Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Religious Change and Historical Reflection in Anakalang, West Sumba, Indonesia

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Religious Change and Historical Reflection in Anakalang, West Sumba, Indonesia

Article excerpt

Religious conversion juxtaposes new beliefs and practices with previous ones, the relationship between the old and new often put in terms of substitution, superimposition, renaming, or rejection. Conversion in Anakalang, a district of West Sumba in the Indonesian Province of Nusa Tenggara Timur, differs from many of the situations of recent religious change in Southeast Asia in that it is not motivated primarily by the demands of creating a distinctive ethnic identity, differentiating status groups within a single society, or compelling personal visions. This paper focuses on some of the ramifications that religious change has for Anakalangese understandings of history and tradition.(1) In contrast to many students of ethnicity and religion elsewhere in Southeast Asia,(2) I would argue that in Sumba, at the present historical moment, identity formation and boundary maintenance do not serve as major motives and are not sufficient explanations for local historical responses to religious change. The need for an explicit "identity" may not be given requiring no further explanation, for it arises under specific historical and political circumstances.

This paper describes Anakalang at a particular historical moment in which it appears that the presence of Christianity is leading Anakalangese primarily to reconceptualize not their ethnic identity - for Anakalangese can be Christian or "pagan" - but their past. In addition, religious and other changes are not only transforming a tradition, but also transforming what people think a tradition is. I will argue that Anakalangese "tradition" is not merely an entity that precedes Christianity and is then challenged or replaced by it. Nor is "tradition" merely a contemporary "invention", to be contrasted to some prior, more authentic state of affairs.(3) Rather, the idea of tradition has come to form part of how Anakalangese think about their place in history, as they draw on that history. If at times they represent Christianity as an alternative or challenger to ancestral ritual, they can also portray it as the legitimate successor to their earlier religion. In actual practice, Anakalangese can sometimes claim that everything is different, that "the land is foreign now" (na tana jawa yayi)(4), that "the foreign ancestor spirit has won" (taluneka na marapu jawa).(5) Anakalangese, however, also commonly speak of the present in contrast to a past that is distinguished by it greater wealth, ritual correctness, and possession of stable hierarchy. This perception stresses an essential continuity with the past, marked only by loss, a quantitative change, and implies that in fact nothing important has changed. "Tradition" is one way of talking about - or against - this juxtaposition of past and present.(6)

In the current processes of religious change, many members of Anakalangese society are actively seeking to define the nature of the events in which they find themselves and thereby to make claims about their own place in those events - claims that depend upon using ritual practices identified with the past to seek the recognition of others. The way an individual represents events leaves great room for creativity and conflict. To the extent that certain ritual forms remain ways of acting in and upon the world, Anakalangese can say that when they perform rituals they are doing no more than repeating correct procedures that have endured from the time of the ancestors. Yet this apparent repetition can bring about reevaluations and transformations of those very procedures. More specifically, to enact rituals in the present context often has the effect of changing the stuff of "tradition" from a set of ways of acting to a fixed body of knowledge.(7) As a fixed body of knowledge, "tradition" is something that, potentially, can be repeatedly displayed, without external effects or internal changes. If it is associated with the past, that past will no longer impinge on the present through the obligations the living owe to demanding and dangerous ancestral spirits. …

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