Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Difference between Pantheism, Polytheism and Monotheism


The History

Arts in South East Asia (SEA) started with the artwork related with the religious beliefs of the indigenous people of the region. Evidence of the artwork in the form of paintings found in caves such as Niah Cave, Sarawak and Irian Jaya support and other parts of SEA countries clearly depict the activities of the daily life of the primitive people during the period. The detail of the cave painting can be seen in the pictures below:

Pic 1: Cave Painting in Gua Niah, Sarawak
Pic 2: Hand Stenciling in Irian Jaya Cave

Pic 3: Human Activity Cave Painting in Irian Jaya.

Religious belief is an integral part of a community, binding the believers with the sense of purpose in life. In South East Asia (SEA) the history of the religious beliefs has gone through various cycles of evolution beginning with the concept of 'Pantheism' as practiced by the primitive people, followed by 'Polytheism' introduced by the Hindu, Buddhism and Christianity. Islam came to SEA and introduced the concept of 'Monotheism' - the belief in one God 'Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger. The details of the religious beliefs are outlined as follows:

1. Pantheism

Pantheism is the belief in the existence of several gods.1 In the context of this paper, Pantheism will be discussed from this perspective in relation to the practice of Animism in the SEA before the arrival of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. Animism is the practice that worships ancestors, a belief widely practiced by the primitive people in the region.

The concept of Animism thrives in the worship of 'semangat' (spirit) believed to 'live' in trees, stones and animals. These spirits must be constantly appeased in order to guarantee the worshippers to be 'guided' in their daily course of life that involved matters such as marriage, birth or even death. In Malaysia these practices such as 'Upacara Memuja Pantai,' 'Puja Padi' and 'Hari Gawai' were conducted on regular basis before the arrival of Islam. Both 'Puja Padi' and 'Hari Gawai' are ceremonies held by the farming communities believed to ensure good harvest.

It is common for these ceremonies to be held with the accompaniment of art and crafts specially made for the purpose. The 'Dongson' people of SEA for example, accompany the ceremony with drums specially made to celebrate the event. The drum found during the 'Bronze' Era in SEA, Hanoi drum describes about the belief of the people in the region. The drum also has been found in Klang town in 1905. 2

Pic 4: ‘Dongson’ Drum, Hanoi

The drum is engraved with the image of a Hornbill in relation to the superior being believed to dwell in the heaven above. The hornbill represents the messenger or the link between the heaven above and the people on earth. 'Boat of Death' is another artwork by artists who lived during the era when Animism was a popular belief of the people during the period.

Pic 5: Kain PUA

The 'Boat of Death' in the picture above represents the journey from earth to heaven. The belief that in death, a soul can be sent to heaven by boat has been practice due to the location of the ‘Nusantara’ island people which only sea is the symbol of the end of the journey.

The practice of Animism in SEA became less and less popular when Hinduism and other religions were introduced in the region, confining only to a small group of people like the Iban in Sarawak who until today, still celebration of 'Hari Gawai' a religious ceremony.

2. Polytheism

Polytheism is the belief in the existence of several gods each responsible in their areas of authority.3 The people of SEA readily accepted the belief system because the concept isn't that much difference from the idea of Polytheism as evident in Hinduism and Buddhism, which became widely practiced religions in the region. Earliest traces of Buddhism, Hinduism and Brahmanism can be found in various sites in the SEA countries such as the ‘Srivijaya’4 Empire in Lembah Bujang, Kedah, Malaysia, and Borobudur in Jogjakarta, Indonesia were the temple can be seen until now and the side in Kedah still been preserve.

Pic 6: Side at Lembah Bujang, Kedah

Pic 7: Borobodor, Jokjarkarta Indonesia

'Wayang Kulit' (shadow play) is the clear evident of Hinduism. The story of good versus evil as represented by the main character, Ramayana, is taken straight out of the Hindu storybook. ‘Mak Yong’ is another evident of the Hindu influence in art as espoused by Allahyarham Seniman Negara, Hamzah Awang Mat (1999) 4 on the creation of Wayang Kulit and Mak Yong.

'Jiwa dalang itu memang lembut, dia mengukir rasa hatinya (jiwa batin) yang mengalami berbagai pengalaman hidup. Sebagai dalang, saya juka mengukir Seri Rama, Sita Dewi, Rahwana, Wak Long dan Pak Dogol (fizikal patung wayang). Saya tahu Berahi watak-watak itu, saya ukirkan rasa hati mereka...Saya nanyikan suka sedih Sita Dewi, itulah ukiran hati; begitu juga dengan Khadijah Awang, dia menyanyi dalam Makyong, juga dia mengukir suara Makyong itu’.

'Wayang Kulit' is used as one of the channels to preach Hinduism through images and storytelling while Makyong uses dance to communicate the concept of the religion.

Pic 8: ‘Wayang Kulit’ Show

Pic 9: ‘Makyong’ show

The concept of trinity - the belief in the existence of three gods i.e. Jesus the Son of God, the Holy spirit and God himself was introduced in SEA by the Dutch and the British. Although Christianity never made inroads into the Malay communities, minority groups in the SEA accept the religion in countries like the Philippines.

