I just happened to read Andrew Lang’s “Fetishism and Spiritualism” (The Making of Religion. London, New York and Bombay: Longmans, Green, and Co, 1900, pp. 147–159) and the Wikipedia entry on “fetishism.” To be begin with, the word “fetish” is said to be derived from the French fétiche; which comes from the Portuguese feitiço; and this in turn from Latin facticius meaning “artificial” and facere “to make”) and is thus “an object believed to have supernatural powers, or in particular, a man-made object that has power over others. Essentially, fetishism is the emic attribution of inherent value or powers to an object.” The idea of fetishism itself seems to have a rather long history. Sigmund Freud, in his essay on “Fetishism,” is said to have stated that the meaning and purpose of the fetish turns out, through analysis, to always be the same, namely, “the fetish is a substitute for the penis,” a particular and special kind of penis. The belief in the supernatural power of phallus (cf. “phallicism”) is popular not just among non-Buddhists in India but also among the Buddhists in Bhutan). Karl Marx’s idea of “commodity fetishism” (i.e. in which objects are imagined to dictate the social activities that produce them) and Alfred Binet’s “sexual fetishism” (i.e. the sexual attachment to an object in place of a person) are very interesting as well. Besides such forms of “secular fetishism,” fetishism is said to be present in all religions, which maybe called “sacral fetishism.” If this is the case, there must be fetishism in Buddhism as well. The topic that I dare thematize here is thus “Buddhist Fetishism” or “Fetishism in Buddhism.”
A working definition of “Buddhist Fetishism” would be “a Buddhist belief in the supernatural or paranormal power in certain physical or inanimate objects.” That Buddhists believed, to varying degrees, in the supernatural or paranormal power of inanimate objects, can hardly be denied. Some random Buddhist ideas maybe mentioned here as some venues for exploration. First, the belief in the power of relics would be an ideal case of fetishism in Buddhism. To be noted is that a relic may even be conceived of as a sentient entity. The belief in the power of other organic or inorganic objects or substances such urine or implements or clothes of realized masters may be seen as an extension of the belief in the power of relics. Second, the Indian or Buddhist belief in the power of wish-fulfilling jewel, too, may be seen a kind of fetishism. Third, while the idea of three receptacles (rten gsum)—i.e. statues, scriptures, and stūpas—may not by itself suggest the idea fetishism, the idea of a statue or thanka that speaks or smiles, for example, may be indicative of some elements of fetishism. Fourth, objects that are regarded by some Tibetan Buddhists as btags grol, mthong grol, myong grol, reg grol, and the like, may also suggest elements of fetishism in Tibetan Buddhism.
Importantly, it would be true to state that in Buddhism the power of mind or meditation (and hence perhaps “psychical fetishism”) has precedence over the power of speech or mantras or truth (i.e. “verbal fetishism”) or of matter (i.e. “physical/material fetishism”).