Religion in Cambodia was influenced by early Chinese and Indian cultures, with traders from the West introducing a belief system to the first recognised Khmer state of Funan, at the time of the Christian era. Most followed the forerunner of Hinduism, Brahmanism, which was merged with local beliefs based on animism (spirit worship) to create a uniquely Cambodian religion where Hindu, Muslim and local deities sit alongside each other.
From the eighth century and the start of the Angkor period, various kings promoted their own Hindu sects, with cults to Vishnu and Shiva popular and still very much in evidence. Cambodia’s greatest king, Jayavarman II, crowned himself the reincarnation of Shiva and ruled through the devaraja (god-king) Hindu concept.
Theravada Buddhism was introduced under King Jayavarman VII in the 13th century, thriving across the land to become the official state religion. The king is still considered a reverential figure, although modern worship has waned considerably. The current monarch, Sihamoni, is the son of the founder of Cambodia’s independence in 1953, Norodom Sihanouk.
Today, over 90 per cent of the population of Cambodia is Theravada Buddhist, and the faith has formed the cultural society, being reintroduced in 1989 as the national religion after two decades of destruction. The Khmer Rouge outlawed all religions, claiming the people needed only faith in Angkar (the organisation). Buddhist monks, Muslims, ethnic minorities, Christians and the Catholic Church in general were all placed on the list of enemies against the new state, and suffered unspeakable persecution.
Buddhism is a popular religion among Khmers for the opportunities if offers and Cambodia is the most religiously homogenous of all countries in Asia. Nearly every village is centred on a Wat, and most Cambodian men will spend some time at a Buddhist monastery. Buddhist rituals are closely tied to the lunar calendar, while significant religious holidays are widely observed.
Buddhists believe the universe and all life within it is part of an eternally changing cycle. Following the teachings of the sixth century Indian prince from whom it takes its name, Buddhism sees life as continually reborn, where the actions in a previous incarnation shape the fortunes of the next.
By following the path of correct living, which includes right thought, right words, right deeds and right effort, along with the practice of earning merit or karma, a monk may reach nirvana and find release from the cycle. Earning merit is integral in all Buddhist life, and you won’t need to look far to see the population providing food to monks, giving money or worshipping at temples.
Modern Cambodian Buddhism is a tolerant, easy going faith that still focuses on spirit and ancestor worship while combining it with inherent humanism. Weddings, funerals and special birthdays are conducted under elements of animism and Buddhism, while many Khmer groups have their own Achar(spiritual practitioner) that offers guidance, without competition to the monks.
Animist practices are ingrained in the culture and are deeply intermingled with the everyday practise of Cambodian Buddhism. They are not regarded as separate religions but rather as means for dealing with moral, physical and spiritual needs. Buddhism is a national tradition, with a bureaucracy and a written history. Brahmanist and animist spirit practices tend to be more localized, and are passed on through personal contact or storytelling rather than as a formal institution.
Islam is followed by the Malay and Cham minorities in Cambodia, with the Muslim population being around two per cent. Also known as the Khmer Islam, the persecution by the Khmer Rouge was particularly savage on ‘impure’ Muslims. Today, around 500,000 Cham Muslims exist, mainly from the Sunni school. There are around 60,000 Christian followers, predominantly Roman Catholic, though this in particular has enjoyed a public revival since restrictions on faith were lifted in 1989.
Returning Khmers have brought with them Christianity and other religious movements, many of which are supported by financial backing from the West. The Chinese minority in Cambodia are almost all Confucianist or Taoist, where the emphasis is on humanity, family, learning and the relationship between man and nature.
Highland tribal groups, most with their own local religious systems, probably number fewer than 70,000. Each tribal group has its own idiosyncrasies, but generally they view a world where Yang (invisible spirits) fight for control over the world of the living. Animal sacrifices are common in order to pacify malevolent spirits, while a shaman or medicine man can be found in most villages.
The krou specializes in traditional apothecary and magic, such as amulet making of spirit negotiations. The thmuap is a krou who specialised in black magic, while the roup is a spirit medium that can attain special knowledge. These are the ethnic Khmer that predate Indianisation, and can be found in eastern mountains of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri.