Notes on Brahmanic Gods in Theravadin Cambodia

by Saveros Pou

A lively and perceptive exploration of Cambodian syncretisme from ancient times

God Kama Banteay Srei

Publication: Indologica Taurinensia, XIV, pp 339-351

Published: 1987

Author: Saveros Pou

Pages: 12

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With her vast knowledge of Khmer linguistics and epigraphy, the author effortlessly leads us along the often unexpected and always inventive way of how the Cambodian people adapted external influences to their own beliefs and worldview. The most fascinating aspect of the Cambodian syncretism is perhaps the fact that many deities remained in the spiritual realm as "venerated but not worshipped" forces.

From these notes, we will underline:

  • Adaptative Freedom: "Two of the chief Brahmanic gods were neatly taken over by Theravada faith, i.e. Indra and Brahma. Nearly nothing was left from their past lofty and impressive features. But these were substituted for by highest ranks in the Buddhist cosmology. Indeed, they were assimilated with their Buddhist namesakes, with the result that their names were carried over, untouched, into the new system, and prefixed by the sacred headword brah."
  • Secularization : "God Yama had kept a vague and dim figure of judge in hell. But Theravadin eschatology was now more concerned with the working of karmic retribution, than with the threat of effective punishments of evil-doers in hell. In other words, the pragmatic Khmer Buddhists rather dreaded the action of yamapâlas, the 'hell-wardens', while holding unanimously the Buddha as the main judge of their deeds. The name Yamarâj, now redundant, was secularized, and applied to the "Minister of justice", nowadays written either yama- or yomarâj. As for Skanda, the young god also named Kumâr, he was too involved in healing sick children to disappear completely. His name was wholly secularized, hence the modern word skand, "convulsions" as disorder of infants, then any such disorder in all creatures. The most fantastic story concerns Kâma, Skt. lexical item and name of the god of love. It was a well-known noun in ancient Cambodia, as one of the elements of the trivarga, thus meaning "desire, longing after, pleasure, love ...". Predictably, austere Theravada could not accomodate such a concept, especially in the sense of "sensual love, sexual enjoyment". It banished it from trivarga, and cast out god Kama altogether. But the other side of Theravada, made of kind- and open-mindedness, tolerated effusive expression in poetic and lyric creations. Especially in lyric poetry, lovers went on singing their griefs and joys and the part played therein by a « god » of love whom they addressed as Kamadeb, and who is still very popular nowadays."
  • "Recycling" the gods: "I have focused my attention on the particular subject of Brahmanic gods, and the ways they were allowed to survive and to have an active part in the Cambodian Theravadin community. A few were adopted by the Buddhists because they suited weil their new world-representation. Several others owed their survival to a transfer into magic, therefore joined happily the most popular and active sphere of supernatural world, whilst a few were rescued from the sinking Brahmanism by linguistic and institutional usages. And this is one of the best illustrations of the present-day multifaceted Khmer culture."


Photo: Kama, the god of love, with Uma on a Banteay Srei bas-relief (by susan)

Tags: religion, Brahmanism, Theravada Buddhism, magic, cosmology, sanskrit, Old Khmer, Middle Khmer, Modern Khmer, syncretism

About the Author


Saveros Pou

Saveros Pou (Saveros Lewitz in the 1960s-1970s) ពៅ សាវរស (1929, Phnom Penh- 25 May 2020, France) was a French linguist of Cambodian origin. A retired research director of the CNRS in Paris, a specialist of the Khmer language and civilization, she carried out extensive work of Khmer epigraphy, starting as a young researcher with her teachers George Cœdès and Jean Filliozat.

Born in a high-society and learned family -- her uncle, Nhieuk Nou (1900-1982), was 'okhnya mahamantri', Royal Palace secretary, and her grandfather, Ker Nou (1864-1958), a judge and 'pandit' (sage) --, Saveros Pou went to the Sutharot Girls School and Lycée Sisowath before moving to France for higher education, to become a leading researcher in linguistics and social history of Cambodia, as well as a respected teacher for several generations. Residing in England in the 1970s and 1980s, she furthered her research in several US universities, in particular in Hawaii.

Her work in the field of etymology, specifically applied to old Khmer (from 6th to 14th centuries) was seminal, while her varied skills enabled her to tackle areas such as the very rich processes of derivation in Khmer, religion, codes of conduct, zoology and botany, culinary art, etc. This encyclopedic approach is reflected in her Dictionnaire vieux khmer-français-anglais.

She is the author of more than 150 books and articles, published in several orientalist journals such as the Journal Asiatique and the Bulletin de l'École française d'Extrême-Orient. Saveros Pou's last book published before her death was Un dictionnaire du khmer-moyen (Phnom Penh, Buddhist Institue, Sāstrā Publishing House, 2017).


Saveros Pou in 1970 (photo Reyum/Mikaelian)