Religious development in Southeast Asia


As industrialization progressed and its effects were felt in Europe where it began, the necessity for searching for new raw materials outside the European continent to a place where they would find cheap and readily available arose. As a result, the Europeans started looking for colonies where they could rule and access raw materials as well: This led to the scramble and partitioning of Africa and the Asian continents. As these colony masters looked for raw materials to supply their industries back at home, they found better places where they could access the raw materials and thus they decided to settle. They came along with colonization as well as laws and regulations which were supposed to be followed.

Accompanying the laws was new religion (Christianity) which was introduced and was supposed to follow and as a result, indigenous people who had been living in these areas were forced to follow it and abandon their own indigenous religion if possible. In the Southeast region of Asia, the introduction and development of new religions came as a result of different things which included trade, missionaries alone and finally missionaries accompanied by the colonial masters. As the foreign traders engaged in business with the local people, they convinced them on how their religion was good and since these local people wanted trade to progress without any hurdles, they were assimilated and became followers of the religion. As time progressed, these new religions were able to attract large number of followers and as a result, this led to weakening of once dominant religions for example the weakening of Hindu and Buddhist religions which had major religions in the region and which were now being replaced by Christianity and other religions. As the 18th century progressed, much of the region had new religion arrangements or what could be described as new configurations. They had new religions which they could easily relate or associate themselves with.

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For example in the regions such as in Cambodia where Theravada Buddhism had been a strong religion since the 11th century, it was now being replaced by Christianity. As time moved on, religions grew gradually in this Southeast Asia, however much changes in the development of religion in the region were brought about by the European imperialism. It was through the influence of the Western imperialism that lives of most of the people living in this region were shaped and introduction of new practices also came to effect. The several ways through which the western imperialists were able to spread their religion was by introduction of laws, new forms of education governance and their missions. With the introduction of the above examples, local people living with these areas were able to change their basic understanding about some of the issues about religion. It is important to note and understand well that although most of the time people assume that the colonial masters or the missionaries spread Christianity by use of force, imperialism played a key role in ensuring the western imperialism was loved and most of the effects would be felt many years later even after the colonial masters were gone.

It is thus important to summarize that the European imperialism was the main driver of the Christian religion in the area and as a matter of fact, they shaped the religion ideas in the Southeast Asia.

The transformation of religion in East and Southeast Asia

Religion is defined as the shifting entity which is composed of a number of ideas, interests and desires. Different people have different faiths concerning several events which take place in a life of an individual depending on what they believe in. it is important to understand that it is very difficult to change religion due to the many factors which come to play. An example is the many issues which have been raised across the different religions in the world include for example the ordaining of women into becoming priests among the Catholics or the acceptance and the ordaining of the gay bishops in the Anglican Church. Much of these changes if they were to be effected, they could be based upon the doctrines and the tradition of the religion group. However apart from the traditions and the doctrines religion, other factors such as the existing laws within a country and also the political and social pressures can come to play in this issue. Before such a big change is implemented, there would be consultations among the elders and the leaders of the religion and finally the following and implementing the traditions and the doctrines of that particular religion (Adian& Arivia 2009).

The religious change and development in the Southeast Asia can be considered broadly to have occurred through three levels, the society, the theology and finally the structural or the technology level. Theology and society levels go in the same way. This is true since theology is reflected by the society and when it comes to the structural level or new technologies being introduced. Technologies always lead to understanding and introduction of new dimensions of approaching life thereby creating a new or alternative ways through which life difficulties can be easily solved.

The huge importance of covering the Southeast Asia was due to the fact that although the region is very wide, it has always been connected to each other through trade, politics as well as religion which will make our main issue of concern in this case. When trying to define how the western imperialism influenced religion development in the region, it is important to note that though most of the East Asia was not colonized as compared to the South, the effects of imperialism (both negative and positive) were well felt across the region. The question which then lingers in most people’s mind is whether the largest part of this Southeast region history mainly covers how the indigenous ways of doing things were transformed to be global although about religion this can be argued out as true. Imperialism and its effects can be traced back in the 15th century when the Europeans started visiting India and the other countries found in the region for trade purposes. As the Europeans visited the region for trade, they came along with their ways of living with religion being a major inclusion of their way of life (Marker 2003). It was through this strategy that imperialism was used in developing and introducing Christianity in the region. Since it was very difficult to separate the ideas and the institutions of Christianity from imperialism, it becomes even more difficult therefore to state that the spread of Christianity in this region was deliberate or not deliberate.

The reason behind the above cross road is that people living in this region could have opted for Christianity since as a member of the same religion with the European imperialists, it would have made communication between them and also with traders with whom they shared the same religion to communicate well and conduct trade easily. However, other than trade, it is important to note that the Europeans also went to this region in search of colonies. In contrast to the traders or even the missionaries who were not forcing Christianity among the people they met, the colonizers expected those whom they colonized to take Christianity as their main religion. They placed Christianity so high that the local communities were expected to abandon their indigenous religions, adapt Christianity or transform their own religion to the image of what Christianity demanded. The missionaries who came along with the colonizers made sure that it was only by joining Christianity alone could the local people receive any form of civilization or help from them. As a result, most of the people in this region had to abandon their religions and join Christianity. In the instances where the imperialists were sympathetic to the native religion, the colonialists still decided on what was religion and what was supposed to be abandoned.

