Austronesian indigenous religions

23.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

Austronesian indigenous religions are based on worshipping ancestors, spirits, and the gods of nature.

In general, they are animistic and their followers believe that all things, places and beings are endowed with some spiritual essence. The mythology of different cultures and localities is different, but all of them are united by worshipping ancestors, the practice of animism and shamanism and the belief in the world of spirits and omnipotent gods. Austronesian peoples also believe in the concept of ‘mana’ – a natural supernatural power that people, animals, objects and spirits can possess. Austronesian indigenous religions have some influences from Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. 

Austronesian indigenous religions

Batak parmalim and pemena

The term “Parmalim” refers to the modern form of the traditional Batak religion and its followers. Batak is the collective name for the Austronesian ethnic groups who inhabit North Sumatra and Indonesia and speak the Batak language.

The Parmalim movement originated amongst the Toba ethnic group, the largest of the Batak peoples. In the late 19th – early 20th centuries, this spread over the Batak territories. Today, most Parmalim belong to the Toba Batak people.

According to some researchers, the doctrine has some similarities with Islam (for example, the ban on the consumption of pork and blood). However, followers of the Batak Parmalim refuse to acknowledge this.

Modern adherents of this religion consider themselves descendants of the last king and priest of the Bataks, Sisingamangaraja XII. Today, Raja Marnakkok Naipospos is the leader of the movement. He believes that there are no grounds for associating Parmalim with devil worship.

Another ethnic religion from Indonesia is Pemena. This is practiced by the Karo people, and includes worshipping different types of deities (devata), both male and female. Everything around has its own devata.

Dayak kaharingan and momolianism

The Kaharingan is an animistic ethnic religion of the Dayaks, one of the indigenous peoples of the Borneo island. Most Dayaks follow their traditional religious beliefs in secret for fear of religious persecution.

This belief system involves worshipping many deities and one supreme god and the Dayaks have a great respect for nature. The symbol of faith is the Tree of Life, looking like a spear, with three branches on each side. This symbolizes the upper and spiritual worlds. There are two vessels at the bottom, and the hornbill and the sun at the top.

The Dayak Kaharingan includes the cult of ancestor worship. There is a second burial (tiva) which is an important ritual and is held several months or years after the first burial. During the ceremony, the remains are exhumed, cleaned, and then placed in a beautifully decorated mausoleum (sandung).

Another religion of the island of Borneo is Momolianism. This is followed by many of the indigenous peoples of the state of Sabah.  According to Momolianism, the earth is the gift of the Creator, and thus the center of the universe.

In Momolianism, a ‘bobolian’ woman with special abilities helps establish contact between the world of spirits and people. She communicates with her counterparts from the Other Side (susukuon), and this interaction helps the residents of the community in crises. Susukuon can contact people directly through human sense organs. Bobolians serve as traditional healers.

The Kinohingan God is considered the creator of the world in Momolianism. He expects people to lead a righteous life that does not disturb the balance between the two worlds.

Malay indigenous religion

There is an animistic and polytheistic religion of some indigenous people of Malaysia. Adherents can follow the religion openly or secretly, depending on the rituals they conduct. The Malay indigenous religion is closely related to the Chinese indigenous religion.

Faith and customs may differ in different parts of the country. Some of the people adhere to shamanism, others to animism, and some have converted to Islam or Christianity.

Polynesian religion

This religion is an amalgamation of similar ideas and myths of the peoples of Polynesia. Polynesian mythology differs from that of nearby Melanesia and Micronesia as it has a developed, permanent pantheon of gods. Almost all Polynesian religions revere Tangaroa as the supreme god.

In the Polynesian religion, there is a mythical hero called Maui. He teaches the people crafts, brings them fire, kills monsters and makes tools and weapons. Maui has magical powers (mana). He dies in the struggle with the goddess of death for the immortality of people.

Polynesian religion

Hawaiian religion

Hawaii is part of Polynesia and many Hawaiians used to adhere to the traditional beliefs, myths and stories that formed the basis of the Hawaiian religion. This included animistic polytheism, paganism and the belief in many gods and spirits. Nowadays, this religion has practically ceased to exist and now most Hawaiians consider themselves Catholics.

