World Religions in Everyday Life: Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity

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Southeast Asiais a land of tremendous religious diversity. In addition to its plethora of indigenous religious practices, all of the world religions can be found in South�east Asia today. In some South�east Asian nations, such as Singapore, the world’s major religious traditions coexist. A walk through Singapore’s central neighborhoods takes one past Hindu temples, gleaming silver- domed mosques, ornate Christian churches, and incense-scented Buddhist temples. In other South�east Asian countries, one world religion predominates. But even then, one finds variations in the forms the world religion may take, and minority populations also practice other distinct religions. In still other nations, such as Vietnam, people adhere to a range of religious traditions, strategically using different traditions depending on the social context, or moving from one to another set of practices over the courses of their lives. And, finally, we find generational and class differences in the conception, interpretation, and practice of world religions, for example, in Indonesia and the Philippines.

This religious diversity is a reflection of Southeast Asia’s strategic position as both a destination and a way station in world trade. As early traders passed through en route from south or East Asia, the ports of South�east Asia provided places to rest and trade while vessels waited for the winds to shift to continue on in their voyages. These seafaring traders’ prolonged visits presented opportunities for introducing their own religious beliefs and practices to their South�east Asians hosts. In some cases, as with Islam, when it became known that Muslim traders preferred to berth and trade in Muslim port settlements, local leaders expediently declared themselves  (and by extension, their communities) Muslim, and trade, religious education, and genuine conversion followed. In other cases, it was intermarriage with local women, or the teachings of traveling Sufi mystics that spread the faith. By the sixteenth century, when Europeans arrived, much of South east Asia had already been profoundly influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Drawn by the riches of the Spice Islands (eastern Indonesia), as well as the desire to trade with China (either in East Asia or in the Philippines, where trade with Chinese shifted when China closed its doors to Europeans), European traders’ interests brought nascent colonial interests. As elsewhere, Christian missionization was part and parcel of the rise of colonialism in South�east Asia, adding yet another set of religions to the mix. Southeast Asia’s contemporary religious diversity also reflects population movement and migration. This tapestry of diversity is further complicated by the role of religion in both legitimizing state power and as a vehicle for resistance to dominant groups. Here we offer a very brief review of key themes in some of Southeast Asia’s major religions, with the aim of enabling the reader to contextualize the chapters in this section. Forms of Hinduism are practiced not only in Bali but also in Thai and Khmer royal ritual (Wales 1931), as well as in everyday life. Brahmanic ritual practices are seen in the ubiquitous spirit shrines found in these regions. But Brahmanism is a slippery category of worship in mainland South�east Asia. Erik Davis has discussed the interplay between practices we call “Buddhism” and “Brahmanism” at sacred sites in Cambodia (Davis 2009). For instance, saksit is a Brahmanic type of power gained through contact with sacred objects or via instruction from teachers with esoteric knowledge. Saksit can be contrasted with the Buddhist power of merit (the first is amoral, the second moral), but the two are sometimes joined together in certain men of power (see Wong 2001 for a discussion of how these ideas are activated in musical performance).

Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religious form throughout the low�land states of Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia (as well as in Sri Lanka). While it was originally introduced from India, there has been much exchange of religious objects, texts, and personnel with Sri Lanka in recent years. Like Brahmanism, Buddhism was recruited to bolster state-building, evidenced by the many ancient temples in South�east Asia that are Buddhist in conception. In modern times, state control of the hierarchy of Buddhist monks has been a means of building national unity. Despite its formal recognition of religious freedom, Thailand is, for most intents and purposes, a Buddhist country. Loyalty to the nation is taught in classrooms by the iconic three pillars of flag (country), king, and religion—often depicted by an image of the Buddha. The king is considered to be a Buddhist exemplar, and the Emerald Buddha housed in the royal temple of Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha) is symbolically tied to the well-being of the nation. Visitors to Wat Phra Kaew are expected to show levels of respect not required in other Buddhist temples such as refraining from photography, covering one’s shoulders, and not wearing shorts. In the 1980s and 1990s, visitors were greeted by a display of tins of camera film removed from the cameras of those caught surreptitiously photographing the sacred relic, and a collection of appropriately modest clothing was kept at the entrance, available on loan to casually dressed visitors. This intertwining of state and Buddhism contributes to the (at times violent) resistance of Muslim Malays in Thailand’s south to the Thai government; and the (at times) militaristic response to this resistance by Buddhist monks in the south, who take up arms to “protect Buddhism” (see Jerryson 2010). The main texts in Theravada Buddhism are in an ancient language called Pali, said to be the language of the Buddha. Ordinary people generally do not understand the texts or the chants used in temple rituals themselves. This makes the role of monks particularly important; they are the locus of transmission of religious knowledge. In Thailand, monks are institutionally organized as the sangha, although monks (such as the forest, ecology, and development monks discussed by Sue Darlington in chapter 11) might remove themselves from this hierarchy. Monks who go against the generally quite conservative sangha might face punishment by the institutions of the sangha and the state. Darlington’s contribution in this section discusses an example of resistance to the status quo through practices that are culturally meaningful and powerful; Phrakhru Pitak’s sponsorship of tree ordinations as a means of protecting community forests is quite radical. In everyday practice,

