Religion in Cambodia - Spiritual Richness and a Melting Pot of Beliefs

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Pertaining to the fact that Buddhism is Cambodia’s state religion, the majority of the country’s population (almost 98%) are practitioners of Theravada Buddhism. Nevertheless, the state holds no rights over the religious beliefs of any community. Every individual is free to openly practise their religion with complete tolerance and acceptance. Albeit during the late 20th century, the Khmer Rouge regime was not tolerant of any religion, in the present day, Cambodia is a very spiritually rich country. From Buddhism to Animism (collectively known as Cambodian Buddhism), they have it all.

Have a look at the country’s diverse religions here:

1. Buddhism

Buddha Temple in Cambodia (Source)

Buddhism was introduced in Cambodia as early as the 5th century AD, maybe even earlier. As the culture progressed, Theravada Buddhism was coined as the state's religion in the 13th century. The only period where Buddhism was not accepted was the Khmer Rouge regime between 1976 to 1993, after which Buddhism was reinstated as the state's religion.

The practitioners of this religion are known as monks. They live in monasteries, or 'wats' (as known in Cambodia) where they have up to 227 rules to adhere to and where they meditate, eat and learn their religion. One of the beliefs of Theravada Buddhism is to "abstain from all kinds of evil, to accumulate all that is good and to purify their mind". It is said that every individual must find their path to enlightenment- the teachings are just an indication. The monks can be visited in various wats around the country.

The monks are a major part of Cambodian society. Along with being a part of some ceremonies like birth, death, weddings, etc., they are also a way of people's connection to religion. Case in point, they walk in the streets in the morning for a ritual called alm-giving, where people give them alms, and the monks bless them in return. Some of the Buddhist rituals in Cambodia are influenced by Hinduism, as explained further.

2. Hinduism

Brahma Statue at Angkor Wat (Source)

Hinduism is the oldest religion of Cambodia, with its origin in the country dated between 100 BC and 500AD. It was prevalent in the nation before Buddhism, and its deep roots still hold their ground in their traditions. It was established during the Kingdom of Funan and was the main religion during the Khmer Empire. Although the influence of this religion started to decline after the introduction of Buddhism in the country (from Sri Lanka), it is not lost. Cambodia is the home to the largest Hindu temples in the world- Bayon and Angkor Wat.

The famous Angkor Wat is a temple dedicated to Brahma, and Hindu incarnations can still be seen on various walls across the temple, indicating the roots of the religion. The Royal Palace and the National Museum of Cambodia are the main sights to visit for a vivid experience of the culture.

3. Islam

Mosque in Phnom Penh (Source)

Islam is practised by the Cham and Malay minorities. Their number in the nation decreased dramatically during the Khmer Regime and still has not recovered to the previous strength. The Cham and Malay populations are concentrated along rivers in villages like Kampong Cham, Kampot, Battambang, etc. The traditional beliefs of Cham are the same as in Islam worldwide. In contrast to the 100 mosques present in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge, there are merely two mosques present across the nation.

These minorities have had their share of discrimination by various groups. There is no government rule against them, but the religious acceptance, in general, is a bit rocky.

4. Christianity

Altar of a Roman Catholic Church, Cambodia (Source)

Like any other religion thriving in Cambodia in the 21st century, Christianity also had a tough start. Out of the 2-3 percent Christians in the country, only 0.5 percent are Roman Catholics. The protestants have grown and dominated the country’s Christian roots since the 1990s. Nevertheless, no type is discriminated against. There are up to 10 prominent churches in Cambodia that can be a part of your itinerary.

As with other religions, Christianity also slowed down during the Khmer Regime and gained momentum after. It is a minority community, and the people are still trying to settle their ground in the nation. Christianity is what you would call an emerging religion in Cambodia.

5. Animist and Indigenous Beliefs

Tribals in the countryside (Source)

Animism is based on a belief system rather than a religion. It is believed that everything has a spirit, and the spirit needs to be tendered to whenever any assistance is needed. Case in point, they worship the Arak Ghree, the tree spirit, before chopping down any wood. This belief system is mainly prevalent in tribal Northeast Cambodia and is also one of the most established beliefs in the nation. They believe that there are various spirits in the river, mountains, soil, plants, etc.- some are kind and benevolent, and others are not to be meddled with. Sometimes, animal sacrifice is considered as a giving to the spirits in exchange for any request or use.

Other minor religions in Cambodia

1. Baháʼí Faith

Baháʼí Faith is a fairly new religion in Cambodia, first introduced in 1920. This faith teaches that God is beyond the human physical experience and can only be known through lives and teachings. It also says that the sole purpose of a human is to know and love God in its entirety. This religion is seen as progressive and has had good growth in the city of Battambang. There is also a Special Assembly in Phnom Penh that can be visited.

2. Judaism

Cambodia has a small Jewish community in the Tramoung Chrum village. They have a Chabad House and a mosque built by an American-Jewish family known as the Lightmans. The Lightmans found this village in 2003 as a part of their education project and since then have helped to develop it tremendously. They also established a foundation known as the Harpswell Foundation.

The religions in Cambodia are well-established and accepted. There are tons of holy sites that can be visited here, especially in Siem Reap, which is the home of the Angkor Ruins. The country is very spiritually rich. 

This post was published by Pranjali Jain

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