Popular Religion in Southeast Asia

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Robert L. Winzeler
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Roman & Littlefield Publishers
    , December
     322 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Amongst surveys of religion, Southeast Asia is, I believe it fair to say, a somewhat neglected field. While regions such as India and South Asia, as well as China and East Asia, receive considerable coverage, the Southeast Asian countries often fall by the wayside. However, as this book shows, they offer fascinating and intercultural melting pots of religious traditions. Indeed, in Robert Winzeler, the reader has a sure guide to some of the intricacies and complexities found in religion around the region.

Divided into nine chapters, Popular Religion in Southeast Asia covers some issues thematically, but in the bulk of the book it treats specific case studies of issues and movements in four religions: Hinduism (chapter 3), Buddhism (chapter 4), Islam (chapter 5), and Christianity (chapter 6). In relation to each of these religious traditions, Winzeler delves into some particular issue. In relation to Hinduism, for example, he examines various forms in which that religion is practiced amongst the populace, and also raises the issue that many Indic traditions in the region have only recently come to be termed Hindu. With Buddhism, he addresses issues of magic and syncretism. Islam is considered in the Malaysian and Indonesian context, looking particularly at the indigenous practices that have characterised it in past times, and the attempts to purge or “purify” it in recent decades. As for Christianity, he addresses conversion, looking at social, political, and economic factors that have often affected the process.

The first chapter provides a general introduction to Southeast Asia, but most especially to what is meant by the term “popular religion,” and how it may appear differently from other manifestations of religious tradition and practice. The second chapter looks at the way that religion has developed in Southeast Asia, detailing historical and political factors that have shaped the current cultural and social landscape in which religions operate. After the case studies, chapter 7 turns to what Winzeler terms “The Magic of the Market,” focusing especially on various forms of belief and behavior that cross national and religious boundaries, and especially on the so-called “occult economy.” It should be noted that throughout the book, Winzeler notes the way that many practices or features of popular religious practice or belief are not necessarily strictly bound by religious identities. He calls into question some of the ways in which specific identity names are employed or claimed. The eighth chapter turns to look at a range of popular religious movements, many of which are quite fascinating in their own right, particularly the so-called “teapot cult,” one of whose symbolic items, until it was destroyed, was a two-story-high bright yellow teapot. The final chapter is a very brief conclusion summing up some key issues.

Throughout the text, Winzeler takes issue with what he sees as mistakes or misinterpretations in previous scholarship, often taking to task generalizations that have marked anthropological scholarship. It may be noted though that he himself does not really problematize the term “religion,” which has, of course, been subject to various criticisms for the way in which it shapes the discourse. Winzeler also draws on the work of other scholars, noting at the beginning that because of the range of countries and traditions covered, no one person could be an expert in them all or able to do all the required fieldwork. He does however draw on his own anthropological fieldwork in a number of places, and often looks in detail at other people’s case studies. As such, we find here quite a comprehensive survey of many different movements, providing in a single volume an accessible and useful guide and introduction to many major popular practices of Southeast Asia, as well as some colourful and idiosyncratic movements. The political and social contextualization is also well done. Of course, given the many decades and regions covered, some may object that particular to the fact that things which should have been in here are missing, or that the nuance or interpretation could be corrected. On the whole though, given the range and scope of the book, it is a very sound piece of work.

In conclusion, I would encourage scholars of religion from many different traditions and regional specializations to engage this book to see what insights can be gained from the very particular and unusual context of Southeast Asia. Popular Religion in Southeast Asia will provide students with an excellent reference to popular religiosity in this part of the world, while also raising questions about the way we traditionally see orthodox/elite and unorthodox/non-elite practices in general.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul Hedges is Associate Professor of Interreligious Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technical University, in Singapore.

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert L. Winzeler is professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. He received his AM and PhD from the University of Chicago and has done extensive long-term fieldwork in both insular and mainland Southeast Asia. His numerous books include The Peoples of Southeast Asia Today (2011) and Anthropology and Religion, Second Edition (2012).



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