Readers might be interested in this upcoming conference in the Kingdom of Bhutan (hey, I think the conference venue alone makes it worth the trip!)
Mountains in the Religions of South and Southeast Asia: Place, Culture, and Power
4th SSEASR Conference, Thimphu, Kingdom of Bhutan
30 June – 03 July, 2011
Mountains are associated with the central values, practices, beliefs, and identities of religious cultures and traditions throughout the world. The physical and symbolic geography of mountains has inspired people for millennia with feelings of awe and wonder, as well as of fear and trepidation. In South and Southeast Asia, these experiences have sparked creativity in the realms of both religious discourse and practice. Mountains are perceived and revered in sacred texts, rituals, and practices as markers of both the transcendence and immanence of spiritual power: they are identified as gods or the abodes of gods; they serve as temples or places of worship; they house the ancestors and the dead; and they are sources of inspiration, cultural pride, and local and national identity. As links between nature and culture, mountains occupy a prominent place in the history of the region.
The sacredness of mountains is believed to manifest in two principal ways: mountains embody religious power and are sites for its manifestation. In the first instance, specific peaks are singled out by particular cultures and traditions as embodiments of special sanctity: these sacred mountains have wellâ€established networks of myths, beliefs, values and practices such as pilgrimage, meditation, and sacrifice (e.g. the Himalayas). Mt. Everest is considered the residence of Miolangsangma, the goddess of good fortune; as a result, indigenous peoples have banned the killing of animals (snow leopard, yak, etc) that reside in the higher elevations of the Himalayan zone. In the second instance, mountains that are not revered as embodiments of religious power may nevertheless be the locations of specific religious sites. These sites are subject to reinterpretation and they can become locations of cultural negotiation and conflict. In East Timor, for example, sacred caves, which were once central to local religions, are now linked to the Catholic Church and reinterpreted through a new religious lens. The Cordillera region in the Philippines, which encompasses most of the mountain range of Luzon, provides another instance of partial and selective sacrality. The entire mountain is not a symbol of reverence but its high terrain terraces are believed to be places that sustain life, the environment, and agriculture through ritual and religious practice.
Beliefs about the sacrality of specific mountains often reflect the coexistence of different religious traditions. Some Southeast Asian cultures believe that the ancestral spirits of mountains descended from the mountains in the spring in order to transform into gods of the rice fields; they would then return to the mountains from fall to winter and were once again worshipped as mountain gods. Another example is the peak of Mount Kailasa (in the Tibetan plateau), which is the pagoda palace of Demchog in Tibetan Buddhism and the abode of Siva in Hinduism. In Indonesia, many Balinese believe that there is an inseparable association between the Hindu temple and the mountain, but at the same time, they may continue to practice a form of preâ€Hindu worship.
Bhutan is a country of mountains, not only because mountains occupy almost 80% of the country, but also because throughout history, the life, culture and religion of the Bhutanese people have been inseparably related to mountains. Hence, the Royal University of Bhutan and the Institute of Language and Culture Studies, Thimphu are our natural hosts.