Asia remains a repository of ancient spirits

Burrowing down through the layer cake of Southeast Asia's folk beliefs, Knappert discovers that while religions may supersede one another, the belief systems continue to live on

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Sun, Aug 19, 2001 - Page 19

There's a powerful story by Joseph Conrad called "Karain: A Memory," published in his early volume Tales of Unrest in 1898. It contrasts a cold, gray, crowded London with the brilliant, sun-drenched, relaxed world of the Southeast Asian islands.

Three English gun-runners meet and assist a local Malay chief called Karain, but he gets into trouble with the spirit of someone he has inadvertently killed. One of the three, however, as he leaves for home, hands Karain an English coin, a sixpence specially minted to mark the Jubilee of Queen Victoria. This, Karain believes, will protect him, because the foreigners come from lands "where the dead do not speak," and are men whose "strength and unbelief" is unconquerable.

To the narrator the tropical islands of Asia represent a world of "sunshine and illusions." But as the story ends he still wonders whether he wouldn't be more fully human there than he is at home in the drab and commercial streets of London.

Jan Knappert's Mythology and Folklore in South-East Asia is a delightfully old-fashioned book, and although Conrad is never mentioned, his stories of the former Dutch East Indies are silently evoked on almost every page. This is because Knappert, a former lecturer at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies in London, is an Indonesia specialist, and sees the tropical lands of Asia as being replete with folk beliefs in a way found nowhere else on earth, with the possible exception of Africa.

And there's no doubt that Asia's mythology and its associated folklore has grown directly out of religious belief. Indeed, it was probably religious belief originally, and was inseparable from it.

It is possible to make the following comparison. In Europe, people amused themselves for centuries reading stories of goblins and fairies, but believed, or convinced themselves they believed, in a God out of the Bible. In Java or Bali, by contrast, people believed in the Rama and Sita they watched in their dance dramas, saw them as incarnations of the older gods Vishnu and Lakshmi, and in addition believed simultaneously in the efficacy of amulets deriving from Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, or even Christian traditions.

To the Europeans, in other words, the world was seen as basically material, but with a pocket of spiritual belief added to keep at bay the horrors implicit in total atheism. What, after all, might the children get up to if they were allowed to believe there was nothing to them apart from their bodies?

To the South-East Asians, on the other hand, everything in existence was suffused with spirits. They believed in the figures in their folk tales in exactly the same way they believed in the supreme gods themselves, and in the spirits they might encounter on a dark night at any crossroads.

Asia in general can be described as having been formed by two paramount civilizations -- China's and India's. The culture of China shaped the social and intellectual worlds of Japan, Korea and Vietnam, and in addition the habits and mind-set of prominent minorities in virtually every city in the entire Asian region. The culture, and particularly the religions, of India, formed, by contrast, for innumerable centuries the dominant influence on what is now Indonesia, and on Thailand, Cambodia, and the territories that make up modern Malaysia. Written Thai, for example, uses an Indian script, while in Java Hinduism and Buddhism both flourished before the arrival of Islam in the fifteenth century.

If this book has a single theme, it is that religion underlies all folklore and mythology in the region, but that the mix is complex, and layer underlies layer in many regions.

Indonesia most vividly illustrates the author's assertion that in Asia cultures simply refuse to lie down and die. In Islamic Java, for instance, an essentially Hindu mythology survives in nightly wayang puppet plays, and in court dances, all over the island. And though Indonesia as a whole is predominantly Muslim, that doesn't prevent its national airline being named after the Indian Hindu bird-god Garuda. In addition, there are large enclaves of Christian, Hindu and Animist communities scattered through the archipelago.

For the most part, this book attempts an impossible task, and its author knows it. He has himself made similar compilations covering smaller, but still vast, areas -- the Pacific, Indonesia, the Malay lands -- and even these must have seemed to only skim the surface. As it is, this compact collection contains origin legends from Cambodia, portions of epics from Flores, comic tales from the Philippines, Malay ballads, and much more. There's even a Vietnamese Song in Praise of Faithful Wives (faithful husbands don't rate a mention).

But it's the spread and flux of religions that remains so very astonishing -- both within and beyond Asia. A study of their language has, for instance, proved beyond doubt that the majority Merina people of Madagascar originated in distant central Indonesia. They probably sailed from there, stopping off at the southern tip of India and utilizing ocean currents, some 1,000 years ago. They still sacrifice cattle to their ancestors on a gigantic scale just as is done by the Toraja people on the island of Sulawesi.

Kappert doesn't neglect a topic that many younger scholars have been trained to focus on -- the degree to which folk tales such as these reinforce the position of the rich. He agrees they do, adding that rulers have frequently claimed descent from the gods and cited traditional tales as evidence, and that religious doctrines such as the Indian belief in karma result in the poor believing they are poor because of their bad behavior in a previous life.

This is probably a book to browse in rather than to read from cover to cover. The translations sometimes are hard-going, especially where they are of verse. But Jan Knappert is a true scholar of the undogmatic old school, and a congenial and wise guide through this fascinating and extraordinary terrain.

Publication Notes:

MYTHOLOGY AND FOLKLORE IN SOUTH-EAST ASIA

By Jan Knappert

314 Pages

Oxford university press