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Engaging the Spirit World

Engaging the Spirit World: Popular Beliefs and Practices in Modern Southeast Asia

Kirsten W. Endres
Andrea Lauser
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 238
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  • Book Info
    Engaging the Spirit World
    Book Description:

    In many parts of the contemporary world, spirit beliefs and practices have taken on a pivotal role in addressing the discontinuities and uncertainties of modern life. The myriad ways in which devotees engage the spirit world show the tremendous creative potential of these practices and their innate adaptability to changing times and circumstances. Through in-depth anthropological case studies from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, the contributors to this book investigate the role and impact of different social, political, and economic dynamics in the reconfiguration of local spirit worlds in modern Southeast Asia. Their findings contribute to the re-enchantment debate by revealing that the "spirited modernities" that have emerged in the process not only embody a distinct feature of the contemporary moment, but also invite a critical rethinking of the concept of modernity itself.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-359-4
    Subjects: Anthropology, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
    Andrea Lauser and Kirsten W. Endres
  5. Introduction Multivocal Arenas of Modern Enchantment in Southeast Asia
    (pp. 1-18)
    Kirsten W. Endres and Andrea Lauser

    Spirits have haunted the human imagination since times immemorial. Conceptualized in countless human and non-human forms, they may appear as the disembodied souls of the dead, as fiery demons with drooling fangs, as seductive heavenly fairies, or as uncanny creatures that can assume any shape. They may be envisioned as an anonymous mass of hungry ghosts or spirit soldiers, or as clearly defined personalities with noble moral qualities.¹ Some are identified as ancestral beings, mythological heroes, or saintly guardians. Spiritual entities inhabit the landscape, including forests, fields, rivers, and mountains; they reside at the margins of human habitation, in abandoned...

  6. 1 Can Things Reach the Dead? The Ontological Status of Objects and the Study of Lao Buddhist Rituals for the Spirits of the Deceased
    (pp. 19-41)
    Patrice Ladwig

    During my fieldwork in one of the Buddhist monasteries in Vientiane,¹ I witnessed several cases of lay people coming to a monk and handing him an object. Often it was an umbrella, a shirt, a cooking pot or another item of everyday use. I was told that most of these lay people had had a dream in which one of their deceased kin appeared. Often the deceased person was lacking something in this dream. In the understanding of the lay person, the monk then ritually “transferred” the object to the deceased. The ritual transfer of objects to the spirits of...

  7. 2 Spirited Warriors: Conspiracy and Protection on Lombok
    (pp. 42-61)
    Kari Telle

    Returning to the island of Lombok in 2001, I could not fail to notice that a security post had been put up next to Pura Meru, the largest Hindu temple in Cakranegara, the island’s commercial centre. With its brightly painted façade made up of red, black, and white stripes, ceremonial umbrellas, and engraved golden plaques, the headquarters of Dharma Wisesa, a Hindu-oriented civilian security group, stood out from the rather drab urban surroundings. Bold letters made plain that the converted storefront served as a “command centre” (pos komando pusat). Waving above the entrance was a flag depicting Siwa, the main...

  8. 3 From the Mystical to the Molecular: Modernity, MartiaL Arts, and Agency in Java
    (pp. 62-84)
    Lee Wilson

    Perhaps the only thing that is constant about the notion of modernity is the disagreement and debate prompted by attempts to define the term in social analysis. For some, modernity is a clearly locatable moment in human history, an epochal transformation marked by faith in the ability to bring nature to heal, industrialization, capitalist development, and the dominance of the institutions of the nationstate (e.g., Giddens and Pierson 1998: 94). Others, arguing for the consideration of “multiple modernities,” have voiced concerns over engagement with the “cultural programme of modernity,” the implicit bias shown in how this has transpired in the...

  9. 4 Changing Spirit Identities: Rethinking the Four Palaces’ Spirit Representations in Northern Vietnam
    (pp. 85-102)
    Claire Chauvet

    In the temple of the Five Mandarins in Hanoi, Mrs Bình is sitting in front of an altar covered with offerings—flowers, incense sticks, cookies, and instant noodles—dedicated to a large pantheon of spirits, called the Four Palaces spirits (thánh Tứ Phủ).¹ She wears a Vietnamese medium’s ceremonial dress: a long white tunic, white trousers, and a red turban on her head. She is now possessed by the Third Mandarin of the Water Palace (Quan Tam Phủ), a popular spirit of the pantheon.² Dressed according to common representations of this figure, she performs some dance steps specific to the...

