Religious relations In Asia
Location G
Date and Time 8th December, 2008 at 13:30


Christine Dureau (University of Auckland)
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Short Abstract

This panel is concerned with religious practices in Asia. It considers hegemonic and subversive uses of religious rituals; the appropriation of myths, spiritual knowledge and ancestral authority; and the use of religion to stablise cultural identity in a fast-changing social and economic environment.

Long Abstract

This panel is concerned with religious practices in Asia. It considers hegemonic and subversive uses of religious rituals; the appropriation of myths, spiritual knowledge and ancestral authority; and the use of religion to stablise cultural identity in a fast-changing social and economic environment.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Appropriating Spiritual Guardianship in the Periphery: Bugis Migrants' Reconceptualisation of Lindu Locality (Central Sulawesi, Indonesia)

Author: Gregory Acciaioli (University of Western Australia)

Short Abstract

Bugis migrants to the Lindu plain in Central Sulawesi refashion the hierarchy of guardian spirits and custodianship of local rituals as a strategy of cultural appropriation, complementing economic and political dominance, in an attempt to impose not only local domination but local hegemony.


Analyses of the position of Bugis migrants in local communities have usually stressed their achievement of economic success, involving subordinating members of host societies in patron-client hierarchies and marketing networks in the localities they come to occupy. However, such a focus obscures other cultural means by which Bugis have sought to exercise their dominance. As migrants throughout the Indonesian archipelago, Bugis bill themselves as agents of progress, carriers and disseminators of national ideologies and even transnational orientations. While they have often served as innovators in the introduction of national development programs (e.g. rice intensification) in some new locales and established mosques and prayer houses as venues for the maintenance of their own Islam and its dissemination to others in the region, they have also sought to transform local traditions. This paper examines the process of how Bugis migrants to the Lindu plain of Central Sulawesi have used the conceptualisations of hierarchy and genealogy they have brought from South Sulawesi to refashion the beliefs and traditions of the indigenous Lindu people among whom they have settled and have attempted to establish themselves as the proper intermediaries to the local spirit world in a process of attempted cultural appropriation. Such a strategy parallels their roles as political brokers to government officials and as economic mediators through intermediate marketing, demonstrating how Bugis migrants use spiritual as well as political and economic means in a multimodal hegemonising strategy to gain dominance in areas of settlement.

Disowning Creative Authority in the Production of Syncretic Cosmogonic Myths in Sikka, Eastern Indonesia

Author: David Butterworth (ANU)

Short Abstract

Sikkanese ritual experts do not claim personal authorship of origin myths, rather, they attribute their knowledge and skill in reciting these myths to divine inspiration. When transformations of myths arise through syntheses of indigenous and Catholic cosmology human agency is rejected and supernatural authority is appropriated.


The Sikkanese of eastern Indonesia describe the origins of their world with reference to indigenous and Catholic cosmogony. Although a distinct corpus of mythology can be identified for each tradition, Sikkanese ritualists are increasingly synthesizing the two. These syncretic forms combine thematic and stylistic elements from each tradition, and are viewed locally as a unification and legitimatization of indigenous and Catholic world-views. However, in the production of these myths the ritualists distance themselves from personal authorship. Instead, ritualists assert that new knowledge is a gift from supernatural beings given in dreams and visions.

Over seven consecutive nights in 1993 Klemens Hago, a senior Sikkanese ritualist, dreamt of a 'truth' of the origin of the world. This truth is characterized by typical indigenous themes, such as the segmentation of an original unity, and is recited for the most part using the poetry of canonical parallelism. The myth also speaks of Adam and Eve, the tree of knowledge, and humanity's fall from grace. Hago does not claim to have created or own this version of the origin of the world, rather he positions himself as a messenger of spiritual powers.

As Hago disowns authorship of the new myth he promotes the myth's legitimacy within the wider religious context. Hago appropriates the authority of spiritual beings that is established throughout a complex of other religious practices, such as indigenous and Catholic rituals. The sanctity (i.e., religious truth) of Hago's recitations is enhanced by the act of disowning personal authorship of the syncretic myth.

Of dragons and demonesses: Tibetan oral myths recast as history

Author: Gillian Tan (Deakin University)

Short Abstract

From one perspective, history is an appropriation of the past retold within a particular cultural order. It draws from archival sources and focuses on great persons. This paper uses “the ethnographic present” to capture the oral transmissions of Tibetan myths and legends, showing how common persons may re-appropriate the past into their own present.


In his Apologies to Thucydides, Sahlins critiques approaches to history that do not acknowledge that culture and its differences matter. The historian, in her quest for the definitive narrative of a momentous occasion, appropriates the past by creating its written legacy in the present. She chooses what is collectively remembered and recorded.

Tibet's historical narrative is heavily contested between the Tibetan government-in-exile and the Chinese Communist Party. Interpretations of momentous events and key decisions influence present-day claims on the legitimate ownership of Tibet. Reaching back into Tibet's long and variegated history, where past events signify less on the present conflict, another concern remains: Tibetan history focuses mainly on divine incarnates, religious syntheses and fortune-turning events, leaving no room for "history from below".

