Introduction session part 2 : Overlapping cosmologies and systems of knowledge


What is the echo of Descola’s work in Southeast Asia?

Descola’s anthropology of nature opens new horizons to review Southeast Asian ethnographic materials:

  1.  To question the place of Hindo-Buddhist societies in regard to the ontological typology he proposes. A question he did not elaborate in his comparative approach and master piece Beyond Nature and Culture1.
  2.  To question the modes of dwelling the diverse landscapes  of Southeast Asia: highland forest, plains, river deltas, sea coasts and cities.
  3.  To question the overlapping of ontologies and knowledge systems linked to environmental management in contemporary societies.

I won’t answer these questions here, but rather give some paths for reflection linked to my own researches in Thailand and with Karen highlanders. I will :

  1. Question the analogical dimension of the Hindo-Buddhist concept of thammachat, which is the vernacular word used to translate the notion of nature in the Thaï context.
  2. Explore the overlapping between analogism and animism through the articulation between Buddhism and land spirits cults in Southeast Asia.

 The notion of nature (thammachat) in Thailand

It is interesting to notice that the term “thammachat” used in Thailand to refer to the Western notion of “nature” is a neologism derived  from the Hindo-Buddhist religious concept of “thamma” (from Pali and rendered as ‘dharma’ in Sanskrit) and the term  “chat”.

In hindouism, the notion of dharma refers specifically to a system of cast in which each member of society belongs to an hereditary class according to his life stage. Every being has to conform to his personal Dharma, which a set of specific duties linked to his class.

In a Buddhist context:

  • Thamma” has many significations [standard, cosmic order, buddhist teaching and discipline]
  • chat” is the sanskrit and Pāli word for the cyclic notion of “birth” and “rebirth”.  It refers to the arising of a new living entity within cyclic existence (samsāra). “Chat” took in Thailand the modern sense of “nation”, “race”.

The neologism thammachat was probably created at the beginning of the twentieth century, when King Rama V and Rama VI started to modernize the country. But I still didn’t find the exact date of emergence of the concept.

In the Thaï dictionnary of Buddhism dating from 1993, thammachat  refers to:

“things that appear in connection with the forces of the universe as humans, animals, trees, etc.” (p. 107).

What is interesting to notice is that this holistic concept of thammachat simultaneously refers to the natural order of the cosmos and to the maintenance of social order that conforms to it.

From this holistic definition of nature, that encompass human and non human, I would now like to present some features that range Hindo-Buddhist societies in a continuum between analogical an animist ontologies. And then show how these ontologies overlap through the articulation between Buddhism and spirit cults.

  1. World in mirror

In Buddhist societies, the articulation and the search of harmony between macrocosm and microcosm is fundamental.

photo : Abigaël Pesses
(photo : Abigaël Pesses)

As shown by Heine-Geldern2 the spatial organization of Hindo-Buddhist states in Southeast Asia is a microcosmic mirror of the macrocosm. The capital, the royal palace and temples are replicas of the Mont Meru, which is considered as the magical center of the universe. The fertility of the land and the prosperity of the kingdom depends on the ability of the king and religious representatives to articulate the relations between social and cosmic orders.

In indigenous cosmology like the one of Karen highlanders, the world of ancestors is paralleled to the world of the living. Dead ancestors live in communities and grow rice like the humans. Ancestors are informed and invited to join the rituals of the agricultural calendar and life cycle events, like weddings.

  1. Chain of beings hierarchically ordered

The hierarchical dimension of analogism is found in Hindo-Buddhist societies in the structure of the cosmos itself.

Niveaux du cosmos et habitants - Des démons (en bas) aux dieux (en haut) - Chapelle du Palais du Devant -Bangkok
Levels of the cosmos – From demons (bellow), to gods (above) – Chapel of the Front Palace – Bangkok, (c) Patrice Bourdin

Human and non-human – animal, human, spirits and divinities – form a chain of beings hierarchically ordered depending on their place in the course of rebirth.