Thai Buddhists focus on the consequences of rebirth: the idea that each person carries a karmic load created by sin (bap, sometimes transliterated as baap) and alleviated by accumulation of merit (bun) (discussed by Holly High in chapter 3, and Lucien M. Hanks, Jr. in chapter 7; in contrast, Sue Darlington, chapter 11, defines bap as demerit. This illustrates the difficulty of straightforward translation of concepts). Belief in reincarnation implies that people who had relations in a past life might reconnect in future lives, continuing to work out their difficulties again and again. This is a common theme in people’s justification for actions and in their discourses about the things that befall them. On one occasion, Gillogly was sitting on a veranda when a giant cockroach started to crawl across her foot. As she moved to smash it, she was interrupted by the exclamation, “Stop! That could have been your mother in a previous life!” The implication was that she would commit a great sin, possibly matricide, in killing the insect. This idea of avoiding sin (and maximizing merit) is a fundamental concept that the forest and ecology monks draw on in helping villagers protect the forest. The religious tradition of Vietnam is often referred to as the “triple religion,” in which Confucianism, Daoism, and Mahayana Buddhism are intertwined. It is not a matter of being a member of one or the other tradition, as we might expect in the West. Rather, practitioners make use of different sets of cosmological sys�tems and practices depending on social context and personal inclination. Walking along an urban street in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, one sees ancestor temples, attended on feast days or for lineage business, and Buddhist temples, crowded with elderly women bowing and praying. Vietnamese friends told Gillogly that Buddhism is the religion of the elderly, who turn to it when they think of death. In addition, practices overlap with a range of practices for contact with saints and spiritual advisors (see Taylor 2008 for recent studies of religion in Vietnam). Mahayana Buddhism dominates in Vietnam and is historically related to the form of Buddhism practiced in Tibet and China.

The dominant schools of Buddhism in Vietnam are “Pure Land” and Zen. Individual practice, per haps under a revered monk, focuses on meditation and the chanting of su�tras with a goal of gaining protection by a Bodhisattva (one who is near enlightenment, such as the Goddess of Mercy, Quan m) or inner peace and a sense of right living. An internationally known Vietnamese Buddhist monk is Thích Nhat Hạnh, famed for his resistance to the war in Vietnam and his advocacy of mindfulness and Engaged Buddhism (Thích Nhat Hạnh 1987). Daoism imbues everyday life in Vietnam, rather than being a formally institutionalized religion. Nir Avieli’s chapter (chapter 17, Part 5) presents a vivid example of how Daoist cosmological concepts are threaded through even the mundane act of eating. Confucianism is congruent with Vietnamese practices of patrilineality (see Part 2 and Shaun Malarney’s contribution, chapter 18). In the pre-colonial kingdoms of northern Vietnam, it was also a model of governance (see Part 3). Under French colonialism, many Vietnamese converted to Catholicism, a point mentioned again in Part 6 because of its political significance. In addition, several syncretic religions that united elements of French culture and Vietnamese spiritualism arose in the late colonial period. Among the most well known is Cao Dai, marked for its exuberant architecture (Hoskins 2010) and designation of French cultural figures as saints. Islam is well represented in South�east Asia. It is the official state religion in two nations, Brunei and Malaysia. Furthermore, Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world; with more than 90 percent of its population identifying as Muslim.

