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Thai Folk Religion: A Melting Pot of Beliefs

Songkran festival traditional ceremony

Penny Senanarong
3rd year Undergraduate student
BSc Business Economics
University of Exeter

As early as 1292, a well-known inscription of King Ramkamhaeng the Great was composed, celebrating how the citizens of Sukhothai were devoted to Theravada Buddhism (Kirsch, 1977). To this day, an overwhelming majority of Thai people identify as Buddhists (NSO, 2015). However, what is colloquially referred to as ‘Thai Buddhism’ may be more complex than its name implies, for the label of ‘Thai Buddhism’ is actually an umbrella term for what is arguably a syncretic folk religion composed of an amalgamation of Buddhism, Brahmanism, and animism (Kirsch, 1977).

The most obvious way Theravada Buddhism manifests in Thai society is the prevalent belief in ‘merit’ and ‘demerit’. The belief that an individual’s status in life is determined by their cumulative ‘karma’ gathered in their past lives and current life have led many to behave in a way that would generate merit in order to gain influence or wealth, in hopes of reincarnating in a future life that is more favorable and filled with greater worldly privileges than their current life (Piker, 1968). In my personal view, this worldview does have its own flaws and unfortunate implications. Does the notion of karma insinuate that those who are born poor or lacking hence deserve their impoverished life due to the fact that they may have lost merit in their previous lives? Is this deterministic outlook being unconsciously used to justify the gap between the rich and the destitute, victim-blaming the poor and marginalized for being born the way they are?

Brahmanism, on the other hand, is “an early stage” religion “in the development of Hinduism” (“Brahmanism,” 2020). Brahmanism in Thailand is evidenced through the various “Hindu-derived deities” that are commonly worshipped here, some examples being the Hindu gods Bhrama and Indra (van Esterik, 1982). Many Brahmanistic rituals such as the First Plowing (‘Raek Na Kwan’) ceremony were also adopted by the Thai royal court, and even commonplace concepts such as the belief in ‘Khwan’ – the finite amount of spirit that exists within an individual which may wander or escape from the body – are also linked to Folk Brahmanism (Kirsch, 1977). Hence, this shows how Brahmanistic beliefs exist in all corners of Thai society, from the highest echelons of royalty to everyday beliefs in Brahmanistic concepts.

Animism is much easier to spot: the existence of spirit houses is a testament to the Thai faith in spirits. In Thai beliefs, good spirits may be viewed as being beneficial, willing to form a symbiosis with the human who shelters and takes care of it, and in turn will act as the guardian of the land and defend it from bad spirits (Bengali, 2019). The idea of ghosts is again linked to the Buddhist idea of merit and demerit, for it is believed that a ghost suffering from demerit will likely be a ‘dangerous’ ghost whereas a spirit who has merit will be a ‘good’ ghost. Moreover, there are also ghosts called ‘Preta’ stuck in the stage of liminality who wander the human realm hoping to gain merit (van Esterik, 1982). Ghost stories are a staple of Thai folklore, one of the most prominent being the tale of Mae Nak Phra Khanong which has inspired numerous films. Even though Mae Nak Phra Khanong is known to be vindictive in her myths, she is still worshipped by many Thais who seek boons such as having smooth childbirth or to avoid military enlistment (Newman, 2016).

Likewise, there are other forms of folk religion existing in Thailand, such as the worship of planets. Many Thais do consider astrological heavenly bodies to be deities as well as material astronomical objects. One popular god, being ‘Rahu’, frequently worshipped in Central Thailand as the god of luck and fortune (Burns, 2018). These planetary deities may possibly also be a syncretization of the Navagraha which are the nine heavenly bodies who are also accepted to be deities in Hinduism (Dalal, 2010). Another form of folk belief includes the worship of the late Thai monarchy, an example being the worship of the spirit of King Chulalongkorn, and the veneration of dead Theravada Buddhist monks who are reputed to possess supernatural powers (Jackson, 1999).

Hence, it could be argued that Thai Buddhism isn’t just merely Theravada Buddhism, but it is a form of folk religion that is deeply syncretic and intertwined with various other beliefs including Brahmanism, Hinduism, and animism. Following that line of thought: religion in Thailand thus cannot be reduced to a set of beliefs- not simply a series of teachings originating from a single scripture, nor sermons delivered by one religious organization. For anyone to claim that they know the truth of enlightenment – of mortality and morality – is therefore unlikely, as religion is complex and Thai Buddhism especially so. In my eyes, the complexity of religion is a beauty that should be celebrated. If the path to transcendence is crooked and unclear, then it means that we must experience the way for ourselves and take no one else’s vision as our own.

References

Bengali, S. (2019, April 18). On the Ground: The spirit houses of Bangkok keep watch over a frenetic modern Thai city. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/world/la-fg-thailand-bangkok-spirit-houses-20190418-story.html

Brahmanism (2020). In Oxford Online Dictionary. Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/Brahmanism

Burns, W. E. (2018). Astrology through history: Interpreting the stars from ancient Mesopotamia to the present. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Dalal, R. (2010). Hinduism: An alphabetical guide. New Delhi: Penguin Books.

Jackson, P. (1999). Royal spirits, Chinese gods, and magic monks: Thailand’s boom-time religions of prosperity. South East Asia Research, 7(3), 245-320. Retrieved September 1, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23746841

Kirsch, A. (1977). Complexity in the Thai Religious System: An Interpretation. The Journal of Asian Studies, 36(2), 241-266. doi:10.2307/2053722

Newman, J. (2016, February 11). Living Among Bangkok’s Ghosts: The Legend Of Mae Nak Phra Khanong. Retrieved from https://whatsonsukhumvit.com/living-among-bangkoks-ghosts-the-legend-of-mae-nak-phra-khanong/

NSO (2015). Population by religion, region and area. Retrieved from http://web.nso.go.th/

Piker, S. (1968). The Relationship of Belief Systems to Behavior in Rural Thai Society. Asian Survey, 8(5), 384-399. doi:10.2307/2642320

van Esterik, P. (1982). Interpreting a Cosmology: Guardian Spirits in Thai Buddhism. Anthropos, 77(1/2), 1-15. Retrieved September 1, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40460429

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