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  • The Appropriation of Religion in Southeast Asia and Beyond ed. by Michel Picard
  • Kirsten W. Endres (bio)
The Appropriation of Religion in Southeast Asia and Beyond. Edited by Michel Picard. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. xi+285 pp.

This edited book presents results of a Franco-German research project that investigates how local processes of appropriating the Western concept of religion as a classificatory device have shaped or transformed indigenous cosmologies and local traditions in Southeast Asia and Melanesia. The volume provides a range of rich ethnographic case studies that—together with Michel Picard's insightful introduction—contribute new perspectives to the study of religion in the Southeast Asia-Pacific region, and, more generally, to the anthropology of religion.

Critics like Talal Asad (1993) have problematized the concept of religion as a European historical construction that reflects Christian theological interests. What most of them did not consider was that the Christians had themselves appropriated the term from the Romans and changed its original meaning quite substantially. Missionary and colonial encounters subsequently triggered similar processes of appropriation in other parts of the world, including the Southeast Asia-Pacific region. This is why the category of religion, as Picard suggests, needs to be historicized and treated as an object of study and analysis in its own right.

Southeast Asia offers a particularly fertile terrain for exploring how 'religion' became a vernacular category used to differentiate certain practices from others. The book's eight contributors are well-established sociocultural anthropologists who draw on long-term fieldwork and historical research to present a multifaceted picture of a complex subject. While the authors do not attempt to establish [End Page 207] a common framework for theorizing about the different ways by which 'religion' migrated, took root and sprouted new meanings or imposed new meanings on vernacular concepts in various parts of Southeast Asia, they provide crucial insights into local processes of 'religionization', that is, processes by which local actors negotiate, establish and maintain the boundaries between what gets categorized as 'religion' and what is classified as, for example, 'mere' belief or tradition.

Three contributions are concerned with mainland Southeast Asia and the localization of the Pali concept of sāsana, that is, the Buddha's teachings. Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière traces the evolution of the Burmese semantic field of 'religion' and argues that the Pali-derived thathana gradually came to encompass what she calls a Burmese Buddhicized 'social space', distinct from the domains of other religious doctrines (batha) or spiritual practices. In contrast, the Khmer word sāsanā and the Lao term sadsana extends to other 'world religions' such as Christianity and Islam. In local discourse, they may also denote indigenous animist or so-called Brahmanic traditions. Anne Yvonne Guillou shows how the meaning of the term has shifted in Cambodia since the colonial period, and how contemporary Buddhist monks try to delineate the religious sphere in different ways. Similar to the situation in Cambodia, the Buddhist and animist spheres in Laos—differentiated as sadsana phud (Buddhism) and sadsana phi (spirit religion)—frequently overlap with each other. Guido Sprenger uses the notion of connectivity to address the relationship between these diverging yet overlapping spheres and argues that the Lao(cized) concept of 'religion' contributes to a dichotomous—and ultimately hierarchical—differentiation between the two sadsana.

The next four contributions take the reader to the archipelagic islands of Indonesia, where 'religion' translates into the term agama in the national language. But this translation has not been a straightforward one, as Michel Picard shows in his essay. In Bali, it ultimately led to the (re)invention of Balinese ritual and cosmological tradition as 'Hinduism' (agama Hindu). Annette [End Page 208] Hornbacher accompanied a group of Balinese on their pilgrimage to the source and holy places of their 'Hindu religion' in India, which turned out to be an enriching yet puzzling experience that—paradoxically—confirmed the pilgrims' Balinese animist ontology rather than their identification with modern 'universal' Hinduism. Cécile Barraud analyses the case of Tanebar-Evav in the Southeast Moluccas, where agama Hindu has only recently been integrated into the local spectrum of religious denominations. But while islanders feel that Protestantism and...


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