The paper examines Tibetan culture through the oral accounts of myths and legends among people who are neither great nor powerful. It engages the ethnographic present and seeks to identify those stories that continue to circulate among local Tibetans. The legend of Ling Gesar, a mythical hero modeled on a historical figure, is an example of those stories that are told to Tibetans as children and live in their hearts and imaginations to be altered and changed in the re-telling. Similar stories of dragons in lakes and demonesses in caves are found in local historicity.

The continued transmission of myths and legends shows that common persons create a history that is different from the written legacy and demonstrates the importance of understanding history through ethnography, and vice-versa.

Shifting Spaces: An Ethnographic Account of a House Church in Shanghai, China

Author: Sin Wen Lau (University of Otago)

Short Abstract

In this paper, I focus on the processes through which the private house of a hyper mobile overseas Chinese family is transformed into a house church. In doing so, I explore how religion enables a sense of stability in a state of high mobility.


This paper explores how religion enables a sense of stability in a state of high mobility. I examine the processes through which place is centered at a point of tension where individual desires, state projects of development interlocking a global capitalist system and a treacherous religious landscape converge. Ethnographically, I investigate how and why the private home of a hyper mobile family is transformed into a house church and what it means for them. I argue that it is by inhabiting a house suspended in motion that moving families find stability, a groundedness made real through faith. The data discussed in this paper is based on eighteen months of fieldwork within an unofficial Christian network operating in the Chinese city of Shanghai. The Christians I discuss are overseas Chinese who were drawn to China in the reform period for economic reasons and viewed by the Chinese state as foreigners.

The Appropriation of Biblical Knowledge in Traditional Ritual Format among the Rotenese of Eastern Indonesia

Author: James Fox (Australian National University)

Short Abstract

The ancestral knowledge of origins among the Rotenese is recounted in a ritual language based on canonical parallelism. Increasingly Christians rely on Genesis as the source of their knowledge of origins; they retell Biblical accounts in new parallel language. This paper will examine these linguistic creations and their creative contexts.


Among the Rotenese, ancestral knowledge of origins is recounted orally in ritual compositions based on the strict pairing of words. These ritual language compositions are concerned with the beginnings of cultural objects such as the origin of fire and cooking, of the house, its various components and the tools used in its construction, of weaving and dyeing, of rice and millet and of various prominent features of the landscape. Much of this knowledge is also embodied in long mortuary chants.

This traditional knowledge has been preserved even as the Rotenese have converted to Christianity, a conversion that began in the early 18th century with the introduction of the Malay Bible. To this day, Malay - Indonesian - remains the principle vehicle for the scriptural knowledge. Although ritual language is also used in church services and Christian preaching, there has been, in most parts of Rote, an acceptance of a conventional separation between Christian and ancestral ideas of origin.

Increasingly, particularly in east Rote, there has been a tendency to blur this conventional separation of channels of knowledge and to concentrate on the 'retelling' of scriptural knowledge in ritual language format. This paper examines this appropriation of Biblical knowledge in the retelling of origins in Genesis.

Owning religion in Banyuwangi: NU Islam and Beatty’s Varieties of Javanese Religion

Author: Nicholas Herriman (La Trobe University)

Short Abstract

Observing animist/mystical Islam alongside traditional Islam in his fieldwork village, Bayu, Beatty implies that mystical Islam is widespread in Banyuwangi district. I suggest that a traditional, orthodox form of Islam known as “Islam NU” is widespread.


Situated in far-east Java, Banyuwangi is a district where more than 95% of the population professes Islam. Andrew Beatty’s Varieties of Javanese Religion is based on ethnography in Banyuwangi’s Bayu village. Beatty describes Bayu’s Islam as having a ‘purer’ version and an animist/mystical version. He writes ‘villages like Bayu…make up well over half of [Banyuwangi] district’ (124). I provide four objections to this generalisation. First, during one year’s fieldwork in Banyuwangi, I visited and interviewed people in dozens of the 167+ villages in Banyuwangi, and found evidence of Beatty’s mystical version only in Bayu village. Related to this is a second objection. Bayu is unique—it was established as a tourist destination by the district government with the intention of promoting and preserving its unique cultural characteristics. Third, over the past decades a relative decline in mystical/animist beliefs might have resulted from Muslim revitalisation (dakwah), state education, commercialisation, increased communications, and the relative strength of orthodox Islamic organisations, both modernist (Muhammadiyah) and traditionalist (Nahdlatul Ulama or NU). Fourth, in villages I visited, Islam is largely traditional and orthodox, emphasising ritual meals, preaching, magic, and the role of Islamic scholars. My research participants associated their traditional orthodox religious culture with the NU, referring to ‘their’ Islam as ‘NU Islam’. A major contribution to studies religion in Java, Beatty’s work might nevertheless tell us more about the exceptional type of Islam in isolated mountain villages in Java, rather than Islam in Banyuwangi.