As elsewhere in Asia, ancient animistic practices predate known history and it is a testament to the power of these beliefs that they still survive the onslaught of the major religions of the world, eager to convert everyone to their particular claims of 'truth' and ‘knowledge’. 

Many of these most ancient practices have been submerged by the adopted dominant religion, but it is often striking to observe the degree to which the ‘usurping’ belief has been obliged to absorb considerable elements of these former beliefs. 

Typically, in the history of adopted religions it is a reigning monarch who is converted and then has to carry his people with him, only to find that the widespread common practices of the population are impossible to simply dissolve by imperial edict alone and expediency inevitably engenders compromise. 

In the case of Myanmar, King Anawrahta of Burmese Bagan, having murdered his brother to ascend to the throne in 1044 AD, adopted Theravada Buddhism as the founding principle of what would become the Bagan Empire, a rival of the neighbouring Hindu empire of Angkor.   

In the Myanmar of the time, the traditional shamanistic Nat or spirit worship, which had itself previously incorporated Hindu elements into its practice, to the extent that the King of the Nats, Thagyamin, is based upon the character of Indra, now had to adapt itself to Buddhist revision.  

Nat worship, then as now, is the most obviously visible of the ancient traditions to have survived the flux of fortune that had accompanied the Burman people as they descended south into the area from the 6th Century AD into lands of the Puy and Mon kingdoms. 

Angered by the prevailing persistence of Nat worship, King Anawrahta embarked upon a widespread destruction of Nat shrines, but the tenacity of the people in continuing with their long held traditions finally forced him to relent, whereupon he pragmatically accepted the presence of 37 Nats into his Buddhist pantheon, bringing the traditional Nat ruler Thagymin under the supremacy of the Buddhist diety Sakra. 

In modern Myanmar, although you will see Nat symbols incorporated within Buddhist temples everywhere, but the best place to witness the observance of Nat rituals in their purest form is at the volcano of Mount Popa, during one of its festivals, the largest of which are the full moon celebrations of Nayon (May-June) and Nadaw (November-December), and the Thingyan Festival in April. 

This pragmatism of King Anawrahta ultimately ensured the survival of Theravada Buddhism at the heart of Burmese society, which it remains today, but also allowed the king the freedom of action he needed to get on with the business of empire expansion, taking over the Mon and Puy kingdoms. 

As you travel round modern Myanmar, you may often be quoted some fanciful stories, and particularly dates, for the presence of Buddhism in the country. Certainly it was not unknown in the Mon and Puy societies of southern Myanmar, where it often exchanged supremacy with Hinduism in the ebb and flow of rulers and their conflicts. 

The ascribing of Schwedagon Pagoda to the time of Buddha in ‘accepted’ Myanmar traditions is a case in point. Archaeologists and historians are inclined to date the fabulous monument to the Mon culture variously between the sixth and tenth centuries, whereas, when visiting the temple you will likely be told of the story of the merchant brothers Taphussa and Bhalika who brought hairs of the Buddha during his lifetime in the fifth century BC to the site, which are said to occupy the shrine. 

This tendency to elongate the influence of Buddhism is found everywhere in the country and often includes accounts of visits by the Buddha himself to Myanmar, leaving footprints and other such relics in his wake. These themes have their origins in the 5th Buddhist Council, held in Mandalay in 1867, which drafted a history based upon the sources available at the time, which has subsequently assumed the mantle of accepted truth. 

By no means unique to Buddhism this later reworking of the facts is also found in Christianity where, between the first century adaptions of Paul up until the council of Nicaea in 325 AD which cemented accepted scripture, the figure of Jesus acquired divine status. Indeed no record of Jesus from his time survives, and the gospels upon which the creed is based are all of a later date. 

Knowledge of Christianity itself would arrive in Myanmar with the early forays of Portuguese and latterly French missionaries from the 1500’s, who established minor communities, but the main thrust of Christian evangelisation came with the British colonial conquerors who established schools and churches, and was most successful in finding converts among the non-Buddhist ethnic communities of the Kachin, Karen, Lisu, and Lahu peoples. 

However, since the departure of the British and the restoration of Independence, Christianity, though still present as a minority belief, has been suppressed in Myanmar at the hands of the military government. 

Another religion to undergo suppression is Islam, which first arrived with Arab traders in the time of early Bagan, before the time of King Anawrahta, and its many of its the practitioners intermarried among various ethnic groups, bestowing a significant minority influence in pre-colonial Burma.

The presence of Islam was bolstered by the British during their period of occupation, when migrant workers from India, already well versed in British administration, were brought in to oversee the finer details of colonial rule, along with many Hindu workers. Although Hinduism had a wide influence upon the early development of the nation, it is only now practiced among the descendants of these immigrant workers. 

In the modern era, Islamic beliefs among the offspring of Indian workers and the descendants of Arab and Persian traders are largely tolerated, but the ethnic Islamic Rohingya people of Rakhine State, in their separatist efforts to create an independent Islamic state, have suffered widely through the strikingly uncharacteristic violence of Buddhist militants, which has led many of their people to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. 

For these reasons, although Burma claims it has no state religion, in practice it overwhelmingly actively supports the Buddhist majority together with the worship of Nats, which comprise the daily reality of ritual you will observe in Myanmar today.

 

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