MH370's Spirit Doctor

The visit of 'Raja Bomoh Sedunia' to Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) last week to assist in the search for the missing flight MH370, wielding coconuts and binoculars fashioned from bamboo, caused sniggers by many Malaysians and was ridiculed by the Chinese.

The flying carpet and coconut saga played out by the bomohs (shamans) has been the center of fun on social media and provided excellent fodder for local comedians to use in their programs. But although many Malaysians appeared embarrassed by the episode, it also seemed to pull some very emotional chords. The word “bomoh” was tweeted more than 200,000 times in the last week, with “bomoh apps” appearing on Google Playstore.

The metaphysical and superstitious realm in society where bomohs act as intermediaries, according to Prof Hashim Awang, a senior research fellow of the Academy of Malay Studies, University of Malaya, is inseparable from the Malay psyche.

Actually animism goes well beyond Malaysia and permeates Catholicism in the Philippines, Buddhism in Thailand and Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia. Bomohs are part of animist traditions present in the social fabric of the region before the influence of South Asian and Arab traders, and defiantly before the arrival of colonial powers to the region. Animism even dates back to before the little known and almost forgotten Srivijaya Period going back to the 7th Century.

Animism exists all over Southeast Asia from the highlands of Vietnam and Laos, Burma, to the plains of Cambodia. Communities around Angkor Wat believe the ruins have a powerful guardian spirit called Neakta, based on ancestral spirits which has potency to heal illnesses and solve social problems, through shamans acting as mediums.

Animism is also rife through the Indonesian Archipelago, where different groups worship non-human entities such as inanimate objects in the belief that these things possess some spiritual essence or power. Many believe that supernatural powers can be used to cast spells, so many illnesses are seen as being spirit-related, in which bomohs rather than medical doctors are sought for treatment.

In Thailand, shrines are ubiquitous outside most buildings, villages, and even next to trees and along roadsides to pay homage to local spirits that inhabit specific geographical areas. They must be pacified in order to ensure a harmonious life for the populace in a specific location. There are daily offerings of food, flowers, and red-colored soft drinks for the spirits that inhabit the shrines. Some of these shrines are extremely popular where people make a point of specifically visiting them to pay homage and respect, and request some form of good fortune. These shrines and rituals are testimony to the high regard and reverence for the power of these spirits.

On the Malay Peninsula, the Orang Asli -- forest people -- have traditionally been animists believing in particular objects and locations as having spirits residing in them. Further north along the mountain regions of Southern Thailand the Sakai, who still inhabit the forests, pay homage to the spirits of the land.

In Sabah, the Kadazan-Dusun people would worship Kinoingan or the rice spirit, which is the basis of the very popular Kaamatan or harvest festival, celebrated every year. Specific rituals are practiced each year by priestesses known as bobchizans, although there are very few left today. Even though most Kadazan-Dusun people have long converted to Christianity or Islam, they still celebrate the Kaamatan.

Across in Sarawak, the Orang Ulu, who live far inland, the Dayaks, and Ibans generally practiced different forms of animism. The Iban version is sophisticated and similar to the accepted Kaharingan religion practiced in Kalimantan, Indonesia by tribes like the Dayaks. The ibans hold the belief that all living creatures originate from the same processes and thus share a common origin where the earth exists in a very complex interdependence. In this view all seen and unseen coexist and influence each other.

Although many people have converted to Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam, over the region, animistic practices are still very much embedded, sometimes surreptitiously in the rituals performed or observed within their new religions. The Malay heartland is full of deep superstitious belief, which allows bomohs to flourish.

Bomohs have integrated their practices into Islam. The art of silat or indigenous martial arts has many aspects of animism incorporated into rituals and practices. Silat has a spiritual element based on the power of certain roots and plants, strengthened through reading verses of the Koran. Symbolic female circumcision is still widely practiced in the belief that this will tone down a female's libido. Although animism is not recognized by the Malaysian government, these practices are in reality commonplace and widely believed in.

Islam in Indonesia, particularly Java, has developed a hybrid culture, which has incorporated many animistic rituals such as sacrificing goats and burying the remains in the foundations of new buildings. Wayang kulit or shadow puppets are still very popular in Indonesia and Southern Thailand where mythical stories of supernatural powers are the main themes of performances.

Animism is also very heavily incorporated in traditional Chinese religions, as well as Taoism and Buddhism. Many Buddhist monks are consulted because of the belief they possess the ability to see into the future. Many Chinese make pilgrimages to particular wats (temples) to get trinkets, or amulets for luck. Omens and numbers are still a part of everyday life.

Feng Shui, the age-old practice based upon cosmic and geographic dimensions is widely practiced throughout the region. Many will not purchase a new residence without seeing if the location and features are suitable according to feng shui consultants. These concepts also seem to be religiously upheld by other indigenous cultures where for example, it is not considered lucky to live at the top of a "T" intersection. In addition, many people including politicians consult the calendar to determine the best dates to do certain things.

Throughout the region, hexagonal mirrors are placed on top of many doors to scare away evil spirits. There are parts of roads that should be avoided due to spirits at night. Travelers are invited to pay homage to particular spirits, and are told many stories about the supernatural.

Asian life is much more affected by animistic rituals than many would openly admit. However, animism has much influence upon life, and there is much interconnectivity and similarity in beliefs with other indigenous peoples all around the world, which are not in any way related to each other, either culturally or genetically.

Although animism subscribes to the belief that non-human entities like animals, plants, geographical features, and other inanimate objects, or phenomenon possess some form of spiritual prowess, there is something deeper than that here.

Animism has an elaborate moral ecology and human-environment relations concepts that most other philosophies and religions miss out on. The world of animism is shaped by the interaction of the material, natural, and spiritual worlds. All entities exist mutually, and with common origin are the same thing. Thus the individual cannot be separated from the rest of the world, both in the material and spiritual sense. As a consequence, past and present are linked through social and natural actions, and cosmic phenomenon.

The moral code of animism is based upon a sophisticated sense of sustainability. It's about maintaining the environmental status quo and complying with the wishes of the spirit of the earth, which could be metaphorically the earth itself.

This provides a meaningful outlook towards the environment towards the environment, where destruction equates to destroying the spirits. This philosophy is not too far away from Nobel Prize winning environmentalist James Lovelock's GAIA hypothesis which sees the earth as a living entity.

In addition, from the point of view of understanding the potency of our natural resources, much folklore and knowledge about flora is very quickly disappearing as the jungles and rainforests are being cleared.

As the author and quantum physicist Nick Herbert noted, animistic beliefs encapsulated quantum theories of existence long before the discipline of quantum mechanics was devised. Quantum theory dismissed the duality of mind and matter, where animism provided some of the answers to our contemporary problems, which we overtly dismiss today, but subconsciously subscribe to.

We of the 21st Century cannot claim any monopoly on wisdom, and in the past, Animist philosophies may perhaps may help us gain deeper insights.

Murray Hunter is an Australian academic currently living in Thailand