Hinduism Yoga in Southeast Asia
by
Andrea Acri
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0270

Introduction

From at least the first half of the first millennium of the current era up to c. 1500 CE and beyond, Indic cosmologies, religions, and ritual systems based on Sanskrit texts reached Southeast Asia, influencing many of the societies and cultures of the region. The traditions of yoga that originated in the Indian subcontinent—understood here both in the narrow sense of specific philosophical and soteriological traditions described in Sanskrit sources (for example, Pātañjala yoga or tantric ṣaḍaṅgayoga) and in the wider sense of inner and outer psycho-physical techniques of self-cultivation, meditation, visualization, ascesis (tapas), etc., were an integral part of the phenomenon of “Indicization.” Yoga traditions were transmitted to the region by the seventh century at the latest and developed there well beyond the end of the Hindu–Buddhist period into the modern period in Islamic contexts, such as in the Javanese tradition of mysticism (kejawen), or in Hindu contexts, for instance in Bali. Southeast Asian cultures document a resilient interest in psycho-physical practices geared toward the attainment of physical and spiritual power, supernatural faculties, control of and influence over other people’s will, etc. Thus, Indic yoga traditions in Indonesia should not be studied as mere cultural transplants, but as phenomena involving an active Southeast Asian agency on the one hand, and reflecting local concerns on the other. Besides being a worthy object of study in their own right, yoga traditions in Southeast Asia also enlighten us about dynamics of cultural transfer within the wider transcultural context of the “Indic world,” i.e., a wide cultural-geographical area that included both South and Southeast Asia. Last but not least, they provide an independent, yet parallel, source of data to better understand yoga traditions in South Asia itself. Our knowledge about yoga traditions in Southeast Asia mainly derives from textual documents in Sanskrit and premodern and modern vernacular languages of Java (Old Javanese, Modern Javanese), Bali (Old Javanese, Balinese), and Sumatra (Classical Malay), as well as from sparse art historical evidence and modern and contemporary practices. This bibliographical article surveys this multifaceted evidence, focusing mainly on the premodern period and Sanskrit–Old Javanese sources, but also including Indic traditions that evolved into modern contexts. It does not include the contemporary forms of transnational yoga, which are attracting a significant number of followers in Southeast Asia, but which constitute modern imports with hardly any links with pre-existing traditions of yoga.

General Overviews

A comprehensive overview of the field in the form of a monograph has yet to be written. Acri 2021 is the only survey article on yoga traditions in Insular Southeast Asia to have been written to date. This lack of resources reflects not only the disciplinary challenges intrinsic in the academic study of yoga as a phenomenon that was “localized” in many different cultures and societies in the vast and diverse region of Southeast Asia, but also the fact that recent Indological research, with some notable yet quantitatively limited exceptions, has often tended to neglect material from Southeast Asia.

  • Acri, Andrea. “Yoga and Meditation Traditions in Insular Southeast Asia.” In Routledge Handbook of Yoga and Meditation Studies. Edited by Karen O’Brien-Kop and Suzanne Newcombe, 273–290. London and New York: Routledge, 2021.

    A survey of yoga and meditation traditions in Indonesia, mainly in Java and Bali, drawing from both Sanskrit–Old Javanese primary sources and secondary literature describing modern Balinese practices. It upholds a comparative approach underscoring the South Asian origin of the yoga systems documented in Javanese and Balinese sources, and highlighting the continuities between premodern and modern practices and ideas in both Balinese Hindu and Javanese Islamic contexts.

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