Lecture 3. Animist Hybridization in South East Asia

This lecture exposes the student an issue important to the SE Asia worldview, Animism. More or less ignored in the literature or treated as ‘Folk Religion,’ a more accurate portrayal would show that when Buddhism – and Hinduism as well - came to southeast Asia, it stepped into a forest-village world that was heavily connected to ancient traditions of animism. Both religions had to adjust and accommodate. In India, Animism had already morphed in Hinduism, even though there are some remote temples that one can say are more animist than Hindu. An example is Thirunelli Temple, India, which still attracts thousands of devotees. The encounter with Animism in SE Asia was harder for Buddhism since it, originally, more or less rejected Animism and the proliferation of deities and ancestor spirits. For Buddhism there is basically NO deity. To survive Buddhism had to adjust in SE Asia as it had to also adjust in Tibet and Mongolia. In Myanmar, the local animist religion is called Nat. I discuss its basic principles. Buddhism, probably brought there by Sri Lankan traders, came as a religion of the elites, with agro-engineering and palace culture. The first buildings were traditional stupas, but soon Buddhism adopted the sacred rock culture there, by saying more or less, your rock is my rock. Your sacred tree is our Bodhi tree. Soon Buddhist shrines and Nat shrines were combined, as at Mt. Popa. It is the equivalent of Mt Olympus for the ancient Greeks, the mountain where the Nat deities reside. The Buddhist shrine is just as much a Buddhist temple as it is a shrine to the locally residing Nat deities. Nonetheless in Burma, the separation and linkage of the two approaches is clearly visible in the structure of village and temple to this day.


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