Is Ancestor veneration the most universal of all world religions? A critique of modernist cosmological bias
Research by anthropologists engaged with the Comparative Austronesia Project (Australian National University) has amassed an enormous data set for ethnological comparison between the religions of Austronesian-speaking societies, a language group to which nearly all Indonesian societies also belong. Comparative analysis reveals that ancestor veneration is a key-shared feature among “Austronesian” religious cosmologies; a feature that also resonates strongly with the ancestor-focused religions characteristic of East Asia. Characteristically, the religions of Austronesian-speaking societies focus on the core idea of a sacred time and place of ancestral origin and the continuous flow of life that is issuing forth from this source. Present-day individuals connect with the place and time of origin though ritual acts of retracing a historical path of migration to its source.
What can this seemingly exotic notion of a flow of life reveal about the human condition writ large? Is it merely a curiosity of the ethnographic record of this region, a traditional religious insight forgotten even by many of the people whose traditional religion this is, but who have come under the influence of so-called world religions? Or is there something of great importance to be learnt from the Austronesian approach to life?
Such questions have remained unasked until now, I argue, because a systematic cosmological bias within western thought has largely prevented us from taking Ancestor Religion and other forms of “traditional knowledge” seriously as an alternative truth claim. While I have discussed elsewhere the significance of Ancestor Religion in reference to my own research in highland Bali, I will attempt in this paper to remove this bias by its roots. I do so by contrasting two modes of thought: the “incremental dualism” of precedence characteristic of Austronesian cultures and their Ancestor Religions, and the “transcendental dualism” of mind and matter that has been a central theme within the cultural history of Western European thought. I argue for a deeper appreciation of Ancestor Religion as the oldest and most pervasive of all world religions.
Austin, James. 1998. Zen and the brain; Toward an understanding of meditation and consciousness. New York: MIT Press.
Bakker, Freek L. 1993. The struggle of the Hindu Balinese intellectuals; Developments in modern Hindu thinking in independent Indonesia. Amsterdam: VU Press.
Bateson, Gregory. 1958. Naven. Stanford: Stanford University Press. [First published 1936.]
Bellwood, Peter, James J. Fox, and Darrell Tryon (eds). 1995. The Austronesians; Historical and comparative perspectives. Canberra: The Australian National University. [Comparative Austronesia Project.]
Campbell, Joseph. 1949. The hero with a thousand faces. New York: Pantheon Books. [Bollingen Series No. 17.]
Chalmers, Ian. 2006. Indonesia; An introduction to contemporary traditions. South Melbourne, New York: Oxford University Press.
De Josselin de Jong, J.P.B. 1977. “The Malay archipelago as a field of ethnological study”, in: P.E. de Josselin de Jong (ed.), Structural anthropology in the Netherlands, pp. 164–182. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff. [KITLV Translation Series, first published in 1935.]
Descola, Phillipe. 1996. The spears of twilight; Life and death in the Amazon jungle. London: Harper Collins.
Donahue, Mark and Tim Denham. 2010. “Farming and language in island Southeast Asia; Reframing Austronesian history”, Current Anthropology 51(2): 223–256.
Fortes, Meyer. 1965. “Some reflections on ancestor worship in Africa”, in: M. Fortes and G. Dieterlen (eds), African systems of thought, pp. 122–142. London: Oxford University Press.
Fox, James J. 1980. The flow of life; Essays on Eastern Indonesia. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press.
Fox, James J. 1996. “Introduction”, in: J. Fox and C. Sathers (eds), Origins, ancestry and alliance; Explorations in Austronesian ethnography, pp. 1–17. Canberra: ANU Press.
Freud, Sigmund. 1965. The interpretation of dreams. New York: Avon Books.
Geertz, Clifford. 1980. Negara; The theatre state in nineteenth-century Bali. Princeton (N.J.): Princeton University Press.
Gluckman, Max. 1937. “Mortuary customs and the belief in survival after death among the South-Eastern Bantu”, Bantu Studies Vol. 9(2): 117–136.
Hefner, Robert. 1999. “Islam and nation in the Post-Suharto Era”, in: Adam Schwarz and Jonathan Paris (eds), The politics of Post-Suharto Indonesia, pp. 40–72. New York: Council of Foreign Relations Press.
