Hinduism in Malaysia
Malaysia has one of the largest ethnic Indian populations outside India, with an estimated 1.79 million people of Indian origin in the country. This amounts to roughly 7.1 percent of the total population of Malaysia which is about 25.3 million. An overwhelming portion of the Indians in Malaysia, about 89 percent, are Hindus. Hinduism is widely practiced in Malaysia where religious freedom is enshrined in the federal constitution, and adds to the multiculturalism in a country that has become a model for religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence despite challenges to this harmony in recent years.
While Hindu roots in the country go back to the 2nd century AD, descendents of the early Hindu kingdoms in the country are almost non-existent, having converted to Islam. Most of the Indians in Malaysia today were brought as indentured laborers by the British to work in oil palm and rubber plantations across the country between the 19th and 20th centuries. A significant portion of these laborers were from the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and share the language and culture of the Tamils. There are smaller groups of Malayalis and Telugus in the country as well, along with Tamils of Sri Lankan origin who are also overwhelmingly Hindus.
Smaller migrations of Indians in the form of skilled workers have occurred in recent years. There is also a very small community of Indian origin, called the Chitty, who are the descendants of Tamil traders who emigrated before 1500 AD, and Chinese and Malay women. Practicing Hinduism but speaking Malay, they number only about 2,000 today. The latest statistics place the number of Hindus in Malaysia today at approximately 1.6 million.
Features of Malaysian Hinduism
The laborers from India brought with them their language, culture and most importantly, the religion – Hinduism. In accordance with the Indian principle that a village without a temple is deemed unsuitable for dwelling, the settlers built temples in the plantations and estates that they worked in. Many of these temples continue to exist today and are more than a century old. Urban temples were also built in the early 20th century by merchants and traders who lived in the city. Identification with Hinduism and worship are important aspects of Indian culture, and Malaysian Indians have a strong association to their religion.
Hinduism in Malaysia is in general similar to the Hinduism in India, although certain aspects are amplified while others are played down. Lord Muruga, the quintessential Tamil deity, is perhaps the most popular Hindu gods in Malaysia, with Ganesha, Shiva and Amman also worshipped in large numbers. The Shaivite branch of Hinduism is predominant in Malaysia, although Vaishnavism also has an important representation especially with the recent revival of the Hare Krishna movement in the country.
Village deities, folk beliefs and animal sacrifice are also important features of Hinduism in Malaysia. Despite the increase in mainstream, Vedantic Hindu practices, the lesser deities such as Madurai Veeran, Sangili Karuppan and other village deities are widely worshipped in Malaysia. Animal sacrifices are practices in temples dedicated to these lesser deities as they are generally prohibited in temples dedicated to the Vedantic gods.
Hindu Festivals in Malaysia
Hindu festivals like Thaipusam and Deepavali are observed in a large scale across the country, and are public holidays in Malaysia. Thaipusam, dedicated to Lord Muruga, is celebrated every year in January or February in hilltop temples and draw large crowds of the faithful. The most famous celebrations are held in Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, drawing an estimated one million people annually as well as tens of thousands of tourists from all over the world. Thannir Malai in Penang is also very popular for its Thaipusam celebrations.
Deepavali is, however, identified as the primary Hindu festival in Malaysia. In a uniquely Malaysian practice, open houses are held during the Deepavali holidays, where people of different races visit Hindu homes to share in the celebrations as well as taste Indian food and sweets. Other Hindu festivals like Thai Pongal and Navaratri are observed with similar fervor but in smaller scales.
Hinduism...gave itself no name, because it set itself no sectarian limits; it claimed no universal adhesion, asserted no sole infallible dogma, set up no single narrow path or gate of salvation; it was less a creed or cult than a continuously enlarging tradition of the God ward endeavor of the human spirit. An immense many-sided and many staged provision for a spiritual self-building and self-finding, it had some right to speak of itself by the only name it knew, the eternal religion, Santana Dharma...