Southeast Asia is a geographically expansive and populous region characterized by fascinating social and cultural variation. Particularly striking to the outside observer is the region’s ethnic and religious diversity. The majority of the countries in this region are home to dozens of different ethnic groups (and in some cases, hundreds), many with their own distinct languages, cultures, and styles of dress. Many of these groups have their own systems of religious belief and practice as well. Groups living in highland areas tend to follow religions involving animistic beliefs and practices, which are based on the idea that spiritual or supernatural powers organize and animate the natural world or material universe. In animistic traditions, plants, animals, and other natural phenomena (mountains, streams, etc.) are assumed to have souls or to be inhabited by spirits. In animistic societies, certain people are believed to have personal qualities or special skills that enable them to communicate with spirits. They may be shamans who go into trance if possessed by spirits, undertake mystical journeys to the world(s) inhabited by spirits, or both. Shamans are ritual specialists, this being an umbrella term that refers to people who specialize in ritual practices of one sort or another and thus includes spirit mediums (like Raseh, from the village of Mentu Tapuh in Sarawak, East Malaysia, who recounts the epic poem, “The Story of Kichapi”), diviners, magicians, sorcerers, witches, and priests.
In contrast to their up-country brethren, people living in lowland areas, where the vast majority of Southeast Asians reside, tend to adhere to one or another of the World Religions (also known as Universal or Great Religions) such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, or Christianity. In most instances, however, their beliefs and practices incorporate animist and/or other traditions as well and are, thus, examples of syncretic religions (religions that incorporate beliefs and practices from two or more distinct traditions). The doctrines of World Religions are more formal, more systematic, more abstract, and “better able to travel” in the sense that, unlike their animistic counterparts, they are not tied to particular locales.
Some of the World Religions, such as Christianity and Islam, are monotheistic (premised on a belief in a single God); others, like Hinduism, are often described as polytheistic (or pantheistic) because believers orient themselves toward more than one deity (or different deities that are held to be manifestations of a single supreme being or force). Other World Religions, like Buddhism, deny the idea of god altogether. For example, Buddha, who was born in India in the sixth century BCE and proceeded to found the religion that spread throughout mainland Southeast Asia, and beyond, insisted that he was not divine and rejected the notion that deities or supernatural spirits of any sort exist.
Despite orthodox views on these matters, most Buddhists in Southeast Asia believe in the existence of spirits (known as pi in Thai, and asnat in Burmese) and do in fact make periodic offerings—of flowers, fruit, eggs, tobacco, etc.—to them in order to help insure their assistance and good will. Most Muslims in Southeast Asia also believe in spirits (known by the Arabic-origin word jinn, which is the source of the English-language term “genie”), though at present they are less inclined than Buddhists to seek out their assistance through offerings or sacrifices.
While Southeast Asia’s Buddhist populations tend to be found primarily in lowland areas of mainland countries (Burma, Thailand, Laos,Cambodia, and Vietnam), Muslims live mostly in lowland regions of island Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and the southern Philippines). Muslims make up the vast majority (roughly 88 percent) of the population of Indonesia, which is home to over 234,000,000 people and is by far the most populous Muslim nation in the world. The two other Muslim-majority nations in Southeast Asia are Malaysia and Brunei. About 55 percent of Malaysia’s population of 25,000,000 is Malay Muslim (most of the others are either Chinese who adhere to religious traditions combining Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, or Indians who practice Hinduism, Sikhism, or Christianity). Brunei, a tiny country of less than half a million people, is roughly 67 percent Malay Muslim. All of the other countries in Southeast Asia have Muslim minorities: Muslims make up about 16 percent of Singapore’s population and about 7 percent of the Philippines’; elsewhere they constitute less than 5 percent of the total population.
Despite Southeast Asia’s rich ethnic and cultural diversity, there are shared values throughout the region. Many of these shared values inform family life, marriage, and divorce.