As a result this made most of the indigenous religions to abandon some of their customs which the Europeans were not appeased to.


In the aspects of religion development is the Southeast Asia, orientalism can be defined as the methods and the styles the Western countries used in order to dominate and rule over the people they found in this region. In a summary, orientalism simply defines the West experience in the East or from the non westerners. In order to succeed in preaching and advancing Christianity, the West displayed the Southeast Asian religions as lowly and primitive religions which did not have revelation among them or anything negative depending on how the writer could put it. The most surprising thing was that although these writers who dismissed the local religions at will did it without any experience or any interest per se on the Southeast Asia religion, the lies were translated into show of power and also authority which the imperialists were ready to show and use at will if the conditions allowed. All sources from the west scholars described the west academic work described the Southeast Asia religions with a universal conclusion leading to the marginalization of the religion on this region. A good example given of a religion that was adversely affected by the force sentiments about it was the case of Buddhism under Muller in 1876, the scholar displayed Buddhism as a religion which was lacking and as a result of these studies, these western lies came to attain a world wide recognition where even the people who had been strong advocates of it were transformed and made to think that they were the ones who were in the wrong leading to the weakening of the religion (Dubois 2005).

Another instance where orientalism was experienced was the portrayal of the Asians religions in the colonial Burma and Japan. The two religions had been earlier receiving much support each of the religion with each religion enjoying much support from those who followed later. It was only later with the arrival and settling of the Europeans that the transformation of language and what used to be termed as religion changed. Attempts by some of the eastern scholars to convince the west that religions such as Buddhism were different and special in their own ways, and that the teachings of these religions evolved around the revelation just like in any religion, the scholars for example of Suzuki failed to convince them, and like his early peers, he joined the western side of the scholars who viewed Buddhism as a minor and a primitive religion. Due to the spread of negativity among the indigenous religions, the west was able to spread their religion (Christianity) at the expense of the local religions.

This in itself contributed to the growth of religion in that as the local religions were weakening, Christianity was becoming stronger through their spreading of gospel that local religions were weak.

Constructions of religion and religious identity in nineteenth and early twentieth century

Of all the characteristics that the countries in the region of Southeast Asia shared, among the most extraordinary ones were culture and religion which is almost similar. Given that most of these countries particularly those in the South were faced by similar problems during the oppression of the colonialists, this forced the region to develop mechanisms and also capabilities of creating an identity in the post colonial era. This was made a success through the cultural solidarity as well as collaborations in economics and also in politics. After the colonialists left, the religions in this region instead of collaborating for the well being of the future and development, they concentrated more about their past and as a result, the past suspicions which had been used by the colonizers as they tried to rule them brought a cloud of mistrust among them. A good example is explained by the anxieties of the Muslim minority among the Indians, the Hindus who were minorities in Pakistan and even the Tamils in Sri Lanka. As these religions tried to create an identity, they felt threatened and as a result this made them spread anxiety to those people with whom they shared the same religion in the other countries. As a result, for example the Hindus who were the majority in India felt that it was their own responsibility to protect the Hindu minorities who were living in Pakistan.

The Pakistanis on the other had felt that it was their responsibility also to protect the Muslims minority who were living in India. With each country looking upon their religion colleagues living in the neighboring countries as their sole guardians, anxiety and tension rose as each religion tried to keep their identity this scenario brought two problems to the people living within them. The first problem was the religion identity while the other was the fact that these countries were interfering with other countries internal affairs by alleging that they were protecting the people of their religion who were living in these countries (Cook 2007)

Mission and meaning in Christianity

It is a widely known fact that when missionaries came to Southeast Asia, they did not only come with Christianity as the religion, they also came with other things such as techniques which would help in the organization and civilization of life and thus as a result, these techniques that they carried along changed life itself as whole. It is important to note that these civilization and organizational techniques were not confined to the missionaries alone but also the native citizens who were living in this region used the techniques since they were effective and they made operation of life a bit easier.

The process of transformation was taking place so fast such that when a native religious person could meet with a missionary, he or she would do things like a Christian. Example of the things which these local people in order to reflect the image of Christianity included: having Sunday schools, singing hymns and as a result of this, the missionary was now driving itself freely without much struggle. These techniques which the missionaries used had a great impact upon those people who came across them and as a result, they were left deeply imprinted in the minds of the people who came across them even in areas where Christianity never succeeded. As a result of the above benefits, Christianity became more embedded that the other religions within the local citizens due to its individual conversion as well as transformation which after acquiring was now not reversible. The exclusivity observed in the religion was also another major cause.

It is important to note that Christianity in this region modified itself depending on the friendliness or the unfriendliness of those the missionaries met. A good example is that of China. As the country underwent crisis, some of its citizens turned to Christianity, not because they had much faith or they even believed in Christianity but because the missionaries who were spreading the gospel there seemed to be friendly and could accommodate all social ideologies which their country lacked and which they saw as required.

