What is it about?

In this article I explore the significance of stone in Southeast Asia. For the people of the region, who are traditionally animists (and continue to be so despite the presence of world religions) stone is either alive or contains the potential for life. This means that it is often inhabited by spirits. The life force that accumulates in stone is regarded as the same as the power of the cosmos - which flows through the cosmos, flowing fastest in water and collecting in certain places, including stone. Thus, stone is a source of power and life. It is associated with origins and ancestors.

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Why is it important?

The people of SE Asia are animists, believing that life is everywhere in the cosmos. Because life force, which for them is the same as cosmic power, gathers in stone and humans can gain access to it, understanding the significance of stone gives us a lens through which we can better understand SE Asian animism and SE Asian concepts about the nature of the cosmos and how it works - in other words, the ontologies of the region. The conviction that there is life and power in stone is very widespread, and is probably universal among people who have not adopted a modern, scientific worldview. An understanding of SE Asian concepts relating to stone has very wide relevance to understanding how people all over the world understand the cosmos and the way the cosmos works.


I find the SE Asian notion that life force accumulates in stone, and the notion that life force and cosmic power are one and the same, fascinating, even rather alluring. The 'western', scientifically-grounded context in which I was brought up to see the world, which sees life as only present in currently living organisms and the power of the cosmos as being inert and inanimate, is lacklustre compared to a way of viewing the world that sees the potential for life everywhere and the power of the cosmos as being the same as life (and indeed sentience)! The 'western', scientific perspective is also, perhaps, rather unconvincing at a deeper level. Life poses profound philosophical and practical conundrums in terms of defining what it is, where it comes from and how it is embedded in the wider cosmos, and new ways of thinking about the nature of life should surely be welcome, to help us think about these deep topics - including the SE Asian ideas explored here - that life and cosmic power are the same, and that the potential for life/cosmic power may be present, even accumulate, beyond living organisms, including in stone.

Monica Janowski
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Stones Alive!, Bijdragen tot de taal- land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia, March 2020, Brill,
DOI: 10.1163/22134379-bja10001.
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