Human can enter in contact with underworld or heavenly spirits through trance, vision, divination with the help of medium or shaman.

  1. Fragmentation:

One important characteristic of analogism is the faculty of producing diversity, the proliferation of singularities.

The notion of multiple soul “khwan” in thaï, “k’la” in Karen, illustrate this idea of fragmented “spiritual” and “physical” essences that compose the person. Thaï persons have 32 khwan and Karen 37 k’la. Some animals, plants like rice, or objects also have souls. Karen think that human life particles are linked to animals of the forests, and can fly like birds when people are dreaming. The spiritual components of the persons can escape the body for many reasons: enjoy the freshness of a waterfall, get lost during a travel, be eaten by a malevolent ghost spirit. That’s why these flying essences have to be periodically recalled through rituals consisting in attracting life components of the person with food and tie a white cotton thread around the wrist to attach them to the body.

A monk biding a white cotton thread around the wrist of a Karen women to attach soul particles to her body (Abigaël Pesses)
  1. Sacrifice

Following Descola, in an analogical world, the continuity between beings – human and non human – can be realized by sacrifice. In southeast Asia, it echoes the widely spread practice of feeding land tutelary spirits with domestic animals like chicken, pigs, cattle or buffalo.

For example, the worship of territorial spirits plays a very important role in the founding of the “Thai City”.

city pillar – Chiang saen (Abigaël Pesses)

All Thai cities (muang) had their pillar foundation linked to the spirits of the founders, the ruling family or sometimes to military of the past who became guardian spirits of a territory.

These deities always have their say in the running of the city and the conduct of its members. Natural disasters, like floods or drought are sometimes considered as responses to deficiency in worship services.

These land spirits need to be appeased through sacrifice and have special mediators (saints, mediums, monks and ritual specialists) that interact with them for a wide range of matters : collective rituals to assure the fertility of the land, but also individual interactions to solve family problems, sickness, etc.

Catherine Allerton3, has noticed  that many groups in Southeast Asia share the idea of landscape has an “agency” or “potency”, meaning intentionality and power.

Sacrifice to the master of land and water (Karen cosmology)

In Karen animism the most important territory spirit is the lord of water and land.  It is a disembodied tutelary spirit that governs the local hierarchy of spirits inhabiting rivers and streams, land, forest and cultivated fields. Many taboos surround human conduct in regard to the tutelary spirits of the territory. Adultery can produce direct or indirect sanctions from the lord of water and land to any person or being sharing the resources of the same territory.

As human depends on spirits to ensure the stability of their existence, the human-spirit relation is asymmetric. It is what Marshall Sahlins4  calls “hierarchical animism“.

Hierarchical animism

This hierarchical animism differs from the Amazonian animism described by Descola in many aspects underlined by Guido Sprenger and Kaj Arhem in their recent collective book called Animism in Southeast Asia5.

  •  Human-spirit relationship prevails in Southeast Asia in contrast of human and wild animal relationship in Amazonia. From a spirit perspective humans are the food of the spirit. For the humans, spirits are protective masters or dangerous predators.
  • Whereas Amazonian animism is more egalitarian, in hierarchical animism, asymmetric relations reveal inequalities between souls and different degrees of potency.
  •  The body shapes the perception in Amazonian animism. The question of how body or appearance shape perception is more unclear in Southeast Asia as spirits can be embodied, disembodied, between corpse, ghost or fragmented essences.

Overlapping cosmologies: articulation between Buddhism and animism

Many anthropologists – Georges Condominas6 or Tambiah7 –  have noticed since a long time the articulation between animism and Buddhism in Southeast Asia.

Buddhism has domesticated the pre-Buddhist land spirits, turning them into deity or demons, acting as the auxiliary of the Buddha. They are executors of the effects of the law of Acts (karma) that determine the reincarnation of beings in the socio-cosmic structure.

