Southeast Asian Religions: History of Study

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Southeast Asia straddles one of the two trade routes linking East Asia and the Mediterranean. For many centuries, merchants traveled through the Straights of Malacca to points further east, bringing spices, gold, and other precious commodities, and with them came religious texts, modes of ritual practice, iconographies, and other religious systems. A consequence of this strategic location is that virtually all of the major religions of the world can be found in Southeast Asia. Today by far the most common religious traditions are Theravāda Buddhism, Islam, Roman Catholicism, and the Vietnamese variant of traditional Chinese religion. Yet there are also communities of Balinese and Tamil Hindus, Protestant Christians, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Prior to the Second World War there were significant Jewish communities. One can also find a vast array of indigenous religions in traditionally isolated portions of the region that are either upland or on remote islands far from the trade routes.

The diversity of religion in Southeast Asia has attracted area specialists in almost all religious traditions to study the region, and the theoretical orientations and methodologies employed in the study of religion in the region are nearly as diverse as the religions of the region itself. The academic study of religion in Southeast Asia began in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The earliest works are largely descriptive. Most of them were written by colonial officials or Christian missionaries. Stamford Raffles, John Crawfurd, and Christiaan Hurgronje were among the colonial officers who made enduring contributions to the study of religion in Southeast Asia. Among the most important works by missionary scholars are Hans Scharer's studies of the indigenous religions of Kalimantan (Borneo) and Paul Bigandet's study of Burmese Buddhism. Subsequent scholars have employed a variety of philological, archeological, historical, literary-critical, political-science, and anthropological approaches. Many more general works provide important data for scholars of religion. Among the most important of these are district gazetteers and other publications of colonial governments. These often provide the only available materials for the study of the history of religion at the local level. James Scott's Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States (19001901) and John Crawfurd's History of the Indian Archipelago (1820) are outstanding examples. Novels and other works of fiction can also provide valuable information. A clear example is Pramoedya Ananta Toer's four-volume novel Buru Quartet (1996), which is a fictionalized account of the religious and cultural forces that contributed to the rise of Indonesian nationalism.

Despite this double diversity, one can detect the following general themes and questions that have shaped the academic study of religion in Southeast Asia:

  • Links between scholarly agendas and the agendas of colonial and postcolonial states.
  • Relations between religion and politics in traditional Southeast Asian states.
  • The development of increasingly nuanced understandings of the nature of religious traditions.
  • The emergence, in the last decades of the twentieth century, of a symbiotic relationship between religious studies and the social sciences, particularly cultural anthropology.

These four factors interact in very complex ways in the academic discourse about religion in Southeast Asia.

Political Agendas

The political agendas of colonial and postcolonial states did much to shape the development of scholarly traditions. They have influenced the topics scholars have chosen to investigate and the interpretation of their findings. The academic study of religion in Southeast Asia dates back to the early decades of the nineteenth century at a time when the British, French, Dutch, and Spanish were consolidating colonial empires. Edward Said has argued that in the Middle East, colonial scholarship was among the means through which Europeans sought to dominate and domesticate potentially hostile religious elites. Much the same can be said of colonial scholarship on Southeast Asia.

Such works as compilations of customary law and gazetteers describing local customs and periodic rituals were of immediate value to colonial officials and other resident Europeans. They remain valuable resources for scholars concerned with religious change, and are particularly important for scholars of the indigenous religions of tribes of the region. An overwhelming number of these groups converted to Christianity in the first half of the twentieth century. As their traditional religions were orally transmitted, European writings provide the only available information about those early religions.

The study of religion also provided instruments for domination in a more subtle sense. Many of the monumental works of colonial scholarship, including Stamford Raffles's History of Java (1817) and Paul Mus's Barabuur (1935), locate the greatness of Southeast Asian cultures in the distant past. These studies provided support for colonialist apologetics, a major theme of which was that Southeast Asian cultures had become decadent and corrupt and that benevolent Europeans were assisting these cultures with colonial rule. While intended for a European audience, these works were also read by many Southeast Asians and are in part responsible for the sense of cultural dislocation so vividly described by Toer in his novels.

