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Popular Religion in Thailand

In popular belief the complex concepts of the Buddhist doctrine have been considerably simplified. Among these is the idea of karma. The doctrine of karma, taken over from Brahmanism, rests on the transcendent power of deeds. It teaches that every gesture, every word, every thought produces, in addition to its visible effect, another effect which is not immediately perceptible. The recompense for men’s deeds is thus not immediate (in the precise sense of the term). This amounts, in simplified form, to believing that virtuous acts will receive their reward, and “sins” their punishment, in man’s next existence. Good deeds will enable a man to be reborn in more favorable conditions, while bad deeds will lead to his reincarnation in a lower form, perhaps as an animal. The object then becomes to earn as much “merit” as possible, but in the desire or the fear of “immediate” recompense or retribution. Apart from leading a good life based on the observance of religious precepts, certain acts are regarded as meritorious, from the charming custom of setting fishes and birds free on certain festivals to the gift of clothing or food to monks. Those who can afford it may go so far as to present statues of the Buddha to temples or monasteries. Unfortunately it is considered more virtuous to build a new wat than to restore an old one, and so many religious buildings fall into ruin after the death of their patron.

That which is reborn is not a “soul” in our sense. It is rather a complex bundle of changing factors, good and bad, passing on from existence to existence and ever striving for perfection.

The popular Thai notion is not quite the same. According to this, the individual consists of three parts: the material body (kai), the “free soul” (khwan) and the “personal soul” (winyan). The khwan can leave the body and travel about, and can be damaged or destroyed, the consequence of which is sickness or death. This basically animistic idea leads to exorcism by shamans or magicians, still sometimes practised for healing diseases. After death the khwan can visit the earth as a spirit (phi). These spirits of the dead are much feared: especially those who have died violently or suddenly, since they can cause great harm to the living. Many rituals and expensive ceremonies are conducted at the time of deaths and cremations in order to ensure protection against such evil influences.

It is otherwise with the spirits of eminent men, whose phi are venerated in small shrines. These are believed to enter into mediums and speak as oracles. But if the khwan is firmly established in the body, in the head or elsewhere, this brings health, success, good fortune and wealth. Accordingly, a knot is tied round the wrists of small children, “to bind the khwan firmly”. The importance of this is also expressed in common sayings: a present is a “thing for the khwan”, and if anybody has a severe fright, he has lost his khwan”. The winyan is something much more abstract, part of the world spirit, the psyche which constitutes the individual’s consciousness, his will, thinking faculty and perceptions.
Thai cosmogony is derived from the Brahman cosmogony of India, transmitted by the Khmers. Each individual, each group and above all the State seek to organize their existence according to the influences of the heavenly bodies. Until recent times the kingdom was conceived as a perfect representation of the cosmos, and this was thought to ensure its power and prosperity. The harmony thus sought, however, is also “natural”, since by the law of analogy there is equivalence between the macrocosm and the microcosm. Astrologers and Brahman priests are still frequently consulted, and no public or private ceremony is held without their advice, and they use astrological charts and books to predict which days are lucky and which unlucky.

The universe is believed to be made up of innumerable worlds, each with its heaven and hell. At regular intervals of many millions of years entire cosmic systems perish, dissolving into a primal substance, incorporeal and imperceptible, from which, after a period of absolute repose, a new tangible world will be born.

A great mountain, Phra Meru (in Thai Phra Men) forms the centre of the universe. It is surrounded by eight concentric circular oceans, separated from one another by seven circular ranges of mountains. The eighth range, the “crystal wall of the world-, encloses the universe. From the great ocean which lies between the seventh and eighth ranges rise four groups of islands, each consisting of one main island and five hundred smaller ones. The most southerly of these four large islands (which are also thought of as “continents”) is inhabited by man; on the three others live beings resembling man. A large area of the “human” island, Jambudvipa, is occupied by a “marvellous land- of Buddhist faith, covered with forests, which to the ordinary human understanding constitutes the whole universe.

Above Mount Meru and the encircling ranges of mountains there rise six lower heavens, each superior to the one below. Here the devas (inferior divinities) enjoy the sensual pleasures of a happy life. The gods who live in this Region of Sensuality are divided into various categories of increasing refinement. Above this is the Region of Forms (or of Dimensions), consisting of nine upper heavens inhabited by sixteen or seventeen classes of Brahman divinities, still corporeal but “purer”, enjoying only spiritual pleasures and the joys of meditation. Higher still is the Region without Forms (or Dimensions), inhabited by four classes of superior beings, Brahman astral spirits absorbed in meditation on “what is beyond the known and the unknown and waiting for Nirvana. The sun and moon are regarded as devas who circle round the firmament above the first range of mountains encircling Mount Meru.

A hundred miles below the earth yawns the abyss of the eight subterranean bells. The whole system floats on a vast ocean inhabited by huge fish whose movements cause earthquakes, and this ocean is held in place by the winds.

Also of non-Buddhist origin is the now firmly rooted belief in supernatural beings which gives color and diversity to popular religion. In general a distinction is made between the spirits or gods who are not liberated from metempsychosis and are still involved in the cycle of rebirths and the beings who are condemned to live eternally as spirits. The heavens are peopled with spirits, fairies, demons, guardian spirits and gods – the gods being human beings who have risen by their merits. The superior divinities are surrounded by multitudes of wondrously beautiful demigods like the apsaras (fairies) and yakshas (guardian spirits). Over each level of the heavens rules a god. In hell the “Lord of Death” (Yama) rules over the inferior demons. Among the numerous gods in this pantheon the leading figures are the Thai representations of Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma and Indra Ganesha, the “Red Prince”, who overcomes obstacles, is a favorite, being the guardian of the Chakri dynasty. All these deities are appealed to for aid and protection. The Thais, however, frequently also regard the Buddha as a god, address prayers to him and offer him propitiatory sacrifices – practices quite contrary to Buddhist doctrine.

Other relics of animist beliefs are the spirits of nature (phi), who are much revered, particularly in northern Thailand. The hill tribes of these regions still worship the spirits of the wind, the rain or the river, whom they seek to propitiate by offerings of garlands, rice or fruit. The jungle is inhabited by evil vampires and werewolves, but their malignity is countered by the benevolent female spirits who dwell in trees. The farmers pray to the rice goddess to bless their sowing, and offer thanks to her when the harvest has been gathered. Small altars are erected in the fields to the bountiful earth goddess, a figure somewhat similar to the Greek Demeter.

Even more revered than the spirits who inhabit the fields, orchards and gardens is the guardian spirit of the household. Almost all Thai houses have a small shrine in honour of this spirit, who is known as Phra Phnum in Khmer and Chao Thi in Thai. When a new house is being built much thought is given to the selection of a suitable place for his dwelling. It must stand in the middle of an open space of some 4 square meters, so that it is never at any time of day in the shadow of the house. Its construction and decoration depend on the means of the household. It consists of a small closed chamber containing a statue of the spirit, set on a post the height of a man, with a narrow platform in front of it for the evening offerings of flowers, sticks of incense or lighted candles. If a visitor stays the night in the house he pays his respects to Phra Phnum, asks his permission to sleep in the house and seeks his protection.

Many Brahman customs date from the Khmer period. The kings of Ayutthaya took over the ceremonial of the Indian court, transmitted to them by the Khmers, and it is not surprising, therefore, to find Brahmans still taking part in certain court ceremonies. Some festivals are themselves of Brahman origin, like the First Ploughing. Certain temples still contain a shrine of the sacred lingam (the symbol of Shiva), the most famous being Wat Phra Jetubon in Bangkok.