Folk Religion, Southeast Asia

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The folk religions of TheravĀda Southeast Asia combine elements of local spirit religions, local versions of Brahmanism, and Buddhism. The combination of Buddhism, Brahmanism, and spirits is a total ritual system with as much internal tension as consistency. This is because, while Buddhism is doctrinally opposed to spirit religions, it recognizes and respects Brahmanism. Buddhism's opposition to spirits is not based on the grounds that these religions are false; the problem is that spirits are worldly powers, and people bent on salvation should not concern themselves with them. The Brahmanical divinities (devatā), on the other hand, are seen as supernatural protectors of Buddhism, so interaction with them is considered wholesome. In practice, however, laypersons consider interaction with the spirits to be a practical necessity, and even monks must deal with them on occasion.

Spirit religion

The spirit religions have their roots in the pre-Buddhist past. There is remarkable consistency among the various versions of these religions across Southeast Asia, among both Buddhist and non-Buddhist groups. Spirits are invisible beings with humanlike wills and emotions that are associated with specific places and objects. The spirits have the power to harm humans, and they will do so if they feel that humans have trespassed on their territory, or if they have not been properly propitiated. In Burma, spirits are called nat. In Thailand and Laos they are know as phi, and in Cambodia as neak taa or kmauit.

Spirits are seen as, among other things, guardians of morality, particularly as regards proper community, family, and sexual relationships. This is illustrated by the Northern Thai tale of a prince who was visiting a friend, the ruler of a neighboring principality. While there he had an adulterous liaison with his friend's chief wife, the reigning princess. On his return home, he had to ride across the mountains through the forest, where a powerful spirit caused him to drown in a stream as punishment for his wrongdoing.

As guardians of proper human relations, spirits provide benefits to communities more than to individuals. Spirit rites are important markers and maintainers of social solidarity in villages, families, and lineages. Benefits are believed to come to individuals when they turn to individual spirits for help with personal problems. Spirits can heal and find lost objects, among other things. People first seek the help of local spirits. If that fails they turn to professional spirit mediums who are said to serve particularly effective spirits.

Spirits that have been domesticated—that is, turned from things of the wild into elements of the human community—are powerful sources of protection for the people who honor them. The places they protect range in scale from whole kingdoms to individual rooms of the home. Generally speaking, the larger the place a spirit protects, the more powerful the spirit. On the other side of the coin, the smaller the spirit, the more likely it is to be offended by the wrongdoings of particular individuals. The bedroom spirit is the most dangerous of all if one offends it by committing an improper sexual act in its presence. Great spirits will afflict whole communities that offend them (for instance, by withholding rain), but will only punish individuals of equivalent rank. The tutelary spirit of a kingdom may harm a king, but is unlikely to concern itself with the misdeeds of a peasant.

The Buddhist cultures of Southeast Asia make a strong distinction between wild and civilized spaces, that is, between nature and culture. Wild spaces, such as the forests and mountains, are regarded as dangerous and said to be filled with potentially harmful spirits. Humans encroaching on these spaces—for instance, to clear woodlands for agricultural fields— must take care to address the leading spirit of that place and ask permission to undertake human activities. The spirit, and its attendant lesser spirits, are then invited to protect that place on behalf of humans. For their part, humans must make regular offerings to the spirits. These offerings can be as simple as small portions of food, often accompanied by tobacco and liquor, which are offered with humble words by the local farmer or householder, or the offerings may be as elaborate as large-scale animal sacrifices lasting one or two days and requiring the participation of specialized priests.

In addition to the spirits of wild places, spirits of the dead are also important. Like the spirits of the wild, they are bound to and protect designated spaces. One dramatic example is the ancient use of ritual homicide (human sacrifice) to create powerful tutelary spirits. It was sometimes the practice when building entrance gates to walled cities to seize an unsuspecting passerby, kill him or her, and bury the body beneath the foundations of the gate. The resulting spirit was considered to be particularly ferocious, having been ripped so wantonly from this life. The spirit was given offerings and beseeched to turn its rage against strangers seeking to enter the city for wrongful purposes. This spirit would receive generous offerings each year as part of the city's elaborate set of sacrifices to its guardian spirits. On a less gruesome note, the spirits of powerful and revered leaders are often enshrined as the protective divinities of the people and places they once ruled. Since these rulers were Buddhists in their own lives, unlike their wild counterparts, they are likely to be moral beings and inherently benign. They, like some converted spirits of the wild, serve as protectors of the faith as well as protectors of the land and people. Burma (Myanmar), in particular, constructed a highly elaborate state cult of tutelary divinities drawn from the spirits of deceased rulers.


Brahmanism (in its Southeast Asian form) tends to be directly concerned with male spiritual potency. This potency is applied for the benefit of all people, male or female, but the source of the power is closely connected with maleness. This operates at the individual level. Every man has a certain level of spiritual power or effectiveness that derives from a combination of good karma (action) and textual knowledge. This spiritual potency can be built and displayed through conspicuous acts of Buddhist piety—especially temporary ordination as a novice or monk—and knowledge of certain ritual texts. Particularly pious and powerful men may come to be known as learned masters (ācāriyas) or Brāhmaṇas. In their capacity as ācāriyas they are considered to be half layman and half monk, and they serve as congregation leaders of Buddhist temples (vihāras or āvāsas), where they mediate between the world of the laity (gharāvāsa) and the sacred world of the monkhood (saṄgha). Although this office is not specified in the Buddhist canon, it is extremely important to the everyday practice of Buddhism in Southeast Asia. In their capacity as Brāhmaṇas, spiritually powerful men can also serve as healers and as priests to the Vedic gods, particularly Indra, Brahmā, and the Lords of the Four Quarters. In urban areas this service can be a profession.

Even men who do not take this profession or wear such exalted titles seek to acquire some degree of personal spiritual potency. The male literacy rate was traditionally quite high in Southeast Asia, in part because a knowledge of the Brahmanical religious texts was the best means to such potency. Even illiterate men are likely to have some practical ritual or magical knowledge, for such things are a necessity in daily life. The Brahmanical texts contain varieties of ritual knowledge. They include, for example, knowledge of the direction in which the earth-dragon lies in each season, which is important to consider when building a house or plowing a field. Various kinds of numerical magic squares figure as means of calculating auspicious days and directions for undertaking certain activities, such as setting out on a journey. There are also texts to be recited as spells for healing, love, and protection. In addition, certain texts contain the words required for sacrifices to the Vedic gods. In each case, however, the texts contain only the words for the rite. Knowledge of the proper materials to use and the proper performance of the rites must be learned from a teacher.

See also:Ancestors; Death; Festivals and Calendrical Rituals; Ghosts and Spirits; Hinduism and Buddhism; Local Divinities and Buddhism; Merit and Merit-Making


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Michael R. Rhum