Khmer - Religion and Expressive Culture

Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion of Cambodia, but Khmer religion actually combines Buddhism, animistic beliefs and practices, and elements from Hinduism and Chinese culture into a distinctive blend.

Religious Beliefs. Theravada was the official state religion from about the fifteenth century. Buddhism and other religions were crushed during the DK period. Buddhist temples were destroyed or desecrated, monks were killed or forced to leave the holy order, and Buddhist observances were forbidden. After 1979 Theravada gradually revived, and it was once again officially recognized by the state in 1989. Relatively few Khmer are Christian. The Cham (Khmer Islam) minority group is Muslim, while the Khmer Loeu or upland tribal peoples traditionally had their own distinctive religions.

A variety of supernatural entities populates the universe. These include spirits in the natural environment or certain localities, guardian spirits of houses and animals, ancestral spirits, demon-like beings, ghosts, and others. Some spirits are generally benign and can be helpful if propitiated, but others can cause sickness if they are displeased by lack of respect or by improper behavior.

Religious Practitioners. Each Buddhist temple has resident monks who follow special rules of behavior, conduct religious observances, and are accorded respect as exemplars of the virtuous life. A man can become a monk for a temporary period of time, and prior to 1975 many Khmer males did so at some point in their lives. Some men remain monks permanently. The practice continues, but there are now fewer temples and monks than before 1975. In addition to monks, the achar is a sort of lay priest who leads the congregation at temple ceremonies and presides over domestic life-cycle rituals. Other religious specialists deal more with the realm of spirits and magical practices: kru, who have special skills such as curing sickness or making protective amulets; mediums ( rup arak ), who communicate with spirits; and sorcerers ( tmop ), who can cause illness or death.

Ceremonies. There are many annual Buddhist ceremonies, the most important of which are the New Year celebration in April, the Pchum ceremony honoring the dead in September, and Katun festivals to contribute money and goods to the temple and monks. Life-cycle ceremonies marking births, marriages, and deaths are conducted at home. Weddings are particularly festive occasions. There are also rituals connected with healing, propitiation of supernatural spirits, agriculture, and other activities, as well as national observances such as boat races at the Water Festival in Phnom Penh.

Arts. Music and dance are important elements of Khmer culture that occur in ordinary village life as well as in formal performances in the city. Traditional instruments include drums, xylophones, and stringed and woodwind instruments, although popular music incorporates Western instruments. There are classical, folk, and social dances, traditional and popular songs, and theater. Literature includes folktales, legends, poetry, religious texts, and dramas. Artistry is also expressed in architecture, sculpture, painting, textiles, metalware, or even the decorations on a rice sickle.

Medicine. Illness may be explained and treated according to Western biomedicine, and/or attributed to other causes such as emotional distress or supernatural spirits. Treatment for the latter can include folk medicines, Chinese procedures such as moxibustion, and rituals conducted by kru healers. Traditional and biomedical procedures may be combined to cure illness.

Death and Afterlife. Funerals are one of the two most important life-cycle ceremonies. Cremation is customary and is carried out, along with attendant rituals, as soon as possible after death. Pieces of bone that remain after cremation are put in an urn kept at home or placed in a special structure at the Buddhist temple. According to Buddhist doctrine an individual goes through successive reincarnations, and one's position in the next life will be determined by meritorious and virtuous conduct in this life. Only exceptional persons similar to Buddha might achieve nirvana and release from the cycle of reincarnations.

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