Throughout history, such reformations have been a universal and necessary feature of religious faith. One method of this reformation is syncretism - which is often seen as the conscious and unconscious blending of indigenous religion and culture with that of the dominant society. In the best cases, this blending of religious philosophies rests on the ingenuity and involvement of the local society. When syncretism is based on the choices of the local society and not the incoming religion, the popular religion that is formed is one that fulfills the needs of the indigenous culture. In Southeast Asia for example, many countries have been affected by the introduction of "world" religions. In most of these situations, however, the introduction of these religions did not entirely wipe out the existing local religions of the indigenous culture. Instead, a central, syncretic religion was often formed. This was the circumstance in Burma and Thailand, when Theravada Buddhism was introduced in the third century AD.
Two thousand years ago, Indian influence spread throughout Southeast Asia. This influence included all forms of Buddhism. The Southern transmission of Buddhism spread to Thailand, Burma, Laos, Kampuchea, and Indonesia. There were important Buddhist movements in Laos, Kampuchea and Indonesia, but none of these countries can be defined primarily as Buddhist states today. In Burma and Thailand, however, Theravada Buddhism took hold in the hearts and the minds of the people. As the popularity of Buddhism began to increase in these countries, the local religion and culture began to make small adaptations in order to combine the two systems of beliefs into one harmonious popular religion. Although the transition was not immediate, Buddhism slowly became the official state religion of both Burma and Thailand.
Lying immediately to the east of India, Burma is carved from north to south by the great river Irrawaddy. The original inhabitants of Burma were the Mon people. The Burmese themselves only came down from the mountainous regions to the east of Tibet shortly before Buddhism was introduced. In addition, Burmese kingdoms were not established until the third century AD (Snelling 1987: 126). The earliest Burmese were a population drawn from different ethnic backgrounds, living different levels of culture. In fact, it wasn't until the eleventh century that the name Burma was adopted to indicate territorial integrity (Dutt 1966: 48). It was around this time that Theravada Buddhism became a pervasive element in Burmese culture. King Anawrahta founded the first Burmese Buddhist dynasty in 1044AD, and he quickly set out to establish the Buddhist dharma throughout his domains (Smith 1965: 14). By the end of his reign, the important character of traditional Burmese Buddhism was already clear: the promotion of the faith was the function of the king (14). While this may have been true, it was the masses that slowly incorporated this new religion into their daily lives.
In Thailand, just as in Burma, Buddhism is the state religion. The King must not only be a Buddhist, but he must also be a defender of the religion. The people of Thailand take the role of Buddhism in their society very seriously. Theravada Buddhism was introduced to the Thais through the Mon people, the original inhabitants of Southern Burma. Mons were introduced to Buddhism through missionaries from India in the third century AD (Snelling 129). In Thai thinking, Buddhism deals with virtue and wisdom that can liberate people from the common order of life. Buddhism shows the way out of suffering and the illusory self that is subject to the cycle of rebirth. In Thailand, Theravada Buddhism relates to the trustworthy order of morality and goodness that is symbolized by the Buddha (Mulder 27). The Buddha is the highest refuge, and the dharma directs its followers towards enlightenment and freedom from samsara. The people of Thailand have incorporated this foreign set of beliefs into their own local religion.
Of the two elements making up this syncretic religion in Burma and Thailand, Buddhism is the more formal and institutionalized, with its system of monasteries and its abundance of sacred literature. The principle religious role in both societies is the monk or priest, whose social status has the most elaborated and formalized role expectations. In both Burma and Thailand there are strict formal behavioral patterns between the Buddhist priest and the layman. In Thailand, for example, the priest may have no contact with women, and the layman must use formal language and respectful postures when speaking to him (Ingersoll 1966: 65). In Burma, the normative behavior of monks and laymen are even more confining. A monk may not interact with villagers in their economic, political, or kinship roles. The interaction between monks and laymen requires strict, stylized behavior on the part of both. In fact, the monk usually meets with laymen only on special occasions, and only when they are in groups with their behavior exposed to public view (Pfanner 1966: 88).
The reason for these strict behavioral roles in Burmese and Thai society, is the high social status that is afforded to monks. Priests and laymen maintain intimate social relationships and close socio-cultural role interdependence (Ingersoll 66). Their relationship reflects the higher social status of the monk in Buddhist societies. In Burma and Thailand, this status is due to the belief that Buddhist monks epitomize a life dedicated to personal salvation and liberation, through an adherence to a monastic code. The Burmese recognize that the karma of a monk is so vastly superior to that of the layman, that the very presence of a monk has a ritual sanctity about it (Pfanner 90). The spiritual purity and moral superiority of Buddhist monks, originates partially in the merit earned by the daily observance of their vows. Merit is gained through austerity of life and strict discipline with laborious study of the dharma (Ingersoll 55). Nevertheless, while Thais and Burmese do view Buddhism as the epitome of moral goodness, they have not left behind their original system of beliefs in favor of these new ones.