Buddhist monks can also act to expel malevolent spirits – like wandering ghosts – who possesses or eat the soul components of the person. Buddhist missionaries sent in Karen villages, have played an important role to expel such potent spirit living in certain places of the landscape so that people could cultivate the land.

Embedded cosmos

During my fieldwork in 2000, I’ve assisted to tree ordination rituals8 articulating Buddhism and territorial spirit of Karen cosmology in order to protect the forest.

Karen calling for highland territorial spirits to protect the forest
Tree ordination ritual : Karen men calling for highland territorial spirits to protect the forest (Abigaël Pesses)

These rituals exemplified the overlapping of different cosmologies through the ritual articulation of Buddhism and territorialized animism.

Divinities of the Buddhist cosmology – Buddha, celestial spirits (theveda), mother of Earth Nang Thorani – were invoked by Buddhist monks, while Karen specialists invited their local territorial spirits to protect the forest, and impeach the cutting of sacred trees symbolically tied with a monk robe.

Tree ordination ritual (buat pa) -Chiang Mai province
Tree ordination ritual (buat pa) – Chiang Mai province (Abigaël Pesses)

This ritual articulation between men, local spirits inhabiting the forest and the deities of the different levels of the cosmos aim at making sacred forest sanctuaries. These sanctuaries were dedicated to the King Rama 9 for his golden jubilee, as he is considered as the chao pen din, the ultimate master and protector of the country land and water resources.

It is interesting to notice that the making of such sacred and potent areas display a conception of “nature” opposed to scientific system of classification used by the Royal Forestry Department to categorize protected forest areas and national parks. The zoning method indeed relay on the dualist Western conception of the separation between human and nature to preserve resources. During the ritual the display of the articulation between animism and Buddhism  was clearly presented as a an alternative conception of “nature”, rooted in Asian thought and practice, and a method of preserving forest encompassing human and non human.

This example highlights :

  • The overlapping of cosmologies and systems of knowledge in contemporary societies in relation with development issues.
  • The difficulty to classify Hindo-Buddhist societies in a continuum between analogism, animism or something else like “hierarchical animism”.

My hypothesis is that the analogical and animism ontologies overlap through the articulation of Buddhism and spirit cults. What I call “embedded cosmos”.

Buddhism gives a universal, analogical and inclusive ontology that encompass and articulates fragmented, territorialized, and particular animist cosmologies of different social collectives made of human and non human.

Buddhism gives a ritual grammar to articulate territorialized microcosmos to a more universal socio-cosmic and political orders.

Cite this article as: PESSES Abigaël, "Introduction session part 2 : Overlapping cosmologies and systems of knowledge", in, November 17, 2016, (

  1. DESCOLA Philippe, Beyond Nature and Culture, Translated by Janet Lloyd Foreword by Marshall Sahlins, University of Chicago Press, 2013 [2005], 488 p. []
  2. HEINE-GELDERN, R., Conceptions of state and kingship in Southeast Asia, 1956 [1942] []
  3. ALLERTON, Catherine (2009), “Introduction: spiritual landscapes of Southeast Asia“. Anthropological forum, 19 (3), pp. 235-251 []
  4. SAHLINS, Marshall. “On the ontological scheme of Beyond nature and culture”. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 2014, vol. 4, no 1, p. 281-290. On ligne []
  5. ARHEM, Kaj et SPRENGER, Guido (eds.), Animism in Southeast Asia. Routledge, 2015. []
  6. Georges Condominas, 1975 “Phiban Cults in Rural Laos”, in G.W. Skinner & A. T. Kirsh (éds), Change and persistence in Thai Society : Essays in Honor of Laurison Sharp, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, pp. 252-273. []
  7. TAMBIAH, S.J., Buddhism and the spirit cults in North-East Thailand. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1970 []
  8. PESSES, Abigaël, « Les rites d’ordination d’arbres, mise en scène de l’écologie indigène en Thaïlande ». Aséanie, Bangkok, Éditions du Centre d’Anthropologie de Sirindhorn, pp. 53-90. []

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