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East and Southeast AsiaImpact On Southeast Asia

Charles F. Keyes describes mainland Southeast Asia (Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam) as the "crossroad of religions" whereby "a large diversity of autochthonous tribal religions are intermingled with Hinduism, Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Islam, and Christianity, as well as the modern secular faith of Marxist-Leninism" (p. 512). The complex blending of early primitive religious practices and those influenced by China over several centuries were reshaped by political change in the twentieth century.

Because of the Han conquest between 124 B.C.E. and 43 C.E., Vietnam looked to China for religious guidance with the influx of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. This influence remained long after Vietnam's independence from China in the eleventh century. Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand were shaped by Indian Hinduism and Buddhism up to the fifteenth century. Traditional tribal societies that relied on archaic rituals and Sino-Indian religions were slowly changed by Christian missionaries. As new agricultural systems emerged, adherence to folk culture began to wane.

According to James J. Fox, island cultures of Southeast Asia (Malaysia, the Philippines, and Java) were similarly influenced by Chinese and Indian traditions alongside Islam. In the late twentieth century, about 90 percent of Indonesia's population was Muslim, while the Philippines still were predominantly Catholic. Even in the early 2000s, the eclectic blend of religions focuses on a type of animism with the predominance of life force in every creature. In collectively describing the spirit of Southeast Asia, Fox writes:

Equally, the same spiritual premises may promote notions of achievement. A recurrent image of life involves the metaphor of the "journey of achievement." Myths recount the founding journeys of the ancestors, folk tales extol the attainments of heroic journeys, and dreams and séances can take the form of a spiritual journey. Furthermore, many societies encourage a period of journeying in early adulthood as a means of gaining knowledge, wealth, fame, and experience. (p. 526)

In the twentieth century, various religious movements emerged in the island cultures of Southeast Asia to address the effects of globalization on ancient cultures. James J. Peacock categorizes these movements into three groups: Hindu-Buddhism, Muslim, and Christian movements. For example, Budi Utomo (high endeavor) in Java and Bali sought to reestablish religious beliefs against a growing Western technology and value system that replaced traditional beliefs of Javanist-Hindu-Buddhists. As Peacock relates: "Looking to India's Rabindranath Tagore and Mohandas Gandhi as inspirations in the revival of these traditions, Budi Utomo was controlled by the aristocracy and intelligentsia and never gained a broad popular following, although it had amassed some ten thousand members within a year of its founding [1908]" (p. 527). Much more widespread, the Muslim movements ranged from Indonesia to Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

Because of the completion of the Suez Canal in 1870, many Asian Muslims were able to travel easily to Mecca in the Middle East. The reciprocal influence of modern interpretations of Islam led to the founding of the Kaum Muda (new faction). With emphasis on textual exegesis, this movement spread from Singapore to Indonesia. With this entrenchment, Christianity gained a strong foothold in the Philippines. Summarizing the complex political interconnections of religious groups, Peacock writes of the early 2000s: "In Indonesia, the Muslims have generally acted as an oppositional force complementing the government, while the Hindu-Buddhist streams have either fed into the Javanist-oriented national culture and government or provided personal fulfillment outside the governmental arena" (p. 529).


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Jay Goulding

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Reason to RetrovirusReligion - East and Southeast Asia - The Daoist Yin-yang, Three Teachings Are One, Modern China, Korea, Japan