Khmer Religion

by Anne Hansen

Encyclopedic entry on Khmer religion, past and present.

King Sihamoni 1

Publication: Encyclopedia of Religion, 2d Edition, 15 vols.

Published: 2005

Author: Anne Hansen

Pages: 8

Language : English

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From pre-Angkorian times to contemporary Cambodia, a comprehensive summary of the diverse elements of Theravada Buddhism as it is practised by Khmer people nowadays.

Syncretism, influences of Hinduism and mainstream Buddhism, permanence of local beliefs and traditions are considered through the different historical phases of Cambodia, the national motto of which remains Nation-Religion-King”.

From the author’s introductory remarks: Khmer Buddhism is (and has long reflected) a complex interweaving of local and translocal religious ideas, movements, rituals, practices, and persons. This history includes, first, the blurring of clear distinctions between Therava¯da, Maha¯ya¯na, and Tantric historical development in Cambodia, and second, the incorporation of Buddhist values into local spirit cults and healing practices.

As Buddhist scholars have only recently begun to recognize, the older nor- mative presentation of a monolithic Therava¯da” tradition dominating Southeast Asia is largely a scholarly fiction.

Buddhism in Cambodia during the past two millennia has been marked by numerous transformations as it was blended, in different forms, with local and Hindu-influenced cults; as diplomats, missionaries, monks, and traders import- ed new interpretations, monastic lineages, and practices; and as Buddhism rose and fell from official patronage. 

There are striking continuities in Khmer religious history as well: the political potency of religion in various Khmer kingdoms, states, and regimes; the intertwining in all periods of Bud- dhist, Brahmanic, and spirit cults and practices; and, at least since the widespread popularization of Therava¯da Buddhism after the fourteenth century, the important role of Buddhist ideas and values in the moral vocabulary and ritual practices of Khmer people.’

Photo: A planting ceremony attended by H.M. King Norodom Sihamoni in 2020.

Tags: Theravada Buddhism, Khmer religion, syncretism

About the Author


Anne Hansen

A professor of History at University of Wisconsin-Madison (USA), Anne Hansen has extensively researched ethical ideas and modern religion representations in South East Asia, with an accent on Theravadin Buddhism.

Her MD thesis at Harvard Divinity School in 1988 was titled: Crossing the River: Secularization of Khmer Childbirth Rituals.”

She is the author of several published studies, as well as the following books: At the Edge of the Forest : Essays on Cambodia, History, and Narrative in Honor of David Chandler (Cornell University SEAP Press, 2008), and How to Behave: Buddhism and Modernity in Colonial Cambodia, 1860 – 1930 (University of Hawaii Press, 2007).