Hosen, Nadirsyah. 2005. “Religion and the Indonesian constitution; A recent debate”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 36(3): 419–440.
Hunt, Morton. 1982. The universe within; A new science explores the human mind. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Jablonka, E., M.J. Lamb, and M. Lachmann. 1992. “Evidence, mechanisms, and models for the inheritance of acquired characteristics”, Journal of Theoretical Biology 158(2): 245–268.
James, William. 2008. The varieties of religious experience. London: Folio Society. [First published in 1902.]
Jung, Carl G. 1933. Modern man in search of a soul. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanowich.
Jung, Carl G. 1980. The archetypes and the collective unconscious. Princeton: Princeton University Press. [Bollingen Series XX, Vol. 9.]
Jung, Carl G. 1984. Psychology and western religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Koepping, Klaus-Peter. 1983. Adolf Bastian and the psychic unity of mankind; The foundations of anthropology in nineteenth century Germany. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press.
Lewis, E. Douglas. 1988. People of the source; The social and ceremonial order of Tana Wai Brama on Flores. Dordrecht: Foris Publications.
Lewis, E. Douglas. 2009. Untitled work presented at the History of Christianity in Indonesia Conference, Yarra Theological Union, Melbourne, 7–8 August.
Macpherson, C. 1963. The political theory of possessive individualism. Oxford: Clarendon.
Miller, Alice. 1981. The drama of being a child. New York: Basic Books.
Oppenheimer, Stephen. 1999. Eden in the East; The drowned continent of Southeast Asia. London: Phoenix.
Ramstedt, Martin (ed.). 2004. Hinduism in modern Indonesia; A minority religion between local, national, and global interests. London: Routledge.
Reuter, Thomas A. 2002a. Custodians of the sacred mountains; Culture and society in the highlands of Bali. Honolulu: Hawaii University Press.
Reuter, Thomas A. 2002b. The house of our ancestors; Precedence and dualism in highland Balinese society. Leiden: KITLV Press.
Reuter, Thomas A. 2006. “The fragmented self; Cross-cultural difference, conflict, and the lessons of ethnographic experience”, Paideuma Vol 52: 220–232.
Reuter, Thomas A. 2009. “Origin and precedence; The construction and distribution of status in the highlands of Bali”, in: Michael P. Vischer (ed.), Precedence; Social differentiation in the Austronesian world, pp. 13–49. Canberra: ANU Press. [Comparative Austronesia Project Series, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University.]
Reuter, Thomas A. 2011. “Understanding fortress Bali; The impact of democratisation and religious revival in Indonesia”, Jurnal Kajian Bali Vol. 1(1): 58–72.
Ricklefs, Merle C. 2006. Mystic synthesis in Java; A history of Islamization from the fourteenth to the early nineteenth centuries. White Plains, NY: East-Bridge.
Ricklefs, Merle C. 2007. Polarising Javanese society; Islamic and other visions, 1830-1930. Honolulu: Hawai’i University Press.
Rule, Paul. 2004. “The Chinese Rites controversy; A long lasting controversy in Sino-Western cultural history”, Pacific Rim Report No. 32, February 2004.
Sheldrake, Rupert. 2012. The science delusion. London: Coronet Books.
Soares, Pedro et al. 2008. “Climate change and postglacial human dispersals in Southeast Asia”, Molecular Biology and Evolution 25: 1209–1218.
Strathern, Marilyn. 1988. The gender of the gift; Problems with women and problems with society in Melanesia. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Tomlinson, Matt. 2009. In God’s image; The metaculture of Fijian Christianity. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Traube, Elizabeth G. 1986. Cosmology and social life; Ritual exchange among the Mambai of East Timor. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Tylor, E.B. 1871. Primitive Religion. London: John Murray.
Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 1998. “Cosmological deixis and Amerindian perspectivism”, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute Vol. 4: 469–488.
Wagner, Roy. 1991. “The fractal person”, in: M. Godelier and M. Strathern (eds), Big men and great men; Personifications of power in Melanesia, pp. 159–173. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Walter, Tony and Helen Waterhouse. 1999. “A very private belief; Reincarnation in contemporary England”, Sociology of Religion Vol. 60(2): 187–197.
- There are currently no refbacks.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.