There is an elaborate richness of religious fabric in Burma and Thailand. The diverse threads of the Buddhist tradition have been interwoven with the indigenous worship of spirits, the result presenting a complex array of religious emphasis. Since the introduction of Theravada Buddhism in Thailand, there has been a conciliation with the local religion. The Thais chose to incorporate only those elements of the Buddhist doctrine that were compatible with their own culture and traditions. As a result, the popular religion of Thailand is one that has been created and adapted by its people. Buddhism in Thailand is a religion concerned with auspiciousness and the manipulation of supernatural power or saksit (Mulder 19). Because of this Thai outlook, Buddha images became seats of power, and the practice of merit-making was turned into a method of ensuring success. The Thais see power as a tangible, accessible force that can be supplicated and manipulated as needed (22).
Saksit is not believed to have moral characteristics, but rather it is seen as a realm of supernatural power. The rules for dealing with this power are clear and mechanical. When approached correctly, saksit may be harnessed for the needs of the individual, with its vengeful manifestations neutralized (29). For example, most houses in Thailand have a small spirit shrine for phaphuum, the "lord of the place". This spirit is seen as a local ruler whose presence should be both recognized and respected. Similarly, the Thais also recognize individual spirits that protect the village, the Buddhist compound, and the province. All of these spirits are simply there, exercising their right to be respected and supplicated (29). In order to invoke the benevolent attention of these saksit forces, an individual must initiate the transaction by paying respect and making an appropriate offering. Once the offering is made, the supplicant offers his terms of the contract by making a vow of repayment, which will be redeemed when his wishes are granted. This method of supplication is followed carefully, because saksit spirits are very sensitive about their power. Therefore, proper respect must always be shown (32).
The relationship between Thai spirit-worship and Theravada Buddhism is a complex one. Through centuries of adaptations, Thailand has created a popular religion that benefits the lives of its people. Beyond saksit power is the area of chaos and unreliability, which is represented by a terrifying realm of evil. The Thais refer to this realm as the decha dimension (27). The forces in this realm bring illness, death, and destruction. In order to overcome or neutralize the decha forces, a powerful counter-force is used: Pali incantations by a Buddhist monk. The Buddhist monk is thought to be a powerful symbol of khuna, or moral goodness (33). The monk is therefore the ultimate agent to vanquish evil spirits. A Thai village community may actually nurture auspiciousness, and feel that it is protected by the strength of merit that is accumulated by the village temple. Since they believe that they are surrounded by powerful spirits that can be potentially harmful, the virtuosity of Buddhist monks increases the Thai feeling of security (34).
The Thai indigenous religion is one that deals with power that is encountered during the course of every day activities. These saksit forces are complimented by the moral goodness that is found in Theravada Buddhism. Thais see this moral goodness reflected in the pure virtue that lies beyond the human order of passion and rebirth. Buddhism represents the realm of truth and the highest khuna, which is exemplified by the compassion and wisdom of the Buddha (38). In Thailand, the process of gaining merit is an important technique to ensure personal safety in a world that is filled with power. One of the basic characters that the Thai local religion shares with Theravada Buddhism, is the recognition of impermanence and insecurity in the outside world. The Thais recognize that their life revolves within a myriad of unpredictable forces. It is because of this, that the Thais need to find some way to create a temporary order in their life. Order is therefore created by adding carefully chosen aspects of Theravada Buddhism to the local indigenous religion of spirit-worship.
There are similar concessions made in Burma's local religion. Just as the Thais have a system of beliefs revolving around spirits, so do the Burmese. In Burma, this belief in spirits, or nats, coexists within the framework of the Theravada Buddhist religion. This local belief is in fact a complementary part of the Burmese Buddhist philosophy, and it is integrated into the daily and seasonal religious rituals of the people. The two religions have been assimilated to such an extent, that the average layman is completely unaware of their separate origins (Smith 172). The persistence of nat worship is largely explained by the fact that it enables the devotee to cope with pressing immediate problems of this life, rather then simply focus on the supernatural help of the Buddhist doctrine. Much like the Thais, the Burmese avail themselves to both religions as the way to ultimate salvation. It is hoped that the Buddha will help in the next life, and the spirits will help with an individual's present difficulties.
