- Temiar Religion 1964–2012: Enchantment, Disenchantment and Re-enchantment in Malaysia’s Uplands by Geoffrey Benjamin
Temiar Religion by Geoffrey Benjamin is an unconventional book. The material ranges from the 1960s to the 2000s, it contains Benjamin’s 1967 PhD thesis and letters between Benjamin and Edmund Leach, and it ends in the contemporary period with chapters that can stand on their own. Yet it is precisely this variety of material on Temiar religion that makes the book an insightful and compelling read. Temiar Religion not only discusses the religions and religious practices and beliefs of an Orang Asli community in Malaysia through the better part of 50 years, it is also a compilation of thinking about the sociology of religion, a history of anthropology of the Orang Asli (the general term for Malaysia’s indigenous people of which Temiar is the largest group) (p. 20), and a document that traces change in Temiar society. It is the sort of book that professors put on their required reading list for first-year undergraduate classes on anthropology, religion and/or Malaysia with the realization that it should stand in students’ bookcases at least until some of them undertake a PhD and long after. In his foreword to the book, political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott aptly describes the book as a ‘sustained, scrupulous, long-term observation and analysis’ of religions among Temiar of Malaysia (p. ix). Scott points out that Benjamin has reformulated thinking about the Orang Asli several times over: moving scholars away from thinking about the presence of different indigenous groups as due to successive migration waves (the layer cake theory) to differences brought about due to in-situ hybridization in the Malay Peninsula;1 and from understanding labels such as ‘race’ as primarily [End Page 161] biological differences to more of an indication of specific lifeways and cultural matrices.2 The book is the earlier basis of much of his later (though earlier published) work. Benjamin’s study is a thoughtful and considered study of Temiar and their religious practices and beliefs, as well as the process of studying and writing about them.
The unity of the chapters lies in the analysis of Temiar religious practices and beliefs as part of wider Malaysian society, but nonetheless readers will notice the varied tone and purpose of the chapters which illustrate writings and analyses separated by nearly 50 years of research. The book may be divided into two parts: the first part comprises the 1967 PhD thesis and associated chapters based on fieldwork in the 1960s, while the second part is scholarship based on newer ethnological fieldwork from the 1960s until 2012. The earlier section comprises detailed research on the underlying beliefs and practices of Temiar religion which reflects not only the amount of time Benjamin was able to devote to the study of Temiar religion in the 1960s, but also how much of his initial fieldwork was groundbreaking for trying to seriously understand Temiar animism as religion, not superstition. This first section also refers to the term ‘enchantment’ in the book’s subtitle, referring to Max Weber’s ideas of religious change in society which I will return to when discussing the second part of the book which corresponds to ‘disenchantment and re-enchantment’.
Benjamin’s 1967 doctoral thesis (based on fieldwork in 1964/6) (p. 41) comprises Chapters 3–8, ending with Chapter 9 which reproduces letters written to Benjamin by notable British anthropologist and Benjamin’s supervisor Edmund Leach. Chapters 3–7 on the cosmos, species, souls, and spirit mediumship (respectively) correspond to the component parts of Temiar religious beliefs which Benjamin argues link to an overall logic or conceptual system of religion in which the cosmic (Temiar ideas of a celestial axis from sunrise to sunset), mundane (everyday prohibitions and values attributed to seasonal fruits, other foods and how they link to the village and the forest), and personal levels (the emphasis on souls possessed by humans which corresponds to the opposition between...