Religions in Southeast Asia - History, Beliefs and Culture

Home to more than 650 million people, Southeast Asia is made up of eleven countries. With more than hundreds of languages spoken across Southeast Asia, the region is home to several religions. Among the religions in Southeast Asia, the largest are Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism today. Buddhism and Hinduism in Southeast Asia trace back to the 5th century with statues of Buddha and Indian Gods in the ancient temples. Followers of Islam can be found in almost every mainland country from Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia with a significant population in southern Thailand and western Burma.
 
Here is a list of a few major living religions followed across Southeast Asia-

1. Buddhism

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Buddhism is the most important religion in Southeast Asia being the second largest in this region after Islam with approximately 205 million Buddhists today. Almost 38% of the world’s Buddhist population resides in Southeast Asia. Thailand has the largest number of Buddhist populations with 95% of the people following Buddhism, whereas Brunei has the least with only 13%. 

Early Buddhism was founded in Northeast India in the 6th century BC by Siddhartha Gautama who came to be known as ‘Buddha’ (the awakened one) after his awakening or epiphany. Through his teachings, Buddha taught the 4 noble truths of life and how to fulfil them through mindfulness and concentration. 

Buddhism throughout Southeast Asia comprises two main traditions- Mahāyāna Buddhism and Theravāda Buddhism. Mahāyāna remains a relic minority in Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam due to a tenacious Chinese influence while the other countries follow the modern Theravāda Buddhism. Buddhism reached both directly from India and indirectly from Central Asia and China that took up most of the first millennium CE. It spread throughout Southeast Asia due to trade with India, China and Sri Lanka during the 1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries.

One of the earliest traditions of Buddhism in Southeast Asia was a Theravāda Mission sent by Indian Emperor Ashoka to Burma in 250 BCE. Due to humongous and continuous trade between South Asia and Southeast Asia, many people converted into Buddhism for its meaningful and appealing ideologies. Today, the order of the Buddhist Monks (sangha) established by Buddha is still flourishing throughout mainland Southeast Asia. Generally, all Buddhist males enter the sangha for a short period of time in their lives which continues to help spread and protect the Buddhist faith. Buddhist monks are not allowed to participate in politics but in Thailand and Burma, they are. 

Prominent Buddhist Spots in Southeast Asia:Borobudur Temple (Indonesia), Wat Arun (Bangkok), Angkor Wat (Cambodia), Shwedagon Pagoda (Burma), Wat Rong Khun (Thailand), Pha That Luang (Laos).

2. Islam

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Islam is the most widely practised religion in Southeast Asia with majorities in Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. With approximately 242 million Muslims i.e 42% of Southeast Asia’s population, most of them are Sunni and follow the religious law. Islam is Brunei and Malaysia’s official religion and an important religion in Indonesia with 90% of the people following it. Southern Thailand is largely Muslim along with most of Southeast Asia’s minorities.

Islam arrived in Southeast Asia around the 13th century, long after Hinduism and Buddhism. Many believed that it travelled from India via the Middle East and some debate that it was brought by Muslim Chinese traders. The religion was further spread by Muslim traders that set up colonies in Southeast Asia and Sufi orders.

Southeast Asia possesses a great Islamic diversity due to the mixed impact of the other pre-existing religions. Therefore, Islam followed in these countries is softer and mystical. It largely depended on the religious texts and translations that were available and hence Islam was formed as a multi-faceted and multi-layered religion that differed throughout countries.

What still keeps Islam alive and going in Southeast Asia are the traditional beliefs reinforced in the community and the schools that keep these beliefs active amongst the local population. 

Prominent Mosques in Southeast Asia:Sultan Mosque (Singapore), Istiqlal Mosque (Indonesia), Omar Ali Saifuddein Mosque (Brunei), National Mosque of Malaysia, Masjid Putra (Malaysia)

3. Hinduism 

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Considered as one of the oldest religions in the world dating back to the 2nd millennium BC, Hinduism originated in ancient India. Around the 1st-5th century, Hinduism was spread across Southeast Asia by Brahman traders and priests from India and Nepal. The Hindu civilizations largely influenced the languages, scripts, architecture, literature and beliefs and artistic aspects of these nations. Today, apart from the Indian migrants, the only people practising Hinduism are the Balinese, Tenggerese minorities in Indonesia and the Cham minorities in Cambodia and Vietnam.