State and Religious Ethnicity

Political institutions take diverse roles in making and shaping the society. They simply create categories or bodies which the society has to live within or along with. For example, as the British ruled the Indians during colonization, they used the divide and rule strategy thereby classifying the communities which lived in the country strictly by their races and the religions they followed. At the same time to ensure that their religion was felt, they provided to the locals the laws which they were supposed to follow. For example, to a colonial master, a Hindu or a Muslim could only be identified through their races and any personal issue which concerned the individual such as divorces and marriages The British followed what they themselves thought as to be the law ignoring the background religion of these local people they had found.

Although the British colonialists in India rarely intervened on the native matters, certain aspects of the religion which seemed to be in contrary to what they believed were excluded. For example in the year 1829, the British banned the burning of the window. In banning them from doing this, they were simply informing them that what was right depending on religion was not right morally. However, it is important to note that in some countries such as in Singapore, and Malaysia racially defined laws remained as part of the law of land.

The role of state in bringing together the ethnic and religious communities is another factor which led to the development of religion in the Southeast Asia (the expression of the state policy). For example in the colony of Malaya, the differences between Malay sultans and the British officials gave a room for defining religion in that colony. While in India, the idea was to leave the matters in the community in the case of Malaya, the power was to remain at the power holders. However, it is important to note that in all the instances, the British’s still remained with the overall authority. Another example of how religion developed as a result of influence from the colonial masters in the Southeast Asia region was the conversion of the highland Dayaks to Christianity. Since the group had been banned from mixing with the Muslim Mayans, the American missionaries saw it an opportunity to convert these highland living communities to Christians.

New media and new religion

The impacts of mass communication on religion as a result of their interactions within the Southeast Asia also led to development of religion in this region. It is important to note that media is very powerful and it has the ability of shaping practically everything it comes across religion included. Different groups used the different forms of media to exploit the new opportunities. For example there is a Chinese language newspaper which was published by the Japanese before and after the region fell under the Japanese in 1932. The portrayal of religion in this document over the four decades was used by the Japanese for several reasons. First it was discrediting the Chinese superstitions of the Chinese elite and later preaching or displaying the positive image of the Japanese art and empire. The newspaper served its commercial purposes as well as its social purposes. The emergence of new forms of mass media also led to the development of the religion in the Southeast Asia region.

The visual forms of communication such as entertainment, films and also exhibitions presented new and diverse ways of marketing one’s religion. For example to the rural or the who had not come into contact with the religion, they were able to hear of it from mass media and then it was their choice whether to chose it or not. A very good example is a Japanese religion by the name of ZOmoto which was from the Shinoist religion which during its initial stages had a rapid rate of expansion and even merged with other similar religion movements in the region making the religion even spread faster and further. While the religions such as the ZOmoto mentioned above were better at marketing their religion than the Buddhist, this did not necessarily mean that the Buddhists lost some followers. The new technologies which emerged in commerce gave better avenues for mass communication and thus the spread and the development of new religions within the region.


After examining and understanding the development and the changes in religion which took place in the Southeast Asia, we can conclude that religion development and changes within this region were initiated by powerful (in the name of colonial masters) although the society also played part in the change.

The spread of imperialism as used by the western powers and also by the Japanese was aided by the new techniques and methods which they had devised and now they were using them. The new ways of communication which were aimed at attracting and gaining new religion converts, ruling the different diverse communities which lived in the region as well as engaging in trade were beyond one side transforming the others thus the cooperation between the two groups (foes and allies) helped in spreading the ideas and the religions by transforming the region wholly. From the above we can also conclude that due to the interconnection of these transformations, the change from one area to the other could always have led to end result which could either be good or bad depending on the region. Orientalism on the other hand led to the growth as well as weakening of some the religions in the south East Asian region. By using the strategy of orientalism, the west displayed the local religions as we saw in the case of Buddhism as primitive religion and as a religion based on lies and not revelation when compared to Christianity.

As a result many people who had been faithful of their own religions abandoned them and joined Christianity as a result. Expansion of commerce also led to the growth and development of religion in the Southeast Asia region. As the Europeans and other business people traded with the people from this region, they came along with their social life and Christianity together.

They influenced those people whom they were traded together with to join religions and some of the people even joined the religions (for example Christianity) without influence or being forced since they could conduct the trade easier united by one thing:. Another factor which led to the development of trade was emergence of new and better technologies as well as advancement in mass communication. When communication was made easier by the technology, new dimensions of advertising own religion arose and as a result, religions spread even much faster and wider.


Adian Gahral Donny and Arivia Gadis 2009 Relations between religions and cultures in Southeast Asia. CRVP Washington D.C. Cook Alistair, ed.

2007 Culture, Identity and Religion in Southeast Asia. London: Cambridge Scholars Publishers Dubois, Thomas. David 2005 Hegemony, Imperialism, and the construction of religion in South and East Asia.

“History and Themes,” 44 (4):113-131. Marker Sandra 2003 Effects of colonization., accessed May 6, 2011.


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