Islam and Buddhism were equally misrepresented, though in very different ways. Raffles and Theodore Pigeaud went to great lengths to deny the Islamic character of Indonesian and particularly Javanese civilization. For them, Islam was a threat to colonial authority. Portraying Indonesia as a Hindu culture was part of a strategy of colonial domination. Indonesian elites educated in Dutch schools were taught that their culture and religion were an amalgamation of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism, and were discouraged from learning more than the rudiments of Islam. Christiaan Hurgronje, the greatest Islamicist of the colonial era, also contributed to this agenda. His studies of the Achehnese and the Southeast Asian community in Mecca were as much political briefings as they were scholarship. The Dutch were involved in a bitter war with the Achehnese and regarded Mecca as a dangerous source of rebellion.

Buddhism was misrepresented in a different way. Many of the early works on Theravāda Buddhism in Southeast Asia were written by scholars who, if not Buddhists themselves, were extremely sympathetic towards a particular understanding of Buddhism. James Scott, Harold Fielding-Hall, and others understood Buddhism as an abstract rational science of the mind with little use for spirits, gods, or what they understood as superstitious practice. They regarded what are now clearly understood as Buddhist ritual practices as either the superstitions of the lower classes or remnants of a heathen past. Like many other earlier European interpreters of Buddhism, they imagined Buddhism as they wished it to be.

The academic study of religion continues to be politically significant in the region. This is especially true of scholarship published in the languages of the region. Religious studies are not well developed in the region, but with the expansion of modern education since the end of the colonial era, studies of religion by Southeast Asian scholars have become increasingly common. Many Southeast Asian scholars of religion are trained in history; others in area, Buddhist, or Islamic studies. In many instances the lines between academic and committed scholarship is a fine one. In Southeast Asia many scholars of religion are actively engaged in political causes, movements, or parties. In addition to more traditional academic venues, intellectuals regularly publish in daily papers and weekly news magazines. Among the issues of concern to these scholars are economic development, ecological degradation, human rights, social justice, and democratization. There are no systematic studies of the writings of scholar-activists in European languages. In the Islamic societies of the region, questions concerning banking and finance are also important because of the traditional Islamic prohibition on interest. Most of this literature is inaccessible to nonspecialists because there are very few translations.

More conventional scholarship may also be pointed. Muslim Indonesia provides a cogent example. Indonesian scholars are familiar with Western scholarship that has depicted traditional cultures as being only trivially Muslim. Islamists often cite the works of Clifford Geertz as proof that their own critiques of religious traditionalists are valid. To establish the orthodoxy of their positions, traditionalists have produced countertexts that can be read simultaneously as history and theology. Zamakhsyari Dhofier's The Pesantren Tradition (1999) is a ready example. In this way academic scholars of religion are drawn into Southeast Asian religious discourse.

Political considerations have also influenced which communities are studied and which are not. Politically significant communities receive greater attention than minorities. Scholarly neglect of Southeast Asian Christianity, traditional Chinese religion, and Tamil Hinduism is especially apparent. Neglect of Southeast Asian Christianity is among the most serious problems confronting the field. The conversion of many tribal and Chinese people to Christianity has fundamentally altered the religious landscape of Southeast Asia. In general, there has been very little research on the interaction of religious communities in any Southeast Asian country. The religions of Myanmar (Burma) have also suffered from scholarly neglect, but for a different reason: very few scholars have been able to conduct research there since the middle of the twentieth century.

