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Indigenous Beliefs in Southeast Asia

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Southeast Asia consists of eleven countries that reach from eastern India to China, and is generally divided into “mainland” and “island” zones

The mainland (Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam) is actually an extension of the Asian continent. Muslims can be found in all mainland countries, but the most significant populations are in southern Thailand and western Burma (Arakan). The Cham people of central Vietnam and Cambodia are also Muslim.

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Caste continues to exert a profound influence both in individual lives and in regional and national politics (as shown recently in Bihar)

However, leaders like Ambedkar, who chose to convert to Buddhism to combat the stigma of untouchability, and others have challenged the status quo like the bhakti poets and Buddhist thinkers of centuries ago. Change and continuity still characterize the development of religious traditions in South Asia as they have in the past. Pakistan and Bangladesh have experimented to different degrees with the integration of Islamic legal structures into the running of the nation-state, but in neither nation has conservative Islam exerted a definitive influence on governance. The legal system in India has retained differing systems for Hindu and Muslim personal law (more than 10 percent of the population of India is Muslim). The Sikhs have battled for their own homeland, since 1997 a relative peace has returned to the Punjab, but the issue may emerge again. Fundamentalist Hinduism, especially after the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya in 1991, has raised concerns for all religious minorities in the region—Sikh, Muslim, and Christian alike. South Asia’s dynamic religious present is manifested throughout the world, since the South Asian diaspora is a vital and growing community. Religious traditions are transformed by this increasingly small world, influenced by economic and political change, new media, and altering social expectations. Core religious beliefs and practices will continue to change, as living cultures do, in the future.

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Those who became adherents of Theravāda Buddhism also retained pre-Buddhist beliefs in spirits and deities. These beliefs were given new significance in the context of a Buddhist worldview (W. Mabbett and D. P. Chandler, 1975). Some of the supernatural beings were universalized and identified with Hindu deities also known to Buddhism. More significantly, spirits and deities were accorded a subordinate place within the Buddhist cosmic hierarchy generated by the law of karman. Beliefs in pre-Buddhist concepts of the vital spirit—the leikpya of the Burmese, the khwan of the Tai, the praluʾn of the Khmer—also remained and continued to be part of ritual. These beliefs were, however, reformulated to take into account the Buddhist teaching that the soul is not immortal and that "consciousness" (Pali, viññāṇa ) links one life with the next

The Theravāda revolution in mainland Southeast Asia did not lead to the demise of the maṇḍala ; on the contrary, it led local lords to demonstrate their effectiveness by claiming to be righteous rulers and validating such claims by asserting their independence or even embarking on military ventures to extend their domains at the expense of other lords. Despite the political fragmentation of premodern Buddhist societies, all could conceive of being part of a common Buddhist world. Such a conception was expressed, for example, in the recognition of important pilgrimage shrines—ones containing relics of the Buddha—that lay in other domains. The success of Theravāda Buddhism led to a much sharper distinction between the religious traditions of the peoples of the western part of mainland Southeast Asia and those east of the Annamite cordillera (R. B. Smith and William Watson, 1979). Not only were the Vietnamese becoming increasingly sinicized, but the Cham, who had once had an important indianized culture in southern Vietnam, turned from this tradition and embraced Islam, a religion that was becoming established among other Austronesian-speaking peoples in major societies of the Indonesian archipelago and on the Malay Peninsula.

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Obviously, therefore, when we look back to the Indianization process in Southeast Asia, we can see that although there is direct adoption of the Indianized institution and concepts, Southeast Asian practised in accordance with the local context and attempted to integrate with indigenous culture. But, it is also vividly seen the extent of Indianization in Southeast Asia because, although Indianization process ceased to move forward after 13th century, the legacy it left behind still had profound effect in social, religious, architecture patterns of southeast Asia embedding in its own features of culture trademark.

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The volume Early South East Asia: Essays in Archaeology, History, and Historical Geography, edited by R. B. Smith and William Watson (Oxford, 1979)

"'The Shaman's Grave,'" in Felicitation Volumes of Southeast-Asian Studies Presented to Prince Dhaninivat, vol. 2 (Bangkok, 1965), pp. 303–318

Paul Mus in India Seen from the East: Indian and Indigenuous Cults in Champa, translated by I. W. Mabbett and edited by I. W. Mabbett and D. P. Chandler (Cheltenham, Australia, 1975)

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