3. Monotheism

The concept of Monotheism is solely associated with Islam. It was first introduced in the SEA during the 13th Century by Arab traders who came to Malacca to do business in the spice region. Parameswara, the founder of Malacca who became a Muslim and changed his name to Sultan Iskandar Muzaffar Shah, 5 is an important figure in introducing Islam to his subjects. There is a popular theory now that Islam came to 'Tanah Melayu' from Arab traders who sailed from China. This is theory is supported by the existence of 'Batu Bersurat' found in Terengganu. H..M Toha Janja Omar (1964) 6 mentioned in his writing on the history of Islam in SEA:

'Masuknya Islam awalkali di Asia Tenggara yang tercatat di dalam sejarah adalah abab ke tigabelas. Marco Polo mencatatkan bahawa tahun 1292 di Sumatra Utara telah terdiri kerajaan Islam yang bernama Perlak' He mentions also that 'Penggawa Melaka menganut Islam pada awal dasawarsa abat ke lima belas...sejak abab ini Melaka menjadi pusat dan persebaran islam ke Seluruh Asia Tenggara.'

'Penggawa' in the statement is the Sultan of Malacca. Islam has a profound influence in art produced during the period as evident in Malay woodcarving. The 'Pandai Ukir'7 Melayu created their artwork using related symbols to represent the world. In it we can see the Malay philosopher relating Islam in the following:

Tumbuh berpunca...
Berpunca penuh rahsia
Hidup tidak menginjak lawan
Namun tidak memaut kawan
Tapi berlingkar penuh mesra

Allahyarham Nakula in Wawancara (1987) 8 explains

'Semua alam bermula dari benih (manusia 'terjadi' daripada benih suami dan isteri), pohon, benih dari biji, atau bertunas meranting, melentur tidak menjulang ke atas, merunduk ke bawah tapi tidak melemah rupa'.

In essence, Nakula talks about a seed, the beginning of existence and the importance of leading one's life by being humble in order to become 'Insan yang kamil' through every stage of his/her life. Also important is to live in accordance to the guidelines as stipulated by the Al-Qur'an and Hadith (syara') and not to breed animosity. During the Malacca Sultanate, the 'Pandai Ukir' Melayu gave their loyalty to the rulers and were entrusted to design and decorate the Palace of Malacca.

Pic 10: ‘Ukiran’ part of the house

Besides wood carving, Malay Muslim artist also produced other work of art during the era and the work has benefited the today's generation in many ways.


There is a clear difference between the 'isms'. Phantheism and Polytheism is the belief in the existence of several gods, while Monotheism believes in the existence of one god. Be it Phantheism, Polytheism or Monotheism, the artists who produced the artwork throughout the different religious periods in the SEA countries were responsible in coloring the region with different kinds of artistic expressions. The 'Dongson Drum' and the 'Boat of Death' it has been used by the believer in all the religion ceremonies and funerals. For 'Makyong' and 'Wayang Kulit', this two activities work as a messenger to the people about the Ramayana Epic and a way of asking the devotees to be good in life. The 'Chandi' Lembah Bujang and Borobodor built by the Buddish in Kedah and Jogjakarta during the Buddhism did give benefit to the people in the form of a place of worship and knowledge in the religion. As for Islam, the artist leads by the 'Pandai Tukang' Melayu have transformed the idea of beauty through the woodcarving and others. All these practices through the religion have given the work of art with a purpose not just Art for Art sake as ideally by the western artist.


1. (2002), Macmillan English Dictionary, Macmillan Education, UK. Pg 1025
2. Zainal Abidin Abdul Wahid (1972), Sejarah Malayisa Se Pintas Lalu, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Kuala Lumpur. Pg 12
3. (2002), Macmillan English Dictionary, Macmillan Education, UK. Pg 1025
4. Last updated: 23 Jul 1996,, The External Cultural Relations Division Office of The National Culture by Mahidol University
5. Dr. Siti Zainon Ismail (2002), Meng’Ukir’ Seni Melayu, Fakuli Sains Sosial dan Kemanusaian, UKM, Malaysia.
6.Muhammad Haji Salleh, ed (1997), Tun Seri Lanang, Sulalat al Sulatin (Sejarah Melayu), Yayasan Karyawan dan Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, KL
7. Prof. H. M. Toha Jahja Omar (1964), Hukum Seni Musik, Seni Suara dan Tari dalam Islam, Jakarta. Pg 307
8. Sulaiman Esa (2000), Syerah, Kuala Lumpur.
9. Dr. Siti Zainon Ismail (2002), Meng’Ukir’ Seni Melayu, Fakuli Sains Sosial dan Kemanusaian UKM, Malaysia.


  1. Hi, I'm circling around internet to search pantheism in South East Asia and found this, and I found the definition is very wrong.

    Please do understand that this article bothering me not because I'm a pantheist, but I'm saying that you should have dug deeper and didn't rely only on Melayu books and books written by activists of other religions when you are searching for something not in their line of study, not to mention that pantheism were originally not from Southeast Asia.

    I don't have any intention to explain in details, because something like pantheism can only really be understood when you already using your intuition under neutrality, not from someone else's explanation in majority.

    For anyone who are reading this, please, do not be counting on it.

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