Religion, Politics, and Culture

Many scholars of Southeast Asian religions have been concerned with the role of religion in indigenous political systems and the interrelation of religion and culture. Archeologists and historians have attempted to discern the religious foundations of Southeast Asian statecraft. Of the few manuscripts that have survived from the precolonial period, a substantial number concern theories of kingship. This concern is also found in nineteenth-century texts, many of which are preserved in libraries and archives in Holland, Great Britain, and France, as well as Southeast Asia. Other important sources of the role of religion in politics include Chinese texts, inscriptions on monuments, and archeological sites, such as Pagan, Angkor, Ayutthaya, and Borobudur. George Coedes, Robert Heine-Geldern, Stanley Tambiah, and others have found that Southeast Asian kingdoms were structured as representations of Hindu or Buddhist cosmologies and that kings were often described as divine or semidivine beings. Muslim kingdoms retain some of the symbolism of the Hindu and Buddhist past and also describe Sultans as descendants of the Prophet Muhammad and as representatives of God on earth.

A substantial body of scholarship focuses on the role of traditional religious concepts in contemporary Southeast Asian politics. Benedict Anderson, Clifford Geertz, and others suggests that traditional concepts of power and authority continue to inform political discourse and the conduct of politics throughout the region. In modern Southeast Asia, religion has been used to legitimize the political programs of states, leaders, and parties, be they authoritarian or liberal.

On the Nature of Religious Traditions

For most of its history, the academic study of religion has looked to ancient, philosophically complex texts for the essence of religious traditions and has assumed that popular and contemporary variants of these texts are in some sense corrupt. This understanding of world religions is apparent in many important studies of contemporary Southeast Asian religions, including Melford Spiro's Buddhism and Society (1982) and Clifford Geertz's The Religion of Java (1960). As Boone observes, this has lead to the construction of artificial canons recognized only by Western or Western-trained scholars. The tendency to understand world religions as philosophical systems embodied in ancient texts has contributed to the view that Southeast Asian Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims are only superficially such and that indigenous animisms remain the most important of Southeast Asian religions. This view was articulated by Raffles in the early nineteenth century and has been subject to serious criticism only since the mid-1970s.

As scholars of religion have become increasingly concerned with religion as lived experience, many have come to question the assumptions of traditional philological scholarship. As a result, there is a greater appreciation of noncanonical texts and the relation of religion to daily social life. This has lead to a creative convergence of religious studies and cultural anthropology.

Religious Studies and Cultural Anthropology

Since the 1970s the distinction between cultural anthropology and religious studies has been muted by developments in both disciplines. Earlier generations of anthropologists generally focused on exclusively oral traditions. Even those who studied Buddhists, Muslims, and other adherents of literary religions paid scant attention to religious texts. This state of affairs began to change in the 1960s and 1970s as anthropologists became increasingly concerned with systems of symbols and meanings and as scholars of religion turned their attention to contemporary versions of world religions. This convergence began in communities of scholars focused on Theravāda Buddhism and Balinese Hinduism and has progressed to the point where works by cultural anthropologists and scholars of religion are difficult to distinguish. Its greatest impact is seen in the study of Southeast Asian Islam, which has moved from the margins to the mainstream of scholarly discourse on Southeast Asian religion and the Islamic tradition more generally.


Southeast Asia offers a wealth of research opportunities for scholars of many disciplines concerned with the study of religion. Scholars can study particular variants of most of the major religions of the world or social and cultural systems comprising multiple religious communities, with their different religious traditions and languages.

See Also

Anthropology, Ethnology, and Religion; Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Southeast Asia; Fiction, article on Southeast Asian Fiction and Religion; Hinduism in Southeast Asia; Islam, article on Islam in Southeast Asia.


Anderson, Benedict. Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia. Ithaca, N.Y., 1990. Explores the religious and cultural foundations in modern Indonesian political discourse and praxis.

Bigandet, Paul. The Life or Legend of Gaudama, the Budha of the Burmese. Rangoon, 1858.

Boon, James. Affinities and Extremes: Crisscrossing the Bittersweet Ethnology of East Indies History, Hindu-Balinese Culture, and Indo-European Allure. Chicago, 1990. A rich, interdisciplinary account of the history of Balinese religion and culture.

Coedes, George. The Indianized States of Southeast Asia. Edited by Walter Vella. Translated by Susan Cowing. Honolulu, 1968. The standard work on the Indianization of Southeast Asia from the first to the fourteenth century.