Maori religion

Another pagan religion in Polynesia is the Maori religion, practiced by the indigenous people of the same name in New Zealand. Its characteristic features are animism and the cult of ancestor worship. Maori mythology has a complex structure similar to that of Polynesia. In general, followers of the Maori religion revere the Polynesian gods, although there are differences within the pantheon. Only consecrated people who have had a long training in complete isolation can comprehend the Io (supreme god).

The Maori worship some progenitor gods. Their shamans perform a large number of significant rituals; both timed to specific and everyday ceremonies. Ancestors made sacrifices, were slave owners, and practiced ritual cannibalism.

Sumba marapu

Sumba Marapu is the religion prevalent on the island of Sumba in Indonesia. It has no official status, so its supporters identify themselves as Christians or Muslims. Believers think that life in the material world is temporary, and that eternal life will begin after Judgment Day.

Sumba Marapu is based on the idea of the balance of life. It is symbolized by the Great Mother and the Great Father, who take the form of the moon and the sun as husband and wife. The Sumbans consider themselves to be their descendants.

Sunda wiwitan

This is the ethnic religion of the Sundanese people. Believers revere nature and ancestor worship. The supreme deity is called Sang Hyang Kersa, who lives in the highest sacred kingdom. The value system consists of norms both written (rules and taboos) and unwritten (inner understanding of faith). These emphasize the need for spiritual guidance. Followers of the Sunda Wiwitan perform prayers and rituals by singing, chanting pantun sunda, and dancing the kidung. In the present world, Sundans may be Christians or Muslims, but they do not forget their traditional ethnic religion.

Philippine indigenous religions

Philippine indigenous religions are animistic beliefs of the indigenous ethnic groups of the Philippines. These were widespread during the pre-colonial period. At that time, the peoples spoke different languages, so they formulated their religious beliefs in different ways. Yet, they had a common structure.

Some representatives of these religions revered the supreme creator or the god of the sky, but as it was   impossible for a person to approach the great gods, so people directed their attention to more minor gods or assistant deities. These could be nature spirits, guardian spirits, or divine ancestors.

Each ethnic group had its own concept of the human soul. As a rule, a living person would have two or more souls, and his/her physical and mental state would depend upon them.

Shamans were the spiritual leaders of the pre-colonial Filipinos. These were women or effeminate men. With the help of their spiritual advisors, shamans would contact deities and the spirit world during rituals.

Ancient Filipinos and those who currently adhere to Philippine indigenous religions do not have temples. They are replaced by shrines or spirit houses, which are small structures looking like houses without walls or pagodas.

Tagalog religion

The Tagalog religion is one of the most widespread Philippine indigenous religions. The Tagalog population is approximately 30 million.  

Tagalog beliefs contain elements of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Many local religions have existed up until the present and are referred to as the Philippine variations of indigenous Islam and indigenous Catholicism.

According to the Tagalog religion, Bathala is the supreme god. He lives in the heavenly kingdom and is one of the five main deities of the Tagalog pantheon.

Follower The first form is the kakambal, the soul of a living person. After death, the kakambal becomes the second form of the soul – kaluluwa. If the deceased was a bad person, the kaluluwa goes to Kasamaan. If a person was good during his/her lifetime, the second form of the soul ascends to Maku.

Javanese Kejawen

This is a religion prevalent on the island of Java which includes animistic, Buddhist and Hindu principles.

Javanese Kejawen is a mixture of metaphysics, mysticism, and other esoteric doctrines. Despite the fact that the Javanese culture is tolerant and open to other religions, it only adopts characteristics appropriate to its own culture and philosophy.

The followers of Javanese Kejawen should control their passions and avoid wealth and comforts. It is believed that this will help them achieve enlightenment and help them to reconnect with the spirit of the universe.

The Javanese Kejawen does not have any universally recognized prophets or scriptures – they differ in some branches. Believers can simultaneously be followers of one of the official religions and the Javanese Kejawen.

Many supporters of the ancient religions we have considered have adapted in the modern world to the main religions of Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. Followers of Austronesian indigenous religions can belong to several religious traditions. In general, they do this to avoid discrimination and persecution.  Although some older people regard conversion to official religions as a betrayal of their ancestors, the younger population is more pragmatic – such conversion helps them find jobs and makes life in society far easier.