Metaphysics of the Visayan Philosophy of Gabâ

Jubert Cabrezos

By: Jubert Cabrezos | Squeeze | Published July 18, 2017 | Updated August 16, 2017


While I was raised in a predominantly Tagalog society in Manila, I was brought up by Visayan parents and relatives. We rarely use the Cebuano language when talking to each other. Instead, we use Tagabis, a sort of code-switching between Tagalog and Cebuano. In Tagabis, much of the grammar and lexicon is Tagalog with some grammatical and lexical influences from Cebuano. Today, I am more fluent in Tagalog than Cebuano, but I was introduced to some Visayan terms, and one of them is gabâ.

Sometimes, my brother and I would play with food or bully our cousin suffering from cerebral pulsey, and the elders would warn us: “Baka magabaan kayo.”

Gabâ, to define it roughly, is a sort of negative karma. Do not do something evil or something bad will happen to you. Do not play with food; you might need them someday. Do not take advantage of the weak; you might get weak someday. Do not make fun of religious idols or you will be a victim of disaster. Do not harm nature or flood will kill you. Do not disrespect elders for your children will do the same one day. Gabâ is sometimes translated as divine vengeance. However, it does not necessarily mean a punishment from the gods or spirits. It is rather regarded as a character of life or the world. Moreover, the punishment is not necessarily meted out immediately after the evil act.

Gabâ is uniquely indigenous to Visayan culture and it cannot be found elsewhere in other Filipino cultures. It is so embedded in Visayan psychology and society that even when Visayans converted to colonial Christianity during the Spanish Era they held on to it. It is still central to the Visayan way of life even up to this day. One author even noted the passive character of Visayans in times of oppression, because they believed that those who did them evil will get punished by the gabâ.

There are quite many metaphysical notions we could extract from the concept of gabâ.

Although this concept was held by proto-pantheist animists, it passively suggests a materialist and atheistic view of the universe, since gaba is (in fact, specifically) not necessarily made by a bathala or diwata or any encanto. It is simply a law of the universe, so it is most likely a mistake to translate it as divine vengeance as most translators do. When I say materialist and atheistic, I mean it in the Lucretian epicurean sense. The epicurean materialist view does not necessarily hold an atheistic belief: there are gods, but they do not give a shit about human affairs, so we should do the same to them. Some commentators say that epicureanism can be described more accurately as “proto-atheistic.” The philosophy of gabâ is very much like this, except that early Visayans believe in spirits dwelling in bodies of nature. Perhaps, possibly, if this proto-philosophy of the Visayans developed into a serious philosophical inquiry, they would pretty much come up with a pantheistic and materialist view of the world similar to what happened in some schools in the Hindu philosophical tradition.

It would be a big debate whether gabâ accounts for determinism or free will. The free will element of gabâ lies on the core notion that if a person does something bad, something bad will happen to him or her – not necessarily soon, but later in his or her life. To justify the punishment, it must be established that the sinner committed the ill act under no influence but the freedom of the will. On the other hand, the determinist aspect lies also on the same carmic notion that when a person does something bad, something bad will happen to him in return. It seems that gabâ is part determinism and part free will. Or, maybe, the concept unintentionally distances itself from the debate.

It is also interesting to note that gabâ is also pretty much similar to other indigenous metaphysical concepts across cultures like the dao of the Chinese civilization and the musubi of the Japanese Shinto (fans of the animated film Kimi no na wa are surely familiar with this concept).

Moreover, it is interesting that the golden rule can also be deduced from gabâ. The saying “what you do not want to be done to yourself, do not do to others” is slightly like the “if-you-did-something-bad-something-bad-will-happen-to-you” concept of the gabâ.

The simplicity and the sophistication of the Visayan metaphysical concept of gabâ give us a glimpse of the developing philosophy of ancient Filipinos, of our Austronesian culture. Some commentators lament the absence of a unique Filipino philosophical tradition, yet here is an indigenous example. It tells us that philosphy is not really exclusive to known cultures noted for it like in the Western, Indian, and Sino spheres; it is rather a part of every culture developed through people’s interaction with and interpretation of society across history.

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