The pre-Islamic Malay and Indonesian world developed a system of law based on custom and traditions that had emerged over centuries into a fairly fixed system of laws, legal principles, and procedures. Rajas and local rulers had extraordinary powers and a mystique that sanctioned and even encouraged exs of arbitrary exercise of prerogative authority. Despite the authoritarian ms of traditional rule, no ruler could claim to alter or abrogate the tradisl law, known as Adat, without undermining the legitimacy of his author- The boundaries of states were not precisely fixed and the power of the ruler supreme in his capital, but diminished with distance. Where rule was intive or legitimacy was undermined, peripheral areas could switch their ales and make tribute payments to another ruler. The options of shifting loyalties contributed to the rise and fall of political systems and provided for both political and economic competition between states for support from local communities for taxes, for labor levies to maintain public works, and as recruits for military forces. Thus, authoritarian monarchies faced the prospects of losing their population base if draconian measures alienated segments of their populace. The cultural and legal norms of society had to be respected and upheld if the royal authority was to be retained with popular support.
Central to the Malay worldview is the idea of semangat, which can be defined very briefly as “soul force” or as “soul substance,” but which acquired more nuanced meanings in rituals and culture as an explanatory force pervading the universe. Semangat is the soul or “spirit of life” that is present in man and higher animals, but also is present in most plants, in houses, and in some valued minerals. Magic can be used to gain control of semangat, enabling ritual specialists, known as bomoh, dukun, or pawang, to perform secret rituals designed to manipulate the spirit world. These rituals were believed to heal sickness, to enable communication with the dead, and to invoke the life forces in food crops to enhance agricultural production. Some ritual specialists claimed powers to interpret the spirit world through hypnotic trances, allowing them to read omens, create love charms, and foresee the future. The need to control and interpret the spirit world affected nearly all aspects of life, especially at important, defining moments of the life cycle, such as birth, circumcision, marriage, building a new home, departing on a long trip, at death, and for burial. Communal feasts, known as selamatan, were usually celebrated for such events. These ritual feasts were usually conducted by mature women who served food to family and clan with ritual worship “offerings” to the spirits inhabiting the immediate vicinity. The line between “empowered clergy” and the “laity” did not exist since everyone was assumed to have some capacity to interact with the spirit world. Those who acquired the occult science of appropriate rituals could display an aura of charisma that appeared to be derived directly from the supernatural “spirit world.”2’
During the early history of Southeast Asia, numerous empires established political order based on rice cultivation and the control of coastal and riverine waterways. Utilizing small seagoing vessels, these states engaged in trade and had contacts both with India and China. Malay merchant seamen traveled as far as East Africa, while both Indian and Arab traders plied Southeast Asian waters well before the founding of Islam. In peninsular and insular Southeast Asia, dating from the first century B.C., a number of large, loosely organized empires emerged that were greatly influenced by Indian culture and religion, including both Hinduism and Indian Buddhisni. At ruling court circles, Hindu principles of divine kingship and Buddhist symbols of authority became a source for enhanced political rule. Indian cultural influences were less pronounced at village levels, but even so, some classic epics from Hindu literature and Indian cosmology became widely disseminated as part of popular culture. In a highly selective way, a number of these Indianized cultural elements became infused into the mores, arts, social organization, and the belief systems of the Malay/Indonesian world. These early contacts between India and the Southeast Asian states later paved the way for the introduction of Islam to Southeast Asia after that religion had became well established as part of the Indian landscape.
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