Crawfurd, John. History of the Indian Archipelago: Containing an Account of the Manners, Arts, Languages, Religions, Institutions, and Commerce of Its Inhabitants. Edinburgh, 1820. One of the earliest account of the territory that is now Indonesia.

Dhofier, Zamakhsyari. The Pesantren Tradition: The Role of the Kyai in the Maintenance of Traditional Islam in Java. Tempe, Ariz., 1999. A detailed studies of the Islamic boarding schools (pesantren ) of east Java.

Fielding-Hall, Harold. The Soul of a People. London, 1898. An early British interpretation of Theravāda Buddhism in Myanmar (Burma).

Geertz, Clifford. The Religion of Java. New York, 1960. The classic study of popular religion in Java, though subsequent studies demonstrate that Geertz underestimated the importance Islam in Javanese culture.

Heine-Geldern, Robert. Conceptions of State and Kingship in Southeast Asia. Ithaca, N.Y., 1956. A classic and highly influential study of the religious orientations of premodern Southeast Asian States.

Hurgronje, Christiaan Snouck. Mekka in the Later Part of the 19th Century: Daily Life, Customs, and Learning of the Moslims of the East-Indian-Archipelago. Leiden, 1931. Reprint, 1970. One of the few ethnographic accounts of Muslim Mecca. It focuses on Southeast Asian Muslims resident in the holy city.

Lithai, King of Sukhothai. The Three Worlds According to King Ruang: A Thai Buddhist Cosmology. Translated by Frank Reynolds and Mani Reynolds. Berkeley, Calif., 1982. A translation of a Thai text describing the Theravāda Buddhist cosmos.

Luce, Gordon. Old BurmaEarly Pagan. 3 vols. Locust Valley, N.Y., 19691970. A massive study of Buddhism, art, and architecture in ancient Myanmar (Burma).

Lukens-Bull, ed. Sacred Places and Modern Landscapes: Sacred Geography and Social Religious Transformations in South and Southeast Asia. Tempe, Ariz., 2004. Includes papers on contemporary Buddhist, Muslim and Christian sacred geographies in the region.

Mus, Paul. Barabuur: Sketch of a History of Buddhism Based on Archaeological Criticism of the Texts (1978). Translated by Alexander W. Macdonald. New Delhi, 1998.

Pigeaud, Theodore. Java in the Fourteenth Century: A Study in Cultural History. 5 vols. The Hague, 19601963. Based on a translation of an old Javanese text discover in Bali. Includes a vast amount of material on religion, culture, and politics in Indic Java.

Raffles, Stamford. The History of Java. London, 1817. Reprint, New York, 1965. An early description of Javanese religion and culture focusing primarily on the pre-Islamic period.

Scott, James. Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States. 2 vols. Rangoon, 19001901. Includes a vast quantity of information about northern Myanmar (Burma) shortly after the British annexation.

Smith, Bardwell, ed. Religion and Legitimation of Power in Thailand, Laos, and Burma. Chambersburg, Pa., 1978. Includes articles on Thai Buddhism by historian of religion Frank E. Reynolds.

Spiro, Melford. Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes. 2d, expanded ed. Berkeley, Calif., 1982. A psychologically oriented ethnographic account of Theravāda Buddhism in Myanmar (Burma).

Tambiah, Stanley. World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background. Cambridge, U.K., 1976. The classical study of Buddhist notions of kingship and political authority in Thailand.

Toer, Pramoedya Ananta. The Buru Quartet. New York, 1996. A series of four novels (This Earth of Mankind; Child of All Nations; Footsteps; House of Glass ) depicting the life and times of a young Dutch-educated Javanese aristocrat.

Woodward, Mark. Islam in Java: Normative Piety and Mysticism in the Sultanate of Yogyakarta. Tucson, Ariz., 1989. Emphasizes the Islamic character of royal and popular religion in Java.

Mark R. Woodward (2005)

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Southeast Asian Religions: History of Study