The southern most region of the Philippines and southern Thailand are also home to Muslim communities. We will not retrace the history of Islam’s early arrival and spread in Southeast Asia, since Judith Nagata has chronicled that history in chapter 4. However, her point about the resurgence of commitment to Islam currently under way in Malaysia is worth reiterating. As Nagata observed, the late 1960s was a period in which new religious ideas about the meaning and significance of Muslim identity arrived in South�east Asia, as did new Muslim immigrants. Beginning around 1970 and gathering momentum in subsequent decades, a growing number of Malays and Muslim Indonesians came to feel (and sought) greater connection to the global Islamic community (umma). Lowered travel costs and increased prosperity in the 1980s enabled more South�east Asian Muslims to participate in the pilgrimage to Mecca (the hajj). Also, some South�east Asian Muslims pursued higher education at universities in Egypt and other parts of the Muslim world, returning home with new understandings of other ways of being Muslim. In Malaysia, as Nagata notes, Malays were coming to regard themselves as Muslim first: religious identity was to supersede ethnic affiliation, linking Malay Muslims with events and discourses in Arabia and Iran. In both Indonesia and Malaysia, the “call to the faith” (dakwah) movement was enthusiastically embraced by many younger-generation Muslims, and spread in schools and universities. In chapter 12, Nancy Smith-Hefner pursues the theme of the varied ramifications of Islamic resurgence for young central Javanese women in Indonesia. Originally published in the Journal of Asian Studies but revised for this volume, Smith-Hefner’s chapter explores the growing popularity of veiling among young university women on Java. As she notes, the mothers of many of these young women did not veil themselves when they were younger, but rather sported Western-style dress or revealing (by today’s reformist Muslim yardsticks) tightly wrapped sarongs and kebayas (a traditional Javanese styled top, often made of semi-transparent bold-colored lace). Smith-Hefner takes up the puzzle of why a new generation of Muslim women raised in a modernist era would find the veil appealing. Her exploration sheds much light on the multiple motivations, pleasures, paradoxes, and quandaries faced by young Muslim Indonesian women who opt to adopt the veil. In reading her chapter, we are reminded that religious symbols, like other symbols, do not carry monolithic meanings. Christianity is also found in various Southeast Asian communities, and Roman Catholicism is the dominant faith in two countries, Timor Leste and the Philippines.

In contrast to the ways in which Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam spread to South�east Asia via trade and informal contact with new religious ideas, the introduction of Catholicism to the Philippines was deliberately and zealously pursued by the Spanish. From the time that Magellan claimed the Philippines for the Spanish crown, the archipelago was envisioned as a “showcase of faith.” When the Spanish conquistadores arrived in the south�ern Philippines, Islam had already penetrated parts of the region; as some scholars have suggested, this was a nation that may well have become predominantly Muslim if not for the early missionizing activities of the Spanish. Early Spanish conversion activities entailed mass baptisms and implementation of the resettlement policy (or reducción policy) they had used in the New World, whereby indigenous groups were forcibly relocated to villages centered around plazas and churches (thereby enabling tax collection from Christianized Filipinos) (Russell n.d.). Historian Vicente Rafael’s (1988) extensive research reveals how much miscommunication was involved in these early stages of missionization, when indigenous conceptions were grafted onto Catholic practices. For instance, inhabitants received baptisms assuming they were curative rituals, unaware of the religious conversion implied by the rite. In time, Christianity in the Philippines, as elsewhere in the world, was adapted to the local context. Among lowland Christian Filipinos, the pervasive cultural idea of utang na loob or profound debt of gratitude was extended to one’s relationship to God. Christ’s favors (puhunan) and his ultimate sacrifice at the cross are said to be so great as to be unrepayable. Faith and devotion are ways of acknowledging this profound debt. (For a longer discussion of the nuances of this concept vis-à-vis Christianity past and present, see Rafael 1988:123–130.)

More recently, new Catholic and Protestant charismatic movements have arisen. In her contribution to this section, Katharine Wiegele (chapter 13) discusses the allure of one such movement for the poorer classes in the Philippines. Her focus is on the Catholic evangelical movement known as El Shaddai, founded by Mariano Velarde (“Brother Mike”) in the 1980s. Vel�arde’s weekly open-air prayer and healing rallies draw millions of participants; impoverished Filipinos might commit 10 or more percent of their incomes to this church. As Wiegele illustrates, Velarde’s tremendous appeal must be understood both in terms of the contemporary landscape of religion in the Philippines and traditions of religiosity. As she notes, El Shaddai healing rituals in Manila neighborhoods “merge local shamanic or folk traditions with ritual elements of Catholicism and charismatic Christianity, producing what some residents see as ‘authentic healing power.’” In short, El Shaddai creates forms of religious experience that are quite distinct from the mainstream church. As this movement globalizes, it remains to be seen how it will ultimately fare vis-à-vis the mainstream Roman Catholic Church. Religious tensions and conflict, of course, exist not only within the landscape of Christianity in Southeast Asia, but among the different religious traditions as well. Although there have been and continue to be periods of peaceful accommodation, recent years have witnessed heightened religious tensions in some regions. This is an underlying theme in Kathleen M. Adams’s chapter (part 5, chapter 14), which addresses Christian–Muslim clashes in Indonesia (which has pockets of Christian minority communities because Dutch missionaries converted highland and outer island animists to Christianity). Similar religious- and ethnic-based tensions exist in southern Thailand, as has been mentioned. Likewise, the southern Mindanao area of the Philippines has been a site of ongoing interreligious conflicts. State policies, initiated by Ferdinand Marcos, to relocate Catholic populations to the Mindanao homeland of the Muslim minorities exacerbated the marginalization already experienced by these Muslim minority communities, giving rise to interreligious conflict and a succession movement that waxes and wanes in this southern region of the Philippines. 

 

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