmos. It is constructed around a central post (ncej tas) representing the world tree, axis of the spirits, which god is Dab Ncej Tas. The roofs represent the heaven (the spiritual world) and the floor symbolises nature (the world of men). The axis of the building represents the male head of the household and his ancestral spirit, the ancestral unity. Man is in the between of heaven and earth. The Hmong believe in various household spirits called dab nyeg, meaning "tamed spirits", such as Dab Qhovcub (the god of the main hearth), Dab Qhovtxos (the god of the ritual hearth), Dab Nthab (the god of the loft), Dab Roog (the god of the framework of the front door). The Dab Txhiaj Meej is the god of wealth and richness. Spirits of nature are called dab qus, "wild spirits".
Yeeb and Yaj
"Yeeb and Yaj" is the Hmong equivalent of the yin and yang found in Chinese traditional religion and Taoism. Differently from the context of Chinese thought, the Hmong "yeeb and yaj" is not represented by symbols such as the taijitu. The concept represents the world of the living and the world of the gods: yeeb ceeb is the spiritual world, while yaj ceeb is the world of material nature. The Hmong also practice looj mem, the Chinese feng shui.
Structure and practices
Shaman practice is called ua neeb ("worshiping the neeb", the dab neeb being specifically shamanic gods), while the shaman is called txiv neeb, meaning "father of the neeb". Ua neeb is divided into two main kinds: ua neeb muag dub, the "dark-faced shamanism" of the yeeb (yin) world, associated with possessive ecstasy that can be learned only by the neeb themselves; and ua neeb muag dawb, "white-faced shamanism" that is associated with any kind of ecstasy and can be taught to non-shamans.
The position of a shaman is not inherited as shamans are chosen by the neeb class of gods, manifesting through possession. Chosen people are initiated by elder shaman masters (xib hwb or xib fwb). A shaman has control on his possessing spirits, and interacts with them through his shaman altar.
In the spirit journey, the shaman calls on his cavalcade of spirits to guide him. He moves and sing on a horse (nees) represented in the living world by a shaman's bench (rooj neeb). He also calls on the forces of the cosmos to help him, such as the highest god Saub, the First Couple, Pog Ntxoog, Lady Sun and Lord Moon, the seven stars of the Pleiades, and many animal spirits. Divination horns (kwam) are the main mean of communication with the gods, and they are used in many rituals.
The shamans perform two sessions of healing rituals: the diagnostic rituals (ua neeb saib) and subsequently the healing rituals (ua neeb kho), only if the patient shows signs of recovery after the first ritual.
The Hmong American organisation "Temple of Hmongism" has developed an institutional priesthood which members are called txiv plig or txiv coj dab.
The Hmong household altar is dedicated primarily to the Dab Xwm Kab (god of good fortune). It is placed on the wall of the main room of the house. On the altar people make offerings of rice, chicken, soup and rice served in bamboo, with incense and joss paper. Txi dab is the general term for the sacrifice to the gods, while laib dab is the ritual of sacrifice to the ancestors. On the last day of the Old Year rice is offered to the ancestors, with a sacrificed chicken, and a soul-calling (hu plig) ritual is held.
The shaman's altar is a special hanging or standing altar, with two or three tiers depending on the status of the shaman. It is believed to represent Siv Yis' grotto near the top of the holy mountain, above a pool near of which grows the flower of immortality. This pool is represented by a bowl of water placed upon the altar. From the altar depart several cotton threads resulting attached to the central housepost, and it is along these threads that the neeb travel when they visit the altar.
A third type of Hmong altar is devoted to a special category of gods known as the dab tshuaj, or gods of medicine, which are generally worshipped by women, since in Hmong culture they specialise in the knowledge of herbalism.
Joss papers are a central element of Hmong altars. There are both joss paper used as offerings and decorative joss papers. The second ones are used as symbols connecting with the gods, and they are usually composed of large white sheets, with smaller yellow or silver sheets, and sometimes little red squares.
Rituals and psychology
Ua Dab communal rituals of worship of gods and ancestors are performed by the patriarch of each family or the spiritual leader of a clan or a cluster of male relatives. More difficult ceremonies such as soul-calling (hu plig) are performed by ritual experts the shaman (txiv neeb) for spiritual healing, and various experts in funeral rites like the reed pipe player (txiv qeej), the soul chanter (nkauj plig) and the blessing singers (txiv xaiv). The soul is believed to reincarnate. The body (cev) is a microcosm believed to be constructed by a number of souls (plig or ntsuj) that mirror the macrocosm.
Hmong religion includes specific rituals for the milestones of the life cycle: there are rituals for birth and baby naming, marriage, rename after marriage, trauma and sickness, extending the mandate of life for sick elderly, death and funeral. There are also festivals with corresponding ceremonies: the New Year (Lwm Qaib or Ntoo Xeeb, or also Noj Peb Caug) in mid-November, Nyuj Dab (Ox Festival), Dab Roog (Door Festival) and Npua Tai (Pig Festival).
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