I have heard people talk about ‘building a worldview,’ but before today I never knew that phrase was anything more than a metaphor. Today we visited Angkor Wat—one of the Seven Wonders of the World; the Khmer people’s most honored cultural site; and an all-around awe-inspiring place. Angkor was an ancient city, in fact, the capital of the Khmer empire at its peak. The city is built of stone, intricately carved into domes, archways, streets, wells, tunnels, and cisterns, to name a few. We visited the restored palace and a temple, as well as many of the ruins in the city. I was blown away by the amount of intricate detail and heavy grunt work that would have been necessary to build this city. In fact, this ambitious construction project contributed greatly to the empire’s downfall. The king and his government worked the common people so hard that they exhausted their resources and displeased their empire. Not long after it was built, the empire was taken over and the city lost to the encroaching jungle.
The city is, to all intents and purposes, the foundation and solid rock of the Khmer worldview. Angkor was originally devoted to Hinduism, but soon after it’s construction Buddhism was introduced and many converted. At some point Buddha statues were put into the complex, at which people still worship today. I think that Angkor Wat is a concrete representation of the Khmer worldview because of this superficial shift. The entire city is covered in carvings and statues of the Hindu gods and of Buddhas, just as the Khmer people today are ostentatious in their worship. The scrollwork, balustrades, and bas reliefs covered in intricate details are an example of how this culture’s religion surfaces in quite literally every aspect of life. The temples and the city represent this culture in full. The culture is based off of a Hindu-permeated society. The people worshipped a long list of gods and gave offerings to the spirits to appease them and bring health, good luck, or salvation. After the conversion to Buddhism, the culture picked up a love for stories (as told on the bas reliefs) and changed from worshipping many idols to just a few Buddhas. They still burn incense and leave offerings of money, flowers, fruit, other food, or any other gifts to their spirit houses in their front yard. The people here live in such darkness—the same darkness that caused the downfall of the great Khmer Empire.
Inside the temple and palace even today, people prostrate themselves on mats to pray. They burn incense, leave offerings, and follow the pilgrimage routes to appropriately revere the buddhas. They pay priests outrageous sums to protect their children with amulets or to send away spirits of bad health or bad luck. As Paul says, these people worship no-gods. There is no life in that stone, and certainly nothing that deserves adoration or the little money the Khmer have. But the evil spirits are at work too. The people think they are protected and safe, but in reality they have been pulled into a lie. They are literally selling themselves into bondage and working themselves into another fallen empire because of their devotion to spirits who answer their prayers with nothing but evil. These people need the stories we bring. They need to hear of the life they have been given—that the darkness has seen a great light.