on between two Southeast Asian societies
‘Without rice, there is nothing doing.’
The fact that rice plays an important role in the lives of the peoples of Southeast Asia is undeniable. It is not just a form of sustenance that nourishes the body; it is also an aspect of everyday life that feeds not only the soul but the unbounded realms of the imaginative human mind. Such proverbs as above are an example of how rice is revered and incorporated in day-to-day living of the peoples in this region. Even outside the region, as in Mizumono Kuni – the Land of Luxurious Rice Crops that is Japan, the placement of rice is that of a very high level:
…next to the Emperor, rice is the most sacred of all things on earth.
Money can be squandered and the wastrel forgiven, but there is no forgiveness for wasting rice (Piper 1993:14).
In Southeast Asia, rice is seen as the basis of almost all the cultures and civilizations ever created. It is also said to be responsible for the high populations of this region for if it wasn’t for rice that had replaced the millets and other staple food crops that preceded it, far fewer people could have been supported by agriculture (Piper 1993:1). The truth remains that the bulk of the cultures of Southeast Asia constitutes agriculturalists with rice as the main crop, with a few exceptions of course, in more industry-oriented nations for example. Two main elements can be derived: firstly, since rice has been the major crop cultivated in Southeast Asia for perhaps more than 7,000 years, surely cultures and civilization are interwoven with each other (Piper 1993:1). One can safely assume that that long a time must have been ample enough for gradual evolutions and intermixing of cultures and traditions, rituals and beliefs and so on that is closely linked to rice, so we can see similarities between cultures of different countries within this region that may have even perpetuated from the same roots.
And the same goes to the careful selections of good varieties of rice over time.
Secondly, rice is such an adaptive crop that it is not impossible to successfully grow it in different environments where crops could not have been grown successfully- from swampy valleys and deltas to hot, dry land above the floods and even in the mountain forests (Piper 1993:1). Consequently, rice is often seen as a blessed gift from the divine and that it is generally treated with due respect and reverence. What are the evidences for this?
A good way of looking at the extent of the importance of rice in the lives of the Southeast-Asians is by observing the socio-cultural ways and practices of the peoples through their traditions and whatnot that have been passed down from one generation to another. Obviously, most of these societies have put a lot of emphasis on rice and religion seeing that rice has indeed impacted upon their lives like a blessing from the heavens. As such, we shall later look at the examples of two Southeast Asian societies in which I hope will evidently display the socio-religious significance of rice in the lives of its members, and the importance within their society as a whole.
Before I proceed, I think it imperative to somehow define religion and what the term socio-religious (significance and) practices mean. Why should it be a good indicator of how much rice is revered and even worshipped in this region? As a food, why should one even relate rice to religion?
The forms of religion vary enormously, but they are all alike to the extent that they are founded on a belief in the supernatural (Ferraro 1997:284). Although the definition and interpretation of religion is highly open to discussion and that not all anthropologists always agree on one, Ferraro offers a definition which I think is suitable to this paper. He defines it as a set of beliefs and patterned behaviours concerned with supernatural beings and forces. He continues,
Because human societies are faced with a series of important life problems that cannot all be resolved through the application of science and technology, they attempt to overcome .