  10. 5 Gods, Gifts, Markets, and Superstition: Spirited Consumption from Korea to Vietnam
    (pp. 103-120)
    Laurel Kendall

    The trajectory for this paper might begin in a Korean shaman’s shrine in 1991 when a greedy god, enticed by my offering of Chivas Regal, threatened to become intoxicated on the whiskey and derail the entire ritual. He also ordered me to provide his shaman with a bottle of Chivas whenever I visit Korea, an obligation that I have since honored such that the Chivas bottle in the shrine has become a personal symbol of my longstanding relationship with this particular shaman and her patron deity (Kendall 2008, 2009: 162–66). Or it might begin even earlier, in the summer...

  11. 6 Contests of Commemoration: Virgin War Martyrs, State Memorials, and the Invocation of the Spirit World in Contemporary Vietnam
    (pp. 121-143)
    Kirsten W. Endres and Andrea Lauser

    It is five o’clock in the morning of a mid November day. It is still dark and a gentle breeze rustles the trees in the woods behind the ten graves. They hold the remains of ten young women who were tragically killed in one single bombing at Ðồng Lộc Junction, one of the most violent battlefields on the Ho Chi Minh trail during what the Vietnamese call the American War.¹ Hushed voices fill the eerie space of the memorial. The graves are guarded by a three-dimensional monument reminiscent of a Vietnamese temple gate. Smoke billows from the huge bronze incense...

  12. 7 Spirit Cults and Construction Sites: Trans-ethnic Popular Religion and Keramat Symbolism in Contemporary Malaysia
    (pp. 144-162)
    Beng-Lan Goh

    The brief economic bubble of the early 1990s ushered in a period of relative prosperity and heightened national reimagining in Malaysia as the country joined the ranks of the dragons of the Asia-Pacific economic rim. As the Malaysian economy prospered with its increasing integration into the global market, economic globalization quickly became a nationalist goal. This was marked by the launch of the grandiose National Vision 2020 by the then prime minister Mahathir Mohammad, which aimed to make Malaysia a fully industrialized country by the year 2020.

    This new nationalist vision made economic liberalization and cultural reinvention imperative. Capital controls...

  13. 8 Being a Spirit Medium in Contemporary Burma
    (pp. 163-183)
    Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière

    The Taungbyon Brothers are among the most popular spirits belonging to the pantheon of the Burmese spirit possession cult. They are the tutelary spirits of Taungbyon, a village in central Burma, north of Mandalay, where a festival is celebrated in homage to them every August. In 2007, I was returning to Taungbyon after a long absence when I saw Myat Lay Wadi Nwe.¹ I could not help but be captivated by her outstanding allure, dressed in surprisingly luxurious and brownyogicattire,² her hair neatly tied in a topknot, her bright face graced by a large smile. She was sitting...

  14. 9 Reconfiguring Manora Rongkru: Ancestor Worship and Spirit Possession in Southern Thailand
    (pp. 184-199)
    Alexander Horstmann

    Religion in Thailand today is characterized by contradiction: while conventional Theravada Buddhism seems to have lost much appeal with the younger generation, Buddhism is also being revived in new forms. The worship of Buddhist saints, the booming cult of Buddhist amulets, and the presence of “magic monks” show that a reconfigured Buddhism is able to thrive in particular niches in modern urban society (Jackson 1999; Taylor 1999, 2008; Kitiarsa 2005b). While the capitalist economy and the growing nation-state have weakened ancestral traditions and traditional authority in rural areas, the same forces have also propelled the dramatic expansion in, and presence...

  15. 10 The Horror of the Modern: Violation, Violence, and Rampaging Urban Youths in Contemporary Thai Ghost Films
    (pp. 200-220)
    Pattana Kitiarsa

    The uncanny haunting by spirits of socially marginalized figures, the excessive display of violation and violence, and the rampaging of urban youth have emerged as notable features in Thai horror films over the past ten years.¹ Take the following three short films as examples.² The first,Yan Sang Tai/Tit for Tat(2008), portrays the chaotic phenomenon of inter-school quarrels and fights among vocational college students in cosmopolitan Bangkok and other urban centers around the country. Resulting violence and death are regularly reported by the national media. This filmic story reveals how a young, socially marginalized technicalcollege student, whose father works...

  16. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 221-224)
  17. Index
    (pp. 225-234)