Learn About Animism in Laos

Laos is a country with diverse religions and cultures. In Laos, almost two-thirds of the people identify as Buddhist (64.7 percent). Laos’s former official religion was Buddhism. Buddhism is still the dominating cultural force in modern-day Laos, despite the fact that this is no longer the case.

Indeed, the nation and its culture are replete with outward symbols of religious awe. ‘None’ is the second-most popular affiliation in Laos (31.4 percent) meaning people have not identified with any religion so far. The remaining population is made up of 2.1 percent who identify as ‘other’ or who did not specify their religion, 1.7 percent of whom identify as Christians.

The integration of Buddhism with other religions is a significant aspect of this country. Theravada Buddhism as it is practiced in Laos incorporates ideas from animism, sometimes known as “spirit worship.” This is called the syncretism of religions and is very evident in Laos.

The majority of ethnic groups in the highlands of Laos practice animism. The belief in phi is the foundation of animism (spirit). Animism holds that everything that has happened to them in their lives—illness, disease, death, etc.—has been a result of the force of spirit.

Animism in Laos is characterized by ancestor worship and a conviction that all things are inhabited by spirits. The spirit houses, also known as “sarn” or “sarn pha phoum” across the nation, are an illustration of the syncretism between Theravadin Buddhism and animism.

The sarn, which frequently resembles Buddhist temples, are miniature residences that shelter local ghosts or spirits (referred to as “phi”) Lao people frequently give regard to any ghosts or spirits they may perceive to be nearby. For instance, Lao people frequently leave food and flowers outside the phi as daily sacrifices for the spirits.

They hold the view that all elements, including earth, sky, fire, and water, have spirits. In addition, according to their belief, 32 spirits reside inside each person’s body to protect them. They place the blame for their illnesses on any one of the 32 spirits to the left, thus they must perform sacred rites to summon these spirits back. Shaman performing sacred rites is significant in the life of animists. The majority of animists practice ancestral worship, and each home has a little altar on the wall. Overall, each ethnic group has diverse values and customs, yet they all share a close bond with nature.

All facets of the Lao population hold animist ideas, despite Buddhism being significant to Lao Loum and some Lao Theung communities. Many Lao people’s interactions with the environment and their communities are colored by their belief in phi (spirits), which also offers one explanation for illness and disease. Particularly at the village level, Buddhism and phi beliefs coexist, and certain monks are revered for having special powers to drive evil spirits from sick people or keep them away of homes. Many wat have a modest spirit hut that is connected to the phi khoun wat, the benevolent spirit of the monastery, built in a corner of the grounds.

Phi are numerous and varied. Some have ties to the four universal elements: fire, water, earth, and heaven. Many Lao Loum also think that khwan is guarding them (thirty-two spirits). The soukhwan, also known as the baci, is a ceremony that summons all thirty-two khwan back to the body to bestow health, prosperity, and well-being on the affected participants. Illness arises when one or more of these spirits leave the body, and this situation may be reversed. To maintain the participants’ spirits, cotton threads are placed around their wrists. The ceremony is frequently carried out to greet visitors, before and after long journeys, as a ritual for healing, or following the recovery from an illness.

Many Lao people hold the view that those who pass away due to an accident, act of violence, or delivery do not experience reincarnation and instead become phi phetu (malevolent spirits). Believers in animism also have a fear of the forest’s untamed spirits. Other spirits that are connected to particular locations, such as a house, a river, or a grove of trees, are neither fundamentally good nor bad. However, seldom gifts ensure their esteem and support in human matters. Similar ceremonies were frequently carried out in the past to win the goodwill of the rice spirit before the start of the farming season. As more and more areas were liberated starting in the late 1960s, the government opposed these events.

By the middle of the 1980s, this custom had reportedly disappeared—at least outside of the immediate vicinity of Vientiane.

Although each ethnic group has its own customs and beliefs, the majority of Lao Theung and Lao Sung people are animists who place a strong emphasis on ancestor worship. The Kammu refer to spirits as “hrooy,” and they are comparable to the Lao Loum “phi”; the house spirit is very significant, and spirits from wild locations should be shunned or forbidden from entering the settlement. Similar to the Lamet, each hamlet must have a spirit practitioner (xemia), who is in charge of performing all sacrifices to the local spirits. He oversees the men’s shared house as well as the building of any new homes.

The married men of the community choose one of the deceased spirit practitioner’s sons to succeed him after he passes away. If he doesn’t have any, his brother’s son gets picked. The Lamet place a high value on ancestor spirits (mbrong n’a) because they watch over the welfare of the entire family. They reside in the home, therefore everything is done with their knowledge. Buffalo skulls or horns from sacrifices are hung at the altar of the ancestors or under the house’s gable because ancestor spirits like them. To prevent disturbing ancestor spirits, certain taboos about conduct within the home must be followed.

Animism is still alive in Laos today. People from other ethnic groups, notably those of southern Chinese or Vietnamese descent, combine Mahyana Buddhism with Confucian principles. In Laos, religions frequently coexist with one another. Instead, there is a syncretic practice of several religious traditions as well as a general tolerance for them.