When the Spaniards came to the Philippines, they halted the spread of Islam already taking root with the governing class. Although Islam was already entrenched on parts of the southern Island of Mindanao, the people of Luzon and the Visayas still clung to traditional beliefs as their rulers began flirting with Islam. Decades later, after the arrival of the Spaniards, the Islands were almost entirely Roman Catholic. The majority of the people, as subjects of the Crown of Spain, were won for the Cross of Christ.
Before colonization, Filipinos worshipped anitos, nature spirits called diwatas, and a variety of Hindu-Buddhist entities such as the goddess Saraswati, the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (in his Indic male form, not Guanyin, the Chinese female form), the bodhisattva Tara, and Kinnari. Hindu and Buddhist statues have been found all over the Philippines, attesting to the links the Islands had with the South Asian region, China, the Srivijaya Empire, and the Majapahit Empire. Sanskrit words entered many Filipino languages – a telltale sign that Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism (treated as one religion) had taken root instead of Theravada Buddhism. (Theravada Buddhism uses Pali as a liturgical language.)
So what happened to the traditions of Hindu-Buddhist, Animist Philippines?
I believe many of the pre-colonial traditions survive under the guise of Folk Catholicism. Many Filipino Roman Catholics, Anglicans (Episcopalians), and Aglipayans don’t realize that some of these traditions unique to Filipino Christianity, are actually of so-called Pagan origin. Many Christian liturgical traditions are, so it is nothing but a continuing tradition of adaption, inculturation, and renewal of the old.
Ancestral traditions are pretty difficult to shake off. The early Filipino Catholics might have simply adapted these old traditions, or creative Spanish Friars might have adapted Christian liturgical tradition to fill the vacuum left by the abandonment of traditional beliefs.
These old traditions may have survived when Filipino Catholics light votive candles and lightly tap the flame or wave a hand over it, then make a sign of the cross. This is similar to actions done in Hindu pujas (aarti) and worship of Agni, the fire god.
These traditions may have survived when devotees wave candles at the statue of the Sovereign Christ Child in the Sinulog, a traditional devotional dance. This is similar to the act of waving candles in front of a statue in a Hindu puja.
These traditions may have survived in the Filipino Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, as a replacement for Saraswati, Tara, and the various moon and sea goddesses worshipped all over the archipelago.
These traditions may have survived as every Holy Week, Filipino Catholics chant the story of salvation and redemption, from the Creation to the story of the early Church, in a practice called Pabasa (literally ‘reading’) or Pasyon ('Passion'). This is similar to the chanting of Hindu epics such as the Ramayana (which survives in non-Christian Filipino minorities). Ethnomusicologists have found that the traditional tunes, although now Hispanized, are pre-colonial in origin. These tunes still contain melismas reminiscent of classical Indian, Sundanese, Javanese, and Balinese music.
These traditions may have survived in the fertility dances many Philippine women perform for the Blessed Virgin Mary and a myriad of saints.
These traditions may have survived as Filipino Catholics hang garlands of sampaguita on crucifixes, statues of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints. Floral offerings may look like traditional Balinese floral offerings. Palm leaves are also woven into many shapes like crosses, monstrances, chalices, churches, and these are blessed on Palm Sunday.
These traditions may have survived as Filipino Catholics wash statues with Agua de Florida, Agua de Colonia, rose water, or orange flower water, and vest them with miniature copes. This practice is similar to the bathing of Buddha on his birthday with sweetened tea or perfumed water, and how many Buddhists clothe statues of the bodhisattva Ksitigarbha.
These traditions may have survived as Filipino Catholics ask their ancestors (as part of the communion of saints) to intercede for them, that they might be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
These traditions may have survived as more traditional Filipino Catholics place food on a plate for visiting ancestors on Christian holy days (so that the dead might dine with the living), or offer food, fruit, flowers, and candles before pictures of the deceased on their death anniversaries. Another reminder of the communion of saints - the Church Triumphant, the Church Suffering/Aspirant, and the Church Militant.
These traditions may have survived as flagellants literally crucify themselves on Good Friday in rites reminiscent of Thaipusam. Medieval European Christians might have whipped themselves, but some modern day Filipinos are nailed on crosses – quite extreme.
These traditions may have survived as Filipino Catholics place a basket of exotic fruit on the family altar and dining tables at New Year’s. Mind you, “exotic" fruit in the Filipino sense might mean apples, pears, grapes, peaches, and cherries. Growing up in the Filipino American community, New Year’s fruit offerings consisted of mangoes, papayas, granadillas, mangosteen, lychees, soursop, pomegranates, coconuts, and longans – exotic in the Western sense.
These traditions may have survived as Filipino Catholics still show respect to old trees (particularly banyan trees – venerated in pre-colonial Philippines) in the vicinity, believing a diwata dwells there. The Paternoster, Ave Maria, or Trisagion might be said whilst passing by, or the sign of the cross might be made. Others might leave an offering of sweet rice cakes and arrack.
These traditions may have survived in the form of San Nicolas cookies, which are arrowroot shortbread biscuits shaped in a form that looks akin to a Buddha or a Kinnari.
These traditions may have survived as processions of saints visit homes during fiestas, and when devotees wave scented handkerchiefs as processions pass by.
And because of my High Church Anglicanism, some of these traditions comfortably survive with me – nothing too extreme that my grandmother might have done. For example, I lightly touch the flame after lighting a candle and make the sign of the cross. Every Easter and New Year’s I open the all the doors and windows to let the morning light in, and recite the Paternoster in every room. At sunrise, I might go outside, close my eyes, and feel the morning sunshine on my face. I ask my baptized ancestors to stand beside me and encourage me. I leave floral offerings and fruit to statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and vest her every May. I sprinkle gravestones with holy water or scented water when I visit my ancestors.
I can’t imagine abandoning what has been cherished for generations.
I believe the story that best captures the triumph of Christianity and the adaptation of pre-colonial tradition is the story of the dancing Santo Niño de Cebú. The Spaniards left the statue of the Christ Child with the Queen, only to be placed among non-Christian anitos and deities. People began to revere the statue of the Christ Child simply as another anito, and miracles were wrought among them. One day, one of Rajah Humabon's advisers was gravely ill. He was placed on a bed to lie in front of the Christ Child. A few hours later, a racket could be heard from the hut, and Rajah Humabon rushed thereto, to find his adviser standing and shouting, whole and completely well. Rajah Humabon asked, "My Lord, what is the problem?" His adviser angrily pointed at the statue and answered, "That child! That naughty, naughty child! He played a prank on me! Then he started dancing around the room and taunting me!" The adviser was completely oblivious to the fact he was miraculously healed.
For me, that describes the seamless transition to Christianity.