Offerings to the nats can placate them and induce them to intervene in human affairs, for the benefit of the worshipper. This relationship with the spirits links the Burmese in a subsystem of ritual and spiritual identification (174). The major division that the Burmese distinguish between the spirits is ahtet nats and auk nats. The ahtet nats are those that are awaiting the Buddha in the sky. The auk nats belong to a different order, which includes both named and unnamed spirits drawn from an indigenous cosmology (Nash 1966: 117). While the Burmese recognize an official core of thirty-seven nats, many differ in their opinion of which spirits are included in this list. Most spirits are legendary figures either of royal blood, or of those associated with royalty, who died tragic and untimely deaths (118). Nat propitiation enters into every significant phase of the villagers' life. In addition, much like the saksit spirits of Thailand, nat spirits form distinct structural levels.
There are household nats who must be appropriately supplicated, if a homeowner wishes to have a sense of security. Villagers see these spirits as petty tyrants, who must be given constant attention. Just as saksit spirits are easily insulted, the household nat must be carefully placated through respect and ritual offerings (119). The Burmese also recognize village nats, who are concerned with the general welfare of the villagers. These spirits are seen as kinder beings then the household nats, and the Burmese provide them with offerings at annual celebrations or when disaster threatens to strike (123). Perhaps the most important spirits recognized in Burma, are the regional nats. These spirits have functions relating to the paddy land or to the rice that is stored after harvest. These nats are of utmost importance, and all Burmese farmers see to it that the paddy field spirit is appropriately propitiated (126). This regional nat must receive an offering at the time of transplanting the rice and also at the time of harvest. This belief of paddy field nats is similar to the belief of the "rice soul" by the Iban of Sarawak.
The religious practice of Southeast Asia is fundamentally very forward-looking in nature. It is directed towards achieving results in this world, among the living and the recently deceased. In Southeast Asia, the line between life and death is a fluid one. Life is experienced as a whole, with religion an inseparable part (Mulder 23). Moreover, the nations of Southeast Asia often combine these local beliefs with the new religions that are introduced. Burma and Thailand are just two examples of this practice. For instance, the Iban of Sarawak believe the soul of a loved-one becomes transformed after death, finding rebirth in the dew that fertilizes the rice in their fields (Sutlive 1978: 65). This cyclical notion of time and rebirth is reinforced with a ritual system bound to their economic practices. Interestingly, however, the Iban consider themselves to be Christian. Nevertheless, while they recognize Christianity as their official religion, the Iban have not stopped practicing their pre-Christian, indigenous belief system.
Similarly, the Javanese are another Southeast Asian culture that has created a syncretic religion from two distinct parts. On the surface, the Javanese are Muslim. Even so, by combining Islamic practices with local cosmology, mythology, and metaphysics, the indigenous people have created "Javanism" (Mulder 45). This syncretic religion allows the Javanese to retain their culture while at the same time creating a unique philosophy of life that may not have previously existed. The Balinese experienced a comparable addition to their traditional culture. When Hinduism was introduced to the Balinese in the first century AD, they slowly adopted and incorporated it into their existing religious practices. The local religion of the Balinese focuses on a predominance of art, and a cycle of time that incorporates the Hindu element of rebirth (Lansing 1995: 27). In addition, on Bali there are almost daily festivals in celebration of the pantheon of gods and goddesses that exist in the center of their "holy water religion", Agama Tirtu. Like the Iban, this is a people that have a ritual system that is closely tied to their economy.
Consequently, with the spread of "world" religions to Southeast Asia, societies have adapted new religions to suit their needs. The formation of syncretic religions can be found throughout Southeast Asia, whether it is in the insular regions or on the mainland. For instance, with the spread of Indian ideas, came a new view of life in the form of Buddhism. As Theravada Buddhism was incorporated into Burma and Thailand, a new ranking of society grew, with the monks at the top and the laity far beneath. This hierarchy was not a static one, but rather one where anyone could gain the highest virtue by simply becoming a Buddhist monk. In countries like Burma and Thailand, where power has a multitude of supernatural projections, moral goodness can be attained through natural, human manifestations.
In Thailand, power is found in a tenuous amoral order, as well as in a realm of immoral chaos. To give a sense of security to the people, goodness must be readily available in a reliable and stable form. Therefore, aspects of Theravada Buddhism are combined with the indigenous practices and beliefs. In Burma, nats are seen as an extension of the human society, and the propitiation of them effects one's fortune in life. Nats emerge as integrated figures of the Burmese society, existing in an order that coexists with the Buddhist ideology. Foreign elements were received into Thailand and Burma, and the people molded them to suit their own pattern of beliefs. Together with other aspects of culture, and like life itself, the forms of religion have been characterized by birth, death, and transformation. The reform of religion is not unrelated to the changes taking place in other spheres of human life and society. In fact, in many instances that impetus for religious reform comes from within the religious system itself. Syncretism should therefore be viewed as part of a broader, more complex process of socio-cultural change.
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