Hinduism was the state religion for many Southeast Asian countries from the 5th-14th century. During this time, Mahayana Buddhism coexisted with Hinduism in many of the regions. Subsequently, Hinduism was replaced by Buddhism after the 14th century in no time, except for a few regions like Bali in Indonesia. 

Although with only few Hindus left in Southeast Asia today, the influence of the legendary scripts of Mahabharata and Ramayana are still found in their great literacy. Many Southeast Asian countries adopted these texts and adapted them into their own cultures. Traces of Hinduism still remain gleaming at the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia and Besakih Temple in Bali, Indonesia. 

Famous Hindu Temples across Southeast Asia: Prambanan Temple (Indonesia), Sri Senpaga Vinayagar Temple (Singapore), Baphuon Temple (Cambodia), Ponagar Tower (Vietnam), Phnom Bakheng (Cambodia).

4. Animism

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Animism is practised almost all over Southeast Asia with a varied belief system that is associated with the regional cultures and traditions. Over the past few decades, the concept of Animism has moved from colonial aspects to humanities and social sciences. Animism encircles the belief that animals, plants, natural phenomena and sacred places possess supernatural power. Animism emphasizes on each soul and its distinctive spirit. 

During the early centuries when Hinduism and Buddhism were at their peak, many locals were attracted towards the eccentric attributes of Animism. Spirits were properly propitiated before harvest or if somebody had gotten ill. These Animist Spirits were often designated homes like a shrine or a building so that people would easily consult them during their hardships or important events. The natural phenomena like the sun, moon, earthquakes or storms were also said to possess spirits of uncertainty in them. 

It is believed that Animism existed even before the 9th century and was practised all over Southeast Asia from Burma to Laos to Cambodia. The local communities around Angkor Wat still believe that the remains have a powerful guardian spirit which has the potency to heal illness and other social disputes. In Thailand, you will come across small shrines outside buildings, on pedestrians and even beside trees. The local people living around make sure to offer flowers and food to the shrine everyday.

Today, even though a majority of the population has converted into Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, Animism still remains a hybrid culture and is largely practised.

5. Christianity

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Christianity predominantly exists in Vietnam, Philippines and East Timor while remaining a minority in the other Southeast Asian countries. About 85% of Philipinos and 90% of Timorese are Roman Catholics. Christianity was spread throughout mainland Southeast Asia by the French missionaries in Vietnam, Spaniards in East Timor and the arrival of Portuguese Dominican Friars in the region. The Filipinos were easily convinced by the Spaniards to convert into Christianity because it offered a more structured belief system with no centralized power. 

Churches and Cathedrals in Southeast Asia:Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral (Vietnam), Christ Church Melaka (Malaysia), Nha Toh Nui (Vietnam), Cathedral of Immaculate Conception (Thailand), Daraga Church (Philippines).

6. Confucianism

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Confucianism is a simple way of life described by a tradition, philosophy and religion that further describes the system of thought and behaviour. It emphasizes harmony, stability and authority with no priesthood or formal ritual. Confucianism developed from a Chinese philosopher’s teachings called the ‘Thousand Schools of Thoughts’ which flourished from the 6th century to 221 BC in China. 

When most of mainland Southeast Asia was being influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism, the Chinese culture and beliefs were widely spreading across Vietnam. Confucianism is still a part of Vietnamese and Singaporean culture.

7. Taoism 

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Taoism believes in living in harmony with the ‘Tao’. Tao philosophically means the path/way. Taoist beliefs emphasized spontaneity, genuineness, health, immortality and Omni-potentiality. The four main principles of Taoism are Simplicity, Going with the Flow, Letting Go and Harmony. It is said that these 4 principles are enough to help you navigate life.

Considering that Taoism doesn't make any stringent division between the body and the soul, it concedes physical actions as its spirituality. Taoist texts and scripts preach the importance of keeping the body in pure form through martial arts, meditation, breathing and diet. 

As of the 20th century, about 11% of the Singaporeans follow Taoism with 14.4% of the Chinese Singaporeans identifying as Taoists. In Malaysia, around 10% of the population follow this Chinese folk religion. Today, Taoism has become a minority across the world with only 12 million people following it from Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and China.


When digging deeper, you are likely to find many more cultural beliefs and sects of smaller religions being followed in Southeast Asia. It is interesting to study the history and development of the religions of Southeast Asia because they have had a major impact on the traditions and food habits of each nation in this region. 

This post was published by Shivani Asudkar

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